Deploying Sensor Nets To Measure Ocean CO2 And pH From The Surface To The Depths


Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, in collaboration with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, are among 11 projects in eight states selected to receive a combined $36 million to accelerate the development of marine carbon dioxide removal (mCDR) capture and storage technologies.  

The funding from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is part of the ARPA-E Sensing Exports of Anthropogenic Carbon Through Ocean Observation (SEA-CO2) program. The Pitt team will receive $2,274,859 to develop buoy-based optical fiber sensors for measuring pH and carbon dioxide in seawater from the ocean’s surface to the seafloor.  

Paul Ohodnicki, RK Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy and associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt, and principal investigator, said “This is a new opportunity for us to apply technology we’ve traditionally developed for industrial and infrastructure applications and apply it to our oceans. We are excited about the opportunity to leverage the advantages of distributed fiber optic sensing for novel marine applications in collaboration with our partners at NETL, Sofar Ocean Technologies, and OFS.”  

According to Ohodnicki, the Pitt research will develop, mature, and scale new chemical sensing fibers for distributed sensing applications, built upon a decade of his prior research and collaborations between NETL and the Swanson School. The project is also embracing open standards, such as Bristlemouth, to enable the technology to scale.

“By integrating with mobile marine sensor systems, we will monitor geochemical processes within the ocean environment to kilometer-range depths to understand for the first time its physical parameters and geochemistry from the surface to the ocean floor,” Ohodnicki explained. “With the increase of carbon dioxide in the earth’s oceans, this is a landmark opportunity to learn more about how the oceans so efficiently capture CO2 and to apply what we learn to quantify the capability of marine processes to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for large scale decarbonization.”  

“Distributed fiber optic multi-parameter sensing will provide a powerful tool to monitor, report, and verify the effectiveness of marine carbon removal,” noted Ruishu Wright, NETL Research Scientist and Technical Portfolio Lead. “Carbon removal aligns with NETL’s goal of decarbonization and meeting the Administration’s goal of net-zero carbon emission by 2050. Under this project, the collaboration between NETL, the University of Pittsburgh and other industry partners will bring the optical fiber sensor technology to a larger scale of application in ocean environment, which is a challenge that we will try to tackle.”  

Co-investigator at the Swanson School is Khurram Naeem, research professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, who explained that modern sensor technology can provide more accurate data by being in the ocean, rather than orbiting in a satellite.  

“The oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface and therefore have a tremendous impact on our climate and life on earth,” Naeem said. “But because of the oceans’ size and depth, today’s satellite technology can only glimpse surface trends and very limited depths. Distributed optical fiber sensors however act like a wired radar net with high spatial resolution, light weight, and low power-requirements to give us a clearer picture inside the seas.”  

Ohodnicki added that this project aligns with the spirit of the University of Pittsburgh Infrastructure Sensing Collaboration established in 2022, as well as the memorandum of understanding between NETL and Pitt signed in early 2023 to explore collaborations in the area of infrastructure sensing. U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, who recently visited Pittsburgh and the Energy Innovation Center where Ohodnicki’s labs are located, noted in a prepared statement that the ARPA-E project is critical to “reaching President Biden’s ambitious decarbonization goals and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.  

“[This] will require a wide range of innovative climate solutions, from common-sense approaches like improving energy efficiency to novel applications like utilizing the ocean’s natural carbon removal abilities to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere,” Granholm said. “With critical funding from DOE, project teams from across the country will develop groundbreaking new technologies to cut emissions that will help combat the climate crisis while reinforcing America’s global leadership in the clean energy industries of the future.” 

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