Professors partner with BP, Ford to explore CO2 emissions
British Petroleum and Ford Motor Company, earlier this year, renewed their commitment of financial aid to the University in the Carbon Mitigation Investigation (CMI) — a project aimed at researching the greenhouse effect and global warming.
A large part of the project focuses on alternative ways to collect and store carbon dioxide gas, which is produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
Currently, vast quantities of the gas are released into the atmosphere and strengthen the greenhouse effect — an ecological phenomenon characterized by increasing global temperatures.
It is an environmental problem that needs to be taken seriously, said Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and CMI's co-director.
After internal and external reviews of CMI's progress over the past three years, the project, led by Socolow and Steve Pacala, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was awarded its second allocation of funds.
Socolow said the industries have pledged $20 million to the University over the length of 10 years. In total, Ford's donation will equal $5 million and BP's will equal $15 million.
In late 1999, BP approached Princeton, as well as MIT and Stanford, with a grant opportunity. The company was looking to set up a center for carbon science in the United States, and it invited Princeton to apply.
In 2000, the University was awarded the money and then began working closely with both companies.
"It was more than just a grant; it was a partnership," Socolow said.
Socolow explained that after the acquisition of three large US companies, BP was not only looking to set up a United States-based carbon research facility, but also to form a closer connection with American universities.
"They felt as if they were not coupled to U.S. universities, and because of that, they were really interested in getting to know Princeton," Socolow said. Since the beginning of the partnership, BP has made a special effort to run some of their own meetings in Princeton, with the hope of getting to know both the town and the people better, he added.
And international cooperation is exactly what the environmental field needs, Socolow said.
"One thing is for sure, [global warming and the greenhouse effect don't] look less serious than [they] did 20 years ago," Socolow said. "And over the next 50 years some major things need to be done."
CMI is taking a multi-front approach to the global warming dilemma, beginning with understanding natural phenomena related to the warming and cooling of the atmosphere. For example, ice ages are not fully understood. "Once we can predict ice ages there will be a general sigh of relief," Socolow said.
More specifically applicable, Princeton scientists are looking into various ways to capture and store carbon that is released from burning fossil fuels so that it is not released into the atmosphere.
Methods for capturing carbon dioxide using absorptive materials have already been developed; however, methods for storing it are still being explored.
One option involves injecting the carbon dioxide into rocks about a kilometer below the earth's surface, Socolow explained. With this method of storage, even if the carbon dioxide slowly made its way to the surface and diffused into the atmosphere, it would happen at a much safer rate.
It would make sense to use old oil fields to store carbon dioxide underground, Socolow said. However, these fields contain many retired oil wells with cement-sealed shafts that surround the pipes initially used to bring the oil to the surface. Scientists worry the carbon dioxide will find these shafts, erode the cement and quickly escape into the atmosphere.
Princeton researchers, under the guidance of George Scherer, professor of civil and environmental engineering, have been addressing the cement issue in the lab, and are about to move into the field, Socolow said.
Another carbon dioxide storage option is to place the gas into the deep ocean. Over a long period of time, the gas would then be slowly conveyed from the bottom of the ocean and released into the atmosphere at a much safer rate.
"All these storage ideas, of course, have their downsides," Socolow said, pointing out that future leakage will combine with whatever new carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere along with the escaping, stored gas.
Other areas of research CMI is addressing include non-carbon energy sources such as wind power, and more efficient and cleaner fuels for transportation. Even planting more trees, a task which the University is working on, will help, Socolow said.
As the research advances and the field broadens, it is becoming apparent that no single task holds the key to safer carbon dioxide levels.
"They all compliment each other and need to be used together to reach the end goal," Socolow said.
The science is not all clear, he said, but the research is bringing up fresh questions and uncovering new ways to think about the challenge.
For example, Socolow explained that society must decide how to leave this world to successive generations.
"Some people want to leave no effect from our current lives on the future world. But we have already changed things, and we need to determine what is an acceptable amount of change."
"Is it all right if we leave future generations with depleted resources, but advanced technology to access those resources?" Socolow questioned. "Perhaps, but it is a deep ethical question and we need to think about it."
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