These caviar-like capsules could be the answer to curbing carbon emissions

Small carbon catchers may save the world.
Small carbon catchers may save the world.
Image: John Vericella/LLNL
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Rising seas, extreme storms, drought, heat waves, flooding, landslides—global warming’s worst incarnations sound like a list of biblical plagues. The role of carbon dioxide as the main warming culprit, has been known for 25 years. And the fight to continue to burn fossil fuels has been going on for just as long.

Into this decades-long science versus economy barfight steps the newest hope for grabbing carbon out of the air. It’s one that promises to be faster, cheaper, and cleaner than existing technologies. And it looks like something you might find on your plate at a sushi bar.

“They look like salmon roe,” John Vericella, an engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told Quartz. He helped create the small silicon beads that, when installed inside a power plant smokestack, will suck CO2 gas out at incredible speed. For fun, Varicella dumped a handful of the beads into a glass of Sprite; it sucked the bubbles out making flat soda in a matter of minutes.

The carbon-hungry capsules, created by researchers from Harvard University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, are detailed in a new study published on Feb. 5 in the journal Nature Communications.

Roger Aines, a senior scientist at Lawrence Livermore and co-author of the study, believes the real genius of the material, called a microencapsulated carbon sorbent, is its humble ingredients. “The solvent that’s inside is the same bicarbonate that you have in your kitchen,” he told Quartz.

That’s regular old baking soda.

The shell that holds the carbon-loving Arm & Hammer is also foodie inspired. “The pièce de résistance is that the shell is made from the same material that is probably in the red spatula that you have in your kitchen drawer,” according to Aines.

The discovery is particularly well timed since president Obama called the changing climate the greatest threat to future generations in his 2015 budget, released on Feb. 2. It called the work of stripping carbon from the air “one of the greatest economic opportunities of the 21st Century.”

Where the president sees economic opportunity, most of the power industry sees profit loss.

“One of the big barriers for carbon capture and storage is the cost, which right now is about $100 for a ton of carbon,” Stuart Haszeldine, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, told Quartz. “That’s got to come down by about half to get commercially competitive with other forms of low-carbon energy,” such as natural gas.

Aines believes that the new capsules could strip carbon from coal or natural gas plants or even from industrial manufacturers, like a glass works that burns fossil fuels to make its vases.

But carbon capture technology has been around for decades. And some of the current technologies already work the same way the silicon capsules do. But they use harsh chemicals, are complicated to make and hard to keep from breaking down, and create toxic wastes when they do. We’ve known about baking soda’s carbon catching abilities for a while too. The problem, up until now, is just how fast it can grab the gas. “It catches it, but doesn’t catch enough per second to make a big factory an easy thing to build—the setup becomes too big,” said Aines.

The researchers introduced a chemical speed boost by making the capsules smaller than the size of water droplets that come out of a showerhead. Smaller beads open up more surface area to the power plant gases. Speed means cheaper, smaller, and more efficient capture reactors. This miniaturization could translate to big savings for power plant operators loathe to spend heavily up front in the absence of government rules forcing them to.

Many questions still remain. Haszeldine says the capsules have yet to be field tested and the time from lab bench to smokestack could be years, if not longer. It remains to be seen whether silicon beads can hold up inside the brutal guts of a power plant and the technology can be scaled up quickly. But he says any new options for better carbon capture are welcome.

“We’re halfway through that fossil carbon since the Industrial Revolution and we will get through the other half certainly before 2050,” he said, adding “but it’s time to start leaving the carbon party.”