‘Antacid for the ocean’: Ottawa-born cleantech firm foresees lucrative future for carbon-capture system

ocean

An Ottawa-born startup that’s pioneering a carbon-capture system its founders call an “antacid for the ocean” has raised nearly $8 million in seed funding as it vies for tens of millions of dollars in prize money in a green-technology competition backed by Elon Musk.

Planetary Technologies announced earlier this month it landed $4.2 million from a group of investors that includes Innovacorp, a Nova Scotia Crown corporation that funds early stage tech firms, and San Francisco-based VC firm Apollo Projects. The firm also has also received $3.6 million in grants from governments in Canada and the U.K. to help get its technology off the ground.

Launched three years ago in Ottawa, the company now conducts much of its R&D in Quebec and Nova Scotia, where it’s setting up test facilities it hopes to start operating later this year. 

Planetary’s proprietary system “purifies” the mountains of alkaline rock waste left behind by large-scale mining operations, extracting the alkalinity from the rubble and putting it in the ocean. There, it accelerates the Earth’s natural carbon cycle, pulling carbon from the air and storing it as a natural component of ocean chemistry for up to 100,000 years.

In a nutshell, the system scrubs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while making the ocean less acidic. The firm’s founders say that will help boost growth of coral and shellfish such as oysters and lobsters, leading to a healthier ecosystem and a better-functioning food chain.

“It’s like an antacid for the ocean,” explains Planetary vice-president Jason Vallis, who holds a master’s degree in mechanical and sustainable energy from Carleton University.  

The firm has spent the past year fine-tuning the technology after initially developing a system that used renewable electricity to split ocean water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, a process known as electrolysis. 

But even before it shifted its technological focus, the Ottawa startup’s work was already turning heads in the cleantech community. 

Originally known as Planetary Hydrogen, the young venture quickly raised $600,000 in seed funding from the Capital Angel Network, Toronto-based Ramen Ventures and other local investors. The company soon captured the attention of Ottawa-based Shopify, which signed a deal in 2020 that would see the software giant offset its carbon footprint by buying credits based on carbon removal generated by Planetary’s technology.

Now, the firm believes its decision to work with partners in the mining industry will put it on a faster path to growth. 

In addition to its Nova Scotia plant, Planetary is building a facility in the asbestos-mining hub of Thetford Mines, Que., where 800 million tonnes of waste rock provide the ideal testing ground for its technology. The company is also working on a project in Brazil with Brazilian Nickel PLC, a U.K.-based sustainable nickel and cobalt mining enterprise.

"It’s an exciting opportunity for us to tap into such a large industry … that hasn’t had the best track record in terms of environmental stewardship."

“It’s an exciting opportunity for us to tap into such a large industry … that hasn’t had the best track record in terms of environmental stewardship,” says Planetary co-founder Brock Battochio. “But we really think we can help change that story and be a major positive influence on the industry.”

Planetary’s founders say the process of purifying mining waste creates several byproducts with huge commercial potential, including metals such as nickel and cobalt that are widely used in batteries. Demand for those metals is expected to soar in the coming decades as the shift to electric-powered vehicles accelerates.

The system’s other major byproduct is hydrogen, which many clean-energy disciples see as a potential green-energy alternative to fossil fuels in cases where electric power isn’t practical, such as jet aircraft and supertanker transport ships.

Hydrogen – which is now used mainly in petroleum refining to help convert crude oil into gasoline and diesel fuel as well as in the production of ammonia for fertilizers – is already a major global industry worth more than $150 billion annually. The International Energy Agency is forecasting the worldwide market for the gas will double in the next decade and could increase tenfold by 2050.

It’s that kind of revenue potential that Planetary hopes will help it stand out from the pack in a space that’s already teeming with an ocean full of competitors. 

“I think we’ve done a good job at de-risking it,” says Vallis. “We’ve got many different avenues available to us in terms of how we commercialize this.”

To illustrate the explosion of interest in the carbon-capture industry, Planetary’s leaders point out the firm is one of about 1,100 entrants so far in Elon Musk’s XPrize Carbon Removal competition. 

The billionaire entrepreneur’s foundation is offering US$100 million worth of prizes to companies that come up with the most effective solutions for pulling carbon dioxide from the air and oceans and sequestering it.

'We can't do it alone'

Battochio appears to be unfazed by being part of such a crowded field. He says it’s going to take a global effort to reverse the effects of climate change – meaning the more companies that are working on carbon-removal technologies, the better the chances that effective solutions will emerge.

“We have to pull mountains of CO2 out of the air we’re breathing right now,” explains the Carleton engineering grad, who was recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 energy list for North America. “It is no small feat. We can’t do it alone.” 

Planetary has doubled its headcount to 15 employees in the past year and is on the hunt for more metallurgists, engineers and other highly skilled talent as it seeks to make its mark in what Battochio and Vallis say could one day be a multitrillion-dollar industry.

Still, the sheer complexity of carbon-capture technology means funding and following through on such efforts might be easier said than done. 

For example, Vallis figures it could cost anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion to build facilities large enough to effectively commercialize the technology, depending on the location. The firm's goal is to construct hundreds of plants around the world that would collectively remove up to a gigatonne of carbon from the atmosphere each year.

Meanwhile, the brain power required to figure out the best way of getting there also isn’t cheap – or particularly plentiful. 

“We’re building a business model that really hasn’t existed before,” Battochio says. “This is all new. From a technology perspective, we’re combining very deep, extensive expertise from different industries and putting them all together. That in itself is challenging. 

“These are very niche industries and for us to get to where we need to go, we need to really bring in world-class talent. Continuing to build that out over the long term could be challenging.”

But the potential upside of Planetary’s carbon-capture push, both for the environment and the economy, has its founders eager to put the technology into practice.

“This is the year the rubber hits the road for us,” Battochio says. “This is where it becomes serious.”