Environment

Brilliant Planet plans cheap, gigaton-scale carbon capture using algae

Brilliant Planet plans cheap, ...
Brilliant Planet says it can slash the cost of direct air carbon capture while de-acidifying the ocean, using carefully selected local strains of algae cultivated in pools of seawater
Brilliant Planet says it can slash the cost of direct air carbon capture while de-acidifying the ocean, using carefully selected local strains of algae cultivated in pools of seawater
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Brilliant Planet says it can slash the cost of direct air carbon capture while de-acidifying the ocean, using carefully selected local strains of algae cultivated in pools of seawater
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Brilliant Planet says it can slash the cost of direct air carbon capture while de-acidifying the ocean, using carefully selected local strains of algae cultivated in pools of seawater
Brilliant Planet's current facility occupies about 3 hectares in Morocco
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Brilliant Planet's current facility occupies about 3 hectares in Morocco
Natural algal blooms occur relatively often in response to environmental conditions. Brilliant Planet aims to replicate these phenomena in a controlled environment, then harvest and bury the resulting carbon-rich biomass.
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Natural algal blooms occur relatively often in response to environmental conditions. Brilliant Planet aims to replicate these phenomena in a controlled environment, then harvest and bury the resulting carbon-rich biomass.
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Direct air carbon capture is currently far too costly – but this London company says it can do it at enormous scale for a tenth the price, using engineered algal blooms in ponds located near desert coastlines. Oh, and it'll de-acidify the ocean, too.

As humanity fights to keep its only planet from becoming inhospitable, most of the focus will rightly be on decarbonizing everything we practically can. But it won't be enough. Direct air capture will need to be part of the equation, and it'll need to be massively scalable, energy efficient and much, much cheaper than today's technology, so it can become profitable quickly as carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes kick in globally.

London startup Brilliant Planet believes it has a carbon capture and sequestration model that ticks all the boxes, promising scalability up to billions of tons per year, near-negligible energy requirements, and costs around one tenth of current direct air capture. It relies on natural processes, uses low-cost coastal desert land, and has the side benefit of de-acidifying seawater as it goes, so the ocean itself can become a more effective carbon sink.

The idea is to corral and harness the carbon-gobbling power of algae, replicating and maintaining the conditions that cause algal blooms in large, low-density outdoor ponds full of seawater. As Brilliant Planet CEO Adam Taylor told Climate Tech VC, algae is an inherently more efficient biological machine for carbon capture than trees or plants, because its entire surface area is dedicated to photosynthesis, and it doesn't waste resources creating trunks, roots or branches. What's more, it grows and proliferates extremely fast under the right conditions.

Natural algal blooms occur relatively often in response to environmental conditions. Brilliant Planet aims to replicate these phenomena in a controlled environment, then harvest and bury the resulting carbon-rich biomass.
Natural algal blooms occur relatively often in response to environmental conditions. Brilliant Planet aims to replicate these phenomena in a controlled environment, then harvest and bury the resulting carbon-rich biomass.

The company's process works roughly like this: a location is chosen, on flat desert land near a coast, while a team of bio-prospectors starts filtering through samples of thousands of local strains of algae, selecting the ones that best fit the company's criteria. Thus, there are no introduced species, and the algae is already well adapted to the local climate and conditions.

Next, the company sets up a series of pumps, with which to bring seawater into a series of containers and ponds. The intakes are positioned some 2 to 3 km (1.4 to 1.9 miles) from the shore, to grab "upwelling" water – cold, nutrient-rich water from the bottom of the sea that's drawn up to the surface near coastlines by wind blowing over the surface. These seawater pumps account for most of the energy this system requires, and Brilliant Planet says they can easily be powered by on-site solar panels.

The water flows through a series of exponentially-growing enclosures. A single beaker of "inoculant" algae at the first step quickly multiplies under the right conditions, to fill four 12,000-square-meter (130,000-sq-ft) ponds. The company says it's able to create and maintain these optimal conditions, monitoring the setup using its own sensor technology, daily satellite imagery, public weather information and proprietary software based around simulating cellular-level biology and upwelling ocean currents. From there, it can keep the algae blooming using low-cost, abundant additives, and AI-enhanced oversight of the operation will work to improve yield.

Once mature, the algae is harvested out of the largest ponds using fine mesh filters. It's dried in the open desert air, and then this dried, salty, carbon-rich biomass is sent to a shallow desert grave, some 1 to 4 m (3 to 13 ft) under the surface, where it remains effectively sequestered for thousands of years in its arid new home. Meanwhile, the seawater is sent back to the ocean. It has been stripped of nutrients, but also of acidity.

"For every unit of water that passes through the system," Taylor told Climate Tech VC, "we de-acidify the equivalent of 5.1 units back to pre-industrial pH levels."

This is terrific for shelled organisms like corals, clams, mollusks and the like, and the low-carbon, high pH water that's returned to the ocean arrives primed to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere once it's out there, without becoming re-acidified.

Brilliant Planet's current facility occupies about 3 hectares in Morocco
Brilliant Planet's current facility occupies about 3 hectares in Morocco

Brilliant Planet has been able to find suitable local strains of algae everywhere it's looked thus far, and in terms of scalability, Taylor says the company's already identified a "short list" of about half a million square kilometers of suitably flat coastal desert land. That represents the potential for about two gigatons – two billion tons – of carbon capture and sequestration per year.

In other words, it could cancel out more than 5.5 percent of humanity's annual global CO2 emissions, offsetting about half the total emissions of today's road transport sector. It goes without saying, that would be an enormous contribution.

The company has tested its approach successfully in Oman, South Africa and over three years at its current 3-hectare (7.4-ac) facility in Morocco, says Talyor, and on the back of a recent US$12 million Series A funding round led by Union Square Ventures and Toyota Ventures, it's preparing for a 30-hectare (74-ac) demonstration setup, which it plans to build in 2023. From there, it'll build the first commercial-scale operation, at around 1,000 hectares (2,471 ac), which will begin removing some 40,000 tons of CO2 per year.

As far as price, Taylor is coy: "I anticipate a great position for us in the US$50-$100/ton high quality credit market." This would significantly undercut current operations like Switzerland's Climeworks, which, last we checked, was costing between US$600-$1,000 per ton in 2021 and shooting for closer to US$250/ton by 2025.

The only other solution we've seen claiming to target the US$50-$100 range at scale is Israel's High Hopes, using a fascinating high-altitude technique using stratospheric hydrogen balloons. Brilliant Planet will require a lot more land to operate at scale, but it won't be expensive land, its technique looks a lot less complicated than running fleets of thousands of high-altitude balloons, and the de-acidification side effects could give this algal approach some significant extra benefits from an environmental perspective.

Check out a video below, from UK Research and Innovation, a government funding body which has supported Brilliant Planet.

Unlocking the power of algae to capture CO2

Source: Brilliant Planet via Climate Tech VC

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12 comments
12 comments
riczero-b
A fascinating idea: West coast Australia should be interested, the synergy with coral protection could attract tourism funding.
Robert Kowalski
Carbon capture have been around for decades and haven't delivered even small percent of what was promised. Seem to be fig leaf of oil industry allowing them to pretend that they are doing something about problems they cause, but so far it was just kicking ball down the road with no real results. Every time there is hope that this time it will be different just for this hope to fizzle out after few years.
paul314
So what about those nutrients? Would they otherwise be supporting sea life we want to encourage, or "just" uncontrolled algae blooms? Sequestering all those nutrients indefinitely seems questionable, but perhaps they could be mine at some point for a low-enough cost.
Catweazle
Thirty or so years ago my company carried out some promotional work for a company working with chlorella algae that had built a modified diesel engine running off chlorella that was featured on the BBC TV series "Tomorrow's World" and named "Syd the Symbiotic Diesel" as it was capable of growing fresh algae by recycling CO2 in its exhaust gas.
It was intended to continue development using gas turbine engines.
For some strange reason it disappeared altogether...
PeakSpecies
This promotional article provided no critical analysis. There was no estimate of how long it would take to scale up the process to a point where it will withdraw a significant amount of emitted fossil fuel originated CO2 from the atmosphere. It would have no effect upon the increasing levels of other greenhouse gases, such as methane, being emitted into the atmosphere. The buried algae would likely decay resulting in the emission of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. The promoters likely have ignored statements that indicate how little time we have left to turn things around.

UN chief: World has less than 2 years to avoid 'runaway climate change'
https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/406291-un-chief-the-world-has-less-than-2-years-to-avoid-runaway-climate

IPCC report: ‘now or never’ if world is to stave off climate disaster
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/apr/04/ipcc-report-now-or-never-if-world-stave-off-climate-disaster

STUDENT
I like this as far as it goes, but why not feed fish, & then harvest them; it just seems the system is incomplete. Check out “Design by Radical Indigenism” by Julia Watson.
Ornery Johnson
Why not grow the algae off-shore in warm waters contained by a large barrier comprised of the mentioned filter material (to prevent the algae from escaping) supported by floats/barriers? it could be like farming fish, except at immense scale. A floating dock in the middle could pump nutrient rich seawater from the deep. Once the algae grow to a certain density, sections of the membrane barrier containing algae could be slowly dragged to shore by boat and hoisted out of the slowly to separate water from the biomass. The algae could then be dried in the sun and buried.
Karmudjun
Nice synopsis Loz. Somewhat easier to read than Brilliant Planet's release. But there have to be costs associated with actual data collection and I'm not buying the $50-100/ton carbon credit sale price. Great business model, but really? That feasible? Maybe some of the dried out algae could be used for fish food since the nutrient rich ocean waters sustain the biomass the small fish thrive on.
Clearly the ocean "CO2" sink is overwhelmed, and pulling the CO2 out of the air and some seawater is allowing nature to help our self-made issues. But 500,000km2 (squared) is quite a bit of lagoon space for 2 gigatons of Carbon Capture/year. But if their costs (unknown) can be reduced to less than $100.00/ton CO2, then possibly staffing and maintaining the process could be profitable while making a negligible decrease in atmospheric CO2. 5% reduction by this process alone when proven to be cost-effective and scalable could really help - and if in the process PV & even Wind Farming might transform this slow process into an electric endeavor. Not to mention the on-site water management facilities where a little more room could yield water de-desalination capabilities to support the local workforce's needs.
Without cost analysis, social impact on the coastal 'desert areas', environmental impact of burying salty biomass just under the sand dunes of said desert (NaCl rich soil is not great farmland - in the future!). Very interesting business plan and feasible - but no real financial costs listed - just hoped for. Looks promising but also it appears to depend on Carbon equivalents sales.....reminds me of predicting chicken sales prior to the eggs hatching. We'll see what happens.
JACKofALLTRADES47
, i..have READ THAT THEY ARE MAKING BIO DIESEL FROM ALGAE ;SOOO NO NEED TO BURY IT
AND IN THE PROCESS
EXPLORE WAYS TO EXTRACT THE Nutrients ; MINERALS; from the ALGAE
ozboy61
According to tonight's feed stories, the Israelis are making 'salmon' from alge. Maybe someone should put this lot in touch with the 'salmon' from alge mob. Someone could address the odd minor technical issues. Won't be me, but it has to be to good a coincidence to be ignored. Face value, issues aside, if they can pass off some of the crap they put in fast food as nutritious food, this has got to be a goer. Carbon out of the ocean, alge into the tanks, alge into the 'salmon' maker thingo, 'salmon' out of the tanks. The line is there. Every step is covered. What can go wrong? All we need is money.
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