University of Calgary researcher David Keith pioneers new energy technologies that he hopes will inspire environmental public policy.
September 1, 2007
We hear it time and time again: CO2 emissions are a major cause of environmental damage. But what can be done about it? Scientist David Keith hopes to play a leading role in that scenario. By using his research experience and partnerships with government, industry, and environmentalists to put forth feasible, cost-effective solutions, Keith fuels public policy to effect positive change.

He was named the inaugural Environmental Scientist of the Year by Canadian Geographic magazine in 2006. Not bad considering he’s not trained in environmental science. With a background in physics, Keith became interested in climate because he loves to work on issues that matter, and because “ it presents exciting scientific problems with big uncertainties.”

To combat climate change, Keith advances the understanding of the risks and opportunities of CO2 capture and storage—taking emissions from fossil-fuel combustion and safely storing them in deep underground places like depleted oil and gas reservoirs, or coal beds.

In 2005, Keith took CO2 capture to another “ way out there” level with his University of Calgary (U of C) team by building a five-metre tower that can suck CO2 directly from the air, then store it underground. That means the potential location of CO2 capture is no longer limited to industrial sites, as these towers can be placed anywhere. Though this discovery is incredible, Keith recognizes this technology may not have a huge impact for another 20 years.

© ISEEE University of Calgary

Another method that could be applied much more readily is adding brine to CO2 storage. Keith and his team discovered that pumping brine into underground CO2 aquifers dissolves CO2 more quickly, rather than letting it dissolve naturally over thousands of years. Dissolved CO2 doesn’t pose a threat to the atmosphere. “ This could quite dramatically reduce the risk of CO2 storage, and make storage possible in areas where it’s not now,” he emphasizes.

Despite having carried out such groundbreaking research, Keith recognizes the only way to really make a difference is to use it to help drive environmental public policy. He points out that the first scientific alarm bell for climate change went off for politicians 40 years ago when U.S. President Lyndon Johnson received the first high-level report about climate change. “ But we still haven’t done anything serious about it,” Keith laments. Still, he has faith that action will happen now, and science will be paramount in helping government and industry find solutions.

“ Decision-making about these issues has to involve understanding what the actual costs are that industry faces, and what the implications are in negotiating a solution between industry, government, and environmental groups. Different solutions fit into the economic and political systems in different ways.”

To devise those solutions, Keith is assembling a Canadian academic team at the U of C to cultivate specific technologies to handle energy and environmental problems. He worked with such a group at Pittsburgh’s distinguished Carnegie Mellon University, and part of the draw of returning to Canada, he says, was to develop a similar Canadian resource. “ Canada has the individual expertise, but not a group to do this systematically. There are real benefits to the country to have such a group because it can interact and consult with industry and government in a way that individual researchers can’t.”

Ultimately, Keith wants to move public policy forward on climate change, showing that science can be both stimulating and useful.