Could Cleaning CO2 from the Air Cause More Harm Than Good?


At the 2014 BIO International Convention, which we attended, Sir Richard Branson reiterated his 2007 challenge for scientists to develop a way to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Branson has promised a $25M prize to the person or persons who develop the technology.


Has any progress been made in response to Branson’s challenge?


A Canadian company has developed technology that they believe will, one day, work to scrub CO2 directly from the atmosphere, thus reducing the levels of the gas there. The company, Carbon Engineering, formed in 2009 after Bill Gates and others donated $3.5 million in grant funding to the group. Researchers at the company also claim other industrial groups may purchase the scrubbed gas for use in their manufacturing and other processes like enhanced oil recovery and to feed algae used in the production of biofuel.

Scientific American published a story in May 2013 about “artificial trees” in development for capturing CO2 from the air. While this technology, developed by Klaus Lackner when at Los Alamos National Laboratory, shows promise, it and similar technologies aren’t likely to result in reduction of so-called greenhouse gases anytime soon, warns author David Biello.

In addition to the fact that this technology cannot work overnight to reduce gases, few are keen on paying for the storage or subsequent use of scrubbed CO2.  “Capturing a gas that makes up just 0.04 percent of the air may prove too energy intensive and too expensive to sustain,” Biello says.

Further, who decides how much CO2 to scrub out of the atmosphere? Removing too much could have devastating (and almost impossible to attenuate) effects on the atmosphere and life itself. “When it comes to defining the climate’s sensitivity to forcings [sic] like rising carbon dioxide levels, ‘we don’t know much more than we did in 1975,’” says climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University in another Scientific American story on climate change. The question of just how much CO2 is needed to sustain human civilization remains a judgment call, says the author.

Clearly, simply cleaning CO2 from the atmosphere does not solve the problem at hand; nor, does it address the countless complex questions about climate and sustaining life that remain. Even so, the Virgin Earth Challenge, brought forth by Branson, has recognized the technology involving artificial trees and four other atmosphere cleaning technologies for consideration to receive the award.

We at Emergent Technologies are always on the lookout for new and exciting technology platforms that have the potential to positively change lives.  If you have something to share with the world, we would love to hear from you.  What do you want to build today?