engineers speaking in the lab

Holding a crescent wrench in each hand, Herring talks to the camera about the challenges of harnessing the laws of physics to unlock the secrets of geology and save the world from global warming.

“Nothing is working,” she declares. She points a wrench at a tube. “We know there is a leak somewhere in this line, because we have had two experiments fail. We’ve been looking for it for two days. We have no idea where the leak is, so we have to take everything apart and put it all back together and hope that fixes it.” 

As the reality of starting completely over sinks in, Herring starts to giggle. Her laughter infects Andersson. Soon it is clear that they are sleep deprived, running on caffeine and nervous energy.

The pair has been playing beat-the-clock as they prepare for access to the Advanced Photon Source, the most powerful x-ray beam in the western hemisphere. Located at the Argonne National Lab in Chicago, this advanced technology is highly sought after by scientists from around the world. If something goes wrong, it will be three to four months until they get another chance to conduct their research.

Herring and Andersson work closely with Dorthe Wildenschild, professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering, whose work is advancing the fundamental science that underpins carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage.

Wildenschild’s research has taken the pair to Chicago four times in the past year. They arrive two weeks early to give themselves time to prepare their experiments. Bypassing the Second City’s attractions, they typically pull an all-nighter to get things rolling, then trade off sleeping and working.

During this visit, Herring and Andersson will set a sandstone rock in front of the photon beam while forcing carbon dioxide at great pressure into the rock.

“The goal of our research is to determine the most efficient and effective way to force and store carbon dioxide in the pores of the rock,” Andersson explained.

If successful, their research will make it possible to take CO2 captured at power plants and other point sources and sequester it underground in sandstones layers. It could provide a short-term solution until alternative energy sources can be discovered, refined, and implemented. 

Herring is a coal miner’s daughter from the small town of Craig, Colorado, home to one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the nation, so her research will affect her family.

“My father works at one of the coal mines, but he is also a big environmentalist,” said Herring. “When I started doing this research, he thought it was cool.”

Andersson, a native of Strängnäs, Sweden, earned a Ph.D. in materials chemistry from Stockholm University and was in Australia when she learned of Wildenschild’s research. Intrigued, she arranged her own funding through the Swedish Science Council and a private foundation, and offered her services to Wildenschild.

The research will likely keep Wildenschild’s lab near the forefront of CO2 sequestration.

“Linnéa and Anna are performing really complex research,” Wildenschild said. “I’m in awe of what they do. They not only run these very complex experiments with CO2 in its supercritical state, they do it under the tremendous constraints of working at the beam-line. That means everything has to fit into a small space, and it all has to work once the clock starts ticking. They’re a great team. And the research they’re producing is really putting us on the map in the world of carbon capture and storage.”

Herring and Andersson did eventually find the leak and were able to take advantage of 72 straight hours of beam time, which allowed them to collect valuable data. “We really accomplished a lot,” said Andersson.

In spite of the rigorous demands of this type of research, Andersson and Herring are looking forward to their next opportunity to save the world from itself. 

— Warren Volkmann

Published Date: 
Thursday, August 28, 2014