Every year almost 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide is pumped into the air. We are constantly adding up the treacherous damage that humans do from burning fossil fuels, but it often feels that nothing is being done on the scale that is needed.
Whilst COP 21 has now come and gone and countries still deliberate how best to reach their ambitious targets, startups like Global Thermostat are putting their money where their mouth is. We recently featured Global Thermostat on our list of 7 tech startups changing the world. Made up of Peter Eisenberger, a distinguished professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University and Graciela Chichilnisky, they teamed up to do something incredibly unique, suck CO2 out of the air and reuse it. This innovation mirrors something that we have been living with for many decades, the exhaust pipe on your car.
Global Thermostat has drawn support from unlikely places with wealthy entrepreneur, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., CEO of Warner Music Group and Seagram, kicking in seed money for the project.
With the ever growing demand for environmental innovation we thought it would be a good idea to find out more about this exciting technology from the company’s founder Peter Eisenberger.
Peter, can you tell us a bit about how Global Thermostat first came into existence?
Myself and Graciela Chichilnisky met at Columbia when I came to found the Earth Institute and take up the position of Director of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. We concluded that the world needed to be able to capture CO2 from the air in order to avoid the risk of catastrophic climate change. So we formed Global Thermostat to develop the technology to do just that.
In what way is Global Thermostat different from other companies developing carbon capture technology?
Most companies are focused on removing CO2 from flue gas (Flue gases are produced when coal, oil, natural gas, wood or any other fuel is combusted in an industrial furnace) while we can also remove CO2 from the air. There are four companies that have pursued air capture. In comparing our costs with those claimed by others, our costs are about a factor of two less. The main reasons are higher capture of CO2 per area and lower energy costs of our process compared to the others.
You posit that “Global Thermostat turns pollution into cash”. Can you explain how it captures the C02 exactly?
We pass the air with CO2 at 400 parts per million over a contactor that is similar to that used in the emissions control device in the tail pipe of your car. It holds a sorbent that selectively captures the CO2. After being captured, low temperature heat is used to collect the CO2 from the contactor.
How realistic is it to imagine carbon negative technologies like yours one day being integrated on a global scale?
Extremely realistic. Our technology is modular and takes very little land (200,000 tonnes per acre). So it can be used on a global scale.
The environmental tech market is going through major transformations. What do you think the most realistic overhaul will be in the next decade?
The realization that CO2 can be transformed into valuable products so that one can stimulate economic growth. This will turn being green from being a cost on the world economy to being an economic opportunity, while at the same time reducing the risk of conflicts over natural resources and the destabilizing impact of massive migration created by sea level rise. The latter has caused the US intelligence agencies to list climate change as a big risk to global security this century.
From everything I’ve read it seems the potential impact of GT could be overwhelmingly positive, ultra-efficient and cost effective, so why is there still a rhetoric of apprehension in the marketplace?
There are mistaken beliefs that it must be very costly and also that it could be used to allow fossil fuels to be used for longer if we remove the risk of climate change. The first has been shown to be incorrect by many third party evaluations of technology that say at commercial scale our technology is economically viable –it can produce CO2 that can be sold at a profit to those who will use it and sequester it. The second is incorrect because the adverse impact of coal and even natural gas sources extends way beyond its CO2 emissions. In short, clean coal is an oxymoron.
Right, there is a concern that this technology could just perpetuate harmful industries.
The products produced by those industries will be replaced by products produced by renewable energy, CO2 from the air and hydrogen from water. So this will end the use of fossil fuels and enable us to close the carbon cycle by sequestering the CO2 in carbon fibers that can be used to build things and to thus stabilize the temperature of the planet.
What has been the most exciting breakthrough for you so far in this venture?
Both finding the way to use very low temperature and low cost heat for the collection of the CO2, and the realization that CO2 was such a valuable product as well as a threat to climate stability.