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Indian-origin UCLA scientist helping to create next big climate startups

That scientist is Gaurav Sant, and he leads the University of California at Los Angeles’ Institute for Carbon Management (ICM). Under his direction, the lab is working on managing carbon emissions, including those already in the atmosphere.
Last Updated : 21 May 2024, 06:00 IST
Last Updated : 21 May 2024, 06:00 IST

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In the Port of Los Angeles, a set of pumps pushes a steady stream of seawater through what looks like a science fair project on steroids. About 2,000 miles away, in Childersburg, Alabama, an industrial plant is churning out concrete blocks.

These two systems are worlds apart, but they’re united by a common cause: Protecting the climate using futuristic technology. They’re also both run by companies spun out of a lab helmed by a scientist pushing back against university orthodoxy, cranking out climate tech startups instead of articles for academic journals.

That scientist is Gaurav Sant, and he leads the University of California at Los Angeles’ Institute for Carbon Management (ICM). Under his direction, the lab is working on managing carbon emissions, including those already in the atmosphere. Equatic, a startup that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the sea, and CarbonBuilt, which sequesters the planet-warming gas in concrete, are just two examples of Sant’s vision.

While technologies like solar panels and electric vehicles work at scale, that’s not the case for Sant’s work. Technologies to remove carbon from the air and store it in mediums ranging from seawater to concrete are still in their early stages and have drawn criticism that they distract from deploying proven solutions now. But Sant sees these technologies — and other speculative ones he works on — as essential, and to not grow them would be a dangerous misstep.

“Having a single solution is not a climate strategy,” he said. “You don’t know in the end which [technologies] are actually going to work and which ones are really going to be big enough, fast enough, appropriate enough, and so you want to spread your bets.”

Unique for a university organization, ICM was designed to make as many carbon-saving bets as possible. Camly Tran is head of operations at the startup CarbonBuilt, the aforementioned company churning out low-carbon concrete in Alabama. A chemist by training, she found that scientists can get focused on “a very niche research idea that two people are interested in” rather than practical applications.

ICM, in contrast, has moved a steady stream of ideas from lab to pilot since its founding in 2019. It was the first university team to win part of the $20 million Carbon XPRIZE for its work on CarbonBuilt. Another ICM team, which eventually became ocean carbon removal startup Equatic, won first place in the 2021 Liveability Challenge, a global sustainability innovation competition. The institute has incubated six major projects, all which have been spun out into startups, with focuses ranging from decarbonizing concrete using AI to lithium separation and refining.

A third-generation civil engineer, Sant was hired by UCLA in 2010 to build one of its first programs focused on decarbonizing construction materials. But he soon found himself questioning the societal benefits of his work given the worsening climate crisis and its disproportionate burden on developing countries like India, where he grew up.

Sant’s father and grandfather helped build up cities and states in India, meaningfully improving quality of life. Searching for that level of impact led to the creation of ICM, which counts companies such as Boeing Co and Shell Plc and federal agencies like the US Department of Energy as backers of either the institute itself or startups incubated there. At the time, UCLA was already a hub for carbon utilization and management research. But the work was fragmented, with professors working on similar things, but often not in tandem, Tran said, who was ICM’s executive director.

“We wanted to create a central location to house all of these research projects that expand beyond just engineering,” she said. That meant also bringing in government partners and private capital, as well as considering cost-effectiveness, scalability and impact.

ICM isn’t the first academic center to pursue research in this manner. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Greg Nemet, who studies climate policy and tech innovation, said the institute is following the playbook of chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur who developed early vaccines and techniques to make milk safe. “Pasteur’s quadrant” is research that has a strong scientific connection while also considering costs and use.

“It’s a different direction for science and technology than trying to optimize [the] number of patents or trying to get a Nobel Prize,” Nemet said.

That’s why Equatic’s carbon removal system running in the Port of Los Angeles also creates green hydrogen. Selling it as fuel helps the company defray the high cost of removing carbon from the atmosphere, which runs in the hundreds of dollars or more per ton.

Protests and scientific pushback have dogged carbon removal technologies. Some environmental advocates have voiced concern that pulling carbon from the air could be used to perpetuate business as usual and distract from the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. That’s particularly the case for the most energy-intensive forms of carbon removal, like using machines, said Jonathan Foley, the executive director of climate solutions nonprofit Project Drawdown.

“The energy needs are so exorbitant, you’d be better off just using that energy for anything else,” he said. “If you’re using fossil fuels, that’s counterproductive. If you’re using renewables, just use them to get rid of fossil fuels.”

In the case of Equatic, its technology requires 2 megawatt-hours of electricity — enough to power a US home for more than a month — to remove a single metric ton of CO2. (It also creates the equivalent of a megawatt-hour of hydrogen in the process.) The world will likely need to remove billions of tons by mid-century, putting power use concerns front and center. The company plans to use hydrogen it produces to power the process as it scales up, according to Chief Operating Officer Edward Sanders, though the gas isn’t widely used as an energy source today. Sanders said the company would also site plants near available hydro and solar power.

Balancing speeding up technological development while not harming communities and ecosystems is another thorny issue Sant’s work must deal with. Equatic runs seawater through its system and then discharges it back into the ocean. This system has drawn criticism from marine ecologists who don’t think enough research has been done on the potential impact on marine life.

Other oceanographers, though, say those concerns are overblown, while still acknowledging the unknowns.

“The amounts of water that are processed are infinitesimally small compared to ocean volume that I would think there’s no impact whatsoever directly on ocean biology based on [Equatic’s] approach,” said Lennart Bach, an associate professor and marine biogeochemist at the University of Tasmania.

Equatic has commissioned an environmental impact assessment, run by an independent third party, and says it’s following water discharge guidelines of local jurisdictions. The company expects to commission a plant capable of removing 100,000 tons of carbon a year by 2026. Each ton of carbon removed requires processing about 200 cubic meters of water, or about half of a typical US household’s annual consumption. But no one has attempted to manipulate ocean chemistry at such a large scale. That hasn’t deterred Sant.

“I think what’s important is that we are observant, we’re thoughtful, we’re careful and we watch for the effects as we go along,” Sant said.

That approach sounds a lot like “move fast and break things,” an adage that has gotten tech companies in trouble. Sant, though, disagrees with that characterization.

“I don’t think this is ‘move fast and break things,’” he said. “I think this is ‘move fast, keeping all of your information channels open.’”

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Published 21 May 2024, 06:00 IST

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