How iCRAG’s research will form the bedrock of our green future

7 Apr 2021

Prof Murray Hitzman. Image: iCRAG

Sam Cox takes a look inside the iCRAG research centre to find out how people can continue to extract what we need from the Earth without destroying it.

People move quickly. They live, work and adapt. Rocks, of course, are much slower. Continents will shift and their plants and weather systems will change. But, compared to their human inhabitants, such changes are nearly imperceptible. Years of research and study have proven the Earth isn’t quite so still.

In 2018, Greta Thunberg first appeared in the media spotlight, marking a new era of fresh voices in a decades-old battle. Carrying the mantel of Rachel Carson and the environmental movement, she represents the continuation of a debate that is influenced both by science and public opinion.

It is this interaction that is the core of iCRAG, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for applied geosciences, which in February 2021 received €28m in SFI funding for the next five years.

For the rock-steady nature of the Earth and its components, it might seem strange that the conversation is so fraught. The minerals, ores and materials that form our Earth, that build our structures and run our machines are both protected and utilised in a balance that isn’t easy to reconcile. Environmental conservation doesn’t always equal preservation, as green energy relies on rare metals from the Earth that may be necessary to extract.

The interaction of these, both in their acquirement and in their use, goes on to influence our entire Earth system. As water flows through mountains and into the streams and rivers that feed our oceans, distant geographical areas become connected in all of their elements. What we put in and what we take out shifts the system’s balance, forcing it to seek a new equilibrium.

Explained in such terms, geology rockets in importance. Talk about the need for clean water and the public listens. Describe the lithium batteries for the future phones and electric cars that can fuel Elon Musk’s dreams, and investment flows. But mention the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere and any other geology-heavy terms, and the conversation often shuts down. iCRAG is about keeping that conversation going.

Out of the ashes, a carbon capture solution arises

Hosted by University College Dublin, iCRAG’s location on a small island may seem a disadvantage in becoming a major global contributor in research. Its size, however, has proven advantageous. ‘Small enough to test, big enough to prove,’ is the phrase repeated time and again.

The use of analogues means that areas of research in Ireland can be applied to Africa and North America. Why travel to inaccessible heights to measure the weathering of silicates when the Wicklow Mountains offer the opportunity – small enough to test, but big enough to prove.

This is what palaeobotanist Prof Jennifer McElwain, a principal investigator at iCRAG, hopes to do. Using fossilised plants, McElwain reconstructs the history of the gases in the atmosphere. By looking at the chemical composition of these plants, she tracks the course of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over millions of years. At iCRAG, she hopes to combine different fields in order to create geoengineering solutions for the climate crisis.

Enhanced chemical weathering involves utilising a process that naturally occurs over hundreds of thousands of years. When rainwater falls, the bare rock is chemically worn down. This leads to calcium and magnesium silicates going into streams, flowing down into rivers and, eventually, the ocean. When this water reaches the ocean, the silicates are replaced by carbon, resulting in a carbon trap and the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

McElwain and her team hope to replicate this process by adding volcanic ash to crops. As lime is often added to Irish soils, ash could be used to achieve similar results. These crops would break down the silicates, run off into the water and speed up the trapping of carbon. Crop health improves. The climate improves. No large expenses are needed. It is straightforward and effective – at least as a concept.

“We have the theory, but we need to do the experiments and to work out what plants and what level of ash is needed, and how deep to bury the ash,” said McElwain. “We need to work out what combination that will give the maximum amount of carbon taken out of the atmosphere.”

And so, a geochemist, a hydrologist, a plant physiologist and a social scientist walk into a lab. Based near the docks of Dublin, they have six climate control chambers towering three metres high. The chambers are filled with soil and ash. Instruments are fed through to monitor the chemical balance, and measure how different compositions interact with the plants on trial.

‘If we come up with a geoengineering solution, ethically, we may not want to go ahead with it’
– PROF JENNIFER MCELWAIN

Any climate in the world can be brought into the lab inside of these chambers. How plants fare in the American Badlands can be compared to the Irish grasslands. Even the conditions of Mars could be imitated. There is complete control of day-night cycles, heat and humidity. Researchers can investigate how to create the optimum carbon trap. They can observe what the silicates are doing and how ash is affecting the process.

Once these results are in, the team will move to experimental field plots, constantly checking in with both the science and the social side. What are the farming practices currently in place? How would this science impact these practices? Measuring the presence of magnesium in the run-off isn’t enough – the central question is what that magnesium run-off would mean for the land and its people.

Long before the construction of McElwain’s towering climate chambers, she travelled to Sicily in order to see the volcanic ash in its resting place – tales of 2,000-year-old lava versus its older 20,000-year-old sibling. Nestled into this volcanic rock are the plants and ash that could be key to the climate crisis.

“You can read things in a book, but I keep drawing on having been in Sicily with a volcanologist. I’ll read about a particular plant family and my mind will immediately think of seeing that plant on the most extreme slopes of [Mount] Etna, exposed to sulphur and bare ash, no soil. And I’m thinking, my goodness, that plant family – how does it do that? How does it concentrate different heavy metals? How does it survive?”

She added: “I should say first off, the most important step is we stop burning fossil fuels and move towards green energy technology. That is number one, and if we come up with a geoengineering solution, ethically we may not want to go ahead with it.” This may seem like a contradiction given the time, effort and resources put into the work, but it emphases how iCRAG refutes an ivory tower model of science and strives to know how their solutions will affect the real world and its inhabitants.

Marrying the social to the science

Difficult questions like these are the reason Prof Murray Hitzman leads iCRAG. While he would go on to demonstrate a worldwide array of both academic and industry experience in geology,. Hitzman’s initial qualification was a bachelor’s degree in geology and anthropology from Dartmouth College in 1976. His studies of minerals were secondary to his fascination with culture and its evolution. In an effort to go to Guatemala on an underfunded anthropology study, Hitzman agreed to a more readily resourced geology field trip in the same area. And so he studied both – finding more integration and relevance than he expected.

This social science origin is central to iCRAG’s now-core philosophy. The use of minerals and their extraction from the ground has a massive impact on a society and its development. Since its foundation, iCRAG has been reimagined as a group that could lead the way in decarbonisation – a “non-trivial exercise” said Hitzman.

“Most people just think about the energy side, and that’s really complicated. But of all the materials that are needed … we have to rebuild the buildings to make them energy efficient. We have to redo our fleets of transportation to make them run on new types of energy. All these things, the amount of materials we’ll need, is astounding. How do we do that without screwing up the planet? It’s difficult but it’s doable.”

Hitzman described the “perfect electrochemistry” of cobalt that can’t be matched by any of its peers. What was once thought of as an unwanted by-product can now be harnessed to pave the way for renewable energy. His descriptions of sulphur-eating bacteria and their behavioural habits are filled with a deep passion and resonance with his work. Conveying this to politicians and policy-makers is difficult, but he highlighted the importance of bringing this science to life.

Engaging with the Earth

One such example in Ireland is underwater acoustic research. While we may think of Ireland as a landmass, the national border stretches far into the ocean. To map this, a big gun is used to make an airblast (“a big ‘pop’ underwater”) that puts pressure on the bottom of the ocean. This goes into the earth and bounces around. These bounces are measured, and the seabed is mapped.

While these blasts cannot be heard on the surface, there was concern about what the process would do to marine life. The effect of loud acoustics on populations of porpoises, whales and fish was outside the remit of geologists, so iCRAG hired marine biologists to investigate, leading the research to be paused until more is known. Stratification caused by temperature and salinity meant that the sound moves at different velocities. Not only that, but just like on the Earth’s surface, the bottom of the ocean has canyons and mountains and topography. And just as they would above sea level, these valleys echo underwater.

New problems require novel solutions. Rather than disrupting wildlife using traditional methods in the field, iCRAG has instead used the natural sounds of the earth to create similar maps.

As seismic activities and ocean waves generate vibrations, the researchers hone into this ‘heartbeat of the planet’ using sensors in a titanium pressure tube. These sensors are designed to float to the water’s surface once their deployment is finished, allowing them to be collected without disturbing sea life. Named with the help of Irish schoolchildren as part of a public engagement programme, sensors such as Allód, Quakey and Wilson return to the researchers with minimal waste and zero wildlife interference – tapping into the natural world without disrupting it.

‘Science without buy-in from society is meaningless’
– PROF MURRAY HITZMAN

On referencing Annals of the Former World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of John McPhee on the geology of North America, Hitzman lights up. He says the author has done colossal amounts for bringing geology to life for the lay public. The idea of preservation versus conservation, and how to extract resources that are necessary for helping the global environment, is central to McPhee’s writings on environmentalist David Brower.

McPhee brought a spark to the topic and a human consideration that Hitzman has integrated into his own approach. Rocks move slowly and people move quickly, but the job of the iCRAG director is to anticipate both and adjust accordingly.

He said, “Science without buy-in from society is meaningless. You have to marry the social science, the psychology and how people behave with the scientific knowledge.” Sometimes, this entails naming titanium ocean sensors in the classroom to bring the research to life. Other times it involves merging ancient resources like volcanic ash with modern farming practice.

All of the work, however, involves recognising the Earth is far from inert and, using geological science, we can meet the needs of both the planet and all those who inhabit it.

By Sam Cox

Sam Cox was named the science and technology winner in the 2020 National Student Media Awards (Smedias). This award category is sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland and includes a €1,000 bursary to support and encourage up-and-coming science and technology journalism.

The 2021 Smedias are now open for entries. The deadline for applications is 15 April 2021.

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news

editorial@siliconrepublic.com