|Fields||Theoretical Physics, Environmental Engineering|
|Institutions||Los Alamos National Laboratory, Columbia University|
|Alma mater||Heidelberg University|
|Known for||Carbon Sequestration|
Klaus Lackner is a professor in and department chair of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University, the director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, and the co-founder of Global Research Technologies in Tucson, AZ. Lackner pioneered the concept of carbon dioxide air capture as a means for climate change mitigation, i.e. abating emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Trained as a theoretical physicist, he has made a number of contributions to the field of Carbon Capture and Storage since 1995, including early work on the sequestration of carbon dioxide in silicate minerals and zero emission power plant design. His current work includes the use of tracers in geological carbon storage, power plant modeling, carbon capture membranes for use at high temperatures, gravitational carbon storage, advanced fossil fuel technologies, scaling and automation, among others. Lackner is currently the director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute.
Early Academic Career
Lackner received his Vordiplom in Physics from Heidelberg University, Germany in 1975. He then received his Diplom in physics in 1976. Following, he obtained his Ph.D. in Theoretical Particle Physics from Heidelberg, graduating summa cum laude and receiving the Clemm-Haas Price for outstanding Ph. D. thesis.
After his initial education, he was a post-doctoral researcher at University of Freiburg, Germany from 1978-1979, California Institute of Technology from 1979 to 1982, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center from 1982 to 1983.
Klaus Lackner’s scientific career started in the phenomenology of weakly interacting particles. Later searching for quarks, he and George Zweig developed the chemistry of atoms with fractional nuclear charge. He is still participating in matter searches for particles with a non-integer charge in an experiment conducted at Stanford by Martin Perl and his group. After joining Los Alamos National Laboratory, Klaus Lackner became involved in hydrodynamic work and fusion related research. In recent years, he has published on the behavior of high explosives, novel approaches to inertial confinement fusion, and numerical algorithms. His interest in self-replicating machine systems has been recognized by Discover Magazine as one of seven ideas that could change the world. Presently he is developing innovative approaches to energy issues of the future at Columbia University. He has been instrumental in forming ZECA, the Zero Emission Coal Alliance, which is an industry-led effort to develop coal power with zero emissions to the atmosphere. His recent work is on environmentally acceptable technologies for the use of fossil fuels. 
He is also known for a self-replicating machine scheme, joint work with Christopher Wendt .
Professor Lackner is also teaching Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CCS) Technologies at RES - The School for Renewable Energy Science in Iceland.
Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy
To address the exponential rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations since the Industrial Revolution, Professor Klaus S. Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute, is working on ambitious carbon capture and sequestration strategies. “Our goal is to take a process that takes 100,000 years and compress it into 30 minutes,” says Lackner.
Lackner and his team are developing a device they have dubbed an air extractor, modeled after one of the most abundant but most complicated devices in nature: the leaf of a tree. Leaves are significant absorbers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but planting enough of trees to absorb the current overabundance of carbon dioxide in the world would leave no fertile land left for other uses.
Surprisingly, the basic idea for Lackner’s carbon dioxide air extraction device was the consequence of an eighth grade science fair project. His daughter, Claire, was able to successfully demonstrate that carbon dioxide (an acid) can be captured from the air in an acid/base reaction using a fish pump and sodium hydroxide (a very strong base). The father-daughter pair discovered that the rudimentary device captured half of the carbon dioxide that ran through the test tube. This simple demonstration won Claire first prize in the science fair and pushed her father onto a research path that could revolutionize the way we approach combating climate change and global warming.
“I was surprised that [Claire] pulled this off as well as she did, which made me feel that it could be easier than I thought,” said Lackner during a PBS NOVA ScienceNow interview in 2007. Though Claire had demonstrated that carbon dioxide capture was possible, there were energy balance issues that needed to be considered. Since the system consumes electricity, the issue of net carbon emissions must, of course, be addressed. “We needed to come up with a shape where you don't have to have an aquarium fish pump driving all the air through the system,” said Lackner, “but to have the wind just deliver the air and pass it through the collector.”
“The first sketch I made ended up looking like a tuning fork, or a goal post, with Venetian blinds,” Lackner recalled. He later began testing different materials in order to replicate the function of a leaf on a tree. He enlisted two engineers to collaborate with him and formed Global Research Technologies (GRT). After a year of testing, GRT was able to design a new material, flat and smooth, that would pull CO2 out of the air in a process called engineered chemical sinkage.
As an engineer and the director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute, Lackner has pioneered approaches for dealing with energy issues of the future. In addition to figuring out what to do with the byproducts of energy use, he works on environmentally acceptable technologies for the use of fossil fuels, and he has published numerous papers and articles on clean fossil fuel technology.
In addition to developing the air extraction device in cooperation with GRT, Lackner also played a pivotal role in forming the Zero Emission Coal Alliance, an industry-led effort to develop coal power with zero emissions to the atmosphere.
Relating the basics of carbon sequestration to the familiar territory of Columbia University, Lackner uses the “Alma Mater” statue in the center of the New York City campus as a prime example of nature’s solution to global warming. “She is sitting on a pedestal of serpentine rock…. This serpentine has absorbed CO2, probably out of rain water. If you wait long enough, that’s what will happen to all the CO2 we make.” This carbon capture process normally takes 100,000 years. To make it a more useful strategy in reducing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, we need to find ways to accelerate this process.
“I believe that it is impossible to stop people from using fossil fuels, so we have to develop technologies which allow us to use them without creating environmental havoc to the planet,” Lackner says. 
Topping the list of solutions to capture CO2 and reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases are synthetic trees, invented by geophysicist, Klaus Lackner, of Columbia University (USA). Although still at the testing stage, this ‘CO2 scrubber’ should filter air rather like a natural tree does, but with a much higher capacity. “A CO2 scrubber of the same size as a windmill can remove far more CO2 than the windmill can avoid,” explains Lackner. He got the idea in 1998, “having realised how much CO2 is in the air. My daughter, Clare, did a science project and demonstrated that she can take CO2 out of the air.” In one night, he says, she was able to capture half of the CO2 in the air. Extending this experiment, Klaus Lackner built a “vacuum cleaner” which, when placed in a windy area, absorbs air carrying CO2 and filters it, before releasing the purified air again. Caustic soda is the key to the method’s success. When it is in contact with carbon dioxide it makes a sodium bicarbonate solution. This liquid is then compressed until it forms a highly concentrated gas that can be stored in porous rocks on the sea floor. Because it is denser than seawater, it cannot escape and can be sequestered for millions of years. For Professor Lackner, “the first step is to remove some CO2 from the air. If it proves cost-effective, it could balance out emissions from cars and aeroplanes. If air capture, together with other CO2 reduction technologies, manages to stop the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere, we could then start to use additional air capture.” Synthetic trees provide another piece of the jigsaw for international negotiations on carbon dioxide emissions, because the technology makes it possible to collect CO2 on behalf of another country. “Air capture can separate the [CO2] sources from the sinks” says Klaus Lackner. “This makes it possible to import and export carbon reductions. It also makes it possible to strive for a world in which all CO2 emissions can be addressed. Automobiles and airplanes need not be off-limits in this discussion.” At present, this process is still expensive, “just like a hand-made car”, says Lackner, who is nevertheless optimistic that costs will come down. But artificial trees are not a miracle cure. As he explains, “the major energy cost is in the compression, which, if it uses electricity, would result in the release of an equivalent of some 20% of the captured CO2 at the site of a distant power plant.” It is, though, a long and involved process. “It needs time and commitment,” says Lackner, anticipating the increased use of renewable energy. “We may be able to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, but this does not give us an excuse to continue to emit.”