My Investment Takes: Brilliant Planet – carbon-capturing for the planet

11 May 2022

My Investment Takes is a weekly dive into the startups I find the most innovative & interesting.

Are trees the best natural ‘carbon-capturer’ in the world? You would certainly be forgiven for thinking so- with the Amazon rainforest being called the ‘lungs of the planet’ and businesses running ‘plant-a-tree’ campaigns to offset their carbon emissions.
The true answer might just surprise you: they’re not. It is in fact oceans that are our biggest carbon hoover.
Businesses and charities have simply chosen to focus on trees as the solution as it’s cheap and simple. But planting trees to offset carbon is also not the best solution: it lacks systematic biodiversity consideration when picking the type of tree to plant, as costs vary greatly and it’s difficult to prove the tree will still be there holding its captured carbon in 100 years – forest wildfires are becoming depressingly more common.
But I digress.
I should specify- by our oceans I mean algae, seagrass, vegetation, and coral. Between 1994 and 2007, our oceans absorbed 34 gigatons of mankind’s carbon emissions, and even that assessment seems to be an underestimation. The World Economic Forum believes up to 25% of CO2 emissions generated by human activity each year are absorbed by the ocean. After all, it does make sense: oceans cover 70% of our planet and have rich ecosystems.
However, it comes at a cost. Indeed, a few hundred years back, oceans were a net source of CO2, and that has changed due to human activity: oceans are forced to absorb carbon emissions, at the cost of acidification, which has negative impacts on marine life.

We know oceans have the capability to absorb CO2, but we have to be careful not to change the chemistry of seawater and effectively destroy the marine ecosystem. 

But why not use this knowledge for our planet’s future?
Well, that’s exactly what Brilliant Planet is doing.
Brilliant planet is a London-based startup which is on a mission to de-acidify our oceans, and provide a carbon capture solution that is scalable, effective, bio-diversity friendly, and energy-efficient.
They plan to do so by harnessing the power of algae in large artificial ponds. If you want more details, read on.

The Power of Nature

What’s photosynthesis?

Let’s take it back to middle school for a minute.

In a few words, photosynthesis is the process by which plants (in the broad sense) use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to create oxygen and energy (glucose).  

The photosynthesis process is carried out by Chlorophyll, which also gives the usual colour green to plants and algae. In the case of algae, the O2 released in the process is then used by marine creatures, or simply released into the air while the sugar produced is consumed by the algae itself. When the algae are eaten, the energy (sugar) produced is consumed by fish, which are consumed by bigger fish, etc… And that’s what we call the food chain.
Getting back to photosynthesis, we now know chlorophyll is key to capturing carbon. And that’s exactly why algae are so good at doing it. A large part of the organism is dedicated to photosynthesis (as they are all green), unlike trees or other types of plants which need to dedicate recourse to building trunk, branches and root systems.


What’s ocean ‘acidification’?

As I mentioned earlier in this article, it’s simply the change of seawater chemistry, more specifically: a reduction of the pH over an extended period of time. For those who didn’t listen in chemistry class, the pH scale measure how acid or basic a solution is, from 0 (acid) to 14 (basic). An example of 0 is battery acid, and 14 is some brands of crystal drain openers with a high concentration of Sodium Hydroxide.
The ocean’s average pH is now around 8.1 when it used to be at 8.2 before industrialisation and is expected to fall by 0.3 to 0.4 pH units before the end of the century. That doesn’t seem like a lot? Well, it might be helpful to realise the scale is logarithmic, so if seawater drop to 7.7 pH by the end of the century, it would be equivalent to a 120% increase in acidification.
An even more lively example would be our blood which is usually around 7.35 and 7.45. If that number dropped by 0.2 or 0.3, we would get seizures or fall into a coma.
Well, the ocean’s coral reefs and shell organisms are as sensitive to pH change as we are. That’s what we are referring to when we are saying that coral reefs – one of the most diverse habitats in the world – are dying: they are slowly being dissolved due to acidity, and have their growth hampered.
We need to do something.

Why it Could Work

A necessary evolution

One of my favourite books about climate change is Bill Gates’s excellent ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’. It’s by no account the most complete and thorough book about climate change and the solutions we have, but it holds some key elements to successfully reach the Paris Agreements’ goals.
One of such key elements is: no revolutionary innovation is going to solve our problems alone.
We can’t bet everything on wind & solar energy, we can’t bet everything on carbon capture, we can’t bet everything on alternative protein, we can’t bet everything on new types of fertilizer, etc.
We need to bet on everything at once.
A single solution is not going to save us, but a string of good solutions will, even if they compete with each other (e.g., clean nuclear and wind energy).

And that is why carbon capture investments are needed, that’s why we need to perfect the technology and invest in it. We can’t only invest in carbon capture, but it’s part of a larger solution.

Brilliant Planet

Finally, we’re getting to the startup at hand.
Brilliant Planet follows a simple process: they choose a flat location near a coast and choose one specific strain of local algae. They then pump seawater into the large & simple artificial ponds they’ve created in the flat location, and that bit is the most energy-intensive part of their procedure.
In these ponds, they multiply the strain of algae chosen in carefully monitored conditions and rapidly let the algae bloom. It’s then harvested, dried, and buried in the desert. The seawater is then released into the ocean, de-acidified and ready to absorb CO2 again. Rince (so-to-say), and repeat.

What I love

Their solution is elegant.

Contrary to their predecessors who also had the idea of using algae, they are not running large bioreactors that are difficult to operate and costly, but are rather “down-scaling” the ocean (the CEO’s words) by recreating the algae multiplication process. Their true competitive advantage is being able to maintain a constant state of bloom physiology, which results in fast growth of the algae and allows their strain to outcompete any contaminating strains that may blow in from the wild.
And unlike many other carbon removal companies, they are not dependent on location: as long as there is a desert and flat land, they can operate with equal efficiency. Those using direct air capture need specific conditions to function at full capacity and are extremely expensive. 
It will be easier than ever for institutions and individuals to offset their carbon footprint through Brilliant Planet.

The Path Forward

Brilliant Planet has already successfully operated in the Oman desert and in South Africa, and four years ago started to operate a 3-hectare trial site in Morocco.
And they are doing so after closing a $12 million Series A round led by Union Square Ventures and Toyota Ventures, with the participation of S2G VenturesFuture Positive CapitalHatchAiiMLGT Capital Partners, and CPT Capital.
Using this funding, they plan to build a 30-hectare set-up in 2023 for demonstration purposes, followed by a 1000-hectare set-up once investors and companies are convinced of the viability of the project.

The Question I asked the CEO, Adam Taylor:

  • How do you compare in terms of price with your direct competitors?
For high quality carbon credits we are several-fold more affordable than current producers. By high quality I mean carbon capture and storage that has 1,000+ year permeance, is verifiable, is additive and has no negative social or economic externalities.
  • Do you see any future use for the algae produced and stored away?
Once the algae is stored it is no longer possible to transform it into any valuable product.  It is a very salty, sandy material that has no energy, food or manufacturing potential.  This is important because it helps ensure that long-term permeance by avoiding any temptation to recover it in a few hundred years.   
  • Who do you think will be your largest clients?
Both companies and individuals (in aggregate) that want to be sure they have genuinely offset their carbon footprint.
  • What are your priorities for the next 12 months?
Building a strong team and business systems that will enable Brilliant Planet to maintain a high rate of growth and deploy this solution at scale.  We are actively recruiting for a wide variety of corporate, strategy, scientific and engineering roles and would encourage any experienced professionals that are passionate about the space to apply.

My Conviction

Brilliant Planet has the potential to be a game-changer in the clean-tech industry. Curbing carbon emissions and changing the way we consume energy are the largest challenges we will face. And many things will be needed: policy changes, a better-priced carbon tax to effectively push corporations to care, sustainable energy sources, and many other innovations.
Carbon capture is one of those innovations. We need an efficient solution that is scalable, easy to maintain and relatively cheap.
Brilliant Planet is not the only company focused on this issue, but I believe they have the tools in hand to make it possible.

If you're excited and want to check them out, take a look at their website, and leave a comment on this post if you have any thoughts or comments!

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