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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

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - BY JO­HANN GROLLE

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

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