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Seeking Funds For Geoengineering

Scientists tell house subcommittee that the U.S.needs an additional federal climate research program

by Cheryl Hogue
February 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 8

Credit: BigStock
Serpentine, a mineral found in certain metamorphic rocks, can sequester CO2 as carbonate.
Credit: BigStock
Serpentine, a mineral found in certain metamorphic rocks, can sequester CO2 as carbonate.

Congress should fund a federal research effort on geoengineering technology, a panel of scientists told the House of Representatives Science & Technology Subcommittee on Energy & Environment earlier this month. The results of such federal research could, if needed, help buy time for the world to wean itself off fossil fuels, the researchers said.

Once dismissed by many scientists as too risky or presumptuous, geoengineering efforts to weaken the effects of human-induced global warming are gaining more support from researchers, albeit with strong caveats (C&EN, Nov. 23, 2009, page 28). At the hearing, the panel told the subcommittee about the state of research in this area and gave recommendations about where Congress may be able to help.

To set the stage at the hearing, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), the chairman of the subcommittee, said, “Our first priority is to reduce the production of global greenhouse gas emissions.” But if these cuts are too little and too late, geoengineering techniques could offer an alternative.

“Some may have potential, some sound downright scary, and they all carry levels of uncertainty, hazards, and risks that could outweigh their intended benefit,” Baird said. “Furthermore, the technologies proposed for deployment of many of these geoengineering techniques are very young or nonexistent, and there are major uncertainties regarding their effectiveness, environmental impacts, and economic costs.”

Geoengineering techniques fall into two main categories. One involves reducing the amount of solar radiation that enters Earth’s atmosphere and gets trapped by greenhouse gases. Methods under this category would fairly immediately lower the planet’s average temperature but would not address serious climate-change effects such as ocean acidification from increased carbon dioxide levels. The second category consists of techniques to strip CO2 from the air and lock it away in deep underground storage, in biomass or soils, or as stable minerals.

Thus far, geoengineering research in the U.S. has been done on a shoestring budget, said Philip Rasch, chief climate scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Atmospheric Science & Global Change Division. According to Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), the top Republican on the subcommittee, the federal government contributed only $2.5 million toward these efforts last year. As a result, much of the current research on geoengineering is funded by a “hodgepodge of private money,” noted David Keith, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and of economics at the University of Calgary.

As in the U.S., government support for geoengineering research in Europe is low. The U.K. is funding such research at about $1.6 million per year, and the European Union is considering a plan to contribute $1.5 million toward these investigations, Rasch testified.

Urging Congress to inject U.S. taxpayer money into these efforts, Rasch said that $10 million, $20 million, or $50 million per year “would have an enormous effect on the research activity in this area.” If early studies demonstrate that some techniques show promise for geoengineering and policymakers consider deploying them, “funding must increase sharply to a level similar to that of a Manhattan Project,” Rasch said. The Manhattan Project was the enormous U.S.-led effort, with participation by Canada and the U.K., to develop the world’s first atom bomb in the 1940s at a cost of approximately $22 billion in today’s dollars.

Federally supported geoengineering R&D could drive down the cost of mineral sequestration as a way to capture CO2 and keep it from the atmosphere, said Klaus S. Lackner, a geophysics professor at Columbia University. The current cost of mineral sequestration runs about $100 per ton of CO2, he said. But further development of this technology could slash this figure to $10 per ton, according to Lackner. Air-capture and mineral sequestration technologies could allow continued use of fossil fuels, such as coal, for decades, strengthening U.S. energy security, he told the subcommittee.

Mineral sequestration of CO2 happens in nature, Lackner explained. Volcanoes belch the gas into the atmosphere, and the geological process of weathering chemically fixes CO2 into rock as carbonates, he explained.

“Air capture and mineral sequestration simply work toward restoring the carbon balance of the planet that has been disturbed by the massive mobilization of fossil carbon,” Lackner said. “Because they function within the existing carbon cycle, they also have far fewer unintended consequences than many other geoengineering approaches.” This differs from plans for standard CO2 sequestration, which rely on an underground formation to act as a trap to keep the gas from reaching the atmosphere.

There are two approaches to mineral sequestration, according to Lackner. One involves mining and crushing rocks containing suitable minerals, such as serpentine or olivine, that react with CO2. The crushed rocks are exposed to CO2 that is stripped from smokestack emissions or directly from air, converting the gas to carbonates. About 6 tons of rock could bind the CO2 from 1 ton of burned coal, he said.

In the second method, CO2 is injected underground into a formation that is specially selected so the minerals in the rock react with the gas to form carbonates over a few decades, Lackner explained. Basalts—a type of rock found in various parts of the U.S., notably in the northwest—are suitable for this application, he said. To improve this method, the U.S. should consider funding research to better understand carbonate chemistry, reaction kinetics, sorbents, and catalysts to speed up reactions, as well as research to develop better models of how basalts weather in the presence of CO2, he said.

Meanwhile, Keith argued for Congress to fund geoengineering research on solar radiation management. Possibilities for these technologies include injecting aerosols into the stratosphere and promoting the formation of clouds. Such techniques could rapidly cool the planet, buying time for society to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions.

But Keith urged lawmakers to start slowly on funding geoengineering efforts. “Given the limited scientific community now knowledgeable about solar radiation management, a very rapid buildup of research funding might result in a lot of ill-conceived projects being funded, and given the inherently controversial nature of the technology, the result might be a backlash that effectively ends systematic research,” he told the subcommittee.

Robert B. Jackson, a biology professor at Duke University, and Keith also recommended that the federal government form an interagency working group on geoengineering analogous to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, an interagency group focused on climate-change research. “No single agency has the expertise needed to lead all geoengineering research,” Jackson told the subcommittee.

Subcommittee Chairman Baird said the full House Science & Technology Committee will hold a hearing in the spring on potential governance of geoengineering.


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