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A Maine Startup Wants To Pull Carbon Out Of The Atmosphere Using Kelp

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the race to stall or even reverse global warming, there are new efforts to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and put it somewhere safe. One startup in Maine has a vision that's getting attention from scientists and investors - bury massive amounts of seaweed at the bottom of the sea. Now, why will that help? Maine Public Radio's Fred Bever explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES SPLASHING)

ADAM BASKE: Next one is 006.

FRED BEVER, BYLINE: From a fishing boat a few miles out in the Gulf of Maine, Rob Odlin and Adam Baske are tossing buoys into the water. Each float is tethered to a rope that's entwined with tiny seeds of kelp, a fast-growing seaweed.

ROB ODLIN: We're just fishing for carbon now, and kelp's the net.

BASKE: Block ready. Send it.

BEVER: The project is R&D for a company called Running Tide Technologies, headquartered on the Portland waterfront. CEO Marty Odlin, who happens to be the boat captain's nephew, explains the mission.

MARTY ODLIN: Essentially, what we have to do is run the oil industry in reverse.

BEVER: Odlin wants to mimic the natural processes that turned ancient plants into carbon-storing fossil fuels and do it in a hurry. He envisions millions of kelp microfarms floating over the deepest parts of the world's oceans. The kelp soaks up carbon, gigatons of it, via photosynthesis. Months later, the plants' mature blades get too heavy for their biodegradable buoys, and...

M ODLIN: The kelp will sink to the ocean bottom and then sediment and become, essentially, part of the ocean floor. And that gets you millions of years of sequestration. So that's when you're making oil. That's got to be the ultimate goal.

BEVER: This year's goal's more modest - an experiment to gather data and prove the concept. But it's part of a new wave of big thinking about removing carbon from the atmosphere at a planetary scale. High-tech innovations are emerging around the world - towering banks of fans that can pull CO2 from the sky, pumps injecting plant-based biofuels into the Earth. But Running Tide seems to be capturing attention and investment because of its low-tech elegance.

STACY KAUK: When we started learning about Running Tide's approach, I was blown away by the simplicity.

BEVER: Stacy Kauk directs sustainability efforts at Shopify, a $150 billion e-commerce company which will be Running Tide's first customer for carbon offset credits.

KAUK: They're not relying on expensive equipment or energy-intensive processes. It's very simple, and the economies of scale associated with that make Running Tide's solution have a huge potential.

BEVER: Running Tide CEO Marty Odlin says, at scale, there could be unwanted consequences, and tough choices lie ahead. His team is modeling whether, for instance, a multitude of free-floating microfarms could entangle whales, hinder shipping or foul beaches. Outside experts are pitching in. A consortium of oceanographers from MIT, Stanford and other top research outfits has stepped in to advise and review the project, including its environmental risks. Brad Ack, who leads the group, adds, though...

BRAD ACK: We have to compare them against the no-action alternative. And in this case, the no-action alternative is very grim.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE RUNNING)

BEVER: For now, from a repurposed lobster boat, the Running Tide team is laying some groundwork, sending 1,600 seaweed-laden buoys into the water.

BASKE: All right. This buoy's ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING)

BEVER: They'll return in the spring and sink this first test crop of carbon-removing kelp a thousand meters deep, hopefully to stay there for millennia.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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