Nickel Nanoparticle Carbon Capture Inspired by Sea Urchins Could Tackle Climate Change

In the climate change documentary Before the Flood, one of the opening scenes shows the Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael Brune, conceding that “if we’re going to fight climate change effectively, we’re going to have to start by acknowledging that most of our economy is based on fossil fuels.”

Although it may be an inconvenient truth, the above fact (and the whole documentary) shows viewers that there is an availability for technological solutions to work with our status quo of fossil fuel consumption. The assumption that it is helpful and practical to assume we will be able to turn off all engines in the near future is a false premise. Limiting our consumption and fundamentally changing our behaviour is a realistic approach to prevent the planet from reaching its tipping point.

Carbon capture and storage could be a key stepping stone towards a fossil fuel free economy. Image credit: Shutterstock / J.M. Image Factory

Carbon capture and storage is seen as a potential solution. The process involves pumping CO2 into underground storage, which prevents greenhouse gases from escaping and leaching into the atmosphere. There already some high-profile projects removing CO2 from waste streams in many countries, including Algeria, Canada, Norway and the United States. Unfortunately, the cost of CCS can be high if there is no government or market-pull backing, which only occurs when there are incentives to do so.

CCS projects become an economically viable endeavour when the sequestered carbon markets are developed and utilised. Some CCS projects in Canada utilise their waste streams for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). During this process, carbon dioxide in injected into depleted oil fields to extract the minute traces of oil left in the ground, thus, maximising the output.

An alternative carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) technology is carbon mineralisation. This is when gaseous CO2 becomes converted into mineral carbonates. Mineral carbonates are a valuable by-product that have plenty of uses. This method does have several drawbacks, expensive enzyme catalysts and a high sensitivity to the experimental conditions.

Recently, researchers from a Russell Group university in the UK have found an unlikely source of inspiration- sea urchins. Sea urchins are dependent on nickel nanoparticles (NiNPs) to catalyse the hydration reaction of CO2 during their bone growth mineralisation process. NiNPs have been found produce a threefold increase in the mineralisation of CO2 to calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is useful molecule found in many products from antacids to soil additives.

NiNPs are also cheap recyclable materials. The cost is roughly $7.90 per tonne of captured CO2. NiNPs can also be effectively used at standard ATP and their performance can be enhanced by light, which is a free and plentiful energy resource.

Researches are currently developing this technology using two approaches. The first approach is to optimise the mineral reactor system for CO2 molecules that are captured from combustion flue gas. The second approach assess NiNPs’ catalytic properties in a wide range of environments. The researchers are currently seeking industrial partners to assist with the development and scale-up processes of these catalysts.

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