Climate Change

Carbon Dioxide into Stone: UVic’s Revolutionary Plan to Reverse Climate Change

B.C.-led team to pioneer technology to suck greenhouse gases from the air and entomb them deep under the ocean

Climate Change

Carbon Dioxide into Stone: UVic’s Revolutionary Plan to Reverse Climate Change

B.C.-led team to pioneer technology to suck greenhouse gases from the air and entomb them deep under the ocean

Climate Change

Carbon Dioxide into Stone: UVic’s Revolutionary Plan to Reverse Climate Change

B.C.-led team to pioneer technology to suck greenhouse gases from the air and entomb them deep under the ocean

Carbon Dioxide into Stone: UVic’s Revolutionary Plan to Reverse Climate Change
Illustration by The Capital

The basic pitch is simple: Suck up carbon dioxide from the air and then lock it deep under the ocean for millions of years.

Humanity just recently cracked the code of how to do it, but a new project led by the University of Victoria is aiming to fast-track the technology as a cost-effective way to cool a warming planet.

“It will take years, but we have to get started now so that our children might have a tool to maintain a livable planet at the very moment when they’ll most need it,” Kate Moran, head of Ocean Networks Canada, told The Capital.

Moran is the principal investigator on Solid Carbon, a newly announced $1.5 million pilot program to suck carbon dioxide from the air and inject it into basalt rock formations deep under the bottom of the ocean.

If all goes according to plan, by 2050 the world’s oceans will all be dotted with offshore sequestration platforms continually scrubbing the atmosphere of accumulated greenhouse gases. Concept images released by Solid Carbon show floating platforms with stands of wind turbines centred around a large carbon-sucking vent.  

Concept art showing a floating negative emissions platform (University of Victoria).

Beneath the platform, meanwhile, is a pipeline injecting trapped carbon dioxide into a layer of volcanic rock just underneath the sandy bottom.

Whenever scientists bring up the issue of mitigating climate change, they’re usually talking about limiting emissions. However, an increasing number of climate modellers are of the view that the earth’s warming can’t be kept within reasonable boundaries without “negative emissions” technologies capable of reversing the damage that’s already been done.

“If you’re really concerned about coral reefs, biodiversity (and) food production in very poor regions, we’re going to have to deploy negative emission technology at scale,” Bill Hare with the Berlin-based Climate Analytics think tank told a London conference in 2017.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would agree. In its 2018 special report, the panel said that “techniques that remove CO2 from the air” would be critical in keeping global temperatures within manageable levels.

Solid Carbon would be different than conventional carbon capture and sequestration. On those projects, equipment is used to bottle up carbon emissions directly at the source, such as a natural gas power plant. The gas is then piped underground into sedimentary rock. Canada has been doing carbon capture and sequestration at an industrial scale since 2000, but since the carbon dioxide remains in gaseous form underground, there are fears that it can still leak out.  

The Solid Carbon process avoids the leak risk entirely by turning the carbon dioxide into solid rock. And instead of merely scrubbing smokestacks at the source, Solid Carbon would soak up emissions that may have been floating around the earth’s atmosphere for decades. A molecule of carbon dioxide spewed out the tailpipe of Henry Ford’s first Model T in 1908 could conceivably find itself corralled and sequestered by a Solid Carbon installation.

Scientists have already figured out to suck Co2 directly from the surrounding air, albeit not at a large scale. Carbon Engineering, a Solid Carbon partner based in Squamish, is one of only a handful of companies around the world that has built facilities proven to soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide. They’re currently using the technology to lead development of synthetic fossil fuels made from air-captured carbon.

Carbon Engineering rendering of a proposed Direct Air Capture plant to capture atmospheric carbon at a commercial scale (Carbon Engineering).

Meanwhile, it was researchers in Iceland who first proved that carbon dioxide could be artificially transformed into rock. In 2012 a team took Co2 captured from geothermal steam, used it to carbonate water and then began piping the water deep underground into cooling lava. After two years, the carbon dioxide had reacted with the surrounding volcanic rock and morphed into solid stone.

Last year, an American study found the exact same thing using a lab test of basalt rock from the Pacific Northwest.

The earth has more than enough volcanic rock to soak up all of the atmospheric Co2 humanity has emitted since the Industrial Revolution. However, more than 90% of that rock is only accessible deep underwater. At seams in the earth’s tectonic plates, lava is constantly oozing upwards and cooling into basalt rock once it hits seawater.

A basalt rock formation in Hawaii (University of Victoria).

Ocean Networks Canada already runs a major underwater observatory that straddles one such area, the Cascadia subduction zone. Solid Carbon’s plan is to find a cost-effective way to pump carbon dioxide into the soft volcanic rock at these underwater seams.

The project officially begins work on October 1st, with a goal of having a prototype carbon-capture platform at sea by the year 2025. Official literature for the project boasts that it could result in B.C. ultimately becoming a “negative emissions hub,” a kind of reverse Athabasca Oil Sands.

Ironically, the program’s success will depend somewhat on the very industry doing the most to make carbon capture necessary. In an official statement, Solid Carbon engineer Curran Crawford noted that one the “challenges” facing them is to figure out a way to pipe captured carbon dioxide to basalt formations that are nearly three kilometres under the ocean.

And when it comes to running massive offshore platform with large pipes drilled into the ground, it turns out nobody beats the expertise of Big Oil. K&M Technology Group, a Texas-based oil and gas contractor, has already signed on as a project partner.

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