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Science Museum shows potential routes forward in fight against man-made climate change

Joseph Flaig

The Climeworks Direct Air Capture machine at the Science Museum's 'Our Future Planet' exhibition
The Climeworks Direct Air Capture machine at the Science Museum's 'Our Future Planet' exhibition

As you step through the cavernous halls of the Science Museum, you walk through the history of modern engineering.

The Energy Hall and “Making the Modern World” are perhaps the most concise demonstration of how the Industrial Revolution changed life on Earth forever – for better and for worse.

Heading west through the museum from Exhibition Road in South Kensington, each exhibit represents a paradigm shift in humanity’s development. Puffing Billy, the world’s oldest surviving steam locomotive, shows the birth of modern freight and the precursor to mass transit. The giant Burnley Mill Engine reminds us how steam was the dominant source of factory power into the early 20th century.

The machines, and many other exhibits, underpin the advanced technological world we now live in. Almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century, there is great cause for celebration. More people live longer lives than ever before. A growing middle class enjoys luxuries that the previous generation could not have envisioned. We communicate with the other side of the globe in an instant, and can fly there within a matter of hours.

All this comes at a cost, however. The machines that enabled the opportunities we enjoy today depended on – and many continue to depend on – fossil fuels. Reckless and profit-driven unlocking of centuries-buried carbon is changing the climate at an accelerating rate, and driving the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

Now, the Science Museum has a fitting response – and a potential way forward. After leaving “Making the Modern World” and entering the next gallery, you reach “Our Future Planet”. The exhibition, which opens today (19 May), asks ‘Can carbon capture help us fight climate change?’

Real and mechanical trees

The new collection starts – as carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) does – with natural solutions. Carbon sinks such as forests, peat bogs and the ocean absorb about half of humanity’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and care for the environment will play a massive role in reducing atmospheric levels. The displays explore how trapped carbon can be repurposed, such as in a new sustainable timber building at Goldsmiths College, University of London, or used for energy, like at Drax power station in North Yorkshire.

The second half of the exhibition shows some of the most exciting and innovative engineering responses to rising CO2 levels. First is Dr Klaus Lackner’s Mechanical Tree, a towering structure with reams of carbon dioxide-absorbing filters. The early prototype is accompanied by a design sketch for a huge industrially-sized unit, and some notes on its potential deployment: “Collection keeps up with emissions from 15,000 cars,” the note says. “US would require 60,000 units for all emissions. World requirement 250,000 units.”

The prototype of Dr Klaus Lackner's Mechanical Tree

The prototype of Dr Klaus Lackner's Mechanical Tree

Plans are underway at Arizona State University to build a modern prototype of Dr Lackner’s technology. ‘Farms’ of the structures, with a few dozen trees, could capture about one tonne of CO2 per day.

Sitting opposite the passive Mechanical Tree is the more active Climeworks Direct Air Capture machine from Switzerland. The only direct air capture technology operating in Europe, the machine is powered with renewable energy and can be stacked into farms. It sucks in air at one end and captures CO2 with a ‘highly selective filter material’. Once the collector is closed, the filter is heated to release the CO2, which is collected and stored.

Despite the altruistic aims, little detail is available about the proprietary Climeworks filter – even for Science Museum staff. One thing that is known, however, is the company’s collaboration with Icelandic firm Carbfix. The company mixes the captured CO2 with water and pumps it deep underground beneath a geothermal power plant. Through the process of natural mineralisation, the gas reacts with basalt rock and turns to stone within a few years.

Despite its diminutive appearance, a basalt rock core from Iceland is one of the collection’s most compelling exhibits – white streaks in the rock are actually captured carbon, showing how it is once again locked into the ground.

A vodka martini with extra CO2

Addressing the ‘U’ part of the CCUS equation are a number of commercial products incorporating captured CO2, including yoga mats, sunglasses and toothpaste. There is even a bottle of vodka, made by breaking apart the gas alongside water to produce a basic alcohol. Heat is provided by solar energy and the process has net negative carbon emissions, removing 1.5kg of CO2 for every kilogram of alcohol produced.

“I don’t think we’re going to drink enough vodka martinis to get out of this mess,” says Dr Sophie Waring, curator of contemporary science at the museum, to Professional Engineering. “But it’s exciting to think there will be a commercial market.”

The vodka made with captured carbon dioxide

The vodka made with captured carbon dioxide

Other exhibits include carbon capture technology from the University of Aberdeen, where they are trialling a technique to directly capture CO2 from power stations, and information on large-scale projects like the Northern Endurance Partnership, which aims to reuse North Sea oil and gas platforms to pump captured CO2 beneath the sea floor.

The UK’s oil and gas specialism could underpin the success of widespread trials and deployment of CCUS technology. With COP26 coming up, and the UK’s key role in the world’s industrial transformation, there is a responsibility to act.

“We really think Britain should be a pioneering leader in this,” says Dr Waring.

She adds: “The aim of this exhibition is not to promote carbon capture as a miracle… This small space is where people can encounter carbon capture technology. Our research told us most people haven’t heard of it. We wanted to promote the idea that emissions reduction has to happen at a rate of knots.”

There is not one single magic solution to rising CO2 levels, but every option must be explored. As Dr Waring says: “CCUS might not solve climate change, but it can help.”

The exhibition is a rare opportunity to see the innovative technology behind CCUS, alongside its tangible results. Perhaps one day in the distant future another Science Museum display will collect the same pieces together to demonstrate how engineering – yet again – changed life on Earth.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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