Scientists See Profit in Removing Greenhouse Gases

(CN) – Merging capitalism with conservation, a study released Monday proposes a football field-sized array of crystal arrays that can pull methane out of the Earth’s atmosphere could become a lucrative industry in the future.

The study, published in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability, imagines a future where methane in the atmosphere is exchanged for the less harmful carbon dioxide through a business model that offsets greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a straightforward model, says Earth system science professor Rob Jackson from Stanford University.

The professor recommends using the crystalline material zeolite, which is comprised of aluminum, silicon and oxygen, then allowing the porous molecular structure of that material to capture methane funneled into tumbling chambers or reactors by electric fans.

The crystalline material could either be in powder form or in pellets along with other catalysts that would get the capture process moving along. They estimate that each ton of methane removed from the atmosphere could be worth more than $12,000.

A straightforward hypothesis, but the study authors already envision a market that would remove harmful greenhouse gases and generate a profit. Methane is primarily used as fuel but also used as a component in the manufacture of organic chemicals.

The goal is to return methane in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. In 2018, methane reached the atmosphere at 2.5 times more than pre-industrial levels. The study authors want to convert that greenhouse gas into carbon dioxide, a far less potent gas.

A conceptual drawing of an industrial array for converting methane (CH4) to carbon dioxide (CO2) using catalytic materials called zeolites. (Jackson, et al. 2019 Nature Sustainability / Artist: Stan Coffman)

Optimistic models for stabilizing the Earth’s temperatures at about 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels include a reduction in industrial emissions, tree planting and storing carbon dioxide underground.

But removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide over the next several decades will not restore the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. Methane concentrations could be knocked down to pre-industrial levels and the study authors say making a dent in that column would go a long way to influencing the climate.

“If perfected, this technology could return the atmosphere to pre-industrial concentrations of methane and other gases,” Jackson said.

A previous study from a group of Australian researchers said they developed a technique for converting carbon dioxide gas into solid coal which involves liquid metal.

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