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.