Elon Musk’s willingness to throw lots of money at lots of things has been well-demonstrated, as Twitter’s board can attest. And last week, the climate tech billionaire’s predilection paid off for 15 of the teams competing for the $100 million XPrize Carbon Removal competition — each of which received a $1 million "milestone" award. The grand prize winner for this contest, to be named in 2025, will suck up $50 million in backing; $30 million more will be distributed among the runners-up.
Chosen from the more than 287 groups that qualified for the overall competition, the 15 ventures recognized last week represent a great mix of carbon removal approaches that rely on both technology and nature to get the job done. The decisions on milestone awards were based on "operations plans, performance data, life-cycle analysis and cost estimates."
Coincidentally (or maybe not), one startup I’ve been angling to write about, Planetary Technologies, showed up on the list of three teams working on ocean-related solutions. Its process actually is a complex one with several co-benefits aside from CO2 removal including the cleanup of mine waste, green hydrogen production and ocean restoration.
A few weeks ago, three-year-old Planetary disclosed that it has so far raised about $6.11 million, split between investors including Innovacorp and Apollo Projects, as well as various grants. The company has also scored some notable corporate procurement commitments for its carbon removal credits. "Shopify is proud to have been working with Planetary through our Sustainability Fund since early 2020, and as their first customer we’re confident that their ACT Platform is a game changer for carbon removal," said Stacy Kauk, head of sustainability for Shopify, in a statement.
Planetary’s process, which will be piloted at large scale in Quebec, Nova Scotia and the United Kingdom later this year, uses an electrolyzer to purify rocks left over after mining and remove trace elements such as nickel or cobalt. The alkaline substance that this process creates is then added to the ocean, where it enhances a natural carbon sequestration process. Co-founder Brock Battochio (a 2021 GreenBiz 30 Under 30 alum) likens it to an "antacid" for the ocean. The byproduct from this process is hydrogen, which can be used as a low-carbon fuel. Incidentally, the trace elements and minerals removed from the mine tailings might be used for batteries.
What’s next for corporate buyers? The company is selling 3,000 carbon credits that retire between 2025 and 2027 related to the new projects. It hasn’t disclosed the price per metric ton, but in documentation about its carbon purchase contracts, Shopify notes that it paid a premium to help support the company’s research and development.
Jason Vallis, vice president of external relations for Planetary, said the startup is exploring two models for scaling up the technology. The first approach involves helping with cleanup of old sites, and the second would involve deploying its electrochemistry within existing mining operations — as it plans to do with nickel and cobalt mining company Brazilian Nickel at a location in the U.K. A chunk of the startup’s new funding will go toward getting the pilots built, and those pilots will be used to help develop a process for measuring and verifying the carbon removal impact, Vallis said.
Among carbon removal startups, Planetary’s focus on the ocean is still relatively unusual, which is odd when you consider that it already sequesters about one-third of anthropogenic emissions today, according to World Resources Institute. Two other ocean-related projects are on the list of XPrize milestone awards: Captura, a project born at the California Institute of Technology (a.k.a. Caltech), which plans to pilot its approach at a desalination plant; and Marine Permaculture SeaForestation from the Climate Foundation, which centers on open-ocean seaweed mariculture.
Another startup to watch is Running Tide, a Maine-based kelp farming organization that has also received early backing from Shopify — it’s in the portfolio being cultivated by Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital.