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When Motors Go Marine

‘Ocean acidification’ is a term that’s starting to become much more common, but what does it mean? Quite simply, our oceans are becoming more and more acidic, and it’s posing a great risk to sea life. As carbon dioxide levels continue to rise due to the burning of fossil fuels, more C02 is being absorbed by seawater, and this is causing many chemical reactions to take place that are heightening the risk.

There’s two changes that are particularly noticeable – an increase in acidity, and a reduction in calcium. While an increase in acidity is making the waters inhospitable for many forms of marine life, a reduction in calcium is affecting the growth and development of sea organisms. Since the 1800s, there’s been a 30 percent increase in ocean acidity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, so what’s the solution? Could micro motors be the key to neutralising pH levels and saving our sea life?

What are micro motors? Also called ‘nanomotors’, they are tiny robots that can ‘swim’ underwater. Why are they called micro motors? Well, they typically measure just 6 micrometers – that’s 6 millionths of a metre. To put that into perspective, that’s around about the size of a single strand of a spiderweb! Micro motors may be tiny, but they’re certainly powerful, and they could be key to improving our oceans.

Image Credit: Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics

Scientists are now focusing on what’s known as ‘biomimetic carbon dioxide sequestration’. It sounds complex, but the concept is very simple. Micro motors that contain an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase speed up chemical reactions, helping to turn carbon dioxide gasses into solid calcium salts. This reduces acidity, while also increasing calcium levels to help marine organisms develop and thrive.

According to research, micro motors have been found to be capable of reducing carbon dioxide levels by up to 88 percent in saltwater, suggesting that using micro motors in this way could be very beneficial. But are they really safe for the environment? Currently, micro motors are fuelled by hydrogen peroxide which is toxic to some type of plankton – essential food sources for many organisms. It is hoped that, as research continues, another safer form of fuel can be identified for micro motors.

The scientists behind micro motors hope to eventually create a comprehensive underwater treatment system that’s fuelled by the environment. “We’re excited about the possibility of using these micro motors to combat ocean acidification and global warming,” says researcher Virendra V. Singh. Micro motors are being hailed as one of the most exciting and promising marine developments in history.

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