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Scientists Propose Turning Methane Into Carbon Dioxide To Fight Climate Change

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An artist's illustration of a zeolite array. Researchers suggested converting methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to the less dangerous carbon dioxide to prevent further warming. They claimed the process would return the atmosphere to preindustrial concentrations of methane.   ( Jackson, et al. 2019 Nature Sustainability | Artist: Stan Coffman )

Stanford University researchers have proposed a radical plan to save the planet from climate change: convert methane into carbon dioxide.

Releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere might sound counterintuitive, but methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas that traps more heat. By choosing the lesser of two evils which, in this case, carbon dioxide, the atmosphere could return to preindustrial concentrations of methane and turn the tide of climate change.

They described the "relatively simple process" in the study published in the journal Nature Sustainability on Monday, May 20.

More Carbon Dioxide, Less Methane

The scientists believe that to prevent the environmental impact of climate change, the entire planet should stop emitting greenhouse gases to the atmosphere altogether. However, because that is unlikely to happen any time soon, the new strategy targets the biggest problem right now which is methane.

Methane, 60 percent of which is generated by humans, is far more effective in warming the planet than any other greenhouse gases. It is said to be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the first two decades after it is released into the atmosphere.

In 2018, the amount of methane in the atmosphere was estimated to be two and a half times greater than preindustrial levels of concentrations.

Removing methane from the atmosphere would eliminate a sixth of the overall warming caused by human activities. About 3.2 billion tons of methane would have to be removed to return to pre-industrial levels of concentration. Moreover, the conversion would only add a few months' worth of carbon dioxide, a less-damaging greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.

Capturing Methane From The Atmosphere

The challenge, however, is capturing methane from the air. According to the study, the crystalline zeolite can absorb greenhouse gas like a sponge.

"The porous molecular structure, relatively large surface area and ability to host copper and iron in zeolites make them promising catalysts for capturing methane and other gases," explained Ed Solomon, a professor of chemistry and one of the authors of the study.

Fighting Climate Change While Turning A Profit

The plan also involves the implementation of carbon offsetting to encourage widespread adoption. If carbon offsets rise to $500 per ton within this century as predicted, a ton of methane removed from the atmosphere would yield more than $12,000. A zeolite array the size of a football field, meanwhile, could return millions of dollars each year in profit.

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