New project will study ‘deep carbon’

Studying the behavior of carbon – the essential element in oil and natural gas – deep within the Earth is the aim of a new initiative co-directed by a UC Davis chemistry professor and funded by a two-year, $1.5 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

“We don’t know how much carbon is stored in the deep Earth, and we don’t know how it affects fluxes of carbon towards the Earth’s crust or the carbon cycle at the surface,” said Giulia Galli, professor of chemistry at UC Davis, who will lead the Physics and Chemistry of Carbon Directorate initiative with Professor Craig Manning of UCLA.

Geologists believe that commercially produced crude oil and natural gas, or hydrocarbons, are formed by the decomposition of the remains of living organisms buried under layers of sediments in the Earth’s crust, a region that extends five to 10 miles below the Earth’s surface. But there is increasing interest in “abiogenic” hydrocarbons from much deeper in the Earth, which might make their way to the surface in some places.

A fundamental understanding of “deep carbon” could therefore affect both our thinking about energy supplies, and about how carbon moves through the air, soil and water at the surface – a key factor in climate change.

That puts the project at the intersection of energy and environmental research – areas of intense interest at UC Davis, known as a leader in both fields.

Galli and Manning will lead an international team of scientists working on practical experiments, computer simulations and theoretical studies of carbon, carbon compounds like natural gas, oil and diamond, water and other liquids under the enormous temperatures and pressures of the Earth’s depths.

Those conditions are difficult to reproduce in a lab at the surface, Galli noted. But they can be simulated with computers.

“We know very little, so we are starting with the basic physics and chemistry,” she said.

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