A multi-university collaboration to mitigate the intensifying climate crisis is aiming high by going low – way down low, nearly three kilometres below the ocean.
The ambitious goal of the Solid Carbon Project is to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, convert it into liquid form, pump it down below the ocean floor, and store it permanently in basalt, the vast layer of porous rock underlying our oceans and seas. The University of Victoria started the project in 2019, with funding from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.
Researchers are undertaking a feasibility study that spans multiple disciplines, including engineering, geoscience, ocean science, social science and law. The project is now just over halfway through its four-year term, and the work produced so far suggests this negative emissions technology shows real promise to decarbonize our warming planet.
“Finally, people everywhere are worried about climate change, and we understand we have to remove carbon to have a planet that is habitable for humans,” said project lead Kate Moran, president of UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada initiative, which monitors the health of Canada’s three coasts. “I’m optimistic because the technology is there, and even though the up-front investment is high, the operational life is long.”
A professor in UVic’s faculty of science who previously advised the Obama administration on oceans, the Arctic and global warming, Dr. Moran is overseeing the development of a plan to show how the Solid Carbon system works. The goal is to hold a field demonstration far off Canada’s west coast at the Cascadia basin, an oceanic plate that researchers involved with the project believe could store 20 years’ worth of global carbon emissions.
Dr. Moran’s work depends partly on progress made by UVic mechanical engineering professor Curran Crawford and his team of PhD and postdoctoral students, some of whom are based as far away as England, Spain and Pakistan. Dr. Crawford is studying the technical aspects of using renewable energy – wind, solar or thermal – to conduct offshore direct air capture (DAC). That process draws in air using fans and uses chemicals to trap carbon dioxide. The goal is to design a floating offshore DAC platform with a wind turbine that can remove one megaton of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere. A main challenge, he said, is determining where to anchor a turbine in the ocean to access the most wind.
“We’re trying to understand the performance and cost of the different technological bits and pieces,” said Dr. Crawford, who is director of UVic’s Sustainable Systems Design Laboratory. “We have been able to show that this technology is technically feasible. But we want to create a system configuration that can be easily replicated around the world.”
Pieces of a puzzle
As Dr. Crawford’s ocean surface work unfolds, University of Calgary geoscientist Benjamin Tutolo is tackling the below-ground piece of the Solid Carbon puzzle. He and his team at the university’s Reactive Transport Research Group are examining what happens when carbon dioxide is injected into subsea floor basalt.
Their research builds on Iceland’s CarbonFix experiment, which in 2016 showed that when carbon dioxide interacted with ground-level basalt, it mineralized into solid carbonate rock in fewer than two years. It is also informed by CarbonSafe, the 2017 U.S. department of energy-funded study in which Columbia University evaluated the feasibility of sequestering 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in ocean basalt off the shores of Washington state and British Columbia. Dr. Tutolo is conducting lab experiments and creating predictive models to better understand how this geological process would work over the long term.
“What we’ve learned so far is that all our initial hunches were correct – basalt has a huge capacity to be a carbon reservoir,” Dr. Tutolo said. As a reference, Canada’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes totalled 536 million metric tons in 2020.
As Dr. Moran, Dr. Crawford and Dr. Tutolo carry out the hard science research needed to design, develop and implement the technological components and processes, UBC social scientist Terre Satterfield is analyzing part of the “human dynamics” that must inform Solid Carbon’s evolution. Part of UBC’s institute for resources, environment and sustainability, Dr. Satterfield specializes in studying how people perceive the social and environmental risks of new technologies.
Part of Dr. Satterfield’s approach has involved surveying ocean and climate experts worldwide about their views of Solid Carbon’s engineered approach to environmental remediation, versus more natural methods such as coastal restoration or reforestation. Another large public survey asked residents in Washington state and British Columbia about their understanding and opinions of the Solid Carbon project.
“We want to get a sense of people’s perceptions of this technology, and their level of trust in regulators and scientists. What is the public imagination on this subject? How much of their views are influenced by the urgency of climate change?” Dr. Satterfield said. “There are different understandings of nature, what it means to manage environmental impacts, and people’s individual sense of responsibility.”
Yet another research team, based out of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, has investigated the legal framework for deploying the Solid Carbon system in Canada. Altogether, these different university disciplines are working closely together to create a comprehensive and integrated climate change solution.
What will enable Solid Carbon’s success going forward, the researchers said, are a few key factors, including refinements to the still-new DAC technology; investor support to commercialize technologies and repurpose offshore oil and gas equipment; and government funding and incentives to stimulate the “blue economy,” which the World Bank defines as sustainably using ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and ocean ecosystem health.
“I don’t think there’s any silver bullet in the climate space. Renewable energy and electrification will continue to be key. But I think negative emissions technology will become increasingly important and will play in that mix,” Dr. Crawford said. “Looking at global scaling, there is wind all over, so there’s the potential to remove carbon on the order of gigatons. There are tons of challenges to get there, but it’s possible.”