How scientists in Iceland turned harmful greenhouse gases into rocks.



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For a modern-day climate scientist, this rock could be magical.

A basalt core with carbonate crystals growing inside.

A basalt core with carbonate crystals growing inside. Photo from Annette K. Mortensen/University of Southampton.

Humans release at least 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, which can be tough on the environment.

But what if, alchemy-like, we could take all that carbon dioxide and turn it into rock?

At Iceland’s Hellisheidi power plant, that’s what they’ve been trying to do.

Hellisheidi power plant, seen from above.

Photo from Árni Sæberg/University of Southampton.

Hellisheidi is a geothermal plant, which means it uses volcanically-heated water to run turbines, but the process isn’t perfectly emission-free — it can bring up volcanic gases, including carbon dioxide.

And while the amount of those gases it generates are only a tiny fraction of what a coal plant would produce, the power plant still wanted to get rid of it.

So in 2012, they started a pilot program, Carbfix, to try putting that carbon back in the ground.

An early injection site.

An early injection site. Photo by Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used with permission.

How do they do it?

They capture the plant’s carbon dioxide, mix it with water, and inject it nearly a half-mile down into the volcanic basalt.

This futuristic-looking space bubble is actually the newer injection site for the Carbfix project.

This futuristic-looking space bubble is actually the newer injection site for the Carbfix project. Photo by Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used with permission.

There, the carbon dioxide reacts with chemicals naturally found in the basalt and turns from a gas into chalky, white carbonate.

University of Iceland geologist and study co-author Sandra Snaebjornsdottir holds up a piece of basalt covered in carbonate deposits.

University of Iceland geologist and study co-author Sandra Snaebjornsdottir holds up a piece of basalt covered in carbonate deposits. Photo by Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used with permission.

Some previous projects have tried pumping carbon dioxide into sandstone or aquifers, but that was essentially just hiding the carbon dioxide. This process transforms it.

That’s great! But the truly amazing thing is that the process works hundreds of times faster than anyone predicted.

Two scientists inspect some of the rock samples.

Two scientists inspect some of the rock samples. Photo by Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used with permission.

We knew this chemical reaction was theoretically possible, but previous studies guessed that it’d take hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years to work.

But Hellisheidi blew that timeline away. Within two years, 95% of the carbon dioxide pumped down had been turned into rock. The researchers just published these astounding findings in the journal Science.

This is amazing because it’s not just Iceland that can do this. We could do this anywhere there’s basalt.

At Iceland's Black Falls, water pours over columns of pure basalt rock.

At Iceland’s Black Falls, water pours over columns of pure basalt rock. Photo by Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used with permission.

Basalt is formed from volcanoes. Most of the sea floor is made of basalt and about 10% of continental rocks are too.

The Iceland scientists aren’t being too hasty though. The next step is to try again at a larger scale.

The Hellisheidi power plant, seen from a distance.

The Hellisheidi power plant from a distance. Photo by Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used with permission.

The project is currently injecting 5,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. They’re planning to double that rate this summer and see how it works.

They’re also being careful about any unintended consequences.

A rock core covered in slime.

A rock core covered in slime. Photo by Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used with permission.

Some of the cores contained a greenish slime, for instance, which may be biological. Microbiologists are going to study this slime to learn how the Carbfix process might affect underground microbes.

And all of this research is key if we’re going to stop climate change.

Carbon capture is a needed bridge to help us while we transition to clean energy.

The 38th Session of the IPCC.

The 38th Session of the IPCC. Photo from Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images.

In 2014, the International Panel on Climate Change included carbon capture in their list of options to help us limit climate change.

There’s still a lot we need to do to stop climate change, but this technique could be a huge step forward.

There are many things we can personally do — such as limiting energy use and using our cars less — but we need action at the systematic level too.

“We need to deal with rising carbon emissions,” said Dr. Jeurg Matter, lead author of the paper, in an article from Columbia University.

“This is the ultimate permanent storage — turning them back to stone.”

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Thumbnail photo by Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used with permission.





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