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Synthetic 'tree' promises to catch carbon

Scientists at Columbia University are developing a tall structure designed to catch carbon 1,000 times faster than the real thing.

The thought of an artificial tree usually excites memories of building and ornamenting a Christmas centerpiece. But here's an innovation that will put those plastic branches to shame: scientists at Columbia University are developing a structure that can capture carbon 1,000 times faster than a real tree.

The carbon-capturing structure looks more like a cylinder than a soaring Redwood. Global Research Technologies

Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at the university, has been working on the project since 1998, according to a CNN report, and is optimistic about a near-future application.

Modern improvements in coal-fired power plants have reduced carbon emissions, but Lackner is seeking a different function. The "tree" would be used to trap carbon that has already been emitted into the air by car gasoline or airplane fuel, CNN reports.

Unlike the real thing, the synthetic "tree" doesn't need direct sunlight, water, a trunk, or branches to function, as it looks more like a cylinder than a soaring Redwood. The concept, which Lackner says is flexible in size and can be placed nearly anywhere, works by collecting carbon dioxide on a sorbent, cleaning and pressurizing the gas, and releasing it. Similar to the way a sponge collects water, the sorbent would collect carbon dioxide.

Each synthetic tree would absorb one ton of carbon dioxide per day, eliminating an amount of gas equivalent to that produced by 20 cars. Lackner is also co-founder and chairman of Tuscon, Ariz.-based Global Research Technologies, which is working on the technology.

Although the prospect of this is exciting, manufacturing the structures would be expensive, as each unit would reportedly cost about $30,000 to make.

There are 135,932,930 cars on the road in the United States, according to the U.S Department of Transportation. To offset their combined emissions, we'd need about 6.8 million of these "trees." Given the current economy, the United States, for one, probably can't afford to make this happen--at least, not for a while.

Nonetheless, Lackner and his team are pushing the project full-force. CNN says he has already met with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to discuss the concept, which Lackner says will have a prototype within three years. He is also writing a proposal for the Department of Energy in a continuous effort to raise attention for a concept, which he explains is several hundred times more effective than the traditional windmill.