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First-of-its-kind system launched to leverage the ocean in capturing planet-warming CO2

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Ebb Carbon's CDR machine
The Ebb Carbon system at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Sequim Bay, Washington. Image Courtesy of Ebb Carbon
  • The ocean absorbs 25% of carbon emissions while capturing 90% of excess heat generated by these emissions.

  • However as the world continues to use fossil fuels and thus, emit CO2, the ocean is experiencing acidification which not only endangers marine habitats but hampers its ability to capture CO2 and keep the world cool and livable.

  • That’s why startups like California-based Ebb Carbon are developing ocean-based carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to give the ocean a helping hand.

  • Ebb’s technology uses electricity to filter seawater and remove the acid, restoring the seawater to its optimal state while returning its ability to capture CO2.

  • On August 21, 2023, the company launched its first system in Washington State’s Sequim Bay. Initially capturing 100 metric tons a year (about 22 cars worth of CO2) the project partners with some of the world’s leading researchers to conduct scientific investigation into CDR and its impact on marine life.

  • Ebb hopes this will be the first step to the billion-ton level carbon capture demanded by the climate crisis.

As the United Nations puts it, the world’s greatest ally against climate change is the ocean. Even if climate change wasn’t as President Biden regularly puts it – a code red for humanity – the ocean may be our greatest ally period.

Aside from providing a home for marine life, the ocean does three side hustles that keep humans around: supplying half of the oxygen we need to survive, absorbing 25% of carbon emissions (at least 1 trillion metric tons of which we’ve contributed), and capturing 90% of excess heat generated by these emissions.

Long story short, without the ocean we’d cease to exist. Now one California startup is embarking on a mission to give the ocean a hand and supercharge the work it does to keep us alive.

As the startup, Ebb Carbon puts it, it's turning the tide on climate change, and it’s using the ocean and electricity to pull full steam ahead.

Announced on August 21, the company, which was formed by former Google, Tesla, and SolarCity execs, recently began operating its first ocean carbon dioxide removal (CDR) system that not only uses electrochemical technology to pull CO2 out of the air but also, as the startup claims, locally reduce ocean acidification: a phenomenon caused by excessive carbon emissions that endangers ocean environments, decimating coral reefs for example, while overflowing the ocean’s CO2 storage cache.

The launch follows Ebb Carbon’s April $20 million Series A funding round, which was the largest investment into an ocean-based carbon removal company ever.

Now, the system, which is about the size of a shipping container, is operating off the coast of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula at a waterfront lab in Sequim Bay, which flows into Ebb’s 63.8 million mile-sized partner, the Pacific Ocean. The lab is run by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

So how does it work?

By pumping in water from Sequim Bay, the machine passes it through a web of membranes, which filter the water, thus removing acid, which is comprised of CO2. After filtration, the seawater can absorb even more CO2 and store it as bicarbonate, which Ebb says is “a safe and naturally abundant form of carbon storage in the ocean that doesn’t acidify seawater.” As the New Scientist describes it, this product is a fancy scientific name for baking soda and is potentially an “infinite carbon sink.”

“We’re essentially accelerating a natural process,” the company’s co-founder and CEO Ben Tarbell told Canary Media.

However, before it gets to infinity, Ebb says the system is capable of removing 100 metric tons of CO2 per year at full capacity – that’s the equivalent of taking just over 22 cars off the road annually.

The initial impact of the machine is a drop in the bucket — or rather the ocean — because Ebb plans to operate here for at least two years as it conducts scientific investigations.

However, by working alongside world-leading experts in ocean health, modeling, and biogeochemistry from PNNL, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Washington, and other authoritative organizations, and the young company has ambitions in the billions of metric tons.

“The results of this work will be published to help advance the field of ocean CDR,” Tarbell wrote in a blog post, adding that it will also “grow awareness and understanding of Ebb’s climate solution, and lay the foundations for a rigorous measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) methodology for Ebb’s ocean CDR solution.”

Ebb's view from the PNLL lab (Image Credit: Ebb Carbon)

In investigating the climate solution, the researchers will not only be looking at its carbon removal and storage capacity but also at its impact on marine life, specifically oysters and eelgrass epifauna, one of the favorite snacks of the ubiquitous Pacific Ocean salmon.

In addition to advancing scientific investigation, the startup also sees CDR ramping up in commercialization, comparing where CDR is now to solar energy in its early days in the blog post.

Tarbell, who used to work in the solar industry, wrote that while solar technology had been around for 50 years prior to its relatively recent adoption, that adoption and broad acceptance didn’t occur until the 21st century. Now, nearly 70 years after the discovery of the silicon photovoltaic cell which sparked the solar panel, the cost of solar energy has drastically declined — by 90% in the last decade alone, opening it up to millions of billions of customers.

Could the same happen with CDR which is an only slightly younger technology, as the first plant was built in 1972?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while “CDR cannot substitute for immediate and deep emissions reductions,” “it is a part of all modeled scenarios that limit global warming to 2° Celcius by 2100.”

Generally categorized as either direct air capture (DAC) which sucks CO2 from ambient air and stores it forever underground, and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) which grabs CO2 emitted directly by fossil fuel plants and either stores it or uses it, Ebb’s process falls under a lesser known CDR application: alkalinity enhancement.

According to the IPCC, this type of method ranges from $40 to $260 a ton making it cheaper than DAC, which ranges from $100 to $300 a ton, while having the same carbon storage potential: storage for at least 10,000 years.

That’s why government agencies are pouring buckets of money into the research, development, and commercialization of CDR — especially the United States which is determined to become a leading nation in the nascent industry. The U.S. just flooded the industry with money: announcing a “once-in-a-generation” $3.5 billion into DAC hubs only to announce $1.1 billion in acquisition, days later providing incentives to investors to put their money into the emerging market.

Of the handful of CDR companies the federal government is helping to fund, Ebb Carbon is one of them, as the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) have each contributed, along with the ClimateWorks Foundation.

“Given the realities of climate change, we must act quickly to deploy solutions to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere,” Tarbell said in a statement.

“It’s equally important that we do this in a way that is transparent and facilitates public dialogue so that scientists, researchers, policymakers, and communities have visibility into the process. We welcome the opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading scientists and researchers as we begin to scale our technology.”


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