Researchers have devised new methods to turn toxic asbestos mine tailings into innocuous piles of carbonate rock and draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide at the same time.
Once celebrated for its heat resistance and durability, asbestos has now become synonymous with “hazardous” due to the health threats it poses when its tiny fibrils become airborne.
As a result, the material has been phased out of most consumer products. But the legacy of asbestos mining in Canada and elsewhere around the world has left piles of hazardous material stranded at abandoned mines, with ongoing health threats to those living in close proximity.
Now researchers are looking for ways to clean up and repurpose that waste, all while trying to slow climate change. Jenine McCutcheon, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, has worked with colleagues to develop techniques that could turn abandoned asbestos tailings into deposits of magnesium carbonate, a group of minerals that includes the white powder that gymnasts and rock climbers use to improve their grip.
Expanded on a large enough scale, this mine waste remediation could also help slow global warming by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in stable carbonate rock form.
This carbon sequestration process occurs naturally as rocks break down over the course of millions of years. But McCutcheon and colleagues are devising a method to dramatically expedite that natural occurrence with the help of bacterial mats.
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