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Science Spotlight

Carbon Sequestration—out of the air and into the dirt

You most likely haven't noticed, but there is slightly more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than there was when you took your first breath the day you were born.

In the last 200 years, the volume of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere has increased by roughly 30 percent. This increase—mostly the result of using fossil fuels as sources of energy—is believed to be a contributing factor to global climate change. Because the use of fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil will continue for the foreseeable future, there's a growing international scientific effort to develop ways to slow the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

One approach is to capture and securely store carbon emitted from the global energy system. This process is called carbon sequestration.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory lead a scientific research effort focused on removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. Known as the U.S. Department of Energy's Center for Research on Enhancing Carbon Sequestration in Terrestrial Ecosystems (CSITE), this group is helping determine ways to use plants, microbes and soil management practices to cause more carbon to be stored below ground.

"By making modest changes in farming and forestry practices, plants and soils can be used much more efficiently to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," said Cesar Izaurralde, staff scientist with the global climate change group at Pacific Northwest. "This not only cleans the atmosphere, but increases organic matter in the soil where it can be beneficial."

Pacific Northwest's Blaine Metting, who leads CSITE jointly with Gary Jacobs from Oak Ridge, explained that the research center is building the scientific understanding necessary to develop and test flexible, feasible carbon sequestration technologies.

"We're working on terrestrial carbon sequestration studies ranging from the molecular level to large-scale land use," Metting said. "At the molecular level, we're conducting research on the effects of adding organic carbon and fossil energy byproducts to mine spoils, with the added benefit of reclaiming the land as well as storing carbon. On a larger scale, studies are underway to determine changes in managing agricultural systems that could increase carbon sequestration."

One research project taking place in the Cascade Mountains in the Northwest and in loblolly pine forests in the Southeast is aimed at improving the efficiency of capturing and storing carbon in forests.

In another project, Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge have joined Ohio State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute in a two-year project to study the use of soil enhancers made from the solid wastes of coal plants, paper mills and sewage treatment facilities to improve the natural carbon uptake of lands disturbed by mining, highway construction or poor management practices.

In addition to looking at how to capture and stabilize carbon in land, the CSITE also will research ways to measure, monitor and verify sequestration.

The goal of all the carbon sequestration technologies is to help stabilize the carbon dioxide level in the Earth's atmosphere—avoiding carbon emissions and increasing capture and storage wherever possible.

"Terrestrial carbon sequestration can help buy time for development and deployments of novel energy technologies to displace fossil fuel," Metting said. "We're hoping to slow the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and help control global climate change while researchers work on ways to reduce society's reliance on fossil fuel energy and increase the use of low-carbon and carbon-free fuels and technologies."

Special thanks to Richard Romanelli for his work on this story.

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