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Executive Summary

Serious challenges must be faced in this century as the world seeks to meet global energy needs and at the same time reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Even with a growing energy supply from alternative sources, fossil carbon resources will remain in heavy use and will generate large volumes of carbon dioxide (CO2). To reduce the atmospheric impact of this fossil energy use, it is necessary to capture and sequester a substantial fraction of the produced CO2. Subsurface geologic formations offer a potential location for long-term storage of the requisite large volumes of CO2. Nuclear energy resources could also reduce use of carbon-based fuels and CO2 generation, especially if nuclear energy capacity is greatly increased. Nuclear power generation results in spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive materials that also must be sequestered underground. Hence, regardless of technology choices, there will be major increases in the demand to store materials underground in large quantities, for long times, and with increasing efficiency and safety margins.

Rock formations are composed of complex natural materials and were not designed by nature as storage vaults. If new energy technologies are to be developed in a timely fashion while ensuring public safety, fundamental improvements are needed in our understanding of how these rock formations will perform as storage systems.

This report describes the scientific challenges associated with geologic sequestration of large volumes of carbon dioxide for hundreds of years, and also addresses the geoscientific aspects of safely storing nuclear waste materials for thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. The fundamental crosscutting challenge is to understand the properties and processes associated with complex and heterogeneous subsurface mineral assemblages comprising porous rock formations, and the equally complex fluids that may reside within and flow through those formations. The relevant physical and chemical interactions occur on spatial scales that range from those of atoms, molecules, and mineral surfaces, up to tens of kilometers, and time scales that range from picoseconds to millennia and longer. To predict with confidence the transport and fate of either CO2 or the various components of stored nuclear materials, we need to learn to better describe fundamental atomic, molecular, and biological processes, and to translate those microscale descriptions into macroscopic properties of materials and fluids. We also need fundamental advances in the ability to simulate multiscale systems as they are perturbed during sequestration activities and for very long times afterward, and to monitor those systems in real time with increasing spatial and temporal resolution. The ultimate objective is to predict accurately the performance of the subsurface fluid-rock storage systems, and to verify enough of the predicted performance with direct observations to build confidence that the systems will meet their design targets as well as environmental protection goals.

The report summarizes the results and conclusions of a Workshop on Basic Research Needs for Geosciences held in February 2007. Five panels met, resulting in four Panel Reports, three Grand Challenges, six Priority Research Directions, and three Crosscutting Research Issues. The Grand Challenges differ from the Priority Research Directions in that the former describe broader, long-term objectives while the latter are more focused.


Geological carbon sequestration; Geological repositories; Nevada – Yucca Mountain; Radioactive waste repositories; Rocks


Chemistry | Earth Sciences | Environmental Chemistry | Geology