Tucson firm has plan for towers
to suck up CO2
Nov 25, 2007 - McClatchy-Tribune
Regional News - Tom Beal - The Arizona Daily Star,
A Tucson firm thinks it may have the answer to global
warming: millions of carbon-dioxide-sucking towers
that would allow us to merrily burn fossil fuel without
killing the planet..
Think of them as trees with bigger appetites, says
Allen Wright,, president of Global Research Technologies,
which has created a working model of a machine that
sucks CO2 from the atmosphere. Like a tree, the machine
breathes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen.
Unlike a tree, which releases that carbon dioxide
when it burns or rots, the machine's CO2 is captured
for eventual storage underground or under the ocean.
"There is a popular sense that if you plant a tree,
you've done a great deal to capture CO2," said Wright.
"Most of that tree is water, not carbon. It captures
a ton (of carbon dioxide) a century. One of these,
the size of a 40-foot shipping container, that's doing
a ton a day."
So far, Wright and his team of machinists and scientists
have built a 9-foot-high model of the machine in rented
office space near East Ajo Way and South Palo Verde
Whether the machines are ever deployed hinges on
a number of factors outside Wright's control -- a
demonstration that carbon dioxide can be successfully
stored, development of a carbon-offset market that
will pay for the machines, and a shift in our thinking
about how to rid the planet of its greenhouse-gas
Klaus Lackner, a Columbia University geophysicist
who is technical adviser to the company, first started
thinking about capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
when he was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory
on ideas for capturing and storing carbon dioxide
from power plants.
He wondered if he could do the same thing for autos
and other distributed sources of CO2 and now, he says,
he knows that he can.
The question now is how to turn the technology into
a business. Some U.S. companies already buy carbon
offsets for public-relations purposes. The Super Bowl
next year in Glendale, for example, plans to offset
its carbon impact by purchasing renewable power elsewhere.
Congress is considering "cap and trade" rules for
emissions in the U.S. that would require polluters
to buy carbon offsets.
Wright is a biologist by training. He came to Tucson
from the University of Hawaii, where he was deputy
director of operations at the Undersea Research Laboratory
and a deep submersibles pilot.
He took a job as operations director for Columbia
University at Biosphere 2, the Oracle-area, glass-contained
model of our larger biosphere (Earth).
Wright was the guy who fulfilled the sometimes odd
requests of the scientists working there. "They'd
say 'I need 5 liters of dew' or 'I need it to rain
fresh water on the ocean.' "
Lackner, by then, had moved to Columbia's faculty
in Earth and Environmental Engineering. He was one
of the scientists with questions.
"Can we build an air-capture device here?" he asked
Before that could happen, Columbia ended its affiliation
with Biosphere 2 and Lackner asked Wright to come
to New York to work on the project. Wright, who had
moved his family to Tucson to help brother Burt with
their aging parents, persuaded Lackner to locate the
development lab here.
Startup money came from Gary Comer, the man who created
Land's End catalog.
Before his death last year, Comer sold his company
and explored the world on his ship, Turmoil. He became
worried about climate change while cruising in the
melting Arctic and established a foundation for research
on climate change.
Allen and Burt Wright, along with Lackner and others,
pitched their plan. Wright said Comer's financial
guy warned him: "This is way beyond venture. This
Wright said he was surprised when Comer's foundation
gave the group money to found Global Research Technologies.
"Gary Comer's philosophy was 'Let's just invest the
dollars now. If it can be done, we'll have the tool
in the toolbox.' "
The company started up in 2004 and three years later
announced its "proof of concept." It had built a machine
that captures carbon dioxide.
Air moves through panels of hanging fabric coated
with a proprietary material that captures the CO2.
Then the doors close, and the fabric strips are sprayed
with a sodium carbonate solution that binds the CO2
and becomes sodium bicarbonate. The water is drained
off and an electrodialysis process strips CO2 from
the sodium bicarbonate.
Right now, with the firm's electricity supplied by
the coal-fired plants of Tucson Electric Power, the
process produces as much carbon dioxide as it strips
from the air, but Wright and Lackner are encouraged.
"It's an enormous step forward," said Lackner.
The next machines will be more efficient and, if
powered with renewable energy, they will start reducing
the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Wright
Wright, whose computer screen-saver is a photo of
the first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., calls his company's
early success "the glider off the ramp at Kitty Hawk."
Wright is fond of such analogies. He and Burt are,
after all, Tucson's Wright brothers.
It would take a lot of machines to make a dent in
global carbon dioxide.
In a paper he co-wrote, Lack-ner said the process
could not only offset but reduce the amount of carbon
dioxide in the global atmosphere, with an investment
of $1.6 trillion.
"It's a big scale, so big it's unimaginable," said
Wright. "But we as a species constantly build big
things. If the Great Wall of China were an air collector,
it would remove 8 billion tons a year."
Wright said 50 million shipping-container-sized devices
would handle the problem.
Climate scientist Scott Saleska said capture and
sequestration of carbon dioxide could be part of an
attack on global warming.
"I read an analogy recently that what we need is
not a silver bullet, but silver buckshot. This is
a 50- to 100-year problem and we need to simultaneously
do research on a number of things," Saleska said.
Saleska, a UA assistant professor of ecology and
evolutionary biology, said global-warming strategy
should include increased energy efficiency, increased
use of non-carbon-based fuels, and fixing emissions
at the tailpipe. Carbon capture could be a complement.
"I don't know how tenable it will be, but certainly
capture and removal from the air is an important part
of the whole picture," said Saleska.
"If it is used as an excuse to not worry about the
source, then it's inexcusable," he said.
Saleska said he has done research under contract
to Global Research Technologies but has no current
ties to the company.
Paul Blowers, a UA associate professor of chemical
engineering, said he, too, welcomes "complementary"
solutions to the global-warming problem.
"As a skeptical scientist, my questions would be
'Where would we put it all?' and 'Are there unforeseen
He warns we should not abandon the long struggle
to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in favor of a quick
"I think the thought many have is that we will always
find a technical solution right before catastrophe,"
--Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or firstname.lastname@example.org.