Researchers study the effects of planting carbon underground

Scenic shot of Horseshoe Lake in Mammoth Mountain, where CSULA researchers are studying effects of carbon sequestration on water and soil quality in a natural field site.

Working among the pines and lakes of Mammoth Mountain, Cal State L.A. faculty and students are studying the potential impact of technologies that can slow carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere by storing it underground.

The team of researchers, fueled by funding and staff support from the Center for Energy and Sustainability, are utilizing a natural field site to study chemical changes to water and soils in an area where CO2 from a now-dormant volcano is seeping through the earth’s crust.

The site is a unique case study location for exploring carbon sequestration, or the practice of stockpiling CO2—which has been converted from gas to liquid—underground as a means for mitigating the effects of global warming and achieving “clean coal” use. Experts note that capturing and sequestering CO2 below the earth’s crust is both technically feasible and affordable. Still to be investigated, however, are the hazards or concerns that may exist if the gas were released through the soil and made its way above ground.

“There have been a few articles but no one has really sat down to study it in detail,” said Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences Andre Ellis, who has joined Civil Engineering Professor Crist Khachikian and Biological Sciences Professor Tina Salmassi in researching the topic. “Whatever we produce will be very useful to any community or country as they look to carbon sequestration. We will be able to provide some insight on what happens biologically and chemically to an entire ecosystem if the chemistry of the soil and water changes.”

Together, the faculty and student researchers are studying everything from how the presence of elevated carbon levels affect mineral weathering and the acidification of the soil, to the quality of groundwater. In the area of the leakage, which has been ongoing since 1989 earthquakes created openings for magmatic CO2 to escape, some vegetation has already died out.

“This is a big deal,” said graduate fellow Rose Santilena ’10, who is analyzing water chemistry in Horseshoe Lake. Santilena said that before joining the research team, she didn’t know how “clean coal” technology worked or what potential side effects existed.

“Now, I am part of the conversation,” she said. “I’ve gotten to personally see what’s happening in the area. And, I think when we put together all of our research, add all of the components, we will have a much clearer picture of the future.”