This Mineral Could One Day Remove Carbon Dioxide From Earth's Atmosphere, Fighting Global Warming

File photo: The mineral magnesite. Getty Images

Whether it's rising sea levels, deadly heat waves or ever more powerful hurricanes, the threat of global warming to life on Earth looms heavy. As the planet warms, the risks take root and grow.

But researchers think they have come up with a new weapon in the battle against climate change. With the help of tiny polystyrene balls, scientists have slashed the time it takes a carbon dioxide-storing mineral to form from hundreds of years to less than three months.

Gases such as carbon dioxide act like the glass walls of a greenhouse, trapping heat inside the atmosphere and keeping our planet warm. But excess greenhouse gases are sending temperatures dangerously high. By sucking this gas from the air, scientists think they can slow down global warming.

Scientists analyzed how a carbon dioxide-storing mineral called magnesite forms in nature, then figured out a way to speed up the process in the lab. They shared their findings at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Boston on Tuesday.

On Earth's surface, magnesite forms slowly over hundreds—if not thousands—of years. But in the lab, the team managed to speed up that process to just 72 days, using polystyrene microspheres as a catalyst to hasten production. The tiny balls are unchanged by the process, so they should be reusable.

"Using microspheres means that we were able to speed up magnesite formation by orders of magnitude. This process takes place at room temperature, meaning that magnesite production is extremely energy efficient," project leader Ian Power, from Trent University in Ontario, said in a statement.

It's early days for the research, but the team thinks the work might one day be used to improve carbon capture and storage technology. But the project is not a magic bullet for climate change. "For now, we recognize that this is an experimental process," Power said. Researchers will need to show they can scale up production, he explained.

Although carbon prices and the improvement of carbon capture technology could be a barrier, "we now know that the science makes it doable," Power added.

Columbia University professor Peter Kelemen praised the "exciting" research in the statement, saying: "The potential for accelerating the process is... important, potentially offering a benign and relatively inexpensive route to carbon storage, and perhaps even direct [carbon dioxide] removal from air."

Scientists recently warned Earth could be headed toward a "hothouse" scenario, where the effects of processes like deforestation and melting sea ice snowball and send average temperatures 7-9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than pre-industrial levels. That's much higher than the Paris Agreement's 3.6-degree Fahrenheit limit. But scientists cautioned this frightening scenario is not inevitable.