As any student of the natural sciences can probably tell you, carbon used to be a good molecule. We loved it – it was, after all, one of the key molecules in organic chemistry, part of the delicate but vital balance responsible for keeping our bodies healthy and functioning at peak efficiency. We aren’t called “carbon-based” lifeforms for nothing.
But then something changed. Carbon fell in with a bad crowd of elements, a two bit gang-leader going by the moniker “oxygen,” and that squeaky clean molecule went bad faster than a Michael Bay movie marathon. Nowadays, CO2 spews out of smokestacks, chimneys, tailpipes, vents, and grilles, and all that excess CO2 piles up in the atmosphere, trapping heat. We’re living in a pressure cooker with no off switch – bad news for everything we happen to be sharing the planet with.
It’s only fairly recently that we’ve started to take action, fighting the same molecules that we’ve pumped into the atmosphere for generations. Indeed, the best way to counteract global warming is to simply stop using those same machines responsible for letting things get this far in the first place… but that’s not always possible if you need to travel long distances, and it certainly doesn’t do anything to impede the massive amounts of carbon already in the atmosphere.
That’s why Climeworks, a Swiss company aimed at engineering new, environmentally-friendly businesses and innovations, recently unveiled the next evolution of sustainable agriculture: the AG facility. On the surface, the facility looks like every other factory – a tangled mass of pipes, fans, and sheet metal. Inside, however it’s not like any other factory that’s come before it.
Climeworks is, in essence, a gigantic pumping facility optimized for “carbon capture” – it sucks in passing air samples. Sitting atop a waste heat recovery facility, the warm air from this underground facility powers the entire process. Mighty fans push air through a filter system designed to capture C02. When the filter is saturated with molecules, that same CO2 is separated via high temperatures, exceeding 100 degrees Celsius. The new gasses are pushed through an underground pipeline to a nearby greenhouse. There, carbon-gobbling veggies like tomatoes and cucumbers devour the broken down gas remnants, turning the remnants of harmful chemicals into new growth, and, eventually, new salad toppings.
So how will Climeworks fare? For the moment, this facility is intended to run for approximately three years as a sort of proof-of-concept demonstration; from there, Climeworks scientists will investigate the data and draw up improvements on where next to go. Climeworks has drawn some criticism from other scientists, who argue that climate change might be better handled by simply installing carbon capture technology right at the source of the problem – cars, trucks, factories – and even several major institutions have argued that carbon capture is a treatment, not a solution. Obviously we have a ways to go before our carbon debate can be well and truly solved.