"Making a material that can access the abundant carbon all around us is a significant opportunity for materials science”
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of California-Riverside have developed a self-healing material that uses greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to regenerate itself, and could one day be used as construction or repair material, or for protective coatings. The findings were published this month in a study a well-known scientific journal.
According to the scientists, the gel-like polymer material is capable of growing like a tree.
The substance “grows” by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transforming the greenhouse gas into a polymer, according to the findings which were first published in journal Advanced Materials. The process mimics photosynthesis, where plants grow by removing carbon dioxide from the air to produce carbohydrates and oxygen.
The scientists claim that the polymer accumulates mass as long as it has access to sunlight and that this allows it to repair itself when damaged. It could be used as a coating material in construction, they suggest.
“This is a completely new concept in materials science,” Professor Michael Strano, lead author of the study at MIT, said.
He added: “What we call carbon-fixing materials don’t exist yet today outside the biological realm.”
According to the scientists, developing a synthetic material that consumes carbon dioxide from the air will have “obvious benefits” for the environment and climate.
“Imagine a synthetic material that could grow like trees, taking the carbon from the carbon dioxide and incorporating it into the material’s backbone,” Strano said.
The new material’s ability to grow rests on a biological ingredient: chloroplasts, the light-harnessing components within plant cells that contain the green chlorophyll pigments necessary for photosynthesis.
Strano’s team embedded spinach chloroplasts in a synthetic gel-like substance. The chloroplasts catalysed a reaction in which atmospheric carbon dioxide was converted into glucose. The glucose was converted into a compound that reacted with other substances in the gel to become part of a “continuously expanding and strengthening” solid polymer material.
He also said that the study showed that carbon dioxide need not be purely a burden and a cost.
“It is also an opportunity in this respect. There’s carbon everywhere. We build the world with carbon,” Strano added. “Humans are made of carbon. Making a material that can access the abundant carbon all around us is a significant opportunity for materials science. In this way, our work is about making materials that are not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.”
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