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CO2 capture by pumping surface acidity to the deep ocean

Energy and Environmental Science (EES) (2022)

Abstract

The majority of IPCC scenarios call for active CO2 removal (CDR) to remain below 2ºC of warming. On geological timescales, ocean uptake regulates atmospheric CO2 concentration, with two homeostats driving sequestration: dissolution of deep ocean calcite deposits and terrestrial weathering of silicate rocks, acting on 1ka to 100ka timescales. Many current ocean-based CDR proposals effectively act to accelerate the latter. Here we present a method which relies purely on the redistribution and dilution of acidity from a thin layer of the surface ocean to a thicker layer of deep ocean, with the aim of accelerating the former carbonate homeostasis. This downward transport could be seen analogous to the action of the natural biological carbon pump. The method offers advantages over other ocean CDR methods and direct air capture approaches (DAC): the conveyance of mass is minimized (acidity is pumped in situ to depth), and expensive mining, grinding and distribution of alkaline material is eliminated. No dilute substance needs to be concentrated, avoiding the Sherwood’s Rule costs typically encountered in DAC. Finally, no terrestrial material is added to the ocean, avoiding significant alteration of seawater ion concentrations and issues with heavy metal toxicity encountered in mineral-based alkalinity schemes. The artificial transport of acidity accelerates the natural deep ocean invasion and subsequent compensation by calcium carbonate. It is estimated that the total compensation capacity of the ocean is on the order of 1500GtC. We show through simulation that pumping of ocean acidity could remove up to 150GtC from the atmosphere by 2100 without excessive increase of local ocean pH. For an acidity release below 2000m, the relaxation half time of CO2 return to the atmosphere was found to be ~2500 years (~1000yr without accounting for carbonate dissolution), with ~85% retained for at least 300 years. The uptake efficiency and residence time were found to vary with the location of acidity pumping, and optimal areas were calculated. Requiring only local resources (ocean water and energy), this method could be uniquely suited to utilize otherwise-stranded open ocean energy sources at scale. We examine technological pathways that could be used to implement it and present a brief techno-economic estimate of 130-250$/tCO2 at current prices and as low as 86$/tCO2 under modest learning-curve assumptions.

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