Asbestos could be a powerful weapon against climate change (you read that right)

On a scorching day this August, Caleb Woodall wielded his shovel like a spear, stabbing it into the hardened crust of an asbestos-filled pit close to Coalinga, California.

Woodall, a graduate scholar at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, was digging out samples from an asbestos mine that’s been shuttered since 1980, a Superfund website on the best peak within the state’s Diablo Vary. He extracted kilos of the fabric from a number of places throughout San Benito Mountain, shoveled them into Ziploc baggage, and shipped them to a pair of labs for evaluation.

He and his colleagues are attempting to find out the make-up and construction of the supplies pulled from the pits, and to reply two vital questions: How a lot carbon dioxide do they include—and the way way more may they retailer?

The huge floor space of sure forms of fibrous asbestos, a category of carcinogenic compounds as soon as closely utilized in heat-resistant constructing supplies, makes them notably good at grabbing maintain of the carbon dioxide molecules dissolved in rainwater or floating by the air.

That features the commonest type of asbestos, chrysotile, a serpentine mineral laced all through the mountain (serpentine is California’s state rock). The response with carbon dioxide primarily produces magnesium carbonate minerals like magnesite, a secure materials that would lock away the greenhouse gasoline for millennia.

Woodall and his advisor Jennifer Wilcox, a carbon removal researcher, are amongst a rising variety of scientists exploring methods to speed up these in any other case gradual reactions in hopes of utilizing mining waste to combat local weather change. It’s a useful carbon-capturing trick that will additionally work with the calcium- and magnesium-rich by-products of nickel, copper, diamond, and platinum mining.

The preliminary hope is to offset the ample carbon emissions from mining itself utilizing these minerals already extracted within the course of. However the true hope is that this early work permits them to determine how one can successfully and affordably dig up minerals, doubtlessly together with asbestos, particularly for the aim of drawing down huge quantities of greenhouse gasoline from the ambiance.

“Decarbonizing mines within the subsequent decade is simply serving to us to construct confidence and know-how to really mine for the aim of unfavourable emissions,” says Gregory Dipple, a professor on the College of British Columbia and considered one of the leading researchers in this emerging field.

Accelerating a really gradual cycle

The UN’s local weather panel found that any situation that doesn’t heat the planet by greater than 1.5 ˚C would require almost eliminating emissions by midcentury, in addition to eradicating 100 billion to 1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air this century. Holding warming beneath 2˚ C may necessitate sucking out 10 billion tons a 12 months by 2050 and 20 billion yearly by 2100, a study by the National Academies found.

That’s such a large quantity that we’ll nearly actually want to make use of a wide range of strategies to get wherever shut, together with planting timber and rising carbon uptake in agricultural soils. The actual promise of utilizing minerals to drag down carbon dioxide is that it may be accomplished on a large scale—and would successfully retailer it away without end.

Caleb Woodall deposits asbestos samples right into a Ziplock bag for later evaluation.


Mineralization is already the principle mechanism nature makes use of within the so-called “gradual carbon cycle.” The carbon dioxide in rainwater dissolves fundamental rocks, producing magnesium, calcium, and different compounds that make their means into the oceans. There, marine life converts the supplies into shells and skeletons that finally flip into limestone and different rock varieties.

There are greater than sufficient minerals to tie up all of the carbon dioxide we’ve ever emitted and extra. The issue is that the overwhelming majority are locked away in stable rock that doesn’t come into contact with the greenhouse gasoline. Even after they’re uncovered in rock outcroppings, it takes a very long time for these reactions to happen.

However a wide range of interventions can remodel the pure gradual carbon cycle right into a quicker one. These embody bodily processes like merely digging up the supplies, grinding them down into finer particles, and spreading them in skinny layers, all of which will increase the reactive floor space uncovered to carbon dioxide. There are additionally methods to hurry up the chemical reactions by including warmth or compounds like acids.

“That is the large, untapped alternative that would take away monumental quantities of CO2,” says Roger Aines, head of the Carbon Initiative at Lawrence Livermore Nationwide Lab, who accompanied Woodall on the California discipline journey.

The best recipe

Dipple is exploring a wide range of methods to do that.

In a pilot undertaking final 12 months, funded by the diamond firm De Beers and Pure Sources Canada, he and colleagues used tailings from a mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories to ensnare carbon dioxide launched from a tank. The purpose was to judge the potential of utilizing minerals to seize and retailer the gasoline from the flue stream of an influence plant.

The crew is now conducting a discipline trial for a proposed nickel plant in British Columbia. They’ve positioned tailings from exploratory drilling into assorted containers, and are measuring the response charges that end result from utilizing totally different chemical components and processes underneath totally different climate situations. However they anticipate that merely including water and successfully tilling the supplies will quickly take away carbon dioxide from the air, forming a stable block that may be buried.

As a result of the proposed operation would run totally on hydroelectric energy, they estimate that placing to make use of simply 30% of probably the most reactive tailings from the mines would make the operation carbon impartial. Utilizing about 50% would make it carbon unfavourable.

However not all mine tailings are created equal. In a separate undertaking, Wilcox and Woodall are conducting fieldwork at a platinum, palladium, and nickel mine in Montana, in hopes of growing methods to speed up carbon-capturing reactions with less-than-ideal by-products. The principle minerals within the tailings there are plagioclase feldspars, which maintain magnesium and calcium in a decent chemical construction, making them much less reactive than different forms of mine waste.

Again within the lab, they’re testing whether or not making use of warmth and including ammonium salts and sure weak acids can break down the bonds, liberating up extra calcium and magnesium to seize maintain of carbon dioxide.

“If we are able to provide you with a recipe on all these totally different tailings, the alternatives may explode,” Wilcox says.

Subsequent steps

Woodall is exploring asbestos websites as a result of he hopes to seek out one that may work nicely for a subsequent discipline trial to judge methods of accelerating carbon uptake.

The approaches may embody spreading the fabric out to extend the reactive floor space, operating followers that enhance the quantity of air flowing over the asbestos, or straight injecting concentrated carbon dioxide into the mineral pits.

Over time, these processes ought to kind a mixture of loosely certain rock and grime, primarily composed of magnesium carbonates, bicarbonate, and calcium carbonate, that would merely be left in place, Aines says.

However is it secure to blow air round asbestos? And would such efforts truly clear up these poisonous websites?

Mineral collection near a pond.


Given the well being dangers of asbestos, the place—and even whether or not—any subsequent work takes place will depend upon the determinations of scientific oversight boards and regulatory officers.

It’s attainable that some quantity of asbestos would stay or might be dispersed in the middle of doing the work, Aines says. That’s one of many key issues that might must be examined, he provides.

It’s additionally why it’s vital to do such work at a restricted website, and why any analysis or subsequent full-scale efforts would want to comply with the clear guidelines and processes for working with these supplies. Woodall stresses they’d take all the required precautions, together with spraying down the supplies with water to stop asbestos from floating round, in addition to utilizing sensors to observe publicity ranges.

Coming challenges

In the end, mine tailings on their very own received’t get us very far.

Woodall estimates that one asbestos website in Vermont, with about 30 million tons of waste, may seize as a lot as 12 million tons of carbon dioxide. Mines globally produce sufficient mineral by-products to seize almost 40 million tons of carbon dioxide per 12 months, in response to the Nationwide Academies examine.

However all that’s only a tiny fraction of the billions of tons of carbon dioxide that should be captured to meaningfully tackle local weather change. So getting wherever close to the required scale will requiring digging up extra of the minerals.

Woodall and Aines each say that would embody asbestos, given how reactive it’s, if discipline trials present the method is efficient and secure.

However that concept is certain to boost critical considerations given the well being dangers posed by asbestos. And there are many different mineral choices, even when they’re not fairly as ideally suited.

Different analysis teams and nonprofits are already taking a look at methods to place extra minerals to work as soon as they’re extracted, together with: spreading ground-down olivine along beaches or sprinkling basalt mud onto farmland to soak up carbon dioxide and assist fertilize crops.

Mining for any supplies on a far bigger scale, nonetheless, will face numerous challenges. Mining itself is environmentally harmful. All of the vitality required to extract, grind, distribute, and course of the minerals will eat into any emissions reductions. And there might be critical limits on the obtainable land, notably since it might take years for a lot of the minerals to react with carbon dioxide.

For instance, eradicating 2.5 billion tons of CO2 per 12 months utilizing magnesium oxide would require a 10-centimeter-thick (almost four inches) layer protecting about 15,000 sq. kilometers (nearly 5,800 sq. miles), in response to a Nature Communications paper in July. That’s equal to a bit of greater than 5% of Nevada.

However the main stumbling block is the fee. Wilcox says it might run greater than $200 per ton all-in, which is much dearer than planting timber.

It’s attainable that a few of the supplies may go into industrial merchandise, just like the aggregates in concrete, to defray the prices. Some stage of voluntary carbon offsets, the place individuals or companies pay to steadiness out their very own emissions, may assist as nicely. However attending to the size of billions of tons, most observers imagine, will take aggressive public insurance policies that put excessive costs on carbon air pollution or create beneficiant incentives for eradicating it.

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