Cat litter can be an antidote to climate change, researchers say

Cambridge, Massachusetts — Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they have discovered a powerful new tool in the fight against global warming. It’s basically cat litter.

They created a compound that soaks the odor-eating clay used in cat boxes in a copper solution to steal methane from the passing air and turn it into carbon dioxide, a much less harmful greenhouse gas. Did.

The Energy Department has provided researchers with $ 2 million to design a compound-based device that can be attached to vents in coal mines and dairy farms. Large methane emitters.. The idea is to change the chemistry of the emissions before they go out, like a catalytic converter in a car.

Researchers at MIT say their findings could significantly reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere and slow down the Earth’s warming temperature. This discovery could also create another possible use for zeolite, the clay used to purify some of humanity’s most annoying turmoil from driveway oil spills. 2011 meltdown At the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan.

The magic of zeolite lies in its small pores, which can act as a filter or sponge, depending on its chemistry. It is used to strengthen cement, improve soil, remove odors, prevent fruit ripening, and soothe the stomach of cattle. Keeping methane away from the atmosphere may be the biggest job ever.

MIT professor Desirée Plata (red) and PhD student Rebecca Brenneis say the findings of their team could significantly reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere.


Ryan Dezember / The Wall Street Journal

Methane, commercially known as natural gas, is many times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, a by-product of burning methane in power plants. On the stove Also Above the oil well.. Too low a concentration to burn, a lot of methane drifts into the atmosphere.

In addition to coal mining Burp cowSwamps, infiltration of methane from landfills, Fertilizer lagoon When Permafrost melts.. It foams from the bottom of the lake and escapes from pipelines and drilling sites. Termites are notorious emitters.

The natural ability to process methane Overwhelmed by human activityFrom hot showers to hamburgers. Scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded the largest annual increase in atmospheric methane, reaching an average concentration of about 162% higher than pre-industrial levels.

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Desirée Plata, a MIT professor who leads the work, said that if emissions from global coal mines are filtered through copper zeolite, methane may not accumulate in the atmosphere. According to climate experts, if methane emissions are reduced by 45% by 2030, the expected warming will be reduced by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

I don’t smell half a degree. According to the United Nations Advisory Board on Climate Change, two degrees Celsius (a difference of 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) is equivalent to ecosystem disruption when the world’s average temperature is 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Species decrease twice as much in plants and animals and three times as much in insects. Yields are reduced by 7% instead of 3%.Almost none Coral reef survive.

Rebecca Brenneis, a PhD student at MIT, is testing zeolite compounds.


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Emission reduction plan It is insufficient One of the goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, adding the urgency to develop technologies that help delay global warming. The World Meteorological Organization said last week that average global temperatures could temporarily exceed pre-industrial levels by 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next five years.

At the MIT Lab, crowded with gas cylinders and scientific instruments, a jar of cloudy sky-blue soup rushed around mechanized saliva, exchanging ions. A nearby doctoral student, Rebecca Brenneis, poured the mixture (water, copper nitrate, a few grams of zeolite) into a fiberglass filter. Like the desert after the rain, the solids cracked as they dried.

Zeolites have small pores that act as filters and sponges.


F. Martin Ramin / The Wall Street Journal

Dr. Plata said he was originally thinking about methane scavenging compounds that could be used for patching. Leaky pipeline, Often ignored due to cost. Her inspiration was Metabolof, a bacterium that metabolizes methane from the ocean floor and lake floor.

She said her team sought a way to mimic nature and break down methane without the use of dangerously hot temperatures, explosive gases, or the expensive metal catalysts required by other technologies. rice field. The scientific literature suggested zeolite. So was MIT’s maxim. “If you want to make something cheaper, make it out of dirt.”

According to the US Geological Survey, zeolites typically cost between $ 50 and $ 300 per ton. The United States Geological Survey considers the minerals to be so abundant that it is not difficult to estimate reserves.

Rob Crangle, a zeolite expert in geological surveys, said: For now, shipping can be more expensive than materials. This helps explain why zeolite has lost its market share in cat waste to other minerals, shredded corn stalks, walnut shells and old newspapers.

Geological surveys estimate that 87,000 metric tons of zeolite were extracted from nine domestic mines last year. This is consistent with recent years, but with the addition of zeolites to animal feeds, production levels have increased about six-fold from pre-1990s production levels when new applications for water filtration and odor control emerged.

Zeolites, the clay used in cat litter, are soaked in copper solutions at the MIT Lab.


Ryan Dezember / The Wall Street Journal

Justin Mitchell said he has spoken to many researchers as sales manager for KMI Zeolite Inc., which operates a mine near Death Valley, California. Throw it in New Mexico. Mitchell will head to the Biogas Conference in Las Vegas later this month to market zeolite in the process of purifying and detouring methane gas. Fertilizer lagoon and sewage treatment plant To the gas grid.

MIT findings were peer-reviewed and published in December by ACS Environmental Au, a journal of the American Chemical Society. “Earth-Abundant Catalytic Atmospheric and Low Level Methane Reduction” describes how copper-spiked zeolites destroy methane from the air passing through when the heat required to cook pizza is not very high. I will explain.

Researchers are heading to South Dakota this summer. In South Dakota, dairy farmers volunteered for a herd of families for field trials. The big question they want to answer is how the compound handles the moisture of the swirling air from hundreds of ruminants. This is difficult to reproduce in the laboratory.

Work is still in the MIT test tube stage. Experiments are performed on electrical equipment, tubes, valve blocks, and microwave-sized reactor tabletop entanglements. Large reactors are installed in mechanical engineering labs throughout the campus for the experiments needed to determine the optimum particle size and composition of zeolite particles in the device.

“If you can imagine all the problems when trying to blow a lot of air into the cat litter, that’s for now,” Dr. Plata said.

MIT researchers are designing devices with compounds that can help purify emissions from coal mines and barns.


Ryan Dezember / The Wall Street Journal

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Cat litter can be an antidote to climate change, researchers say

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