In this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan is joined by Mike Kelland, CEO of Planetary. The company has an award-winning solution to implement Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement (OAE) for removing one billion tonnes of atmospheric CO2 by 2045. Join us as we delve into enhancing ocean alkalinity, the potential benefits of reducing ocean acidity, and the challenges faced in addressing climate change. This engaging conversation offers valuable insights into the urgent need to protect marine ecosystems and the potential of clean technologies in combating climate change.
Mike describes himself as a 20-year veteran of entrepreneurship in the sustainability space, and he is a serial founder with successful exits behind him. Mike is a qualified electrical engineer on a mission to remove one gigaton (a billion tonnes) of atmospheric CO2 annually by 2045!
To learn more about the scalable solution for decarbonizing atmospheric CO2 with Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement, check the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.
- 11:39 – 16:19 – What is OAE, and how does it impact climate change? – The oceans are a large part of the earth’s carbon cycle as they cover 71% of its surface and act as a buffer for climate change. The oceans absorb 90% of the heat generated by climate change and maintain a balance with the atmosphere. When we emit CO2 into the atmosphere, about 25% of it ends up in the oceans, making the water more acidic and reducing the oxygen content in the water, adversely affecting marine biodiversity. The reversal of this process is OAE which restores the alkalinity level of the oceans.
- 16:49 – 22:56 – An end-to-end look at implementing OAE – The starting point is an imbalance of CO2 in the atmosphere and the oceans, which makes the ocean waters acidic. Just like we take antacids when we have excess acidity in our bodies, OAE is the antacid for the oceans. When we neutralize the acidic water with a base, we get a salt, in this case carbonate and bicarbonate salts that stay in the water for up to 100,000 years. These salts act as a permanent sequestrant for the CO2 absorbed by the oceans and help in maintaining the balance and flux between the atmosphere and the oceans. The neutralizing base is magnesium hydroxide which is a waste stream from the mining industry.
- 28:01 – 29:53 – The challenges of scaling ocean alkalinity enhancement – Scaling the solution remains a challenge and global scales will perhaps never be achieved. The volume of water in the oceans dilutes the neutralizing base, thereby mitigating its effectiveness. It would require 37 billion tonnes of the neutralizing base to sequester the atmospheric CO2 at a global level. However, scaling the solution for local impact is possible, and even that would require 100,000 tonnes of the base to have a measurable impact. We are still some years away from that scale.
- 30:32 – 37:43 – Why MRV is vital for carbon dioxide removal companies – MRV stands for measurement, reporting, and verification and it is a critical element of techno-economic analysis in carbon dioxide removal models. MRV helps CDR companies understand how their processes will work, whether the processes achieve the desired goals, and the go-to-market strategy for these solutions. Planetary is a pioneer in this area and have published the results of a study they conducted as a beacon to help other companies working in the carbon dioxide removal space.
Dylan: Hardware to Save a Planet explores the technical innovations that are giving us hope in the fight against climate change. Each episode focuses on a specific climate challenge and explores an emerging physical technology solution with the person bringing it into reality. I’m your host, Dylan Garrett. Hello and welcome to Hardware to Save a Planet. I’m here with Mike Kelland, CEO of Planetary. We’ll be talking about ocean alkalinity enhancement, or OAE, as a way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Like so many things in nature, the ocean is both a victim of climate change and potentially an incredibly helpful tool in fighting it. Rising temperatures and acidity in the ocean are killing off biodiversity, but the ocean also has a natural ability to remove and store carbon. Given that we need to be doing that at a scale of billions of tons annually by 2050, harnessing the ocean’s power and scale seems to be a really promising approach and I’m excited to learn more about it from Mike. To introduce Mike quickly, he is an engineer and a 20-year veteran of entrepreneurship. He has built and led software companies prior to founding Planetary in 2019. And in the short time since, he’s already making a big impact. I say that because as I meet more and more people in the carbon removal industry, I regularly hear people say how impressed they are both by what Mike and Planetary are doing as a company, but also by what Mike is doing to support and progress the industry as a whole. So Mike, I’m really excited to have this chat. Thanks a lot for joining us.
Mike: Well, thanks for having me on Dylan. This is going to be great and thanks for the intro.
Dylan: So looking at your background, it seems like you’ve been pretty deep in kind of software development. I actually looked up some of the patents you’re named on and they’re things that I know nothing about, cloud-based computing and error detection and streaming media and stuff like this sound very technical and impressive, but at least from my perspective, seem pretty far removed from the world of ocean chemistry and carbon removal.
Mike: Yeah, it sure is.
Dylan: I’d love to hear a bit about that journey from there to where you are now at Planetary.
Mike: Yeah, so I’ve been doing entrepreneurship in various types. I like to say that I hope I’m getting better at it over time. Some of the early ideas were a little silly and that’s probably a conversation that’s a little bit more casual than a podcast, but the more recent ones have been quite successful. And with that, I’ve always sort of considered entrepreneurship to be, and I think everybody gets into it for different reasons. My reason for getting into entrepreneurship has always been to learn as quickly as I can. I wanted to be able to jump in and learn and do things that I think in a traditional environment, nobody would let me do. Like, hey, like just go learn how to do international logistics. Like as an engineer, that’s not something that typically you’re tasked with. But when you’re starting a startup and you’re two people, you have to learn everything. And it’s just fascinating to me to get that accelerated pace of learning. So when I sold the last company and I was mentoring one of our other co-founders, Brock, as he was a student, I was the alumni, and we were going through it and he was super passionate about climate. I’ve always been super passionate about the environment. I was like, well, how do I learn more about this climate change thing and what can be done and where we can go with it and how we can be really productive and build a sort of a hopeful future, I think around climate, which I didn’t see out there very much. So I started reading books and things like that, but I know myself, I don’t learn unless I’m in it. Like if I have a platform that I can go and talk to people on that platform and say, hey, I’m trying to do a thing and like teach me or tell me where I’m wrong as I go through this, that’s how I learn really fast. And that’s what I really enjoy doing. And so it made logical sense to go out and say, hey, let’s go start a climate company. Let’s see if we can start a climate company. What are the spaces? How do you get involved? And I think that’s hard to do. Entrepreneurship is one of those things that I think is a really powerful force in the world, but you have to find the right places where you can have leverage. And when you’re entering a new field, those things are really not evident, but you don’t get down into the real depths of where are the real gaps here in this problem space or anything like that until you really dig in. And so it took us a year of calling researchers around the world, assembling people together, having conversations to find something that hit our criteria. And our criteria were pretty simple. We wanted something that had very big markets so that it had the ability to scale to climate-relevant scales that were directly applicable to climate. We weren’t looking for something that was peripherally involved in climate. We wanted to be directly applicable. And then we were looking for something that was underappreciated. And we found in Dr. Greg Rau’s research, who’s our other co-founder, exactly that. We found this technology that fit all of those gaps just perfectly where we felt like bringing attention to the power of the oceans in carbon removal was a super high leverage place to start. In 2019, when we started this company, literally nobody was talking about ocean carbon removal, like nobody. And so we found that, like this area where we could have a huge amount of leverage. And I think we have had a huge amount of leverage in really putting it on the global stage. Just last week here, I’m sitting in Halifax right now. Just last week, there was an announcement of a $400 million grant focused on ocean carbon climate access with a huge component of that going towards ocean alkalinity enhancement and our type of technology. And we brought this technology to Halifax, to Dalhousie University that got this grant three years ago. And sort of started that ball rolling. And now it’s really kind of, I like to say we’ve dropped a little pebble in the ocean and it’s now turned into a massive tidal wave of this stuff. And it’s amazing. This is what we were trying to do. So I think we’re on track from that perspective.
Dylan: That’s awesome. I love entrepreneurship as a mechanism for learning. And it’s interesting to think just three or four years ago, carbon removal, like you said, wasn’t a big part of the conversation. When was that first IPCC report that made it really clear? Was it around that time that made it?
Mike: Yeah, that was one of our triggers for sure. So it was 2018 that that came out. I think it was the last cycle anyway, I think five maybe. And so that report was definitely part of the impetus for us to get involved in climate generally. But then meeting Greg is where we really got introduced to CDR and to OAE in particular within that CDR framework.
Dylan: His work was specifically about OAE.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, Greg’s a, I call him a—I think it’s very safe to say that he’s a world leader in OAE, one of sort of the godfathers, if you will, of the field. Somebody who’s heavily cited in just about all the research sits and chairs or leads on a lot of the reports that come out in this space. He’s been working out for decades. It’s sort of one of the things that I love about this is I have a deep affection for Greg. We get along really well and we hit it off from our very first meeting back in 2019. And part of the mission for me, I mean, the mission for me is all about climate, but it’s a nice side effect to be able to really take Greg’s research and bring it to the world. And that’s a really great thing.
Dylan: I want to talk about OAE and why and kind of the effects climate change is having on the ocean. I assume, tell me this is wrong, if Greg has been working on this for decades, has it always been a carbon removal motivation or is it about restoring ocean health? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mike: Yeah. So Greg’s particular journey is a little bit, I would say, unique. He uniquely got into this and his journey was working with freshwater ecosystems and looking at carbon isotopes and examining food webs through that. And then when benthic vents were discovered at the bottom of the ocean, these very hot vents, very deep underwater with all this life in an area that really shouldn’t have any life around it, that food web sort of understanding that he had and that expertise he had was really valuable. It was sort of like, where’s the food coming from for all these organisms, all this life? And so he got involved in that and that pulled him into studying sort of the marine carbon cycle. I think that one of the things that we see in this space that’s really interesting and of the nice things about the OAE space is that a lot of the research, and this isn’t so much Greg’s path, but a lot of people have been working on studying ocean acidification. So sort of OA, they call it. And then there’s OAE, which is ocean alkalinity enhancement, which is sort of the opposite of OA. But essentially there’s this big community of people working on ocean acidification and looking at the research and all these kinds of things. And so there’s this massive base of scientists and knowledge and work that can be applied very easily to OAE. It’s kind of like, OK, well, you’ve been studying the problem of ocean acidification for your career. You have all this infrastructure to study carbon in the ocean and acidity and pH and all this stuff. How much work is it really to shift that to say, now that we’ve studied the effects of it and the dangers of it and the growth of it and all these aspects of ocean acidification, let’s go study what happens if we try to reverse it and actually do something about it. And that’s actually really attractive to a lot of people in that field who are going, I’ve sounded the alarm about ocean acidification. I’ve sort of done all this research and now I get to go and actually do something about it. Like, that’s so cool. Like, I can actually start to be part of the solution. And that’s a really hopeful and exciting thing for scientists in this space to get involved in the OAE side. So we’re seeing that sort of transition right now where little by little people are saying, hey, maybe I’ll transition my work over to from the observation side to the intervention side, if you will.
Dylan: And just quickly for people, and this includes myself, can you say a little bit about what’s happening and why it’s a problem for the ocean?
Mike: Yeah, so the oceans are a huge part of the Earth’s carbon cycle and they’re 71% of the Earth’s surface is ocean and it takes the hit from climate and really buffers the rest of us from all those impacts of climate change. If we didn’t have the ocean interacting with the Earth cycle the way it is now, the climate change problem would be exponentially worse. And so these things are all inextricably linked together. There’s a number of different things that the ocean does for us in climate change, and that buffers that heat change and that climate change around the world. That has massive negative effects on the ocean. And when we talk about ocean impacts of climate change, the number one impact is heat. We talk about marine heat waves and coral bleaching events and all these kinds of things. The second one is through that heat, you lose the carrying capacity of oxygen in the ocean as well, so you lose sort of the ability for the water to hold oxygen, which has negative effects as well on different parts of the world and the oceans. And then the final one is acidification. And acidification is a pretty simple thing to think about. How it works is that the ocean and the atmosphere are always in balance with each other. And so when we put more CO2 in the air, some of it will essentially dissolve into the ocean, about 25% of it will dissolve into the ocean and balance out the concentration in the surface ocean of CO2 versus the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. So that’s what’s called flux. And that’ll eventually all balance out in terms of those concentrations of CO2. But as we keep adding more CO2 to the air, more of it’s going to keep dissolving into the ocean. When CO2 dissolves into the ocean, it forms an acid. And that is what causes this acidification. So our oceans right now are about 30% more acidic than they were before the industrial revolution. This has a bunch of different effects. In some cases, it affects coral growth rates. It affects the resiliency of corals to heat events and things like this. But it’s kind of like one of the places where you really see it is in shellfish aquaculture. So in shellfish aquaculture and a lot of places, the ocean is so acidic that they can’t really grow juvenile oysters or mussels at any reasonable rate without adding alkalinity into the seawater to give them access to those minerals and to reduce the acidification. Conceptually, you can kind of think of it like corrosion. Acid corrodes stuff. And so the acidification essentially acidifies or corrodes those seashells and all the hard structures in the ocean. And the sort of reversal of that, which is ocean alkalinity enhancement, is a really cool effect because when we do it, we actually see these effects reversing. So that’s kind of how that all works.
Dylan: OK, gotcha. So the ocean acidity is increasing because the CO2 level is increasing in the atmosphere. That’s right. So one way to combat that would be to pull a bunch of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Because these things are in balance, the ocean acidity will decrease, which will then support more biodiversity in the ocean and all that. Can you give a kind of a description of what your process of enhancing the alkalinity of the ocean is kind of from beginning to end?
Mike: Essentially, we’re using that process. So the way I like to describe it is you’ve got your CO2 imbalance between the ocean and the atmosphere. So those are always going to reach equilibrium between the two of them. If we add an antacid, we’ve got essentially that CO2 giving the ocean heartburn, right? We add an antacid, just like you would take Rolaids or whatever your favorite antacid is, and that is going to absorb or neutralize some of that acidity, right? What happens in the ocean when you take that antacid is that you form a salt. So when you neutralize an acid with a base, you form a salt. And the salt that you form is that carbonate and bicarbonate salt in seawater. So the nice thing about carbonates and bicarbonates in seawater is that they last for about 100,000 years in seawater. So they live in the chemistry of seawater for 100,000 years. And because now you’ve reduced the amount of CO2 in the seawater, you’ve reduced that concentration, more CO2 is going to come out of the air to replace it. That flux is going to happen again. It’s sort of like we add the antacid and we’re pulling CO2 into the bicarbonate pool in permanent sequestration within the ocean’s chemistry. In order to do it, you need a lot of antacid. And you need a lot of that antacid produced at a very low-carbon footprint. What we’ve done is we’ve really focused ourselves on using a very pure, very well understood antacid. We use magnesium hydroxide, which is our core sort of product that we use. It’s very well understood as to how it reacts with the ocean and how much of it is safe and all of that kind of stuff. And so we specifically chose this very pure output product for that reason. We’re keeping ourselves open to using a portfolio of different ways of doing this. And as people come online with new technologies to produce that antacid, we’re actively working with them where it’s appropriate for the region, where it provides the best cost and all of those kinds of things. Our process is that we take a big pile of rocks and it’s basically like a ground up pile of rock from a mining op, mine tailings is what they’re called. We digest that pile of rocks with acid. So we basically spray an acid on them and we pull out the resulting stream of liquid. That liquid then contains all of the metals out of the rock and the pile is reduced to essentially sand. We take our stream of metals and we purify that out. Then we take the resulting stream, which just has magnesium left in it. That’s kind of the last metal that’s left in it. And it goes into our electrolyzer and our electrolyzer then splits that to produce sulfuric acid and bring that acid back to digesting the rock pile. And it gives us this very low carbon footprint, magnesium hydroxide that can be used in the ocean. So that gets trucked off to the ocean and gets used in the process. And that’s our antacid. That’s our alkalinity. And the other byproduct of all of this is hydrogen. And so the hydrogen is also a useful product, a valuable product for either reducing our own energy usage, using it as a clean fuel on the mine site. A lot of benefits throughout the process, a lot of environmental co-benefits, a lot of byproduct benefits in terms of reducing the cost of this, and ultimately a very pure high quality antacid that fits within existing permits. Once we get that to the coast, what we do is we use existing infrastructure to put that into the water. And so we use wastewater facilities and power plant cooling loops where they have a good understanding of how to use these products. And they also have a regulatory framework and a regulator that understands how those products are safe in the marine environment and how they’re safe in the context of that industrial process.
Dylan: And you use those facilities as your means of depositing the magnesium, your antacid into the ocean.
Mike: That’s correct, yeah.
Dylan: So it sounds like the input to your process is actually a waste stream from the mining industry. And it sounds like it’s not just giving you the magnesium you need, but you’re actually kind of squeezing remaining value out of those mine tailings in the form of metals that can be used to supply the kind of renewable energy, or the electricity transition, building batteries and things like that.
Dylan: Yep. Yeah. Which is super cool. and you’re generating hydrogen. Is it enough hydrogen to power a significant portion of your own operations to kind of further reduce your carbon footprint?
Mike: We’re using, we’re focused on areas that have high quantities of renewable energy at the moment. So using hydrogen wouldn’t reduce our carbon footprint versus the electricity really, but, and the efficiency of hydrogen production in a salt splitting cell like this, which is fundamentally what our electrochemical cell is, it’s not super high. You get about 20% of the energy back. If you want to use the hydrogen for electricity, you have an efficiency loss between the electricity and the hydrogen production, but then you have a second one when you turn it back into electricity, right? And so there’s a number of losses in that system. In my opinion, the highest value use for hydrogen is to deploy it in hard to decarbonize places. So steel manufacturers are really good, biofuel production is another one, and transportation is another one, heavy transportation. Those are really great places to put hydrogen. And our site, our initial site, is very close. It’s about a hundred kilometers away from a steel mill. Obviously we’ve got mining vehicles that can be powered and stuff like that. So there’s a lot of potential higher value uses than electricity. This does use a fair amount of power though, so using it for electricity to either balance intermittency for renewables or to just simply decrease your energy availability problem with a process like this. If you try to really scale it massively it can be helpful with the hydrogen.
Dylan: Yeah, got it. This is not a nickel and cobalt mining endeavor or a hydrogen production endeavor. This is primarily about removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Mike: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. I mean, the nickel and cobalt piece of it, is these ores that we’re using, these sort of residual tailings piles that we’re using were originally actually from asbestos mining. And so one of the neat things is we destroy all the asbestos fiber in the process. So the remediation benefit, but all of these benefits kind of stack. So it’s one of these things where if you were to go into this and say, well, I’m just going to pull out the nickel and cobalt from this thing, the percentage of nickel and cobalt in the tailings pile means that you wouldn’t be able to do that cost-effectively, right? Like if you just did that one thing, you wouldn’t be able to do it cost-effectively. If you were to just produce hydrogen through this kind of process, well, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense because like you’d probably go with a cell that doesn’t produce magnesium hydroxide at the same time because that would be much more efficient, but that piece of it probably wouldn’t be very cost-effective without the rest of it. But when you bundle all that together and you say, well, I have to purify this stuff anyway, I may as well pull out the nickel and cobalt and I have to produce magnesium hydroxide, I’m going to get hydrogen, I may as well capture it. And in the process, we’re going to eliminate the tailings and all that kind of stuff forms a really, really great business case.
Dylan: Yeah, so thinking about it as a carbon dioxide removal business, so just to hit the business model quickly, you are selling carbon removal credits, is that kind of the main revenue stream?
Mike: That’s our focal point for the business. We’ve taken a very intentional approach. So it’s primarily a carbon removal focus and technology with different ways to reduce the cost of carbon removal with these by-products and everything like that.
Dylan: What about reducing the acidity of the ocean? Are you doing that to a significant enough level to have an impact on marine life in order to do the carbon removal or what does that look like?
Mike: That’s going to be a question of scale for sure. The addition of these hydroxides into seawater in the local area hasn’t yet reacted with CO2 and all that kind of stuff is going to provide an acidification benefit. The kind of challenge with the ocean is that the ocean is absolutely massive. So if you’re talking globally, there is absolutely no way that this kind of process, even at a scale where we completely solve the climate crisis with it, is going to really heavily affect ocean acidification. It’s just too big of a problem and the amount of antacid you would need is massive. The scale of the ocean is incredible. And so from a global perspective, you’re not going to get there. But from a local perspective, there is the possibility of increasing scales and we’re nowhere near these scales yet, right? Like we’re talking into the hundreds of thousands of tons in very small areas, which is going to be many, many years in the future before we get to that point. Those effects will be measurable in local areas and you will be able to see a reduction in the acidity of the ocean, which will be quite interesting. And it’ll only be in those local areas. And so those are sort of local benefits that could be evident from this kind of process.
Dylan: Let’s talk about MRV. MRV, measurement, reporting, and verification is really important for CDR companies to kind of measure both the safety and efficacy of what they’re doing and to really prove that they’re removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as their process promises to do. Can you talk a little bit about why that’s important and what’s involved in doing that in your process?
Mike: MRV is absolutely critical. And MRV is a component when you’re building out these systems and these hardware and all these kinds of things, MRV is a really important component of your techno-economic analysis that you’re doing as a sort of technology developer in this space. So without that MRV, you really don’t have a good understanding of how your product is going to be generated. Our approach is that we need to have that MRV in place from the very start. We need it now because we really need to be able to understand what it is that our process is going to do and how it’s going to develop and how it’s going to come to market and all those kinds of things. And so we pioneered an MRV for ocean alkalinity enhancement and we published that online. We actually, you can get it from our website and the MRV that we put together is set up to be very conservative. And so we have this take, which is that as the MRV technology and understanding and the science continues to progress and improve, we’ve set up our protocol so that it issues more credits rather than less, because you never want to be in a situation where you say, I overestimated how many credits this activity would have generated and therefore you have to draw them back. You want instead to hold back credits and then be able to issue more in the future. And that’s the kind of compromise that I think we need to have within this space that allows us to make progress on the space and on the development of things like field trials and technologies and all these things as we also progress the science on the MRV side. MRV in ocean alkalinity enhancement is a challenging thing to do. And the reason that it’s challenging is that the oceans are really, really, really big and really, really, really good at diluting things. And so your ability to directly measure carbon uptake in the ocean is super challenging, especially at the small scales that field trials and research is going to be for the next, probably this decade essentially, right? I think that OAE will be able to get to very high scales globally, but each individual project is going to be quite small and in a field trials kind of state throughout that growth. Those field trials essentially will be almost undetectable from all of our instruments. And when you look at OAE, there’s really three steps within your OAE process, which you have to measure in order to get an accurate measurement of the carbon that’s taken up. So step one is essentially a dissolution or a distribution step of that alkalinity into seawater. So you have to sort of measure that there has been a, usually it’s a pH change. You’re looking for a pH change of that alkalinity entering the water and you can see that alkalinity change or that pH change. The second step is a change in the concentration of CO2, what we call PCO2, or showing that that CO2 in seawater has been depleted. And so that there is less CO2 in the surface seawater. And then the third step, and that happens while the alkalinity actually reacts with the CO2 in seawater, and that’s what forms that deficit in concentration of CO2. Then the third step, which is the most important one, is the air-sea flux. And that is the re-equilibration or CO2 re-entering the ocean to replace the CO2 that’s been absorbed by the alkalinity. And so those three steps, which form your MRV or have to be measured or modeled as part of your MRV, step one is you can measure that sometimes right at the point of addition at the scale that we’re at today. It dissipates instantly, but if you’ve got a sensor right in the end of the pipe, then you can measure it. And you use a lot of statistics to find that signal, then you can maybe measure it. It’s really a very small signal. But the other two steps are totally not measurable. And depending on the ocean conditions and the local ocean conditions, local oceanography and all this kind of thing, you’re probably orders of magnitude higher than that before you’re going to be able to measure any change to the air-sea flux. And part of the reason for that is it takes a really long time. Our models for our site in the UK say that it could take up to six years before you get that air-sea flux fully re-equilibrated on your addition of alkalinity. What we do is we start with this isolated experimentation, and that gives us a sense of, like, this is 100% efficient. What is the maximum air-sea flux change you’re going to see? And then we use models and proxy measurements and dye tracers and all kinds of things like this within the ocean to understand what the loss of efficiency is going to be as that distributes within those particular local ocean conditions. That loss of efficiency, the primary thing that’s going to cause a loss of efficiency is stratification or sinking. If your depleted PCO2 layer or your alkalinity or whatever sinks out of sight from the surface ocean so that it’s not interacting with the atmosphere anymore, then it could be up to 1,000 years before it gets back to the surface and actually has an impact on the atmosphere. And so a lot of your modeling is about, it answers a very simple question, which is over the time period that’s expected for that air-sea CO2 flux change to happen and that re-equilibration to happen, is my depleted water, CO2 depleted water, going to stay in contact with the atmosphere or how much of it is going to stay in contact with the atmosphere over that time period?
Dylan: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is actually an area where some of the interesting hardware challenges come into play, right? Because as you scale these solutions, you need sensors in the ocean that can kind of input to those models and collect data on an ongoing basis so that you know how effective the process is in real time. And putting sensors and hardware in the ocean with connectivity and all of that is not trivial. Is that true? Is that where some of the hardware challenges come in?
Mike: Absolutely. Yeah. You know, we’re constantly working with, and I’m actually sitting in this office in Halifax where there’s a whole bunch of sensor companies here and sensor partners. We have Dartmouth Ocean Technologies that builds a really cool partial pressure CO2 sensor that we use is on one end of the hall and an RBR, which puts together sort of the workhorses of ocean measurement, what are called CTDs or temperature salinity and depth sensors is on the other end of the hall. And these companies and these hardware manufacturers are critical to be able to measure all of the components that either are directly applicable to the MRV and the ocean alkalinity enhancement, or enable us to improve our models over time with direct measurements and empirical data that we bring in.
Dylan: Okay, cool. So is that, and then are those sensors, are they kind of ready to go out of the box? Like you’re able to deploy those solutions off the shelf or is there some level of kind of innovation or integration in some way that you have to do at Planetary to kind of make sure they’re fit for purpose for your specific application?
Mike: Usually the actual sensor itself is an individual component. And so then you have to integrate that sensor into a system of some kind. The things that we’re doing right now around hardware on this, we’ve got a system that we call it our mo-dom, which is our monitoring and dosing system, and integrates them with an alkalinity dosing system into the wastewater facility. So effectively what it allows us to do is get real-time measurements to ensure that our alkalinity dosing is always remaining within the permit limit. Wastewater flows, for example, are highly variable. And so we maintain a level of dosing that ensures that we never exceed permit limits, even as the flow goes up and down, essentially the flow rate goes up and down. And then the sensors also collect data for MRV and for biological safety, things like total suspended solids and things like this in real time and give us real-time feedback into our system. And so there’s this sort of integration there. And then as well, a lot of our academic partners that are working with us in our projects are using these sensors attached to remotely operated vehicles, ROVs, in the ocean that are sort of swimming around through the plume of the outfall, are looking for proxies like dye tracers and things like this, and improving the data around understanding how the water moves throughout the region and how the alkalinity will disperse and where it will end up and how long it’s going to stay at the surface and all these kinds of things. So there’s a huge amount of technology and hardware that’s going to go into the water through our research, both before the alkalinity addition in order to baseline and understand the region and during the alkalinity addition to measure those outputs and the proxies associated with them.
Dylan: Cool. You were kind of in the, my understanding, sort of a software development world prior to this. As you get into tackling some of these physical technology challenges, is there anything that’s been surprising to you that you’ve learned about the hardware challenges ahead of you that you want to share?
Mike: I mean, I’ve been in software for a long time. I love hardware. My very first sort of entrepreneurial venture, it was a product for Blockbuster that enabled us to scan disks to see if they were too scratched to play essentially.
Mike: And so I built all the hardware for that and all the software as well. And hardware is one of my first loves. The big learning for me has been how does the whole world carbon cycle kind of work? I’ve had a huge amount of learning on the policy side of climate, market side of climate, and the chemistry side. All of that learning is super valuable and absolutely necessary for doing what we’re doing. But it’s also kind of now as we get into implementation of these things coming full circle back into hardware and software. And it’s a little bit, I always worry that it’s my own bias. I’m like, oh, let’s do some software because I’m really comfortable with that. I really like it. And let’s do some hardware because I’m really comfortable with that. And all this chemistry stuff is a little bit daunting for me personally, even though we have some incredible scientists on the team who understand that stuff really well. But there is a really big space in this for software. These ocean models are all software based. They’re going to be critical for doing MRV, understanding the impact of this, understanding how we remove carbon from the atmosphere and how much we’re removing. There’s going to be software in our dosing and management systems, our logging systems, even things like databases of alkalinity supply and data collection around biological impacts and bringing all of that together into useful forms. There’s a lot of software involved in that. And the hardware in this case and the sensors that you mentioned, Dylan, as well as all of our electrochemical work and things like that, none of it is 100% off the shelf. It’s all pieces that have to be integrated, things that have to be built for the specific purpose that we’re putting them together for. So there’s a lot of that kind of fun that we get to do at the same time. So I actually really enjoy this phase of the business and being able to get our hands dirty with these things.
Dylan: Yeah, that sounds like fun. What’s your vision for Planetary? There’s always this talk of 10 gigatons removed by 2050. What kind of role do you see planetary playing in that?
Mike: We’ve got a gigaton target. I think it’s important to have a gigaton target. We’ve said a gigaton by 2045. The real reason we’ve said 2045 is that I actually don’t think a market for a gigaton of ocean carbon removal will really exist until 2045. And so it’s not so much that we couldn’t accelerate if we had the capital to accelerate it. It’s more that I think that when you look at the IPCC reports and the time frames for carbon removal scaling up to that 10 gigatons a year, that’s kind of an appropriate goal. And it’s one that we set out. And a gigaton’s a lot, right? The world moves about 2 and a half to 3 gigatons of oil and gas per year right now. And so when you think about the scale of a gigaton, it’s like, oh, that’s half the oil and the entire oil industry. It’s a huge amount of physical product moving. I get this question a lot, which is, is that even possible? Is it even possible to think about that as gigaton? And to me, the most important thing in that gigaton goal is we think about things the right way. And it’s very easy to go and say, well, oh, we’re only going to do this at a million tons or less than a million tons, right? You’ve got a really tractable problem there and you can use very traditional approaches for that and all those kinds of things. But you’re going to end up with a design that might not scale because of not its economics, but because of maybe its availability of energy, for example. Or you might have a problem with scaling because you produce a waste product at gigaton scales and you can’t deal with it at that scale. And so the approach we’ve taken is to say, look, like, let’s set ourselves that goal and use that as an engineering design principle in everything that we do so that we make sure that fundamentally, if the world needs us to get to a gigaton, we can.
Dylan: Yeah, I really like that way of thinking about it. It mirrors the way, like when at Synapse, when we set out to design a product, if we know eventually it’s going to be shipping at the million units per year scale or whatever it is, we designed for that from the very beginning, like the very architecture of the product. You’re looking at all of the potential barriers to that level of scale from a supply chain standpoint or cost or whatever it is and making sure you’re considering those from the very beginning. Anyway, I think that’s a really healthy way to look at it. What’s your end goal and how do you make sure you’re on a path? There is a path to get there, even though it is kind of mind boggling the scales we’re talking about and there’s a lot of time to get from here to there. Cool. I have a few questions to close this out. I asked these of everybody. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of the planet and why?
Mike: Oh man, I am a super optimistic person. But… It’s tough. It’s a little bit of a scary time right now. When we look at the task ahead of us, we talk about this like, oh, well, we’re at this point where reducing emissions is no longer enough. We know that we know that we have to do massive amounts of carbon removal as well. We have to build this 10 gigaton per year removal industry over the course of the next 27 years. It’s hard to get optimistic about that. It’s hard to get optimistic that that’s going to be something we’re going to be able to do. And it may be bigger than that, right? Because that is all predicated on us all of a sudden getting our act together and actually reducing emissions around the world. And that’s just not happening. And it hasn’t happened yet. And so it’s a little bit of a scary thing. I’m optimistic that we can build the removal technologies we need. I’m optimistic about the pace of deployment and cost improvements on renewable energy, I’m optimistic about things like small scale nuclear and those kinds of innovations. And I’m optimistic about the fact that we’ve got renewable energy powered vehicles and things like this coming online fairly quickly and things. So there’s a lot to like, and there’s a lot to be optimistic about. I’m also optimistic about the fact, or I’m hopeful that all of this, if we continue to really invest heavily in the learning curve of these clean technologies, that we can allow the developing world to leapfrog, just like they did landlines, right? So the developing world never went out and built big telephone wires everywhere. They just went straight to cellular because that’s what the state of the art was when they were able to start bringing on communications technology. And ideally, the same thing can happen with renewable energy, where the radical decreasing costs, we’re already at a point where solar in most places is cheaper than fossil deployments. Those radically decreasing costs ideally transfer to the point where the developing world is able to build their standard of living on the latest and greatest technology that we have, right? Clean technology. I’m pessimistic about the ability of us to do all of that fast enough. Carbon removal, I think working in carbon removal in some ways is a fundamentally pessimistic thing to do, right? You’re building something that you kind of hope you’ll never wish you’d never have to use. We are, as people, adaptable. One of my favorite authors had a quote once that said that humans have this great ability to make the extraordinary ordinary, right? Because if we didn’t, we’re just looking around the natural world all the time with our mouths agape and being unable to do anything with the incredible things that are happening around us all the time, right? We very quickly turn things that are extraordinary into everyday ordinary things. I mean, even just this, we’re talking over thousands of miles from each other and having a great conversation and then it’s going to be published to millions of people. Like, that’s insane that we can do that. And, you know, we’re just taking it for granted and we constantly do. The same thing is true of climate where the effects of climate change are in some ways subtle, in some ways not subtle. And we’re so adaptable to these changes and these things that are happening and things like the loss of biodiversity that happens around us and the sort of destruction of the natural world and all these kinds of things. We’re so adaptable and we just kind of eventually just take these things in stride and live our lives around them. And that to me is one of the biggest risks that we have in climate is kind of like boiling the frog in the water situation here. So where I’m pessimistic is whether or not we truly have the ability to make the kind of system change that is required to solve the climate. And you already see it, right? Like we have situations here, like even like CDR, which all the best science in the world says, hey, you’re going to get an awful lot of CDR. And there’s a lot of people out there who are going like, oh, we shouldn’t develop that. It’s a total distraction. And it’s kind of like, guys, we need it. Like, you’re not at a point where you can just not need this anymore because you don’t want it. Right. And so that kind of concerns me a lot that we’re able to sort of just be like, no, no, no, don’t worry about it. It’s going to be fine. when we’re really clear at this point that it is absolutely not going to be fine. So that’s kind of my concern, I guess, about it all. So mixed, I would say.
Dylan: Yeah, that’s a great answer. Thank you. Who is one other person or company doing something to address climate change right now that’s inspiring you?
Mike: Oh boy, there’s so many, so many, I’d probably be arbitrary in picking this.
Dylan: Yeah, or a group of people or companies, types of industry.
Mike: This is sort of probably recency bias, but I’m going to pick Carbon Plan as a group that I think is doing some really cool stuff right now. And the reason that I think they’re doing really cool stuff is that a lot of common knowledge on how we combat climate change, I think is wrong. And the Carbon Plan does an amazing job of taking a scientific lens and a policy lens to addressing those inconsistencies. So one of the things we get a lot is the idea that using nature for reversing climate change is somehow safer, more virtuous, and more effective than using something like a chemical means like ocean alkalinity enhancement, so biological versus chemical, and there’s sort of built in this naturalistic fallacy to that, what Carbon Plan does really well is it says, Hey, listen, like when you look at nature-based carbon solutions, here are the fundamental challenges that are difficult to address in those spaces. So things like additionality and leakage and things like that. And then they take a very scientific view to things like uncertainties and CDR, things that need to be addressed and don’t sway to trends of what’s sexy in terms of climate change. They really sort of go and say, Hey, let’s look realistically at what the science says about these things. And we need a lot more of that, right? We need to be really focused on what is actually effective within our solution sets, our technologies, our policies, and all of those kinds of things, because we don’t have a lot of time and we don’t have a lot of money to waste on things that truly don’t work.
Dylan: Yeah. Good point. I do not know the Carbon Plan, but I’m going to look them up. Thanks for calling it out. What advice do you have for someone not working in climate tech today who wants to do something to help?
Mike: Easiest thing to do right now is to get onto Slack.
Dylan: Ah, okay.
Mike: So there’s some really good Slack communities out there to really get embedded and understand what’s going on in the climate. So there’s the My Climate Journey Slack. There is the Marble community Slack. There is, just pulling my Slack up to look at, New Energy Nexus, or New Energy Network Slack as well. One of the really cool ones that I love as a community is AirMiners, which is really focused on CDR type of technologies and things like that. If you really want to learn about that as well. And then finally, there’s the Work on Climate Slack, which is really great as well, which is sort of, if you want to transition your career into a climate field, a really great place to go and learn about this stuff, but there’s an explosion of this stuff going on right now. And what’s really interesting is that every climate has such a challenging problem and such a wide ranging problem that the types of skills required within climate are infinite. There’s so many different kinds of skills that can be applied to different aspects of climate. And one of the best things I think you can do if you’re trying to get into climate science is to start by getting the basics, like try to learn about the climate problem, the things that cause it, read up on places like Our World In Data and stuff like that. And just really try to get a good understanding of the fundamental challenges of resolving climate change and where the big levers are. And then go and pick a space that really interests you or aligns with your skillset or whatever, and be targeted in it because the climate is really huge. I get this question literally all the time. People are calling me up and they’re like, Hey, how do I get involved in climate? And I’m like, I don’t even know what you mean. Like what do you like to do? Like, where do you want us to focus? What problems in climate are things that you get concerned about, right? Are you worried about sort of agricultural emissions, which could range from reducing methane emissions from livestock to eliminating food waste. Right? Like there’s so much scope within each of those problem areas that if you can’t narrow yourself down to say, like, here’s something that I’m super passionate about, or I have a real interest in, and then on top of that, once you get into that, I’m a hundred percent positive, you’d be able to find a place for your skills within that area.
Dylan: Yeah, I love that. I have found that those communities you’re calling out are all very welcoming to people new to the space.
Dylan: Which is something I just love about this industry generally. Mike, that was really fun. I’m really inspired by what you’re doing and as a company and to move the industry forward and I’ve learned a lot chatting with you. So I really appreciate it.
Mike: Thanks, Dylan. This has been really great. And thanks for all the questions.
Dylan: Hardware to Save a Planet is brought to you by Synapse. To find out more about us and how we develop hardware solutions for the world’s most ambitious companies, head to synapse.com. And then make sure to search for Hardware to Save a Planet in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts, or anywhere you like to listen. Make sure to click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at Synapse, thanks for listening.