How UCLA researchers are attempting a climate solution by removing carbon dioxide from the ocean

Phillip Palmer Image
Monday, May 15, 2023
UCLA researchers attempt ocean-based climate solution
Atop a 100-foot barge tied up at the Port of Los Angeles, UCLA engineers have built a kind of floating laboratory to answer a simple question.

PORT OF LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Carbon dioxide levels are 150 times more concentrated in seawater than in the air. Project Sea Change, led by researchers at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, can now learn if extracting that carbon from the ocean is an effective way to reverse the effects of climate change.

"We've developed a technology that allows us to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," Gaurav Sant, director of UCLA's Institute for Carbon Management, told ABC7.

"Basically what we've done is taken the parameters that we've figured out in the lab and made them much bigger," said Thomas Traynor, the institute's translation leader.

Just over a year ago, ABC7 visited the lab at UCLA where a prototype would pull seawater through a mesh, allowing an electrical charge to pass into the water. A series of chemical reactions ultimately depleted the seawater of dissolved carbon dioxide in a process similar to how seashells are made. Then the water is pumped back into the ocean where it can then absorb more carbon.

Now, in Singapore and at the Port of Los Angeles, are real-world testing sites of the process 500 times larger than a lab.

"Not only does it teach us the technology and demonstrate that it works at bigger and bigger scales, but the scale of this problem is so big that we need to be doing this at the largest scale that we possibly can to make a difference," said Sant.

No matter how effective we become in reducing carbon emissions, there remains the need to remove carbon from the atmosphere in order to reverse the effects of climate change. UCLA researchers may have the answer.

Other methods of carbon sequestration rely on geological storage or increase the PH levels of the ocean. Project SeaChange tests sea water as it enters the system and throughout the process, to avoid any unwanted side effects to the local eco-system and to quantify the effectiveness of the process.

"It's been an incredible adventure because we're really learned a lot about how to take these reactions, how to scale them up, what's the kinds of machines and machinery that's needed to be able to effect things of this sort, and finally, how do you really put in place the right kinds of sensors and measurement tools to effect the measurements that you need," said Sant.

Even a system this large needs to be 100 to a thousand times larger to have a real impact, but designs for that expansion are already underway. A commercial site could be in place within three years if all goes well.

"This process is able to scale to a level that actually could be impactful," said Traynor. "We're at least doing carbon sequestration so that you could be moving in the right direction."

Added Sant: "All of the learnings that come out of the two systems will help inform what we do next, how big we can go and how quickly we can do it."