Published: Nov. 14, 2023 By

While the closest ocean — the Pacific — may be nearly 900 miles from campus, CU Boulder is advancing marine carbon dioxide removal (mCDR) techniques to cut harmful greenhouse gasses by providing new methods for monitoring verification and reporting.

Juliet Gopinath, the Alfred T. and Betty E. Look Endowed Professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, is spearheading this major endeavor to combat climate change as part of a federal effort

She is leading the three-year, $5.9 million project called “SLEUTH: Spectroscopy of Oceanic Liquid Environments Using Towed Optical Sensor Heads” through the U.S. Department of Energy’s recent announcement for 11 projects in supporting novel efforts to measure, report and validate mCDR and identify cost-effective and energy efficient carbon removal solutions. 

“If we want to limit the amount that the planet is warming, we have to be very aggressive about monitoring what is in the ocean and looking at mCDR,” said Gopinath. 

She pointed to the recent impacts of climate change in Colorado as personal motivation to work on this project. 

“Many of us have seen the effects of climate change in the Marshall Fire and more extremes here in the West,” she said. “This project’s mission is ultimately trying to slow climate change.” 

The SLEUTH team is developing a system of optical underwater sensors utilizing broadband lasers and Raman spectroscopy to sense and measure dissolved carbon compounds. These sensor heads will be towed on a cable containing optical fibers attached to a Wave Glider, an autonomous boat that runs by harvesting wave and solar energy. 

Collaboration from Sea to Shining Sea 

Gopinath is collaborating with Greg Rieker, an associate professor in the Paul M. Rady Mechanical Engineering Department. 

“This project brings us one step closer to having sharks with lasers on their head,” said Rieker. “But in all honesty, monitoring dissolved carbon is an incredibly important enabler for carbon markets. It’s a complex problem,” said Rieker, “and Juliet brought together a diverse team to tackle it.” 

The team brings a variety of multidisciplinary expertise together from five subcontractors — including businesses, laboratories and universities — that will play a critical role in creating these new underwater sensors aimed at quantifying the effectiveness of mCDR techniques.

Gopinath’s fascination with the ocean will come in handy quite soon, and she will be joined by researchers from both U.S. coasts. 

“I happen to love the ocean after living in Boston for 20 years,” she said. “The stars aligned to put together this incredible team.” 

SLEUTH is collaborating with Kristen Davis, an oceanographer from the University of California Irvine, and Ryan Smith, an underwater roboticist from Florida International University, whose oceanographic experience will be pivotal for this marine endeavor. 

For phase one of the project, they plan on conducting tests to detect carbon using the optical sensors in Biscayne Bay near Miami, Fla. This will culminate in a field experience in open deep waters in Hawaii, where Liquid Robotics is located.

Other SLEUTH partners include: Liquid Robotics, a marine robotics company that manufactures the Wave Glider uncrewed surface vehicle, tasked with transporting these sensor technologies; Cambridge Consultants, a global product development and technology consultancy, will create the self-cleaning fluidics sampling cell capable of withstanding ocean pressures at depth; and OFS, a global provider of optical fibers, which will create the fibers to be towed underwater. 

Making a Difference 

mCDR techniques take advantage of the ocean’s natural carbon capture and storage processes. They have the potential to remove hundreds of millions of tons of harmful carbon dioxide emissions per year, according to the DOE. 

The mCDR takes place across large surfaces or volumes of the ocean over comparatively long periods of time, and this federal effort is capable of scaling cost-effective techniques in measuring mCDR toward meeting clean energy and climate goals. 

If measuring carbon compounds is successful underwater, demonstrating these technologies can allow researchers and federal agencies to evaluate strengths of these mCDR techniques. 

“I am really interested in being able to make a difference in people’s lives, and this technology could do that,” said Gopinath.

Selection for award negotiations is not a commitment by DOE to issue an award or provide funding. Before funding is issued, DOE and the applicants will undergo a negotiation process, and DOE may cancel negotiations and rescind the selection for any reason during that time.