A chance discovery by chemical engineers at Newcastle University, UK, has revealed that the humble sea urchin may hold the key to cost effective carbon capture and storage in the future.
The discovery was made during research looking at how organisms absorb carbon dioxide (CO2).
Sea urchins are known for their ability to convert CO2 to calcium carbonate, which is the main component found in the shells of animals like snails and marine animals such as sea urchins.
During their experiments, the team at Newcastle found high concentrations of tiny nickel particles on the exoskeletons of sea urchin larvae.
During testing it was found that the nickel nanoparticles, which have a large surface area, resulted in the complete and rapid removal of CO2.
The process, which leaves calcium carbonate - a harmless, solid mineral - could be the key to capturing tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere and its potential was flagged by Lord Ron Oxburgh during a presentation to the UK Science Council in London on 18 June 2013.
Current studies for carbon capture and storage systems propose the removal of CO2 by pumping it into holes deep underground. This process is known to be costly, difficult and risky.
Andy Furlong, director of policy and communication, at the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) was in the audience and he said: “This discovery is of huge potential and much credit needs to go to the research team at Newcastle University.
“They have identified that by using a nickel catalyst waste carbon dioxide can be captured before it ever reaches the atmosphere and store it as a safe and stable product which has a wide range of uses including plaster casts and cement.
“There are also real opportunities for industries such as power stations and chemical processing plants to capture all their waste CO2 before it ever reaches the atmosphere.
Furlong continued, “Chemical engineers have an increasingly important role to play on issues like climate change. Research is fundamental to this and we are working with governments around the world to secure appropriate support for academic research and technological innovation that can tackle some of the big challenges facing humanity”.
IChemE’s technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters, outlines the importance of research to issues like climate change and the contribution chemical engineers are making to global challenges such as food, water, energy and health.