Scientists Visit Carbon Capture and Sequestration Site in Iceland

by |October 23, 2009

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions while meeting the world’s ever increasing energy needs is one of the greatest challenges of this century. Scientists, researchers and students at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, with the enduring support of donors like Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, who helped establish the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, are developing novel approaches to address these urgent issues and are partnering with researchers and scientists around the world to jointly address these problems.

Gerry Lenfest, a University trustee and alumnus of Columbia Law School, is a vital supporter of the Earth Institute and its energy-related research projects. The commitment shown by Gerry Lenfest and his wife Marguerite to climate change and sustainable development has translated into more than $28 million in support for the Earth Institute. In addition to helping establish the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, in 2004, the Lenfest Foundation supported the construction of the Comer Geochemistry Building, endowed the first professorship at the Earth Institute, in applied climate science, and has since endowed another professorship in natural resource economics. As Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest have said, “These are urgent issues, and the world’s leading scientists and experts will be drawn together by the Earth Institute to find practical solutions.”

Since we continue to use energy that emits carbon dioxide, a cleaner way to produce it is necessary. Even producing energy from non-fossil fuel based sources, like geothermal power, still emits greenhouse gasses. By capturing the CO2 at its point of emission, and injecting it into suitable deep rock formations, like basalt, carbon can be returned back to where it was first extracted instead of being released into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming.

Klaus Lackner, Juerg Matter and Martin Stute with other conference participants examine a topographic map of Iceland.

Klaus Lackner, Juerg Matter and Martin Stute with other conference participants examine a topographic map of Iceland.

To further research and promote these potential solutions, in September the Earth Institute co-sponsored an international conference on carbon sequestration in Reykjavik, Iceland as part of the CarbFix program.

The Earth Institute invited several special guests from the government, industry, nonprofit and corporate sectors to attend the CarbFix conference. They were joined by Wally Broecker of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Klaus Lackner of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, Lamont-Doherty researchers Martin Stute, and Juerg Matter, and Columbia graduate student Diana Fernandez de la Reguera Taya.

The trip began with a private tour of the Hellisheidi Power Plant, which has rich geothermal energy potential. Juerg Matter and graduate student researchers, and in collaboration with the other CarbFix partners, is studying how quickly CO2 will react with basalt once it is injected into the ground. The goal is to have the power plant start trapping a portion of its carbon dioxide emissions, with injections of CO2 to begin by the end of this year.

Part of the Hellisheidi Power Plant in Iceland

Part of the Hellisheidi Power Plant in Iceland

A special reception at the home of the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, kicked off the conference. The formal scientific meeting took place over two days, where Wally Broecker, Klaus Lackner, and Juerg Matter presented their research on climate change, air capture, and mineral sequestration respectively, along with renowned international speakers who are experts in the carbon sequestration field.

The formal convening concluded with a special dinner hosted by the Earth Institute at Dill Restaurant where we were joined by the leader of the Slow Food Reykjavik local convivium, an organization dedicated to food sustainability by using locally sourced vegetables, meats and other specialty foods.

On the last day, participants took an exclusive field excursion into Iceland’s countryside, with award-winning Icelandic author and geophysicist Ari Trausti as our guide, visiting important geological sites such as Thingvellir National Park. They then drove towards the glacier Langjökull, where they saw first-hand how climate change is having a devastating effect on this and other glaciers in the region, especially in the last 20 years.

The participants were thrilled to meet one of our students who is working on carbon capture and sequestration methods. Diana Fernandez de la Reguera Taya, a Fulbright Fellow and PhD student at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is helping develop radiocarbon and tracer methodology to monitor the soon-to-be injected CO2 in the storage reservoir with the CarbFix project, as well as working on the design and development of an injection system for these tracers.

“I was impressed by the international collaboration between several world-class institutions conducting cutting-edge science,” said Allyson K. Anderson, of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources who attended the conference and met Diana.  “I was even more impressed by the strong commitment to training the next generation of scientists for our carbon constrained world.  It was an excellent educational experience for me—as both a scientist and science policy advisor.”

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