The ocean is the next frontier for the carbon removal industry

bIn 2012, a California businessman sailed a boat into waters off western Canada and dumped 100 tons of iron filings into the Pacific Ocean. The goal was to generate a huge bloom of phytoplankton, which would absorb carbon dioxide as it grew, then die and fall to the ocean floor, presumably blocking greenhouse gases and helping save the world from climate change. .

It didn’t go well. When the details of the project came to light, many observers slammed it as an unscientific stunt, saying it had endangered marine ecosystems without taking the proper steps to verify whether it had actually permanently removed carbon from the atmosphere. Other proposals to use the oceans to mop up atmospheric carbon dioxide have met with reputational success, now linked in the public eye with the idea of ​​rogue geoengineering experiments and dubious green business plans.

Things have changed a lot since then. These days, proposals to harness ocean chemistry to buy world time in fighting climate change are garnering millions of dollars in venture capital funding and lucrative contracts to offset the emissions of some of the world’s largest companies. The world’s oceans already function as a huge carbon sink, absorbing about a quarter of humanity’s CO2 emissions. The new projects promise to amplify that capability, seemingly a godsend in a world plagued by runaway emissions and little time left to act.

But such proposals also occupy a sensitive space in the world of climate. No company currently committed to sequestering carbon emissions, both in the oceans and on land, is operating anywhere near a scale that would make a difference. Even if they were to massively expand their machinery, the technology to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere wouldn’t do much unless it was accompanied by deep cuts in emissions. Some savvy observers worry that focusing on carbon removal technology is a distraction from the more crucial issue of controlling emissions.

The problem is that emissions reductions are not happening fast enough. This makes it increasingly likely that the world will have to find a way to remove billions of tons of carbon emissions from the atmosphere within the next 30 years. To have a perspective that that technology is available on a gigantic scale that may become needed, we’re going to have to start investing in it now.

Some startups plan to use algae to mop up carbon dioxide from the ocean.  (Getty Images Douglas Klug)

Some startups plan to use algae to mop up carbon dioxide from the ocean.

Getty ImagesDouglas Klug

Much of the public attention to date has focused on onshore carbon removal companies, such as Switzerland-based Climeworks and Canadian startup Carbon Engineering, which have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Those companies plan to build huge machines that will suck CO2 out of the air and store it deep underground. But in the past six months, startups that say they can use the oceans to do much the same thing have raised tens of millions of dollars in new funding. Others have begun signing deals to offset tens of thousands of tons of big corporate emissions. However, questions remain about the effects some of the approaches could have on ecosystems and whether all the carbon some companies say they can put into the world’s oceans will actually stay there.

To know more: Because investors are betting big on carbon removal technology

Ocean carbon removal startups are proposing a broad spectrum of approaches. Ebb Carbon, based in San Carlos, California, plans to use electricity to make ocean water more alkaline, which the company says would cause it to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere. Lenders provided $20 million in venture capital in April to build the company’s first small-scale plant. Captura, based in Pasadena, wants to remove carbon dioxide gas dissolved in ocean water, and then either pump it underground or use it as a feedstock for industrial processes. The idea is that the ocean will replace lost CO2 by absorbing more carbon from the air. The company received $12 million of investment in January from lenders that include the venture capital arm of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company. RunningTide, based in Portland, Maine, signed a deal in March to remove 12,000 tons of CO2 for Microsoft. His plans are based on the sequestration of carbon dioxide dissolved in the oceans with algae, which absorb CO2 as they grow.

Equatic, another California-based company, signed a deal to remove 62,000 tons of carbon on behalf of aerospace giant Boeing earlier this summer. Originally born out of experiments at the University of California, Los Angeles, its technology combines the principles of direct carbon capture in the air, such as the Climeworks Orca plant, with the approach of increasing ocean alkalinity ( the ocean becomes more acidic as it absorbs CO2, while adding alkalinity, in theory, allows the ocean to absorb more carbon). At its pilot plant at the Port of Los Angeles, the company uses electricity to separate seawater into oxygen and hydrogen, which can be sold as carbon-neutral transportation or industrial process fuel, or used to power Equatic’s equipment. The electric charges create two currents of sea water, one acidic, the other alkaline. The company adds minerals to bring acidic seawater back to a normal pH, then releases it into the ocean. Alkaline seawater, meanwhile, releases carbon in the form of grains of solid mineral, and the company then passes air through the alkaline, CO2-poor seawater to absorb more carbon dioxide.


The pilot plant can remove around 100 kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere every day, which is equivalent to the daily emissions of around eight cars. They plan to build a bigger one soon that can process 100 times as much carbon. This is still a microscopic drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the world’s CO2 problem. But Edward Sanders, Equatic’s chief operating officer, says the oceans may soon play an important role in averting climate catastrophe. “There are 38,000 gigatons of dissolved organic carbon in the oceans today,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary figure. So we are confident that if we were to use the Equatic process, then the [carbon] the capacity is there.”

The main problem that remains, Sanders says, is finding a way to scale the company’s technology quickly enough to make a difference. “It’s mid-2023. We need to do it fast.”

Dante Simonetti, associate professor of biomolecular and chemistry, UCLA Samueli Associate Director, ICM, stands on the first science barge of its kind to demonstrate an electrochemical process to remove carbon dioxide from the ocean April 12, 2023 in San Pedro, California .  (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times Getty Images)

Dante Simonetti, associate professor of biomolecular and chemistry, UCLA Samueli Associate Director, ICM, stands on the first science barge of its kind to demonstrate an electrochemical process to remove carbon dioxide from the ocean April 12, 2023 in San Pedro, California .

Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times Getty Images

However, some experts think that some of the companies trying to sell ocean carbon removal may be moving too fast. There are many unanswered questions about how various proposals to sequester carbon in the ocean might affect marine biodiversity, as well as the fish stocks that millions of people depend on for food. No one knows, for example, how huge floating kelp farms might affect life in the ocean. And there’s also scientific uncertainty about how much carbon dioxide companies propose putting into the oceans would actually stay there.

To know more: All the ways to remove carbon emissions from the air

Matthew Long, a scientist in the oceanography section of the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research, says no one has developed the kind of sophisticated computer models companies would need to get a good idea of ​​how much carbon they’re trapping. the ocean. He’s trying to attract about $50 million in philanthropic funding to build one, a task he says no carbon removal startup will be able to do alone. Speed, he says, is essential. “The requirements to scale up carbon removal are so dramatically challenging that it’s truly a moment at hand for the scientific community.”

Sifang Chen, a scientific adviser to the non-profit climate organization Carbon180, singles out Equatic as one of the companies likely to have the most certainty about how much carbon they would put into the ocean, since they actually mix the CO2 into the sea water. sea ​​in their plants, rather than altering the chemistry of the surrounding ocean water and hoping the larger system will do as they expect. But she says she’s concerned about other companies selling carbon removal credits without proving that their solutions actually work as they claim. She is also concerned about the lack of regulation for offshore carbon removal projects. Any company could begin testing a risky and speculative solution on a massive scale, potentially producing another public backlash like the one that happened after the experiment off western Canada a decade ago.

“That is [part of what] I’m really concerned,” she says, “that before this industry can get off the ground, public trust in it has already evaporated.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com.

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