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Tucson firm’s ‘synthetic trees’ could help clean air

Product would scrub carbon dioxide from air, may aid fight against global warming

CEO Allen B. Wright with Global Research Technologies' ion-exchange resin sheets, which capture CO2 from the air.

CEO Allen B. Wright with Global Research Technologies' ion-exchange resin sheets, which capture CO2 from the air.

A Tucson company has developed a way to help resolve the global air pollution threat of rising carbon dioxide concentrations.

Global Research Technologies LLC has developed a device that removes CO2 from the air, uses little energy, and can be readily located where harvested CO2 is needed, said Allen B. Wright, president and CEO.

A preprototype device in Tucson is removing CO2 from the air, and the company plans to have a model ready for manufacturing in two years, Wright said.

The company’s “synthetic tree” uses sheets of ion-exchange resin to attract and trap CO2 as it blows by in the breeze, said Klaus Lackner, the firm’s chairman and science adviser.

The gas can then be processed for commercial uses such as injection into oil fields to bring more oil to the surface, agricultural operations, air conditioning and dry ice, as well as for storage underground.

“There are many, many uses for captured CO2,” Wright said.

“Obviously what we want to do is go to the source and reduce our generation of CO2 emissions by burning fewer fossil fuels,” said Tedra Fox, sustainability manager for Pima County.

“For CO2 emissions that cannot be reduced to zero, the idea of being able to reduce them from the atmosphere is really an important contribution to the fight against global warming and greenhouse gas emissions,” Fox said.

“I see it as another important tool that communities can implement to their strategies to combat carbon emissions.”

CO2 forms when fossil fuels such as gasoline and coal are burned for energy. Transportation accounts for about 40 percent of Arizona’s greenhouse gas emissions, of which CO2 makes up about 97 percent, according to a state report.

“You make a pound of CO2 for each mile of driving,” said Lackner, who is also the Ewing-Worzel professor of geophysics in the department of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University.

“We are collectively driving around 26 million miles a day in Pima County,” said Beth Gorman, program manager with the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality.

That equates to about 26 million pounds – 13,000 tons – of CO2 produced here each day by internal combustion vehicles.

Greenhouse gases such as CO2 have been linked to global climate change by scientists.

CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere increased from approximately 280 parts per million by volume in the preindustrial 1880s to more than 380 ppm today, Lackner said.

The air’s CO2 concentration level continues to rise about 2 ppm per year, Lackner said. Some scientists and policymakers have looked to caps and taxes on carbon emissions as a way to slow or reverse CO2 increases.

Global Research Technologies offers another way.

Its device removes CO2 from the air, offsetting emissions or even reducing concentrations.

“It is the only way you can reduce existing concentrations in the atmosphere,” Wright said.

“Net zero emissions is a huge challenge because 85 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels,” Lackner said.

Gasoline is a compact, lightweight and portable source of energy with great range – far better than batteries or fuel cells, Lackner said.

“If we are not fast enough, then cars may be told they can’t put the CO2 in the air,” he said. “One of our messages has to be that it is OK to put the CO2 into the air as long as you take it back out.”

Wright said “We would never want to suggest that people carry on with wild abandon and use power indiscriminately.

“Ultimately carbon management is going to involve contributions from all these sectors: conservation, innovative technology, improved efficiencies in power generation and alternate sources. It’s not a silver bullet; it’s silver buckshot.”

Technology has led to increasing carbon levels, and technology can help solve the problem, Wright said.

“This is a big challenge. It’s not insurmountable,” he said. “It’s going to take commitment and capital, but it’s fixable, it’s doable.”

“This is not necessarily a disaster. It does not mean we have to go back into the cave and cook deer meat around the campfire, and it doesn’t mean we have to stop living at the standard of living that we have developed. It just means we have to take some action and fix this. We’ve always applied technology and our brains; that’s how we’ve survived.”

The company, formed in February 2004, will have two revenue streams, Lackner said.

The company will sell the CO2 it removes from the air for uses that include pumping it into the ground around oil wells to push more of the fossil fuel to the surface.

GRT’s devices can be placed anywhere, such as at a drilling site for enhanced oil recovery, which avoids transportation costs and infrastructure costs to build lengthy pipelines to carry the CO2, Wright said.

And as carbon caps and taxes are mandated, the company could be paid for removing CO2 from the air by companies that exceed their allotments, he said.

A company would pay GRT an estimated $30 per ton to remove CO2 that exceeds the amount the company is allowed to put into the air, Lackner said.

The privately held company is funded with a $5 million investment by the late Gary Comer, the founder of the Lands’ End clothing company and backer of climate change research, Wright said.

Wright and Lackner met while working on projects at Biosphere 2 when the research facility near Oracle was overseen by Columbia University.

GRT occupies 10,000 square feet at 3450 S. Broadmont Drive, near Ajo Way and Palo Verde Road, and employs 11 people, Wright said.

“In 2009 we plan to triple the staff,” he said. “We anticipate the next phase of growth will be pretty explosive.”

Allen B. Wright, president and CEO of Global Research Technologies, says employment at the firm could triple next year.

Allen B. Wright, president and CEO of Global Research Technologies, says employment at the firm could triple next year.

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WHAT IS CO2?

Carbon dioxide is an odorless, colorless gas produced by burning fossil fuels that is found in low concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere.

It is composed of one carbon and two oxygen atoms, and forms dry ice in its solid state.

CO2 does not directly harm human health, but some scientists believe that increasing concentrations of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere trap the Earth’s heat and contribute to global climate change.

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On the Web

Global Research Technologies: www.grestech.com

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Online Poll: How are you reducing your carbon footprint ?
I'm not doing anything.: 38%
I drive less, carpool or take public transportation.: 12%
Traded in my SUV for a hybrid.: 0%
Took a "staycation" (stayed home for vacation).: 5%
Put solar panels on my house.: 35%
Other.: 7%
430 users voted

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