Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable sources of clean energy is the most important front in the fight against climate change. This crucial transition will reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that drives global warming.
At the same time, we need to develop ways to sequester some of the CO2 that has been accumulating for decades — and a Halifax-based company launched by a pair of Carleton University engineering graduates is developing an innovative solution rooted in the ocean's capacity to serve as a carbon sink.
"To reach our climate goals, we need to remove huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air,” says Brock Battochio, who co-founded Planetary Technologies with fellow Carleton alumnus Mike Kelland and California marine science researcher Greg Rau.
"Fortunately, the ocean is really good at doing this, so we're working on a way to enhance the ocean's ability to capture and store CO2. We're accelerating a natural process.”
The ocean covers 71 per cent of the planet's surface and is one of the main mechanisms for regulating carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This complex geochemical cycle is also one of the building blocks of the marine ecosystem.
Even if all of the excess CO2 in the air today were to be stored in the ocean, the total carbon content would increase by less than one per cent. But because humankind has been emitting so much CO2 — at a rate that outpaces the ability of natural systems process it — seawater has become 30 per cent more acidic. This has a devastating impact on marine life and hinders the ability of the ocean to store carbon dioxide.
In simple terms, Planetary's solution involves giving the ocean "a giant antacid,” explains Kelland, the company's CEO. This will supplement the alkalinity that accumulates in the ocean via rain, rivers and rock erosion, helping to neutralize the CO2 that it's absorbing and making room for more.
CO2 Removal & Recycling Mine Tailings
The beauty of the company's plan, which has already raised more than $10 million in investments and grants, plus approximately double that in research funding for its partners, is that producing the volume of alkaline material required has prompted Planetary to develop a method to convert billions of tonnes of historic mine tailings into a safe, pure form of alkalinity.
Acquired for now from a shuttered mine in Quebec, these tailings not only provide a catalyst for this experimental but promising method, they also yield the clean fuel hydrogen and in-demand metals such as cobalt and nickel that can be used in batteries as well as solar and wind farms.
In other words, Planetary is essentially recycling mine waste rock into a tool that's valuable in several different ways. It is planning to build and demonstrate its technology in Quebec next year and eventually expand to mine sites around the world, with the goal of reaching a million tonnes of annual CO2 removal capacity in the next five to ten years.
"Manufacturing this ‘antacid' is probably the hardest part of what we do,” says Kelland.
"We have to be able to scale up and produce massive quantities of it cheaply, and we have to do it in a way that doesn't cause additional carbon emissions.
"One of the challenges of this type of early-stage research is that you can't just jump in,” he adds. "We're not going to dump a billion tons of antacid into the ocean. We can only operate at the scale that's safe at the moment, based on the research that's been done so far.”
A Constellation of Climate Change Solutions
Battochio, who has a Bachelor of Engineering in Sustainable and Renewable Energy Engineering, and Kelland, whose degree is in Electrical Engineering, started Planetary Technologies in 2019 after they graduated from Carleton.
The pair of entrepreneurs are working and collaborating with dozens of mining and marine ecosystem experts. In Halifax, the main hub for their ocean experiments, they're testing the addition of alkalinity in a controlled way, to make sure there are no impurities released and no unintended consequences for micro-organisms and other sea life.
Ultimately, Planetary's method could remove billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and play a key role within a constellation of climate change solutions.
"There's no silver bullet when it comes to global warming, so we need to try a wide variety of things,” says Kelland.
"We need to actively reduce our emissions — if we don't do that, nothing else matters. We need to adapt to a changing climate. And true carbon removal has to happen as well.”