We know the facts: the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air has increased steadily since the Industrial Revolution, dangerously increasing from natural levels, causing a warming Earth and increasing the likelihood of climate catastrophes.
As postdoctoral research scholar Joseph Benetatos straightforwardly puts it in his upcoming FootPrint Coalition Science Engine-backed project, “There is a current unmet need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent the collapse of Earth’s climate.”
The simple sentence illustrates how dire it is that we remove the excess CO2 we’ve emitted. The amount is going up every year. Naturally, the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere sit at around 280 ppm, but on New Year 2023, that number was 419 ppm. Last New Year, it was 417 ppm, and the New Year before, 416, 414, and so on.
We are in a race to remove CO2 from the air and change the practices that led us to such a disastrous state. But what if this removal process could be accelerated through the natural process of rock weathering? What if we could improve carbon capture with bacteria photosynthesis? And what if direct air capture systems could be created with microalgae?
These questions are at the heart of research currently funded in FootPrint Coalition Science Engine’s newest research category: Negative Emissions Technologies.
“While the current climate tech boom continues to generate ways to decarbonize industry and improve business practices for the planet, meeting humanity’s climate goals is going to require carbon dioxide removal (CDR),” Rachel Kropa, Managing Director of Nonprofit + Science here at FootPrint Coalition said. “Having DAC in our arsenal for carbon drawdown would be a huge advantage.”
The carbon removal solutions Kropa references range from technologies like direct air capture (DAC), industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS), and carbon utilization (CCU), to nature-based solutions like scaling the nature sequestration ability of animals, soil, and trees.
However, these technologies and strategies desperately need to scale, along with a myriad of other CO2 removal projects, scientific research, and cultural change. That’s why we launched the Negative Emissions Technologies (NET) category.
The Science Engine funds the next generation of climate research, providing small fast grant seed funding plus public crowdfunding to individual researchers working to combat our climate and biodiversity emergencies.
In collaboration with the Direct Air Capture (DAC) Coalition and CAS, the new NET category provides funding for research needed to extract carbon directly from the atmosphere and propel us closer to net-zero emissions.
The Science Engine is powered by Experiment.com, where projects garner crowdfunding and regularly update on progress. The NET category is led by Paul Reginato, an independent fellow at the Innovative Genomics Institute who is researching biological engineering for CO2 removal, and Merritt Daily, a science advisor at Carbon Direct and Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Emissions.
We have $50,000 to contribute to projects. We fund half of their goal, granting them up to $10,000 each. But, three still need to reach their crowdfunding goals.
The first is a project by Joseph Benetatos that aims to speed up the naturally slow process of rock weathering. When a rock weathers, atmospheric CO2 reacts with rock-forming silicate minerals, effectively capturing the CO2, transforming it into stable minerals, and storing it on the planet's surface and in ocean sediments.
According to Benetatos, a barrier to current CO2 removal efforts is the lack of carbon-capture technologies that are scalable to the massive gigaton level needed. Thus the project proposes quickening one of Mother Earth’s many carbon-capturing processes: rock weathering.
In the project, Benetatos will use protein geoengineering, genomics, and computational tools known as bioinformatics to identify and optimize enzymes capable of accelerating mineral weathering. The project is currently 52% funded and is $4,895 away from its goal.
The next project is an experiment by researchers at CyanoCapture, a research team harnessing and enhancing the power of cyanobacteria: photosynthetic, aquatic microalgae that produce 50% of the world’s oxygen. During photosynthesis, plants absorb CO2 from the air. Algae’s photosynthesis ability is far greater than that of most plants. By using genetic modification, the team aims to improve the rate of wild algae’s carbon capture ability.
Like rock weathering, this project creates a scalable, natural, and low-energy approach to decarbonization. It is led by Chief Scientific Officer Uma Shankar Sagaram, and research scientists Jane Harrowell and Loris Marcel. The project is currently 92% funded and needs $420 to reach its goal.
The third project tests the efficiency of a direct air carbon capture system named Nellie. Like the researchers over at CyanoCapture, Nellie uses microalgae. Analyses by the researchers predict that Nellie has a capture rate of about 50,000 tonnes CO2 per acre per year.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s CO2 calculator, this is the equivalent of removing over 10,000 gasoline cars from the road for a year or the annual sequestering ability of nearly 60,000 acres of U.S. forests.
With additives, this rate could potentially increase by 5%. In the experiment, the researchers will test several different kinds of additives aimed to enhance Nellie’s rate and kickstart new questions about how to improve carbon capture technologies.
The team behind Nellie includes the project’s founder and CEO, physicist and engineer Stephen Milburn, scientific assistant and biotechnology researcher Ally Sheller, and project manager, Andrew. The project is currently 65% funded with $1,789 needed to reach its goal.
“Breakthrough innovations that lead to lower cost and more effective DAC systems can stem from the dedicated work of brilliant scientists,” Jason Hochman, co-founder and Senior Director of the DAC Coalition said. “Advancing research efforts and facilitating knowledge creation will be critical in advancing direct air capture technology.”