This startup is zapping seawater to tackle climate change

A rendering of Equatic’s technology that takes CO2 out of the air and water and produces hydrogen fuel in the process. | Image: Equatic

A new California-based startup is trying to take on climate change by simultaneously taking carbon dioxide out of the ocean and air while creating hydrogen as an alternative fuel. Boeing has already inked an agreement with Equatic, the company that launched last week.

The deal is for Boeing to purchase 2,100 metric tons of hydrogen from Equatic that it can use in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The hydrogen is a byproduct of Equatic’s efforts to filter planet-heating CO2 out of air and seawater. Boeing has also agreed to purchase 62,000 metric tons’ worth of carbon removal to offset some of its own climate pollution.

Equatic’s technology brings together two nascent strategies for climate change that are starting to take off in the US. More and more companies from Big Tech to Big Oil are funding efforts to capture CO2 that has accumulated in the atmosphere and oceans; it’s a way to atone for some of the pollution they generate by burning fossil fuels. Hydrogen is an alternative to oil and gas that the Biden administration has called “a high priority technology” to develop as the US tries to hit its climate goals.

Unlike other startups that focus on either taking CO2 out of the air or the sea, or that make carbon pollution-free hydrogen out of renewable energy, Equatic does it all. The company spun out of a research initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and already has two small pilot plants in Los Angeles and Singapore. Each plant takes in ocean water and then runs an electrical current through it. That splits water molecules, freeing up the hydrogen for Equatic to sell for fuel.

The electric shock also separates the water into two streams: one that’s very acidic and another that’s very alkaline, or basic. In the basic stream, dissolved calcium binds with CO2 in the water to form the mineral calcium carbonate. Then, to extract CO2 out of air, Equatic bubbles air through that same stream of basic water. The gas mineralizes into magnesium bicarbonate. Equatic then has to neutralize both streams of water back to the pH of the ocean so that it can release the seawater that’s now laden with mineralized carbon dioxide. The idea is that these minerals will trap the CO2 in the ocean for more than 10,000 years, keeping it from entering the atmosphere, where it would cause global warming.

But the process could potentially have some unforeseen consequences, some environmental advocates caution. “Equatic is attempting to exert control over very complex ocean chemistry,” John Fleming, senior scientist at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, says in an email to The Verge. “Equatic says it will monitor to make sure what it releases back to the ocean meets necessary thresholds, but with such new technology, there could be effects on ocean chemistry and ocean life that are currently unaccounted for.”

For instance, Fleming worries that if Equatic’s technique alters the balance of minerals in the ocean, it could affect shell-building creatures that are already struggling with human-caused ocean acidification. Since these critters form the base of marine food chains, what happens to them has ripple effects across ecosystems.

Equatic maintains that its technology doesn’t change the acidity of the ocean and that the water it releases is comparable to the effluent from desalination plants or other industrial facilities. “I’m optimistic more than I am worried about some of the environmental effects of what we do,” Edward Sanders, COO at Equatic, says in an interview with The Verge.

Wide view of an industrial facility with large white water tanks.
Image: Equatic
Equatic’s pilot plant in Los Angeles.

“We’re going to be taking technology from high income countries and moving into low and middle income countries. That’s the diffusion of environmentally sound technologies,” Sanders says. The startup plans to build much larger plants to fulfill its agreement with Boeing and other new customers — one in Singapore and an even bigger one in a location the company has yet to disclose.

Aside from Boeing, Equatic has other big-name backers. It launched with more than $30 million in funding from the US Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and other foundations. Former BP CEO John Browne, who is now chair of climate tech venture BeyondNetZero, is also chair of Equatic’s advisory board. And electronic payments company Stripe paid for CO2 that Equatic captured at its Los Angeles pilot plant while it was still part of UCLA, at a hefty $1,370 per ton of carbon dioxide.

For Equatic to scale up, it will need to bring that price way down. It’s aiming for $100 a ton by 2028. By 2026, it plans to bring a giant plant on line capable of capturing 100,000 tons of CO2 annually. For comparison, the largest plant operating today that sucks CO2 out of the air only has the capacity to capture 4,000 metric tons a year. Equatic might have an advantage in that it could eventually generate its own electricity from the hydrogen it produces, which could bring costs down.

The energy intensity of these kinds of operations is another concern for Fleming and other environmental advocates skeptical of techno-fixes to climate change. Power grids around the world are still pretty dirty, and there isn’t nearly enough renewable energy on line to meet global climate goals. “Rather than climate strategies that further alter the natural functioning of our planetary ecosystem, our focus should instead be on phasing out the fossil fuels driving climate disruption,” Fleming says.

Equatic is taking an all-of-the-above approach. “We recognize that if you’re going to decarbonize, you have to do two things,” Sanders says. “You have to take carbon dioxide out [of the atmosphere] and you have to stop putting more in. And the process that we’ve developed does that.”

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