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To me, carbon sequestration has been one of those "10 years off" technologies. Like fuel cells or hydrogen power, scientists and engineers just had to work out some kinks to make the technology cost effective, safe, easy to use, or some other reason for the delay.

Current problems with carbon sequestration are cost and where to put the carbon. Scrubbing CO2 out of the air is hard, and relies on exotic enzymes and chemicals. The recovered carbon then has to be placed somewhere instead of the atmosphere. Usually, carbon sequestration involves putting it underground where it will hopefully stay for millions of years. Even with some form of cap-n-trade or green buybacks, putting CO2 underground and maintaining it would be an expensive endeavor.

An accidental discovery in sea urchins though may have solved a lot of the problems carbon sequestration:

“We had set out to understand in detail the carbonic acid reaction, which is what happens when CO2 reacts with water, and needed a catalyst to speed up the process,” said Šiller of Newcastle University in a press release. “At the same time, I was looking at how organisms absorb CO2 into their skeletons and in particular the sea urchin which converts the CO2 to calcium carbonate.

“When we analyzed the surface of the urchin larvae we found a high concentration of nickel on their exoskeleton. 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.

The resulting product is calcium carbonate, aka chalk. Calcium carbonate makes up around 4% of Earth's crust and acts as a carbon reservoir, estimated to be equivalent to 1.5 million billion metric tons of CO2. Calcium carbonate is the main component of shells of marine organisms, snails, pearls, and eggshells and is a completely stable mineral, widely used in the building industry to make cement and other materials and also in hospitals to make plaster casts.

Scientists also noted the process used by the sea urchin was easier and cheaper than current methods:

An alternative solution is to convert the CO2 into calcium or magnesium carbonate.

"One way to do this is to use an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase," explains Gaurav Bhaduri, lead author on the paper and a PhD student in the University's School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials.

"However, 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.

"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.

While the discovery probably can't be adapted to work on cars, the scientists can easily adapt the discovery to large sources of CO2 pollution:
Gases from the chimneys could be diverted into water tanks saturated with nickel nanoparticles. The carbon dioxide in the smoke would react with the nickel and form chalk. The solid chalk would then settle to the base of the tank where it could be collected and used in industrial processes such as cement manufacture.
While this could lead to the extended use of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels, humanity has to find a way to remove the excess CO2 that has been emitted into the air. Earth is at 394.39ppm as of this moment, and needs to be below 350 ppm to mitigate the worst of climate change. And the lowly sea urchin may have shown us how.

Originally posted to Aximill on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 01:44 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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