Ridding Earth of carbon dioxide? Scientists plan to bury it at the bottom of the ocean

Ocean plankton could suck up carbon dioxide in large quantities and bring it to the bottom of the ocean.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Ocean plankton can capture CO2.jpg
Ocean plankton can capture CO2 at the bottom of the ocean.


There’s no doubt that we have an urgent need to remove excess carbon dioxide from Earth’s environment. But how to achieve this task has science baffled.

New technologies are emerging all the time but none of them seem to carry the solution we are so desperately looking for. Until now. 

An international research team led by Michael Hochella of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is seeking to enlist the help of some of our planet’s smallest inhabitants (plankton) to solve this long-standing conundrum, according to a press release by the institution published on Tuesday.

Using ocean plakton

Hochella and his colleagues are evaluating the possibility of using ocean plankton to store carbon dioxide at the bottom of our oceans. They would achieve this by feeding phytoplankton, microscopic plants that are a key part of the ocean ecosystem, to encourage growth and carbon dioxide uptake. 

“The idea is to augment existing processes,” said Hochella, a Laboratory fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Humans have fertilized the land to grow crops for centuries. We can learn to fertilize the oceans responsibly.”

Ridding Earth of carbon dioxide? Scientists plan to bury it at the bottom of the ocean
Michael Hocella.

Currently, nutrients from the land are driven to the oceans through rivers and blowing dust to fertilize plankton. The research team had the brilliant idea of taking this process one step further to help remove excess CO2 through the ocean. 

Through careful and thorough study they found that adding specific combinations of carefully engineered materials could effectively fertilize the oceans, encouraging phytoplankton to act as a carbon sink. These oceanic organisms would suckup carbon in large quantities. 

As they would die, they would then sink deep into the ocean, taking the excess carbon with them. The researchers argue that this proposed fertilization would simply speed up a natural process that already efficiently sequesters carbon in a form that could remove it from the atmosphere for thousands of years.

Time is of the essence

“At this point, time is of the essence,” said Hochella. “To combat rising temperatures, we must decrease CO2 levels on a global scale. Examining all our options, including using the oceans as a CO2 sink, gives us the best chance of cooling the planet.”

The researchers further argue that engineered nanoparticles offer several benefits: they could be highly controlled and specifically designed for different ocean environments and they could be tuned to meet the needs of specific ocean environments. 

Ridding Earth of carbon dioxide? Scientists plan to bury it at the bottom of the ocean
Ocean plankton can capture CO2.

A specific region might benefit most from iron-based particles, while others may find silicon-based particles more advantageous. Best of all, the materials would all be non-toxic.

The researchers shifted through 123 published studies to find several non-toxic metal-oxygen materials that could safely enhance plankton growth and plan to use these in their studies. These materials are stable, abundant, and easy to create, making them viable options as plankton fertilizers.

For now cost does remain an issue as creating and distributing different particles is quite expensive. However, the results from these experiments would be effective enough to warrant the price. The analysis article appears in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.