Ocean Visions and the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Stony Brook University just launched a new pilot program targeting reversing two of the most damaging changes in ocean chemistry caused by global heating.
The project, Safe Elevation of Alkalinity for the Mitigation of Acidification Through Electrochemistry (SEA MATE), will use electrochemistry to remove acids from the ocean.
During the 2021 phase of the pilot, SEA MATE will prototype an acid removal technique to combat ocean acidification. An additional anticipated benefit of the SEA MATE process is the capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide and its safe long-term sequestration in the ocean as bicarbonate. Ocean Visions has assembled an Expert Team to provide scientific review and guidance on the design of experiments, data analysis, hypothesis testing, and safe operating thresholds. The team will ultimately produce an independent evaluation of the overall potential of the approach, including environmental costs and benefits.
The effort is supported through a partnership between the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust (GET) and Ocean Visions to identify and test technology-based solutions to climate impacts in the ocean. The partnership was founded with the goal to at least slow the pace of the climate crisis, with what is happening in the oceans as the laboratory to make that happen.
As human-driven carbon dioxide emissions have increased to their highest levels ever, the oceans have about exhausted their ability to absorb any more excess carbon from the atmosphere. That alone has resulted in excessive acidification of the ocean waters, triggering in many cases irreversible changes in the ocean chemistry. This increase in acidity, coupled with superheating of the ocean waters by solar energy trapped by atmospheric greenhouse gases, has radically altered the nature of marine ecosystems throughout the world.
“Cleaning up this pollution is critical to restore our ocean,” said Brad Ack, executive director & chief innovation officer for Ocean Visions, in describing the goals of the project. “SEA MATE is a promising approach to address one of the most critical impacts of this carbon pollution – ocean acidification – while also tackling the direct cause of too much carbon dioxide in the air and water.”
To direct this unusual project, Ack is being joined by Dr. Matthew Eisaman, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Stony Brook University, and SEA MATE project lead, and Dr. Brendan Carter, a principal investigator and research scientist with the University of Washington, to lead the investigative work.
What they are embarking to do is to prototype an electrodialytic process which the investigators believe could reduce acidification in the oceans as one main result. The other impact of this process is expected to be an increased ability of the “restored” ocean waters to absorb more atmospheric carbon again.
Assuming the process works as hoped, it could switch the oceans “back on” as a possible place for increased mass carbon capture on the planet. If that happens, at least of the existing high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could make their way back out of the air and into the waters below.
The project, envisioned as an alternative to many of the existing carbon capture large-scale solutions being proposed for sucking excess CO2 out of the sky, does representing a positive rethinking of the whole concept of climate solutions for the planet. By that token, it may have potential for more positive results than other carbon capture attempts which have been proposed by others.
What remains in question from the sort of solution the Universities and Ocean Visions are proposing is how to move from a pilot test of the concept to a fully scaled-up solution designed to take on the world’s oceans on a global scale. It also has the added risk of damaging the complex microbiomes existing within the oceans even if it can change ocean acidity. It will therefore likely be extremely expensive to roll out even if it were to work, and it has likely high potential for ecosystems damage without much experimentation to determine side-effects of the process.
The solution would also take significant time to scale up even if all questions were resolved before doing so. What that means to the planet is that, just as in the case of more conventional carbon capture solutions being proposed, no one should rely on this to save the planet from global heating. Equally ambitious solutions to adapt to what is likely ahead for us all should also be rolled out in parallel, to save the people and species we have, even while other solutions may help heal what remains of the planet we have damaged so much.