revolutionizing climate tech la to alabamas eco innovation voyage 508


Revolutionizing Climate Tech: LA to Alabama's Eco-Innovation Voyage


Benjamin Hughes

May 20, 2024 - 14:19 pm


Pioneering Climate Solutions: From LA Ports to Alabama Concretes

In the bustling Port of Los Angeles, an array of robust pumps works tirelessly, channeling a continuous flow of seawater through an expansive setup reminiscent of an ambitious science fair prototype. About 2,000 miles from this coastal activity, in the quiet town of Childersburg, Alabama, an industrial facility operates at full swing, producing masonry blocks. Despite the geographical and aesthetic divide, these two operations are intertwined by a shared endeavor: the ambitious quest to safeguard our planet's climate employing innovative technologies.

The mastermind behind these ventures is Gaurav Sant, a scientist who heads the University of California at Los Angeles' Institute for Carbon Management (ICM). Sant leads a charge away from traditional academia, where the emphasis is usually on publishing papers. Instead, he focuses on fostering climate tech startups. His institute is at the forefront of pioneering techniques to manage and mitigate carbon emissions, including those already present in the atmosphere.

Two of ICM's standout innovations are led by the start-ups Equatic and CarbonBuilt. Equatic is a venture that effectively extracts carbon dioxide from the air to deposit it into the ocean. Meanwhile, CarbonBuilt specializes in trapping the greenhouse gas within concrete. These initiatives are concrete manifestations of Sant's visionary approach to climate technology.

Revamping Climate Technology

Solar panels and electric vehicles are among the technologies making an impact on a grand scale today, reducing emissions and propelling our society towards a greener future. However, Sant's research, undeterred by the novelty and scale of his projects, pursues alternative approaches to carbon removal. While there is skepticism surrounding these cutting-edge methods, suggesting they may detract attention from immediate, scalable green solutions, Sant counters this view with a strategic outlook. He argues that relying solely on a single approach is not sufficient for an effective climate strategy. With the uncertainty over which technologies will ultimately prevail and adapt swiftly and substantially, he advocates for diversification in our climate action portfolio.

Incubating Green Pioneers

The ICM stands out for its unique model within an academic setting. It is an engine designed to invest in an array of carbon-saving innovations. Camly Tran, who is at the helm of operations at CarbonBuilt, reflects a growing awareness within scientific circles of the need to transition from hyper-focused research to practical applications. Sant's institute has made significant strides since its inception in 2019, launching technologies from the laboratory to real-world pilots and even claiming a share of the prestigious $20 million Carbon XPRIZE.

Another initiative born in ICM's nurturing environment is the ocean carbon removal startup Equatic, which clinched the top spot in the 2021 Liveability Challenge. The institute's fertile ground has seen the rise of six major projects, which originated as in-house research endeavours and later matured into independent startups. These ventures cover a range of goals: using AI to decarbonize concrete and advancing lithium separation and refining processes, among others.

Sant himself, a third-generation civil engineer, joined UCLA in 2010 with the ambition to develop one of the university's inaugural programs aimed at reducing carbon footprints in construction materials. This quest became more urgent as he contemplated the growing climate crisis and its disproportionate effects on developing nations, including India, where he spent his formative years. Drawing inspiration from the impactful legacy of his father and grandfather in India's urban development, Sant conceived ICM. Today, significant entities like Boeing Co. and Shell Plc, alongside federal entities such as the US Department of Energy, support both the institute and the innovative startups it has produced. Tran, who previously was the executive director of ICM, emphasizes the institute's broad mandate that cuts across disciplinary boundaries and infuses governmental and private sector partnerships into its operations, with an unyielding focus on scalability and impact.

Applying Pasteur's Principles to Climate Innovation

ICM is treading a path firmly grounded in what is termed as 'Pasteur's quadrant,' named after the iconic chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, whose works balanced a strong scientific foundation with practical, cost-aware applications. Greg Nemet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in climate policy and technology innovation, acknowledges ICM's emphasis on meaningful, applicable research over chasing accolades or amassing patents. This approach offers a refreshing redirection in the realm of scientific and technological pursuits.

Strategic Business Hybrid

At the heart of Los Angeles' port, Equatic's carbon removal system not only captures carbon but also generates green hydrogen. This byproduct, envisioned as a clean fuel alternative, could offset the high costs associated with extracting atmospheric carbon – costs which currently stand at several hundred dollars per ton. It's a strategic business model that intertwines ecological benefit with financial feasibility.

Environmentalists have raised their voices against carbon removal technologies, fearing their potential to enable the continuous use of fossil fuels and divert attention from imperative shifts to renewable energy sources. Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, highlights the immense energy requirements of carbon capture which, if powered by fossil fuels, would be utterly counterintuitive. Even if renewables are employed, Foley suggests their benefits would be best channeled directly into phasing out traditional fossil fuel reliance.

In the case of Equatic, staggering amounts of energy are necessary to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, yet the process also simultaneously generates significant amounts of green hydrogen. Even though hydrogen isn't prevalent as an energy source presently, there are ambitions to harness it to power these green initiatives. Optimally positioning plants to tap into available hydro and solar power is part of the overall strategy.

Environmental Caution and Ambition

The challenges confronting Sant's groundbreaking works not only relate to technological feasibility or costs but also encompass ecological and societal aspects. For instance, Equatic's operations involve vast volumes of seawater being processed and reintroduced into the marine environment. Skeptics, particularly marine ecologists, voice concerns over the potential disruption to oceanic life, due to the lack of comprehensive research on such interventions. On the flip side, some oceanographers consider these concerns inflated, albeit with an acknowledgment of residual uncertainty.

Equatic has proactively engaged an independent firm to conduct an environmental impact assessment, adhering to local water discharge regulations. Singling out their ambition, the company forecasts the launch of a facility with the capacity to eliminate 100,000 tons of carbon per year by 2026. Achieving this would entail filtering approximately 200 cubic meters of water per ton of carbon - roughly equivalent to half the yearly water use of an average US household. This synthetic manipulation of ocean chemistry at scale is unprecedented yet embodies the innovative spirit that characterizes Sant's mission.

Balancing Speed with Diligence

Sant's philosophy in advancing these technologies deviates from the oft-criticized Silicon Valley maxim of "move fast and break things." While his approach certainly embraces rapid progress, Sant's ethos is grounded in conscientious observation, cautionary progression, and continuous evaluation. It's an ideology that seeks to implement fast-tracked innovations while ensuring a conscientious and responsive attitude towards potential consequences.

Read More:

Discovering more about these transformative environmental technologies and the minds behind them, readers can explore further. For example, NBA legend Rick Fox's next act in the world of green concrete entrepreneurship provides insight into how diverse personalities are investing in sustainable futures. Additionally, details about Equatic's novel carbon removal technique, powered by the perpetual energy of sunlight and seawater, can be explored here.


The initiatives led by Gaurav Sant and the ICM at UCLA are a testament to the potential of combining academic research with entrepreneurial vision. While the road ahead for these technologies is paved with both promise and challenges, the commitment to balance innovation with environmental responsibility sets a precedent for the future of climate technology. As the world grapples with the exigencies of climate change, the work being carried out in the Port of Los Angeles and the industrial heartlands of Alabama gives us a glimpse of a future where ambition meets sustainability, powered by science and perseverance.

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