Ocean iron fuss is not about nanotechnology

We’ve written here before about the plan to put iron nanoparticles in the ocean as a way to increase growth of plankton, thereby absorbing carbon dioxide. Previously this was to be done by a company called Planktos; now a new company called Climos is making similar plans. There was controversy about Planktos, and no doubt there will be about the new plan as well. Excerpts from the San Jose Mercury News:

Climos, a San Francisco company, says it can mitigate climate change by putting small amounts of iron in the ocean to spur the growth of carbon-dioxide-absorbing plankton, an idea that has left some environmentalists wary.

On Wednesday, the seven-person start-up went from a concept that sounds like the plot of a ’50s sci-fi movie to an innovative (and controversial) going concern with the news that it has raised $3.5 million.

Climos seeks to answer whether what it calls “ocean iron fertilization” could be “a meaningful mitigation tool” to fight climate change, said Dan Whaley its chief executive officer. It will make money by entering the growing carbon-offset market, in which companies like Climos sell credits to companies that produce pollution to make up for their greenhouse-gas emissions…

[Investor Elon] Musk, in an e-mail, wrote that “oceans have tremendous potential for affordable carbon sequestration.” Ocean microorganisms, such as phytoplankton, are very good at absorbing carbon. Plus, “the real estate is free, plankton are super easy to grow and they bury themselves by sinking to the ocean bottom.”

One point to notice here is that this is not about nanotech or nanoparticles per se. The same basic questions would arise if the particles were not nanoscale. The questions to ask here are (1) do we have confidence in how carbon credit offset techniques are approved, and (2) do we have confidence in the rules on what can be put into the oceans? These are some higher-level questions to focus on when trying to evaluate either carbon offsets or ocean health.

For those of us unable to evaluate the science of climate change on our own (certainly including me), it may be useful to check out the company’s Chief Science Officer and Scientific Advisory Board. Some heavy hitters there — more prestigious than I had been expecting. We can look forward to some intense debate as the company proceeds. —Christine

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