Carbon Capture Technology to Reverse Global Warming?

While scary headlines frighten the public about the dangerous rise of sea waters and disastrous consequences of global warming, scientists are hard at work developing new devices which can vacuum up carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They say that this carbon capture and storage is a necessary tool for avoiding catastrophic climate change. In the wake of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, scientists are exploring technology which may strike at the heart of the issue.Three startups – Carbon Engineering, Global Thermostat and Climeworks – are making machines capable of managing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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

Also, Climeworks, a Swiss-based startup siphoned 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.

“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 and hesitant to consider this more than a small victory. Given the serious questions about the economic feasibility of this technology, Robert Socolow, director of the Princeton Environment Institute and co-director of the university’s carbon mitigation initiative, says he is concerned that news of the new technology could potentially reduce the pressure on countries to cut down on fossil fuel consumption. Controlling carbon emissions alone through technology is not the key to solving the problem.

“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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