When you think of technology to combat climate change, your first thought may be shiny solar panels or futuristic vehicles that run without combustion. But some of the most important parts of clean technology are relatively underestimated.
One of the biggest problems to solve is what to do with all the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel plants. Many ideas have emerged on how to capture and sequester carbon dioxide from both air and energy production, with mixed reviews. The latest idea is that repairing it can be as simple as a hot piece of cotton cloth.
Using cotton textiles and an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase – which exists in the human body and helps regulate carbon dioxide – Jialong Shen and Sonja Salmon of North Carolina State University have created a piece of fabric that can effectively collect and capture emissions. They published their new findings in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemical Engineering earlier this month.
The material is wrapped in a roll, which is then placed inside a tube, almost like wet paper towels in a glass funnel. As the residual gas from fossil fuel production penetrates the bottom, carbonic anhydrase works to convert carbon dioxide and water into bicarbonate. A mixture of water and bicarbonate then drips from the funnel and can be used to generate more energy or react with calcium to form limestone.
[Related: Tech to capture and reuse carbon is on the rise. But can it help the world reach its climate goals?]
“We chose cotton on purpose because it can carry a lot of water and can scatter water into a really thin film,” said Salman, an associate professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science in North Carolina. “This allows the gas to react or interact very closely with the water.”
The material was able to capture 52.3 percent of carbon dioxide with a single filter and 81.7 percent with a double layer when air was forced through the device at a rate of four liters per minute. Even after washing and reusing the fabric five times, researchers still see a high level of productivity.
While some carbon capture technologies may use rarer materials or more difficult methods, the cotton fabric production process is as old as time. Not to mention, we already produce and make a lot of it, whether for clothing or industrial purposes, which means that the supply chain that would create these filters more or less already exists.
“The production rate is not an obstacle at all,” said Shen, a postdoctoral researcher in textile research. “This is the main advantage over other types of materials. People are working on the production of carbon capture materials on a huge scale … for textiles we can use existing textile production facilities and create new applications for companies.
Carbon capture from the air will not solve all our problems: We need to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels and change the way we consume energy if we want to avoid the worst climate scenario. But as emissions increase and efforts to reduce them become more important, all sorts of technologies need to be considered, Salman said. Simple solutions like this can be small pieces of the puzzle and help us make some progress in protecting the planet while focusing on more radical endeavors.
“We want energy. We all love our cell phones. We all love to drive our cars. We all love our hot showers, ”she says. “Unless we are all ready to give it up right away. We have to do this. This is a situation in which all technologies must be deployed. It is not a technology that will not save us. We have to do them all. ”