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Initiative integrates science, technology and policy expertise

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- The challenge is daunting: How can humanity slash the worldwide emission of greenhouse gasses and curb global warming? Since it began four years ago, Princeton's Carbon Mitigation Initiative has tackled the problem head-on, pursuing a wide range of approaches from basic science to engineering to policy analysis.

The initiative, which started with $20 million in funding from BP and the Ford Motor Co., has attracted more than $20 million in additional federal research support and brings together 60 faculty and staff scientists and student researchers. The program, part of the larger Princeton Environmental Institute, is making its mark as a successful effort to integrate a deep understanding of scientific issues with technological and policy expertise.

''This is a huge challenge to civilization, which cannot be addressed by looking only at the consequences of inaction and understanding what we are doing to ourselves,'' said Robert Socolow, who co-directs the initiative with Stephen Pacala. ''We need to find what we can do about it. We need to know both what is the urgency and what are the options.''

Those questions traditionally have been addressed by separate ''sub-worlds'' of researchers, Socolow added, ''and we are pulling them together.'' The unifying concern of the research is the element carbon, one of the main ingredients of fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere, a process called the greenhouse effect.

A prime example of the program's integration is a paper recently published in Science magazine in which Pacala and Socolow outline 15 areas of existing technology that could be used immediately to begin stabilizing the global emissions of carbon dioxide (see related story above). Their synthesis grew in part from the advances of four working groups within the Carbon Mitigation Initiative:

• The science group, including researchers in the departments of geosciences and ecology and evolutionary biology, as well as from the federal Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory on Princeton's Forrestal Campus. Scientists in this area, including Pacala, Jorge Sarmiento, Daniel Sigman and Michael Bender, are world leaders in understanding the natural role of carbon through Earth's history and the likely effects of human activity on those natural cycles.

Under the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, these scientists have established strength in what they call ''solution science,'' the idea of anticipating potential technological fixes and analyzing the likely benefits or pitfalls. ''I think this is something the government is going to rely on increasingly,'' said Pacala. ''When there are bright ideas for solutions, we can try to figure out if there are adverse unintended consequences in the same way that there have been unintended consequences of burning fossil fuels.''

• The carbon capture group, involving scientists and engineers examining ways to use fossil fuels without releasing the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This effort, led by Robert Williams, Eric Larson and Tom Kreutz, includes research on ''hydrogen economy'' in which pure hydrogen fuel is, at least initially, extracted from conventional fuels that have both hydrogen and carbon. Other work focuses on renewable energy production from biomass, solar and wind sources and creation of synthetic fuels from coal. The Carbon Mitigation Initiative also supports studies of combustion of hydrogen and synthetic fuels under Chung King Law and Yiguang Ju of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

• The carbon storage group, which looks at what to do with carbon dioxide once it is captured. A leading idea is to pump it deep underground, possibly into spent oil fields. A major part of this effort involves examining the risk of the gas leaking from old oil wells. Researchers in civil and environmental engineering, led by George Scherer, Michael Celia and Jean Prévost, are examining how carbonic acid formed underground could eat away the cement that was used to seal the wells. This research spans molecular-level studies of cement to mathematical modeling of water flowing through underground rock formations.

Carbon capture and storage are only part of the solution, said Pacala, but are important because they are potentially one of the most cost-effective routes. They also offer coal and oil companies an avenue for remaining major suppliers of energy without worsening global warming. ''If you're going to bring the big fossil fuel producers to the table and keep in mind that the U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal, you need carbon sequestration of some kind,'' said Pacala.

• The integration group, which works to synthesize research discoveries in a broader economic and political context. This group includes Pacala and Socolow as well as faculty members from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, such as climate scientist and policy analyst Michael Oppenheimer and environmental economist David Bradford.

The job of integration is a critical area of development as the Carbon Mitigation Initiative moves forward, said Pacala and Socolow. ''Now that you know what can be done and how it can be done,'' said Pacala, ''the real questions are: What are most effective policy instruments? What will it cost? What are the social dimensions of the problem and the ethics of solving it? What about the equity issues between the developing and the developed world?''

''There are a million and one options for how to pay for something like this and get the job done,'' Pacala continued. ''I'd like a simple road map so I understand where the landmines and opportunities are.''

Socolow added that an important part of bringing together the different areas of research has been the support of BP and Ford, which have been active partners while giving the Princeton scientists freedom to set their own agenda. The initial grant is spread over 10 years, which is unusual compared to typical federal research grants of three to five years. The added time gives the researchers more flexibility in developing an innovative and far-reaching program, Socolow said.

''The vision of BP and Ford was that you needed to have a place where you would be looking at the problem as a whole in order to make real headway,'' said Socolow. ''And that is what we are trying to do.''