This startup fights climate change by growing algae in the desert

In the Sahara Desert along the coastline in Morocco, more than 300 miles from the nearest city, a green pond now sits in the middle of the sand. It’s a test site for Brilliant Planet, a startup that plans to fight climate change by growing vast quantities of carbon-capturing algae in the world’s deserts.

“Per unit area, we can fix as much carbon—or more carbon, depending on where we are in the seasonality—as a rainforest,” says Raffael Jovine, cofounder and chief scientist at Brilliant Planet. “The difference is, when a rainforest tree falls down, it returns 97% of the carbon back to the atmosphere, whereas we can sequester all of it.” The production at the test site varies, as the company runs different trials. But when it builds the first commercial-scale plant, covering 1,000 acres, it expects to remove 40,000 tons of CO2 per year, roughly the equivalent emissions of using 92,000 barrels of oil. Scaled up to cover available desert land on coasts, the system could hypothetically remove 2 gigatons of CO2 a year.

The company pumps seawater from the nearby coast into its facility, taking advantage of the fact that the water is filled both with nutrients that algae needs to grow and with CO2; the ocean has absorbed tens of billions of tons of CO2 emissions over the last few decades. As the water flows through a series of containers and ponds, algae grows in the startup’s proprietary system and captures carbon. When the algae is ready to be harvested—a process that takes between 18 and 30 days—it’s filtered out of the water, which is returned to the ocean. (The process also makes the water less acidic, helping solve another problem caused by climate change.) Then the algae is dried and buried under the sand, where the carbon it captures can be permanently stored.

It’s one example of something that climate science says is necessary: Tackling climate change involves not only moving away from fossil fuels and eliminating other emissions, but also removing CO2 from the air. The latest IPCC report says that carbon removal—both through technology and natural solutions like planting trees— is essential and will have to massively grow for the world to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

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