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One blazing hot afternoon in August of 2010, I stood on a mountain top in Alabama, staring at a styrofoam beer cooler upended over the top of a metal pole. Alongside me were a couple dozen sweaty engineers and geologists. That beer cooler was one of the few visible signs of the research project happening far below our feet.
Over the course of two months, scientists from the University of Alabama had injected 278 tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth. The goal was to keep it there forever, locked in geologic formations. The beer cooler was a key part of that plan. Beneath it sat the delicate electronic components of the monitoring system the scientists were using to make sure none of the captured carbon dioxide found its way out of the mountain. Beer coolers, it turns out, make great low-cost heat protection.
Carbon capture and storage—the process of removing carbon dioxide from factory and power plant emissions and trapping it where it can't reach the atmosphere—is an interesting idea. It has the potential to help us make our current energy systems cleaner as we work on building more sustainable systems for the future. With that in mind, the Department of Energy has seven regional research teams testing carbon capture and storage at sites around the United States.
So far, nobody in the United States has put this full process to the test at the scale that would be necessary in the real world. But, in the past couple of weeks, scientists at the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium began pumping carbon dioxide at a new site, one that is going to give us our best picture yet of what full-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be like.
Earlier this week, I told you about a new study tracking radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
It started with a team of researchers in California, who had been monitoring radioactive sulfur in the atmosphere since 2009. Last spring, after an earthquake and tsunami critically damaged several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, those researchers watched the levels of radioactive sulfur skyrocket, relatively speaking. The amounts of radioactive sulfur that reached the California coast weren't high enough to be a threat to humans, but they made a big impact on extremely sensitive monitoring equipment.
Using that data, the researchers were able to figure out where the radioactive sulfur came from and back-calculate how much would have been produced at the site of the disaster—information that can tell us something about how dangerous the disaster really was to people living nearby.
But these researchers weren't the first to collect radioactive isotopes from Fukushima on American shores. And they weren't the first to offer up improved estimations of how much radiation leaked from the damaged power plant in the early days of the disaster. I thought this study was interesting. But, like a lot of you, I was left wondering why it was important.
Then yesterday, I interviewed Antra Priyadarshi, the lead author on the peer-reviewed paper that was published about this study. And I realized I'd gotten the story all wrong. This paper is about radioactive sulfur from the Fukushima disaster. But it isn't about the Fukushima disaster. It's not even about nuclear power. Not really.
In reality, this is a paper about coal. And it's important because of what it can tell us about the sort of air pollution that is much more mundane—and more deadly—than the fallout from a single nuclear disaster.
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