Sea Urchins Illuminate How to Trap Carbon Dioxide

A marine creature shows researchers a new way to capture a potent greenhouse gas.

The unassuming sea urchin has tipped off researchers to a new way to capture carbon dioxide. Lidija Siller of the United Kingdom’s Newcastle University discovered that in the larval stage (above), these small, spiny, globular animals have an unusually high concentration of nickel. She wondered if the metal helps pull CO2 from the water and transform it into their hard shells. She tested the hypothesis by adding nickel nanoparticles to a solution of the greenhouse gas in water, and the metal removed three to four times more CO2 than ordinary water did. “You get an immediate precipitation of calcium carbonate,” says Siller, essentially chalk, a harmless by-product used in cement and plaster casts. She thinks the approach could be used to trap CO2 from power plants—the largest source of climate-change-causing emissions—and would cost considerably less than existing techniques. A simple, elegant solution, like sea urchins themselves.

This story originally ran in the May-June 2013 issue as "Curbing Climate Change."