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Ear to the Ground

Time to Remake the Climate

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Posted on May 31, 2012
Unhindered by Talent (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Scientists are telling us we can engineer our way out of the climate crisis, and with the intellectual property behind most of the solutions sitting in the public domain, any person or country with a few billion dollars could do it.

Tinkering with the atmosphere is dangerous. If humans haven’t learned this lesson over the past few decades, they’ll learn it in the years to come. But since the political will to reduce our fossil fuel consumption is virtually nonexistent, and since the climate looks ready to come apart sometime this century, all of the ideas that appear in the article below deserve our urgent attention.

Here is the possibility this blogger finds most exciting: Use a network of 20,000 five-story tall mechanical honeycombs scattered across the earth, each plucking hundreds of tons of carbon molecules out of the air per year and preparing them for storage deep underground. —ARK

Michael Specter at The New Yorker:

The trial project is essentially a five-story brick edifice specially constructed to function like a honeycomb. Global Thermostat coats the bricks with chemicals called amines to draw CO2 from the air and bind with it. The carbon dioxide is then separated with a proprietary method that uses low-temperature heat—something readily available for free, since it is a waste product of many power plants. “Using low-temperature heat changes the equation,’’ [Peter] Eisenberger [president of Global Thermostat] said. He is an excitable man with the enthusiasm of a graduate student and the manic gestures of an orchestra conductor. He went on to explain that the amine coating on the bricks binds the CO2 at the molecular level, and the amount it can capture depends on the surface area; honeycombs provide the most surface space possible per square metre.

There are two groups of honey-combs that sit on top of each other. As Eisenberger pointed out, “You can only absorb so much CO2 at once, so when the honeycomb is full it drops into a lower section.” Steam heats and releases the CO2—and the honeycomb rises again. (Currently, carbon dioxide is used commercially in carbonated beverages, brewing, and pneumatic drying systems for packaged food. It is also used in welding. Eisenberger argues that, ideally, carbon waste would be recycled to create an industrial form of photosynthesis, which would help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.)

Unlike some other scientists engaged in geoengineering, Eisenberger is not bothered by the notion of tinkering with nature. “We have devised a system that introduces no additional threats into the environment,’’ he told me. “And the idea of interfering with benign nature is ridiculous. The Bambi view of nature is totally false. Nature is violent, amoral, and nihilistic. If you look at the history of this planet, you will see cycles of creation and destruction that would offend our morality as human beings. But somehow, because it’s ‘nature,’ it’s supposed to be fine.’’ Eisenberger founded and runs Global Thermostat with Graciela Chichilnisky, an Argentine economist who wrote the plan, adopted in 2005, for the international carbon market that emerged from the Kyoto Climate talks. Edgar Bronfman, Jr., an heir to the Seagram fortune, is Global Thermostat’s biggest investor. (The company is one of the finalists for Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge prize. In 2007, Branson offered a cash prize of twenty-five million dollars to anyone who could devise a process that would drain large quantities of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.)

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