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Geoengineers want to cool the earth by removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It's a long shot, but if it works, it will mean a new source of fuel and a cooler planet
Steve Oldham plans to save the world, and he’ll get $25 million if he succeeds. The adventurer and billionaire Richard Branson has offered this sum as prize money to the one person who can show a practical way to filter the manmade greenhouse gases that heat up the earth from the atmosphere. The demands are high: If you want to win Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, you have to find a method of capturing and “sinking” (absorbing and storing) a billion tonnes of carbon annually. This corresponds to almost 10% of annual carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
To most experts, such a thing is pure idiocy. To Oldham, it’s a challenge he’s keen to tackle. As the CEO of Canadian clean-energy firm Carbon Engineering (CE), he’s proud that his company has been selected as one of the 11 Virgin Earth Challenge finalists.
“Our big advantage is that we not only have a PowerPoint presentation, but a real existing facility,” he said, pointing to a barn-like building in the middle of an industrial wasteland on Howe Sound, a fjord north of Vancouver, Canada. A fan hums in front of it, blowing 140,000 cubic meters of air per hour through a dense pack of honeycomblike plastic foils. A liquid that absorbs carbon dioxide from the passing air trickles through this “contactor”.
The tower of the “pellet reactor”, into which this liquid releases its carbon load onto small calcium grains, protrudes from the barn roof. These then release the gas again via the heat from a kind of roasting oven. In this way, the CE system can "fish" around a tonne of carbon dioxide from the air every day.
Although CE’s engineers have proven that it is technically possible to filter the air, they’re not equipped to save the world just yet – there is a big difference between a tonne and a gigatonne.
But doubts don’t dampen Oldham’s enthusiasm. He hopes to build a second complex where technicians will convert the carbon dioxide obtained together with hydrogen into fuel. Oldham promises that commercial production will begin in three years.
Carbon Engineering's project is one of a handful of small initiatives worldwide trying to create a new industry. Their task is to direct the planet’s climate, which has gone out of balance.
This industry was born on the green table of climate protectors. In its strategy papers, it has grown into a multibillion-dollar business, although in reality it does not yet exist.
A large part of the work of climate researchers consists of playing through complex scenarios on supercomputers. They determine how many greenhouse gases people have pumped into the atmosphere over various periods of time, and then calculate how the climate has reacted.
In order to draw practical conclusions from these business games, politicians demanded clear guidelines:
Canadian clean-energy firm Carbon Engineering’s pilot air contactor, constructed from the same set of cooling tower components and design philosophy thatwill be used at commercial scaleS