‘Run The Oil Industry In Reverse’: Fighting Environment Change By Farming Kelp

‘Run The Oil Industry In Reverse’: Fighting Environment Change By Farming Kelp

Adam Baske (left) and Capt. Rob Odlin of Running Tide Technologies in the Gulf of Maine. They release rope that’s braided with early-stage kelp, a fast growing seaweed that will soak up co2.

Fred Bever/Maine Public.


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Adam Baske (left) and Capt. Rob Odlin of Running Tide Technologies in the Gulf of Maine. They launch rope that’s entwined with early-stage kelp, a fast growing seaweed that will absorb co2.

Fred Bever/Maine Public.

In the race to stall and even reverse global warming, new efforts are in the works to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and put it somewhere safe.

One startup in Maine has a vision that is drawing attention from researchers and venture capitalists alike: to bury massive quantities of seaweed at the bottom of the ocean, where it will lock away carbon for countless years.

The business is called Running Tide Technologies, and it’s prototyping the concept this winter. On a recent day in the Gulf of Maine, boat captain Rob Odlin states the task itself isn’t much different from any other in his seafaring profession, whether chasing after tuna or harvesting lobster.

” We’re simply fishing for carbon now, and kelp’s the web,” he says.

Running Tide CEO Marty Odlin– the boat captain’s nephew– comes from a long line of Maine fishermen, and as soon as imagined he would continue the tradition. He enjoyed as the warming climate drove major shifts in fish populations, while regulators put a lid on how much might be taken from the sea.

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” It just got truly difficult for me to enter into insane debt to purchase a boat to catch fish that were swimming away,” Odlin says.

The Dartmouth-trained engineer did start an oyster farm. However he also started considering how to stop the damage in the Gulf of Maine, among the fastest warming bodies of water on earth.

” Basically what we need to do is run the oil market in reverse,” he concluded.

As Odlin notes, the nonrenewable fuel sources we burn for energy started out as plants countless years back. Much of it was ocean algae that sank to the bottom of ancient seas, where chemistry and water pressure changed it into oil, over geologic timescales.

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Olivia Mercier runs the kelp hatchery at Portland’s Running Tide Technologies. She raises sporophytes, or early-stage kelp, on a pipeline covered with eco-friendly string; the string will be placed in the ocean.

Fred Bever/Maine Public.


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Olivia Mercier runs the kelp hatchery at Portland’s Running Tide Technologies. She raises sporophytes, or early-stage kelp, on a pipeline covered with naturally degradable string; the string will be placed in the ocean.

Fred Bever/Maine Public.

Odlin wants to mimic those natural processes, and do it in a hurry. He imagines an armada heading hundreds of miles offshore each fall, to deploy countless free-floating cellulose buoys, each connected to a kelp-bearing rope.

The kelp will take in carbon– gigatons of it– through photosynthesis. Months later on the fully grown plant blades will grow too heavy for their biodegradable buoys.

” So the kelp will sink to the ocean bottom in the sediment, and end up being, basically, part of the ocean floor,” Odlin states. The supreme goal is that it will stay there, sequestrated for countless years, turning back into oil.

This year’s goal is more modest: an on-the-water experiment, floating about 1600 single-buoy “micro-farms” to gather information and show the idea.

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Low-tech elegance

The business is part of a new wave of big-thinking about removing carbon from the atmosphere at a planetary-scale.

Microsoft last year devoted a billion dollars to kick-start research and advancement in the emerging field of carbon-removal tech. It also guaranteed to find ways to remove all the CO2 its operations have put in the air considering that it was established.

High-tech carbon-removal developments are emerging around the globe. Towering banks of fans that can pull CO2 from the sky. Pumps injecting plant-based biofuels into the earth. Running Tide seems to be catching attention– and financial investment– since of its low-tech sophistication.

” When we began learning more about Running Tide’s method, I was blown away by the simplicity,” says Stacy Kauk, who directs sustainability efforts at Shopify, a $150- billion e-commerce business which will be Running Tide’s first consumer for carbon-capture credits.

She states Shopify is willing to pay a premium for the credits now, in hopes the technology can ultimately be brought to a price-point that would attract broad buy-in from other businesses and governments.

” They’re not counting on expensive devices, or energy-intensive procedures,” she says. “It’s very simple, and the economies of scale related to that make Running Tide’s solution have substantial potential.”

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Marty Odlin, CEO of Running Tide Technologies, in its workshop on Portland’s waterside. The Dartmouth-trained engineer originates from a fishing family and when wanted to be a fisherman. But after seeing worldwide warming’s effects on the Gulf of Maine fisheries he decided to try and reverse the damage.

Fred Bever/Maine Public.


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Marty Odlin, CEO of Running Tide Technologies, in its workshop on Portland’s waterfront.

Fred Bever/Maine Public.

At a large scale, though, Running Tide is mindful there could be unwanted effects. It’s modeling whether, for example, a wide variety of free-floating micro-farms might entangle whales, impede shipping, or foul beaches.

Outdoors experts are pitching in: A consortium of oceanographers from MIT, Stanford and other leading research clothing will evaluate the job and its environmental dangers. But executive director Brad Ack says all that will be weighed in the context of the seriousness of combating environment modification.

” We need to compare them versus the no-action alternative,” he says. “And in this case, the no-action option is very grim.”

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Running Tide’s Marty Odlin says it will take a World-War II level mobilization to get rid of a significant chunk of some 200 years’ worth of humanity’s CO2 contamination, whether through his model or any others that show real-world promise.

” We’re kind of in a cage-match with it today,” he states. “I’m not in this to offer Godzilla a paper-cut.”

For now, from his uncle’s re-purposed lobster boat off Maine’s coast, the Running Tide group is tending the buoys, ensuring they make it through the winter season storms. They’ll return in the spring to sink this test-crop of carbon-removing kelp a thousand meters deep, ideally to stay there for millennia.

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