Indian makes molecule suck carbon dioxide

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  • Published 23.01.10

New Delhi, Jan. 22: A 29-year-old Indian scientist in the Netherlands has helped develop a molecule that sucks carbon dioxide from the air and could open a new line of research to combat global warming.

Raja Angamuthu and his colleagues at Leiden University have shown that a complex molecule containing atoms of copper can remove carbon dioxide, create useful chemical by-products, and return to its original state to repeat the process.

The technique appears to be an attractive way to capture carbon dioxide, but is still impractical for attempts at climate engineering, according to the researchers who have described their experiments in a paper published in the US journal Science.

“At the present stage, this would be a very expensive method to remove carbon dioxide from the air,” said Elisabeth Bouwman, a senior scientist at the Leiden Institute of Chemistry who led the research group.

But scientists who have not been associated with the research believe the discovery needs to be pursued.

One scientist who was an anonymous referee for the journal has described the work as a “fundamental chemical breakthrough” that could lead to methods for reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

“This was a serendipitous discovery,” said Angamuthu, who had studied chemistry at the Bharathidasan University in Tamil Nadu before joining Leiden University for a doctorate degree.

Angamuthu and his colleagues were studying biological molecules called enzymes when they developed a copper-containing molecule.

During their experiments, they observed that this molecule showed the presence of an oxalate — an electrically charged complex of two carbon dioxide molecules linked by chemical bonds.

“The oxalate was a surprise,” said Angamuthu, who is about to move to the US for a post-doctoral position but hopes to return to India in about two years.

The researchers set up experiments that clearly established the ability of the molecule to take up carbon dioxide from the air.

Their studies have also shown that when raw materials are added to the complex, the carbon dioxide is used up to create industrially useful compounds such as oxalic acid.

“It would be nice to use the removed carbon dioxide as a useful product,” Bouwman told The Telegraph. With appropriate raw materials, it could also be used to produce methanol — a fuel.

The threat of global warming from rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has spurred a search for methods to remove the gas from the air. Researchers are investigating and assessing the potential costs and risks associated with various carbon-capture techniques such as injecting the gas deep into the sea or into deep geological formations, or trapping the gas as carbonates.

None of these techniques has translated into a proven and widely accepted technology yet.

“The molecule we’ve worked with appears to take up carbon dioxide more efficiently than most other currently available chemical methods,” Angamuthu said.

He said the technique would need improvements. “We’re hoping this research stimulates a search for even better molecules that push this towards practical application.”