Sea urchins could save the world

Sea urchin (Gallo)

Sea urchin (Gallo)

Scientists at Newcastle University, in the United Kingdom, found that a natural process the sea animals have could be the key to the cheap storage of carbon dioxide emissions.

They naturally react nickel particles with carbon dioxide in water to create calcium carbonate (chalk). This solid mineral is harmless and acts as a reservoir for carbon dioxide in huge quantities. By applying it on an industrial scale the team could have found a solution for factory-scale emissions.

At present the sought-after solution for these emissions is carbon capture and storage, where emissions are trapped underground. But this uses huge amounts of energy, is expensive and has the danger of possible leakages. It is also still in the development phase.

The findings were published in the Catalysis Science & Technology journal.

Dr Lidija Šiller, a physicist on the project, said, "The capture and removal of CO2 from our atmosphere is one of the most pressing dilemmas of our time."

Accidental discovery
The discovery came about by accident after the team had been working on reacting carbon dioxide with water, as well as seeing what effect it had on sea animals, like the sea urchin.

They first observed that the urchins had excessive concentrations of nickel on their skin, and were creating chalk. When this experiment was combined with the primary one they found that the nickel got rid of all the carbon dioxide.

In commercial application the process will take gas directly from a factory's chimney and pass it through water that is rich in nickel. The solid chalk that is created will then be removed from the bottom. This inert substance can then be sold and is used to make products as diverse as cement and plaster casts for broken limbs.

With the process patented, the team said it was waiting for an investor to take it to commercial scale.

"What our discovery offers is a real opportunity for industries to capture all their waste CO2 before it ever reaches the atmosphere and store it as a safe, stable and useful product," said Dr Šiller.

Sipho Kings

Sipho Kings

Sipho Kings is the person the Mail & Guardian sends to places when people’s environment is collapsing. This leads him from mine dumps to sewage flowing down streets – a hazardous task for his trusty pair of work shoes. Having followed his development-minded parents around Southern Africa his first port of call for reporting on the environment is people on the ground. When things go wrong – when harvests collapse and water dries up – they have limited resources to adapt, which people can never let politicians forget. For the rest of the time he tries to avoid the boggling extremes of corporations and environmental organisations, and rather looks for that fabled 'truth' thing. For Christmas he wants a global agreement where humanity accepts that sustainable development is the way forward. And maybe for all the vested interest to stop being so extreme. And world peace. And a sturdier pair of shoes. Read more from Sipho Kings


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