(Inside Science) — We’re already seeing the effects of climate change in the form of rising seas, monster storms, wildfires, and extreme weather. If we stay on our current path of not reducing carbon emissions enough, things could spiral out of control — leading to irreversible, long-lasting effects on our planet. But now, scientist Klaus Lackner and his material may be one answer to the global warming problem.
According to Klaus Lackner, PhD at physicist at Arizona State University, “For the last 20 years, I’ve been working on how to balance the world’s carbon budget. Our problem is we burn a lot of fossil fuels, and ultimately if we burn fossil fuels, you make carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere, and the problem is, it sticks.”
Many years ago, the world was relatively stable at 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – that means carbon dioxide consisted of about .02 percent of the earth’s atmosphere. Sadly, we’ve ramped up levels quite rapidly since then.
“Today we are at 400 parts per million, and we are going up by more than two a year. So 450 is, by now, about 20 years away,” said Lackner.
That means we’re up to about .04 percent of C02 in the air. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get it to reasonable levels. Lackner thinks this material – that looks like a white shag carpet– could help lower C02 emissions.
“We are working on the problem of pulling CO2 back out of the atmosphere. And one critical ingredient in that, is that we have a material that can absorb CO2 out of the air. We thought of this like a synthetic tree, artificial tree. A material which has leaves, and as the air sort of blows over these leaves, it binds to it. Our big surprise was how much it binds depends on how dry it is. The dryer it is, the more it likes CO2, the better it binds,” stated Lackner.
The plastic material is naturally good at absorbing CO2 from the air and the neat thing is, it can be reused – so, the whole cycle could look like this: absorb CO2, rinse it, collect it, and repeat.
“So we are reasonably confident that this particular material can be produced in quantities we need to make a difference, and can be made in an affordable manner,” said Lackner.
And what happens to the carbon dioxide after it’s absorbed by the material? Lackner says, “You either find another use it or you have to dispose of it.”
Some of those possible uses could include things like biofuel production. According to Lackner, “We collect the CO2 from the air and feed it to the algae. And then you can make biofuels out of the algae.”
Why do we need this material? Don’t trees absorb CO2 from the air? Why not just plant more trees?
“Because if you just grow as much as we have, nothing much changes. You end up needing more agricultural land than we have right now in use, in order to make this happen. We collect CO2 roughly a thousand times as fast as a real tree,” said Lackner.
Lackner is committed to using the material to help achieve an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050. And even that might not be enough to balance the carbon budget.
“But it’s much better rather late, than never. Because the alternative is, that we discuss this for another 50 years and then the problem is twice as big as it is today. Learning by doing doesn’t happen unless you do,” concluded Lackner.