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Mechanical trees that suck C02 out of the atmosphere set for major first trial



Mechanical trees which suck CO2 out of the atmosphere 1,000 times faster than real ones could be as common as cars within two decades, their developer has said.

In 1999, Professor Klaus Lackner became the first scientist to say that cutting carbon emissions woul not be enough to avert catastrophic climate change and CO2 would also need to be removed from the air.

Since then, he has been developing the mechanical tree with the prototype about to launch on the campus of Arizona State University, where he works.

The prototype tree is a “concertina” column that is 10 metres tall when fully extended and 1.5 metres wide, with a 2.5-metre wide drum attached to the bottom.

The column contains 150 horizontal, circular discs coated with chemicals which catch CO2 when the wind blows through them.

If all goes according to plan, the prototype trees will fill up with CO2 every 30 to 60 minutes, when they will concertina down into the drum and the CO2 will be collected and stored or sold for use in industrial applications, including making drinks fizzy, creating fuel and extracting oil.

“If you add up how much carbon we need to get back from the atmosphere we simply don’t have enough land to grow the trees,” Professor Lackner told i.

“We are very close to having a prototype running on the campus and when we do our first job is to help us design a better, cheaper faster one for number two,” he said.

Professor Lackner is confident – although by no means certain – that he can have the first mechanical trees ready to roll out within a year or two and that we could have one billion of them worldwide within two decades. This compares to 1.2 billion cars at the moment.

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“Our goal is to make these mechanical trees in factories and make them in their hundreds of thousands. I can put at least tens of thousands on a square kilometre and ultimately I see these things on the scale of a car,” he said.

“I think the transition to mechanical trees is near, unless we fall flat on our faces, which honestly is a possibility. People have accused me of making promises I can’t keep. And I pointed out that I never made a promise, I only said, ‘You’ve got to invest in order to find out.’

“But I think the odds of succeeding are pretty darn good, but there is no guarantee. And the chances are we can get the price well below $100 a tonne” – the price at which is becomes a commercially viable technology.

While the evidence so far suggests the technology will work at scale and could be affordable, the bigger question is how effectively the huge amounts of CO2 that are captured can be disposed of.

Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the UK Government, who is not involved in the project, said: “I have a great deal of respect for Klaus but the problem is that with mechanical trees you capture carbon dioxide and then you have to do something with it. That’s the challenge.”

Professor Lackner responds: “Sir David is of course correct, mechanical trees are the first step in a chain of events. They collect carbon from the air, they can operate at the scale necessary to pull back enough CO2 to make a difference. But these machines only collect CO2. Now you will need to do something with it.

“There are several options that likely can operate at the necessary scale. One option is to store the carbon in geological formations. Another outlet is to consider the collected carbon as a resource to produce the things we use fossil carbon for today. If we can substitute CO2 for oil, coal or gas, we don’t need fossil carbon anymore,” he added.

Professor Lackner is working with Carbon Collect in Dublin to commercialise and roll out his mechanical trees.

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