21 June 2022 |

Thinking on a ‘planetary’ scale

By Nick Van Osdol

The ocean

What if one company could remove CO2 from the atmosphere, produce hydrogen without emissions, deacidify the ocean, and tackle land remediation? 

Two months ago, I would have marveled at this vision for a Berkshire Hathaway of climate tech. One month ago, Jason Vallis, VP of External Relations at Planetary Technologies, talked me through how it’s feasible. 

Today, we’re taking a deep dive into Planetary Technologies. I’ll refer to the firm as “Planetary” today for a slight shorthand. When I first heard about the business last year, it was known as Planetary Hydrogen. I remember reading about carbon removal as a byproduct on their website back then. Producing hydrogen with a low carbon manufacturing process was the original thesis. 

While producing hydrogen is still an essential element of the Planetary process, their name change signals an expanded ambition that now encompasses a much fuller scope of opportunities across their business. The big question is whether what Planetary is building will translate from the pool to the ocean. Nor will they be able to do it alone – how to measure and verify whether their process is working isn’t something they’ll be able to solve alone.

One giant carbon ‘sink’

We talk about trees and climate change in the same breath frequently, but more credit is due to the ocean. The ocean is one of the biggest sequesters of carbon in the world; it has sequestered ~40% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. And that sequestration can be highly ‘permanent’ too.

How does the ocean sequester carbon? There are several ocean-based carbon CO2 removal pathways. Ocean alkalinity is one of them. 

Imagine a scenario where you start with the atmosphere and ocean in equilibrium. If you add more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, some of it transfers to the ocean over time, seeking to achieve balance again. That leaves excess carbon in the ocean. Ocean alkalinity converts this excess carbon into carbonates and bicarbonates, which often sink deep below the ocean’s surface. Even though these processes take time, the ocean’s scale allows for significant carbon removal and sequestration. 

This carbon sequestration is not without consequence, however. And these consequences accelerate as more and more carbon accumulates in the ocean:

The issue is that this process changes the ocean’s chemistry and becomes more acidic. Ocean acidification reduces the ocean’s buffering capacity, i.e., its ability to remove CO2. Ocean acidification and warming have a devastating impact on marine ecosystems.

Said differently, we’ve already used up much of our ‘goodwill’ with the ocean as a carbon sink. Its ability to continue removing CO2 from the atmosphere wanes the more CO2 it absorbs from the atmosphere. We’re giving it too much to handle. And, as Jason noted, ocean acidification drives environmental destruction. This phenomenon has entered the public consciousness substantially in recent years, whether it’s coral reef bleaching or threats to shellfish populations.

Thinking at a “planetary” scale

We’ve learned two things thus far:

  • Ocean alkalinity is a driver of carbon removal and sequestration
  • Ocean acidification is bad for a variety of reasons

Planetary Technologies focuses on solving both problems. How? By ‘speeding up’ the ocean alkalinity process and making the ocean more basic again. Jason described their work as “condensing geological timescales “to drive carbon removal and deacidify the ocean:

The fundamentals of our process are driven by a goal of restoring previous alkalinity levels in oceans to allow us to convert dissolved CO2 and carbonic acids and sequester it as carbonates and bicarbonates in seawater chemistry. Nature would do this over millennia if left to its own devices. We don’t have that much time. 

How does the process work? Here’s a (highly) simplified overview: 

  1. Adding Alkalinity: To start, add alkalinity to the ocean. That requires manufacturing alkalinity in a form that lends itself to safe ocean addition.
  2. Siting: You then need optimal locations to add the alkalinity to the ocean. Much siting depends on ensuring the process is and remains measurable.
  3. Chemistry: Once added to the ocean, the alkalinity (ideally) accelerates the conversion of dissolved CO2 into carbonates and bicarbonates.

How does alkalinity end up in the ocean in the first place? Over long time scales, the answers are through processes like alkaline rock weathering. When it rains on land, water runoff over alkaline rocks ends up in the ocean, introducing small amounts of alkalinity. 

One unique thing about Planetary Technologies’ process is that they don’t ‘touch’ carbon at any point. The ocean’s chemistry does the carbon removal work for them. They help it do its job more efficiently by introducing more alkalinity, restoring the capacity and potential for the ocean to continue removing CO2.

However, the neat three-step process we outlined above on how to speed these processes up obfuscates many challenges. For one, where do you find or how do you manufacture alkalinity to add to the ocean? Before answering that question, consider this. To remove CO2 from the atmosphere at scale, you’ll need a roughly commensurate amount of alkalinity to drive that removal. Here’s how Jason put it:

If you want to remove billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, you need billions of tons of feedstock. That’s just a chemistry equation.

One great place to get alkalinity is from rocks and metals. But you also need a source of alkalinity that doesn’t require opening new mines and crushing new rocks. Those are highly energy-intensive processes with emissions footprints, which can harm the environment for other reasons. If you trade in carbon removal, it doesn’t make sense if your supply chain is emission-intensive – you want to remove CO2 without generating additional emissions. 

As a solution, Planetary works with existing mine tailings that can offer alkalinity, too. There are billions of tons of rocks in mine tailings globally sitting around idly. They’re already mined, and the surrounding land could often benefit from a clean-up. Sourcing alkalinity from there helps solve the feedstock challenge and can be a bonus for the local environment. It also means Planetary produces metals like nickel and cobalt in the alkalinity manufacturing process, as these also exist in mine tailings. These would be harmful if introduced to the ocean alongside alkalinity but are valuable to battery manufacturers and other electrification technologies.

Still, some of the outputs of the process are less useful. How Planetary thinks about those offers a key window into their ethos and ambitions of being a truly ‘circular’ business: 

Any electrochemical process produces a base – the alkalinity we want – but it produces an acid, too. At scale, you have another problem. Where does all this acid go? There are markets for those acids, but we’ve figured out how to recycle that acid in our process. When you start thinking at a ‘planetary’ scale, you have to consider the impact of every byproduct in the process, whether desirable or not. By doing that, we hone in on desirable byproducts that reduce our carbon removals’ eventual cost.

Here we can start to appreciate just how multi-solve Planetary aims to be. Not only does their process accelerate carbon removal, but it yields valuable byproducts. These drive down the cost of carbon removal. And for the less valuable byproducts, they still think hard about how to valorize them or at least neutralize any net negatives.

Triple threat

I’ve introduced the concept of Planetary as a ‘multi-solve’ business a few times now. Jason put it succinctly in our discussion:

Planetary Technologies is a triple threat solution. It generates hydrogen. It reduces emissions. And it deacidifies the ocean, an environmental co-benefit. This is the type of solution we need. Job one is rapid decarbonization – we know that. But we’re not moving fast enough. Carbon removal will be necessary.

We’ve covered the carbon removal side and the opportunity to upcycle metals from mine tailings. Hydro enters the picture in the alkalinity manufacturing process as well. To distill the alkalinity into a form safe for ocean addition, Planetary uses an electrochemical cell that takes energy as an input to drive the necessary chemical reactions. This cell produces hydrogen in the process, too:

The initial thesis for Planetary Technologies was to sell a specialized negative emissions cell that generates hydrogen. With that approach, we could have accessed high-value carbon credits in the compliance market. But developments in the voluntary carbon market led us to change our approach to focus on technology licensing later.

It’s taken Planetary a lot of work to get the electrochemical cell ‘right.’ In fact, they’re already on their third iteration. For an example of the trials they’ve undergone to get there, they scrapped an earlier version because an industrial waste product input wasn’t available at the scale that a gigaton carbon removal process would require: 

We want to get to a billion tons of removal. In that scenario, we would exhaust the supply of that waste product. So that wasn’t going to work.

Planetary’s hydrogen production levels at present and in the near future will remain relatively small. This means they aren’t selling hydrogen wholesale: 

Hydrogen we produce will initially be used to decarbonize mining operations and our processes. You need a lot of infrastructure, conditioning, and a huge volume to sell it directly to refineries or steel producers. We’re years away from producing enough for those kinds of investments.

Still, for every ton of CO2 removal, Planetary estimates they’ll produce 50-60 kilograms of green hydrogen. At a gigaton level carbon removal scale, that’s a lot of hydrogen.

Perhaps the most essential unlock in Planetary’s multi-solve process is ‘circular,’ de-risked carbon removals. Companies that remove carbon via engineered methods like direct air capture will have a more challenging time decarbonizing their own processes – whether it’s the energy needed to power their machines or the metals that go into them. And companies that only sell carbon removals tie their success heavily to the fortunes of the voluntary carbon market (“VCM”). 

Planetary, meanwhile, will have options to diversify its revenue. If the VCM thrives, it can use that revenue to reduce the cost of its carbon removals. Similarly, the fact that they focus on as circular and sustainable a process as possible – the way Native Americans used every piece of the buffalo they hunted – drives down the cost of producing carbon removals.

Growing pains 

All of the scales discussed in this piece lie in the future. Eighteen months ago, Planetary’s tech was developing in true start-up fashion – in a garage. Jason described the early days when he first joined the team as a bit of a shock:

Eighteen months ago, Brock [Battochio] was trying to calibrate a pH sensor in his garage. It was a very rudimentary setup for testing carbon capture in water. And Mike was programming it remotely from his place. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What the hell did I get myself into.’

The company itself was co-founded by Mike Kelland (CEO) and Brock Battochio, who had shopped around for climate technologies in academia to commercialize. They found what they were looking for with Dr. Greg Rau, who had patented a negative emissions technology for taking CO2 out of the air and storing it within ocean chemistry.

This year, Planetary has expanded its testing and collaboration with other organizations to accelerate their progress. Everything’s still in the lab stage, but they now have a presence at several different universities with various partnerships to work on validating components of the process ranging from ocean chemistry to measurement & verification:

In January 2021, we set up a lab in Dartmouth (Nova Scotia), which allowed us to work very closely with Dalhousie University. This has accelerated a lot on the ocean science front. We also invested in our lab setup to accelerate the electrochemical work and work with local coastal outfall operators. We also work with the University of Miami’s coral lab.

We look at a several things with these partners, e.g., how we measure our carbon removals and understand the safety of our processes.

Dr. Will Burt, Senior Marine Chemist with Planetary Technologies (front), placing sensors in the Aquatron prior to alkalinity addition experiments.

Planetary is currently testing its ocean alkalinity addition processes at the ‘pool’ scale. They’ll be ready for trials on the open ocean later this year if all goes well.

As Jason emphasized, focusing on how to measure the impact of the additional ocean alkalinity is one of the biggest challenges for Planetary. Ensuring sound measurement is critical before attempting to scale the carbon removal processes. Here’s Jason again:

There is no carbon removal without measurement, reporting, and verification (“MRV”). The more quickly we can get a better sense of what’s happening at the ocean’s surface around the world, the more quickly technologies like ours will be accepted and deployed at scale.

MRV won’t be as easy for Planetary as, say, a direct-air-capture technology. Here’s how Jason began to describe what they’re up against:

There are model packages already in industries like wastewater treatment for us to build on. We layered in our carbonate chemistry to predict what will happen if we increase pH, say, up to 8.2. What would the influx of carbon look like, including variables like seasonal fluctuations in tides, ocean upwelling, etc…

That in and of itself sounds challenging. But then you consider what it would take to do measurement out on the open ocean:

We’ll have to go out there with buoys, underwater vehicles, etc.… and take samples and measurements. None of this is immediate. It can take 90 days for the entire reaction to occur, and by that time, it is dispersed over a wide swath of ocean. Some of our studies could take up to a year.

I don’t envy that undertaking. It also illuminates a challenge for the carbon removal space as a whole. MRV companies and technologies are underfunded relative to carbon removal projects and marketplaces. And the path to profitability for companies in the space can be even more opaque than for carbon removal companies; a theoretical ocean MRV company’s fate is just as tied to the VCM as that of carbon removal companies. If the carbon removals don’t work or don’t sell, there won’t be anyone paying for MRV. 

These MRV challenges are among the most significant risks to business. When I asked Jason what the worst thing that could happen across Planetary Technologies’ process is, he pointed to an inability to measure any impact:

We are working with research partners to ensure there will be no  unintended biological consequences in the ocean. Our antacid is safe for addition, and we’re moving incrementally under existing permits.

If we couldn’t measure or confirm what happens, that would be tragic. For instance, what if the alkalinity sinks! We’d have to go back to the drawing board to redesign a process we created at great expense. There’d still be demand for other outputs of our approach, but we couldn’t tell a carbon removal story. We’re thinking about this a lot – how do we design more studies to confirm we’re on the right track. 

It goes without saying, but there’s other material risks to the business. Anything you’re testing in a lab and a pool and want to scale to the ocean could comprehensively not work to put it bluntly once you get into different environments. And proving it out, iterating, and adjusting, could take years. Lest we sugarcoat it, this stuff is really hard!

What’s next

The next step for Planetary Technologies is to move from pool to pilot.

To tackle the challenges we discussed and to scale their carbon removal process, Planetary is in process on a Series A fundraise. From there, they’ll move towards an open ocean pilot. They’re also pre-selling 3,000 tonnes of carbon removals to fund the pilot; buyers can purchase the removals now and will receive the credit for carbon removed in the future.

While still a way out, the potential for Planetary Technologies is massive, especially when we return our attention to the bevy of solutions their process and technology can offer and the benefits it can unlock. 

The biggest takeaway for me in learning about Planetary wasn’t that they’re a frontrunner in ocean-based carbon removal. Even if they are. 

Firstly, Planetary is a sterling example of a business that considers every byproduct and link in its supply chain and how to make it sustainable and circular. Any business, whether climate tech or not, could learn from that.

Secondly, climate change is about much more than carbon removal. Investors, operators, and even carbon removal companies should consider much more than removing carbon. We should be thinking about the sustainability of their supply chains. And about ecosystem restoration and land remediation. And valorizing otherwise wasted byproducts from industrial processes.