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Can we Replace Plastic with Seaweed?

Let’s talk plastic again. Plastic is everywhere. Most of it is made from fossil fuels. Project drawdown estimates that 5-6 percent of our global oil production goes into plastic manufacturing. After we use it, only 9% gets recycled! The rest ends up in landfills or in the environment where it emits greenhouse gases. Some of our plastic trash gets shipped to other countries which emits even more greenhouse gases.

So, what if we could replace plastic with a natural material? Something that takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere instead of producing it? Something that doesn’t need water or fertilizer to grow? And something that, while it’s growing, cleans our oceans? You guessed it, I’m talking about seaweed.

The British company Skipping Rocks Lab is working on just that: Replacing plastic with seaweed. This Forbes article covers how these seaweed pouches reduced plastic waste during the London marathon a few weeks ago. Organizers replaced 200.000 water bottles with seaweed pouches.

Skipping Rocks Lab calls these pouches Ooho. They use brown seaweed and remove it’s color, odor, and taste to produce a thin, edible membrane. To produce Ooho they are just using seaweed, calcium and water. The seaweed and calcium react to form a membrane. Here is how it works.

Seaweed pouches mad out of seaweed, calcium and water
Seaweed pouches made out of seaweed, water and calcium

Skipping Rocks Lab has been experimenting with these pouches for a few years now. They are making pouches for drinks and little sachets for sauces and dressings. So instead of a little plastic bag, your ketchup could come in a seaweed package.

Brown seaweed is a sustainable and renewable material. While plastic takes 700 years to decompose, seaweed turns into soil in just 6 weeks.

 “Growing up to 1m per day, it doesn’t compete with food crops, doesn’t need fresh water or fertiliser and actively contributes to de-acidifying our oceans.”

https://www.notpla.com/technology/

What I love most about this is that Skipping Rocks Lab are working on improving the properties and making the packaging better and better. With the marathon they showed they can produce on a scale. Now they are working on nets and plastic wraps made out of seaweed. Imagine how a plastic free future might look like!

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Can I Drive to Work on Recycled Fuel?

How cool would it be if cars and airplanes could run on gas that has been made from carbon dioxide?

Part 1 of my story about Carbon Engineering covered how they capture carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into calcium carbonate pellets. This is part two, it covers how they turn the carbon dioxide that they extract into fuel that could be used by cars or airplanes.

Turning air to fuel
Turning Air to Fuel

So, here is how it works. Carbon dioxide from the air is turned into calcium carbonate pellets. These are heated up to reach a much more concentrated form of carbon dioxide. This reacts with hydrogen and energy and is turned into hydro carbon fuels, such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

This technology enables the production of synthetic transportation fuels using only atmospheric CO₂ and hydrogen split from water, and powered by clean electricity

https://carbonengineering.com/about-a2f/

Carbon Engineering designed a closed cycle of turning carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into concentrated carbon dioxide and then into fuel. By utilizing as little water as possible and renewable energy for the process, they are creating a green fuel.

This technology forms an important complement to electric vehicles in the quest to deliver carbon-neutral 21st century transportation.

https://carbonengineering.com/about-a2f/

The BBC has an interesting article about Carbon Engineering’s technology. It also covers concerns from environmentalists that carbon capture could be used as an excuse to prolong the fossil fuel era or prevent us from reducing emissions in the first place.

I think we need to work on reduction emissions as well as capturing carbon. I would love to rely on natural ways such as restoring forests and wetlands only, but it looks like that might not be enough. Carbon Engineering’s technology certainly looks promising.

What I like most about it is the idea of tuning the extracted carbon dioxide into a valuable product. If there is monetary incentive for carbon capture this technology might get adopted more broadly.

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Can Artificial Shells Reduce Carbon Dioxide?

The Canadian company Carbon Engineering takes carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it to calcium carbonate – that’s what shells are made of! They developed a scalable process for capturing carbon dioxide from the air, a technology called Direct Air Capture (DAC).

Imagine an industrial plant with big fans to suck in air. This air is then mixed with chemicals and turned into calcium carbonate pellets.

Turning air into calcium pellets
Turning air into calcium pellets

What stage are they at? That’s the interesting part. Carbon Engineering have been capturing air from a pilot plant since 2015. Now in their commercial validation phase, they received major backing from industry to scale this technology.

Our proven Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology can scale up to capture one million tons of CO₂ per year with each commercial facility. That quantity of CO₂ is equivalent to the annual emissions of 250,000 average cars.

https://carbonengineering.com/about-dac/

What I like most about Carbon Engineering is that they have been capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for several years now and are ready to scale. We need to use all the options we have reduce emissions and to remove carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and this definitely sounds like a good one.

While I personally like shells, they are turning it into something of more monetary value: Fuel. Stay tuned for part two of this post to read all about how Carbon Engineering creates clean fuels.

How Studying Temples Lead to Carbon Capture

I read this inspiring afforestation story in one of my favorite books, Drawdown. The story is about Akiri Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist who developed a novel afforestation method.

In the 1970s and 1980s he realized most forest trees where not native trees to Japan. They had been introduced over centuries for timber. He studied original vegetation around shrines and temples and his idea was to reintroduce those native species back to Japan’s forests. This is the method he developed:

5 steps to growing a native forest
The Miyawaki method: 5 steps to growing a native forest

“The Miyawaki method calls for dozens of native tree species and other indigenous flora to be planted close together, often on degraded land devoid of organic matter. As these saplings grow, natural selection plays out and a richly biodiverse, resilient forest results”

Drawdown: the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to roll back global warming, Hawken – Penguin Books – 2018

He became a champion of creating indigenous, authentic forests. They are more resilient to climate change and other threads. Over the years he has planted more than 40 million trees around the world, from Brazil to France, India and China.

What I like most about his approach is that it only takes 2 years of watering and weeding for the plants to become self-sustaining and they are mature after only 10-20 years. These original forests are denser, more biodiverse, and capture and sequester more carbon than plantations. What an inspiring story. Let’s plant more forests!

Can Taking a Shower Curb Emissions?

As I’m learning more about carbon capture techniques, a Wired article about carbon capture for wastewater treatment caught my eye. While it’s best to safe water when you shower, what can we do with the wastewater we do have? An interesting idea is to use microbes to treat the water as well as capture carbon dioxide.

Some microbes, like bacteria and microalgae, feed on CO2 itself. So one potential fix would be to replace the typical microbes used in wastewater treatment with these CO2-guzzlers.

https://www.wired.com/story/the-water-in-your-toilet-could-fight-climate-change-one-day/

The article is based on a Nature publication. So I checked it out, and now we are getting into more chemistry than I hoped for. Here we go. The authors are looking at different carbon capture approaches while also looking at environmental and economic benefits:

Outcomes of carbon capture and utilization are clean water and fuels and chemicals, biomass, biochar, or carbonates.
Capturing carbon with waste water

Integrating carbon capture and utilization with wastewater treatment may transform energy-intensive, carbon-emitting wastewater treatment plants into integrated water resource recovery facilities that recover energy, nutrients, water and other valuable carbon products with economic, environmental and social benefits.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329656760_Wastewater_treatment_for_carbon_capture_and_utilization

Here are the five approaches they discuss:

  1. Use microbial electrolysis to enable wastewater treatment, generate hydrogen and mineralize carbon dioxide to carbonates (Microbial electrolytic carbon capture)
  2. Recover electrons from wastewater and reduce carbon dioxide to organic chemicals (Microbial electrosynthesis)
  3. Enrich naturally occurring microalgal communities to take up nitrogen and phosphorus while turning carbon dioxide in biomass (Microalgae cultivation)
  4. Integrate vegetation, soils, and microbial ecosystems to treat wastewater and capture carbon dioxide to plant biomass (Constructed wetlands)
  5. Produce carbon rich charcoal from sludge and other biomass feedstock to provide long term carbon reservoirs and increase fertility in soil (Biochar production)

In the conclusion they point out all these approaches are early stages, a lot more research and development are needed. But they also highlight the potential:

Carbon capture and utilization can bring tremendous value to the wastewater industry, CO2-generating industries, and to society as a whole.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329656760_Wastewater_treatment_for_carbon_capture_and_utilization

What I like most about the article is how it looks at a specific industry and rethinks how that industry can operate carbon neutral or even carbon negative. And while this is early R&D work, they are keeping it real by addressing how these approaches could have environmental as well as economic benefits.