Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found a way to remove methane from the air by using a cheap type of clay called zeolite—a mineral also found in cat litter.
In a study published in the journal ACS Environment, that researchers packed copper-treated zeolite particles into test tubes, which were heated from the outside, according to an MIT statement. They then propel a stream of gas with varying degrees of methane through the tube. When treated with copper, they found that zeolites converted methane to carbon dioxide, even at low concentrations.
“When people hear that [the process creates CO2]they say, ‘Yeah, that’s not good—I know CO2 is bad for the environment,’” Desiree Plata, an engineering professor at MIT and co-author of the paper, said Fast CompanyAdele Peters. “But it turns out that methane is actually much worse, from a global warming perspective. What it allows us to do is bring climate benefits directly into the Earth system and actually change the rate of global warming in our lives.”
Methane is 120 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide by mass, the authors write. The colorless and odorless gas can come from a variety of sources: slash-and-burn agriculture, dairy farming, coal and ore mining, wetlands, melting ice sheets, and drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas.
“Pushing air through cat litter isn’t easy,” says Plata Fast Company. “You can imagine all the technical challenges that would be – blowing off the powder, and then heating it up was also a challenge. So one of the things we need to do is make the catalyst structured in such a way that a lot of air can get in relatively quickly, but still give you a good reaction.”
Plata envisions installing zeolite-based filters in places like mine shafts or indoor dairy farms, where methane is concentrated, but not to a degree where burning it via combustion is an option, he said. wiredGregory Barber. One of the advantages of this system, which has not yet been tested in the field, is that it releases heat, which could potentially be used to generate electricity.
“In a coal mine, you have the potential to generate enough heat to generate electricity on a power-generating scale, which is remarkable because it means the device can pay for itself,” Plata said in a statement. “Most aerial capture solutions cost a lot of money and will never be profitable. Our technology may one day become a counter-example.”
But time is running out fast for new climate solutions. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that major cuts to greenhouse gas emissions were needed to avoid a climate catastrophe by 2025.
“It worked. I would say that. We were able to convert low levels of methane,” said Plata wired. “The question is about how quickly you can make it work.”