THE humble sea urchin has shown the way for North East scientists to find a potentially simple solution for one of the biggest environmental issues of our times.
The chance discovery was made by Newcastle University physicist Dr Lidija Siller as she studied the sea creature.
She found that sea urchins use nickel particles to harness carbon dioxide from the sea to grow their exoskeleton.
And that could be the key to capturing tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Now the experts at Newcastle have discovered that in the presence of nickel, CO2 can be converted rapidly and cheaply into the harmless, solid, mineral, calcium carbonate, or chalk.
The breakthrough has the potential to revolutionise the way carbon is captured and stored, while at the same time producing a useful material.
This could significantly reduce CO2 emissions, the key greenhouse gas responsible for climate change.
Chalk makes up around 4% of the Earth’s crust and acts as a carbon reservoir, estimated to hold the equivalent to 1.5 million billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
It is the main component of shells of marine organisms, snails and pearls, as well as eggshells. It is a completely stable mineral and is used to make products ranging from cement to hospital plaster casts.
Dr Siller, a reader in nanoscale technology at Newcastle University, said it would be “remarkable” if the process could be developed on a factory scale.
She had been studying sea urchins for two years, looking at how they grow their bony parts.
“When we analysed the surface of the urchin larvae, we found a high concentration of nickel on their exoskeleton,” said Dr Siller.