This startup is hoeing seawater to tackle climate change

By | June 6, 2023

A new California-based startup is trying to tackle climate change by simultaneously eliminating carbon dioxide from the ocean and air and creating hydrogen as an alternative fuel. Boeing has already inked a deal with Equatic, the company it launched last week.

The deal calls for Boeing to purchase 2,100 tons of hydrogen from Equatic that it can use as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The hydrogen is a byproduct of Equatics’ efforts to filter planet-warming CO2 from the air and seawater. Boeing has also agreed to purchase 62,000 tons of carbon removal to offset some of its own climate pollution.

Equatics technology brings together two nascent climate change strategies that are starting to take off in the United States

Equatics technology brings together two nascent climate change strategies that are starting to take off in the United States. More and more companies from Big Tech to Big Oil are funding efforts to capture the CO2 that has built up in the atmosphere and oceans; it’s a way to atone for some of the pollution they generate by burning fossil fuels. Hydrogen is an alternative to oil and gas that the Biden administration has called a high-priority technology to be developed as the United States seeks to meet its climate goals.

Unlike other startups that focus on getting CO2 out of the air OR the sea, or sourcing carbon-free hydrogen from renewable energy, Equatic does it all. The company grew out of a research initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and already has two small pilot plants in Los Angeles and Singapore. Each plant absorbs ocean water and then runs an electric current through it. This splits the water molecules, freeing up the hydrogen that Equatic can sell as fuel.

The electric shock also separates the water into two streams: one very acidic and another very alkaline or basic. In basic flow, dissolved calcium binds to CO2 in the water to form the mineral calcium carbonate. Then, to extract the CO2 from the air, Equatic bubbles the air through the same stream of basic water. The gas is mineralized into magnesium bicarbonate. Equatic must then neutralize both water streams back to ocean pH so they can release the seawater which is now laden with mineralized carbon dioxide. The idea is that these minerals will trap CO2 in the ocean for more than 10,000 years, preventing it from entering the atmosphere, where it would cause global warming.

Equatic is attempting to control a very complex ocean chemistry.

But the process could potentially have some unforeseen consequences, some environmental advocates warn. Equatic is trying to control a very complex ocean chemistry, says John Fleming, senior scientist at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, in an email to The limit. Equatic says it will monitor to make sure what it releases into the ocean meets necessary thresholds, but with technology this new, there could be effects on ocean chemistry and life that have not currently been accounted for.

For example, Fleming fears that if Equatics’ technique upsets the balance of minerals in the ocean, it could affect shell-building creatures that are already struggling with human-caused ocean acidification. Because these creatures form the basis of marine food chains, what happens to them has knock-on effects throughout ecosystems.

Equatic says its technology doesn’t change the acidity of the ocean and that the water it releases is comparable to the effluent from desalination plants or other industrial plants. I’m more optimistic than concerned about some of the environmental effects of what we do, says Equatic COO Edward Sanders in an interview with The limit.

Equatics pilot plant in Los Angeles.
Image: Equatic

We will take technology from high-income countries and move it to low- and middle-income countries. This is the diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies, says Sanders. The startup plans to build much larger plants to fulfill its deal with Boeing and other new customers, one in Singapore and an even larger one in a location the company hasn’t disclosed yet.

Besides Boeing, Equatic has other big backers. It was launched with more than $30 million in funding from the US Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and other foundations. Former BP CEO John Browne, who is now chairman of climate tech firm BeyondNetZero, is also chairman of the Equatics advisory board. And electronic payments company Stripe paid for the CO2 that Equatic captured at its Los Angeles pilot plant while still part of UCLA, at a whopping $1,370 per ton of carbon dioxide.

In order for Equatic to grow, the price will need to be lowered. It aims for $100 a ton by 2028. By 2026, it plans to bring a giant plant online capable of capturing 100,000 tons of CO2 annually. For comparison, the largest plant in operation today that sucks CO2 from the air only has the capacity to capture 4,000 tons per year. Equatic may have an advantage in that it could eventually generate its own electricity from the hydrogen it produces, which could reduce costs.

The energy intensity of such operations is another concern for Fleming and other environmental advocates who are skeptical of technological solutions to climate change. Power grids around the world are still pretty dirty, and there isn’t enough renewable energy on the line to meet global climate goals. Rather than climate strategies that further alter the natural functioning of our planetary ecosystem, our goal should instead be to phase out the fossil fuels that drive climate disruption, Fleming says.

Equatic is taking an all of the above approach. We recognize that if you’re going to decarbonize, you need to do two things, Sanders says. You have to eliminate carbon dioxide [of the atmosphere] and you need to stop putting more. And the process we’ve developed does that.

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