Sam Judd

Comment on the environment from nzherald.co.nz columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: Carbon capturing kina

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It could be that technology on how to capture carbon is catching up with polluters. Many climate sceptics have long suggested that 'if global warming ever becomes a real threat, technology will save us when it needs to.'

I confess that I didn't really share this view (for a while I believed technology would magically stop me from going bald, but alas, it has failed me there and I remain follicly challenged). Now the humble sea urchin has inspired British scientists towards a discovery that could change the entire carbon game.

They investigated how calcium carbonate is produced by urchins to grow their exoskeletons and found that the spiny little buggers' larvae are full of nickel. When they added nickel to a mixture of CO2 and water, all the carbon was removed from the solution and became calcium carbonate - or chalk as we know it - that is useful rather than bad for the environment.

This system could deliver a major reduction in the levels of carbon released by large-scale coal or gas-fired power plants, where the polluted air flows through a chimney stack, they can divert it through nickel-rich water and all the carbon that gets trapped in chalk will end up at the bottom of the tank.

Previously efforts to separate carbon have been focussed on enzymes - which cost a lot to make and haven't always removed all the carbon from the mix - but nickel is cheap, which makes this discovery all the more exciting.

Wouldn't it be great to send this chalk to schools and tell students the story of how something as seemingly insignificant as an urchin has the ability to impact the whole world?

But it is too early to get overly excited. This definitely doesn't mean that you should buy a V8 sports-car and fire up the old coal-range at your house. Yet.

The technology could be a game-changer for large emitters (such as the foreign-owned Tiwai Aluminium Smelter in Bluff, which regularly belches over 600,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year) but in its current state, this system cannot be fitted onto a car exhaust and will definitely not stop the 10 million-odd cows we have from passing wind.

So might this mean that coal and gas-fired power could supply electric cars? Could this technology make Huntly - the current blemish on our predominantly renewable electricity supply - a legitimate facility environmentally?

The scientists were clever enough to patent their technology and I wouldn't be surprised to see the names Lidja Siller and Gaurav Bhaduri appear in Forbes in 5-10 years time but only time will tell whether this technology will become an affordable reality (or a priority) down here in little old New Zealand.

If so, perhaps next time you scoff at people eating kina, or find yourself sitting in a hot bath removing spines from your foot after a surf, you won't see the little spiky balls as such a nuisance.

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