When you think about technology to combat climate change, your first thought may be lighting solar panels or futuristic vehicles that run without combustion. But some of the most important pieces of green technology are relatively underrated.
One of the biggest problems to be solved is what to do with all the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel plants. Many ideas have sprung up on how to capture and sequester carbon dioxide from both the air and energy production, with mixed reviews. The last notion is that the solution could be as simple as a revived piece of cotton cloth.
Using a cotton fabric and an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase, which exists in the human body and helps us 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 ACS Sustainable Chemical Engineering journal earlier this month.
The material is wrapped in a roll which is then placed inside a tube, almost like wet paper towels inside a glass funnel. As residual gas from fossil fuel production seeps through the bottom, carbon dioxide works to convert carbon dioxide and water into bicarbonate. A mixture of water and baking soda then drips from the funnel and can be used to create more energy or react with calcium to create limescale.
[Related: Tech to capture and reuse carbon is on the rise. But can it help the world reach its climate goals?]
“We chose cotton deliberately because it can carry a lot of water and can diffuse it into a very thin film,” says Salmon, an associate professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science at NC State. “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 pushed through the contraption at a rate of four liters per minute. Even after washing and reusing the fabric five times, the researchers found performance at a high level.
While some carbon capture technologies may use rarer materials or more complicated methods, the cotton fabric manufacturing process is as old as time. Not to mention the fact that we produce and produce a lot of them already, both for clothing and for industrial purposes, which means that the supply chain that would create these filters more or less already exists.
“The rate of production is by no means a bottleneck,” says Shen, a postdoctoral researcher in the textile industry. “This is the main advantage over other types of materials. People have been working on the production of carbon capture material on a large scale … for textile materials we can leverage existing textile manufacturing facilities and create new applications for companies. “
Capturing carbon from the air will not solve all of our problems: we need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels and change the way we consume energy if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario. But as emissions rise and efforts to reduce them become more crucial, all kinds of technologies need to be considered, says Salmon. Simple solutions like this could be small pieces of the puzzle and help us make some progress in protecting the planet as we focus on more radical efforts.
“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’re willing to give up right away. We have to do it. It is a situation that all technology must be implemented. It is not a technology that will not save us. We have to do them all ”.