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A United Effort to Advance Marine Carbon Capture Tech

University of Pittsburgh and NETL among 11 projects to receive combined $36 million from US DOE ARPA-E initiative

Smart Mooring Diagrams

Project overview: Multiparameter (pH, CO2, temperature, acoustics) distributed fiber sensors developed by Pitt, NETL, and OFS Optics will leverage Sofar Ocean Spotter buoys as a platform to create distributed carbon-sensing networks. (Sofar Ocean)

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, in collaboration with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, are among 11 projects in eight states selected to receive a combined $36 million to accelerate the development of marine carbon dioxide removal (mCDR) capture and storage technologies.  

The funding from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is part of the ARPA-E Sensing Exports of Anthropogenic Carbon Through Ocean Observation (SEA-CO2) program. The Pitt team will receive $2,274,859 to develop buoy-based optical fiber sensors for measuring pH and carbon dioxide in seawater from the ocean’s surface to the seafloor.  

Paul Ohodnicki, RK Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy and associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt, and principal investigator, said “This is a new opportunity for us to apply technology we’ve traditionally developed for industrial and infrastructure applications and apply it to our oceans. We are excited about the opportunity to leverage the advantages of distributed fiber optic sensing for novel marine applications in collaboration with our partners at NETL, Sofar Ocean Technologies, and OFS.”  

According to Ohodnicki, the Pitt research will develop, mature, and scale new chemical sensing fibers for distributed sensing applications, built upon a decade of his prior research and collaborations between NETL and the Swanson School. The project is also embracing open standards, such as Bristlemouth, to enable the technology to scale.

“By integrating with mobile marine sensor systems, we will monitor geochemical processes within the ocean environment to kilometer-range depths to understand for the first time its physical parameters and geochemistry from the surface to the ocean floor,” Ohodnicki explained. “With the increase of carbon dioxide in the earth’s oceans, this is a landmark opportunity to learn more about how the oceans so efficiently capture CO2 and to apply what we learn to quantify the capability of marine processes to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for large scale decarbonization.”  

“Distributed fiber optic multi-parameter sensing will provide a powerful tool to monitor, report, and verify the effectiveness of marine carbon removal,” noted Ruishu Wright, NETL Research Scientist and Technical Portfolio Lead. “Carbon removal aligns with NETL’s goal of decarbonization and meeting the Administration’s goal of net-zero carbon emission by 2050. Under this project, the collaboration between NETL, the University of Pittsburgh and other industry partners will bring the optical fiber sensor technology to a larger scale of application in ocean environment, which is a challenge that we will try to tackle.”  

Co-investigator at the Swanson School is Khurram Naeem, research professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, who explained that modern sensor technology can provide more accurate data by being in the ocean, rather than orbiting in a satellite.  

“The oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface and therefore have a tremendous impact on our climate and life on earth,” Naeem said. “But because of the ocean’s size and depth, today’s satellite technology can only glimpse surface trends and very limited depths. Distributed optical fiber sensors however act like a wired radar net with high spatial resolution, light weight, and low power-requirements to give us a clearer picture inside the seas.”  

Ohodnicki added that this project aligns with the spirit of the University of Pittsburgh Infrastructure Sensing Collaboration established in 2022, as well as the memorandum of understanding between NETL and Pitt signed in early 2023 to explore collaborations in the area of infrastructure sensing. U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, who recently visited Pittsburgh and the Energy Innovation Center where Ohodnicki’s labs are located, noted in a prepared statement that the ARPA-E project is critical to “reaching President Biden’s ambitious decarbonization goals and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.  

“[This] will require a wide range of innovative climate solutions, from common-sense approaches like improving energy efficiency to novel applications like utilizing the ocean’s natural carbon removal abilities to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere,” Granholm said. “With critical funding from DOE, project teams from across the country will develop groundbreaking new technologies to cut emissions that will help combat the climate crisis while reinforcing America’s global leadership in the clean energy industries of the future.”  

The other ARPA-E projects include: 

  • atdepth MRV (Cambridge, MA) will develop an ocean modeling system that utilizes graphical processing units, dramatically improving simulation modeling speed compared with traditional approaches that use central processing units. (Award amount: $2,524,964) 
  • Bigelow Laboratory for Oceanic Sciences (East Boothbay, ME) will develop a biogeochemical computer model that improves estimates of how the vast population of ocean zooplankton—tiny marine animals—move and lock away carbon in the deep ocean. (Award amount: $2,279,867) 
  • [C]Worthy (Boulder, CO) will develop a community framework for model building and data assimilation that would provide the structure and processes necessary to incorporate observations, manage model complexity, and meet the needs for accurate carbon accounting for mCDR. (Award amount: $3,884,825) 
  • GE Research (Niskayuna, NY) will develop a fiber optic sensor cable that would span multiple kilometers of ocean volume and measure chemical ocean carbon parameters over large areas when towed from marine vessels. (Award amount: $4,274,658) 
  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Seattle, WA) will develop a model and mesocosm experiments to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of the marine carbon dioxide removal technique Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement throughout major coastal areas in the United States. (Award amount: $2,080,715) 
  • University of Colorado (Boulder, CO) will develop a system of optical underwater sensors utilizing broad-band lasers to sense and measure dissolved carbon compounds. (Award amount: $5,904,233) 
  • University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX) will develop an acoustic sensor network to quantify ecosystem activity and how effectively carbon is stored in shallow seagrass beds, an important sink in the coastal blue carbon cycle. (Award amount: $2,034,903) 
  • University of Utah (Salt Lake City, UT) will develop a micro-optical, micro-electronic seafloor probe that would extend the longevity and persistence of current-day seafloor carbon storage measurement tools. (Award amount: $2,004,554) 
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Woods Hole, MA) will develop a system-on-a-chip for ocean carbon flux monitoring that would integrate the capabilities of several existing commercial sensors into a single miniature sensor chip, lightening the power requirements on ocean gliders and floats and significantly reducing costs. (Award amount: $3,738,960) 
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Woods Hole, MA) will develop a natural thorium decay sensor that would attach to gliders, autonomous vehicles, and profiling floats to quantify the flux rates of particulate organic carbon to the deep ocean for marine carbon dioxide removal. (Award amount: $4,802,245) 

More information and complete project descriptions for the teams announced today can be found on the ARPA-E website