Manhattan Researchers at Kansas State University want to see if the prairie can act as a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking pollution out of the air and storing it underground, where it is safely locked away for a thousand years.
The researchers believe rich prairie soils could be the key to solving global warming, and now they will oversee a $15 million federal grant that will help them find out.
The money will be divided among 10 universities, mostly in the Midwest. Sen. Pat Roberts, a chief supporter of the research, was to present the grant to Kansas State on Saturday. The school will get about $2.5 million.
Similar research is being done in Canada and Australia.
If the soil absorption approach to solving global warming gains political acceptance, it could have significant economic benefits for the state. Chuck Rice, a soil microbiologist and one of the lead researchers for Kansas State, imagines that electric utilities could pay Kansas farmers an extra $1 billion to $5 billion to absorb industrial pollution.
The soil solution could also head off painful solutions to global warming, such as $3-a-gallon gasoline or high home heating bills.
Past solutions have largely looked at cutting energy use, which some feared would harm the economy.
Plants breathe in carbon dioxide. The carbon is converted to tissue. When the plant dies, some of the carbon is released back to the air, the rest is stored in the soil.
Changing farming techniques could absorb more carbon into the soil, and keep it locked up for thousands of years, Rice said. The increased carbon in the soil also reduces water pollution, improves soil quality, increases crop yield and reduces the need for fertilizer, he added.
Rice said the goal of the research is to determine the cost and benefits of changing farming and ranching techniques to increase soil's carbon-absorbing power.
"In some cases there is no cost," Rice said. "The economics are such that producers should be doing it anyway."