The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will be home to one of 46 new multi-million-dollar Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs).

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu thus outlines the purpose of the EFRCs: "These Centers will mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation's scientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to make alternative and renewable energy truly viable as large-scale replacements for fossil fuels."

Among the individual EFRCs named by the DOE to share $777 million over the next 5 years is the Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO2.

"This new award will give our team of investigators an opportunity to probe the fundamental chemical, physical and biological processes that control the movement of carbon dioxide fluids in the earth," says Don DePaolo, director of Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division.

Although led by Berkeley Lab, the Center includes collaborating researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of California at Davis.

The Center's immediate emphasis is on understanding and solving – at a fundamental scientific level – the problems of sequestering carbon dioxide captured from coal-burning power plants. The science of subsurface flow, however, is directly applicable to a host of other environmental and energy-related challenges, including geothermal energy production, storage of spent nuclear fuel, and recovery of oil and gas from depleted reservoirs.

The overarching goal is to establish control over fluids deep underground at the level of individual molecules as they interact with the pore network of surrounding rock, including managing how these fluids – especially carbon-dioxide-rich fluids – flow, dissolve and precipitate. Within 10 years, the researchers hope to fill the many gaps in the present knowledge, including the effects of nanoscale confinement on fluid dynamics and on chemical, geological and biological reactions with surrounding surfaces, materials and microorganisms.

Specific research projects include characterizing the pore configuration of a wide range of sedimentary rocks, including brine-filled formations. Geologic sequestration takes place on many scales – both in space and in time – from the scale of individual molecules of rock or fluid to the geological scale of entire reservoirs, from fractions of a second to thousands of years.

Understanding chemical and microbiological interactions are among the key advances that are required. The goal is to fill the available pore space efficiently without damaging the surrounding rock, since the liquid CO2 must be stored for hundreds of years without leaking into the atmosphere.

Beginning in late summer of 2009, the Center expects to receive approximately $20 million in funding through the Basic Energy Research program in DOE's Office of Science, spread over 5 years.