In recent years, startups have begun trying to scale up methods to use the world’s oceans to remove carbon dioxide from an overheating atmosphere. As of today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is getting in on the idea too. As TIME can exclusively report, the department is distributing $36 million to 11 scientific projects across the U.S. that aim to help quantify exactly how much carbon potential ocean projects would be locking away.
The basic idea behind ocean-based carbon removal has been around for decades: With a bit of human manipulation, the oceans could—theoretically—suck up billions of tons of carbon dioxide and take care of some of the world’s climate woes. Humans could dump alkaline materials like lime into the water to suck up greenhouse gasses (ocean water gets more acidic as it absorbs more CO2), or potentially use iron filings to create algal blooms, which would absorb carbon as they grow. We could even start sinking plant biomass into the deep ocean (thus preventing it from decomposing and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere).
In recent years, climate investors drawn by the promise of lucrative carbon offset contracts and predictions from scientists that humanity will need to find a way to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the decades ahead have started pouring money into startups pledging to prove out such approaches. It’s a subset of the nascent, venture capital fueled carbon removal industry, which also includes better known approaches like ClimeWorks’s carbon-sucking fans in Iceland.
Right now, such approaches are only able to remove a negligible amount of carbon from the atmosphere—and they would need to be scaled up hundreds of thousands or even millions of times more to make a difference in the decades ahead. There is no way to tell whether such an expansion can or will happen. And if they work, such engineering-heavy carbon removal methods—or simpler efforts like planting millions of trees—would need to come in alongside rapid worldwide emissions cuts in order for humanity to meet its climate goals.
Ocean-based methods of carbon removal could have particular promise compared to other methods. Many proposed approaches would essentially speed up natural processes that already cause ocean water to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere. There are also problems, though: for instance, legal issues around working in international waters, and unknown effects on ocean ecosystems. Then there’s the potential public relations problem: climate change is very bad, and we’re running out of time to implement solutions, but we have yet to see if, for the public, engineering the oceans will be a bridge too far (efforts to study how humans might engineer the atmosphere, for their part, have stirred up considerable controversy). And then there’s the issue of actually measuring how much carbon the oceans are absorbing, which would be essential for separating good projects from bad, and preventing a proliferation of bogus offsetting claims like those that have plagued more traditional efforts like planting trees.
That last problem has caught the eye of ARPA-E, an office within the Energy Department specializing in developing new technologies. Earlier this year it launched a program to help develop sensors and computer models that could one day help determine exactly how much carbon dioxide ocean-based carbon removal concepts are pulling out of the atmosphere. Today, it announced that it was funding a series of research proposals to that end submitted by scientists and engineers around the country.
“Reaching President Biden’s ambitious decarbonization goals and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require a wide range of innovative climate solutions, from common-sense approaches like improving energy efficiency to novel applications like utilizing the ocean’s natural carbon removal abilities to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a press release. “With critical funding from DOE, project teams from across the country will develop groundbreaking new technologies to cut emissions that will help combat the climate crisis while reinforcing America’s global leadership in the clean energy industries of the future.”
One proposal from General Electric’s research division, which received about $4 million in government funding, proposed to develop a miles-long fiber optic cable that boats could tow through the water to measure ocean carbon. A project from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin that would aim to develop acoustic sensors to measure how much carbon is being stored in seagrass beds received $2 million. Another project from a small company in Cambridge, Mass. that would try to design new software that could model ocean dynamics 100 times faster than current methods can, received a grant of $2.5 million.
The ARPA-E funding follows a slew of other announcements signaling the Biden Administration's strong interest in ocean carbon removal. An "Ocean Climate Action Plan" released by a White House committee in March stated that "a substantial ramp up in marine [carbon removal] research and development investments, and enhanced interagency coordination is needed to evaluate efficacy and ensure safe and effective implementation and regulation of these techniques to mitigate climate change." In September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that it would distribute about $24 million in funding to study ocean carbon removal. Earlier this month, the White House formed a "Fast-Track Action Committee" of government experts, who will evaluate different ocean carbon removal approaches.
Matt Long, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and director of [C]Worthy, a nonprofit aiming to help build tools to measure and verify ocean carbon removal, is working on a project that received about $3.9 million in ARPA-E’s announcement today. He says that the grants won’t be enough to do all of the scientific work that is necessary in the field, but that it does provide an important signal to private investors and philanthropists that the government is interested in ocean-based carbon removal innovation, and in making sure that there is hard science to back up its proponents' claims.
“The hope is that, in combination with venture capital and philanthropic support, we can really establish a foundation for the industry to grow,” Long says.
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