Capturing Carbon With Giant Algae Ponds in the Middle of the Desert
(Bloomberg) -- In a London laboratory, Raffael Jovine opened a small incubator to check on his seawater creations. Seven flasks of light green liquid sat on a tray beneath a bright light. Inside the lab’s five other incubators, which look like minifridges, there were more flasks kept under different lamps, at different temperatures, with various nutrients piped into the mixture.
It’s all meant to replicate the conditions 2,000 miles away in a Moroccan desert, by the Atlantic coast, where Jovine’s company, Brilliant Planet, is planning to build giant ponds of algae to rid the world of tons of carbon dioxide.
The lab is where the startup tracks how quickly its biological invention can grow in the desert. “We’re algae whisperers,” explained Jovine, a molecular biochemist and Brilliant Planet’s chief scientist. “We need to really know what the algae like. That’s the whole secret.”
A growing list of companies are searching for viable ways to capture carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it for good. There’s a critical need—the International Energy Agency has estimated some 7.6 billion metric tons of emissions must be eliminated to reach 2050 climate goals. And there’s a growing market for the service, particularly as businesses search for alternatives to shoddy carbon offsets. Brilliant Planet believes there are enough companies willing to pay a premium for offsets linked to ambitious carbon removal projects like its algae ponds.
Several of these removal projects have turned to the ocean, where organisms grows very fast and absorb carbon dioxide very efficiently. Seaweed has been used to revive coastal areas and sink carbon down to the the ocean floor. But there are credible concerns about the feasibility and ecological impact of these tactics.
Rather than working the oceans, Brilliant Planet is trying to recreate an ocean phenomenon—algae blooms—on land. Actually, in barren deserts, where there’s little economic or ecological activity to disrupt.
To engineer its blooms in Morocco, the startup takes variants of algae, plucked from the sea nearby, and stores them in small containers at its facility. Then the site pumps in a select amount of nutrient-rich water from deep in the ocean to spur rapid algae growth. If the process works as intended, the algae expands within a month to fill sixteen ponds at the site, each holding over three million gallons of seawater mixture—a giant surface devoted to photosynthesis.
From there, Brilliant Planet harvests the bloom with a filtering system and dries out the carbon-loaded material in the sun. That biomass is then buried a few meters in the ground, where, in theory, it’s stored away for millennia.
Jovine patented the algae growth process more than a decade ago and started the company in 2013. At that time, financial interest hadn’t caught up with the science. Earlier efforts to turn lab-grown algae into profitable biofuels had gone bust.
“If you wanted investors to run away as quickly as possible, all you needed to say was, ‘Algae in the desert in Morocco,’” recalled Jovine.
But rising interest in carbon removal technologies and corporate demand for offsets has changed that. Mona Alsubaei, an investor with Union Square Ventures, which backed Brilliant Planet earlier this year, was drawn to the startup’s method for permanently burying carbon biomass in the desert. She also liked the economics. “Their approach is much cheaper than direct-air capture,” Alsubaei said. Several startups are building large, expensive plants designed to filter carbon out of the air.
Brilliant Planet has raised $26.7 million from Union Square Ventures, Toyota Ventures, and other investors and grants. The startup is set to bring in more money next year to fund expansion from its seven-acre Moroccan facility to an adjacent space 10 times larger.
It has identified roughly 300,000 square miles of space around the globe with the right conditions—flat desert land near windy coastlines—to host its algae pools, which could suck 3 billion metric tons of carbon out a year, according to the company’s calculations.
To date, seaweed harvesting hasn’t had nearly that sort of impact. Recent research in Current Biology found all the aquaculture efforts currently in place “extremely unlikely” to offset ongoing pollution from the agriculture industry. Also, many sequestration projects struggle to bury carbon they extract without using hefty resources, said Halley Froehlich, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who worked on the Current Biology paper. “Ultimately, what we find is it actually creates more emissions, not less,” she said.
Adam Taylor, Brilliant Planet’s chief executive officer, said his company avoids this problem through its methods. It uses the sun to dry its algae before burying it in the shallow ground, instead of relying on industrial dryers or dump trucks. Emissions from the process are “close to negligible,” Taylor added. The company is currently in the process of getting its methods certified by a third party.
Even if it can remove its targeted amount of carbon, a bigger challenge will be finding a steady flow of customers. To start, Brilliant Planet will tap the voluntary carbon market, going after companies willing to shell out around $100 for a ton of removed carbon. Taylor said the company has a few dozen “high priority customers” lined up, although he declined to name them. While some major companies have pledged to pay for “high-quality” offsets, many continue to operate in the existing carbon markets, which have yet to certify methods like seawater capture.
Still, Brilliant Planet is counting on an expanding market. Initially, the company planned to sell its harvested algae as food, such as egg white substitute or vegan caviar, setting up locations in South Africa and Oman to grow algae for this purpose. Taylor and Jovine decided to abandon this effort, and the locations, because of high logistical costs. For now, they’re focused on the ponds in Morocco.
“It’s hard enough getting one site done,” said Jovine. “We’re just still a startup.”
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