Can The Sea Urchin Help Scientists Curb Global Warming?
February 5, 2013

Can The Sea Urchin Help Scientists Curb Global Warming?

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A discovery that was stumbled upon by happenstance could help solve the problem of global warming.

According to a new report in the academic journal Catalysis Science & Technology, two researchers at Newcastle University in the U.K. found a nickel catalyst can be used to rapidly and cheaply capture carbon emissions.

"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," co-author of the report Lidija Å iller, a physicist at Newcastle, said in a statement.

"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,” she said. "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 chance and potentially game-changing discovery by two scientists working in the north of England is somewhat ironic given that carbon capture research industry is a worldwide, billion dollar effort. One carbon capture method that was developed as a result of that effort is the water-based sequestration of carbon by using calcium or magnesium.

"One way to do this is to use an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase," said co-author Gaurav Bhaduri, 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.”

One of the biggest benefits of using a nickel catalyst is it works despite pH conditions. Also, because of nickel´s magnetic properties–it can be re-captured and used again.

A nickel catalyst would also be a more viable catalyst financially because it is 1,000 times cheaper than the anhydrase and the calcium carbonate by-product (chalk) and is not harmful to the environment–being the main component of shells of marine organisms, snails, and pearls. Calcium carbonate is also used by the construction industry to make cement and in hospitals for use in plaster casts.

"What our discovery offers is a real opportunity for industries such as power stations and chemical processing plants to capture all their waste CO2 before it ever reaches the atmosphere and store it as a safe, stable and useful product,” Bhaduri said.

The team´s patented process involves passing the carbon emissions through a water column rich in tiny nickel particles and recovering the solid calcium carbonate that forms from the bottom of the column.

"Our process would not work in every situation,” noted Å iller. “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."