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Scientists combat climate change in search to remove carbon dioxide from air

Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas, but human activity over the past century has sent atmospheric carbon dioxide levels skyrocketing. The result? Rising global temperatures and associated changes in climate patterns around the world. For California, that means longer, more intense droughts, bigger heat waves and concerns over air quality. All of those impacts can be traced back to carbon emissions. That’s why there’s a big push to move the state’s economy toward more sources of green energy. Climate experts say the state’s current pace of slowing our current emissions down won’t be enough. That’s because carbon dioxide gas lingers in the atmosphere for thousands of years as more and more gets released.”Once you put carbon dioxide into the air, it fundamentally stays there, on our lifetime scale forever,” said Roger Aines, chief scientist with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Central California.Aines is leading a large team of scientists from various backgrounds who are looking for ways to not only reduce carbon emissions but to actively remove carbon dioxide that’s already been emitted. Scientists know how the process of carbon extraction works. The problem is that right now, it isn’t efficient enough to make a difference in current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.”Imagine dissolving sugar in several gallons of water and then trying to get it back out,” Aines said, noting that that’s a good visual for what he and many others are working to do. That process is also very expensive from an energy perspective, and the overall goal is to limit our energy use, meaning scientists are also looking for more uses for extracted carbon.One idea is to turn that carbon into a plastic-alternative material.”If we could simply stop petroleum-based plastic, it’d be a huge benefit and really create a recycling-based economy. We’re taking that garbage and turning it into the new product that we need to have,” Aines said.Another method being explored is storing captured carbon underground.”Any farmer knows that dark soil is good soil. And dark soil is carbon-rich soil. And so if you can put carbon into the soil, you’re not only helping the atmosphere, you’re helping the farms,” Aines said.Aines believes that these ideas can be effective.”We’re already well on the way to doing that. The technology is clear,” Aines said.The big challenge will be bringing carbon extraction and storage methods to scale. According to Aines, five billion tons of fossil fuel-based oil are used each year around the world. Without significantly reducing that demand, we would need to remove 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year just to prevent Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. That is a major threshold for significant climate change impacts highlighted by the Paris Agreement.”I’m confident that we can hit those targets and be removing carbon dioxide on average after that date,” Aines said.

Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas, but human activity over the past century has sent atmospheric carbon dioxide levels skyrocketing. The result? Rising global temperatures and associated changes in climate patterns around the world.

For California, that means longer, more intense droughts, bigger heat waves and concerns over air quality.

All of those impacts can be traced back to carbon emissions. That’s why there’s a big push to move the state’s economy toward more sources of green energy.

Climate experts say the state’s current pace of slowing our current emissions down won’t be enough. That’s because carbon dioxide gas lingers in the atmosphere for thousands of years as more and more gets released.

“Once you put carbon dioxide into the air, it fundamentally stays there, on our lifetime scale forever,” said Roger Aines, chief scientist with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Central California.

Aines is leading a large team of scientists from various backgrounds who are looking for ways to not only reduce carbon emissions but to actively remove carbon dioxide that’s already been emitted.

Scientists know how the process of carbon extraction works. The problem is that right now, it isn’t efficient enough to make a difference in current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

“Imagine dissolving sugar in several gallons of water and then trying to get it back out,” Aines said, noting that that’s a good visual for what he and many others are working to do.

That process is also very expensive from an energy perspective, and the overall goal is to limit our energy use, meaning scientists are also looking for more uses for extracted carbon.

One idea is to turn that carbon into a plastic-alternative material.

“If we could simply stop petroleum-based plastic, it’d be a huge benefit and really create a recycling-based economy. We’re taking that garbage and turning it into the new product that we need to have,” Aines said.

Another method being explored is storing captured carbon underground.

“Any farmer knows that dark soil is good soil. And dark soil is carbon-rich soil. And so if you can put carbon into the soil, you’re not only helping the atmosphere, you’re helping the farms,” Aines said.

Aines believes that these ideas can be effective.

“We’re already well on the way to doing that. The technology is clear,” Aines said.

The big challenge will be bringing carbon extraction and storage methods to scale.

According to Aines, five billion tons of fossil fuel-based oil are used each year around the world. Without significantly reducing that demand, we would need to remove 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year just to prevent Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. That is a major threshold for significant climate change impacts highlighted by the Paris Agreement.

“I’m confident that we can hit those targets and be removing carbon dioxide on average after that date,” Aines said.

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