Q&A: Climos CEO Dan Whaley

Written by Katie Fehrenbacher

A member of the cleantech elite, Tesla Chairman Elon Musk, has backed Climos, a San Francisco startup that plans to seed the ocean with iron in order to capture carbon. So what does Musk see in the controversial technology, given that other startups that worked on similar projects have already sunk?

We wanted to find out, so we stopped by Climos’ offices and had a chat with CEO Dan Whaley. Here’s the skinny:

Earth2Tech: You’ve probably known Elon Musk for awhile, given the mutual background in the Internet entrepreneur world. How did you connect with him for the funding?

Dan Whaley: I’ve known him 12 years now. He founded his first company across the street from ours down in Palo Alto. We got to be good friends and have stayed in touch over the years. He has big ideas. He’s thoughtful and he works through problems logically in his head rather than emotionally for what he hears.

E2T: So this is the first VC funding for ocean seeding. Why do you think VCs haven’t supported this before and why are they now willing to support your company?

DW: It’s not that the venture community hasn’t supported this in the past, it’s just that this is probably the first company that was put together that was venture-financeable in this space. Planktos chose to do a reverse public merger. Science has gotten to the point where it overlaps with the existence of the carbon market, and to the extent that we can credibly prove that sequestration is happening for a reasonably permanent length of time, then we think it is appropriate for the carbon market to finance it. If the company can generate revenues in the carbon market for this technique, then I think the returns should be on the scale of what venture firms are used to.

E2T: So as far as Planktos goes, what do you think happened to their company? Are there any lessons to be learned?

DW: If this should be done, it should be done from a credible team in the science community, who are openly collaborating with the best and brightest out there. It should be done by oceanographers who have participated in the previous 12 demonstrations and who are knowledgeable and experienced. And it should be done on research vessels that those scientists are familiar with using, which are equipped with the state-of-the-art equipment to do good science. And we will be funding established researchers to go out and do that.

E2T: What are the next steps Climos needs to take to start the project?

DW: First we need to contract with an outside firm to do an environmental impact report. We should announce who will be doing that for us in the next two or three weeks. People have a lot of questions about this, and one of the things that hasn’t happened yet is that there really hasn’t been a structured framework as to what those questions are. So the first thing to do is help put a conceptual model around ocean fertilization from an environmental point of view.

The second thing we need to do is reach out in a more deliberate and structured way to the ocean community. We’ll be announcing three science workshops with major research institutions, to bring them together to help ask what are the key questions in each different area of focus.

The next thing that we need to do this year is to apply for international permits to go out to sea. We apply for a permit from the treaty nation that carries the flag of the ship we would be using or is the last port of call where the material is loaded for the project.

Then we will be raising more money, $12 million to $14 million. We will start that pretty much right away. The demonstrations will start as early as 2009.

E2T: How does the demonstration itself work?

DW: Well, we stake out an area of the ocean, with GPS coordinates. And a ship applies a super-diluted concentration of iron. We’ll have one distribution ship and another ship that’s tending the sediment traps. As the bloom matures and terminates over 45 to 50 days, those sediment traps catch the falling material as it dies and loses buoyancy, and falls to the bottom of the ocean. That’s how we know how much is exported.

E2T: Do you think there are any possible negative consequences on the ocean of doing this?

DW: No, here’s the reason: This happens naturally, and at least five or six times in the last million years the amount of dust in the ocean has gone up by large volumes, five to six times the normal rate of iron in the ocean. This has happened before on such a massive scale with no negative consequences that we can see from the records; there’s been no extinctions of species, or consequences like that. It’s like saying what are the negative effects of planting a tree?

E2T: If there have been 12 publicly funded experiments, what will another test prove?

DW: I think that it is important for us to remember that we always have more to learn. So for us it’s important that this is done in the form of asking a question, rather than having an answer. So this is a big idea, it is potentially a large tool. People have questions about it. And so do we. We would like to identify what those questions are and how one would answer them. And propose a series of demonstrations to get at those questions. If those questions come back negative, and this shouldn’t be done, then that’s fine.

Comments & Trackbacks

one big question is whether this enhanced sequestration will exacerbate ocean acidification, the rate of which is unprecedented. Ocean chemistry is now changing at least 100 times more rapidly than that which has occurred during the 650,000 years preceding our industrial era. If current trends continue, ocean acidification is estimated to occur at an extent and rate unmatched during the past tens of millions of years. This could mean substantial changes in the biodiversity of our oceans, marine ecosystems, and fisheries, and potential economic threats to the viability of the seafood industry, tourism, and recreation.

stan said on March 6th, 2008 at 12:57 pm

I would encourage you to read the FAQ on our website. This and many other questions are answered there.

Ocean fertilization does not increase the acidity of surface waters.

Ocean fertilization temporarily lowers ocean acidity in the crucial upper waters. However, as soon as the CO2 concentration is lowered there, more will “flux” in from the atmosphere. This is the mechanism that explains how ocean fertilization could lower atmospheric CO2.

The pH of the oceans is alkaline. It ranges from 7.8-8.5; and has been so for hundreds of millions of years. CO2 acts like an acid when it dissolves in water. Henry’s Law of Partial Pressures explains why increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere will cause an increase concentration of CO2 in the oceans. This has been called “ocean acidification.” Even this slight increase in acidity can have a profound effect on corals and other organisms that make skeletal material out of calcium carbonate, which is harder to produce as acidity increases.

When people speak of ocean acidity, they are generally speaking about a lower pH in the upper 100 meters, where the majority of marine organisms (including microorganisms such as coral and phytoplankton) live. Many of these organisms cannot tolerate the higher ph levels caused by excessive CO2. Our burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the excess CO2 in the upper ocean.

As fertilization stimulates phytoplankton growth, CO2 is removed from surface waters by photosynthesis to form the organic material of their cells-thereby lowering acidity. However, this improvement is short-lived. According to Henry’s Law of Partial Pressures, the atmosphere must continuously re-equilabrate with the ocean, allowing more of the atmospheric CO2 causing global warming to enter the surface waters. This process happens over approximately 6 months, and is the reason why ocean fertilization has the effect of lowering atmospheric CO2.

A portion of the biomass created at the surface eventually dies and sinks as dead plankton organisms or as fecal pellets from larger zooplankton grazers. This process takes the carbon to the deep ocean, where the majority becomes ‘remineralized’ across a range of depths-beginning the long process of breaking the organic material back down into basic nutrients. This process is known to oceanographers as the “Biological Pump.” Over more than one billion years, the biological pump has contributed to the accumulation of approximately 85% of all mobile carbon in the deep ocean.

Whereas there are only 750 GtC (billions of tonnes of carbon) in the atmosphere, there are nearly 40,000 GtC in the deep ocean. Over the last 100 years, we have raised atmospheric concentrations by 35% from 280ppm (pre-industrial) to 380ppm (present-day), or approximately 260 GtC

If this same 260 GtC were moved to the deep ocean, it would increase the carbon concentration there by less than 1%. Ocean acidity from increased carbon at depth is not a concern.

Eventually, whether we assist or not, natural processes will move the large majority of the present excess atmospheric CO2 into the deep ocean — we are proposing to help that process happen more quickly.

Dan Whaley said on March 6th, 2008 at 2:33 pm
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