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Capturing carbon and the cold from outer space: TED speakers explore how to save the planet

Capturing CO2 emissions to combat climate change and using the cold from outer space to cool the Earth are some of the ideas at this year's TED conference.

Researchers Aaswath Raman and Jennifer Wilcox propose bold new ideas at Vancouver conference

The 2018 TED conference in Vancouver runs April 10 - 14. (Jason Redmond/TED)

Capturing excess CO2 to combat climate change and using the cold from outer space to cool the Earth are just two of the ideas to save the planet at this year's TED conference in Vancouver.

The conference, home of the popular online TED Talks, has long hosted researchers and policymakers who explore solutions to some of the world's pressing environmental problems. 

"There are still surprises out there in how we can think about the basic problem of energy," said TED speaker Aaswath Raman, whose research focuses on harvesting the cold from space.

"That's something that's very encouraging. There's a lot of opportunity for human creativity and ingenuity that can, at first glance, seem really intractable and difficult."

Aaswath Raman gives a talk on making cooling systems more efficient at the 2018 TED conference in Vancouver. (Ryan Lash/TED)

Raman, who originally hails from Calgary and now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, presented his work on making cooling systems like air conditioners and refrigerators more efficient. His research could lead not only to saving energy, but also to creating more of it. 

He said he chose to target cooling systems because they produce eight per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and use up to 17 per cent of its electricity. That number is expected to grow sixfold by 2050, driven mainly by increasing use in developing countries.

Harvesting 'the cold darkness of space'

In his talk, Raman explained the technology he has developed, which mimics how the planet loses some of its heat into space as part of a process known as night sky cooling. 

"We've harnessed something people don't normally think of as a resource, and that's the fact that outer space is actually cold," he told CBC News.

"As crazy as it sounds at first, there's actually a way to take advantage of this fact to ... keep things cold here on Earth."

His technology is used to make cooling systems more efficient, reducing the amount of energy they use and the greenhouse gases they produce. The company he co-founded, SkyCool systems, has already started to manufacture it for commercial use.

Long-term, Raman said he's also researching the possibility of harvesting "the cold darkness of space" for energy, in the same way that solar panels gather energy from light. 

'Absolutely this is doable'

Projects like Raman's that keep excess greenhouse gas emissions out of the air is what chemical engineer Jennifer Wilcox would like to see more of. 

But Wilcox said she realized that there are still too many greenhouse gases spewing into the air. So she's been researching how to suck them out.

"Is this doable? Absolutely this is doable," she told CBC News. "It's just very difficult. And it's much more difficult than if we could just avoid CO2 emissions in the first place."

TED speaker and chemical engineer Jennifer Wilcox wants more investment into carbon capture technology. (Ryan Lash/TED)

Wilcox said there are about eight companies around the world that are beginning to capture carbon and harvest it for energy — including Calgary-based Carbon Engineering, which has a plant in Squamish, B.C.

The costs to capture carbon are still too high to make the technology ubiquitous enough to have a meaningful impact, however.

Wilcox said it currently costs about $600 per ton of carbon. She'd like to see those costs drop to about $100, and she wants more investment in carbon capture plants to make that happen.

'It's frustrating that it's come to this'

Her goal is not without its challenges.

For one, she said it would require an investment of $20 billion US to build enough plants to capture just five per cent of that country's greenhouse gas emissions. 

Also, Wilcox admits that companies currently investing in this technology are using it to manufacture more energy, making it carbon neutral at best. 

Wilcox would rather see excess carbon being captured and buried back into the ground where it came from. But she said no companies are currently doing this. 

That's part of the reason why she emphasized that carbon capture is no silver bullet in the fight against climate change. 

"This should not be considered a replacement for preventing pollution, but it's going to have to be some part of the portfolio for meeting our climate goals," she said.

"It's frustrating that it's come to this, because there are such easier paths."

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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