Fertilizing oceans to save the planet

Startups are chasing the lucrative promise of carbon trading markets by seeding the ocean with greenhouse gas-absorbing algae, reports Business 2.0.

By Melanie Haiken, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- What if you could save the planet from global warming -- and reap vast financial rewards -- by dumping iron filings off the side of a ship? That's the tantalizing promise offered by a handful of companies that are trying to turn the cultivation of ocean-based algae into billion-dollar businesses.

The science behind ocean fertilization goes like this: When sprinkled in the form of shavings, iron spurs a bloom of fast-growing plankton that soaks up carbon dioxide as it photosynthesizes. When it decomposes, the algae sinks deep into ocean waters, carrying the carbon with it.

Drop enough iron, in theory, and the ocean becomes a vast greenhouse gas-absorbing machine. "It can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere more efficiently than any other process," says Russ George, CEO of Planktos.

George's startup, based in Foster City, Calif., plans to launch a large-scale ocean fertilization project this month, making it the first of three such companies to get out of the starting gate. One of its rivals, Climos, was co-founded seven months ago by Dan Whaley, founder of GetThere, which was sold for $757 million in 2000.

A second, GreenSea Venture, patented a method to control the iron fertilization process in 2002 but has yet to release details about its plans.

All three startups are chasing the opportunity created by the rapid rise of carbon-trading markets. Although slow to catch on in the United States, carbon trading is up and running in countries such as Japan and Canada that signed the Kyoto protocol, obliging them to reduce greenhouse gas output.

Companies whose CO2 output exceeds their governments' limits can buy credits from companies like Planktos that reduce the stuff. About $30 billion worth of carbon credits were traded in 2006, and the volume may double in 2007. States like California and Texas are set to establish the certification needed to do carbon trading this year.

Planktos isn't wasting any time. It went public in March and currently sells 1-ton carbon credits for $5 each. Before it fully cashes in, however, Planktos will have to prove that it can measure how much carbon is being sequestered.

"The ocean is a moving target," says Penny Chisholm, professor of environmental engineering at MIT. "It's just as likely that currents would carry the plankton back up to the surface, where it would release the CO2 back into the atmosphere."

Planktos has a solution, COO William Coleman explains. Algae has to sink at least 1,000 feet below the surface before long-term carbon storage occurs, so water from these depths will be filtered and sampled for carbon content, using both an array of bottles lowered to programmed depths and a 1,500-foot hose.

From there it's simple math -- every ton of carbon sequestered equals about 3 tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. How long does it stay gone? "At 1,000 feet we're talking decades; at 1,500 feet, centuries; and at 3,000 feet, a millennium," says Planktos spokesman David Kubiak.

Ocean fertilization on too great a scale could cause problems as well. The iron's potential side effects include oxygen depletion, the overproduction of nitrogen, and the production of carbonic acid. But Planktos says its scientists simply plan to bring the ocean's plankton levels back to those seen in 1980 (the year the first satellite photos were taken) and then stop.

By that time, however, Planktos will likely not be the only company invested in the process, so putting the plankton genie back in the bottle may be harder than expected. "Climos is waiting in the wings," Kubiak admits, "and there will be a lot of other competitors following behind." Top of page

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