Kate Maher is an assistant professor at Stanford University in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences and a lead investigator on the GCEP research effort, Reactivity of CO2 in the Subsurface. She was also an investigator on the GCEP exploratory activity, Geological Sequestration of CO2 - An Exploratory Study of the Mechanisms and Kinetics of CO2 Reaction with Mg-Silicates.
Maher was selected for the 2012 GCEP Distinguished Lecturer series, an outreach program where top GCEP investigators travel to each of our sponsors' research centers to present their work and engage in a dialogue with members of the in-house R&D teams. In September, she returned from visiting with the technical staff at the ExxonMobil, GE, Schlumberger and DuPont facilities.
At Stanford, Maher was honored with the 2012 Allan V. Cox Medal for Faculty Excellence Fostering Undergraduate Research. The medal was established in memory of the late Allan V. Cox, a former professor of geophysics and dean of the School of Earth Sciences, who was a strong supporter of faculty-student research collaboration.
Maher took some time to answer a few questions for us:
What is the ultimate goal of your current GCEP research program?
A promising technology for removing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is geological carbon storage, where you capture CO2 emitted from fossil-fuel power plants and inject it into the subsurface. The goal of our research has been to determine the consequences of the chemical reactions that occur when CO2 is injected underground so that we can store it more effectively for longer time periods. In particular, we are looking at ways to accelerate the conversion of CO2 into a mineral form, like magnesium carbonate. Through mineralization, the CO2 can be permanently stored as a stable mineral in the subsurface, reducing the potential for leakage into the atmosphere or shallow groundwater.
Have you visited places around the world where this kind of mineralization has naturally occurred?
Yes, we have a field site in California, but our students have also traveled to Oman in Southwest Asia to look at other examples of magnesium carbonate mineralization. We recently visited Iceland where scientists are planning to capture CO2 from geothermal power plants and inject it into basalts. The CO2 would ideally transform the magnesium- and calcium-rich rocks into carbonate minerals for permanent storage.
GCEP investigator Kate Maher (foreground) researches the optimum geochemical conditions for converting captured CO2 into carbonates in her lab.
How do you see this concept playing out in 30 to 40 years?
So far we have been able to demonstrate that it is feasible to convert magnesium silicates to carbonates under relevant conditions and timescales, and we have found new approaches to further accelerate the conversion. The next step is to conduct a pilot study to test our experimental and model predictions under conditions that are realistic for a CO2 injection in the subsurface-the real world can often behave very differently from an idealized laboratory setting.
Is it difficult to get funding for this kind of research?
Yes, at least initially. Funding from a program like GCEP has allowed us to explore research avenues that are perhaps more risky and slightly beyond the perimeter of the current mainstream research in this area. However, the results from our GCEP research will provide us with definite leverage to secure new funding for the next phases of our work. GCEP support has also enabled us to compile an interdisciplinary team of people to work on this problem.
You set a distinguished lecturer record visiting four GCEP sponsors - ExxonMobil, GE, Schlumberger and DuPont - all in one whirlwind trip through the East Coast. Tell us about your experience.
Visiting the GCEP sponsors provided a unique window into why these companies are leaders in their respective industries-they have all developed strong practices that support innovation. Learning about the structure and timelines of typical research and development programs also made it clear how the array of GCEP-sponsored research has the potential to uniquely complement industry efforts in this area. I can't say enough about the hospitality of the sponsors. I am extremely grateful for the time that the hosts and scientists spent teaching me about their research and sharing their perspectives on critical research needs. I emerged from this experience with not only a much greater understanding of the energy technology landscape, but also with many new prospects for collaboration, as well as ideas for future research directions.
What surprised you the most about these visits to the sponsors?
Successful implementation of carbon capture and storage (CCS) requires dramatic advances in everything from the efficiency of carbon dioxide capture and transport to the management of the storage sites. It is clear that uncertainty surrounding carbon policy is creating a challenge for industry and academic research programs alike. Ultimately, the decline in funding and economic incentives for CCS research, while our CO2 problem grows ever more urgent, means we run an ever greater risk that we may lack the best technology when we need it most.