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Can a Mineral Solve Our Climate Struggles?

Microscopic view of magnesite crystals.
Image via Ian Power, Trent University

With the 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide humans send into our atmosphere every year, it is no surprise that the natural balance of Earth is changing for the worst.

There has been a growing effort to reduce the amount of new CO2 emissions, however even if we were to stop all emissions, the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere will continue to cause an overall warming effect. As a result, there is an increased effort from scientific communities to develop efficient, economic ways to remove CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere, in addition to an overall reduction in CO2 output.

Research from Trent University in Canada suggests that the mineral magnesium carbonate, or magnesite, can absorb CO2 at an incredibly high volume compared to its mass. A metric ton of magnesite can absorb approximately half its mass in CO2. Magnesite is naturally found in the environment where it takes thousands of years to form. It can also form in high temperatures, such as in industrial reactors, which requires a large energy input. In their research, scientists have developed a low temperature method to form magnesite in as little as 10 days.

The process to create magnesite uses microspheres made up of polystyrene, which is commonly found in disposable eating utensils and plastic food containers, to activate the formation of magnesite. These microspheres are not altered or changed in the process, allowing them to be reused for future processing.

This method was replicated in a laboratory setting. Further research needs to be done to see if this is scalable, so we still have some time before there are any practical applications. However, researchers at Trent University are encouraged by their findings and hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the fundamental science behind the formation of the mineral. Their next steps will include exploring how bacteria that have similar cell structures to polystyrene can aid in the process.

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