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Profitable Sustainability Through Carbon Dioxide Removal: An Interview with Edward Sanders

Image via Equatic

Edward Sanders is the Chief Operating Officer at Equatic, a company that invented a method of atmospheric carbon dioxide removal using electrolysis. Mr. Sanders is an economist at heart; he received an economics degree from Melbourne University and an MBA from Stanford University. His past jobs have all been economically oriented: a consultant at Bain & Company, the Vice President at Lainston Capital, an executive at Qantas, and a member of the Senior Leadership Team at Boston Consulting Group (BCG). His work at Qantas focused on launching a new low-cost airline, which ultimately expanded to be one of the largest low-cost airlines on the market. His past experiences on executive boards focus specifically on the scale-up of products in the market. Mr. Sanders’ work in economics gives him an excellent sense of the market, and his interests in climate and sustainability prompted his career transformation toward the decarbonization industry.

Charles Wortman: Please explain the general science behind Equatic’s innovation, which was recently awarded TIME’s “Best Invention of 2023.”

Edward Sanders: What Equatic does is two things: It removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it produces ‘green’ hydrogen. We do this by using a saltwater electrolyzer to create an acid and a base stream; the base stream then reacts with the atmosphere to mobilize carbon, which we then store in the ocean for tens of thousands of years.

CW: I know the Equatic website said that there are two pilot devices, one in Los Angeles and one in Singapore, and that they use a single seawater intake pipe. Could you elaborate on the actual design of the devices?

ES: Each pilot removes 100 kilograms of carbon dioxide a day. It brings seawater to an electrolyzer—electrolysis is when you take a current, an electrical current, and you run it through a solution. The electrical current splits the seawater into oxygen, hydrogen, an acid, and a base. We ensure that the carbon is removed and then return the seawater to the ocean at the same pH (the acidity) as what it came out at. It’s a closed-loop system, which means that you have sensors across the whole device, and using those sensors, you can count how much carbon dioxide has been taken down and stored.

CW: Are these devices floating in the water, or are they on the coastline? 

ES: They’re onshore. The pilot in Los Angeles is now on a barge, but going forward, all systems will be on land, and the one in Singapore is already on land.

CW: Is there any difference in the concentration of CO2 throughout the ocean based on depth? How deep is the water that’s taken up? 

ES: There is a big difference by depth. The seawater we’re doing, because it’s all coastal, is going to be from what’s called the upper hydrosphere. It’s not so much the carbon dioxide that’s in the water that we use for the process; it is the calcium and the magnesium ions. Those two ions are what ultimately react with CO2 in the atmosphere. It draws down the CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it back in the ocean.

CW: Equatic’s website says that the process causes CO2 to become “immobilized” for tens of thousands to millions of years due to the large quantity of calcium carbonate in the oceans. How is it known that the carbon dioxide will be stable for that long? What was the testing process for something on such a large time scale? 

ES: We store it as two forms of carbon: calcium carbonate and DIC (dissolved inorganic carbon). DIC is the most prevalent species of carbon storage in the ocean, and there’s 150 times more carbon stored in the ocean as DIC than there is carbon in the atmosphere as CO2. The ocean has been drawing down CO2 in the atmosphere for a while, but it is not fast enough for the rapid increase in human emissions. The issue with climate change is simply that the carbon is in the wrong spot (the atmosphere). It needs to be elsewhere. The calcium carbonate, which is a solid when it dissolves, is stable for billions of years. We know that because we still have seashells. You would not have seashells or any sort of crustaceans that use carbonate-based solids for their shells if there was a risk of reversal and dissolution of the calcium carbonate into anything else. 

CW: Once the hydrogen fuel is obtained, does Equatic store that onsite? How do they get it to someone who would utilize that fuel? Would it be possible to run any of these Equatic devices with hydrogen fuel?

ES: It’s a co-location element. There are sites that are just naturally predispositioned for Equatic because you have hydrogen infrastructure in place. In these cases, they just take a feed as a pipeline or you truck it across. There are other sites where we may want to use the hydrogen as a fuel source ourselves, and so we can do that too. If you can reduce the energy intensity of the process, you can charge less for the carbon dioxide removed. When the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining, everybody else has to shut down. But we essentially have a battery onsite through the hydrogen, so we can use that as a fuel cell.

CW: On the Equatic website, it says that dissolving alkaline rocks in the water before releasing it maintains the alkalinity of the ocean. Are there any other possible alterations made to the water that could have unintended consequences for the world’s oceans?

ES: There are not. In every place we operate, we abide by the limits for various emissions or effluent discharges into the ocean. For instance, in Singapore, we’re operating under the NEA, which describes limits for all manner of effluent materials, and the Equatic process is below every one of those. There isn’t any sort of remediation that needs to happen in the ocean to restore it back to the natural state. 

CW: I’ve heard that a societal conversion to hydrogen fuel appears really difficult and potentially incredibly expensive. How do you recommend we as a society should go about converting to this greener fuel? 

ES: We need to find ways to de-carbonate industries. There are many sectors that will be able to use renewable power to run their industrial process or the transportation process, but there’s going to be a handful that cannot. They need an energy source as dense as hydrogen. The issue now is that hydrogen, and especially green hydrogen, is really expensive to produce. There are two big reasons why it’s expensive: It requires pure water (often from desalination, which requires energy), and the electrolyzers today only make hydrogen (no other product is created). Equatic is different. We use seawater, so we don’t have any costs associated with purifying the water (it’s our pure water source). And we sell carbon credits; the levelized cost of the hydrogen production is offset to a certain degree because of this. Thus, we can produce green hydrogen for a much lower cost than anybody else, and we’re not having to use pure water for it, which means it can be scaled. Essentially, anywhere there’s a coastline, we can put these electrolyzers.

CW: What is your vision for Equatic’s future over the next several months but also into the next several decades? 

ES: We just announced the largest ocean-based carbon removal plant ever to be constructed—a 3,650-ton-per-year facility in Singapore. We are going to, at the end of 2026, do a 100,000-ton plant, and that’ll be the first true commercial plant. From that point on, we’ll have a modular electrolyzer, which is just adding more power to build bigger units. Within 10 years, we would want to have an annual production of at least 50 million tons a year of CO2 removed and a corresponding amount of green hydrogen. For every ton of CO2 removal, 30 kilograms of hydrogen are produced.

CW: Would you mind saying how expensive these machines are to construct and then implement? 

ES: We think about it the other way around. We think about how much it would cost, from a production point of view, to remove CO2 and to produce a kilogram of hydrogen. To get this industry to scale, you need to have a system that will be below $100 per ton to produce carbon in the next 10 years. We will get there a lot faster than that. The planned commercial-scale plant will be below $200 per ton when we launch it, and we’ll probably get below $100 per ton a couple years after. We are much more efficient than other carbon removal systems because we are using the ocean, and we are producing hydrogen that offsets the energy costs.

CW: You have a degree in economics from Melbourne University and an MBA from Stanford. Most of your work has been with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Qantas Airways. In general, your past work is not as closely aligned with climate studies. Was this career switch intentional, and how did you feel about making such a change at this point in your career? 

ES: It was definitely intentional. When I was with the Qantas group, I was launching new airlines. In Japan, I launched the first low-cost airline in 2012 and then scaled that to be the largest low-cost airline to one of the largest aviation markets. I’ve seen companies go from literally zero to multi-billion dollar businesses. At Equatic, after the pilots, we really need to turn into a commercial business. There has been a lot of fraud and poor-quality carbon offsets. In 2018, audits showed me that you could not buy high-quality offsets. I think when you can’t do something and you think you should be able to, you always keep that in the back of your head. When I came to the United States, I was working at BCG, and I kept my eye out for something which was going to solve what I know is a huge need. It was clear that Equatic is an excellent team to work for; it has a big market around it, especially with the hydrogen piece, which I know is a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) need. 

CW: Do you have any words of advice or recommendations for people starting their careers, or even for those considering college internships or majors, who want to help the climate but don’t really know how to start or are worried that the only way to get involved with climate might be through an environmental science degree? 

ES: To be frank, it is one of the hardest things that the industry is facing because it’s a hard science around the soft science. You have hard capital-intensive businesses that would benefit from a team who have spent 40 years in the industry—experience is really key. I think there is a huge role to play on the buyer side: advocating and getting involved with companies who are trying to purchase carbon dioxide removals and purchase hydrogen. Additionally, getting involved in the government relations and lobbying side (moving others across the trench to say, “Yes, this is a big part of the future”) is crucial. I believe there is also probably a role with companies essentially as “utility” workers; whatever is needed, anything from sweeping the decks of a pilot plant to keep it clean because someone is coming down to visit, all the way through to elements of social media. We have had interns work for us that have done that sort of thing, and it has been really helpful, both for us and them, because they can see the company’s trajectory and figure out its technology and customer relations. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.