Developing carbon drawdown via algae

Submitted by martin on 1 December, 2021 - 9:51
Sargassum fluitans

Franziska Elmer is a marine biologist working on a project to boost the growth of algae in the oceans as a carbon draw-down technique. She spoke to Stuart Jordan from Solidarity.


We are working on a research and development project that investigates how the macroalgae Sargassum fluitans and natans can be grown in parts of the ocean that have very little nutrients in the surface water. A few hundred metres below the surface there is very nutrient-rich water that is currently not used by any organisms as there is no light for photosynthesis.

By bringing this water up through artificial upwelling we make the nutrients available to the algae and turn a desert-like part of the ocean into a productive ecosystem that supports many species.

Sargassum grows rather fast. Under ideal conditions the patches double in size in less than two weeks. The algae also float, so no infrastructure is needed to keep them at the surface of the ocean, which gives them an advantage over other algae such as kelp.

Because of these properties, they are ideal for carbon dioxide removal. Long term storage of the carbon could be accomplished by sinking the algae to the deep sea. We will closely investigate the effects that sinking the algae has on the deep sea environment with a pilot project, as we do not want to create a new environmental problem while fixing an existing one.

Our vision is to remove about 1 Gt of CO2 from the atmosphere per year, equivalent to the emissions of Germany in 1990. All pathways to 1.5 and 2 C of the IPCC report rely on several Gt of carbon being sequestered per year by mid-century and this nature-based solution is one of the few that could be scaled up to the level needed.

There are a lot of worries about risks associated with geoengineering in general and ocean upwelling in particular, especially the unknown unknowns. What are the main risks you are worried about? How can they be mitigated?

Ocean upwelling is generally talked about in relation to phytoplankton blooms and many of the risks investigated are specific to that. Unlike with phytoplankton, where most of the biomass will be used by zooplankton and then fish, Sargassum will not be consumed and most of the biomass will end up as carbon storage or products. So, the risks of oxygen depletion will likely be mitigated by using a macroalgae rather than a phytoplankton.

Another risk mentioned is that with colder water upwelling, the ocean will take up more heat and that will affect ocean circulation. While you can grow phytoplankton blooms with cold upwelled water that sinks as soon as it is upwelled, you cannot really grow Sargassum this way. That is why we are working on ways to heat up the upwelled water using warm water that is downwelled at the same time, so that the upwelled water will not be colder than the ambient water.

Another critique is that artificial upwelling requires large structures that can impact marine life or interfere with shipping and fisheries. That is of course true. However, the alternatives are to use carbon dioxide removal methods that put more pressure on coastal waters and lands where conflicts of use are already high.

The farms would take up just a few percent of the entire ocean, an area roughly of the size of Croatia. It will be offshore so the only fisheries it will interfere with are commercial fisheries that are plundering our oceans and leaving a lot of plastic debris in it.

The impact on marine life can be studied. Probably. the pipes will become encrusted with animals and algae and become their own small ecosystem.

Sargassum mats are known as the rainforests of the sea, and like any shading structure on the surface of the ocean they will provide a habitat and hunting ground for a variety of organisms including commercially important fish. It is therefore likely that the structure has a positive impact on marine life as long as it is disposed of correctly at the end of its lifetime.

Currently, a company is working on making bioplastics from Sargassum and we hope that in the future we can construct pipes from that plastic rather than from fossil fuel-based plastics.

One of the major obstacles to scaled up carbon drawdown appears to be how to fund this work. You said there might be some sellable products that could be produced as byproducts of your work, e.g. mussels, but it sounds like the core work of deep sea sequestration is a waste management problem. How do you envisage that work will be paid for?

While most of the biomass of the Sargassum will be used for deep sea sequestration, high value components will be extracted beforehand, and potentially other organism such as mussels will be farmed along side of it. These will make up about half of the income, while the other half will come from the carbon sequestration.

We are applying to get our methodology approved by a carbon credit verification firm so that we can sell carbon credits. Until we are at that stage, we will need capital to do the research and development. For this we are applying for grants from governments and philanthropists, and we are looking for investors who are willing to invest early and take the risks and potential rewards that come with this type of investment.

A huge range of carbon drawdown techniques being developed at this time. Some of this is research is being funded by super-rich individuals, some by private corporations, and some by richer nation states. There are obvious difficulties in organising large scale interventions into the Earth's ecosystems, or even research into these technologies, in ways that are democratic. What are your thoughts about the effect of this democratic deficit on the research agenda? What might be done to win greater democratic control?

It would be great if research agendas were set in a more democratic way than they are done today - not only as regards the carbon removal techniques, but all research.

No matter what the research topic is, richer nations generally have research budgets while poorer nations do not, and super rich individuals can act philanthropic and choose what research to push while poorer individuals cannot. Private corporations generally fund research that is helping them to reach their goals, so some research fields are funded heavily by them and others less.

For example, with Sargassum private corporations are at the forefront of researching products that can be made of these algae, which are beaching in large masses in the wider Caribbean and West Africa.

The democratic deficit leads to a lot of parachute science, where scientists from Europe or North America conduct research in the global South while these nations and the researchers there have almost no access to funding to pursue research interests that stem out of local knowledge and experience.

To win greater democratic control, three things need to be done: the public must be informed about the research options and then the public must be asked about which option they want to pursue, and their answer needs to feed into the decision making of what is being funded.

In the last year, my colleague and I have done a lot of work to help inform the public. We started a podcast about Sargassum where we interview experts on carbon dioxide removal with the algae but also talk about other topics related to the algae. We have given almost 40 outreach talks and reached over 850 people.

Furthermore, a presence on social media also adds transparency and lets people ask question and critic or approve of what a company or research group is doing. More and more research projects also include components where they ask the local community about their opinion. The part that is until now still lacking mostly is the translation of that opinion into what type of research is being funded.

As a company we created a regional sub company for the Caribbean which with local small(er) business owners and local governments to establish processing activities which generate local revenues, exports and provide jobs -directly and indirectly - and can help the ecosystems. Obviously, it is up to the respective governments to set the priorities for their countries, so this is not a neo-colonial approach of us telling them what and how to do it.

I agree, historically research and development that had a high risk of failing was generally financed and championed by government. In 2020 I volunteered for a few months for Fearless Fund. They are one of a bunch of projects on scaling up algae farming, to be competitive to land-based biofuels, which are financed by ARPA-e, a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Energy. They finance these projects with $1-2 million so that some of the R&D hurdles can be overcome before investors are willing to take the risk to invest money. As you can see the government only take on the risky part of finance here with no return for them, and then the rich people who can invest have less risk on their investment.

As for seafields, the mantra is "there is plenty of money available in this world, we just have to make sure some flows towards us". A crowdsourcing specialist in our team is in charge of raising a few million dollars in the next couple years that will pay for the research and development. Most of that money will come from rich individuals or philanthropists.

There is an increasingly gaping gap between climate science and the ability of capitalist firms and governments to act on that science. It seems unlikely that the capitalist class can organise the work necessary to halt climate change or even make adequate preparations for the climate impacts that are already locked in. That poses the question of who will organise the work.

We think the only social force that can possibly do this is the organised workers movement. Although the trade unions and working-class parties are currently very weak, they remain mass organisations of hundreds of millions of wage workers and there are plenty of examples from history where workers have taken over workplaces, industries or even whole national economies and run them for social need.

One example from the UK that we often talk about is the experience of Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s. Faced with job cuts and plant closures, the shop stewards committee at this defence manufacturer put out a call to workers and academics to draft workers' plans. Over 200 plans were submitted, detailing how the machinery and skills of the workforce could be used for socially-useful production, and under conditions of semi workers' control the workers began producing some of these projects.

We think a similar approach is needed now - a collaboration of research scientists, engineers etc. and the trade unions to develop workers' plans for climate mitigation and adaptation. The unions can then lobby government for resources to enact these plans and make the plans central to political challenges e.g. through the Labour Party.

By campaigning around these plans we can hope to revive the trade unions and develop workers' parties capable of challenging capitalist power and popularising the idea of collective ownership of productive wealth and a democratically planned economy. Some of this work has already begun e.g. North Sea oil workers are working with climate activists on just transition plans.

The work could start off quite small but even a small project could grow and become a viable alternative to business as usual as the climate crisis escalates. I imagine among the scientific and engineering communities there is a lot of frustration at the current negative progress on adaptation or mitigation measures. What do you think? Do you think others in the broader climate research world would be interested in working with the unions on this?

Also, we are aware that there is a lot of ignorance about ocean acidification within the environmental movement. What can you tell us about that?

I like your idea of having a big pool of money so that we all can decide on democratically on how it is used. I am in favour of citizen assemblies as they make better decisions and are more diverse than our politicians.

I think overall scientists do not mind working with the labour force, but I think there are prejudices about the other groups on both sides. People in blue collar jobs think scientists are living in a dream world and come up with plans that do not work in reality, and scientists thinking that blue collar people distrust science and spread around misinformation. There is also not much mixing of the two in daily life, people go to different bars or do not often interact during work. That makes it hard to form a natural coallition.

The other problem is that our governments do not control much of the money, it is the corporations and rich individuals. So in order for your plan to work, wealth has to be redistributed by taxing the rich. That entire process will likely take a while..

The reason why my scientific colleagues and I are working with seafields is because the research will get funded faster this way than relying on government grants etc. So unfortunately, we cannot wait with climate research and development until the scientists and the unions have taken over the world; but we can work on both fronts simultaneously, exploit the current system and build a new one.

As for ocean acidification, yes a huge blind spot when people talk about the climate. This can really mess up the entire foodweb in the ocean. I honestly only can talk in detail about how coral reefs are affected, but in the end that is not the really scary part, as the effects on phytoplankton are much more profound for the ocean and humans.

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