September 23, 2015

Tiny Carbon-capturing Motors May Help Tackle Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels

Nanoengineers have invented tiny tube-shaped micromotors that zoom around
in water and efficiently remove carbon dioxide. The surfaces of the micromotors are
functionalized with the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which enables the motors to help
rapidly convert carbon dioxide to calcium carbonate.
Image credit: Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

(September 23, 2015)  Machines that are much smaller than the width of a human hair could one day help clean up carbon dioxide pollution in the oceans. Nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego have designed enzyme-functionalized micromotors that rapidly zoom around in water, remove carbon dioxide and convert it into a usable solid form.

The proof of concept study represents a promising route to mitigate the buildup of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas in the environment, said researchers. The team, led by distinguished nanoengineering professor and chair Joseph Wang, published the work this month in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Video frames showing the movement of a micromotor in sea water.
Image credit: Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

“We’re excited about the possibility of using these micromotors to combat ocean acidification and global warming,” said Virendra V. Singh, a postdoctoral scientist in Wang’s research group and a co-first author of this study.

In their experiments, nanoengineers demonstrated that the micromotors rapidly decarbonated water solutions that were saturated with carbon dioxide. Within five minutes, the micromotors removed 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from a solution of deionized water. The micromotors were just as effective in a sea water solution and removed 88 percent of the carbon dioxide in the same timeframe.

“In the future, we could potentially use these micromotors as part of a water treatment system, like a water decarbonation plant,” said Kevin Kaufmann, an undergraduate researcher in Wang’s lab and a co-author of the study.

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