September 1, 1999

Berkeley Lab Science Beat

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The U.S. Department of Energy has named Berkeley Lab as co-host of one of two new centers for global climate change research. Berkeley Lab's center will focus on carbon sequestration -- the capture and long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide -- in the oceans.

"The Energy Department centers will help coordinate research across an enormous breadth of disciplines from both government and academia," said Martha Krebs, director of DOE's Office of Science. "Breakthroughs from these centers could lead to new, environmentally acceptable ways to help address this global problem."

The Center for Research on Ocean Carbon Sequestration, which Berkeley Lab will co-host with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is to receive a total of $3 million over the next three years.

From Berkeley, the center will be led by Jim Bishop of the Earth Sciences Division (ESD), and from Livermore, the leader will be Ken Caldeira. Initial collaborators will included researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Moss Landing Marine Labs, the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research, Rutgers University, and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

In its official announcement of the new centers, the U.S. Department of Energy stated that the Berkeley-Livermore center will research the feasibility, effectiveness and environmental acceptability of ocean carbon sequestration.

"It may be possible to increase the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean through direct injection of carbon dioxide into the deep ocean or through fertilization of marine organisms, such as plankton, living in the surface ocean," DOE said in a press release. "Research will assess the environmental consequences of carbon dioxide injection and ocean fertilization as well as analyze relevant environmental policies. Research will combine observations and experiments in the ocean and computer modeling of ocean currents and the diffusion of carbon dioxide."

High volumes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions promote global warming, and two hundred years of industrialization has resulted in the emission of an enormous amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. Experts expect atmospheric CO2 concentrations to double from pre-industrial levels by the middle of the next century.

Although scientists cannot fully predict the future impact of CO2 build-up, the scientific consensus is that serious environmental consequences are possible unless the management of CO2 emissions improves.

Earth Sciences Division Director Sally Benson is the co-chair of a national task force commissioned by the DOE to develop a research roadmap for investigating carbon sequestration. The goal is to prevent CO2 emissions from reaching the atmosphere by capturing a significant amount, as much as 4 billion tons by the year 2050, and securely storing it in the oceans or in terrestrial ecosystems.

"Science has made the case that a critical factor in global climate change is the ecosystem -- air-water interaction of anthropogenic carbon emissions," says Benson. "The idea behind carbon sequestration is to capture and isolate the carbon at the source of emission or remove it from the atmosphere."

While most scientists agree that the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems could serve as natural biological scrubbers for CO2, Benson says that there is much to be learned before carbon sequestration is put into practice. In choosing the hosts for its new carbon sequestration centers, the DOE invited the national labs to submit proposals in collaboration with other academic institutions. The department then chose the hosts using a competitive peer review process.

Berkeley and Livermore national labs will head a consortium of institutions as part of a new center to study the capture and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the ocean. Another center will focus on carbon sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is believed to be contributing to global warming.