New Georgia Power Chair Receives USDA Grant to Trap Carbon, Boost Crop Yields

Newly appointed Georgia Power Chair Chris Reinhard, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, will co-lead a $4.8 million USDA pilot project, studying a process that could help farms trap atmospheric carbon while providing more nutrients for crops.

The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in March, found that the world is rapidly approaching tipping points in the Earth system which could lead to massive disruption of ecosystems and human life. Although mitigating anthropogenic climate disruption first and foremost will require rapid and aggressive decarbonization, significant effort is also being directed towards approaches that have the potential to durably remove carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere — known as carbon dioxide removal (CDR). 

One particular CDR process — enhanced rock weathering — holds a lot of promise for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while increasing farm crop yields. School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Associate Professor Chris Reinhard has been researching this type of weathering for several years, and he’ll get more opportunities to follow up on those studies, thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant program.

He will conduct that research as the new Georgia Power Chair for Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, a role that he says will help guide his climate science studies.

“I am extremely honored and humbled,” Reinhard says. “I hope to use the position as a platform to collaborate on and advocate for climate-smart agricultural practices in the state of Georgia and beyond, and to amplify efforts that reimagine technically rigorous and socially responsible carbon removal across land and sea. Our USDA partnership will of course be central to these goals, as will our ongoing research on ocean-based carbon removal pathways.”

The USDA’s eye on agricultural technologies 

Reinhard and Noah Planavsky, an associate professor at Yale University, are co-principal investigators on their project for the USDA’s new grants program, Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities

The agency is awarding $3.1 billion to 141 select projects that will “expand markets for America’s climate-smart commodities, leverage the greenhouse gas benefits of climate-smart commodity production, and provide direct, meaningful benefits to production agriculture, including for small and underserved producers.”

Reinhard and Planavsky’s project, Creating Climate-Smart Commodities through Enhanced Rock Weathering in Agricultural Settings, is set to receive up to $4.8 million. Yale University is the lead institution, with Reinhard as the co-principal investigator and co-lead. 

The team’s major grant partners include Grodan, Agoro Carbon Alliance, Black Oaks Center, The Land Connection, Zumwalt Acres, Farm Foundation, Carolina Sunrock, Georgia Peanut Commission, and American Peanut Council.

Reinhard and Planavsky served as co-founders of Lithos, a green agriculture technology startup company. Earlier this year, the two left the company to focus more on the research side of climate science. 

Storing carbon, helping farmers

For the USDA project, the team’s enhanced rock weathering process will use basalt dust, instead of agricultural lime, to increase soil pH — basalt reacts with rainwater, trapping atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in the soil while releasing nutrients for plants that aren’t found in limestone. Rivers and streams then carry the dissolved carbon into oceans, where it is ultimately trapped via transformation to calcium carbonate minerals in the deep ocean. 

“We've actually known about the potential for basalt as an agricultural amendment for a while, going back to at least the 1960s,” Reinhard said. “We've also had a pretty good grip on the basics of the overall cycle for many years. However, the devil is in the details, and some of the key processes and mechanisms that control rates of weathering and agronomic impacts are only just now being constrained.”

The USDA grant will cover costs for monitoring and measuring what happens on farms using the process. Corn, soybeans, peanuts, and grass grown in Connecticut, Georgia, and Illinois will be the initial commodities involved in the project.

The USDA adds that the project also aims to determine the extent to which this process can increase crop yields, reduce agricultural nitrous oxide emissions (N2O), and decrease fertilizer and lime costs, “much of which may benefit underserved agricultural producers at a time of record high input costs and increasing economic pressures.”

Reinhard says reliable metrics are at the forefront of CO2 removal, and not just in the world of enhanced rock weathering. “There is a broadening recognition that we need to be able to back up claims of carbon offsetting — or neutrality — with real data and predictive models in order for this to be deployed responsibly,” he said, adding that after leading some field trials, and partnering in others, initial results are encouraging. 

“At a high level we are seeing measurable carbon capture, together with improved soil health and increases in crop yield across a few different systems. But there are also major challenges in reliable quantification and predictability of carbon removal and agronomic benefits,” he said. “We hope that the USDA partnership will allow us to take some of this to the next level, in particular trying an entirely new set of crop types in a new region of the U.S. — the Southeast — that hasn't had any field trials to date.”

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