As the United States leaves the Paris Climate Accords and no major advanced industrialized country is on track to meet its pledges, it may appear that the destructive forces of global warming will inevitably take its toll. However, where governments and bureaucracies have failed, the scientific community has stepped in.
Among the dozens of break-through environmental technologies ranging from thermo-depolymerization which compresses carbon-based materials into oil, to the pollution-free alternative to fossil fuels known as hydrogen fuel cell usage, one of the most striking of them all is now being developed in Iceland. Currently, one of the greatest blockades to action against climate change is the economic necessity for the use of fossil fuels. The greatest and most impactful solution of decarbonizing energy infrastructure is economically and politically unviable, while the other proposal of storing carbon dioxide emissions in liquid or “slurry” form underground is highly risky, as the stored compounds could explosively leak through fissures in the earth into the atmosphere. Evidently, both the scientific and political avenue seemed to be blocked. The CarbFix pilot program however, may be the solution. Dodging traditional scientific and political barriers, the program removes the carbon dioxide produced by Hellisheiði Power Station in Iceland, the second-largest geothermal heat and energy facility in the world. They seek to achieve the unthinkable: turning carbon dioxide into stone.
To do so, the carbonic acid is first created by separating waste carbon dioxide from steam and dissolving it into water; then, the solution is pumped 550 yards underground into a basalt formation, where the acidity leeches elements such as calcium and magnesium from surrounding rocks. After the solution flows through the basalt formation, the elements recombine to form minerals such as limestone. This idea was developed before but rejected, as scientists believed that it would take thousands of years for substantial amounts of carbon dioxide to transform into chalk. Yet, miraculously, the Icelandic team has been able to achieve it within two years. Because 90% of the the ground beneath the country is comprised of basalt formed from volcanic activity and the country uses geothermal sources for majority of its energy, Iceland is the ideal location to test out the project. Already, the project has increased in scale to bury 10,000 tonnes of CO2 a year and the basalt rocks used are common not just in Iceland but around the world, forming the floor of all the oceans and parts of land as well. “In the future, we could think of using this for power plants in places where there’s a lot of basalt and there are many such places,” said Martin Stute, at Columbia University in the US and part of the research team. This is a solution dubbed by Scientific American as “set in stone, literally.”
However, there are already challenges plaguing this project. Along with carbon dioxide, power plants also produce hydrogen sulfide, a compound that has corroded the hardware and produced other materials which disrupted the processing equipment. Furthermore, it has been difficult to develop monitoring systems to track the progress of rock formations underground. The endeavor is highly resource-intensive as well, requiring vast amounts of water and electricity. For every tonne of CO2 buried, 25 tonnes of water is used. Yet these issues are able to be addressed with more research, more funding and more time: abundant seawater can be used to resolve the water cost, governmental grants may incentivize more work on monitoring systems and analysis on hydrogen sulfide’s exact effects on hardware could be helpful.
All in all, this hub of innovation within Iceland has immense potential. Circumventing traditional blockades to one of the greatest problems humanity has ever faced, this may be key to unlocking a new future with less heat, and more stone.
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