This company wants to turn Canada's oceans into a carbon
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This company wants to turn Canada's oceans into a carbon

May 17, 2023

You might pop a Tums after a night of pizza and wings, and Will Burt thinks oceans could benefit from the same strategy.

Burt is the chief oceans scientist with Nova Scotia-based Planetary Technologies, a company that's looking at ways to pump antacids into the sea to increase its alkalinity — and neutralize all the carbon it stores from the atmosphere in the process.

"The ocean and the atmosphere are more or less in equilibrium with each other when it comes to carbon dioxide gas," Burt explains.

"It can move freely between the ocean and the atmosphere, and does often. When you add alkalinity, or an antacid, to the ocean, that antacid does exactly what it's meant to do, which is neutralize acid."

In this case, the acid being neutralized is carbonic acid: the chemical created when carbon dioxide moves into the water.

That's why, Burt says, the world's oceans are 30 per cent more acidic than pre-Industrial Revolution levels — before humans began pumping excess CO2 into the atmosphere.

The neutralized chemical is called bicarbonate, Burt says, which already abounds in the ocean. Because there's then less carbonic acid in the sea, it creates a kind of vacuum, pulling more CO2 out of the air.

"This can be done in a beaker very easily," he said. "The general concept is fairly simple, and the potential of it … is enormous."

Burt, who spoke Tuesday at the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society congress in St. John's, wants to eventually use wastewater treatment plants to carry out the deacidification process, by adding large amounts of magnesium hydroxide — already an ingredient in wastewater treatment — to the pipelines feeding water back into the sea.

"This thing that we're doing is accelerating a natural cycle," he said. "Erosion of rocks on land by slightly acidic rainwater moves alkaline material, dissolved rock, into the ocean. That's how the ocean basically regulates the climate.

"That's going to happen over millions of years and reduce and remove all this excess CO2, but we just don't have anywhere near that much time. So we're accelerating that natural process."

But Gerald Singh, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria, cautions that the onus of proving that a climate change solution works needs to be placed on the companies flogging it.

"Part of the problem [is that it's] untested at scale," Singh said. "And there's a number of potential risks with that. Any time you play around with the acidity of the ocean, there's potential impacts on marine life."

Singh also warns that using the ocean as a carbon sink could backfire, psychologically speaking.

"If we do a bad job of of budgeting for carbon, it might give us a false sense of security and think that we can just produce so much because we're just going to remove so much from the atmosphere," he said.

"If we're not doing a good job of accounting for that, then we might actually be adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than we think."

Burt says Planetary Technologies, which is working with Dalhousie University, is planning a pilot project in Halifax to further test its idea on a larger scale.

If it works, the company would sell carbon credits to polluters, such as airlines, so they can reach net-zero emissions.

"It's going to be a legitimate tool in the toolbox that can help, alongside the massive emissions reductions that are required," Burt said.

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Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's who previously worked in Vancouver and Toronto. News tip? Reach her at [email protected].

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador