By Nathalie Voit
The carbon capture industry is having a moment. To meet market demand for clean energy solutions, companies have become increasingly innovative in tackling climate change.
Whereas the focus of climate change has centered traditionally on cutting emissions at the source – the primary culprits include high-polluting industries like oil and meat– the possibility of capturing carbon directly from the atmosphere and safely storing it is a very recent idea. That’s where Running Tide Technologies comes in, the Portland, Maine-based startup prototyping the farming of kelp to fight climate change.
Running Tide’s mission is idealistic. These self-identified ‘students of the sea’ are working to reverse 150 years of collective oil industry damage in 15 years. “The intentional removal of eight hundred gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere will probably be the biggest engineering challenge in human history,” Running Tide Founder Marty Odlin admits. At the heart of the project lies kelp, a variety of large, brown seaweed recognized for its ability to rapidly absorb carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Although high-tech solutions abound in the fight against climate change, Running Tide stands out for its surprisingly low-tech and ingenious approach to carbon removal.
Carbon capture in kelp takes place via photosynthesis, where kelp beds attached to the ocean floor capture carbon dioxide from the air. Meanwhile, the low temperature of the deep ocean limits the decomposition of organisms like kelp back to carbon. Because kelp is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet, it can sequester carbon at very fast rates–making it uniquely suited for large-scale carbon removal projects. Odlin hopes to mimic and accelerate this eons-old natural process by farming massive amounts of floating kelp and essentially burying them in the bottom of the ocean.
The team has already experimented by growing kelp seeds in a hatchery and transferring them into biodegradable buoys in deep water. The kelp then grows inside the free-floating buoy, where the weight of the plant eventually becomes too heavy and the buoy sinks to the ocean bottom. Once the kelp reaches maturity, the biodegradable buoy dissolves into the ocean floor. The remaining kelp then serves as a natural carbon sink, capturing tons of carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis. When the kelp itself dies, the carbon becomes buried in the sediment, where it is locked away carbon for thousands of years.
It turns out that the fossil fuels we burn today all started as ocean algae that sank to the bottom of the sea where chemical processes and water pressure transformed them into crude oil and other hydrocarbons for millennia.
The Running Tide process is cheap, yet highly efficient. The underwater kelp beds capture twenty times more carbon per acre than your traditional forest. There’s no expensive machinery involved, and the effects are permanent and safe. Moreover, the project is scalable, since the ocean covers over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. The low-tech simplicity of the project is precisely what lends the venture its tremendous appeal to investors.
“When we started learning about Running Tide’s approach, I was blown away by the simplicity,” said Stacy Kauk, Director of Sustainability for billion-dollar e-commerce giant Shopify. “They’re not relying on expensive equipment or energy-intensive processes,” she noted. “It’s very simple, and the economies of scale associated with that make Running Tide’s solution have huge potential.”
Although the project has already attracted significant outside investment from venture capital funds and big-name Silicon Valley investors, the e-commerce platform would be the first major customer to buy carbon-offset credits from the company. The company is willing to pay a premium for the credits as part of its corporate commitment to decarbonize.
So what exactly are carbon credits? According to VOX, carbon removal credits are a type of “negative emission,” used to offset the carbon that an industry is emitting to operate its business. When a company buys a carbon credit from Running Tide, Running Tide is essentially selling them a “carbon removal service.” The ultimate goal of the Running Tide team is to foster a zero-carbon future.
“Carbon Dioxide Removal alone is going to require an industry at least the size of the current oil and gas industry, but operating in reverse,” said Brad Page, head of the global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute during a forum hosted by the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy,
By offering an affordable alternative to carbon removal, Running Tide has made it easier for businesses and governments to immediately minimize their carbon footprint. The nature-based solution of farming kelp is our best hope yet of ‘running the oil industry in reverse.’
Nathalie Voit is a freelance content creator and a graduate of the University of Florida. She is an alumni of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.