Scientists have accidentally discovered a macromolecule that traps carbon dioxide.
Accidents happen- and sometimes accidents turn out to be important discoveries. Alexander Fleming discovered the anti-bacterial properties of penicillin in 1928 after leaving a petri dish out that grew mold. James Schlatter discovered aspart ame (the artificial sweetener) while working on an anti-ulcer drug. Again we find that scientists accidentally leaving things out in the lab has led to a potentially revolutionary discovery.
Chemists at the University of Southampton in England were working to design and create molecules to capture negatively charged ions like chlorides and phosphates on the surfaces of bioengineered cells.
During one experiment they set aside a solution of organic substances to evaporate. When they returned to analyze the crystals they found that the macromolecule contained carbonates, which only form in solutions that contain CO2.
In technical terms: Solid crystals made up of this macromolecule trap carbonate ions that form spontaneously in an alkaline solution and pull carbon dioxide from the air and atmosphere.
In basic terms: This molecule pulls CO2 out of the air.
Geochemist John A. Tossell, author of the study, says that the carbonate is not chemically bonded to the macromolecule, but that absorbing CO2 spontaneously from the air means the macromolecule is probably stable, meaning it can be studied and worked with in the future.
With rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere at the center of many climate change debates, the discovery could join cap & trade, carbon credits and other green measures as part of the future green arsenal. The big challenge, says Tossell, is figuring out how to separate the carbonate from the macromolecule on a large scale. This could be done by heating, but that would require large amounts of fossil fuels, releasing more CO2. Altering the solution to make it more acidic is another option, but that would make the combination less stable.
Tossell says that the macromolecule may be too expensive for large-scale CO2 scrubbers, but studying its structure could be studied to help make future CO2 scrubbers cost less.
CO2 scrubbers have been around for years, used in submarines and space shuttles to keep the air breathable. The issue now is figuring out how to make them big enough, cost effective enough and efficient enough.
For that, perhaps we will need another fortuitous accident.