Deep Carbon Science

Scientists in the field
The DCO project Biology Meets Subduction brought scientists from many disciplines together for a sampling trip across the Costa Rican volcanic arc. Credit: Katie Pratt

Carbon plays a fundamental role on Earth. It forms the chemical backbone for all essential organic molecules produced by living organisms. Carbon-based fuels supply most of society’s energy. Atmospheric carbon dioxide affects Earth's climate. Yet despite its importance, remarkably little is known about the physical, chemical, and biological behavior of carbon in the vast majority of Earth’s interior.

The interdisciplinary field of deep carbon science integrates the knowledge of chemists, physicists, geologists, and biologists who study carbon in Earth’s deep interior. By combining field expeditions, laboratory experiments, and computational simulations, and transcending the boundaries between traditional scientific disciplines, DCO scientists are fundamentally changing our understanding of Earth’s deep carbon.




Deep carbon science explores the quantities, movements, forms, and origins of carbon in Earth.



How much carbon does Earth contain, and where is it?

DCO scientists explore the quantities of carbon in Earth by studying the planet's principal deep carbon reservoirs as well as the total amount of carbon it contains. Some deep carbon scientists look for places where significant carbon can be stored, from mineralogical to regional scales. Other deep carbon scientists explore the quantities of carbon stored in the deep biosphere by studying the nature and extent of the deep microbial and viral biosphere in Earth's continental crust and seafloor.

Deep Carbon Cycle
Schematic of the quantities and movements of carbon in Earth.


What is the nature of the deep carbon cycle?

Deep carbon science is also concerned with the mechanisms and rates by which carbon moves between Earth's carbon reservoirs. By monitoring the fluxes of carbon dioxide released during volcanic activity, as well as during passive volcanic degassing at nominally 'inactive' volcanic vents, deep carbon scientists learn about the movements of carbon out of Earth's deep interior. DCO scientists also study the fluxes of carbon into Earth at subduction zones.


Novel carbon compound
Schematic structure of the CO2-SiO2 solid solution. Credit: Roberto Bini
What forms of carbon exist within Earth?

DCO scientists study the forms of carbon within Earth by exploring novel carbon structures and chemical reactions through observations, experiments, and theoretical models. Deep carbon science is improving our understanding of the physical and chemical behavior of carbon at the extremely high temperatures and pressures found in the interior of Earth and other planets. Discovery of novel forms of carbon at extreme conditions have significant implications for our understanding of Earth, as well as applications for advanced materials and technologies.


What can deep carbon tell us about the origins of carbon, prebiotic systems, and life itself?

Deep carbon scientists explore the origins and evolution of our planet and are providing new information about the redistribution of Earth's initial, planetary-scale carbon budget. Deep carbon scientists also investigate topics ranging from life’s geochemical origins below Earth’s surface to the environments and processes that regulate the volume and rates of production of abiogenic hydrocarbons in the crust and mantle.

Gas bubble
Gas bubbles in a deep mine have a chemical composition that can provide energy for microbes living in ancient underground fluids. Credit: J Telling


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