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Summary:

Policymakers and academics agree: Capturing greenhouse gas emissions and shoving them permanently underground is a nice idea, in theory, but it needs more research. Some of the loudest advocates of cleaner coal technology (exhibit A: Duke Energy) haven’t been putting up the cash to actually develop […]

Policymakers and academics agree: Capturing greenhouse gas emissions and shoving them permanently underground is a nice idea, in theory, but it needs more research. Some of the loudest advocates of cleaner coal technology (exhibit A: Duke Energy) haven’t been putting up the cash to actually develop it. But now there’s funding — lots of it, courtesy of the stimulus package and President Barack Obama’s proposed budget. This week, the Department of Energy announced plans to provide $30 million to set up two new research centers focused on next-generation carbon capture and sequestration technology at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The funding comes as part of a massive $777 million push from the White House to create 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers over the next five years, with one-third of those centers slated for funding under the stimulus package. In addition to the two carbon capture projects at the Berkeley lab, the DOE plans to fund a research center at UCLA that will focus on nanoscale materials for separating and capturing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as renewable energy applications. Other centers at MIT, Princeton University, the Los Alamos National Lab, and elsewhere will look at various aspects of clean power generation and energy efficiency, many of them using nanotech.

Berend Smit, one of two Berkeley professors receiving funding under the program, is under no delusions that carbon capture represents an ideal or total solution to greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. “We never hope that we need to use these next generation carbon capture methods, that solar and other alternatives are there in time,” he said in an announcement from the university yesterday. But if the worst possible scenario happens, that we decide to burn all tar sands and all coal that generate an enormous amount of CO2, then we want to have the technology available to put the CO2 into the ground in an efficient, cheap way that may buy us the essential time we need to develop alternative energy technologies.”

Smit’s DOE-funded research center will use computer modeling to test out new materials that might separate CO2 from other gases more efficiently than current technologies. The other center, to be run by Berkeley’s Donald DePaolo, will focus on the second piece — carbon storage — studying how the gas interacts with pores in underground rocks and minerals in order to better understand how to fill them efficiently and prevent leakage.

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