Wallula project aims to trap greenhouse gases

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerJanuary 22, 2009 

WALLULA -- Drilling has begun near Wallula to decide if basalt deep underground can help reduce greenhouse gases worldwide.

Battelle researchers believe that at Wallula a layer of basalt about three-quarters of a mile underground may have the most promising formation to capture and store carbon dioxide, the predominant gas implicated in climate change.

The researchers, based at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, already know that lab and supercomputer modeling have shown that basalt formations should be able to quickly and permanently store carbon dioxide.

But the test by the Boise Inc. pulp and paper mill will be used to prove the concept.

The 300 lava flows that left the layers of basalt at Wallula included layers of solid rock and other layers with as many holes as a sponge, said Battelle geologist Charlotte Sullivan.

It's those layers pockmarked with holes that should be ideal for storing carbon dioxide. It should flow through the holes and infuse itself in water trapped in the rock. As the carbonated water reacts with elements in the basalt, it should turn into calcium carbonate, the same substance that makes up limestone.

Researchers are drilling toward a layer about 3,000 to 4,000 feet deep deposited about 13 million years ago, Sullivan said. They expect it to be porous, but topped with a thick layer of hard basalt that could serve as a cap rock to keep the carbon dioxide from migrating toward the surface.

The water in the layer they are targeting is too deep for farmers to use for irrigation and is not potable because it is contaminated with naturally occurring sulfur and other elements.

Drilling and collecting samples of rock should be completed in a couple of months. It's the first phase of the joint pilot project by Boise, Battelle and Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership.

If it confirms what researchers expect, they will apply for a state permit to inject 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide, a relatively small amount by industry standards, down the hole being drilled now.

A natural gas plant can produce 1 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, a cement plant can produce several hundred thousand tons a year and fermenting enough grapes to make 70,000 cases of wine can produce 1,000 tons a year, said Pete McGrail, a Battelle fellow and the scientist leading the project.

The carbon dioxide could be injected down the bore hole later this spring or summer. Researchers will start drawing samples of water to track the chemical changes in the carbon dioxide almost immediately, but will need to wait 18 to 24 months to recover a sample of the rock.

"At that time we hope to hold in our hand a sample of mineralized basalt," McGrail said.

The project has particular promise for the Northwest, which has one of the largest basalt formations in the world.

It could produce additional money for industries, including wineries, producing carbon dioxide if they participate in cap-and-trade programs and find other companies to buy the emission credits they earn, McGrail said.

"We could have one of the greenest and negative carbon-footprint wine industries anywhere," he said.

Once the research using the bore hole is completed, it will be closed or transferred to Boise.

Boise offered its land for the research and has signed an agreement precluding it from using the bore hole for injection of carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant after some feared the study could lead to a coal-fired power plant being built in the Wallula area.

Boise is not required to capture and store carbon dioxide now but is participating in the research project to test the new technology as a way to evaluate options for managing greenhouse gases in the future.

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