Objects from the air. Dream? No, carbon capture technology!

    12 May 2021

    An exhibition at the Science Museum in London will show how far carbon capture technology has come, writes The Guardian.

    The Science Museum in London dedicated the May exhibition to the unexpected benefits that climate change can bring. He organized a special exhibition on carbon capture. It will open on May 19.

    Carbon capture is the practice of capturing carbon dioxide and storing it safely, reducing excess atmospheric levels of CO2 and mitigating global heating.

    This is a relatively new technology of the extracting of greenhouse gases and industrial emissions from the atmosphere. The exhibition will display vodka bottles, tubes of toothpaste, pens and yoga mats made from carbon extracted from the air.

    In addition, prototypes of the gas-harvesting machines that can provide this carbon will be showcased at Our Future Planet. These include the Lackner artificial tree, which mirrors the actions of living plants by inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. Built by Klaus Lackner of Arizona State University, this carbon-absorbent panel device will be the first of its kind to be exhibited in the UK.

    Also featured will be the Swiss Climeworks carbon removal system and a carbon capture device developed at the Aberdeen University. They can all remove carbon from the air to use it to make alcohol or toothpaste. The taste of tomorrow may be flavoured with air-captured carbon.

    “These objects highlight the importance of research to help protect the planet from the effects of global warming,” added Sophie Waring, curator of the exhibition.

    But it is clear that even moderately large arrays of these devices can currently only extract a few tens of tons of carbon per year. Compared to the 50 billion tonnes that fossil fuel-fueled cars and factories add to the atmosphere every year, that’s not much.

    “It is a massive problem. We need to remove carbon from the air because it is unlikely that cutting greenhouse gas emissions alone can be achieved quickly enough to prevent global overheating this century” – said Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

    “We have to do more than merely halt carbon dioxide getting into the atmosphere. We also need to find ways to remove it after it has been put there. Simply planting trees and plants will not be enough to solve the problem. This exhibition shows just how urgent is the need to develop and deploy these new technologies on a large scale to make a real difference in fighting climate change”, added Ward, an exhibition adviser.

    The Geological Society of Great Britain also recently highlighted the Earth’s climate crisis. According to it, carbon dioxide is now being added to our atmosphere at a rate a rate “unprecedented in almost the entire geological past” of our planet. The absolute levels ​​may have been higher at times, but they have never risen at a rate as rapid as its current increase.

    “As climate changes on the planet we live on, there will be further changes that will have increasingly decisive implications for human society,” the Geological Society warned.

    Last month, atmospheric gas levels reached 417 ppm, up from about 280 ppm in pre-industrial times. And when you consider that carbon dioxide absorbs solar radiation, it turns out that the gas heats the air above us more and more, causing more extreme weather conditions, water shortages, rising sea levels, melting ice caps and problems with crops.

    A series of international climate meetings will take place over the next few weeks, including a global summit to be chaired by US President Joe Biden. They are being held ahead of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November. Unlike his predecessor, Biden is committed to tackling global warming and is tipped to announce that the US will introduce tougher measures to bring down its carbon emissions more rapidly. Such a step would have serious consequences for other countries.

    But even if all countries – including China and India – followed suit, the world will still move on a dangerous trajectory, many scientists warn. They argue that only by actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create “negative emissions” will it be possible to keep global warming down to a manageable 1.5 to 2C above pre-industrial levels.

    But carbon capture has environmental critics, however. Some environmentalists believe this technology is being developed as an alternative to reducing carbon emissions, rather than as a additional method to curb global warming. They also criticized the Science Museum for involving the petrochemical company Shell as a sponsor of the exhibition.

    Campaigners have accused the museum of “helping to boost Shell’s cynical greenwash”, reports Independent.

    The museum has defended the move, saying it is “committed to working with funders who are also on a journey to decarbonise”, and is the first cultural institution to use the Transition Pathway Initiative to assess the progress of its partners.

    It’s the UK’s first-ever exhibition on the subject, and the display was created – in true lockdown spirit – from home. Curator Sophie Waring has so far only been into the exhibition physically three times.

    In fact, carbon capture technology has two different roles to play, said geologist Professor Stuart Haszeldine, of Edinburgh University. “Firstly, it can be fitted to gas and coal-burning power stations and factories and then used to hold back the carbon dioxide they would otherwise emit. This can then be liquefied and stored underground, for example in depleted oil fields.

    “However, the technology can also be used to recapture carbon dioxide from the air, to extract carbon dioxide that had already been pumped into it. Crucially we need carbon capture and carbon recapture if we are going to mitigate the worst impacts of global warming while at the same time being more efficient in our use of carbon.”

    Doing this on an effective scale will be very hard. However, devices like the Lackner tree and the Climeworks extractor offer a promising route, added Haszeldine. “They can be improved upon relatively quickly to make succeeding generations that are cheaper and more efficient.

    “It is like the mobile phone. Twenty years ago they were expensive and awkward to use but have been improved upon relentlessly. We might be able to do that for carbon capture machines like the Climeworks and the Lackner devices and could end up with vast arrays of them sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Certainly, if we don’t do something like that we will be in real trouble.”

    Find out more about sustainability practices in the development and touring of exhibition programme in the Science Museum Group’s sustainability blog.

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