Carbon dioxide is the gas many scientists believe responsible for all ills of the world: from global warming to the increase of sea levels or the desertification of forests. Co2 surely is one of the biggest environmental risk factors to occur over the last 150 years.
The now historic agreement signed in Paris in December 2015 by 195 countries bound all signatories to halt the threatening presence of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. The figures confirm the emergency: in 2017 Co2 has crossed the critical threshold of 400 parts per million, meteorological disasters are increasing and the stretch of the Arctic ice cover has never been so scant.
In reality, this gas that threatens the delicate balance of our ecosystem can be captured and converted into a useful and even sustainable byproduct, explains Guido Saracco, head of the Center for Sustainable Futures, a new research center of the Italian Institute of Technology, dedicated entirely to the development of applications to reduce the greenhouse effect.
One of the challenges undertaken by this new IIT department is exactly to recycle and repurpose carbon dioxide. “Co2 is not just a problem; it can become an opportunity” says Saracco. “For example, we can enhance the photosynthetic processes that occur in nature via the engineering of microorganisms that could capture carbon dioxide to then produce chemicals, biofuels and other high-value materials”.
To preserve the planet, in other words, in the future we may encounter microbial-workers, semi-robotic life forms that consume carbon dioxide and release unleaded petrol.
But this is not the only way to tackle global warming. “The alternative is that of artificial photosynthesis - says the head of the Center, which opened in November 2016 - we can develop panels, similar to solar ones, where instead of solar cells, photo-electrolyzes that convert carbon dioxide into fuel are installed”.
Nanomaterials and biochemical processes in the future could mitigate the prophecies of doom that Co2 has been dragging along for a while. “Over the next thirty years – said Saracco – we will be doing three times as much as what has been done so far to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere”.