Why the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Digs Deep in Search of Carbon

Scientists have a solid understanding of the route carbon takes through our atmosphere and Earth's crust, as well as its importance as a building block of life. But how much carbon exists in the Earth's interior? The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation hopes its support for a team at the University of California-Davis will help answer questions like this. (See Alfred P. Sloan Foundation: Grants for Science Research).

The Sloan Foundation has dedicated $1.5 million over two years for the project, which is led by chemistry professor Giulia Galli. The grant came as part of the Sloan Foundation's Deep Carbon Observatory, a program that supports basic scientific research aimed at expanding our understanding of carbon and the role it plays in the deep reaches of Earth.

Now Galli and her team are at work trying to de-mystify the chemistry and physics that govern the behavior of carbon deep in the Earth's mantle, where the temperature soars to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit and the pressure exerts massive force. Much of their work involves using computers to simulate the conditions in the planet's interior so scientists can better understand the story of carbon that ends up far below the surface.

"We don't know how much carbon is stored in the deep Earth, and we don't know how it affects fluxes of carbon towards the Earth's crust or the carbon cycle at the surface," Galli said at the project's launch. "We know very little, so we are starting with the basic physics and chemistry."

The California-Davis grant will come to an end later this year, but the Sloan Foundation's Deep Carbon Observatory still has many miles to travel. The program is planned to extend through 2019, and Galli's team is one of many that have attracted financial support. Other groups are pursuing research on topics like the microbes and viruses that live in hot, dark places deep beneath our feet.

As one would expect, the Sloan Foundation's program staff sees a lot of appeals for research support. (Read Sloan Vice President, Daniel Goroff's IP profile). The best approach is the simple one — a letter of intent briefly explaining a project and its impact on the body of scientific knowledge and the world. The foundation prefers to review these short documents rather than sift through pages and pages of proposals.