The concept of trees sequestering carbon emissions is relatively mainstream. You may be unclear on the logistics, but it's fairly common environmental knowledge. Some even reference the Amazon rainforest as the Earth's lungs, their densely packed nature providing a hotspot of carbon capture.
Scientists and researchers have utilized the knowledge of carbon sequestration in designing their own devices, yielding an array of technological advancements that ingeniously capture atmospheric carbon.
Despite mixed reactions on carbon capture, the concept itself proves helpful in the journey to reduce greenhouse gases. But discrepancies can render carbon capture systems not as sustainable as expected.
The good news is that many engineers and researchers behind carbon capture systems have considered these potential discrepancies and are more mindful of their approach.
Taking Inspiration From Nature
This brings us to a unique carbon capture idea that not only takes a great deal of inspiration from trees but is also believed to be vastly more effective at capturing carbon than many other systems.
Klaus Lackner, a Arizona State University professor, worked with colleagues to create a carbon capture system reminiscent of trees. In 2019, their idea made headlines as they collaborated with Silicon Kingdom Holdings (SKH), an Irish company tasked with commercializing the vision called the MechanicalTree.
Sources state that the concept could prove effective. For example, Popular Science commented on the efficacy and brief logistics in 2019, stating:
"A forest of 1,200 mechanical 'trees,'… is poised to pull more carbon dioxide out of the air than any human-made endeavor before it. Instead of wood, these metal columns (the specific material remains under wraps) use discs made of sorbent, which can absorb three times its weight in carbon dioxide as the wind blows through it. A cluster of 12 can suck a metric ton of the gas out of the atmosphere every day; a full lot, like the pilot one SKH is planning to install … can remove up to 36,500 metric tons annually. That's nearly 1,844 American households' worth of emissions."
Fast forward to 2021, when the project received a whopping $2.5 million from the Department of Energy. Last week, Lackner elaborated on the discs in an article published in Inverse.
"As the air blows through, the surfaces of the discs absorb CO2. After 20 minutes or so, the discs are full, and they sink into a barrel below. We send in water and steam to release the CO2 into a closed environment."
The method, called Direct Air Capture, is what sets MechanicalTrees apart from other carbon capture systems. Direct Air Capture is considered a beneficial approach to carbon capture, but is only beginning to gain mainstream popularity. Currently, there are an estimated 19 operational plants worldwide.
According to the International Energy Agency, some significant benefits to the method include "its limited land and water footprint and the viability of locating plants on non-arable land close to suitable storage, eliminating the need for long-distance CO2 transport."
An Ever-Growing Industry
MechanicalTree's website expands on the concept and its aspirations to scale to over 250 farms around the globe. This would result in capturing an estimated 2.7 million metric tons per day, or 3% of global fossil fuels annually.
Though the site doesn't mention the product's manufacturing or maintenance footprint, it suggests that, by planting in clusters of at least 12, they can optimize the beneficial outcomes of the design.
The company is currently scaling its project in preparation for global deployment. Since Lackner is based in the U.S. and SKH in Ireland, the distribution of MechanicalTree to North American and European markets might prove more accessible.
Despite some hesitancy surrounding carbon capture, it could benefit climate change remediation in theory. Many agree it's not a one-and-done solution, but could it benefit society and the planet significantly if used correctly and in conjunction with alternative energies like solar and wind.
Like the trend and technological advancement of electric vehicles, carbon capture systems will only improve with time. For now, innovative designs like MechanicalTree can help push green technology into new and uncharted territories.