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Tucson firm has plan for towers to suck up CO2

Nov 25, 2007 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Tom Beal - The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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 Boulevard.

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 emissions.

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 Wright.

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 is adventure."

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 said.

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 consequences?' "

He warns we should not abandon the long struggle to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in favor of a quick fix.

"I think the thought many have is that we will always find a technical solution right before catastrophe," Blowers said.

--Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or tbeal@azstarnet.com.