A serendipitous observation about sea urchins has led to a breakthrough in capturing carbon pollution. By mimicking the way sea urchins use nickel to create their exoskeletons, physicists developed a means of converting carbon dioxide pollution into harmless calcium carbonate, or chalk.

Study leader Lidija Šiller said her team’s discovery should be chalked up to chance.

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“We had set out to understand in detail the carbonic acid reaction, which is what happens when CO2 reacts with water, and needed a catalyst to speed up the process,” said Šiller of Newcastle University in a press release. “At the same time, I was looking at how organisms absorb CO2 into their skeletons and in particular the sea urchin which converts the CO2 to calcium carbonate.

“When we analyzed the surface of the urchin larvae we found a high concentration of nickel on their exoskeleton. Taking nickel nanoparticles which have a large surface area, we added them to our carbonic acid test and the result was the complete removal of CO2.”

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The system developed by Šiller could work well to reduce carbon dioxide produced by power plants. Gases from the chimneys could be diverted into water tanks saturated with nickel nanoparticles. The carbon dioxide in the smoke would react with the nickel and form chalk. The solid chalk would then settle to the base of the tank where it could be collected and used in industrial processes such as cement manufacture. However, the system would not be suitable to reduce automobile emissions, because of size constraints.

The study detailing the discovery was published in the journal Catalysis Science and Technology.

Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins/Getty Images