To address the exponential rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations since the Industrial Revolution, Professor Klaus S. Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute, is working on ambitious carbon capture and sequestration strategies. “Our goal is to take a process that takes 100,000 years and compress it into 30 minutes,” says Lackner.
Lackner and his team are developing a device they have dubbed an air extractor, modeled after one of the most abundant but most complicated devices in nature: the leaf of a tree. Leaves are significant absorbers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but planting enough of trees to absorb the current overabundance of carbon dioxide in the world would leave no fertile land left for other uses.
Surprisingly, the basic idea for Lackner’s carbon dioxide air extraction device was the consequence of an eighth grade science fair project. His daughter, Claire, was able to successfully demonstrate that carbon dioxide (an acid) can be captured from the air in an acid/base reaction using a fish pump and sodium hydroxide (a very strong base). The father-daughter pair discovered that the rudimentary device captured half of the carbon dioxide that ran through the test tube. This simple demonstration won Claire first prize in the science fair and pushed her father onto a research path that could revolutionize the way we approach combating climate change and global warming.
“I was surprised that [Claire] pulled this off as well as she did, which made me feel that it could be easier than I thought,” said Lackner during a PBS NOVA ScienceNow interview in 2007. Though Claire had demonstrated that carbon dioxide capture was possible, there were energy balance issues that needed to be considered. Since the system consumes electricity, the issue of net carbon emissions must, of course, be addressed. “We needed to come up with a shape where you don’t have to have an aquarium fish pump driving all the air through the system,” said Lackner, “but to have the wind just deliver the air and pass it through the collector.”
“The first sketch I made ended up looking like a tuning fork, or a goal post, with Venetian blinds,” Lackner recalled. He later began testing different materials in order to replicate the function of a leaf on a tree. He enlisted two engineers to collaborate with him and formed Global Research Technologies (GRT). After a year of testing, GRT was able to design a new material, flat and smooth, that would pull CO2 out of the air in a process called engineered chemical sinkage.
As an engineer and the director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute, Lackner has pioneered approaches for dealing with energy issues of the future. In addition to figuring out what to do with the byproducts of energy use, he works on environmentally acceptable technologies for the use of fossil fuels, and he has published numerous papers and articles on clean fossil fuel technology.
In addition to developing the air extraction device in cooperation with GRT, Lackner also played a pivotal role in forming the Zero Emission Coal Alliance, an industry-led effort to develop coal power with zero emissions to the atmosphere. His vision in self-replicating machine systems was recognized by Discover Magazine as one of seven ideas that could change the world.
Relating the basics of carbon sequestration to the familiar territory of Columbia University, Lackner uses the “Alma Mater” statue in the center of the New York City campus as a prime example of nature’s solution to global warming. “She is sitting on a pedestal of serpentine rock…. This serpentine has absorbed CO2, probably out of rain water. If you wait long enough, that’s what will happen to all the CO2 we make.” This carbon capture process normally takes 100,000 years. To make it a more useful strategy in reducing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, we need to find ways to accelerate this process.
“I believe that it is impossible to stop people from using fossil fuels, so we have to develop technologies which allow us to use them without creating environmental havoc to the planet,” Lackner says.
Lackner’s scientific career started early and in the phenomenology of weakly interacting particles. While searching for quarks, he and George Zweig developed the chemistry of atoms with fractional nuclear charge. He participated in matter searches for particles with a non-integer charge in an experiment conducted at Stanford by Martin Perl and his group. After joining Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in 1983, Lackner became involved in hydrodynamic work and fusion-related research. He was a scientist in the Theoretical Division, but also an active part of the Laboratory’s upper management. He held several positions in this tier, including acting associate laboratory director for strategic and supporting research, a position which represents roughly a third of LANL’s sizeable staff. In recent years, Lackner has published on the behavior of high explosives, novel approaches to inertial confinement fusion and numerical algorithms.
Lackner joined the faculty of Columbia University in 2001 and is now the Ewing-Worzel Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering. He directs the Earth Institute’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy and is a member of the Earth Institute Faculty.
Lackner earned his degrees from Heidelberg University, Germany: the Vordiplom, (equivalent to a B.S.) in 1975; the Diplom (or M.S.) in 1976; and his Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics, summa cum laude, in 1978. He was awarded the Clemm-Haas Prize for his outstanding Ph.D. thesis at Heidelberg University. Lackner held postdoctoral positions at the California Institute of Technology and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center before beginning his professional career, and he attended Cold Spring Harbor Summer School for Computational Neuroscience in 1985.