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University of Utah scientist Brian McPherson was surprised this week when he heard that the U.S. Department of Energy awarded him $5 million.

His project: evaluate rock formations around the West that potentially can serve as underground storage sites for carbon dioxide.

The award was part of $575 million in grants announced by the DOE that are to be used for 22 carbon-capture research-and-development projects in 15 states.

"We weren't expecting anywhere near that amount," said McPherson, a geophysicist and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "Our request [for additional funding] really was only an addendum to a project that we started last winter."

That project involves collecting and analyzing geophysical data from Jurassic and Cretaceous sandstone formations in Utah and three other nearby states to determine whether they are suitable for storage of industrial-generated emissions.

Carbon sequestration centers around the idea that carbon dioxide should be captured from power plants and other big industrial emitters. Then, the greenhouse gas can be stored underground in order to lower its concentration in the atmosphere and address the threat of global climate change.

"This is a major step forward in the fight to reduce carbon emissions from industrial plants," said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement announcing the grants.

He added that the new technologies developed with the DOE funding will not only help fight climate change but also create jobs and help position the United States to lead the world in clean-coal technologies, which will increase in demand in the years ahead.

President Barack Obama has signaled that he favors a deployment of carbon-capture-and-storage technologies within a decade — despite questions about the technology and some skepticism about its feasibility. And he created a task force this year charged with coming up with a plan to overcome barriers to such development.

"If this [carbon sequestration] is something that ultimately needs to be done, then it will be important to know where [storage] should take place," McPherson said.

To date, the data collected on the sandstone formations targeted for study have been encouraging, he added.

"They tend to be very clean and homogenous sandstones. They have high porosity and high permeability and are good potential targets for storage.

McPherson said he requested the additional funding from the DOE because the initial costs of the drilling and seismic work rose unexpectedly. "It [the $5 million] will go a long way toward helping us complete the work that needs to be done."