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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Climate Research - From Science to Society

Carbon dioxide storage rocks!

Pete McGrail sees a rock-solid future ahead. Sedimentary or basalt, he is interested in finding the best geological formations for safely storing carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide, which is released through the combustion of fossil fuels in power plants, automobiles and factories, is the most significant greenhouse gas. Finding innovative ways to continue to benefit from fossil fuels while avoiding release of CO2 to the atmosphere is a hallmark of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's climate-change-related research.

Major geological storage options for CO2

McGrail leads PNNL's scientific efforts to develop viable ways to capture CO2 from fossil-fuel-burning energy plants and other large industrial facilities and store it deep underground in a process known as carbon dioxide capture and storage, CCS.

In fall 2006 or early 2007, McGrail and his colleagues plan to inject 3,000 tons of CO2 3,000 feet down into Columbia River basalt formations in Washington state to determine if the basalt can permanently store CO2. This effort is part of the Big Sky Regional Carbon Partnership, one of seven partnerships created by the U.S. Department of Energy that brings together national laboratories, universities, utilities and international research institutes to explore using CCS in specific regions of the United States.

"If proven viable, we believe basalts in the Pacific Northwest could create a major opportunity for zero-emission power generation in the Columbia Basin," McGrail said. "This field work also will help demonstrate the viability of using basalts to reduce future CO2 emissions elsewhere in the United States and in India, given the large basalt formations in that country."

Laboratory evidence supports McGrail. "When we exposed Columbia River basalts to CO2 in the lab, we found that the CO2 was converted to a solid—calcium carbonate—in four to six weeks, much faster than we ever thought possible," McGrail said. "If this process of carbonate mineralization works in the field as it has in the laboratory, it should be possible to permanently and safely sequester CO2 within basalt formations."

That would be an important outcome from McGrail's research because the Pacific Northwest and Southeastern United States have very limited conventional geologic storage in sedimentary rocks. "The best-case scenario is to have suitable geologic reservoirs near the CO2 source," McGrail said. "With basalt formations now included as a potentially viable storage option, developing zero-emission energy sources that support economic growth in these regions remains a cost-competitive alternative."

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