Can Rocks Absorb Enough CO2 to Fight Climate Change? Alphabet and Shopify Think Yes

by alex

The companies have entered into an agreement with a startup called Lithos, which offers CO2 capture services using enhanced “weathering” tactics – the natural ability of rocks to absorb carbon dioxide during destruction.

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The agreement with Lithos was concluded by Frontier, a carbon removal initiative led by Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify and McKinsey Sustainability, as well as Autodesk, H&M Group, JPMorgan Chase, Workday, Zendesk, Canva and Boom Supersonic.

Lithos relies on alkaline rocks to absorb CO2 from the air during mechanical destruction. In nature, this process occurs under the influence of rain, wind or sea waves and without outside help can take thousands of years. To speed up the process, rocks (such as basalt or gravel) can be crushed into dust and spread over a larger area, thereby “threatening” to absorb more CO2.

Lithos is already testing the technique in farmers' fields, where crushed basalt subsequently reacts with rainwater, trapping carbon dioxide in the air as bicarbonate, which then moves through groundwater to the sea, where Lithos expects at least 10,000 years or longer.

The difficulty is that Lithos must report to the companies how much CO2 the rocks have captured. The company says it makes assessments through soil samples, measuring its chemical composition (a process made possible by Yale University research).

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“The Lithos method is an incremental improvement, but still has serious unresolved questions,” says Oliver Jagutz, professor of geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The data provided by the company essentially shows “the absolute best estimate of what could be,” but the reality, unfortunately, is much more complex, Jagutz adds. In particular, there is a risk of overestimating how much carbon dioxide is captured if the full impact of soil fertilizers on the process is not taken into account.

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There are other possible side effects when using enhanced weathering tactics. The concentration of bicarbonate in any particular area can have negative consequences for ecosystems. The environmental impact of mining, crushing and transporting rocks should also be considered (Lithos uses waste from quarries to minimize such impacts).

According to Frontier, the $57.1 million agreement with Lithos would cover the cost of sequestering more than 154,000 tons of CO2 by 2028 (equivalent to taking about 34,000 cars off the road for a year). At approximately $370 per ton of CO2 removed, this is still quite a pricey price, although it is significantly cheaper than the cost of plants that capture carbon dioxide from the air ($600 per ton).

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