While there are no shortage of daunting challenges facing humanity, there are a shortage of ambitious startups working creatively to solve them. Earth today needs more moonshot innovators, more wild visionaries working to meet the greatest global challenges of our time.
This is Part 2 of a 5-Part Startup Idea Banks series, inviting founders to steal these ideas from the Founder Institute’s bank, and use them as jumping-off points for building new impactful businesses. In Part 1, we explored energy technologies. Part 2 also focuses on Earth’s climate: on new and emerging technologies for storing atmospheric carbon. These are innovations that our environment could hugely benefit from today, if the potential solutions can be built and scaled into sustainable business models. If you’re a social impact entrepreneur looking for an accelerator program to help your venture achieve traction or fundraising goals, then apply to the Founder Institute today!
Through FI For Good, the Founder Institute calls upon entrepreneurs worldwide to build new businesses that help meet the challenges set forth in the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Development Goals. We implore entrepreneurs everywhere to steal these ideas, and help solve these global problems!
Part 2: Storing Carbon Permanently & Sustainably
(Sustainable Development Goals 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)
Human activity since the industrial revolution has hugely increased the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere—this is the root cause of the global climate changes that we are beginning to see manifest themselves all around the world today, from more severe heatwaves and droughts to tropical storms and flooding. As most already know, the primary greenhouse gas culprit to blame is carbon-dioxide, often referred to by its molecular moniker of “CO2.”
In our SDG Startup Idea Bank Part 1, we investigated alternative energy technologies critical to developing a green economy— and here, we’re looking at the even bigger climate picture: Earth’s entire carbon cycle. One hard truth about the global climate crisis is that humanity needs to do much more than just make the switch to a zero-carbon energy economy — we also need to actively start pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, and we need to start soon.
Assuming the entire world does manage to completely stop burning carbon-based fossil fuels relatively quickly, science tells us that we also need to keep atmospheric CO2 levels close to 350 parts per million in order to hold the rise in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the preindustrial baseline — at the so-called “safe” level of global warming. But the problem is that earlier this year, we crossed 410 ppm of atmospheric CO2 — already well above the allotted limit of atmospheric carbon to avoid climate disaster!
We need more entrepreneurs working to devise the economically viable solutions — to build and scale new business models that incorporate pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. And we need to do this on a massive industrial scale — at an order of magnitude comparable to that of the entire existing global fossil fuels industry. This makes perfect sense as a rough estimate, since fossil fuel burning is the carbon pollution whose industrial processes are currently working in exactly the opposite direction: actively pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere. And unfortunately, the carbon polluters have a 200 year head-start.
The key term of art is “carbon sequestration” — this refers to the process of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, and storing that carbon somewhere else — ideally storing it permanently, so that it can’t return to the air as CO2 in the future. Let’s explore the Idea Bank:
Wooden Wonders to Genetic Ingenuities
Humanity has at least one ally standing tall by our side in the battle against atmospheric carbon: plants. Long before humans ever walked the Earth, plants evolved the remarkable ability to remove CO2 from the air, and convert it into their own biomass. They literally eat carbon for breakfast. Photosynthesis requires other inputs too, like light and water, but the carbon in plants comes from the same CO2 we breath out — and that we produce in much greater quantities through the industrial burning of fossil fuels.
The problem is that when plants die, they decomposes: where does that carbon in the plants go? Some carbon may be stored in the soil at least for a while, or incorporated into the bodies of other organisms — but mostly and over time, carbon previously in the bodies of dead plants simply turn back into atmospheric CO2. But one broad category of plant tissue offers an exception: wood, which often resists decay for many years.
Woody plants convert CO2 into a form of biomass that can hold the captured carbon stable, for well beyond the lifetime of the plant itself. This means wood products can be a real part of the carbon solution — as long as the wood is used in products that can remain stable for long periods of time, such as in the construction of buildings or long-lasting durable goods, it can be "carbon negative." This means that so long as wood is grown and harvested sustainably, existing wood products industries can help lock up additional carbon. Even futuristic wooden skyscrapers are now becoming a built architectural reality.
Alternatively, some scientists propose to genetically modify plants, in order to help them capture more atmospheric carbon. The ideas are more complex than growing a GMO forest of Kashyyyk mega-trees — researchers are working on projects ranging from designing synthetic enzymes and metabolic pathways for more efficient CO2 capture, to designing plants capable of storing more carbon dioxide in their roots.
Given living organisms’ ability to naturally reproduce and perpetuate themselves, and given plants’ ability to sequester carbon through photosynthesis, it is likely that genetically modified plants will play a substantial role in the future of carbon sequestration. Interestingly, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office issues specific Plant Patents protecting novel newly bred-cultivars of plants, as well as Utility Patent coverage for novel plant DNA patents (like other genetic innovations granted IP protections under the USTPO).
Recommended Resources to Get Started
CO2 Offset Credits: Pricing, Delivery, Verification
As carbon-intensive industries like airlines begin offering options for CO2-conscious travelers to offset their emissions, through the purchase of credits — and as whole economies eventually start to incorporate the true cost of carbon, through pricing of carbon taxation — ensuring carbon offsets and credits are accurately priced, credibly delivered, and traceably verifiable are critically important steps of authentication. The best practices that emerge here, from even small-scale and privatized carbon offset accounting or traceability schemes, may eventually form the structural basis for future carbon regulatory or tracking and measurement systems.
But in the immediate term, there are clear business opportunities to deliver carbon offsets for the economic sectors that are already putting a price on carbon. From the planting of baby trees in new planned forestry projects, to the careful management of grasslands and grazing pasturelands to help the soil absorb and maintain greater carbon saturation levels, CO2 sequestration needs boots-on-the-ground workers. There will be agricultural and land management jobs created as new carbon accounting industries plan and track carbon cycling and deliver on new negative emissions products for customers and citizens.
For the tracking and verification of CO2 capture, entrepreneurs will need to build new marketplaces and business ecosystems, where properly priced carbon pollution is be fairly traded and genuinely offset, quickly and easily for the consumer.
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Industrial Net Negatives: Air Filtration Sequestration
Besides carbon capture through the natural systems described above, there are also more industrial ideas: creating giant machines, or other wholly artificial systems, explicitly for the purpose of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. The idea is to lock up carbon dioxide through chemistry, and suck it up in an affordable way — ideally, this means doing something with the end carbon-based material.
Pulling CO2 from the air for use in products and services is called “carbon capture and utilization” (or “CCU”). By some estimates, CCU alone may potentially be $1 trillion market opportunity by 2030. And while it’ll be barely a drop in the bucket against the ongoing burning of fossil fuels, the adoption of CCU technologies for narrow purposes at first, may be exactly the R&D funnel needed to drive down the costs of these new technologies as we scale them up towards more industrial-level carbon capture and sequestration.
The ability to capture carbon from the air may in fact form the basis of new carbon-based materials, for use in construction, fuels, or other product supply chains. Just like capturing carbon in wood products, producing any futuristic goods through direct carbon capture — from durables like carbon fibers to consumables like synthetic hydrocarbons — all present the type of clear economically viable solutions needed for CCU to be put to work more widely.
Recommended Resources to Get Started
Storage, But Forever: Scale-Ups Underground
In the more immediate term, there are ideas for net-negative CO2 schemes that involve burying carbon underground — and some of them are definitely not crazy. To be clear, the baseline assumption for all these is that the carbon stays buried — assuming that to be the case, there are some more economically viable possibilities that make underground “Carbon Capture and Storage” (or “CCS”) a very interesting possibility.
First, we already know how to do it. Currently, CCS deployed on power plants and other industrial-scale polluters is putting away about 40 million metric tons of CO2 annually, capturing about 1% of annual global emissions. The scheme to make CCS net-negative carbon systems is basically this: grow trees that capture carbon dioxide, burn the wood for energy in power plants, capture the CO2 emissions with CCS, and bury it underground. Thus, electricity is produced (from a wood-fired steam-turbine power plant), but the overall scheme is pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, making it an overall net-negative carbon process.
Other underground and permanent CCS ideas involve direct air capture for creation of more stable materials, such as a kind of artificial stone that will reliably not transform back into atmospheric CO2.
Recommended Resources to Get Started
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This is Part 2 of a 5-Part Startup Idea Banks series, featuring FI For Good startup ideas for working to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
We first look at the environment: Part 1 visited potential and emerging energy technology ideas worth exploring. Part 2 above focused environmental impact through the lens of ideas to tackle the full carbon cycle challenge. (UN SDGs 7,8,9,11,12,13,14,15).
Parts 3 & 4 will focus on social impact: the SDGs that primarily concern human life directly: education and opportunity, health and wellbeing, and peace and governance (UN SDGs 1,2,3,4,5,6,10,16,17)
Part 5 will launch an open-source entrepreneurial Call-To-Action, seeking ideas from founders across the FI global network. We need your contributions to build this resource list of social+environmental impact business ideas that the world needs now.
Social and environmental impact-related or not, if you're an entrepreneur building a new business towards achieving traction or funding goals, then apply now to the next Founder Institute program cohort nearest you.