Most people who push for aggressive action against climate change focus on preventing greenhouse gas emissions. They want to shut down coal-fired power plants, switch to cleaner electric vehicles and reduce energy use.
But a small group of scientists is focused on a different fix: tiny synthetic organisms that pull carbon dioxide out of the already-warming atmosphere.
This isn’t science fiction. It’s what University of Colorado Boulder Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Prashant Nagpal has been perfecting with colleagues in the lab.
“Inventions like what we’re working on are powerful because it doesn’t require us to change our entire economy, our entire way that we consume and generate energy,” Nagpal said.
In a recent paper, Nagpal described a carbon dioxide capture system he and his colleagues designed based off of tiny soil organisms. When stimulated by light, these organisms actually pulled in carbon dioxide from their surroundings and extruded biodegradable plastic material.
“You could virtually see this in real time,” he said. “And when they can express this product out, you will just see this product floating up at the top of the reactor. So you can just skim it off.”
Nagpal imagines that one day, the bioplastic created by the little carbon munchers could be used or broken down.
The idea of storing carbon from coal-fired power plants has proven difficult to make a reality. Nagpal’s invention envisions a future in which carbon dioxide from natural gas furnaces could be vented into containers or ponds with the tiny organisms.
“You’d be making several kilograms of these bioplastics” which could even be sold to generate revenue, he said. “Yes, it will take a little bit of cost to take quantum dots and bugs, but then you’re getting a huge value out of it.”
Right now, the CU researchers just have a proof of concept. But Nagpal hopes that the system could one day be scaled up and used in homes or offices.
The technology is in its very early stages. Later this year, Nagpal will refine the process of how the plastic gets created with the help of undergraduates and a CU Boulder engineering grant.