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UK-based Seaweed Generation raises £1m to sink seaweed and CO2

© Shutterstock / DamseaPost Thumbnail

UK start-up Seaweed Generation has raised £1 million in pre-seed funding to develop its seaweed-sinking CO2 removal (CDR) technology.

  • Seaweed Generation’s AlgaRay tackles two problems in one by sequestering CO2 through its clearance of invasive sargassum seaweed. 
  • The increasing volume of invasive sargassum poses a threat to human, environmental and economic wellbeing, while CDR is considered an “essential element” in our ability to meet the 1.5°C goals of the Paris Agreement. 
  • As the CDR space gains more support from both governments and the private sector, a range of innovative technologies will emerge. Although there is unlikely to be just one clear winner, Seaweed Generation’s early funding success highlights the potential of its approach. 

Seaweed Generation will use the investment to scale its patent-pending AlgaRay, an automated robot that collects rogue sargassum before descending to lower depths and releasing its cargo. When deposited at these depths, the CO2 absorbed by the seaweed during its growth is sequestered within the ocean carbon cycle. 

One solution to two major issues 

The volume of invasive sargassum has been rising in recent years, largely due to the artificial inflation of available nutrients caused by excessive fertiliser use, raw sewage overflows and soil run-off. Currently, over 30 jurisdictions are affected by the sargassum plague, with a 10,000 km belt having formed in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Its invasion has severe impacts as it encroaches on fragile marine ecosystems, releases harmful gases that can cause health problems for local communities and disrupts coastal economies based on industries such as tourism or fishing. 

This is just one problem that could be addressed by Seaweed Generation’s technology. The second issue addressed by the start-up is the growing need for CO2 removal (CDR), which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers an “essential” component of scenarios that will prevent global temperatures from rising above the 1.5°C limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

CDR involves sequestering CO2 from either biomass – including seaweed – or the atmosphere, rather than capturing the emissions of human activity. A wide range of CDR technologies has begun to emerge, including both natural and mechanical solutions, but questions remain as to the permanence, additionality and measurability of their benefits. 

Mechanical solutions such as Climeworks’ direct air capture (DAC) are yet to be proven at scale, with projected costs of up to $1,000 per tonne of carbon captured and concerns surrounding their energy efficiency. Alternative approaches using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, meanwhile, have been criticised over their potential lifecycle emissions and impact on food security, biodiversity and land use. 

What is Seaweed Generation doing differently? 

This is not to say that Seaweed Generation’s CDR solution will not be without its challenges. It will face similar scrutiny over the permanence and additionality of its carbon sequestration, and if it succeeds in its efforts to reduce the sargassum problem then it will be unable to reach the necessary scale. 

Addressing these concerns, the company is conducting ongoing research on the depths at which its biomass should be released in order to guarantee permanent carbon sequestration, with current evidence suggesting that it can be stored for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is also working to confirm how much biomass would reach these depths naturally, allowing it to determine how much additional CO2 its technology has removed. 

The start-up plans to use sargassum as a proof-of-concept before beginning its own cultivation of macroalgae to bring the solution to scale. Such cultivation has proven difficult for other developers of algal technologies, but Seaweed Generation believes its technology may be the answer. 

SG Voice contacted Mike Allen, the firm’s co-founder and chief science officer, to find out more. Allen explained that, while conventional cultivation takes place in onshore coastal regions, “the opportunity for massive future expansion is off-shore.” 

“The challenge ahead is also our greatest opportunity,” he explains, “namely that 70% of the planet is covered in ocean. We have lots of space to expand into, which doesn’t compete with agricultural production, but unfortunately it’s not solid and as a liquid it is constantly moving about. The weather is also very changeable and conditions are harsh.” 

 “We believe that automation and robotics are the obvious solution. We have two approaches that we are working on which both exploit automation and robotics. They will each support each other.” 

The first approach is AlgaRay, which Allen describes as being a simple collection robot, “a bit like Wall-E, but in the ocean with seaweed”.  

The second will be its upcoming cultivation system, which will rely on undisclosed smart technologies. According to Allen, “we can improve the productivity rather than growing statically in the same location, which everyone does at the moment. By pairing both automated systems up, cultivation and harvesting, we think we have the winning formula that the world needs to fight climate change.” 

“The added the bonus of all this automation is we are incredibly data heavy, which means we can track everything all the way along. This is going to be incredibly useful for process development through machine learning and artificial intelligence”, he concludes. 

Increasing support for CDR innovation 

Despite their many challenges, technological innovations in the CDR space are increasingly gaining the support they need. 

The UK Government, for example, has opened a multi-phase funding competition for DAC and other greenhouse gas removal technologies, while the $739 billion Inflation Reduction Act includes significant tax incentives for CDR developers.

Upfront carbon removal investments are also rising within the private sector, with Stripe, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and UBS (NYSE:UBS) already making sizeable deals. 

Although the Energy Transitions Committee warns that CDR will require around $15 trillion in investment within the next thirty years to reach the necessary scale, this growing support suggests that we will soon see a plethora of innovative technologies brought to market. 

Ultimately, there is unlikely to be just one solution that comes out on top, Seaweed Generation’s early funding success indicates the potential of its approach. 

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