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This Insanely Simple Carbon Capture Technology Might Be Revolutionary
Running Tide's wood-based carbon removal is genius
The world is suffocating under the immense weight of our carbon waste. 2023 is the first year that this has been on full display for the world to see, with catastrophic weather events happening seemingly every month from pole to pole. Thousands are dying from climate change each year, and as time goes on, this death toll will get far worse. We must stop this self-inflicted drawn-out apocalypse, but our efforts are so far inadequate. As such, the IEA has repeatedly stated that carbon capture and storage will be a crucial industry to meet our climate goals. But, this technology is still wildly expensive and unscaleable. But a new startup, Running Tide, might just have a perfect solution. Dumping wood into the ocean!
Let’s start at the beginning because there are a few things we need to recap first to understand what Running Tide is doing here.
There are many ways to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One of the most obvious, simple and efficient is with plants. The chlorophyll within their leaves reacts atmospheric carbon dioxide with water and light energy to create carbon-rich sugar molecules. They then use these sugars as food to fuel themselves, but can also bundle them up into organic polymers to build their bodies out of. This is why you sometimes hear people say that wood is actually made from air, as the carbon within it comes from the atmosphere.
This is also why forests are incredibly carbon-rich environments. Not only do the trees contain tonnes of carbon, but the decomposing dead wood creates incredibly carbon-rich soils beneath the trees. As such, one of the most simple carbon-offsetting technologies is forest protection and conservation, as helping these ecosystems thrive does capture a lot of carbon dioxide. For example, each square meter of the Amazon contains between 14 and 40 kilograms of carbon above and below ground, and in total, it contains around 123 billion tons of carbon above and below ground.
But there are some severe drawbacks to using this natural carbon capture and storage. Firstly, it has an upper limit. Eventually, decomposition re-emits the carbon stored by the trees back into the atmosphere. The rate of this is relatively consistent, meaning that to capture and store more and more carbon dioxide, you need to grow more and more forests. Sadly, there is a limit to how much forest the Earth can support, especially if you want to leave room for humanity to blossom. What’s more, we can only estimate how much carbon is actually stored per area of forest. This makes it useless for reaching a verifiable net-zero and leaves the door wide open for companies to greenwash.
This is why most carbon capture programs focus on Direct Air Capture (DAC). This technology-driven carbon capture and its associated storage methods are compact, fully verifiable and scaleable, as there is no practical upper limit to their carbon storage as they store it geologically. There is just one problem; it is damn expensive. Per tonne of carbon captured and stored, DAC costs anywhere from $600 to $1,000! If you want verified removal for genuine net-zero claims, you can look at over $1,000 per tonne.
For some context as to how expensive that is, offsetting a single year of our emissions would cost at least $22 trillion. That is enough to build, launch and operate 220 International Space Stations for a decade! And just a reminder, the ISS is the most expensive thing ever created.
Unless we can find a way to slash the cost of DAC significantly, carbon capture technology won’t be able to make a difference at all.
This is where Running Tide comes in, as they have found a way to get the best of both worlds, the cost benefits of natural carbon capture, with the scalability and verification of DAC.
Their technology is so brilliantly simple; you’d wonder why no one thought of it first. Firstly, they take waste wood from manufacturing and then combine it with limestone. Then they bury it at the bottom of the ocean, a few miles down. The bottom of the ocean is a natural carbon sink. Thanks to the vast amount of water above it, once carbon settles on the seabed, it can stay there for millions of years, locked away from the atmosphere. The limestone helps to ensure this happens, burying the wood’s carbon content in the ocean floor, but as a bonus, it also helps to counteract ocean acidification ever so slightly.
Running Tide doesn’t just dump and forget though. They have a team of scientists with a plethora of sensors, oceanic models and hours of analysis to verify how much carbon is actually being stored away long-term. A recent field test of their sunk 1,000 tonnes of wood waste and limestone 190 miles south of Iceland. Their scientists were able to verify that this was able to successfully sequester (capture and store away) 275 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
This means that Running Tide can sequester carbon dioxide at a mind-boggling $250 — $350 per tonne! That is a quarter of current DAC systems whilst still offering the same verifiability.
But is it as scalable?
Will, in 2022, we produced 4.5 million tonnes of waste wood globally. That is enough to sequester a massive 1,237,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is over a hundred times more than the total amount of carbon DAC’s are currently able to remove from the atmosphere each year. All sounds good, but even using all the world’s waste wood, Running Tide can only offset 0.00034% of our annual emissions, which currently sits at around 37 billion tonnes per year.
So, not quite enough to get us down to net-zero. But what if Running Tide grew their own wood? Let’s use bamboo, as it is one of the most sustainable, fastest-growing (i.e. high yield per land area) woods out there. Well, Bamboo farms worldwide cover 220,000 km² and produce up to 20 million tons of timber annually. So what is the land area needed to grow enough bamboo to sequester an entire year of our carbon emissions?
If you do the maths, we need 135 billion tonnes of bamboo each year, which requires at least 1,485,000,000 km² of land to grow. The Earth only has 510,000,000 km² of land area, meaning we would need to magically find 2.9 times more land area than the Earth has and turn all of it and all the already existing land area of Earth into bamboo farms for Running Tide to fully offset just a year of current carbon emissions!
So, while Running Tide’s technology is remarkably scalable, it still has a very physical upper limit far below what we currently need. You can either see this as a limitation of this technology or a wake-up call to how utterly absurd our current emissions are.
But, as we adopt renewables and EVs and continue to make our societies more carbon efficient in the coming years, our emissions will drop significantly. Studies have shown that by 2050, we will only need 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon sequestered annually to meet net-zero. Sadly, Running Tide will still require too much land to farm enough wood to meet this figure alone, as they would need 191,950,000 km² of land area. While there is actually enough land area to host this amount of bamboo farming, it is over 37% of the total land area, and converting that much land to massive ecologically dead farmland would be catastrophic. So Running Tide will never be able to service our entire carbon sequestration needs all on its own.
However, in our fight to save the planet from ourselves, every little bit helps, and I do not doubt that Running Tide will become a vital part of our journey to net-zero. There is currently a plethora of promising carbon capture companies developing incredible technology. None of them can solve the climate crisis on their own. But together, they have a fighting chance at saving this beautiful Earth from our climate crimes.
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(Originally published on PlanetEarthAndBeyond.co)