Name: Kate Moran
Position: President and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada
What is the problem you are trying to solve?
The top priority at the moment is using the ocean space to remove CO2 from the atmosphere – durably – so that we can have a planet that is habitable for humans and rich biodiversity.
What will it take to solve this problem?
One project we have is called Solid Carbon – we’re just finalizing the feasibility study. We would be combining direct air capture of CO2 with ocean platforms, powered by renewable energy, to take direct air-captured CO2, pump it through the water column and inject it into subseafloor basalt – essentially the bedrock of the ocean.
In Iceland it was demonstrated that when you inject CO2 into this type of basalt it reacts with the rock to form minerals, and becomes the most durable sequestration option on the planet. That’s actually very doable, just expensive.
Then there is ocean-based carbon-dioxide removal. We partnered with Columbia University on this because we monitor one of the best ocean basalt locations on the planet. I was involved in a U.S. National Academies study on research needed to advance ocean-based carbon-dioxide removal. This is really a way of enhancing the existing processes in the ocean that already remove CO2.
We know that 30 per cent of the CO2 that we’ve burned in the atmosphere has already been absorbed by the ocean. Are there ways that we can enhance that, to further remove CO2 from the atmosphere? There’s six solutions that we’ve looked at in this study, and defined a whole bunch of research areas that could help advance the technologies.
What are the barriers to solving this problem?
The biggest barrier to solid carbon is really just getting the funding to do a demonstration. When they did a demonstration in Iceland, once they showed that rock formed, a whole lot of capital investment came in. The problem with Iceland is it’s just one small piece of the planet. So as soon as we can demonstrate solid carbon, we’d be off to the races. But it’s big. It’s about $60-million.
I’ll just tell you one other thing: the location that we have, the Cascadia basin, has capacity to durably remove and store 750 gigatonnes of CO2. That’s about 15 years of global emissions. This is just one location off the West Coast of Canada.
On ocean-based carbon-dioxide removal, it’s a perception problem more than anything. One example is enhanced alkalinity, where you’re putting alkaline minerals into the ocean, to allow the surface ocean to remove more CO2. The challenge is that there’s rules about dumping stuff into the ocean. Are the regulatory frameworks agile enough to understand that some kind of experimentation like this will be needed to make important decisions going forward?
What happens when this problem is solved?
The first priority has to be stopping burning fossil fuels. That’s critical because what happens when you start talking about these kind of solutions, everyone thinks, oh, you’re just going to allow the oil industry to keep going. No. We know now from research no matter how fast we reduce emissions at this late date, we are going to need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to keep the planet habitable. And so once these solutions are proven, hopefully they would generate investments to make them scalable in a time frame that stymies the tipping point in the climate system.
What is the impact of having solved this problem?
What I’m seeing in the research arena – the earliest impact before it gets deployed – is that the students, the postdocs, the technicians and the scientists who work at Ocean Networks Canada have hope. And we need hope right now.
As we go forward, it’s really the fact that when you do these kinds of innovative projects, it fosters other innovation. And of course if we are successful at scaling this, then there will have to be planetary recovery. Because we’ve screwed up things from the normal processes. To give you an analogue in the geologic record, one of the biggest extreme events was about 55 million years ago, and there were emissions of CO2 that came out into the atmosphere, caused rapid warming and some big mass extinction events. It took hundreds of thousands of years to get back on track to where the planet was before these extreme events. So we’re going to have to put effort into more rapid planetary recovery.
This interview has been edited and condensed.