It's Not Easy Being Green

At my urban university where students are informed when they are allowed to sit on the lawn and when they are not, it is often difficult to remember nature. However nature, particularly in the form of trees, is never far. From pop culture (Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas) to folklore (Johnny Appleseed) trees are deeply embedded in our society.

Johnny Appleseed Surrounded by Trees SVadilfari/Flickr Creative Commons

Trees have become a symbol of nature at large, and an emblem for the green and environmental movements. Not only that, but trees have been of great inspiration for scientists who are looking to nature for solutions to environmental problems. This inspiration can be used to help us bring more sustainable and green technology to the Big Apple itself.

Returning to our Roots

Researchers at SolarBotanic have gone even further than being inspired by trees, they have created artificial trees that, among other things, harness solar, heat and wind energy and filter the air just as trees do. These biomimetic energy sources can be “planted” anywhere from the desert to urban environments and their realistic designs bring nature’s beauty along with nature’s power. SolarBotanic trees utilize nanoleaves that effectively absorb light waves in both the visible and invisible spectrum. This means that the nanoleaves cannot only transform light into energy like other solar cells, but they can also transform infrared rays (in other words, heat) into energy. This way electricity can be provided to a home or a car straight from a “tree” in your front yard.

SolarBotanic Trees, Rebuildingdemocracy/Flickr Creative Commons, Photo Courtesy of Solar Botanic

Nanoleaves are thin, like actual leaves, so they can blow in the wind while remaining attached to the tree. The movement of the leaf flapping back and forth is mechanical energy, which is harnessed by the SolarBotanic tree, providing even more energy and electricity.

Trees do not merely capture light as energy, they also provide us with cleaner air. The SolarBotanic tree does something similar by using a facilitated transport system modeled after our lungs, another inspiration from nature. In the tree there is an “agent” that separates out the CO2, effectively removing it from the air. SolarBotanic is truly paying homage to the tree, and using an already perfect design to provide a beautiful (and effective) form of alternative energy.

Mother Nature Knows Best

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and global warming are an extremely serious issue in the modern world. We need CO2 for everything from oil drilling to blood banks, but too much CO2 in our atmosphere is poisoning our planet at an alarming rate. The government is seriously looking at carbon sequestration, which involves collecting CO2 from the air (mostly from smoke stacks) and injecting it underground, as a method to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

ZScott-Singley/Flickr Creative Commons

However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, even if the carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques that are being explored today are 90% efficient, about half of the world’s carbon CO2 emissions will still be released into the environment. Therefore, it is extremely important to find other approaches as well.  Dr. Klaus Lackner and Dr. Allen Wright, researchers at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, have come up with a remarkable, biomimetic alterative—recycling CO2. They have developed a “tree” made of plastic that absorbs CO2, just as trees do, but 1000 times more efficiently. In addition to its efficiency, the plastic resin that absorbs CO2 when it is dry, releases that same CO2 when it is wet. This means that the industries that need CO2 (for oil drilling or carbonated drinks) can purchase recycled CO2. It is also a possibility that recycled CO2 can be converted into gasoline and then the gasoline emissions can be recollected as CO2. This would allow us to still use our cars but ensure that the net level of CO2 in the atmosphere stops rising so drastically.

Dr. Allen Wright, the Senior Staff Associate at the Lenfest Center, pointed out to me that “observing that plants do in fact perform ‘air capture’ did prove at the outset that it was possible” however he also says that the “pine branch shape” of the resin is “purely coincidence.” As he says, “A pine branch shape worked well for that because the ‘needles’ would compress nicely.  It is not a particularly useful geometry for many reasons.  The term ‘artificial tree’ is use to help people understand what we are doing.  A practical device deployed in the field for air capture will not likely look like anything found in nature...more perhaps like a carousel sitting on top of a shipping container.”

The Carbon Cycle timmeko/Flickr Creative Commons

Recycling carbon is exactly how nature works. CO2 is produced as a byproduct but it is recycled throughout nature (through the carbon cycle). This technology takes nature’s foolproof method or “recycling” carbon dioxide and applies it to the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. As Dr. Wright explained to me, “the goal of air capture is to remove roughly 10-30% of the CO2 in the air passing through the collector, not to produce CO­2 free air. That would put the air exiting collector at a pre-industrial level of CO2.” Therefore plants can still grow and participate in the carbon cycle without being affected by the CO2 emissions people are producing.

This video elaborates on how this plastic “tree” could dramatically change our world.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/27163710[/vimeo]

With sustainable technology like this we can continue to live our city lives while still changing how we interact with the environment.

Biomimicry in the City

New York is a large city with the majority of its greenery confined to parks. Yet the city is making an effort to incorporate green energy and biomimicry into its urban ways and Clean Energy Connections is making an effort to help provide the network to make this transformation possible. On November 3rd, there will be a fascinating panel called Biomimicry in the Big City: Can Nature Inspire Cleantech Solutions?

It is not always easy to remember the trees when you are surrounded by the bright lights and steel of New York City (or any urban environment). But the innovations and inspiration trees provide us can keep our cities—and our world—cleaner, more energy efficient and more sustainable.

This entry was posted in Barnard College, Climate, CO2, Columbia University, Energy, Green living, Sustainable development, Uncategorized, Urban development and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to It's Not Easy Being Green

  1. Alexandra says:

    I had never heard of anything like this before...
    Is there any incentive for not cutting down most of the trees and replacing them with these synthetic SolarBotanic trees?

    This technology is unbelievable, but will it cause people to not appreciate natural trees as much? Soon our world will be all technology and man-made. However, these SolarBotanic trees do undeniably good things for the environment.

  2. Hannah says:

    Wow. What will we think of next? While the tree-hugger in me cringes a bit at the idea of "fake trees," it also rejoices at the thought of so much green filling our cities! The idea that these fake trees could be used to help our environment is wonderful.

  3. Jenn says:

    These trees sound incredible (especially because they're so sustainable). But are they practical?

    (I know this isn't really the focus of your blog, but: what's good for the environment often comes at an incredibly high (monetary) price for consumers (economic, not biological; though biological also). How expensive are these trees? How practical are they? Are they likely to come into wide use, or are they just sort of a neat pet project of scientists?)

    (Also: I enjoyed the header, "Returning to our Roots".)

    • Aliza Stein says:

      Jenn,

      Both these technologies are extremely practical. For example, SolarBotanic trees are definitely an effective way to have alternate energy for your home (they give about 50% more energy than standard solar panels). They also have an AC/DC plug built into them. If you have an electric car, you can charge it by plugging it into your tree!

      The CO2 capturing technology is also affordable and practical. Because of the way the carbon cycle works, even if the CO2 is emitted in Hong Kong, it can be collected anywhere. So one could coat the Sahara desert with these CO2 collectors and help lower CO2 emissions world-wide.

      As for monetary costs in general, being green definitely has an initial cost because you're paying for new technology. However, in the long run you save a lot more money by living sustainably and using solar, thermal, and wind energy. Unfortunately, it's not easy to convince people that the investment is worth it.

      In 2007, the Natural Marketing Institute (http://www.nmisolutions.com/lohasd.html) published the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) Consumer Trends Database. In it they found that almost 60% of people choose what they buy based on price, despite their care for the environment, “and less than one-third of consumers are willing to pay 20 percent more for environmentally-friendly products” (http://www.environmentalleader.com/2008/04/23/price-sensitivity-of-environmentally-friendly-products/?graph=full).

      In other words, consumers too often pay attention to the cost they are paying now, instead of thinking of long-term savings or the long-term effects on the government.

      So in short, these projects are affordable and people are working to make them even more affordable. However, there is still an initial cost. Hopefully by getting the word out about how beneficial these technologies can be people will begin to realize that the investment into living sustainably is worth it!

      Hope that answers your questions!

      Aliza

  4. Michael says:

    Very interesting! And the audio-visuals are great too.
    I'm curious -- what do the economics of these ideas look like today? And if the ideas are not particularly economical today, which are most likely to become economical in the near future? The banker in me wants to know!

  5. Elfie says:

    Wow, thats really interesting! Are the trees available for private use as well, like solar panels?

  6. felice says:

    lots of interesting ideas-- hopefully someone will actually implement them!

  7. Sara says:

    Super interesting! In Westchester we have fake trees, but I think they are just electric poles dressed like trees so make them look nicer. Not so useful.

  8. Dana says:

    This is really fascinating! I think it is a great idea to create resources that remind us how incredibly important trees are to our environment. And I love the name of the article!

  9. Julia says:

    This is incredible! You're right - it's hard to remember what nature is really like when all we can see is pavement. I am glad that someone is really paying attention to all this!

  10. Shayna Flink says:

    Great post, Aliza! I learned about problems with CO2 in the environment in some of my science classes, but we never spoke about these plastic trees! I LOVED the movie! Thanks for teaching me something new!

    • Maya says:

      I agree with Julia and Shayna! Great post Aliza. I like the computerized trees. And, again, the title was so catching! I see puns in your future.