A team of scientists believes it has a "rock-solid" way to combat the climate crisis by sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it deep below the ocean floor.

The proposed Solid Carbon project aims to scrub vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and inject it nearly three kilometres beneath the ocean’s surface into basalt aquifers where it will eventually transform into rock.

The initiative will use direct air capture (DAC), a type of carbon capture technology, powered by renewable energy on a floating platform or ship to collect and pump concentrated CO2 about 300 metres beneath the seabed, said Kate Moran, CEO of Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), the University of Victoria research group leading the international scientists on the project.

The CO2 is injected into porous basalt, which is covered by a deep impermeable cap of sediment on the ocean floor, where it dissolves in water. Then it binds with dissolved basalt minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron silicates to transform into carbonate rock that can’t escape the seabed reservoir, Moran said.

Researchers associated with the University of Victoria are developing a project to pull CO2 from the air and pump it deep into the ocean floor, where it will transform into rock. Photo courtesy of Solid Carbon

Potential for carbon capture project is 'enormous'

The potential scale of the project as a climate solution is “gigantic," said Solid Carbon researcher Benjamin Tutolo, a geoscientist with the University of Calgary who recently led a study indicating basalt could capture up to a gigaton — a billion tonnes — of CO2 annually.

There is enough sub-ocean basalt worldwide to potentially sequester 250,000 gigatons of CO2, said Tutolo. That’s approximately 10 times the amount needed should we burn all the fossil fuels on the planet, he said.

The project’s potential sounds almost unbelievable, Tutolo conceded.

“Although it sounds crazy and expensive, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this technology,” he said. “The capacity is so enormous.”

A team of scientists believes it has a "rock-solid" way to combat the climate crisis by sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it deep below the ocean floor. #CarbonCapture

Critics believe carbon capture endangers fossil fuel phase-out

Carbon capture as a climate solution is controversial with critics who believe the technology is too nascent and expensive and offers policymakers and fossil fuel industries an excuse to prolong the use of oil and gas

While the project is certainly feasible, said Phillip Jessop, Queen’s University research chair in green chemistry, there are always challenges to be overcome with wide-scale deployment.

“I have no doubt that given enough time and money, they could achieve this,” said Jessop, who is not involved in the project, but believes some version of carbon capture is necessary to meet the global warming threshold of 1.5 C set out by the UN Paris Agreement.

“But the question is … is this a good idea environmentally speaking, and is somebody willing to pay?”

A life-cycle assessment to calculate the environmental footprint for all stages or aspects of the project would be necessary to answer the question, he said.

Presumably, the project will rely on money collected from carbon taxes, or carbon offsets bought by companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

But the current energy costs of direct air capture are still prohibitively high, Jessop said.

“So for every dollar invested for every kilowatt-hour they get from sunlight, or other (renewable) energy sources, how much CO2 can they sequester?” asked Jessop.

“That's going to be one issue the skeptics will want to know.”

Critics worry developing carbon capture projects will prolong the burning of fossil fuels. File photo by Kris Krüg / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Price of polluting is growing

Moran agreed the cost of DAC technology is a challenge but notes the price of carbon pollution is rising rapidly, and Canada has promised emissions will cost $170 per tonne by 2030.

Early estimates suggested the project’s carbon cost would be a bit more than US$180 per tonne, Moran said.

But similar to renewables such as solar or wind energy, the initial costs should drop over time as the technology continues to develop.

“It’s no more expensive than the technology that's being developed or in use right now with the offshore oil extractive industry,” Moran said.

No one should view carbon capture as a total solution, Moran added. It should be paired with dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

Scalable carbon capture and storage projects, such as Solid Carbon, are urgently needed to meet mid-century net-zero climate targets that can’t be met by reducing emissions alone, Moran said. And the project's component technology — such as DAC, ocean platforms, solar or wind power, CO2 injection systems, and offshore drilling — is already in use elsewhere, Moran said.

“It’s not pie in the sky,” she said. The next goal is to launch a small-scale demonstration in 2024 in the Cascadia Basin, 200 kilometres west of Vancouver Island, where ONC maintains an underwater observatory.

The proof-of-concept demonstration will likely cost $20 million and allow researchers to better understand the extent and speed of CO2 mineralization, she said.

Work is also underway to determine the regulatory processes for the project.

“We have all the pieces, so from a systems engineering perspective, it’s eminently doable.”

Launch of biggest carbon capture project will drive improvements

The Solid Carbon project hopes to launch a demonstration in the Cascadia Basin off the coast of Vancouver Island by 2024. It will use renewable energy to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and inject it deep below the seafloor, where it will transform into rock. Image courtesy of Solid Carbon

The recent launch of the world’s biggest carbon capture plant in Iceland has been particularly inspiring for the ONC team, Tutolo said.

The Orca project, which also uses DAC technology and injects CO2 into basalt where it forms rock, will demonstrate the process is achievable at a larger scale and pave the way for efficiencies, he said.

One of Solid Carbon’s advantages over the Iceland project is it doesn’t require lots of water to get the CO2 into the ground, Tutolo said.

The trade-off is it will likely take longer than the two years demonstrated in previous Icelandic research projects for CO2 mineralization to occur, but as the emissions are permanently sequestered, that shouldn’t be a problem.

“Basically, the earth will give it time to react, and that's all we really need to happen.”

The demo project expects to inject a minimum of 10,000 tonnes of CO2 into the Cascadia Basin basalt and monitor it for two years, he said.

But ultimately, the plan is to be storing a gigaton of emissions annually by 2040 — an amount equalling all emissions from transportation in Canada over a six-year period.

Senior levels of government also need to foster and fund carbon capture projects to get them to the stage they need to be to help achieve net-zero targets, Tutolo said.

“We really need to be moving forward on these technologies to help us deal with the action that we haven't taken over the last 20 years.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
January 11, 2022, 11:00 am

This article was corrected to say that ocean basalt reserves could potentially sequester 250,000 gigatons of CO2 — not 250 gigatons as was previously written.

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"basalt could capture up to a gigaton — a billion tonnes — of CO2 annually"

At what cost?
Opportunity costs? Could we spend the same dollars on more efficient solutions that cut emissions far faster?
Current CO2 emissions are on the order of 40 Gt per year.
A decade of emissions at that rate totals 400 Gt. Well in excess of sub-ocean basalt capacity (250 gigatons).

Carbon removal is music to the ears of the fossil fuel industry.
Oil & gas companies will take it as license to expand production.

Energy ecologist Vaclav Smil: "Mark my words, there’ll be no massive sequestration of carbon. There hasn’t been any, and there’ll not be any next year, or 2025, or 2030.
…The scale. We now make about 37 billion tons of CO2. 10% of that is 3.7 billion tons. Say 4 billion tons of C02, just to control 10% of the problem. This is almost exactly the amount of crude oil we produce. It took us 100-plus years to develop an industry, which is taking 4 billion tons out of the ground and with the gradient, and then taking it up and refining and using it. Now we would have to develop a new industry, which would take 4 billion tons, and store it, push it against the gradient into the ground, and guarantee that it will stay there forever. Something like this cannot be done in 5, or 10, or 15 years. And this is 10%. So, simply on the matter of scale, carbon sequestration is just simply dead on arrival."
"Vaclav Smil: We Must Leave Growth Behind" (Intelligencer – New York Magazine)
https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/09/vaclav-smil-on-the-need-to-aband...

Smil is talking about carbon capture: CO2 removal from concentrated industrial waste streams before it can enter the atmosphere.
Carbon removal is an even more daunting and expensive proposition than carbon capture. Because 410+ ppm CO2 is much more dilute, the challenge to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is much harder and more energy intensive.

"These industrial-scale DAC plants could capture up to one million tonnes of CO2 from the air each year."
"Climate change: 'Magic bullet' carbon solution takes big step" (BBC, 3 April 2019)
https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-47638586
With global emissions around 40 Gt/year, we would need 40,000 industrial-scale DAC plants to scrub our current annual emissions — merely to stabilize CO2 levels. We would need even more plants to start removing previous emissions and reduce CO2 levels.
*
An ounce of prevention…
Far cheaper and far safer to prevent the emissions in the first place.
Carbon removal does not address the other fossil fuel pollutants entering our atmosphere.
Simply reckless to bet the house on technologies that do not exist yet. Especially when we have proven technologies that are cheaper than fossil fuels, still falling in price, still improving in efficiency, and ready to go.
Our first priority right now should be limiting emissions. The less emissions now, the less future generations will have to remove at high cost later, and the less climate impact overall.

Exactly. I'm disappointed to see the headline to this article in the Observer. Foolish dreams should not be encouraged. They should be reported on, because both governments and the fossil fuel industry like to make us believe they are a solution, but not under the click-bait heading of "optimism."

Hi Folks, my bad. It appears I made a serious typo and dropped the capacity of the gigaton storage by a factor of 1,000. Sorry about that and thanks for catching.

The article states: "There is enough sub-ocean basalt worldwide to potentially sequester 250 gigatons of CO2, said Tutolo. That’s approximately 10 times the amount needed should we burn all the fossil fuels on the planet, he said."

Global annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement are ~35 gigatons (Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions).

So the statement above is wildly incorrect and/or misquoted. Either way, doesn't inspire much confidence in this reporting. I expect more from the National Observer. An interesting initiative though!

As a person that relies on the National Observer to help people understand the climate crisis, I was shocked by today’s piece on Carbon Capture. The author quotes a Calgary researcher:
“There is enough sub-ocean basalt worldwide to potentially sequester 250 gigatons of CO2, said Tutolo. That’s approximately 10 times the amount needed should we burn all the fossil fuels on the planet, he said. The project’s potential sounds almost unbelievable, Tutolo conceded.”
It certainly ought not to be believed. It is well known that the total CO2 release annually from fossil fuel burning is around 38 gigatons. A potential 250 gigaton offset from carbon capture would be exhausted in less than seven years. If 250 gigatons is 10 times what we would need, then we would need only 25 gigatons of carbon capture to offset the total CO2 from burning “all the fossil fuels on the planet.” But in fact that does not even offset one year of current production. What is Mr. Tutolo talking about?
I realize that the article goes on to consider criticisms of the fossil fuel industry-led push for carbon capture technology. But many will skim into this article and wonder how that quote could have survived even a moment's scrutiny. Others will be misled by it.

Hi Nathan, see my mea culpa re: the 250 gigaton number above. It's now corrected in article. Thanks for capturing.

Thanks!! (Though, of course, the question "At what cost?" - already raised - becomes even more salient. Especially so, since the expectation is that it will take until 2040 to scale up this test operation to the point where it can extract a single gigaton.)

I guess the best place to look for funding would be the industries that made the problem. 'Nuff said on that point.
However, nothing about carbon storage even hints at beginning to deal with the environmental degradation and toxic production involved in both getting the stuff out of the ground, and refining it -- let alone burning the stuff.
Seems to me this "new industry" wouldn't disturb the ocean floor any less: nor is there in the article any mention about the ecological role the existing rock formations might have ... or why the process might not form relatively soluble calcium carbonate, which in rock formations in, e.g., Cappadocia, are soft until exposed to air, and have also been badly degraded by air pollution.
Neither is there any mention of what happens when there are volcanic eruptions under the sea floor, which happens along an extensive ridge that extends right through Iceland ... presumably irrelevant?
Plenty of time to latch onto yet another way of using the oceans to dump our garbage.
It seems we never learn, but keep lurching from one disastrous technological application to another.

This carbon sequestration is a farce. The ocean floor is not stable. Earthquakes happen, the tutonic plates shift and cause new cracks, so that the carbon will be released back up into the ocean causing acidification increases, already a problem and more destruction of marine life..our food.
The oil industry is desperate to keep itself going and tries to sell all kinds of ridiculous notions to do so.

Two different sequestration processes:

"The proposed Solid Carbon project aims to scrub vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and inject it nearly three kilometres beneath the ocean’s surface into basalt aquifers where it will eventually transform into rock. … The CO2 is injected into porous basalt, which is covered by a deep impermeable cap of sediment on the ocean floor, where it dissolves in water. Then it binds with dissolved basalt minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron silicates to transform into carbonate rock that can’t escape the seabed reservoir."

In ordinary carbon capture and storage, yes, CO2 is compressed into a liquid, and injected underground, often into depleted oil reservoirs for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Under these conditions, CO2 leakage is possible.
"World can ‘safely’ store billions of tonnes of CO2 underground" (Carbon Brief, 12 June 2018)
https://www.carbonbrief.org/world-can-safely-store-billions-tonnes-co2-u...

We could sure use some optimism though.
I totally understand the skepticism because given an inch, the fossil fuel industry can be counted on to take the mile like no other, but I saw that Iceland project on a documentary about Greta, and it was impressive although very small of course. Focusing primarily on what it will cost in the context of what's at stake and at a time when money is becoming ever more relative in the scheme of things is also a typical conservative take actually. We need to remember what that particular narrow take has already cost us.
Since a network of scientists are leading this, and are such an ethical, earnest, and often brilliant bunch, why not just "follow the science?"

Cost is a key consideration because those same dollars spent more wisely could achieve far greater emissions reductions today — and save us from the needless cost of large-scale carbon removal from the atmosphere tomorrow.
Far cheaper to prevent the spill/emissions in the first place than to clean up the spill afterwards.

No climate activist argues for less spending on climate action. But those dollars should be spent on the most efficient carbon reduction methods. Get the biggest bang for our climate buck.

The sea-floor sequestration capacity was stated in the N.O. article to be 250,000 Gtons, Not 250. This is really awesome potential.