Rocks could be harnessed to sponge vast amounts of CO2 from air, says study

Nov 05, 2008
Large areas of Omani desert are covered with carbonate minerals that have reacted with bedrock. Credit: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Scientists say that a type of rock found at or near the surface in the Mideast nation of Oman and other areas around the world could be harnessed to soak up huge quantities of globe-warming carbon dioxide. Their studies show that the rock, known as peridotite, reacts naturally at surprisingly high rates with CO2 to form solid minerals—and that the process could be speeded a million times or more with simple drilling and injection methods. The study appears in this week's early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Peridotite comprises most or all of the rock in the mantle, which undergirds earth's crust. It starts some 20 kilometers or more down, but occasionally pieces are exhumed when tectonic plates collide and push the mantle rock to the surface, as in Oman. Geologists already knew that once exposed to air, the rock can react quickly with CO2, forming a solid carbonate like limestone or marble.

However, schemes to transport it to power plants, grind it and combine it with smokestack gases have been seen as too costly and energy intensive. The researchers say that the discovery of previously unknown high rates of reaction underground means CO2 could be sent there artificially, at far less expense. "This method would afford a low-cost, safe and permanent method to capture and store atmospheric CO2," said the lead author, geologist Peter Kelemen.

Kelemen and geochemist Juerg Matter, both at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, made the discovery during field work in the Omani desert, where they have worked for years. Their study area, a Massachusetts-size expanse of largely bare, exposed peridotite, is crisscrossed on the surface with terraces, veins and other formations of whitish carbonate minerals, formed rapidly in recent times when minerals in the rock reacted with CO2-laden air or water. Up to 10 times more carbonates lie in veins belowground; but the subterranean veins were previously thought to be formed by processes unconnected to the atmosphere, and to be nearly as old as the 96-million-year-old rock itself.

However, using conventional carbon isotope dating, Kelemen and Matter showed that the underground veins are also quite young— 26,000 years on average—and are still actively forming as CO2-rich groundwater percolates downward. Many underground samples were conveniently exposed in newly constructed road cuts. All told, Kelemen and Matter estimate that the Omani peridotite is naturally absorbing 10,000 to 100,000 tons of carbon a year--far more than anyone had thought. Similarly large exposures of peridotite are known on the Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea and Caledonia, and along the coasts of Greece and the former Yugoslavia; smaller deposits occur in the western United States and many other places.

The scientists say that the process of locking up carbon in the rocks could be speeded 100,000 times or more simply by boring down and injecting heated water containing pressurized CO2. Once jump-started in this way, the reaction would naturally generate heat—and that heat would in turn hasten the reaction, fracturing large volumes of rock, exposing it to reaction with still more CO2-rich solution. Heat generated by the earth itself also would help, since the further down you go, the higher the temperature. (The exposed Omani peridotite extends down some 5 kilometers.)

The scientists say that such a chain reaction would need little energy input after it was started. Accounting for engineering challenges and other imperfections, they assert that Oman alone could probably absorb some 4 billion tons of atmospheric carbon a year—a substantial part of the 30 billion sent into the atmosphere by humans, mainly through burning of fuels. With large amounts of new solids forming underground, cracking and expansion would generate micro-earthquakes—but not enough to be readily perceptible to humans, says Kelemen.

"It's fortunate that we have these kinds of rocks in the Gulf region," said Matter. Much of the world's oil and gas is produced there, and Oman is constructing new gas-fired electric plants that could become large sources of CO2 could be pumped down.

Matter has been working on a separate project in Iceland, where a different kind of rock, volcanic basalt, also shows promise for absorbing CO2 produced by power plants. Trials there are set to begin n spring 2009, in partnership with Reykjavik Energy, and the universities of Iceland and Toulouse (France).

According to the scientists, Petroleum Development Oman, the state oil company, is interested in a pilot program.

Kelemen said: "We see this as just one of a whole suite of methods to trap carbon. It's a big mistake to think that we should be searching for one thing that will take care of it all."

The paper, "In situ carbonation of peridotite for CO2 storage," is available at www.pnas.org/content/early/200… 794105.full.pdf+html

Source: The Earth Institute at Columbia University

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User comments : 23

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GrayMouser
3.3 / 5 (8) Nov 05, 2008
Would they get carbon credits for having this rock exposed to the air in their countries?
wawadave
2.7 / 5 (7) Nov 05, 2008
ok only one problem how do you capture the co2 from the air?
humanist
3.3 / 5 (7) Nov 05, 2008
1. If you don't know what you're doing, don't do it!

2. If you don't want to do it forever, don't start.
Sirussinder
3.5 / 5 (8) Nov 05, 2008

Al Gore's head is probably worth quite a few carbon credits.
Arikin
2.4 / 5 (7) Nov 05, 2008
Humanist:
1. If you don't know what you're doing, don't do it!
--> You will never know unless you try!

2. If you don't want to do it forever, don't start.
--> This shouldn't be done forever. It is at best a stop-gap while we get off our fossil fuel addiction.
magpies
2 / 5 (6) Nov 06, 2008
And what happens if it fails?
DGBEACH
3.2 / 5 (5) Nov 06, 2008
Isn't anyone else here a little nervous about the possibility of causing bigger earthquakes than what they're describing?
With large amounts of new solids forming underground, cracking and expansion would generate micro-earthquakes%u2014but not enough to be readily perceptible to humans, says Kelemen.

Somehow I don't think he really knows just how extensive the cracking and expansion would be.
Velanarris
4 / 5 (6) Nov 06, 2008
Isn't anyone else here a little nervous about the possibility of causing bigger earthquakes than what they're describing?
With large amounts of new solids forming underground, cracking and expansion would generate micro-earthquakes%u2014but not enough to be readily perceptible to humans, says Kelemen.

Somehow I don't think he really knows just how extensive the cracking and expansion would be.


How much you want to bet that this occurs naturally on the seafloor where there is a lot more exposed mantle rock.
Lord_jag
3 / 5 (6) Nov 06, 2008
So... what do we do with these "solid minerals" when they're spent?

Thow them in the ocean?
RFC
4 / 5 (4) Nov 06, 2008
"Geologists already knew that once exposed to air, the rock can react quickly with CO2, forming a solid carbonate like limestone or marble."

Pantheons for everyone!
tkjtkj
3.8 / 5 (4) Nov 06, 2008
Would they get carbon credits for having this rock exposed to the air in
their countries?


Would that be akin to myself
garnering extra cash in my bank
account by glueing my credit
card to my forehead??
MrPhysOrg
2.8 / 5 (5) Nov 06, 2008
Would they get carbon credits for having this rock exposed to the air in
their countries?


Would that be akin to myself
garnering extra cash in my bank
account by glueing my credit
card to my forehead??


You aren't doing anything for the climate by having them exposed as they are in nature, so no credit. If you expose them beyond their natural levels, then they should get credit for the difference.
THEY
3.8 / 5 (5) Nov 06, 2008
So, instead of REDUCING EMISSIONS globally, or maybe even planting trees, we are going to crack open some rocks hoping to make a better carbon sink? Uh, hello?
GIR
3.5 / 5 (4) Nov 06, 2008
So, instead of REDUCING EMISSIONS globally, or maybe even planting trees, we are going to crack open some rocks hoping to make a better carbon sink?


Who said anything about not reducing emissions or planting trees?

Uh, hello?


Hi
GrayMouser
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 06, 2008
And what happens if it fails?


Ask Al Gore so he can make a disaster film?
E_L_Earnhardt
3 / 5 (4) Nov 06, 2008
GRATE IDEA! GO TO IT!!!
out7x
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2008
It will work in a few thousands of years. Marble is a metamorphic.
MrPhysOrg
5 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2008
It will work in a few thousands of years. Marble is a metamorphic.

So? Any stable carbonate should be adequate. It does beg the question, though: if it's forming a solid carbonate "like limestone or marble", then which one? Limestone-marble require calcium, which does not seem to be a big participant here.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2008
It will work in a few thousands of years. Marble is a metamorphic.

So? Any stable carbonate should be adequate. It does beg the question, though: if it's forming a solid carbonate "like limestone or marble", then which one? Limestone-marble require calcium, which does not seem to be a big participant here.
Calcium is very present in the Earth's mantle and outer crust, quartz and etc.

out7x, limestone can form within months. It's a feasable idea.
GrayMouser
5 / 5 (3) Nov 12, 2008
ok only one problem how do you capture the co2 from the air?


And the second problem is what to do with all the dead plants after the CO2 is removed from the atmosphere? Maybe we can genetically engineer them to use oxygen instead...
MikeB
4 / 5 (4) Nov 13, 2008
Off topic but interesting about oceans, rocks and CO2.

http://jenniferma...-plimer/
robertg222
4 / 5 (4) Nov 14, 2008
Now why would we want waste money to do this sense the earth has gone into a cooling cycle without any help from man. Temps have been dropping sense 1998. It's time to abandon the global warming scam, the world economy can't afford the cost to accomplish nothing.
denijane
1 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2008
Nice....it sounds doable, though, we can't cover the whole Earth with this rocks-it would look little impracticable.As well as pumping CO2 from the whole world, there. Though an occasional mountain from that material could be fun way of solving the problem.
But it won't work until we don't decrease our emissions and improve our efficiency.
http://tothefutur...spot.com