Photo: Jon Snyder

The tree that could save the world’s climate looks like a gigantic tennis racket. It doesn’t grow up out of the ground, but is instead pushed down into it. It is found primarily in areas where no trees could grow naturally. And it is said that it’s a thousand times more efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide than its natural compatriots.

The inventor of this miracle tree is the German physicist Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University. Lackner and his team have developed a membrane made of an ion-exchange resin that is impregnated with sodium carbonate. When dry, it can absorb extremely high amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and store it.

Lackner’s idea: the carbon-dioxide catchers could be placed along well-traveled roads to collect car exhaust in the dry Midwest or desert regions in the United States, for example. Robots would regularly take the filters out of their brackets and place them into a special container in the trunk of the tree. This is when the second property of the high-tech membrane comes into action: when wet, it emits the stored carbon dioxide. To achieve this, an automated system would place the filter into a vacuum chamber, pour water over it, and feed the released gas through hoses into tanks.

How the carbon dioxide would subsequently be processed remains an open question. It could be used in industrial processes, for example for the manufacturing of fire extinguishers, in cooling systems or in greenhouses. Or it could be stored—deep underground. That would only be an interim solution, but it would give humans more time in the fight against climate change.

Funding for the project remains up in the air: it’s reported that one tree will cost around 20,000 euros. All the same, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is involved with this innovation through his foundation. Klaus Lackner certainly has big plans: According to his calculations, 100 million of his miracle trees could absorb 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually—as much as humanity is currently producing.