A team of scientists explores dumping artificial feces into the ocean as a carbon capture approach.
In our new Wild Ideas column, the Climate & Capital Media team explores emerging climate change innovation and solutions. Our Wild Ideas are not meant to distract from the critically important job of ending fossil fuel addiction and transitioning to clean energy — that’s non-negotiable. This features ideas, big and small, that could become pieces of the climate solutions puzzle. Some of these ideas will pan out and become important, others will fail. We hope exploring them will get you thinking about what’s possible. This week … artificial whale poop.
As it turns out, whales are not doing their job as they used to. The massive sea mammals typically eat massive amounts — some as much as 20 tons in a day — and then poop prodigiously. The excrement fertilizes the ecosystem, especially phytoplankton, which serves to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
But whales have been hunted nearly to extinction in the past five to six decades. So — our fault not theirs — they can’t keep up with their ocean fertilizing duties, causing the natural system to degrade and lowering its ability to capture greenhouse gasses.
Now a group of scientists dubbed Whale X is experimenting with artificial whale poop, dumping hundreds of liters of the odiferous red liquid into the waters off of Sydney, Australia, to bolster the natural system and its decarbonizing impact. The simulated poop is not an exact chemical replica of the natural stuff, but contains the same key ingredients – including nitrogen, phosphorus and trace elements, according to Edwina Tanner, project manager of Whale X at Ocean Nourishment Corporation in Sydney.
“Whales have been nourishing the ocean for the past 50 million years with no adverse side effects,” Tanner said. “We take our lessons from the whales and do our own experiments to make sure that this is a safe and effective [carbon dioxide reduction] solution.”
One of the initial challenges Whale X faced was giving the poop surrogate (dubbed AQUAfood) just the right amount of buoyancy so it remained in the sunlight layer of the ocean long enough for the phytoplankton to use it.
“We added a natural seaweed-based gelling agent and aerated it to make it more buoyant like whale poo,” said Tanner. “This is what we were testing on our first trial.”
See Whale X’s video of the company’s first trial operation
The team has satellite imaging, and a suite of in situ equipment along with computer modeling to measure the effectiveness of the ocean nourishment treatment.
Will the poo initiative gain the investment needed to scale up? Whale X is competing with projects worldwide for a chunk of Elon Musk’s $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal award. The four-year challenge, launched on Earth Day 2021, will award funding to the most promising carbon capture projects that can demonstrate their ability “to pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans, and sequester it durably and sustainably.”
“Compared to the cost of doing nothing, ocean nourishment is a very cost-effective solution.”
Whale X is not the first to pursue the idea of fertilizing the ocean. A recent feature in The Atlantic Monthly describes earlier experiments using iron to jump-start ocean ecosystems, premised on the idea that iron from whale excrement is the key nutrient that is now lacking. Some of these efforts have been heavily criticized for veering into the realm of risky geoengineering — among them an experiment conducted by American entrepreneur Russ George, who in 2012 reportedly dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean off Canada, fueling a 10,000 square kilometer plankton bloom!
For Whale X, the idea is to replicate as closely as possible the service provided by whales — and buy some time for the sustainable transition to clean fuels and, hopefully, recovery of the whale population.
“We are currently modeling our cost options to make this a viable solution,” says Tanner. “Compared to the cost of doing nothing, ocean nourishment is a very cost-effective solution.”