MIT researchers have found that the clay that soaks up odors in kitty litter could be used to grab methane out of the air. The scientists put the zeolite clay in a copper solution to create a compound that absorbed methane and released it as carbon dioxide, a less potent greenhouse gas.
The U.S. Department of Energy gave the MIT team $2 million to continue developing the clay compound so that it can be added to coal mine vents and dairy barns to grab the methane before too much of it gets out into the atmosphere, according to an MIT press release. Zeolite has tiny pores that act like sponge, and the clay is pretty multifunctional: It can help improve water retention in soil, and it’s found in natural kitty litter.
It may sound counterproductive to convert methane into carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas—but methane in the atmosphere is about 80 times more potent at locking in heat than carbon dioxide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last year that reducing methane emissions must be a top priority in the near term.
More methane is being released into the atmosphere today than any other time in recorded history. Numbers released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month show that methane levels increased 7 parts per billion in 2021. That’s the largest increase in a year since scientists began recording in the early 1980s. The greenhouse gas can come from human activities and fossil fuel projects like abandoned oil wells, but it’s also released from natural landscapes. As the poles melt due to a warming climate, the melting permafrost also releases methane into the atmosphere.
As neat as the MIT team’s work is, it’s not likely—at least not right now—that it will be a powerful weapon to save us from climate change. On one end, zeolite is pretty cheap, and the copper-and-clay solution doesn’t need to be heated as high as other methane-absorbing methods, so it’ll use less energy. On the other end, this idea is still in the research stage, and we’re rapidly running out of time to mitigate climate disaster.
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A more immediate and impactful solution is to reduce methane emissions by plugging the thousands of oil and gas wells that are carelessly leaking methane. And we need to focus on phasing out fossil fuels before our already record-breaking emissions literally blow up in our faces. The planet is already on track to see 1.5 degrees of warming in the next four years. We need all the help we can get against methane emissions, but we don’t have time to wait and see if this experimental tech will actually work before acting on the solutions we already have at hand.