Harnessing The Power of Algae: Desert-Based Carbon Reduction

The emergence of the start-up Brilliant Planet might just offer a unique carbon reduction solution that draws inspiration from an unexpected lifeform: algae. This pioneering company is venturing into the Moroccan desert to harness the carbon sequestering potential of these microscopic aquatic organisms. The strategy aims not just to address climate change but also to offer a sustainable way of doing so.

Algae, like other plant matter, sequesters carbon just by growing

Approximately 650 million years ago, an explosion of algae was instrumental in the evolution of human life. Now, Brilliant Planet is hoping that this diverse group of organisms can again play a significant role in the survival of our species—this time by mitigating the carbon emissions that are accelerating climate change.

Algae, though neither plants nor animals, photosynthesize as they grow. This process means that they actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, even more so than forests, while simultaneously producing oxygen. This remarkable ability has earned algae the moniker “unsung heroes of carbon removal,” as articulated by Adam Taylor, CEO of Brilliant Planet.

The Morocco-based pilot project of the UK start-up Brilliant Planet is an innovative response to the urgency of reducing carbon emissions. Every year, about 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. This number needs to be nearly eliminated within three decades to avert further global heating. Algae, responsible for approximately half of all the atmospheric carbon dioxide that gets removed, could offer a powerful tool in achieving this target.

In the desolate landscape of Akhfennir in southwest Morocco, Brilliant Planet is creating artificial algal blooms on land. Powered by wind energy, seawater is pumped into bright green ponds that support the rapid growth of local algae species. After about a month, the matured algae are harvested, dried, and buried in the desert, locking away the captured carbon for thousands of years. The process also serves a dual purpose, as it de-acidifies the seawater before it is returned to the sea.

This novel approach to carbon removal is not without challenges, including the need for consistent regulation and verification of carbon storage. Additionally, while the company aims to sell the carbon removed as credits to companies wishing to offset their emissions, carbon offsetting has faced scrutiny for its variable success rate and potential to encourage complacency.

Brilliant Planet hopes to address these concerns by offering a more verifiable method of carbon removal. The company is able to quantify the amount of carbon stored within the dried algae, offering a transparent approach to offsetting.

The commercial scalability of this innovative technology also holds promise. Brilliant Planet aims to establish a 1,000-hectare site by 2027, with the potential to absorb 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. The company has also identified enough suitable land—approximately twice the area of the UK—to potentially remove over three billion tonnes of carbon per year.

Newer strains of algae may be more efficient at sequestering carbon

Dr. Ajay Gambhir, a senior researcher at Imperial College London, warns that any new technology carries the risk of unknown variables and may take time to scale. However, the urgency of addressing rising carbon emissions requires rapid innovation and the adoption of a range of carbon reduction technologies. These efforts need to be complemented by significant cuts in emissions and a transition to a low-carbon economy.

The ambitious venture of Brilliant Planet underscores the increasing importance of alternative and sustainable methods to combat climate change. The promise of algae-based carbon capture, if successful, could play a pivotal role in our global sustainability efforts. By looking to the natural world for solutions, such as harnessing the power of algae, we may yet find the means to mitigate the impact of human activity on our planet.

Staff Writer
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