New material could suck carbon out of atmosphere faster than trees

Hopes 'exciting' discovery will help collect greenhouse emissions that have become trapped over centuries

Scientists have hailed the discovery of a type of porous material that could remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more quickly than planting trees. PA
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Scientists have created a porous material they say can capture carbon dioxide more quickly than planting trees.

Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland believe these molecules can help solve society’s biggest challenges by storing greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.

Gases such as carbon dioxide and sulphur hexafluoride can be trapped in the atmosphere for thousands of years, leading to global warming and exacerbating biodiversity loss.

Scientists say that capturing and storing carbon could slow and even reverse the level of fossil-fuel emissions in the atmosphere, but more development is needed for the technology to be used at scale.

The research, published in the journal Nature Synthesis, details how scientists used computer modelling to accurately predict how molecules would assemble into hollow, cage-like shapes.

Dr Marc Little, co-leader of the research, described it as an "exciting discovery" that could be used in the fight against climate change.

“Planting trees is a very effective way to absorb carbon but it’s very slow,” he said. "So we need a human intervention – like human-made molecules – to capture greenhouse gases efficiently from the environment more quickly.

“For example, direct air capture of carbon dioxide is increasingly important because even when we stop emitting carbon dioxide, there’s still going to be a huge need to capture previous emissions that are already in the environment."

The team used computer modelling to accurately predict how molecules would assemble themselves into the porous material, a method which could be further enhanced through the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

Dr Little said the study was an important step towards unlocking such applications and that combining computational studies with new AI technology could create an "unprecedented supply of new materials".

“If you’re able to use AI tools to predict those quicker and more accurately, then we can really accelerate the rate at which we can discover these new types of porous materials without actually having to make any of them in the lab beforehand.”

Dr Little added that molecules with complex structures could also be used to remove toxic compounds known as volatile organic compounds from the air and could play an important role in medical science.

As well as scientists at Heriot-Watt, the study involved researchers from the University of Liverpool, Imperial College London, the University of Southampton, and East China University of Science and Technology.

The project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust. It was also supported by the research facility Diamond Light Source, the University of Southampton, the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme and the Royal Society.

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Updated: May 01, 2024, 10:15 AM