Our year has started with devastating floods in Eastern Australia and a deluge of headlines about the latest IPCC report.
It has never been clearer that we need to move quickly towards net zero emissions.
Unless we do, the social, environmental and economic costs of climate change will continue to rise.
To make a successful Net Zero transition, permanent, scalable, and cost-effective solutions to deal with atmospheric carbon are essential – and an exciting new CSIRO initiative might just be on track to provide them.
The Permanent Carbon Locking Future Science Platform – also known as CarbonLock – has been established to develop new and innovative ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere and permanently lock it away.
It will bring together expertise from across CSIRO, including Oceans and Atmosphere, Energy, Mineral Resources and Manufacturing.
"It's a really exciting venture," says Dr Andrew Lenton, Director of CarbonLock.
"Future Science Platforms represent a significant long-term investment into science and innovation that has the potential to turn challenges into opportunities and transform Australia's future.
"CarbonLock will complement other CSIRO initiatives such as the Toward Net Zero Mission – but while their focus of other initiatives is close-to-market technologies, we will drive radical innovation at the nexus of biology, chemistry and engineering to develop the novel technologies of tomorrow," he said.
CarbonLock's multidisciplinary research program will be inspired by principles from the natural world, where carbon naturally cycles through reservoirs like rocks, oceans and organisms, into the atmosphere and back again.
It aims to develop a pipeline of early-stage integrated negative emissions technologies that can accelerate those natural carbon cycle processes.
The three main areas of interest for CarbonLock are:
- Long term carbon storage, including through mineral carbonation and ocean-based storage
- Enhanced removal of atmospheric carbon via biological process or engineered direct capture methods
- Novel integration of capture and storage methods
Turning carbon dioxide into stone
Mineral carbonation is the term for naturally occurring chemical reactions that convert carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from the atmosphere to benign and relatively inert carbonate minerals.
The CO2 binds with the calcium and magnesium-rich minerals in mafic and ultramafic rocks (igneous rocks that are rich in magnesium and iron) and becomes a solid. It is, in simple-terms, a way of turning carbon dioxide into rock.
Although carbon mineralisation already takes place naturally over geological time, new research and technological enhancements have the potential to significantly expand and accelerate this process, making it feasible to achieve CO2 storage on a much larger scale and in a much shorter time.
This technology can be used in two ways: in-situ and ex-situ.
Australia's advantage for mineral carbonation solutions
Ex-situ mineral carbonation refers to processes that take place at the Earth’s surface, especially using mine waste materials as the proxy; whereas in-situ processes refer to those that take place in underground CO2 storage formations.
According to Dr Lenton, there is enormous potential in Australia for applying both technologies.
"Australia has a huge landmass and we have an enormous untapped resource in terms of our large bodies of ultramafic rocks," says Dr Lenton.
"For in-situ mineral carbonation, much of the initial work that needs to be done will be fundamental science – there's a lot of mapping and modelling to be done so we really understand our reserves.
"Similar work has been taking place in British Columbia – identifying and analysing the distribution and volume of ultramafic rocks, then assessing their potential to and store carbon dioxide," he said.
But ex-situ mineral carbonation is also an approach that aligns well with existing Australian industries and infrastructure.
One application would be to treat mine waste materials such as tailings.
Companies mining ultramafic rocks – at a nickel mine, for example - could use what was previously considered waste to permanently store CO2 emitted from their mining operations, providing both economic and environmental benefits.
When you look at photographs of these mine tailings, you can already see the change taking place naturally, with new rock-forming on the surface.
"It's likely the best use of ex-situ technology might be on a mining or industrial site where carbon dioxide could be captured and mineralized onsite," says Dr Lenton.
"The really exciting thing about that is that there may be other environmental co-benefits. If we are looking at mining tailings containing asbestos, for example, maybe we can lock up asbestos and reduce the risks associated with that being exposed."
The same applies to other methods of long-term storage.
"If we are looking at ocean storage, can we do that in a way that helps reduce ocean acidification?" he said.
CSIRO science underpins the solution
While there are countless questions that will need to be addressed over the course of the CarbonLock research program, there are few organisations better placed than CSIRO to address those complexities.
The breadth and depth of knowledge across individual Business Units, along with a longstanding reputation for scientific rigour and a proven ability to develop fruitful stakeholder relationships, mean that the challenges of a Future Science Platform feel more thrilling than daunting to Dr Lenton.
"There is an element of risk involved of course," says Dr Lenton.
"But we know we need to be doing more than business as usual.
"We will have a portfolio of projects that create new capabilities and Australia-specific solutions to the Net Zero challenge.
"We will be nurturing a cohort of early career researchers and hopefully training the workforce of the future – the Net Zero professionals.
"We know what the risks are of not succeeding, and while we might not know yet exactly how we’re going to get there, I’m confident that we will. I reckon we can lick this," he said.