Ocean iron fuss is not about nanotechnology

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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  1. Debbie March 7, 2008 at 7:05 am - Reply

    I agree with much of what you say. However, the discussion does change based on the size of the particle, because you can better predict the effects of the larger particles. The toxilogical and bioaccumulative effects of the nano iron are not well understood. What is known is that the increased surface area makes them much more reactive, and that as a result, they may react in unpredictable ways.

  2. Christine Peterson March 7, 2008 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    Yes, all these issues must be looked at. My point was that they need to be addressed within a more comprehensive framework that applies to carbon offset technologies and ocean seeding policy in general, not just nanotechnologies. We are probably in agreement on that, and thanks for commenting. —Christine

  3. Dan Whaley March 8, 2008 at 10:46 am - Reply


    Thank you for your thoughtful posting.

    With reference to Debbie’s remark and the general concern here, I think one thing needs mentioning.

    The nanoparticle debate gets a little far afield when it comes to solubility and dissolved material in liquids. Our goal is to deliver a form of iron to the ocean that becomes completely dissolved, and hence suspended, for as long as possible. By definition, if the FeSO4 that we deliver becomes fully dissolved, then the molecules of this salt are dissassociated from crystalline form and for all purposes of definition are no longer ‘particles’, but rather freely moving molecules. I suppose one could say that taking table salt and dissolving it in water creates ‘nanoparticles’, perhaps even ‘picoparticles’, but I think this clearly pushes beyond of any useful sense of this concept.

    Why FeSO4? The iron is required, and immediately scavenged by the phytoplankton, cyanobacteria or whatever other elements of the biologic chain are iron-stressed. SO4 is a common and readily available carrier that lowers the solubility threshold and allows the iron to stay suspended longer. SO4 is also naturally the fourth most abundant ion in seawater.

    Without such a compound to make it soluble, the iron would immediately precipitate out of solution. This characteristic of iron is what makes it limited in most of the world’s oceans, and why it becomes the key ingredient which makes iron fertilization a viable concept. Were it more soluble, it would no longer be the limiting factor.

    In fact, iron is in such demand in the sea, and over billions of years has played such a significant role in the evolution of the ocean, that genes which can take iron and derive energy directly from the electrochemical processing of it, are abundant even in archaea–the ubiquitous microbes which represent the oldest (though most newly discovered) kingdom of life. An excellent example of this is in the ‘rusticles’ or living microbial icicles of rust which were discovered growing off the rapidly decomposing Titanic about 10 years ago. (Read Tim Friend’s excellent new book “The Third Domain” for a wonderful description of these).

    The properties and ecological role of iron in the ocean have been extensively studied over the last 30 years. It is perhaps one of the most researched areas in oceanography and biogeochemistry—and is certainly the single most studied trace metal. To frame it in the way you do by inquiring about the toxicology and bioaccumulative effects is to stray quite wide of the mark. What are the toxicological and bioaccumulative effects of iron in soils? etc.


    Dan Whaley

  4. Nanoman March 8, 2008 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    Very interesting. I personally met the head of Planktos at the Second International Conference On Free Energy, held in the Washington DC area. The topics were wide and varied, tidal, wind, solar, and other energies were discussed, and Russ George of d2fusion who I believe was also head of Planktos was there and he mentioned this iron seeding.

    I just want to say, Christine, thank you for the years you have devoted to nanotechnology awareness. You have really made an impact in my life and the lives of others for the best. I really wish you would write a book about molecular manufacturing. But I know your schedule is probably very busy.

  5. Christine Peterson March 10, 2008 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    To Dan Whaley — Thanks for taking the time to post. Most of those I’ve run into are nervous about the iron seeding approach, but I hope all the issues will be resolved, one way or the other, in a productive manner. Surely everyone participating in the debate will be able to see that you have put together a prestigious scientific team, so there is something to debate here, which wasn’t clear to me before with Planktos.

    To Nanoman — Your words of support are greatly appreciated! I would love to write a book, but you’re right, it’s a question of finding the time. If someone out there would like to make a large earmarked donation to Foresight for such a project, that would be a sign of market demand! ;^)


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