How the minerals used in cat litter can help fight climate change

The minerals used as drying agents in air purifiers and cat litter could soon be used to clean up one of mankind’s most disgusting messes – climate change.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a mixture they say could help fight global warming. The mixture includes the clay used in cat litter and a copper solution that picks up methane from the air and turns it into carbon dioxide.

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“We are very excited about this catalyst which has the potential to take methane in a low-level, non-combustible environment and convert it to CO2, which is a much less warming greenhouse gas,” said Desiree Plata, Ph.D., of the MIT professor and principal investigator for the project.

Zeolite, a clay aluminum silicate, is one of the most abundant materials on the Earth’s surface, which is why it is used in cat litter.

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“It’s also very cheap because of that,” Plata said.

Zeolites are co-minerals in many different extractive processes. According to Plata, all scientists have to do is add a small amount of copper, and it can start converting methane to CO2.

The minerals used as drying agents in air purifiers and cat litter could soon be used to clean up one of mankind’s most disgusting messes – climate change. ((Photo by: Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images))

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“We’re really looking forward to deploying it in places like coal mines and dairy barns where you have low levels of methane that you can’t convert in any other way,” Plata said. “If you can do that, the climate impact could be huge, and it could happen in the next few decades.”

Researchers say if methane emissions were reduced by about 40% by 2030, that would result in half a degree Fahrenheit in temperature savings by mid-century.

“It was absolutely incredible,” Plata said. “That means the rate of climate change we are experiencing is going to be different from what we are experiencing.”

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The dairy barn and industrial meat production farms produce about 110 million metric tons of methane each year, according to Plata.

“If we could apply this technology successfully to those sources, it would be like getting all the passenger vehicles in the world off the road, three times as much, he said. It’s a huge impact on climate force.”

What’s next for this project?

Plata says they are now trying to get as much air in the cat litter as possible, but blowing large amounts of air through the powdered material is a challenge.

Scientists are figuring out how they can structure the material to allow for that high-volume flow of air, similar to that in a dairy warehouse or in a coal mine.

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“Or potentially thinking about how you would blow that air through the material, allowing the particles to float,” Plata said.

A good example of how most people have experienced this type of technology is the catalytic converter – a structured zeolite used to clean pollution from car exhausts.

“It’s the same basic idea where you have a lot of incoming air flow that has to do a quick chemical reaction for a positive impact on air quality,” Plata said.

Plata said that while this technology could help combat part of climate change, other long-term mitigation strategies would also be needed.

“This is an important step in the climate recovery toolbox, but it is not a penalty-free card. We also need to invest in restoring atmospheric CO2 levels for long-term climate benefits,” he said.

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