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Sea urchins reveal promising carbon capture alternative

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February 4, 2013

The sea urchin has revealed a way to ceaply and quickly convert CO2 into calcium carbonate...

The sea urchin has revealed a way to ceaply and quickly convert CO2 into calcium carbonate (Photo: Shutterstock)

Carbon capture and sequestration in underground reservoirs isn’t the most practical or cost effective way to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels. It would be much simpler if CO2 could be quickly and cheaply converted into a harmless, solid mineral before it is released into the atmosphere. A team from the U.K.’s Newcastle University may have stumbled across a way to achieve this thanks to the humble sea urchin.

As part of their research into what happens when CO2 reacts with water – known as the carbonic acid reaction – the researchers were looking for a catalyst to speed up the process. By chance, Dr Lidija Šiller, a physicist and Reader in Nanoscale Technology at Newcastle University, was looking at the way in which organisms absorb CO2 into their skeletons at the same time.

Dr Šiller was looking specifically at the sea urchin, which converts CO2 into calcium carbonate to form its endoskeleton. “When we analyzed the surface of the urchin larvae we found a high concentration of nickel on their exoskeleton,” says Dr Šiller. “Taking nickel nanoparticles which have a large surface area, we added them to our carbonic acid test and the result was the complete removal of CO2.”

Gaurav Bhaduri, lead author on the paper and a PhD student in Newcastle University’s School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials points out the nickel catalyst offers advantages over other catalysts used to convert CO2 into calcium carbonate or magnesium carbonate, such as the enzyme carbonic anhydrase.

“The enzyme is inactive in acid conditions and since one of the products of the reaction is carbonic acid, this means the enzyme is only effective for a very short time and also makes the process very expensive,” he said. “The beauty of a Nickel catalyst is that it carries on working regardless of the pH and because of its magnetic properties it can be re-captured and re-used time and time again. It’s also very cheap – 1,000 times cheaper than the enzyme. And the by-product – the carbonate – is useful and not damaging to the environment.”

The research team developed a process to capture CO2 from waste gas by passing it directly from a chimney top through a water column rich in nickel nanoparticles. The solid calcium carbonate can then be recovered at the bottom of the column.

The researchers say their discovery could provide big CO2 emitters, such as power stations and chemical processing plants, with a cheap way to capture and store their waste CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere. Since calcium carbonate is already used to make cement and other building materials, the material can also be put to good use.

“Our process would not work in every situation – it couldn’t be fitted to the back of a car, for example – but it is an effective, cheap solution that could be available world-wide to some of our most polluting industries and have a significant impact on the reduction of atmospheric CO2,” said Dr Šiller.

The Newcastle University team has patented the process and is looking for investors to develop it further. Their work appears in the journal Catalysis Science & Technology.

Source: Newcastle University

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
5 Comments

Using the calcium carbonate to make cement would totally negate the benefits of the process because when calcium carbonate is made into cement, all of its CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

felix
5th February, 2013 @ 12:20 am PST

Now if it could be incorporated into a matrix like that of snail shells it could become a tremendously strong building material and the carbon would be sequestered.

Max Kennedy
5th February, 2013 @ 06:50 am PST

Calcium carbonate is also used as a filler to reinforce plastics like polypropylene. In this case the CO2 would remain captured.

Roy Griffith
5th February, 2013 @ 08:27 am PST

CaCO3 IS a building material all by itself. All you need to add is a wire mesh form in water containing the mineral and a small voltage. The result is at least as strong as a sea-shell.

Larry Hooten
5th February, 2013 @ 09:19 am PST

I wonder which calcium compound they use to bind the CO2. If they need CaO or Ca(OH)2, they have to produce that by splitting CaCO3 in CaO and CO2.

What's the gain?

Rik Delaet
5th February, 2013 @ 12:00 pm PST
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