Brilliant Planet fights climate change by growing algae in the desert

In the Sahara along the coast of Morocco, more than 300 miles from the nearest town, there is now a green pond in the middle of the sand. It’s a test site for Brilliant planeta startup aiming to combat climate change by growing massive amounts of carbon-fixing algae in the world’s deserts.

“Per unit area we can store as much carbon – or more carbon, depending on where we are in seasonality – as a rainforest,” says Raffael Jovine, co-founder and principal scientist at Brilliant Planet. “The difference is that a falling rainforest tree returns 97% of the carbon back into the atmosphere, while we can capture all of it.” Production at the test site varies as the company runs different trials. But when it builds the first commercial-scale facility, covering 1,000 acres, it expects to remove 40,000 tons of CO2 per year, about that equivalent emissions 92,000 barrels of oil to consume. Scaled up to cover available coastal desert land, the system could hypothetically remove 2 gigatonnes of CO2 per year.

[Photo: courtesy Brilliant Planet]

The company pumps seawater into its facility from the nearby coast, taking advantage of the fact that the water is packed with both the nutrients that algae need to grow and CO2; the ocean has absorbed Ten billion tons of CO2 emissions in the last decades. As the water flows through a series of reservoirs and ponds, algae grow and sequester carbon in the startup’s proprietary system. When the algae are ready to be harvested – a process that takes between 18 and 30 days – they are filtered out of the water and returned to the ocean. (The process also makes the water less acidic and aids in dissolving Another problem caused by climate change.) The alga is then dried and buried under the sand, where the carbon it captures can be stored permanently.

It’s an example of something climate science believes is necessary: ​​Tackling climate change involves not only moving away from fossil fuels and eliminating other emissions, but also removing CO2 from the air. The latest IPCC report states that removing carbon – both through technology and natural solutions like planting trees – is essential and must grow massively that the world even has a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

[Photo: courtesy Brilliant Planet]

Other companies that grow algae, including biofuel startups that have failed in the past, have taken a different approach, growing algae in bioreactors that were expensive and complex to run. Jovine likens the old approach to growing in a test tube. “Rather than scale up a test tube, we scale down the ocean,” he says. “What that really means is that we’ve essentially taken natural processes, natural algal blooms, which form the basis of the food chain in the ocean. And we have taken them and brought them ashore in large numbers.”

The ocean has major algal blooms seasonally, but the company has developed a process that allows algae to be grown quickly year-round. The system can capture CO2 at a far lower cost than direct air capture plants, which capture carbon from the air. The algae plant costs less than $50 per tonne of CO2 captured to operate; Direct air capture can cost ten times as much. As with direct air capture plants, the company will sell carbon credits to companies that need to offset their carbon footprint. “The problem with direct air capture is simply that it’s so expensive,” says CEO Adam Taylor. “It takes only an inherent amount of energy to separate CO2 from the atmosphere in such tiny amounts.”

The approach also has benefits for carbon removal in nature — it’s hard to measure exactly how much CO2 a forest stores, or know that the trees won’t be cut down later or lost in a fire. Another startup plans to grow seaweed in the ocean and then dump it to sequester the carbon, but will also face the challenge of showing that the carbon is stored permanently. Brilliant Planet buries the algae near the sand surface; Due to the salty, dry environment, it does not decompose.

[Photo: courtesy Brilliant Planet]

“It’s just a shallow burial, a meter or ten underground,” says Taylor. “So, if anyone ever asked, did you really bury the seaweed? is it still there Has it decomposed? You could say: Well, there are the GPS coordinates of where we buried that day, which we give to your credit. Bring your shovel and you’re welcome to check it out.”

Companies aiming to achieve net-zero emissions or become “carbon negative,” like Microsoft, are looking for high-quality carbon credits to buy—solutions that are durable, scalable, affordable, and proven to deliver new value , rather than doubling – counting something that would have happened anyway. Brilliant Planet is currently considering “pre-selling” its carbon credits to these companies. Full operation will start shortly.

The startup has been running its government-leased test site in Morocco for nearly five years to prove the system works, following previous pilots in South Africa and Oman. After raising $12 million in a Series A funding round, the company will begin construction of a larger demonstration facility in 2023. A commercial plant will be built in 2024.

There’s half a million square kilometers (more than 300,000 square miles) of flat, coastal desert land in the world – from Africa to South America to Australia – that the company says could be ideal for this work. “One of the key benefits of this system is its tremendous scalability, as we’re using otherwise underutilized desert land that has no real alternative farming or agricultural or commercial use,” says Taylor. Brilliant Planet fights climate change by growing algae in the desert


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