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What's a 'mechanical tree'? ASU's Tempe campus home to groundbreaking climate invention

The passive carbon capture technology collects around 1,000 times more carbon than a regular tree of the same size, researchers in charge of the project said.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Editor's note: The above video aired during a previous broadcast.

Trees and other plants have been the eaters of Earth's carbon dioxide for millennia, but a first-of-its-kind machine in Tempe is entering the world's carbon food web.

The technology is called "mechanical trees" and they reportedly collect around 1,000 times more carbon than a natural tree of a similar size. The first mechanical tree was recently placed into the ground at ASU's Tempe campus.

The passive nature of the "mechanical tree"

Carbon capture technology has been a budding field of research and development as human-caused climate change continues to threaten ecosystems, but the joint effort between ASU and Ireland-based company Carbon Collect is the first to have the process be "passive" rather than "active."

"If we can make wind-power generating windmills work, standing passively in the wind, I thought 'why couldn't we do the same for absorbing CO2?'," said Klaus Lackner, lead researcher of the project and director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at ASU.

"The passive nature removes one of the biggest energy demands. The technology literally just stands in the wind, like a regular tree, and aren't using energy to suck carbon out of the air."

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How do "mechanical trees" work?

One of the main hurdles carbon capture technology has faced is how expensive plants are to run, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency. The new mechanical trees look to sidestep the issue over costs and energy by having minimal operating needs with letting the wind do all the work.

"It's a tall column with 150 disks inside," Lackner said. "The disks hang together like a long lantern and, as there are gaps between the disks, the wind can come from any direction and it goes right through in between the disks."

The disks are coated in a material that binds CO2 to them as wind blows through. Once the disks are fully coated, the stack lowers into the drum at the bottom of the machine and hot steam knocks the carbon off the disks.

The carbon is then put into the "collection phase," according to Lackner. What is best to do with the carbon during this phase is still up for debate among the researchers and depends on what the results of the mechanical tree on ASU's campus are.

"You can do this at a place where you can get rid of the CO2 by putting it underground or use it for fuel," Lackner said.

What is the next step?

The single mechanical tree at ASU will be studied on how well it performs in carbon collection and storage before researchers decide to expand the project to other parts of the United States and/or Europe.

"Next steps for us is scaling, and if we're not in this to go on a substantial scale, then there's no purpose for us as a company being here," said Pól Ó Móráin, CEO and Director of Carbon Collect. 

"We have a program underway to design the blueprints for three carbon farms...scaling for us is just putting more and more of these on a single site."

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VERSIÓN EN ESPAÑOL: ¿Qué es un 'árbol mecánico'? El campus de Tempe de ASU alberga un innovador invento climático

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