Carbon capture and storage

Access to energy is central to human well-being and as a result energy demand is expected to grow.  Unfortunately, today’s energy infrastructures, mainly fueled by fossil carbon, are unsustainable. Affordable alternatives to replace fossil fuels still need to be developed. The use of fossil carbon results in thirty billion tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions, which is a potent greenhouse gas and drives global warming.  In order to stop climate change, carbon dioxide emissions must nearly completely cease. After stopping emissions and without active removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it will take natural processes millennia to return the atmosphere to pre-industrial carbon dioxide levels.   Capture and storage technologies offer one solution to this conundrum.  We will discuss technologies for the capture of carbon dioxide – at large point sources or directly from the atmosphere – and technologies for the subsequent safe and permanent disposal of the captured carbon. Together, these technologies can eliminate all carbon dioxide emissions and therefore maintain access to one of the largest and most convenient energy resources the world has ever seen, while at the same time eliminating their detrimental side effects of climate change, ocean acidification and eutrophication of the biosphere with excess carbon. Point source capture is likely to be cheaper than air capture, but direct capture from ambient air will make it possible to close the carbon cycle entirely. Closure is achieved either through permanent storage of the carbon or through recycling the carbon as a synthetic fuel produced from carbon dioxide, water and non-fossil energy. Operating at sufficient scale, air capture combined with storage could also reverse the past rise in carbon dioxide and return the atmosphere to the lower concentrations of the twentieth century.

Klaus S. Lackner
Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel Professor of Geophysics,
Earth and Environmental Engineering
Columbia University

Director of Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy,
 The Earth Institute


Klaus Lackner is developing innovative approaches to energy issues of the future. He has been instrumental in forming ZECA, the Zero Emission Coal Alliance, which is an industry-led effort to develop coal power with zero emissions to the atmosphere.  His recent work is on environmentally acceptable technologies for the use of fossil fuels.
Lackner and his team are developing a device they have dubbed an air extractor, modeled after one of the most abundant but most complicated devices in nature: the leaf of a tree. Leaves are significant absorbers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but planting enough of trees to absorb the current overabundance of carbon dioxide in the world would leave no fertile land left for other uses. After a year of testing, his team was able to design a new material, flat and smooth, that would pull CO2 out of the air in a process called engineered chemical sinkage.