The Search for Carbon Begins

This year sees the beginning of a decade-long project called the Deep Carbon Observatory, which will spend the next ten years searching out everything carbon-related in our world.

“Twenty years ago, the idea that there was a deep underground biosphere would have been laughed at,” said Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and leader of the Deep Carbon Observatory. “But we now know there is, because anywhere you drill you find life.”

The Deep Carbon Observatory hopes to reshape our fundamental understanding of carbon’s role in biology, chemistry and physics.

Unlike other “observatory’s” around the world, this one will not exist in one stationary location. The Deep Carbon Observatory will be a distributed operation, requiring a number of scientists and researchers working on a variety of instruments across the surface of our planet.

“When you step back and ask fundamental questions about carbon in the Earth,” said Russell Hemley, also of the Geophysical Laboratory and co-leader of the program, “you realize there is a great deal that we do not know about this important element.”

Carbon is one of the most abundant and necessary compounds in our universe, and is the key ingredient in a number of processes and actions, including breathing and our bodies. Scientists hope to understand it, work out where it comes from, where it lives, and where it’s all gone.

The carbon cycle is a planetary-scale machine that sees the chemical circulate through the oceans and atmosphere, into and out of our planet’s crust, through living creatures and out again ready to start the process all over again. But scientists believe that even this massive operation does not account for the large majority of carbon in our planet, believing the rest to be locked deep beneath the surface.

Scientists even hold out hope that there is carbon that has been locked under the Earth’s surface since before the arrival of humanity.

The Deep Carbon Observatory is just ramping up, divining interest and support and participation, and they’re going to need it. Some of the instruments that they need to complete the work that they have set for themselves have not even been invented yet, and the manpower necessary is going to need the support of many.

“We want to see if we can get microbiologists on site at every deep drilling site in the world so we can collect samples before they can be contaminated,” Hazen said. “We’re learning fascinating things about a biosphere that lives in very different conditions than we’re familiar with.”

“Science is not cataloging all the things we know, it’s exploring the things we don’t,” said Hazen. He suggested that discoveries by the Deep Carbon Observatory could lead to Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics ten years from now. “We want to find the carbon equivalent of dark energy,” Hazen said.

Source: Inside Science
Image Source: Deep Carbon Observatory

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