World’s first ‘mechanical tree’ stands at Arizona State University

The east side of Arizona State University’s main campus in Tempe is dotted with tall date palms. Nestled in this iconic desert canopy is a new kind of tree that could be the first step in solving the climate crisis.

Click to enlarge

The MechanicalTree in Tempe is 33 feet tall.

Elias Weiss

The MechanicalTree near Tyler Street and McAllister Avenue in Tempe will not help lay out your lawn or grow in a forest.

The 33-foot-tall tree has a stainless steel drum instead of a trunk, and its leaves are 5-foot metal discs.

Like planted trees, the MechanicalTree consumes carbon dioxide, the colorless, nonflammable gas that is one of the main causes of climate change. This tree, however, consumes 1,000 times more carbon dioxide than its organic counterparts, say the inventors.

Scientists unveiled the tree on Monday afternoon. It is the first of its kind in the world, they claim.

“Artificial trees are pretty wild,” said Gary Dirks, senior director of the ASU Global Futures Laboratory. “But they could be our only hope to combat the danger we face as a species in the climate crisis from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

The goal is no longer to reduce carbon emissions. It’s cleaning up the mess the human race has already made.

“Carbon removal is now inevitable,” said Klaus Lackner, an engineering professor at Arizona State and director of the ASU Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. “We can no longer stop the problem by withdrawing. We have to clean up after ourselves.

Click to enlarge German environmental scientist and inventor Klaus Lackner, who has been developing the MechanicalTree for more than two decades, speaks at Arizona State University on Monday afternoon.  - ELIAS WEISS

German environmental scientist and inventor Klaus Lackner, who has been developing the MechanicalTree for more than two decades, speaks at Arizona State University on Monday afternoon.

Elias Weiss

In early 2019, the university announced it would erect the first commercial-scale MechanicalTree which is about to begin sucking carbon dioxide from the air.

Lackner has been developing this technology since the 1990s. The German researcher felt that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations agency based in Switzerland, was “strongly suggesting” that the need for carbon capture technology was imminent, he said.

He took matters into his own hands.

“There was a desperate need for innovation and I had to figure out how to make it work,” Lackner said.

Dublin-based Carbon Collect Inc. has partnered with Lackner on the $2.5 million project in Tempe, funded by a $12 million U.S. Department of Energy program that targets capture technologies and carbon sequestration.

A light breeze rustling the tree’s leaden leaves is all it takes to generate 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tree per day – far more than the original prognosis of just 200 pounds, according to project scientists.

Click to enlarge The world's first MechanicalTree on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe can suck up 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide every day.  - ELIAS WEISS

The world’s first MechanicalTree on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe can suck up 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide every day.

Elias Weiss

It’s a passive process that doesn’t rely on blowers or fans like its predecessors, meaning it requires almost no energy to be effective.

“Our goal is to accelerate the global climate effort, as outlined in the United Nations climate change conferences, to help reverse global carbon emissions,” Carbon CEO Pól Ó Móráin said last week. Collect. “Our passive process is the evolution of carbon capture technology, which has the ability to be both economically and technologically viable at scale in a reasonably short time.”

The trees, each with a lifespan of at least 15 years, are expected to generate enough carbon dioxide to sell for less than $100 a ton. This compares to the current market price of $1,000 per ton.

Lackner said the sheer volume of carbon dioxide harvested by the nascent technology could drive the price down to as low as $30 a ton.

Carbon dioxide is a necessary resource for agricultural workers, the food industry, car manufacturers and suppliers of synthetic fuels from renewable energies that close the carbon cycle.

“This is the organization that will commercialize this technology,” said Reyad Fezzani, Vice President and Executive Director of Carbon Collect. “It’s frankly a tall order. It’s still a new concept and we’re trying to figure out how to make it work.

Click to enlarge Reyad Fezzani, vice president of Carbon Collect Inc. in Dublin, speaks at Arizona State University on Monday afternoon.  - ELIAS WEISS

Reyad Fezzani, vice president of Carbon Collect Inc. in Dublin, speaks at Arizona State University on Monday afternoon.

Elias Weiss

Fezzani was born in Libya and earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Imperial College London before his career as energy director included a long stint at BP. He said Carbon Collect eventually plans to build a farm of more than 100,000 trees that would collectively harvest 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every day.

Such a farm would represent “a trillion-dollar opportunity,” Lackner said.

Humans expel more than 36 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, a noticeable distortion of the Earth’s natural carbon cycle.

Click to enlarge Artistic representation of the MechanicalTree farm, developed by ASU Professor Klaus Lackner and Silicon Kingdom Holdings, a Dublin company.  The farm will act as a passive carbon capture device and is expected to harvest 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every day.  - SILICON KINGDOM HOLDINGS

Artistic representation of the MechanicalTree farm, developed by ASU Professor Klaus Lackner and Silicon Kingdom Holdings, a Dublin company. The farm will act as a passive carbon capture device and is expected to harvest 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every day.

Silicon Kingdom Holdings

The steel sapling has reached its maximum size since its launch in October 2020. It is on display at Arizona State’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, which opened in December.

The MechanicalTree could be the first step in the excruciatingly long process of not just curbing, but outright reversing nearly a century of global warming.

“It’s a daunting, daunting task,” Lackner said. “Somebody has to do it.”