By Frances Hall
Sea urchins are almost comically unlovable: covered with spines that are known to break off within an unwary wader’s foot, eyeless and faceless, a mouth that looks like a jagged abyss, difficult to empathize with, distinctly un-cuddly. However, new research suggests that, when it comes to solution to climate change, we should have gone to them first.
For those few of you who haven’t yet heard: climate change, a process that experts from every natural science agree is caused by human activity, is due to a collection of emissions known as greenhouse gases. The effects of these include global warming, ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, and, possibly down the line, a new ice age in Europe. Arguably, the most insidious greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is produced by a number of processes, from heavy industrial process and driving most cars to the unavoidable pastimes of breathing and volcanic eruptions. What’s Your Impact? estimates that 87 percent of all human-produced emissions, which total an average annual 33.4 billion metric tons, originate from burning fossil fuels. Several countries, despite the political rigmarole and pervasive ignorance that surrounds the entire issue, have signed treaties or laws agreeing to limit their carbon emissions. The fact that many (but not all) of these countries ultimately put off reducing carbon emissions for the sake of the economy remains discouraging. There are a number of ways to slow this process, many of which a single person could elect to do: relying on solar panels or windmills instead of coal, taking the bus, even just eating less meat.
Unfortunately, none of those steps are going to eliminate the carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere. Several natural processes, such as photosynthesis and carbon fixation, can, and do reduce atmospheric CO2. However, they simply cannot keep up with the rate of human emissions. One proposed solution is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). According to the Global CCS Institute, this involves the separation of CO2 from other gases at the source, such as steel mills and coal plants. The CO2 is then compressed and transported to a more suitable site. Finally, it is injected into underground rock formations, often at least 1 km below the surface. The idea is that the CO2 will remain there indefinitely. However, this is just as expensive as it sounds and there is always the possibility that the CO2 will leak out at some later date.
Sea urchins may be showing us an alternative. Physicist Dr. Lidija Siller was studying the reaction that combines gaseous CO2 and ocean water into carbonic acid, the process that leads to ocean acidification and all of its diversity-crushing side effects. She was also investigating how sea urchins convert CO2 into calcium carbonate shells. When her team analyzed the surface of sea urchin larvae, they found a high concentration of nickel nanoparticles. When tiny particles of nickel were added to a carbonic acid solution, the result was a complete removal of CO2 with only water and calcium carbonate, also known as chalk, as products.
The team has patented this into a process where waste gas from industrial processes is passed through a water column rich with nickel particles where the chalk will gather at the bottom. This appears to be a nearly ideal solution: chalk is a stable material widely used to make products as varied as cement and plaster casts the nickel particles could theoretically be reused indefinitely. It wouldn’t be possible to attach one of these to every bus and truck, but these could be used to reduce carbon output from most major source. According to Dr. Lidija Siller via BBC news, “It seems too good to be true, but it works.”