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GE has a wild plan to 'vacuum' air pollution right out of our skies — here's how the mind-blowing idea would work

GE announced the successful test of its direct air capture prototype.

GE announced the successful test of its direct air capture prototype.

Photo Credit: iStock

It's been decades since General Electric made vacuums, but now, it's getting back in the game — only this time, the company will be vacuuming carbon pollution out of the air. 

GE announced the successful test of its direct air capture (DAC) prototype and is planning larger-scale demonstrations in 2024. If the company can successfully scale its DAC system, it could be a massive weapon in the fight against our overheating planet. 

What is direct air capture? 

Direct air capture uses chemical reactions to remove carbon dioxide from the air. When air moves over the chemicals, it selectively traps the carbon, leaving the other parts of the air to pass through. 

Once the carbon is successfully sucked out of the air and removed from the chemicals — typically by applying heat — it can be injected deep into the ground in geologic formations, never to be seen again, or used in products like concrete or plastic that will hold on tight to that carbon for a very long time.

How can direct air capture help? 

There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than we need.

The concentration of atmospheric carbon pollution has increased by 47% since the beginning of the Industrial Age. And if that stat isn't crazy enough, half of the increase in the last 300 years has happened since 1980. 

Transitioning to clean energy like solar, wind, and electric vehicles is vital to reducing air-polluting gases, but just slowing down how much carbon we pump into the air isn't enough — and that's where DAC comes in. 

Nature's way of pulling carbon from the air is filtering it through plants and trees, so cutting back on cutting down trees is important — but again, it's not enough. That's why companies and scientists have been focused on carbon removal

DAC is one of many solutions needed to pull enough carbon out of the atmosphere to slow the devastating impacts of planet-warming gases. Unlike other forms of carbon removal — like reforestation — DAC uses relatively little space and has few restrictions on where it can be located. 

The DAC space is mostly full of startups and incumbent energy companies. But a behemoth like GE has the ability to produce DAC systems on a large enough scale to make a real difference. 

"One thing … that we bring to bear is this ability to scale and scale rapidly," David Moore, a top GE carbon management official, told Axios. "GE is arguably the best company in the world, at least one of the best companies in the world when it comes to moving large quantities of air." 

It's too early to tell if DAC will grow to the size of the vacuum in "Spaceballs," but getting GE into the mix will give it a much better chance. 

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