Suck it up: Carbon capture technologies may be able to remedy climate change

Scientists are developing new devices that can literally suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They say that this carbon capture and storage is a necessary tool for avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Jason Wachter/AP
A few startups are developing processes to literally suck CO2 out of the air

In the wake of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the skies, scientists are working on technology that may tackle the problem that is believed to be the root cause of climate change.

Three startups – Carbon Engineering, Global Thermostat and Climeworks – are making machines capable of managing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The new devises can literally suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

Harvard University scientist David Keith heads up Carbon Engineering – a startup funded partly by Bill Gates – that is developing technology to capture of carbon dioxide from the air, using liquid sodium hydroxide. This technology could help absorb the emissions created by 300,000 typical cars.

In April, Climeworks, a Swiss-based startup captured carbon dioxide from the air and supplied it to a German firm, which then recycled it into a zero-carbon diesel fuel, the Guardian reports.

In New York, Global Thermostat Lab led by Columbia University physicist Peter Eisenberger uses the same carbon-capture technology.  

This potential solution to climate change is simple and scientists say it is effective; however its commercial viability is yet to be confirmed. “These companies are a long, long way from success, it must be said. Deploying direct air capture at a scale sufficient to make a difference to the climate would be a vast and costly undertaking,” says Marc Gunther a writer and speaker on business and sustainability

But the need for such technology could become urgent, adds Mr. Gunther. “Their work matters because of the increasing likelihood that we will need to deploy 'negative emissions' technologies like direct-air capture to avoid pushing through the 2 degrees of global warming that governments have agreed is a safe upper limit,” says Gunther.

Science writer Eli Kintisch notes, “The need for a carbon-sucking machine is easy to see. Most technologies for mitigating carbon dioxide work only where the gas is emitted in large concentrations, as in power plants. But air-capture machines, installed anywhere on earth, could deal with the 52 percent of carbon-dioxide emissions that are caused by distributed, smaller sources like cars, farms, and homes.” 

Some in the scientific community, however, are skeptical. Given the serious questions about the economic feasiblity of this technology, Robert Socolow, director of the Princeton Environment Institute and co-director of the university’s carbon mitigation initiative, says he worries that talk of air capture as a remedy for carbon emissions could breed complacency when it comes to the need to cut down on fossil fuel consumption.

“I don’t want us to give people the false hope that air capture can solve the carbon emissions problem without a strong focus on [reducing the use of] fossil fuels,” he told MIT Technology Review.

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