March 6, 2013

Sea Urchins May Save the World

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With global warming becoming an increasingly impactful issue, more and more avenues of resisting climate change are being explored. The latest answer? Sea urchins.

Experts at Newcastle University, UK, discovered that sea urchins use nickel particles to convert carbon dioxide from the ocean into the harmless mineral, calcium carbonate. This capture of carbon dioxide, the key greenhouse gas responsible for climate change, could potentially play a key role in efforts against global warming.

Researchers made the discovery “completely by chance.” They had initially been looking for a catalyst to speed up the carbonic acid reaction, which is the reaction between carbon dioxide and water. Simultaneously, they were also studying organisms capable of absorbing carbon dioxide in their skeletons, particularly sea urchins. Upon closer analysis, they discovered a high concentration of nickel on the exoskeleton of sea urchin larvae. The experiment of adding nickel nanoparticles to the carbonic acid test resulted in the “complete removal of CO2.”This process is advantageous in that it is less dangerous and less costly than other methods, such as pumping carbon dioxide in holes deep underground. Pumping carbon dioxide runs the risk of the gas leaking out. It is also a very expensive process.

In regards to the nickel catalyst used by sea urchins, the conversion of carbon dioxide to carbonate is something that the earth has been doing for a very long time, according to Prof. Bill White, geochemistry. If scientists could scale up the reaction to remove substantial amounts of CO2, they would “be controlling climate just the way the earth has been doing it all along,” he said.

“Seems like it often happens that we solve problems by recognizing and using nature’s own solutions. No question this would be a good thing in this case,” White wrote in an email.

Prof. Charles Greene, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, agreed that mimicking the processes of nature would be “fruitful,” but he questioned the significance of the impact of this finding.

“It is hard to imagine that this particular [process] will be able to scale up to the capacity required — gigatons of carbon dioxide per year,” he said. “However, it should be explored. Hundreds of processes need to be explored because a vast majority will not pan out.”

Original Author: Camille Wang