The future of storing CO2 and methane: 'dry water?'

British chemists explore ways "dry water" could join the battle against global warming. The fine, white powder absorbs greenhouse gases, takes methane on the road, and might one day sit in your make-up bag.
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor on

A fine powder raised hopes in cosmetic industries in 1968when it was discovered. Its promise dulled. But "dry water" is back, showing potential for many uses, among them storing carbon dioxide and methane. So say British scientists speaking this week at an American Chemical Society meeting in Boston.

The seemingly oxymoronic term "dry water" is 95 percent water. But silica coats each water molecule, preventing them from bonding together and becoming liquid. The water molecules within each powder particle, however, can still chemically combine with gases and form hydrates.

Since the powder's sponge-like power applies to greenhouse gases, researchers from the University of Hull and University of Liverpool suggest we might one day enlist dry water in the fight against global warming. In the lab, the powder can absorb three times as much CO2 as separated silica and water.

Methane, an even stronger greenhouse gas, could theoretically team up with dry water to facilitate its use as an energy source. The powder may make capturing and delivering methane easier.

In a previous statement, Chemist Andy Cooper of the University of Liverpool says:

Many natural gas reserves are geographically remote and can only be extracted via pipelines, so there is a need to look for other ways to transport the gas. It has been suggested that methane gas hydrate could be used as a way of containing methane gas for transportation. The disadvantage of methane gas hydrate for industry use is that it is formed at a very slow rate when methane reacts with water under pressure.

To counteract these difficulties we used a method to break water up into tiny droplets to increase the surface area in contact with the gas. We did this by mixing water with a special form of silica – a similar material to sand – which stops the water droplets from coalescing.

Tapping and transporting naturally occurring methane hydrate or 'frozen methane' resources, however, could possibly benefit from the powder. The United States has been investigating such deposits in Alaska’s North Slope and in the Gulf of Mexico (see: Energy on the rocks: is combustible ice in our future?).

The chemists also have the safe storage of methane for fueling gas-powered cars in mind for the powder, though they say much more research is needed. Dry water's future applications might also include transporting harmful industrial liquids, producing more energy-efficient products through the powder's ability to kickstart chemical reactions, and back to cosmetics: a cooling, exfoliating moisturizer.

Image: Ben Carter

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