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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Climate Research - From Science to Society

Tackling climate change—a multi-tiered approach

Carbon dioxide, CO2, emissions—considered the most significant in terms of climate change—span the globe. And so must solutions.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is known worldwide for its work with climate change, ranging from defining the frontiers of physical science on such key issues as the role of clouds in atmospheric processes to defining viable mitigation strategies and developing new technologies. Researchers at PNNL are tackling the climate change issue in a coordinated, three-prong effort.

First, scientists are working to better understand the science behind climate change. They study the role of clouds in the atmosphere and use the data to model changes in climate patterns globally and regionally.

Second, researchers use computer modeling to connect the understanding of climate science to technology and economics, developing integrated strategies for addressing climate change.

Finally, armed with the strategies, researchers develop and deploy technologies that address the climate challenge.

For example, PNNL's Global Energy Technology Strategy Program, GTSP, develops integrated strategies for private and public sector entities. These strategies help clients understand which technologies will have the most impact in resolving climate change, when the technologies will be most useful and in which parts of the world they will be most effective.

"This effort has helped shape the U.S. Department of Energy's approach to climate change," said Ken Humphreys, who manages PNNL's Carbon Management Initiative. "PNNL staff members have been invited to more than a half-dozen rounds of congressional testimony. Clearly, when world class science and high impact are required, policymakers listen to our scientific work in this area."

PNNL researchers also play lead roles in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change through which the global technical community is defining the state of our knowledge about climate change, its causes, its likely effects and robust solution strategies.

Through the GTSP and other programs, PNNL researchers help national and international companies determine how climate policies will affect their businesses. Developing response strategies for these firms involves helping them define technology portfolios and economic and policy options to address climate change and to protect or even advance these firms' interests.

GTSP analysis has shown that a broad portfolio of energy technologies, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power and advanced fossil energy technologies, will be needed to successfully confront climate change. One focus of this portfolio is research on carbon dioxide capture and storage, CCS, which is a core strength of PNNL's climate change mitigation work. Researchers have shown that CCS technologies could be a decisive technology in the U.S. portfolio of climate change options, given the abundant geologic CO2 storage reservoirs in the United States and their proximity to large industrial and fossil-fired power plants.

Another group, led by Jim Dooley, who heads PNNL's research on CCS technologies for GTSP and the Joint Global Climate Research Institute, is defining the market potential and operational characteristics of CCS systems. Dooley and his colleagues collaborate with other research entities and the private sector to take CCS systems out of the laboratory and into the field. The Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, MRCSP, is one of seven partnerships created by DOE that brings together national laboratories, universities, utilities and others to explore using CO2 storage in a specific region. PNNL researchers and their colleagues at Battelle in Columbus, Ohio, run the MRCSP. Dooley and his team are responsible for technical integration for the MRCSP.

Researchers at PNNL play significant roles in the Big Sky and Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships.

PNNL Scientist Pete McGrail and his team are the first to explore using deep basalt formations to store CO2, in addition to working with methane hydrates, a new potential form of clean energy, and clathrate CO2 capture systems for trapping CO2 from fossil-fuel- burning plants.

Getting out into the field and testing these technologies in realistic conditions is also a hallmark of McGrail's work. McGrail, his group and scientists at Battelle play leading roles in the Big Sky Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership and its focus on realizing a field demonstration of CO2 storage in basalt.

For CCS systems to have an impact on climate change, they must be delivered on a commercial scale. PNNL is pushing forward its field demonstrations at a faster rate and a larger scale so that researchers better understand the implications of using CCS systems with large, modern coal power plants over their more than 50-year operational lifetime.

Humphreys is working to develop one of the world's first zero-emission, coal-fired power plants at a commercial scale. FutureGen is a $1 billion, decade-long project.

"We're not looking for the perfect geology, we're looking for representative geology because if we want the gigaton solution, we have to be able to build hundreds of power plants like this," he said. "We want to choose a plant location where we learn enough scientifically about injection, long-term storage and monitoring that we can replicate it around the world. That's what it will take to deliver on the full potential of these promising mitigation technologies."

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