Article

The towers of the Dynegy natural gas plant in Moss Landing echo the masts of the sailboats in nearby Monterey Bay.

Photograph by Stuart Thornton

Not Ours Alone
"The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone."
Janine Benyus
President, The Biomimicry Institute

Carbon Sequestration
Making cement isn't the only way to capture carbon. On the Ask Nature website, scientists and students have contributed their carbon sequestration ideas inspired by the natural world. We can lower carbon emissions with carbon-based plastics, diatoms, even algae! Read more ideasor contribute your ownat www.AskNature.org.

By Mary Schons

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cement isn't something most people notice, even though we all depend on it every day. The most common type of cement is called Portland cement, or OPC (ordinary Portland cement). Portland cement is used to bind concrete, an essential component of roads, bridges, and buildings.

Cement production is also a big contributor to global warming. Manufacturing Portland cement requires heating limestone to 1,449 degrees Celsius (2,640 degrees Fahrenheit). The heating process uses fossil fuels, which release massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon build-up in the Earth's atmosphere causes global warming.

A company called Calera believes it has figured out a way to make cement that stores carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Calera combines flue gas released from power plants with seawater to make cement. This method of carbon storage is called carbon sequestration.

Today, Calera has a prototype plant in Moss Landing, on the coast of Monterey Bay, California. Flue gas from the natural gas facility is pumped into Calera's cement plant. The flue gas, filled with carbon dioxide, is combined with seawater from nearby Monterey Bay. Seawater contains calcium, magnesium, and other minerals, the same ingredients corals use to build reefs. Carbon dioxide from the flue gas and minerals in the seawater combine to make calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is the material that makes up coral reefs, as well as Portland cement.

The process of making calcium carbonate cement from carbon dioxide and seawater is called Mineralization via Aqueous Precipitation, or MAP. After the cement is made, the heat from the flue gas is used to dry the cement into powder. Calera plans to desalinate and sell the leftover seawater.

The idea for MAP was developed by Brent Constantz, one of the co-founders of Calera. As a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Constantz observed how corals used carbon dioxide to make reefs. He thought that if corals could make cement this way, then perhaps humans could do it, too. 

Biomimicry

Using nature as a guide to build new technologies—like energy-efficient cement—is called biomimicry.

"Biomimicry is in some ways a very old, and in other ways a very new discipline," says Sam Stier, director of public education and conservation at The Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana. "Leonardo da Vinci drew inspiration from the natural world for his flying machine concepts in the 1500s, and humans have no doubt drawn inspiration from the natural world for thousands of years."

Today, biomimicry is used in everything from medical technology to city planning and architecture. By studying nature, scientists have come up with new ways to fight harmful bacteria, and to construct buildings that can heat and cool themselves. Researchers are studying how plants store energy, to help design better solar panels. Biomimicry principles are used to produce more energy-efficient trains and cars, and to help manufacturing plants create products that use less energy and produce little or no waste.

Applying the principles of biomimicry means working with nature, and it all starts with asking the right questions, says Stier. "How does nature power itself? How does nature make things without creating waste, or toxins, or pollution? The neat thing is, those answers are right outside your door! With the right questions in mind, anybody can be inspired by nature’s genius to invent a better future."

In that way, the Biomimicry Institute and Calera are united, says Stier. "The Biomimicry Institute supports biomimicry education and Calera makes cement, but we share a vision for a world empowered and inspired by nature’s genius. Corals can teach us how to make cement without mining or emitting greenhouse gases, and the rest of the natural world can teach us a whole lot more."

In the meantime, Calera is looking at selling a mixture of traditionally made Portland cement with the new Calera cement. It is also expanding the business. In January 2011, China Huaneng Group, Peabody Energy, and Calera agreed to pursue development of a green coal energy campus in Xilinguole, Inner Mongolia, China.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

architecture

Noun

style and design of buildings or open spaces.

atmosphere

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere

bacteria

Plural Noun

(singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.

bay

Noun

body of water partially surrounded by land, usually with a wide mouth to a larger body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: bay

biomimicry

Noun

process of using the natural world as a guide to develop new technology.

calcium

Noun

chemical element with the symbol Ca.

calcium carbonate

Noun

chemical compound (CaCO3) found in most shells and many rocks.

campus

Noun

grounds and buildings of a school, hospital, or business park.

carbon dioxide

Noun

greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

carbon sequestration

Noun

process of capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground.

cement

Noun

hard material used as a building material or a binding agent for stronger building materials such as concrete.

coal

Noun

dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

coast

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: coast

component

Noun

part.

concept

Noun

idea.

concrete

Noun

hard building material made from mixing cement with rock and water.

conservation

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

Encyclopedic Entry: conservation

coral

Noun

tiny ocean animal, some of which secrete calcium carbonate to form reefs.

coral reef

Noun

rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.

desalination

Noun

process of converting seawater to fresh water by removing salt and minerals.

emit

Verb

to give off or send out.

empower

Verb

to give authority or power.

energy efficiency

Noun

use of a relatively small amount of energy for a given task, purpose, or service; achieving a specific output with less energy input.

flue gas

Noun

smoke and other emissions from an industrial chimney.

fossil fuel

Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

genius

Noun

very intelligent person.

global warming

Noun

increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.

Encyclopedic Entry: global warming

graduate student

Noun

person who pursues a college or university degree program beyond the basic bachelor's degree.

green

Adjective

environmentally safe and sustainable.

greenhouse gas

Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

Leonardo da Vinci

Noun

(1452-1519) Italian artist, engineer, and scientist.

limestone

Noun

type of sedimentary rock mostly made of calcium carbonate from shells and skeletons of marine organisms.

magnesium

Noun

chemical element with the symbol Mg.

massive

Adjective

very large or heavy.

mineral

Noun

nutrient needed to help cells, organs, and tissues to function.

Mineralization via Aqueous Precipitation

Noun

process of making calcium carbonate cement from carbon dioxide and seawater.

mining

Noun

process of extracting ore from the Earth.

natural gas

Noun

type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.

Encyclopedic Entry: natural gas

pollute

Verb

to introduce harmful materials into a natural environment.

pollution

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

Encyclopedic Entry: pollution

Portland cement

Noun

type of cement that hardens underwater, made by heating clay and limestone in a kiln.

power plant

Noun

industrial facility for the generation of electric energy.

principle

Noun

rule or standard.

prototype

Noun

early version or model.

pursue

Verb

to seek or strive to accomplish.

seawater

Noun

salty water from an ocean or sea.

solar panel

Noun

group of cells that converts sunlight into electricity.

store

Verb

to keep for future use.

technology

Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

toxin

Noun

poisonous substance, usually one produced by a living organism.

Credits

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Writer

Mary Schons

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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