Fro the New York Times magazine 9th annual year in ideas.
Nature may well be the art of God, but that isn’t keeping mere mortals from trying their hand at it. This year, a group of British engineers recommended building a forest of artificial carbon-filtering “trees” across the United Kingdom to combat climate change; and a Brooklyn designer completed a working prototype of leafy-looking solar panels that could one day replace ivy on buildings.
The treelike devices, which were created by Klaus Lackner, a Columbia University geophysicist, resemble giant fly swatters in one design. They use carbon-capture and storage technology similar to the kind that will be deployed at large power plants, but they aim to absorb carbon from dispersed emissions sources, like vehicles and residences, whose mobility or small size makes individual filters impractical or inefficient. This summer, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimated that a forest of 100,000 such trees could mop up half the United Kingdom’s carbon emissions, making the forest thousands of times more effective than its natural counterparts.
Down the botanical scale from tree to vine is the designer Samuel Cochran’s Grow system, a set of leaflike modules that harness both solar and wind energy. Solar panels aren’t typically used, as Cochran’s are, on the sides of buildings, because they work best when the sun hits them at a 90-degree angle; but Grow’s foliagelike shape is designed for capturing oblique light.
In one design, the ‘‘trees’’ contain rows of filtration boxes that capture CO2 in the air. 2. An automated process removes the CO2-saturated filtration boxes and lowers them underground. 3. The carbon is removed by an underground cleaning facility and stored elsewhere, while the clean filtration box is returned to its slot in the tree.
And when a breeze rustles Grow’s leaves, tiny piezoelectric generators in their “stems” create a small charge.
Neither project presumes to replace nature with Franken-forests. Because of the limits of carbon storage, artificial trees might be effective for only about a hundred years — long enough, according to Tim Fox of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, to buy time as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels. And Cochran, nostalgic for the creeping vines of his childhood neighborhood, hesitates to claim Grow’s superiority over ivy. “We haven’t been bad-mouthing the actual plant,” he says.