Some thoughts on insanely convoluted climate projects versus more little trees

Well now! Here is a wildly entertaining tale of human ingenuity and hubris.

Engineers and scientists have built a plant (a big machine really) in Iceland, powered by geothermal energy, that scrubs the carbon from the atmosphere. It is called a "direct air carbon capture facility."

It works by using fans to suck air into a set of filters that "captures" the bad stuff (carbon), heats it up, liquifies it, and shoots it deep down underground, where it is absorbed by porous basalt rock strata.

That's right. It is a filter.

For the atmosphere.


I absolutely respect the brainpower behind this kind of sciencing. I love engineering, which is basically problem solving in the material world.

Alas, I do not buy the Carbopocalypse that many are predicting … and have been predicting for a long time...

What is amazing to me about this project is the mad scientist-level insanity of thinking you can filter the atmosphere of the whole earth. Even if you had hundreds … or thousands of these things. Or ...

This behemoth filters 10 metric tons of carbon a day. That "offsets" the emissions of "800 cars a day in the US" (Notice that cars in other countries are not mentioned. America must give up its cars. Because America Bad!) It is equivalent to the amount of carbon "500 trees soak up in a year."

So it is like a very, very small forest - a little square wooded area of about 23 x 23 trees. Not enough to provide food and shelter for more than a few squirrels and birds. About five acres, based on typical forest density figures.

Or you can buy one of this company's gigantic machines. Which seems to cover ... a couple of acres?

Yet, the article admits, the effect of these 'direct carbon capture' facilities is "miniscule."

Temujin Doran/CNN

Look at it sitting in the huge wild vastness ... of Iceland. The picture of futility, if you ask me.

The claim is made that humans emit 35 billion tons of carbon with our cars, planes, home heating, and agriculture each year. And that we are burning the planet right into destruction, which is always about ten years away.


According to my back-of-the-napkin calculations, this means the Iceland facility can, over a year, scrub about .00001% of the scary carbon we produce.

One one-hundred thousandth of a percent. Approximately.

Another way to put it is that we'd need about 9.5 million of these units to scrub all our carbon. This assumes it works as described.

That's right. One for about every six square miles of the entire landmass of the earth.

Just picture a big square, 2 1/2 miles on each side, with one of these in the middle. In a very flat place like Nebraska, you could stand on top of one and see at least eight more of them.

That's pretty high-density development.

I guess we'd have to clear a lot of forests, huh?

(Photo by Steve Platt/Courtesy Wild Rockies).

How big is our atmosphere, anyway? It appears to be something on the order of 1.9 * 10^21 cf. That's 19,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 cubic feet. Nineteen sextillion!

That is a lot of (apparently very hot) air.

The nicest thing about the Iceland unit is that it is powered by that island's abundant geothermal energy. But do we really have 9.5 million such geothermally active locations on Earth, upon which to build these amazing carbon-disappearing cabinets? Or should we just power these air scrubbers with diesel?

Or wind?

Or unicorn glitter dust?

And what would provide power for all of the processes used to build these giant plants? Grading, concrete, metal, plumbing, and so forth? Construction takes energy - lots of energy.

Technological advances are always incremental. I understand that human flight started with one little plane made out of wood and canvas, launched at the dunes of Kitty Hawk by two bicycle mechanics. Now, just a century later, we've been to the moon, sent probes to planets and even outside our solar system, and we can jet around the earth in a single day.

But filtering the planetary atmosphere???? That sounds less like engineering than alchemy.

And yes, some folks are wondering about what the effects might be of injecting billions of tons of hot liquified carbon down into old lava rock below the earth's surface. It sounds like a cheesy 1950s sci-fi disaster movie plot.

I am not against dreaming. I am just not a fan of insanity.

I do appreciate that this is a private enterprise, started by two engineering PhDs, and built by equity funding, though the Swiss government has also provided a significant cash infusion. By all means, feel free to invest.

But I could imagine this kind of thing going the way of California's high-speed rail boondoggle with billions in public funding and nothing of use to show for it.

Maybe plant some more Little Trees?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Not the Bee or any of its affiliates.

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