An iron-based fertilizer in the form of nanoparticles has the potential to store excess carbon dioxide in the ocean.
An international team of researchers led by Michael Hochella of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory suggests that using tiny organisms could be a solution to address the urgent need to remove excess carbon dioxide from the Earth’s environment.
The team conducted the analysis, published in the journal Nature Nanotechnologyabout the possibility of seeding the oceans with iron-made fertilizer particles near ocean plankton, microscopic plants crucial in the ocean ecosystem, to increase the growth and carbon dioxide uptake of phytoplankton.
“So the idea is to enhance existing processes,” said Hochella, a laboratory scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Humans fertilized the earth so that crops would grow for centuries. Learn to be aware of the fertility of the oceans.
In nature, nutrients from land reach the seas through rivers and blow dust to fertilize plankton. The research team proposes that natural evolution takes this a step further to help remove excess CO2 from the ocean. They studied evidence that suggests specific combinations of carefully engineered materials could effectively fertilize the seas, encouraging phytoplankton to act as carbon sinks. Organisms take up carbon very abundantly. Then, as they die, they sink deep into the ocean, taking the excess coal with them. Scientists say that this proposed fertilization simply accelerates a natural process that would already safely sequester carbon in a form that could remove it from the atmosphere over thousands of years.
“This is the time of the essence,” said Hochella. “To combat rising temperatures, we must decrease CO2 levels on a global scale. Examining all our options, including using the oceans as a CO2 sink, gives us the best chance to cool the planet.
Drawing inspiration from literature
In their analysis, the researchers argue that engineered nanoparticles offer several attractive attributes. They can be highly regulated and specialized in different ocean environments. They could attach surface coatings to plankton particles. Some particles also have light absorbing properties, allowing plankton to consume and use more CO2. The common approach could also be tailored to meet the needs of specific ocean environments. For example, one area would benefit most from iron-based particles, while silicon-based particles are said to be most effective elsewhere.
Researchers in an analysis of 123 published studies have shown that numerous non-toxic metal-oxygen materials can safely increase plankton growth. They argue that the durability, abundance, and ease of creation of these materials make them viable options as plankton fertilizers.
The team also analyzed the cost of creating and distributing various parts. While the process would be substantially more expensive than adding non-structural materials, it would also be significantly more efficient.
Report: “Potential Use of Engineered Nanoparticles in Ocean Fertilization for Large-Scale Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Removal” by Peyman Babakhani, Tanapon Phenrat, Mohammed Baalousha, Kullapa Soratana, Caroline L. Peacock, Benjamin S. Twining and Michael F. Hochella Jr. November 28, 2022; Nature Nanotechnology.
In addition to Hochella, the team included researchers from England, Thailand and several US-based research institutions. The study was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
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