Forest For The Artificial Trees

Geoengineers and climate scientists think artificial, carbon-sucking trees could help stop climate change
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Geoengineers and climate scientists think artificial, carbon-sucking trees could help stop climate change

Could artificial trees be the newest addition to our wilderness and a useful tool in the fight against climate change? Columbia University scientists and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers think so: They’ve developed a massive geoengineering project that would use forests of artificial trees to suck up excess carbon in the atmosphere.

The plan is to install a forest of 100,000 of these CO2 collectors within the next 10-20 years. Currently in the prototype stage, the artificial trees are just one of three geoengineering ideas that the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) have deemed "practical" in reducing the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere.

Other projects include reflective rooftops to bounce back some of the sun’s heat as well as algae-based photobioreactors (big word!) that could be mounted on buildings to absorb CO2.

Klaus S. Lackner, Columbia University scientist and director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute, dreamed up the idea of artificial trees after getting inspired by his daughter' Claire’s eighth-grade science fair project. The junior-high science project demonstrated the simplicity of capturing CO2 from the air, and led Lackner to believe that it might not be so hard to pull it off on a larger scale.

Lackner and his team have dubbed their result an “air extractor.” It’s a carbon filter that functions much like a leaf on a tree, which it’s modeled after. According to the IME report, the artificial trees would capture CO2, which would then be removed from the filters and stored.

But Dr. Tim Fox, an author of the report, warns that these efforts are only a temporary fix, and that in the long run, we must also reduce emissions to combat climate change.

Researchers haven’t released any images of these artificial trees yet, but let’s hope they’re taking inspiration from Mother Nature rather than George Jetson.

If you’d like to help in the meantime, consider planting the genuine article: Real trees are one of the most effective natural sources of carbon absorption.

—Jordan Olmsted

Artificial Trees to Cut Carbon (BBC News)

Earth Institute at Columbia University