Carbon Mitigation Initiative’s 17th Annual Meeting

Holly Welles ・ Carbon Mitigation Initiative

Negative emissions, ocean and soil science, 3 million year-old ice, extreme weather, and energy technology were among the suite of topics discussed during this year’s annual meeting of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI), April 25-26.

Administered by the Princeton Environmental Institute, CMI is an independent academic program at Princeton University sponsored by bp and is currently comprised of 15 principal investigators (PIs) and more than 50 Princeton research staff and students.

“It is the largest and most long-term industry-university relationship at Princeton,” said Robert Socolow, CMI co-director and professor emeritus and senior research scholar with the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “Our goal is to identify both risks and opportunities posed by the carbon problem and to disseminate our research findings so they may benefit the larger scientific community, government, industry and the general public,” he said.

Socolow co-directs CMI along with Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

For the second time in its 18-year history, CMI held its annual meeting in London in order to facilitate greater engagement between CMI investigators and European colleagues. Over 30 participants delivered presentations or participated in interview panels or poster sessions. The dynamic and varied format also afforded many opportunities for lively discussion.

(Left to right) Deep Dive panel on negative emissions featured: Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Pete Smith, professor of plant and soil science, University of Aberdeen; Kelly Sims Gallagher, professor of energy and environmental policy, Tufts University; and Sally Benson, professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University. (Photo by Holly Welles, Carbon Mitigation Initiative)

Participants and attendees of the CMI annual meeting included Princeton faculty and researchers and colleagues from bp, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, 9 universities from the U.S. and Europe, and several environmental non-profit organizations and policy think-tanks.

Cindy Yeilding, senior vice president of bp America, interviewed Gabriel Vecchi, professor of geosciences and the Princeton Environmental Institute, about his modelling of extreme weather and hurricanes. (Photo by Holly Welles, Carbon Mitigation Initiative)

Pacala opened the meeting by providing an overview of recent CMI research activities. He also discussed advances in energy generation technologies over the past few decades with respect to their ability to lower carbon emissions. “Rob and I like to use a horse race as an analogy to showcase the evolution of energy technologies from coal, to renewables, gas, nuclear and including energy efficiency.

“During the early years of CMI, the various energy technologies were pretty much all at the starting line, and we didn’t have cost effective ways to tackle the carbon problem. However, technological advances in the last 15 years have put a zero-carbon-emitting, all-electric economy within reach—fueled by solar, wind and gas and backed-up by carbon capture and storage and electric vehicles. These technologies are now viable and have moved to the front of the pack,” he said.

“To build the emerging energy system on wind and solar, however, we also need a steady and stabilizing energy source. The one that seems most viable at this time is natural gas.” he said.

Natural gas produces less greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels and burns more cleanly. On the other hand, a primary component of natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas, so that the advantages of natural gas from the perspective of climate change are undermined if there is substantial leakage of methane from the natural gas system. “We need to learn more about methane and its sources and sinks, in order to control its emissions,” said Pacala.  “So last year, we created a new CMI research program focused on enhancing the scientific understanding of methane and its contribution to global warming.”

The research initiative is directed by François Morel, the Albert G. Blanke, Jr., Professor of Geosciences and the Princeton Environmental Institute. Other PI’s of the methane project include: physical scientists, Vaishali Naik and Elena Shevliakova, from the Geophysics Fluid Dynamics Lab and Xinning Zhang, assistant professor of geosciences.

Early this year, CMI launched another research initiative focused on soil carbon.  “Providing a strong scientific foundation to ‘optimal soil and land management’ practices as a main terrestrial gateway to carbon sequestration is an area ripe for greater exploration,” said Amilcare Porporato. Porporato came to Princeton University in 2017 as a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Princeton Environmental Institute; he is known widely for his work in soils and eco-hydrology.

“Our CMI research focuses on connecting and understanding the various scales and processes, from the physics of soil carbon dynamics to soil management in forests and agricultural operations; it is crucial that such processes are consistently modeled at different space–time scales used by models to predict future climate and inform policy makers,” said Porporato, who became a new CMI principal investigator in January 2018.

In addition to Porporato, Howard Stone, the Donald R. Dixon ’69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Ian Bourg, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Princeton Environmental Institute are PI’s of the soil carbon research project.

During a celebratory reception, bp’s senior vice president of bp America, Cindy Yeilding, presented the 2018 CMI Best Paper Award. For nine years, this award has been presented during the annual meeting to a CMI affiliated postdoctoral research associate or associate research scholar selected for his or her contributions to an important CMI paper published within the past two years.

Senior vice president of bp America, Cindy Yeilding, presented the 2018 CMI Best Paper Award to postdoctoral research fellow Greeshma Gadikota. Gadikota’s former advisor Ian Bourg, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Robert Socolow, CMI co-director and professor emeritus and senior research scholar with the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, joined in the presentation. (Photo by Holly Welles, Carbon Mitigation Initiative)

Greeshma Gadikota, a former Princeton University postdoctoral research fellow, received this year’s award for her paper, “Hydrophobic solvation of gases (CO2, CH4, H2, noble gases) in clay interlayer nanopores,” published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry in 2017. Gadikota is now an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Her work was supervised by Ian Bourg.

On the second day of the meeting, two Harvard faculty, William Hogan and Henry Lee, skyped into the meeting. Hogan, the Raymond Plank Professor of Global Energy Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, provided an update on the state of electricity markets and the need for change. Lee, the Jassim M. Jaidah Family Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, discussed electric vehicle technology and its potential to penetrate future markets.

The meeting also afforded CMI’s Advisory Council the opportunity to reflect on CMI’s current research program and to provide suggestions for future research and outreach opportunities.

Highlights of CMI research conducted during 2017 and other updates are featured in the CMI 2017 Annual Report.

CMI 2018 Annual Meeting group photo. (Photo courtesy of bp)