How an ingredient found in cat litter could help fight climate change

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Whereas some startups start to tug CO2 from the air, researchers at MIT are engaged on one other problem—learn how to additionally take away methane, a way more potent greenhouse fuel. Within the first 20 years after it’s emitted, methane has greater than 80 instances the worldwide heating energy of CO2. That additionally implies that if it may be pulled out of the air, it could rapidly have a serious impression on climate change.

In a newly printed study, the researchers examined the usage of zeolite, a sort of low cost clay used in cat litter, handled with a small quantity of copper. Within the lab, as a stream of methane flowed by a heated tube crammed with the brand new materials, the methane become CO2. The method works even when the focus of methane may be very low.

In principle, the CO2 could be used to make new merchandise, from sun shades, to vodka, to jet gasoline. However even when it’s simply launched into the environment, there’s a profit.

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“When folks hear that [the process creates CO2], they are saying, ‘Yikes, that’s not good—I do know CO2 is unhealthy for the atmosphere,’” says Desiree Plata, an engineering professor at MIT and one of many authors of the paper. “But it surely seems that methane is definitely a lot worse, from a world warming perspective. What this permits us to do is carry instant climate profit into the Earth system and really change international warming charges in our lifetime.”

If half of the methane in the environment was transformed to CO2, Plata says, the focus of atmospheric carbon would rise by one half per million, from 417 components per million to 418. However international warming can be lowered by 16%.

Prior to now, others had tried to make use of an analogous course of to show methane into methanol, a gasoline. But it surely’s difficult to run the method cheaply; the method works higher if the response goes from methane to CO2. Others have tried to develop expertise to seize methane in coal mines, however used costly supplies that additionally required additional excessive warmth. The zeolite-copper materials is inexpensive, and the response works at far decrease temperatures.

Subsequent, the researchers plan to tweak the construction of the fabric to finest seize methane. “Pushing air by cat litter will not be straightforward,” Plata says. “You possibly can think about the entire technical challenges that will outcome—blowing powder round, after which heating that could be a problem as nicely. So one of many issues that we have to do is get the catalyst structured in a method that a lot of air can come by it comparatively rapidly, however nonetheless offer you an excellent response.” The top outcome shall be just like a catalytic converter in a automobile, she says.

The system could be used in locations the place methane emissions are excessive. On farms, in barns crammed with cattle—a serious supply of methane by cow burps and manure—the tech could faucet into present air flow techniques on partitions. “We’d simply plug in downstream of that, and that’s good, as a result of we’re profiting from air that’s already transferring,” she says. The system could save electrical energy by avoiding the usage of followers. Because the methane is transformed, it additionally generates warmth, which can be utilized in the system to maintain the response working.

Fixing the world’s methane drawback additionally will depend on slicing emissions of the fuel. Within the oil and fuel sector, meaning monitoring down leaks and tightening pipes (and, finally, transitioning away from fossil fuels.) At landfills, pipes can seize methane from rotting meals and switch it into electrical energy. On farms, methane digesters also can flip manure into vitality. Different options, like feeding cows seaweed dietary supplements, could doubtlessly additionally help.

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Different methane sources will more durable, if not  inconceivable to eradicate, just like the methane that’s being lost from melting permafrost. And, as with CO2, there’s already plenty of methane already in the environment—so eradicating the fuel that’s already there could be essential.