Carbon Mitigation Initiative

Eighth Year Report 2009 Executive Summary

The eighth year of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative was marked by BP's decision to commit to the funding of CMI through 2015, a five-year extension that has enabled a deepening of commitment when otherwise we might have begun to close down.

This past year was also marked on campus by an extraordinary outpouring of support from students, faculty, administration, and alumni for Princeton to become the world's leading university in climate and energy research. An early manifestation is the Energy Grand Challenge, a campus-focused effort to provide new courses, internships, and collegial opportunities for Princeton's students. CMI has been viewed as a template for broadly based interdisciplinary collaborations and industry-university partnerships.

This eighth annual report provides brief reports from the Carbon Mitigation Initiative's thirteen research groups. Two of these groups were added in the past year, one in nanomaterials and one in ocean biogeochemistry. The reports are presented under our four umbrellas: Carbon Capture, Carbon Storage, Carbon Science, and Carbon Policy & Integration .

Carbon Capture

The Carbon Capture effort is conducted by the Williams Group, the Law Group, and the Arnold Group. The Williams Group, in response to a request from the U.S. National Academies to provide assistance to its study, America's Energy Future: Technology Opportunities, Risks, and Tradeoffs, developed a consistent set of technical and economic analyses for the conversion of coal and biomass to both electricity and synthetic fuels, with and without CO2 capture. This unified view revealed configurations with unexpectedly favorable costs when power and fuels are produced together, in a world of high prices for both oil and CO2 emissions.

The group also completed a major study on wind with compressed energy storage, whose results point to the promise of this still largely undeveloped storage technology, especially in situations where the wind is remote from the load and natural gas is available to supplement wind at the source.

A new area of investigation is the coal-CO2 slurry as a means for fuel delivery to high-pressure gasifiers, Such a system may have advantages over both water-coal slurries (lower latent heat of vaporization) and dry-feed systems (simpler, less costly pressurization).

The Law Group is conducting fundamental research on the combustion chemistry of biofuels, including higher alcohols such as propanol and butanol, at the high pressures of internal combustion engines. The group continues its notable collaboration with researchers at the Ford Research Laboratory on computational issues of fuel chemistry – providing reduced-order oxidation mechanisms for incorporation in Ford's computer codes. The result is improved largescale engine simulations, such as are required to predict engine knock.

During a two-week visit to China in the fall of 2008, Law discussed with Chinese colleagues the establishment of an infrastructure for fundamental combustion research in China to support its technological needs in energy sustainability and climate issues. He gave a total of six lectures and seminars on various topics on fuels, energy, and the environment. As well, in his role as a past president and a director of the International Combustion Institute, he conducted a site visit on behalf of the 33rd International Combustion Symposium, which will be held at Tsinghua in 2010.

The Arnold Group is developing new electrochemical energy storage technologies for portable power and load leveling and regulation on the grid, compatible with modern forms of energy generation. With the goal of extending the cycle life of lithium-based batteries and carbon-based supercapacitors, they are exploring the relationship between the external mechanical forces on the storage materials and their resulting electrochemical performance.

Carbon Storage

The Carbon Storage effort is conducted by the Celia Group, the Scherer-Prevost Group, and the Peters Group. They all address leakage of CO2 after storage below ground. An exciting landmark in the numerical modeling by the Prevost-Scherer Group was the completion of an improved flash calculation that simulates the phase changes that would occur during leakage of CO2 up a well. The group also acquired new experimental capabilities for examining corroded cements.

The Celia Group made steady progress with a hybrid analytical-numerical model of reservoirscale leakage and is creating a web-based version at the request of BP and the Environmental Protection Agency. Celia, the 2008 Darcy Distinguished Lecturer for the National Ground Water Association, presented a lecture titled "Geological Storage as a Carbon Mitigation Option" on 52 different occasions, across 12 countries and 4 continents.

The Peters Group, funded by DOE, focuses on geochemistry, in particular acid-driven mineral dissolution and precipitation. It is a leading player in a proposal to the National Science Foundation to develop a national experimental CO2 storage research facility deep below ground.

Carbon Science

The Carbon Science effort is conducted by the Pacala Group, the Sarmiento Group, the Bender Group, the Sigman Group, and the Morel Group. With many overlapping interests, the Pacala Group (terrestrial biosphere) and the Sarmiento Group (oceans) are jointly developing a Carbon Observing System. New work indicates an unexpected increase in the land sink after 1990, concentrated in the tropics. Early results from forward modeling suggest that, in the absence of CO2 fertilization, a massive release of carbon from the biosphere to the atmosphere will occur if atmospheric CO2 is allowed to reach double its preindustrial concentration. Their results make use of gas measurement and analysis from the Bender Group.

The Sigman Group and the Bender Group explore paleoclimate. Results from the Sigman Group continue to point to the importance of polar ocean circulation in glacial/interglacial cycles, and are beginning to resolve conflicts between global warming simulations and paleodata. The Bender Group is analyzing ice deposits near the surface in Antarctica that it believes may contain air older than the oldest air trapped at the bottom of Antarctic glaciers.

The Morel Group has embarked on a new CMI science program addressing ocean acidification, integrating laboratory and field studies. Their early studies of phytoplankton growth suggest that while a reduction in unbound iron on its own should reduce the growth rate, the concomitant increase in dissolved CO2 may counteract this inhibition by making growth more iron-efficient.

Carbon Policy & Integration

The Carbon Policy & Integration effort is conducted by the Pacala-Socolow Group and the Oppenheimer Group. The Pacala-Socolow Group has proposed a new approach to the allocation of a global CO2 emissions target among the nations of the world, based on a reinterpretation of concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (language in the current international agreements), so that the phrase refers to individuals rather than nations. In this formulation, obligations are the same for individuals with similar life-styles, independent of the per-capita emissions of the country in which they live. Follow-on work is aimed at modeling CO2 emissions generated by activities strongly correlated with wealth, including travel by air and meat-eating. Other work documents a remarkable increase in the level of installation and operation of SO2 scrubbers at China's coal plants, which conventional economic models would not expect to occur until China had reached a substantially higher per capita income.

A new area of activity is the direct capture of CO2 from the atmosphere by chemical and physical means. Here, CMI is leveraging a new study being conducted by the Panel on Public Affairs of the American Physical Society.

This group is also responsible for CMI outreach. In the past year, CMI has partnered with the National Energy Education Development Project to bring the “stabilization wedges” concept to teachers.

The Oppenheimer Group has initiated a project on the history of environmental assessments, beginning with an assessment of the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion. Through analysis of published and archival documents and interviews with key scientists, policy makers, and members of industry, the history of scientific assessment of ozone depletion is being reconstructed. An intriguing dimension of this work is "negative learning" – the phenomenon where scientists stick for long periods of time to the wrong path, rather than converging on the truth inexorably via successive approximations. The expectation is that insights gained from this project will improve our understanding of the scientific learning process and will be transferable to scientific assessment of global climate change.

At the time of this writing, just before our eighth Annual Meeting, the United States has a new president and a new stance on climate change. Close friends are in the Obama Administration in leadership roles, notably John Holdren, the President's nominee for Science Advisor. (With his new job, Holdren relinquishes his leadership role in the Energy Technology Innovation Project at Harvard University, within which a BP-funded energy policy effort has been conducted under CMI.) The many Americans long distressed at the desultory policies of the previous administration bearing on climate change are now hopeful that the U.S. can reinvigorate a flagging global effort to improve scientific understanding, accelerate technology deployment, and test and refine bold policies. CMI has never been as much needed.

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Last update: February 17 2011
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