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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Machines to take CO2 out of the atmosphere?


The New York Times recently reported on Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company that’s developing technology to capture and remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere using an absorbent solution of caustic soda. If the yet-unproven costs of this technology fall low enough, the CO2 could be sold to the oil industry (currently, much, but not all, of the carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery comes from naturally occurring underground reserves), sold to feed algae to produce biofuel, or sequestered underground.

As the NYT article points out, carbon dioxide scrubbing would be extremely important for a number of reasons.  Because it would take CO2 directly from the atmosphere, it could be located anywhere; for example, at oil recovery areas and biofuel plants, or directly atop the best storage sites, minimizing or eliminating the need for costly pipeline infrastructure. It could be used to get rid of that last fraction of CO2 that escapes into the air from power plants outfitted (someday) to capture most of their emissions. And it would be critical in developing a rational price for carbon emissions. The cost of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere should equal the all-in cost imposed on power plants and other emitters for putting it there in the first place.

Now there is another machine that takes CO2 directly out of the atmosphere and stores it safely - and with huge economic benefits. We call it a tree. Forests in the United States absorb and store about 750 million metric tons of CO2 each year, an amount equivalent to 10% of the country’s CO2 emissions.  But we are doing a cruelly efficient job of cutting out the lungs of our planet, so much so that forest loss contributes as much as 12-15% to annual greenhouse gas emissions, about the same as the entire global transportation sector.

So because of our own suicidal tendencies, and as the numbers on climate disruption pour in, will we have to rely on machines to do what nature has always done?

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