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The Carbon to Sea Initiative charts a course forward for OAE

This week a new CDR non-profit was announced, the Carbon to Sea Initiative, which provides grant funding to groups pursuing ocean alkalinity enhancement. The Initiative is notable because it is not trying to fund carbon capture directly, but rather to invest in the basic science that will be necessary for governments and VCs to follow along in the future.

Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement (OAE) is increasingly recognized as a potent pathway to CDR. It works by hastening the natural carbon sequestration processes where various alkaline rocks dissolve in the ocean, thereby increasing the ocean's capacity to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere. The spectrum of OAE strategies spans from remarkably simple methods like dispersing calcium hydroxide from a boat, to sophisticated systems employing state-of-the-art materials.

On the high-tech side, companies like Ebb Carbon have been funded by venture capital to use extensive electrodialysis membranes to segregate water into acidic and alkaline streams, where the acid is retained and the alkaline returned to the ocean. These have the advantage that progress is easy to monitor - as long as CO2 or alkalinity runs through giant machines, it can be tracked and credited. By contrast, the notion of simply throwing rocks into the ocean seems simple and likely effective, but it's not inherently obvious how to track its progress, or confirm that we are not doing more harm than good.

To enable many of these low technology solutions requires infrastructure that doesn't exist today, not because the infrastructure is difficult to build, but because there hasn't been any demand to build it. For example, several recipients from first round of grants developing sensors to ensure that OAE solutions provide the carbon sequestration benefits predicted, without unwanted impact on ocean life.. The Carbon to Sea Initiative has similarly invested in techno-economic models and ecological field trials, as well as a handful of promising early-stage technologies that seem to have fallen outside of existing grants.

Will any of this matter? The honest answer is, we simply don't know. However, this very uncertainty underscores the necessity of such investments. The Carbon to Sea Initiative set a long term price target of $20/ton CO2 sequestered, recognizing that it could be as high as $160/ton. These error bars are huge! OAE has incredible technical potential but, because it relies partially on nature, is extremely risky as well. The Initiative's role in mitigating these risks, or establishing their impracticability, will allow for a strategic redirection of focus. This is a frequently overlooked but vital component of the innovation pipeline, deserving of recognition and applause.

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