Technology & Innovation

Turning CO2 into rocks? An Icelandic geologist blazes a new path in global warming

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Humans have been burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution and the ecology has now reached the breaking point in carbon dioxide (CO2) level. In order to purify the harmful emissions in the air which lead to global warming, an Icelandic geologist, the “Alchemist of the 21st century”, has turned CO2 into rocks in two years by injecting it into volcanic basalt soil beneath the ground in the hope of reducing the harm caused by CO2 to the earth.

As the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere rises, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations has been testing carbon capture and storage (CSS) solutions for many years in the hope of controlling the rise in global average temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius. The researchers and engineers in this Icelandic Carbfix program are from Reykjavik Energy, University of Iceland, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Columbia University in the United States. The researchers capture CO2 in steam and dissolve it in a large amount of water, forming a carbonated solution. Then sent the carbonated liquid to an igloo-shaped construction two km away for perfusion, where the exhaust gases are pumped 1,000 meters (3,200 ft) below ground surface. Researchers inject the carbonated water to fill the voids in the rock layer through high pressure. When CO2 reacts with the calcium, magnesium and iron in basalt, solidification occurs. In the following few months’ time, CO2 will turn into rocks through chemical reactions and will not escape into the atmosphere for millions of years. This technology mimics the natural process that takes thousands of years. The difference is that the speed is much faster, nearly all CO2 will solidify within 2 years.

Iceland, which has geysers, glaciers and volcanoes, is rich in geothermal and water resources and its geology is mainly composed of basalt. Basalt is a dark grey porous rock formed from lava cooling. It is also known as ‘the best friend’ of carbon as it contains a lot of calcium, magnesium and iron, and can combine with CO2 to form ore. The storage capacity of basalt is high, which can permanently store all CO2 emission produced by burning all fossil fuels on earth. Once CO2 turns into rock, it can be forever kept in the rock. Being one of the most common rock types on earth, basalt covers most of the oceanic and around 10% of continental plates. The model works whenever there are basalt and water.

This experiment has some risks as well. Such a high-tech repair can help to lower researchers and the public’s stress of reducing greenhouse gases emission. But if we do not reduce the emission, these technologies can only have limited potential. In other words, these technologies should be used as an aid to slow down global warming while we still have to rely on all human efforts on cutting down carbon emissions.

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