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Undersea Volcanic Rocks Offer Storage For Greenhouse Gases


Chicago (IL) - A group of scientists has conducted experiments utilizing deep ocean-floor drilling to show that volcanic rocks located off of the West Coast of the U.S. and in other areas could potentially be capable of securely capturing and storing large amounts of global-warming causing carbon dioxide that is captured from power plants and other sources. According to the scientists, natural chemical reactions under 30,000 square miles of ocean floor off of the coast of Oregon, California, Washington and British Columbia could potentially be capable of trapping as much as 150 years worth of U.S. carbon dioxide production.

The process has been deemed carbon sequestration and the interest in the process is beginning to grow worldwide. As of yet, there are no large-scale projects underway, and other geological settings could potentially pose problems. For example, the petroleum industry has been pumping carbon dioxide into voids that were left by old oil wells on a small scale. Some individuals fear that these could eventually leak, which would allow gas to seep back into the air which could be harmful for individuals in the area.

However, lead author David Goldberg, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, called the study "the first good evidence that this kind of carbon burial is feasible."

"We are convinced that the sub-ocean floor is a significant part of the solution to the global climate problem," said Goldberg. "Basalt reservoirs are understudied. They are immense, accessible and well sealed - a huge prize in the search for viable options." One of the main advantages, he said, is a chemical process between basalt and pumped-in carbon dioxide that would convert the carbon into a solid mineral.

In their study findings, Goldberg and the scientists he worked with, Taro Takahashi and Angela Slagle, utilized findings from pervious deep-ocean drilling studies at the Jauna de Fuca plate, which is located about 100 miles off of the Pacific coast. They used the findings to chart a vast basalt formation they feel could be used for this type of pumping. Basalt is the basic component of the ocean floors: It is hardened lava that has erupted from volcanoes and fissures under the oceans and seas. Off of the Pacific coast, the majority of the basalt is located in a depth of 2700 meters (8850 feet) and below 200 meters (650 feet) or more of overlying fine-grained sediment.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Programs apparently has shown that the rock is porous and honeycombed with watery channels that could provide space for pressurized carbon dioxide. The scientists created a map of specific sites that are isolated from earthquakes, hydrothermal vents, or other factors that might upset the system.

Ongoing experiments that have been conducted by Lamont scientists on land have shown that when carbon dioxide is combined with basalt, the gas and components of the rock react together naturally, creating a solid carbonate like chalk. To demonstrate the effect, a separate team that will be lead by Lamont geochemist Juerg Matter plans to pump will into a basalt formation on land located at a power plant near Reykjavik, Iceland.

While basalts exist at or near the surface of other land areas such as the northeast United States, the Carribean, North and South Africa and southeast Asia, Goldberg claims that undersea basalts, which tend to be widespread, could be potentially larger and better than the ones available on land. It is believed that the carbon dioxide that does not actually react with the rock will be heavier than the seawater and won’t be able to rise back to the top. And even if it did escape, the rock would actually hit the overlying impermeable cap of clay like sediment in areas such as the Juan de Fuca plate.

Individuals that are skeptical of the process have pointed out that getting the carbon dioxide to the particular sites would be difficult and expensive. But Goldberg feels that the West Coast formations should be close enough to the land that delivery via pipelines or tankers would be feasible. He has called on the government to study and survey the details of how the idea might be possible, and whether or not the economics work out. Currently, the United States spends about $40 million a year on the study of carbon sequestration, but the majority of it goes to land based research. "Forty million is about the opening-day box office for Finding Nemo," Goldberg said.

The concept of ocean carbon sequestration could be a big deal in our opinion. What are your thoughts? Let us know by writing a comment below.

  • mdillenbeck
    I cannot recall exactly where, but I recall an event where a lake in a large volcanic crater built up a pocket of carbon dioxide in it - then, in a sudden out-gassing, it suffocated all life in the region.

    Although not a geophysicist, I suspect such an event could not happen in most carbon sequestering scenarios. However, I do understand how entropy works, and I wonder what influence the dispersion of artificially concentrated concentrations of carbon dioxide would have on the local sea life.

    Furthermore, carbon sequestering fails to address two key issues for me: resource use and efficiency.

    Since my focus is on sustainability and not environmentalism, I am concerned that carbon sequestration will actually increases our resource consumption. As dissenters point out, you must use fuel and a portion of your generated electricity during sequestration. Compare this to cleaner alternatives where the waste stream lies mainly in the manufacture of the power plant, and thus no energy is diverted to deal with byproduct of energy production.

    Also, if anthropogenic carbon emissions do alter the climate (and the vast majority of scientists, especially those in the field, do agree that it does), carbon sequestering does nothing to decrease our usage of electricity. In fact, it may justify a lack of concern in users. ("Hey, all the bad carbon dioxide is safely stored - so its okay to use as much energy as I want. After all, its 'clean' energy now.")

    I would much rather see an efficiency program adapted versus a sequestration strategy - of even better, both (but that most likely isn't fiscally viable). Greater energy efficiency and lower power consumption should be the primary goal.

    To keep this tied in with IT, lets use the data center scenario. Which capital investment would benefit a company more:

    1) going to a virtualization platform where physical servers can host multiple virtual servers to maximize system resources, thus allowing physical systems to be dynamically switched on and off as needed and virtual systems to be migrated on demand. (This also add the benefit of fault tolerance.)

    2) paying their utility company a premium to cover the cost of carbon sequestration and thus improving their "green image" by reducing their impact on the environment.

    Of course, most businesses would probably choose the second because of short-term thinking. The first option requires a high initial investment compensated by monthly savings, the second requires a small monthly expense that will keep accruing. Now, instead of money, think of efficiency versus sequestration in terms of net carbon dioxide emissions. Which one would have the greatest cost-benefit ratio after 5, 10, 50, or 100 years?
  • Not very many years ago everybody was "green", meaning they lived within nature's carbon cycle. It's called the Middle Ages and most people survived by subsistance farming. For all of human history until recent years energy was VERY expensive. The only way humans will be so green again, baring fundamental discoveries in energy production, is to roll back civilization to that bygone era. The earth could only support about half a billion people back then so there would need to be a +90% reduction. The fast track is to let bin Laden win the terror war.
  • sublifer
    First off, to quote from the article:
    '"We are convinced that the sub-ocean floor is a significant part of the solution to the global climate problem," said Goldberg.'
    As many other scientists have found evidence of, and I myself believe as well from information that I've been represented with, there is no "global climate problem" the "global warming trend" (which I'm not so sure of as we've had some extremely cold winters lately) can be explained as part of a natural cycle.

    Furthermore, as is the case in the historical cycles, the natural ecology adjusts to compensate for changes (e.g. more plants grow, or grow faster, to consume the greater quantities of CO2)

    Also, as Dillenbeck above stated, any natural or unnatural event that causes a massive release of CO2 is likely to kill any oxygen dependent beings in that area and may also have global consequences of a greater proportion than one might think. Sudden water displacement may cause tidal waves, sudden air displacements causing storms or disrupting the natural weather cycle due to the concentrated heavy gas.

    Contemplating massive storage of CO2 is akin to contemplating future genocide. These areas they are studying may not be prone to earthquakes or other disruptions now, but in time, they will be. Tectonic plates are constantly shifting and always have the chance to create new fissures or split into new plates. What may be in the center of a plate and away from earthquakes today may split tomorrow, especially with the addition of huge quantities of gas as they are talking about.
  • bounty
    Then you still have India and China. Solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear and efficiency. That and missile shields, nuclear scanners and lots of paranoia.
  • It was Lake Nyos that emmited the CO2 clud that killed all those people. The CO2 built up under the lake, and then something stirred up the lake, cause a cloud of CO2 to roll down the mountain killing around 2000 people and a whole lot of animals.
  • Kari
    MDillenbeckI cannot recall exactly where, but I recall an event where a lake in a large volcanic crater built up a pocket of carbon dioxide in it - then, in a sudden out-gassing, it suffocated all life in the region.Lake Nyos in Cameroon. On 21 August 1986, possibly triggered by a landslide, the lake suddenly emitted a large cloud of CO2, which suffocated 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock in nearby villages.

    on other sources the estimates are around 1800 people an up to 6000 livestock.

    Anyhow I think the concept is well worth extra studying.
  • Kari
    lol Train beat me to it, I'm so slow typer...

    and I even messed up the citation thingie :(
  • gm0n3y
    Burying the CO2 is a temporary solution to a permanent problem and could cause other problems, as mentioned above. Also, as mentioned by MDillenbeck, it will discourage energy efficiency and reductions in usage. The real solution is a combination of increased efficiency, increased renewable / clean energy production, and decreased usage. As for the "global warming myth" people, how's the view in the sand?
  • jestersage
    Definitely worth more looking into... The Lake Nyos incident is likely not applicable since the article indicated that the process involves a reaction of the carbon based waste into a solid material like chalk (limestone is the naturally occurring material that comes to mind but other carbonates are definitely possible since basalt contains several alkali metals - elements found on the left side of the table of elements).

    This solidification makes the extra precaution of requiring a cap of impermeable clay (sort of like top-soil except it's at the bottom of the ocean) exactly just that- an extra precaution.

    MDillenbeck does have a point, though: In terms of sustainability and efficiency, does it solve more of our problems than it creates/adds?

    I also want to comment on sublifer's mention of the natural cycle. Global warming is, in my opinion, the peak of a thermal cycle that the biosphere, atmosphere and aquasphere experiences. The opposite of which is what we refer to as an Ice Age. Since it is a cycle, it will keep on happening.

    Lastly, just to place a different perspective on catastrophic release of carbon gasses: This is actually a relatively common event. The most familiar of which are volcanic eruptions. I recall the early 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that released so much ash and carbon gasses that it cooled the planet by an average 2 degrees C for a few years. The Lake Nyos event was sad because of the loss of biological life. But if any such event were to occur in a location being proposed by the article (~9000 feet below sea level where biological life is scant) then I think it definitely has merit - hence the need for more research (on economical viability, sustainability, etc...
  • jv_acabal
    I hate to think that this could be another method to hide our waste. The thought suggests another alteration of the natural process of the earth. I say, let's reduce our waste and use greener fuel.