A protein-filled cotton sheet can filter carbon emissions

Your first thoughts of climate change-fighting technologies may be gleaming solar panels or futuristic automobiles that run without combustion. However, some of the most significant eco-friendly technology is downplayed.

One of the most difficult issues to address is what to do with all of the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel facilities. There have been a slew of concepts for capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide from the air and energy generation, with variable results. A revved-up piece of cotton cloth, according to the latest theory, might be the solution.

Jialong Shen and Sonja Salmon of North Carolina State University designed a piece of fabric that can successfully sweep up and trap pollutants using a cotton cloth and an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase, which exists in the human body and helps humans control carbon dioxide. They just published their findings in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemical Engineering.

The material is rolled into a roll and then placed within a tube, similar to how wet paper towels would be placed inside a glass funnel. Carbonic anhydrase works to convert carbon dioxide and water into bicarbonate as residual gas from fossil fuel production seeps in through the bottom. The funnel then drops a mixture of water and bicarbonate, which may be utilized to generate more energy or reacted with calcium to make limestone.

“We chose cotton deliberately because it can carry a lot of water and can spread the water out into a really thin film,” explains Salmon, an associate professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science at NC State. “That allows the gas to react or interact very closely with the water.” 

When air was pumped through the apparatus at a rate of four liters per minute, the material was able to collect 52.3 percent of carbon dioxide with a single filter and 81.7 percent with a double layer. The researchers noticed a good degree of performance even after washing and reusing the cloth five times.

While other carbon capture systems rely on rarer materials or more complicated procedures, the process of producing cotton fabric has been around since the dawn of humanity. Not to mention that we currently produce and manufacture a large amount of material, whether for clothing or industrial reasons, implying that the supply chain for these filters is already in place.

“The production rate is not a bottleneck at all,” explains Shen, a postdoctoral research fellow in textiles. “That’s the main advantage over other kinds of materials. People have been working on making carbon capture material on a grand scale … for textile-based materials we can leverage already existing textile manufacturing facilities and create new applications for companies.” 

Carbon capture from the atmosphere will not solve all of our problems: If we want to escape the worst-case climate catastrophe, we must substantially limit our usage of fossil fuels and modify the way we consume energy. However, as emissions grow and attempts to reduce them become more critical, Salmon believes that all types of technology must be examined. Simple solutions like this one might be modest pieces of the jigsaw that help us make progress toward environmental protection while we work on more radical initiatives.

“We want energy. We all love our cell phones. We all love driving our cars. We all love our hot showers,” she explains. “Unless we’re prepared to all give that up right away. We have to do this. It’s an all technology must be deployed situation. It’s not one technology not going to save us. We have got to do them all.”