Sure, trees are nice to look at, but they’re also carbon-collecting powerhouses. Now Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University, is developing a synthetic tree that can collect carbon approximately 1,000 times faster than real trees. Lackner claims that the technology is similar to what is used to collect carbon from flue stacks at coal-fired power plants, but the synthetic tree can be used anywhere. It could potentially be most useful at gathering carbon from small, distributed sources like gasoline in cars and jet fuel from planes–places where carbon is otherwise impossible to collect.
The synthetic tree works by collecting CO2 on a sorbent, cleaning and pressurizing the gas, and releasing it. Lackner’s tree (which looks nothing like a tree) is flexible in size and could fit in the design of industrial facilities or enclosed in barn-like structures in rural locations.
Lackner and his company, Global Research Technologies, have been working on the technology since 1998, and now they have an early model to show for it. The synthetic tree can’t compete cost-wise with new coal-fired power plants that release fewer CO2 emissions than older plants, but the tree could be more cost-efficient than retrofitting old plants. Still, the technology probably won’t be used at coal-fired power plants since it’s meant to collect carbon that’s already in the air.
A single synthetic tree unit could, Lackner estimates, remove a ton of CO2 daily. That’s the amount of CO2 produced by 20 average cars in the U.S. It’s not cheap–each ton costs $200 to remove–but it’s not much more than companies that buy CO2 pay for carbon credits.
A full-scale prototype won’t be ready for three years, but Lackner had the chance to explain the synthetic tree concept to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu earlier this week in a meeting.The professor is also writing a proposal for the Department of Energy, so don’t expect this to be the last you hear about carbon-sucking synthetic trees.