Your future smartphone could repair its broken screen by removing carbon from the air

CCarbon-binding materials – sun-fed substances that use atmospheric carbon dioxide to grow and repair, just like plants – do not yet exist outside the laboratory. But scientists are about to make it a commercial reality.

When they are available, they will likely benefit from widespread use as "self-healing" coatings, such as car upholstery, cell phones and fabrics. When their surfaces are cracked or scratched, they will easily be able to fill the empty spaces exposed to the air and the sun, without requiring additional action. In addition, their transportation will be more economical and energy efficient because they could first be shipped to manufacturers and builders in a lightweight format. Once at their destination, they would then be exposed to the air and the sun, where they would grow, solidify and harden.

Designing materials that avoid not only using fossil fuels, but also absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, has obvious benefits for the environment and the climate, the researchers said.

"As humans, we can choose to build the world from oil from the ground, by creating the plastic in the form of fibers and leaves that we see all around us, or we could follow the nature and use carbon in the air, "said Michael Strano, professor of chemical engineering at MIT. "The first step is to imagine materials that grow and repair like plants and trees. The next step is to reduce them to practice. Then, after refinement and optimization, we can begin to replace our decomposing materials with these new versions that are continually renewed. "

The beauty of the product is that it only needs atmospheric carbon dioxide and ambient light, both of which are ubiquitous, Strano added. "These materials incorporate a mass of carbon in the air and repair themselves continuously and automatically, without any external stimulus. Building with carbon dioxide and ambient light uses the energy available to us today. It's sustainability reduced to its most basic definition. "

Strano 's laboratory recently created a material that reacts chemically with carbon dioxide from the air to grow, strengthen and even repair itself. Unlike other field efforts to simulate natural biological processes, there is no need for external input, such as heat. , ultraviolet rays, chemicals or mechanical stress, the scientists said. The result is a synthetic gel-like polymer that uses the same biological components as plants to harness sunlight – the chloroplasts – that scientists have obtained from spinach leaves. The polymer continuously converts CO2 in a carbon-based substance that gets stronger.

In recent years, researchers have researched innovative methods to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a potent greenhouse gas emitted during the burning of fossil fuels. These gases cause climate change and global warming, often with dangerous effects on humans and ecosystems. "Materials like this are a step in the right direction," Strano said. "They are not just carbon neutral. They are carbon negative. "

Strano, postdoctoral fellow Seon-Yeong Kwak and eight other people at MIT and at the University of California at Riverside, described their findings in a recently published study in the journal Advanced Materials.

Chloroplasts catalyze the reaction of carbon dioxide in glucose. But the isolated chloroplasts are very unstable, which means that they tend to stop working after several hours, once removed from the factory. Strano and his colleagues have developed ways to significantly increase the catalytic lifetime of extracted chloroplasts and plan to replace these chloroplasts with non-biological catalysts to enhance their action. The latter will be more stable, last longer and perform the same functions, said Strano.

The material used by the researchers – a gel matrix composed of a polymer based on aminopropyl methacrylamide (APMA) and glucose, an enzyme called glucose oxidase and chloroplasts – becomes more resistant as it increases. it incorporates carbon. Although it is expected to work well as a coating or as a filler, it is not yet strong enough to become a building material. The researchers said that further advances in chemistry and materials science are needed before they can be widely used in construction and composite materials.

Yet scientists have said they are already able to produce the material per ton. The first commercial applications – self-healing and crack-sealing coatings – are achievable in the short term, they said. "In its most basic form, the production of these materials is simple and should not be expensive or complex," said co-author Kwak, adding, "The material is initially in liquid form. It's exciting to watch it as it begins to grow and regroup in a solid form.

The Ministry of Energy – which funded the initial work of MIT – is sponsoring a new program to expand research and has asked Strano to lead it, according to MIT. "Materials science has never produced anything like it," Strano said. "These materials mimic some aspects of a living thing, even if it does not happen again.

"There is carbon everywhere," he added. "We are building the world with carbon. Humans are carbon. Carbon dioxide does not have to be a burden and a cost. It is also an opportunity. Making a material that can access the abundant carbon that surrounds us is an important opportunity for materials science. "

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, an outsourced newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art, and culture.