Understanding Earth’s Thermostat Using Experimental Studies of Water-Rock Interactions

2011-13 New Investigator Award

Interactions between water and rock play a critical role in regulating Earth’s climate on geologic timescales and are important in many aspects of fossil fuel production, mineral extraction, and carbon sequestration. To enhance understanding of the fundamental processes that govern global geochemical cycles and that are relevant to driving past and future climate change, John Higgins is developing an experimental rock autoclave system. Specifically, the system is being used to explore how water-rock interactions regulate the flow of carbon dioxide (CO2) through Earth’s surface reservoirs and determine implications for planetary climate.

The project relies on inter-departmental collaborations by utilizing state-of-the-art analytical facilities in the Department of Geosciences, in particular a newly built Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) laboratory, and the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM).

By combining these existing resources with the experimental rock-water autoclave, the project will provide new chemical constraints into how rocks are chemically weathered under a range of pressure and temperature conditions that extends from Earth’s surface to mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal systems in the deep-sea. Results from this project are also relevant to anthropogenic climate change as the reaction of CO2 with silicate rocks and the formation of carbonate minerals is the safest and most permanent method of sequestering carbon dioxide.

Educational Impacts

The experimental setups derived from the rock autoclave system will serve as one of the foundations for a new lab-based undergraduate course on analytical techniques in the environmental and engineering sciences. The course seeks to provide undergraduates with hands-on experience in developing a scientific hypothesis, testing that hypothesis in the lab, and analyzing the results. Experience with cutting-edge analytical tools will prepare undergraduate students for independent research projects through summer internships, junior papers and senior theses.

Participating Department


Assistant Professor of Geosciences

Research Associates

  • Elizabeth Lundstrom