A recent breakthrough at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is bringing together two sectors that people love to fixate on: nanotechnology and carbon sequestration. Although the combo may sound unusual, nanotechnology could actually be the only way we’ll figure out if geologic carbon sequestration — stuffing CO2 underground — actually works.
Here’s the deal: The most reliable way to store and secure CO2 is to get it to attach to a solid and form a carbonate. (Think coral covering rocks in the ocean.) That process is thermodynamically stable and also provides a long-term solution to holding onto CO2. The problem is that it takes a very long time for that to happen using current methods — as in, thousands of years.
But Lawrence Berkeley recently managed to produce nanoscale magnesium oxide crystals, which staff scientist Jeff Urban says could help speed up that CO2-solid bonding process. “Magnesium oxide crystals are known to influence processes and rates of reaction,” he said. “And if we can control the size and surface chemistry of the crystals, we may be able to dramatically increase the rate of CO2 being stuck to the surface.”
Lawrence Berkeley researchers still need to figure out those pieces, and Urban said they plan to study the crystals further to see how they react when flushed with CO2 and how they interact with fluid carbon dioxide. But the end result could be an answer to the wait-and-see scenario that has plagued carbon sequestration. “Right now with the process trials in Europe and the U.S., it’s difficult to assess how well geologic carbon sequestration is working because it takes hundreds to thousands of years to really see,” Urban said. This breakthrough could lead scientists to be able to do an injection and immediately see carbonate form, which can help them instantly assess how much storage space we need and how long it will take to store the CO2, said Urban, adding: “It lets you really quantitatively assess the feasibility of carbon sequestration.”
While they’ve made a lot of progress, researchers still have a long way to go to prove that the process could work and, more importantly, that it’s safe. “Societal attitudes towards nanotech are a definite challenge to the field,” says Skip Lockard, a partner in Alston & Bird’s environment and land use litigation practice who focuses specifically on nanotechnology regulation and developments. “Most people haven’t heard much about nanotechnology, and what they have heard has created concern about the potential effects that nano-engineered products and processes could have on human health and the environment. Stories in the press have created almost a ‘nanophobia,’ particularly with carbon nanotubes.”
Carbon sequestration has stirred an equal number of phobias — what if all that CO2 gets released in one big boom? — and both fields are in that limbo between testing new technologies and the involvement of government regulations. “We’re at a formative point in regulations related to nanotechnology,” Lockard said. “Right now the EPA and state departments of toxic substance control are gathering information about nanomaterials and their possible effects on people and the environment, and that’s likely to lead to regulations governing them in the next couple of years.”
Lockard also said that insurance companies are trying to figure out how to support the nanotech industry: “It’s a big unknown liability, both in terms of product liability and environmental liability, so insurance companies are figuring out right now how much coverage people in the nanotechnology field need to have.”
The federal government has shown enough concern that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry recently introduced a new nanotechnology bill into the U.S. Senate. The bill, S. 1482, sets federal research priorities related to nanotechnology, focusing on health and safety concerns as well as various “areas of national concern,” which include energy production and efficiency, water remediation, and precision agriculture, among other things. (Carbon sequestration is not on the list.) That research will inform the future of the field and the regulation of it — and with this new twist potentially determine the future of storing CO2.