Researchers may have found a form of climate action even those most apathetic about the planet's future can get behind. Airthena is a demonstration unit that sucks carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Among its likely applications is making beer, and it could be the entry-point the technology needs to go on to much bigger things.
Airthena harnesses the power of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), lattices whose holes can be tuned to capture a specific gas even at low concentrations. A decade ago, scientists were excited about the potential to collect carbon dioxide released in electricity production so that it could be stored underground rather than adding to global warming. Today, with fossil fuels struggling to compete on price with the plunging costs of wind and solar, this is looking less economic, but Dr Aaron Thornton of Australia's CSIRO thinks the same technology could cool the world in other ways.
Besides making drinks fizz, carbon dioxide is used for industrial cleaning, and the first Airthena will keep hydroponic tomatoes fed. Some of this CO2 is produced by yeast in the process of beer production, while some is currently collected from power plant or ammonia factory waste streams. However, in Australia some is deliberately mined or from on-site methane burning, making its release into the atmosphere after the drinks' consumption bad for the planet.
Moreover, Thornton told IFLScience, even when carbon that would have been released anyway is captured, “there's a lot of energy used in transportation”, a particularly big problem in spread-out countries like Australia where large-scale capture only occurs at a few sites. These issues hit small CO2 users like microbreweries much more than big ones. Capturing two tonnes a year without needing a lot of space, Airthena could fit this market well.
"As it requires just air and electricity to work, Airthena offers a cost-effective, efficient, and environmentally-friendly option to recycle CO2 for use on-site, on-demand," Thornton said in a statement.
Although this is better for the environment than consuming drinks made with carbon dioxide from other sources, Thornton readily acknowledges that customers breathe the gas out, rather than sequestering it. Beer made this way doesn't directly help the environment compared to drinking tap water.
The indirect effects are something else, however. Initially, expensive new technologies need a niche to get started. Once they find one – like solar panels on satellites or mobile phones for early 90s stockbrokers – better production and economies of scale bring costs down until wider uses become viable.
If transport savings and marketing gold convince some brewers to install an Airthena, it could be the entry point the technology needs. Other CO2 users, such as pubs that use the gas to force beer from keg to tap, are often even more remote. One day, a more advanced Airthena could make large-scale removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide for underground storage viable.
Soon you'll be able to make it happen by buying the right brand of tomatoes, but beer will probably generate more enthusiasm.