Fighting Climate Change with Pumps and Phytoplankton

The ocean is one of the most brutal environments for a product. It will suffer constant abuse by salt, water and wind, and the need for long-term survival creates a difficult design challenge.

“When dealing with the ocean, it’s not a question of if it’s going to fail. It’s just a question of when,” said Philip Fullam, chief engineer at Ocean-based Climate Solutions.

But the New Mexico-based company Ocean-based Engineering Solutions is no stranger to taking on daunting tasks.

Initially founded on the idea of finding a method to lessen the strength of hurricanes, the company is now attempting to create tools which use the ocean to pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere. The goal is to make a meaningful contribution to fighting climate change. To do this the team has created devices that float on the ocean and, as the company puts it on their website, “turn CO2 into fish food” by artificially causing ocean upwelling.

One of Ocean-based Climate Solutions buoys deployed in the ocean. (Image: Ocean-based Climate Solutions.)

How It Works

Ocean upwelling is a process which causes nutrient-rich deep ocean water to rise to the sunlit surface. CO2 then dissolves into this new water. Tiny organisms called phytoplankton use sunlight and dissolved CO2 to undergo photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide. Since these phytoplankton are the base of the ocean food chain, more phytoplankton in the environment can support higher numbers of larger organisms, as well.

“Over time this results in marine snow, which is dead or eaten phytoplankton and all the marine life it feeds sinking to the deep ocean, which is a natural form of carbon sequestration,” said Salvador Garcia, chief revenue officer of Ocean-based Climate Solutions, when speaking at 3DEXPERIENCE World 2023.

However, ocean upwelling only naturally occurs in specific places around the globe. 

“As you travel away from the coasts, there are virtually no phytoplankton. They’re ocean deserts. Blue oceans are beautiful, yes, but instead green water is thriving and a living ocean,” Garcia said.

The company’s device deploys a 400-meter fabric tube down from a hefty floating buoy into nutrient rich deep waters and pumps the water to the surface to artificially create an upwelling effect. The pump operates solely on ocean wave energy, while the other sensors, GPS and electronics are powered by solar energy. The pump could be deployed in these ocean deserts to create new areas rich with phytoplankton and sea life which could store carbon in this marine snow.

Improving the Design with SOLIDWORKS and Testing

A few of the CAD models during the pump production process. (Image: Ocean-based Climate Solutions.)

Although they aren’t yet in full-scale production mode, Fullam says the company has come a long way since their first small-scale models and computational fluid dynamics testing.

One of the key tools for their development process has been SOLIDWORKS.

“If you build your models intelligently and use the parametric modeling features [in SOLIDWORKS], you can make dramatic changes in your model without having to start from scratch,” Fullam said. “That allows you to easily scale things, which is a big benefit when you start with a scale model and then you have to move it up to full scale or vice versa.”

A three-quarters scaled version was tested about two years ago. From that, a second full-size iteration was designed. One full-size pump was deployed off the coast of California and another off the Canary Islands.

The company also used SOLIDWORKS for structural analysis and dynamic modeling. This was crucial as they analyzed part movement in an attempt to reduce their part count and create a simplified design with less risk of failure.

“That’s the beauty of design. Anybody can come up with a complicated design. The art of design is simplified,” Fullam said. “We’re slimming it down to what is the absolute minimum number of parts necessary. That’s what I think we’ve gotten pretty close to.”

Pack and go. The buoy in the factory is ready to be shipped. (Image: Ocean-based Climate Solutions.)

Testing so far has been too short to get a measure of phytoplankton increases or carbon dioxide removal caused by the pump, but Ocean-based Climate Solutions CEO Phil Kithil predicts up to 430 tons of carbon dioxide removal annually per pump.

The data they did gain from these tests was more focused on device function and failure modes.

“We know in the initial units we’re going to put out, they’re going to have a shorter lifespan than our final productions. Part of that is we’re learning what breaks,” Fullam said.

This info has fed into the creation of a new version which weighs significantly less and was made with different construction techniques. However, it still has the same functionality.

“SOLIDWORKS allows us to optimize structure,” Fullam said. “The initial unit had a steel structure that weighed close to 2,000 pounds. That’s just basically the buoy. The second generation we’ve got that down to about 800 pounds. That’s a significant savings and, based upon our numbers, should have a longer life expectancy.”

The buoy pre-deployment loaded onto the ship. (Image: Ocean-based Climate Solutions.)

What’s Next?

The main improvements Ocean-based Climate Solutions is still looking to make lie in the manufacturing techniques and materials selection.

Although they are becoming lighter with each iteration, the devices are still heavy and large. With the company’s goal of removing carbon from the atmosphere, they don’t want to create more carbon emissions by shipping these machines around the globe. Instead, they are designing the devices to be manufactured near where they will be used. This means Fullam cannot lean on just any expensive, high-tech equipment in his manufacturing process.

“Instead of my half-million-dollar laser, could I do it with a $15,000 plasma cutter? The parts were designed based upon the low end, not the high end. That was a bit of a challenge,” Fullam said.

The other element of improvement comes down to selecting the right materials for long-term deployment in the ocean.

“Some of the materials we chose with our initial requirements were less than optimum as far as environmental considerations go,” Fullam said. “[They were] readily available, relatively inexpensive and functional. It showed us what worked, what didn’t work. As we move forward, we’ll end up choosing much more environmentally friendly materials.”

As for the next steps for testing and deployment, the company is currently applying for grants to support its next stages of development. They plan to use those grants to build three 400-meter ocean upwelling pumps and deploy them off the coast of Hawaii.

Looking further into the future, if they begin longer term deployments, the company hopes their customers will include high carbon-emitting companies wanting to convert their waste into phytoplankton. If they can validate their technology, Ocean-based Climate Solutions would be in a prime position to sell reliable and reputable carbon offsets to these large businesses.

“With the technology that’s become available, with measuring devices and communication through satellites, we can measure, we can report and we can verify what’s happening locally with our ops,” Fullam said. “So, as we get a few pumps out there and get the correlation between the measurements we’re taking and field measurements, this is going to be a major step forward. Private industry is going to be much more interested.”

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