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The next wave in carbon offset?

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe entrepreneur Philip Kithil of Atmocean, Inc. believes he’s found a way to put a dent in global warming – and turn the idea into a business venture.

Next week, Kithil and crew will transport a prototype of a deceptively simple device for a test on California’s Morro Bay that he believes can help “re-oxegenate” the world’s oceans.

His “oxygenator,” running on the power of sea waves with no electricity, is intended to attack the warming of the upper ocean waters by “upwelling” cooler water that is nutrient rich from about 200 meters below the surface to stimulate the growth of tiny phytoplankton – an essential part of ocean food chain that generates much of the Earth’s oxygen.

Phytoplankton prefers cooler waters and is already being depleted by warming oceans.

The same device would “downwell” the surface water and its carbon dioxide, generated by the use of fossil fuels among other processes and which helps cause global warming’s “greenhouse effect,” from the surface back into the ocean, “sequestering” the CO2 at some 400 meters down and keeping it out of contact with the atmosphere for some period of time. That’s not a permanent solution, but in some measure could help to extend the time for a definitive reduction in global warming.

“We are estimating that one device could sequester 500 tons of CO2,” said Kithil. That’s tiny compared to the 53 billion tons generated last year.

But Kihil has a plan. He believes the oxygenator can be marketed to huge corporations as an “offset” for their own generation of CO2.

“That’s the business we hope to create,” he said.

Kithil has lived in Santa Fe since 1972. His ventures in the past include developing automotive safety technology, whose intellectual property he sold. Since 2005, he and partners have been working on ocean-related projects, sometimes with the support of players like Sandia National Laboratories.

Other ideas didn’t come to fruition. Developing electrical power from ocean waves turned out not to be feasible in a business sense – too expensive compared to the declining costs of solar and wind power.

A similar result came from a plan to use wave power to send pressurized sea water to shore for desalinization without the use of external energy, which was touted in a Sandia labs article just last year.

“We were fairly far down the commercial road” on that one, said Kithil, but again the final cost of the product, desalinized water, would have been too high for consumers like farmers who use irrigation.

That’s all been part of the “learning curve” toward development of the oxygenator for his Atmocean company, said Kithil.

Philip Kithil, CEO of Atmocean, works on his prototype device for “re-oxygenating” ocean water earlier this week. He plans to test the device off the California coast next week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The device is essentially a cylinder-shaped buoy – the prototype is about eight feet long – with flappers inside. The flappers open as the ocean waves rise and close as the waves fall.

That’s pretty much it. The flapper action brings water up through nylon tubes or pushes it down. A weight at the end of the tubes helps hold them in place below the surface. The long tubes wrap around the buoy until the contraption is dropped into the ocean.

“Simple works,” said Kithil. “Complex is a whole ‘nother story.”

His business plan is to persuade the big corporations on the idea of offsetting their CO2 emissions by paying to put many free-floating oxygenators, which could go for something like $20,000 per unit, out in the open ocean.

The companies would pay with stock, not cash, so as not to damage the bottom line as much. That method would thin out value for stockholders, but stock prices would rebound and increase as the client company markets the fact that it’s on the way to becoming carbon neutral, under Kithil’s theory.

“They’re not going to invest in a coal mine,” he added.

The operating system for his device has been tested, but not on the scale of next week’s tryout in Morro Bay. Water temperature sensors attached to the nylon tubes will be used to help measure water coming up from different depths going up or down during the one-day test.

Sequestring CO2 in the ocean has been discussed for years, and there has been debate and controversy over potential ecological effects.

But Kithil says the controversy has been mostly over capturing CO2 directly from a source – like a factory or fossil-fuel power plant – liquifying it and piping it into the deep ocean. His plan is more in line with naturally occurring upwelling and downwell in the oceans, he said.

The problem with adding carbon is that it can attack the skeletons and shells of sea life, something already happening with global warming. Kithil believe his process may actually help by distributing the carbon into the open ocean away from shallower waters where shelled animals live.

And he said the increase in phytoplankton may be beneficial to the seas’ overall Ph level, a measurement of how acidic or alkaline the water is.

Kithil and engineer Philip Fullam were still putting finishing touches on the oxygenator prototype earlier this week at a warehouse space on Pacheco Street. Kithil plans to start driving the device to California this weekend and test it on the ocean on Tuesday.