In an alternative dimension where humanity’s use of fossil fuels never got out of hand and the world’s carbon cycle was never disrupted to catalyze climate change, Mother Nature naturally sequesters all the carbon needed to ensure global temperatures stay balanced and warm enough for life to exist.
From trees and soil to rocks and animals, the climate benefits range from not only sequestering the majority of carbon but to cooling the Earth, as the planet gets warms and is poised to temporarily breach 1.5°C of warming, the threshold set by the Paris Climate Agreement to stay below to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
As the need for carbon capture and storage and to find planetary-level alternatives to fossil fuel use become more urgent, startups are scaling the natural abilities of nature, and last week, Los Angeles-based startup, Equatic, formally launched its double-pronged solution for both permanent carbon capture and the production of alternative fuel: carbon-negative hydrogen.
Its secret weapon is the ocean, or rather, the world’s largest reservoir of carbon dioxide.
According to the startup, which is a spin-out from the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Samueli School of Engineering’s Institute for Carbon Management and is formerly known as Project SeaChange, one-quarter of the world’s daily CO2 emissions are drawn down into the ocean. With its tech, it amplifies this process, claiming it can do so at the “gigaton-scale” the world needs and at an “unprecedented speed.”
With over $30 million in initial funding from organizations like the U.S. Energy Department, the National Science Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and a pre-purchase agreement for CO2 removal and tons of hydrogen fuel for aviation giant Boeing, the startup’s team is confident they can pull off the feat at a low cost.
The team’s goal is to capture 100,000 metric tons of carbon removal annually by 2026 and millions of metric tons for less than $100 per metric ton by 2028, as aligned with ideals set by the Energy Department.
That first goalpost is equivalent to taking over 22,000 gas-powered vehicles off the road annually, closing down one gas-firing power plant over the course of four years, or that which is naturally sequestered by over 119,000 acres of U.S. forests annually.
By also producing the green fuel, hydrogen, the company can further enable emission reductions for operations that would otherwise use fossil fuels.
“To mitigate ongoing and accelerating climate change in the timeframe necessary to avoid irreversible consequences, we need truly disruptive carbon management technologies,” Lord John Browne, founder of BeyondNetZero, a climate growth equity venture, and the former CEO of the oil giant BP who is now the Chairman of Equequaatic’s Advisory Board.
“Equatic’s breakthrough technology absorbs carbon dioxide via the oceans and has the added benefit of generating green hydrogen as a by-product. The good news is that the costs are low enough to allow unprecedented scaling and adoption globally.”
So how does the technology work?
With two plants already implemented at the pilot scale at the Port of Los Angeles and in Singapore, Equatic’s tech is based on a process called continuous electrolysis where seawater locks in CO2 into stable solids of a salt called carbonate, leaving a form of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC). This allows the ocean to draw down CO2 and repeat the process again and again.
Because seawater has undergone this process for millions of years it is overwhelmed by calcium carbonate so much that it is practically swimming in it.
However, climate change throws off the balance. This is exemplified by the fact that mussels and clams, which naturally build their shells out of calcium carbonate, now have a harder time because ocean acidification (the reduction of the ocean’s pH caused by an uptick in CO2) causes the shells to dissolve.
So, the startup “exploits” this fact and immobilizes the CO2 in the ocean for “tens of thousands, if not millions of years.” By coupling this process with the production of green hydrogen, Equatic says the natural alkalinity of seawater, which is its capacity to resist acidification, is restored, and through the magic of science the natural pH balance of the ocean is left intact.
The startup calculates, reports, and verifies how much carbon is actually removed by considering the drawdown, total emissions from the materials and energy use of the plant, any possible leakage or environmental impact, the invasion of seawater, as well as any other possible co-benefits.
According to the startup’s working paper, led by Erika La Plante, assistant professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, co-founder Equatic, and Head of its Environmental Impact Assessment and carbon reporting strategy, these co-benefits could be how the approach counteracts ocean acidification, which past research shows can favorably and significantly impact marine life.
The paper was published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed American Chemical Society journal ES&T Engineering.
As Lorenzo Corsini, a scientist who is also credited on the paper and the Principal Advisor at Equatic, puts it the startup’s “first-of-its-kind technology solves both” of the world’s “two unprecedented challenges: how to remove and permanently store gigatons of carbon dioxide and how to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”
The technology “combines basic principles of chemistry with the natural capabilities of the world’s best carbon removal tool, the ocean, to create the most promising solution for scalable decarbonization — cost-effectively and at a globally-relevant scale.”
While there is a wave of other ocean carbon removal startups like EbbCarbon, Caltech startups Calcarea and Captura, Microsoft-funded Running Tide, and more, Equatic claims it is “the only ocean-based carbon removal company that transparently measures removal with extreme certainty.”
Taking what they’ve learned from the two pilot plants, the team is currently engineering the next scale of plant, which they say will be able to remove thousands of metric tons of CO2 per year. They hope that it will be one of many they will design and commission to go around the globe.
100% of the carbon removed from its pilot plants was pre-sold including pre-purchases by the global carbon payment provider, Stripe, which at the time sold for $1,370 per ton, over ten times Equatic’s $100-a-pop goal.
Now, however, the startup’s biggest customer may be the aviation behemoth, Boeing. The aviation sector is a significant source of emissions, responsible for 3.5% of climate change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finds. While that sounds like a small piece of the global warming pie, those emissions are about equal to that of all the world’s waste.
Already, the commercial industry has committed to flying net zero by 2050, and according to Sheila Remes, Boeing's Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is “enormously important” to reaching that goal.
“The aviation industry has an important role to play in global decarbonization efforts. Reaching aviation’s sustainability goals will require a multi-faceted approach and Boeing sees immense value in Equatic’s technology,” she said in a statement.
But SAF isn’t the only application for the green hydrogen fuel, which many startups, renewable energy companies, cooperations, and major airlines have already turned to. Equatic also hopes the fuel will be sold and used to decarbonize industrial processes and produce electricity across the transportation sector from planes to trucks, and to power the startup’s technology itself, potentially making it a net or near-net-zero process.