The world pumped more than 36.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the air in 2022—and it’s not slowing down any time soon. At any given moment, industries and people all over the world are only adding to the cataclysmic levels of greenhouse gasses polluting our atmosphere. This has resulted in toxic air quality, warming ocean temperatures, and exacerbated weather crises the likes of which we’ve never seen.
That’s why world leaders and researchers are starting to take ideas like geoengineering a little more seriously. This describes all the technologies involved in artificially manipulating the Earth’s climate. One of the more common ideas is solar radiation management, which involves reflecting sunlight away from the Earth to cool it down by injecting aerosols in the atmosphere. There’s also direct air capture (DAC)—essentially vacuuming out all of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to “clean” it and storing it in an absorbent material.
There are a few hurdles in the way of carbon capture, however. For one, once it’s captured, it needs to be safely stored or disposed of in some manner—which can be a big problem since many people take issue with burying containers with toxic carbon dioxide in their communities. Also, it’s incredibly difficult to capture a meaningful amount of carbon out of the atmosphere due to how diluted it becomes once released into the air.
“Since the concentration is so low, absorbents don’t have much capacity for it,” Arup SenGupta, a chemical engineer at Lehigh University, told The Daily Beast. However, SenGupta and his colleagues developed a new absorbent that he claims has three times the carbon capture capacity than current DAC systems. This material could be the turning point for making commercial and widespread carbon capture technology a reality.
“So this new material and process overcomes the so-called barrier in regard to ultra-low concentration of [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere,” SanGupta said. “The capacity is even higher.”
SanGupta co-authored a paper published on Mar. 8 in the journal Science Advances about the new material. Specifically, it’s a hybrid, copper-based material that allows for more efficient carbon dioxide capture out of the atmosphere. SenGupta adds this new material helps make the process of carbon capture more efficient—requiring less thermal energy to do so.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the process is capable of turning carbonic acid into sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, by using seawater. SanGupta said that this product can be safely disposed of in the ocean, helping solve the problem of needing to store or bury the carbon.
“In our process, we have shown that—with a simple modification—you can use the seawater with the absorbent. Then it can be very simply sent back into the ocean,” SanGupta explained. “The ocean can become an infinite sink of capturing the carbon dioxide removed by the process.”
SanGupta said that there are already companies interested in the technology and could produce the material in “a large capacity.” He acknowledges though that, for it to have a meaningful effect, this carbon capture process would need buy-in from some of the largest, influential countries (and polluters) in the world. “This is not a two or three country business,” he said. “[DAC plants] can be installed in 500 different places in every continent. That’s definitely the goal.”
Geoengineering does draw its fair share of criticism. For one, some might say that it allows bad actors like oil companies to continue polluting the Earth. After all, why wouldn’t they just keep extracting oil and coal when we can simply vacuum it all out of the air? However, the fact is these technologies are slowing down. Even governing bodies like the United Nations and the White House have begun research into both solar radiation management and carbon capture as viable methods to fight climate change—all the while climate change worsens.
“The fact is, the goal is very simple,” SanGupta said. “We have to reduce the [carbon dioxide] level in the atmosphere.”
The Daily Beast