Investing In Our Global Future: UKRI funds enhanced rock weathering research

  • Official graphic for the COP26 conference.

The awesome power of rock dust will be on full display in Glasgow, Nov. 1-12, during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26).

Scotland’s largest city is hosting this year’s global summit, which assesses the urgency of the climate crisis and establishes legally-binding legislation for developed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In preparation, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is spending US$43.8 million on demonstrator projects investigating GHG removal by enhanced rock weathering (ERW), biochar, afforestation, bioenergy crops, and peatland restoration.

Headshot of Professor David Beerling

Professor David Beerling of the University of Sheffield, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation

David Beerling, professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Sheffield (whose work has been featured previously by Remineralize the Earth), is program director for the ERW project.

When rocks are crushed, the increased surface area allows for more efficient and effective absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere. In natural weathering processes, silicate rocks weather into a fine dust over thousands and millions of years. Through ERW, the process is sped up. Silicate rocks, such as basalt, are crushed, and the resulting dust is spread over farmland — a technique known as remineralization.

In addition to acting as a carbon sink by removing CO2 from the atmosphere, remineralization also improves soil alkalinity and fertility by re-supplying soils with depleted minerals. This technique improves crop health and increases crop yields, which effectively addresses issues of food security.

Beerling and his research team — composed of researchers from seven universities and two research facilities — are investigating ERW’s effectiveness as a GHG removal technology. At various field sites, researchers will vigorously test soil health after using calcium and magnesium-rich silicate rock dusts.

Diagram illustrating the enhanced rock weathering process

As silicate rocks weather, they release nutrients that can improve soil conditions and support crop production, and also generate alkaline leachate, ultimately leading to export of dissolved inorganic carbon forms to the oceans. (Click to enlarge)

This demonstrator project will assess societal and scalable opportunities for large-scale ERW in UK agriculture, with the ultimate goal of accelerating CO2 sequestration processes and enhancing UK soil and food security. Other demonstrator projects will investigate the use of different innovative methodologies.

For example, Colin Snape (University of Nottingham) will investigate how biochar — a carbon-rich, charcoal-like substance created through pyrolysis — can potentially enhance soil fertility and sequester carbon.

Ian Bateman (University of Exeter) will oversee afforestation research, with his team investigating sustainable treescapes and different tree planting options. While afforestation can enhance carbon storage, improper tree selection and management could be potentially counterproductive to GHG reduction.

Meanwhile, Iain Donnison (Aberystwyth University) is studying and developing perennial biomass crops. Bioenergy crops, such as Miscanthus grasses and coppice willow, serve as carbon neutral energy sources (once harvested and burnt) and can capture CO2 in the soil via long-lived root systems.

Finally, Christopher Evans (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) is recreating and enhancing environmental conditions that lead to peat formation, with the long-term goal of establishing secure carbon storage. Peatlands are carbon-rich wetlands that make up 12 % of the land area in the United Kingdom. 

These peat areas are critical for carbon-sequestration, storing about 3 billion metric tons of carbon — the same as all forests in the UK, France and Germany combined.

Side by side comparison of before and after peatland restoration

Peatland restoration, the technique addressed in the fifth demonstrator project, can have a rejuvenating effect on the land. The photo on the left shows a destitute landscape, with poor drainage. The landscape on the right depicts the landscape after peatland restoration, with restored land health. Photo courtesy of United Nations, Conservation to Combat Desertification. (Click to enlarge)

Each demonstrator project not only aims to limit the effects of climate change, but also to tackle the systemic, technical and social barriers that affect the health and well-being of communities. For its part, UKRI seeks to invest in the necessary technology to advance cutting-edge research towards mitigating climate change and facilitating behavioral changes that are consistent with a low-carbon future.

The scale and range of these projects send a clear message to the world, demonstrating Britain’s openness to the complexity of the issues at large and its commitment to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As COP26 host city, Glasgow itself is a juggernaut in the march toward carbon-neutral living, pledging to be the UK’s first carbon-neutral city by 2030.

However, as critical as this research is to the scientific community, these techniques and methods cannot be seen as divorced from the human lives they impact. A sustainable world is a livable world. Let’s innovate together!

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Meghan Wilcoxon is currently a doctoral student studying cognitive science at Brown University. She was a winner of the Hyundai Visionary Challenge for 2018-2019. She is a Quantitative Researcher and Analytical Writer for the Brown University Virtual Environment Navigation Lab.

Carter Haydu is a writer, reporter, and journalist based in Alberta and Saskatchewan. He works for JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group, with regular articles appearing in the Daily Oil Bulletin. He is a freelance columnist with the award-winning Quad Town Forum weekly newspaper, based in Vibank, Saskatchewan. He also contributes content for a series of magazines in and around Regina and Saskatoon. He received a BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Augustana University College in 2001 and a diploma in journalism from Grant Macewan College in 2005.

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