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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iceland Experiments to Bury Greenhouse Gases

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Iceland has long been a pioneer in the battle against global warming, tapping its unique combination of volcanoes, geysers and thundering waterfalls to produce the electricity, heat and hot water it needs while protecting the environment.

But this remote island nation is now planning to test another natural resource -- its basalt rocks -- to see if they can be used to safely bury carbon dioxide gas emissions before they harm the atmosphere. If the experiment works, it also could prove useful in much bigger countries that also have basalt, such as the United States, India, Brazil and Russia.

Scientists around the world have known for more than 50 years that the natural chemical weathering of rocks consumes some atmospheric CO2.

This is a natural process that has been under way for millions of years. But the chemical weathering of basalt, the natural rock of Iceland, is fast compared with other rock types and it contains a lot of calcium, which can combine with CO2 to form calcium carbonate, similar to the material in sea shells.

That is one reason the experiment by U.S. and local scientists is being planned in Iceland. Another is that this country has the scientific environment and the experience needed to bury captured CO2 deep beneath the land's surface and see what happens to it.

Icelandic, U.S. and French scientists have been studying chemical weathering and water rock interactions in nature and in laboratories for decades. The use of geothermal energy also has made Icelanders skillful in drilling and understanding chemical reactions among gases, water and rocks in their country's geothermal systems.

"We hope to show the world in this pilot study that a natural process can be used to transform CO2 emissions into a solid state and to safely store them underground for thousands, if not millions, of years," said Sigurdur Reynir Gislason, a research professor of geology at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, who is involved in the project.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is raising the $4 million to $5 million needed for the pilot project. Scientists, Iceland's government and local power companies hope to finalize the plan in June and to launch the experiment next year, said Wallace S. Broecker, a Columbia professor who is joining Icelandic scientists in the study.

"Iceland won't save the world, even if this process works," said Sigurdur.

Icelanders have been harnessing the energy in the water rushing from the glaciers and mountainsides for nearly 100 years and turning it into all the electricity they need. This is called hydropower, a renewable energy supply that emits no greenhouse gases.

Geothermal energy -- produced from hot water and steam captured from beneath Iceland's surface -- provides clean, safe and pollution-free hot water and inexpensive space heating to more than 90 percent of Icelandic homes, as well as its swimming pools and greenhouses.