Suck carbon from the atmosphere and desalinate seawater at the same time? This startup is trying.

A startup developing technology to remove planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has just signed an agreement with a state-owned water company in South Korea to build a pilot project that combines the new climate technology with seawater desalination.

The first collaboration of its kind aims to clean up some of the pollution from a giant petrochemical manufacturing hub nearby, in addition to providing fresh water to the area’s heavy industries.

Depending on how you look at it, partnerships like this could be an innovative way to minimize environmental damage from very dirty companies, or a way to keep fossil fuels flowing while the world needs cleaner alternatives. Either way, it’s an example of how the fossil fuel industry is working with emerging technologies like direct air capture (DAC), which are intended to fight climate change but also have skeptics concerned about whether it would be a crutch for big polluters could be.

The first collaboration of its kind aims to clean up some of the pollution from a giant petrochemical manufacturing hub nearby, in addition to providing fresh water to the area’s heavy industries.

“We kind of agree with the criticism that if you do a DAC project and it makes you more water insecure, or more climate vulnerable, or if that leaves fossil fuels on the grid, that’s a problem,” said Luke Shors, president from California and New Zealand-based climate tech startup Capture6, which signed the deal. “We actually think these projects can achieve multiple climate goals, and that’s why we should pursue them.”

Shors’ company signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) this week with South Korean water company K-water and wastewater treatment company BKT. Together they will develop what they say is the world’s first fully integrated facility for carbon removal and water management using seawater desalination.

Capture6 plans to build Project Octopus, a carbon removal factory that it hopes will eventually remove hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year – a feat that a growing number of startups around the world are trying to achieve.

What’s unique about Project Octopus is the way it’s expected to interact with a plant that turns seawater into freshwater. One disadvantage of desalination plants is that they produce salty brine that can be harmful if released into the environment. Capture6 instead uses that wastewater in its carbon removal process, extracting salt that it then uses as a feedstock for a liquid sorbent that reacts with CO2 in the air.

The solution captures CO2 which, when mixed with calcium, produces a limestone or chalk-like mineral that prevents the greenhouse gas from escaping back into the atmosphere. Fresh water is another byproduct of the process.

This is not a silver bullet for climate change or drought, and these technologies come with their own costs. DAC and desalination plants both consume a lot of energy. And since the pilot facility will be connected to the electric grid, that means it will still be largely powered by fossil fuels and generate the same greenhouse gas emissions that Project Octopus is designed to clean up.

In addition, the facility is being built primarily to serve the Daesan Industrial Complex, which produces 40 percent of South Korea’s petrochemical products derived from oil and gas. “[The industrial complex] will exist, right? Whatever we do. That’s why I think it’s very important for us to be realistic at the same time,” said Leo Park, vice president of strategic development at Capture6. “I think it’s important for us to reduce their carbon footprint in any way we can.”

If it can eventually grow into a commercial-scale facility, Project Octopus could capture up to 500,000 tons of CO2 annually once fully completed. The pilot facility would only need to vent 500 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year, and the MOU also includes plans to filter an additional 500 tons of CO2 from smokestacks before it is released into the atmosphere.

In total, that’s just a fraction of the 17 million tons of carbon dioxide Daesan pumps out every year. And to achieve the global goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement to halt climate change, polluters must reduce their carbon emissions by half this decade. The plan at Project Octopus is to start construction on the $2-3 million pilot this year, but start-up of a $100-200 million commercial facility may not happen until late 2026 at the earliest .

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