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New energies 26/07/2021

Smart CCS Innovations: Carbon Capture Breakthroughs Mimic Natural World

While the shift to sustainable sources of energy keeps accelerating, and more countries are sprinting toward cleaner industry and transportation alternatives, many experts believe it won’t be enough to reach global climate goals on time

Biomimicry : from leaves and fungi to seashells, companies are replicating nature’s own inventions to halt the warming of our planet.

In the last few years, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has increasingly been held out as a promising method for decarbonizing by essentially removing large amounts of existing CO2 out of the atmosphere. However, the technology to achieve it still needs to improve in order for it to be truly scalable.

Fortunately, for the engineers and scientists working hard behind the scenes, there’s already a blueprint for how to turn CO2 into an advantage: Nature itself.

 Indeed, while carbon dioxide has become the poison of our era, it is also an essential building block for our ecosystems. From leaves and fungi to seashells, companies are replicating nature’s own inventions to halt the warming of our planet:

Artificial seashells

A team of scientists from the University of California have taken inspiration from seashells to capture CO2. Seashells are formed from the carbon dioxide that dissolves in the ocean and form part of a natural equilibrium where the same amount of carbon dioxide captured in water is pulled from the atmosphere.

  • With the aim to speed up the transformation of carbon dioxide into minerals, the team tested a prototype that pulls in seawater and creates limestone and magnesite, the same materials created by mollusks to form seashells.
  • The machine pulls in water that runs through a mesh that gives the water an electric charge, triggering a chemical reaction that creates limestone and magnesite. The materials can then be disposed of on land or released back into the ocean. The seawater can also flow back into the ocean, where it can absorb more CO2.
  • One essential perk of the technology is its energy efficiency, as seawater naturally absorbs CO2 at a very high concentration — some 150 times the level in air. The process also produces hydrogen as a by-product, which can be used to help run the equipment.
  • By mimicking a natural process, there is also no need for further storage solutions, such as compressing gas, where the CO2 can stay trapped in the materials for millions of years.

Replicating photosynthesis

A Sino-American group of scientists have taken their cue from the forest, or more specifically: leaves. Working out of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, the team has created an artificial leaf that replicates the natural process of turning CO2 and water into glucose and oxygen through photosynthesis.

  • While a leaf produces glucose and oxygen, the artificial version instead produces methanol and oxygen. The key is cuprous oxide, a chemically produced powder engineered to have as many eight-sided particles as possible.
  • When added to water, the cuprous oxide serves as the catalyst, with carbon dioxide pumped in and a solar simulator shining a beam of white light into the solution.
  • The resulting chemical reaction creates oxygen through photosynthesis, while the CO2, water, and powder solution are converted into methanol. The methanol is then boiled and collected as it evaporates.

CCS for agriculture

Australian company Soil Carbon is looking to use fungi to capture carbon from the air and store it in the soil. The developers ultimately aim to kill two birds with one stone: reduce atmospheric carbon, and restore some of the 60% of organic carbon which have been lost in the global cropping belt.

  • The company looked through a library of 1,500 microbes to find which ones will be ideal for sequestering carbon.
  • Through fungal treatment, the microbes are applied to the crop seeds where carbon in the form of stable sugars builds up around the roots of the plants — potentially storing carbons in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years.
  • The team hopes that the method will help the agricultural industry meet carbon targets. So far, field trials have been successful, with an average 7% yield increase and 2.6-ton increase in tradable carbon per hectare.