CO2 is an extremely destructive greenhouse gas (GHG). In the US, for example, it makes up 82% of all GHG emissions.
We burn fossil fuels and then clear the trees that absorb CO2. We know that CO2 is a heat-trapping gas, so producing large quantities of this gas, without the ability for trees to absorb it, means that the planet will become warmer. And this is borne out by research beginning in the 1930s. As an article in Live Science underscores:
“Global warming is expected to have far-reaching, long-lasting, and, in many cases, devastating consequences for planet Earth.”
The warming of the planet has been linked to extreme weather events, increased ocean acidification, threats to ecosystems and species, and an increase in the rates of life-threatening diseases.
Thus, it is paramount to reduce our carbon emissions. There are, of course, many ways that this can be achieved. But we do need to do it efficiently, and quickly. Time really is of the essence.
There are many tech and energy companies which are working hard to find innovative solutions to the daunting problem of climate change. One Swiss company, Climeworks, which is based in Zurich, is making headway in this respect.
Extracting CO2 from the air
Climeworks have just recently opened the world’s first commercial plant for extracting CO2 from the air. For a long time, experts have been unsure as to whether extracting CO2 from the air with carbon capturing technology is actually an effective way to reduce carbon emissions on a large-scale. So this small-scale facility will put this question to the test.
What is also interesting about the company is that they will sell the extracted CO2 directly to companies that run greenhouses growing vegetables. The commercial plant will not be able to extract huge quantities of CO2 (only about 900 tons annually, which is what 200 cars emit in a year).
Nonetheless, if successful, this facility could prove that the technology is viable, leading to the construction of larger commercial plants in the future. Climeworks co-founder and engineer Christoph Gebald says:
“Highly scalable negative emission technologies are crucial if we are to stay below the 2-degree target [for global temperature rise] of the international community.”
Unfortunately, it appears that meeting this target is very unlikely. But still, it is not impossible. And if we truly want to avoid catastrophic climate change, then we need to fully support companies developing the technology that can make this a reality.
How it works
In terms of how the technology works, what happens is that 18 giant fans suck in the air; the air is filtered, and then it goes through an adsorption and desorption process to extract the CO2. Clean air is pumped out, while the extracted CO2 is sent to a greenhouse close by, in order to grow vegetables. The filters are also reusable and can be used several thousands times, so the whole system is quite efficient.
The founders of Climeworks acknowledge that if this technology is to have a significant impact, then it has to be massively scaled up. The company says that if it wants to reach its target of capturing 1% of global CO2 emissions by 2025, then it will need to build 250,000 similar facilities. Which is obviously no easy feat.
Most likely, this kind of technology will be one piece in the jigsaw puzzle of meeting the global demand for energy in a sustainable way.
Applying this technology to space travel
CO2 has to be extracted on board a spacecraft. Otherwise, increased concentrations of CO2 in the air can cause drowsiness, impaired hearing, increased blood pressure, stupor, shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, confusion, unconsciousness, muscle tremors, sweating and – at levels high enough – death.
On a spacecraft, CO2 is extracted through chemical processes, by means of canisters that contain powdered lithium hydroxide. But perhaps if Climeworks’ facility is successful, and is shown to be highly efficient, it could then be used for space travel. Extracting CO2 with this technology may turn out to be highly preferable, because astronauts on long-duration space missions will also need to grow plants in space.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs. He is also currently writing a book about the psychedelic drug DMT.