This Climate Fix Might Be Decades Ahead Of Its Time
June 27, 2013
Every year, people add 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the air, mostly by burning fossil fuels.
That’s contributing to climate change. A few scientists have been dreaming about ways to pull some of that CO2 out of the air, but face stiff skepticism and major hurdles.
Peter Eisenberger is a distinguished professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University. Earlier in his career, he ran the university’s famed Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and founded Columbia’s Earth Institute.
He started looking for a way to pull carbon dioxide right out of the air. “And it turned out the best device already exists,” he says. “It’s called a monolith. That is the same type of instrument that’s in the catalytic converter in your car. It cleans up your exhaust.”
Eisenberger’s monoliths grab carbon dioxide from the air and release it again when you heat them up.
The company has built two pilot plants at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.
But of course there are big issues to solve: What do you do with the carbon dioxide once you’ve captured it, and how do you make money?
Growers pipe carbon dioxide into greenhouses.
Oil companies pump it underground to help them squeeze out more oil.
Soda companies use it to put bubbles in their drinks.
These are mostly small-scale applications.
Maybe someday Eisenberger could get paid to clean up the atmosphere by sucking out the CO2 and burying it underground, though there’s no market for that now.
But using carbon dioxide to make fuel could someday be big. So Eisenberger’s first project involves using CO2 to feed algae that churn out biofuel.
“Our first demonstration plant is being erected right now down in Daphne, Alabama, with an algae company called Algae Systems, which sits on Mobile Bay,” Eisenberger says. “They’ll be floating their algae in plastic bags on the top of the water. We’ll be piping in CO2 that we pull out of the air, and the sun will do the rest.”
Of course, this one project will have zero effect on how much carbon dioxide is in the earth’s atmosphere.
Eisenberger says if he can open the door to capturing carbon dioxide from the air — and make the process cheap enough — someday we could actually slow down, or possibly even reverse, the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.