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Saving the World With Synthetic Trees

In the last decade, scientists have increasingly devoted their energies to the issues of climate change and global warming with the goal of helping the world breathe a little easier.

Researchers at Columbia University in New York are part of the effort.

Dr. Klaus Lackner and his team have been examining ways to remove excess carbon dioxide, or CO2, from the air.

“The natural question is can you take CO2 back out of the air? And the natural example is the tree. The wind blows over the leaves of the tree and as it blows over, the leaves take some CO2 out of the air and so the question is, can one make a synthetic tree, an artificial tree which can do the same thing, and could it do it faster?”

The answer, says Dr Lackner is “yes.” He’s developed a synthetic tree he says is capable of collecting carbon at a rate 1,000 times faster than the real thing. It looks like a pine branch, but is made from a plastic material with what he calls, an “active resin.”

As he explains, “This is a material, which has the remarkable property that when it’s dry it absorbs CO2 from the air very readily and is very fast at absorbing it and then it holds onto it.”

Once the synthetic trees are full, the CO2 can be processed, and stored elsewhere.

“One of the nice conceptual features about collecting CO2 from the air is that you can collect it anywhere, because the air literally mixes so fast that CO2 emissions in the northern hemisphere show up in the southern hemisphere within a year or two. So you could, in principle, have a scrubbing device, CO2 tree in the desert in Australia and deal with the CO2 emissions of a car in Los Angeles.”

The technology has inspired environmentally-friendly design firms like SHIFTboston to come up with their own artistic impressions of what the synthetic trees of the future might look like in cities such as Manhattan and Boston.

Using just three small synthetic branches in a demonstration, Dr. Lackner was able to reduce the amount of CO2 within a glass tank in his laboratory to levels that existed more than 20,000 years ago.

“Now we look like the end of the Ice Age when CO2 jumped up from 180 parts per million which is what it was in the depths of the Ice Age to about 280 parts per million when we had seen it stable during the warm time before we came along and burned all of those fossil fuels. So inside of this box right now, time sort of goes backwards at least in terms of CO2.”

The technology is still in its infancy. But Dr. Lackner says it has enormous potential, with the possibility of reducing CO2 in the world’s atmosphere by as much as 12%.

Saving the world… one synthetic tree at a time.

Bottom line: Scientists at New York’s Columbia University are developing a synthetic tree that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. The researchers say the tree, if mass produced, could make a significant difference to the quality of the air we breathe.