Raffael Jovine: Founder and Chief Scientist of Brilliant Planet – Ep. 119

Raffael Jovine: Sequestering Carbon at the Gigaton Scale Using Algae?

Raffael Jovine is the founder & chief scientist of Brilliant Planet, a company unlocking the power of algae as an affordable method of permanently and quantifiably sequestering carbon at the gigaton scale.

Brilliant Planet has raised tens of millions in funding from major partners like Toyota Ventures, and when you hear his innovative solution, you’ll understand why.

But beyond that, Raffael’s personal story is so incredible—learn how he made massive changes in his personal life and career that led to his biggest breakthroughs later in life. Now he’s a published author and leader extraordinaire. 

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0:01 – “Hi, I’m Raffael Jovine, and I Beat the Often Path first by not completing a whole school year until I was 13. I was an actor and did a lot of stage work. I was a photo model, acted in some of the worst German divorce dramas on very bad television. And my rebellion against my bohemian family was to study sciences.”

4:16 – “Stage was a family. It was a very nice environment. People were very tight and close. The fire marshall would help with my homework. The wardrobe was the safe space. It was a great place to grow up, actually. And yet I knew very early on – I didn’t know why, really, and I was a kid – but I knew that there was something bigger out there and something else for me. I’m the first high school graduate in my family. My family comes from a very sort of different background. And now, I’ve had two post-docs and I’ve done all the other things that, like you say, certainly nobody in my family, I mean, they still are puzzled by what I’m doing.”

5:56 – “I do believe that we have different skills at different times of our life and that it was easier certainly for me to make some fairly complex connections when I was younger, I had more alert hours, I was more energetic for sure. There are differences, but with experience also comes judgment and sort of an inbuilt bullshit tester; being able to know when your own ideas are maybe just a little bit too fantastical. And also the ability to understand others better. When you’re young, you tend to be very impressed with your own thinking, whereas it requires experience and skill to learn from others.”

6:56 – “After graduate school, after I was a postdoc, I became a management consultant. I did work in a very corporate environment and I was very honest with myself where I felt I was missing something. There was a lack in my life and, this is completely silly but, I would be standing at London City Airport, a very small inner city airport that’s right on the Thames. And it smells like the marine environment, and the kerosene from the engines of the propeller planes smelled sort of like the kerosene on the boats that I used to do my field work on. And I’d go to these clients doing pharma mergers and all these responsible things. And I would always be hankering for this fieldwork that had transformed me. And so I then made lists of priorities for myself where I wanted to see what was missing from my life. And no matter what I did, it always came back to this business of doing fieldwork and doing more biological research in the real environment. And so there’s also with age comes a sense of self-awareness and recognition that you have some needs that may not be met by your current job.”

8:36 – “Once you’ve been out of academia for a while, you are not so relevant anymore. So in my case, I knew that I could do something about climate change. For me, it was obvious even in 2004/05 that we needed to do something really big about climate change and that things were running in the different direction. The rest of the world wasn’t quite there. There were some people in the climate community were very aware, but it wasn’t as dramatic as it is today. And so using my new skills from my management consultancy and my old sort of research skills, I tried to come up with a new approach, how I would tackle it. And the reason why I say that is with age also comes a larger toolset. You have different insights that are not necessarily just on the content and the subject matter expertise, but on how to deliver it.”

9:44 – “I feel that you also, as a parent, you learn a lot. I mean my children know this, but when my first daughter was born, I never put her down. She was perfect in every way. I hated the fact that people kissed her all the time and sort of slobbered on her. And I wanted her to be just perfect. And by the time my third child, my son, came along and he would want to sort of dig around in the flower pots and eat the dirt, I’d just hand him the spoon. I mean, you discover that things are just going to be all right. And so, there are many learning experience that make you a more well-rounded person that can be kind of efficient in a lot of other ways as well.”

11:22 – (Ross) “One of the words that you mentioned earlier was connections. And I love that word because I think that the smartest people that I’ve interacted with, they see connections between things that other people don’t see. They see connections between seemingly completely unrelated things.”

16:28 – “When I went to Antarctica, we were part of a research study by the National Science Foundation where we went down to Antarctica to look at the biological impact of the ozone hole. And cool, great study, was a monster study. It was really well organized. But just to start off with, the boat was a chartered boat by Norwegian sailors and it was a Norwegian research vessel. And on the ship were people who do satellite analysis, so that was new to me. I mean, I was a biologist; ornithologists, who are really brave people who fly around in these remote places, doing bird counts by putting their own life at risk – I mean, they’re extremely dedicated; really fundamental physicists who looked at what happens to the light underwater. And then you’re in an environment where everybody is connected by radio, including at the time it was the space shuttle going overhead, but there are actually no people around. So everybody’s connected and you are talking to each other and everybody has very different needs. And yet your bond is that you’re in this extremely isolated place in Antarctica. And what was fantastic about that was that you realize that people have a very different view of the world.”

22:13 – “If you look at the so-called ‘Keeling Curve,’ where in top of Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, Professor Keeling has been measuring the atmospheric CO2, again since the late fifties. Every year we accumulate a little bit more CO2 in the atmosphere. Since that Mauna Loa Observatory has been started, there now observatories all around the world going all the way from the Arctic to Antarctica to track that annual CO2 increase. And when you see it, it’s a zigzag curve. It’s a very dramatic zigzag. It’s a very spiky curve. And the reason why that matters is because Mauna Loa is in the northern hemisphere and when there is summer and spring, there is a lot of carbon fixation happening in plants. And as the plants grow in the northern hemisphere, the northern hemisphere CO2 goes down. And then in the winter, when the plants go fallow and the fields are not sequestering and there’s snow in the northern tundras and all that kind of thing, the CO2 starts increasing again and it increases a little bit every year, a little bit more every year than it did the previous year. But the movement, that zigzag is a big movement. We’re moving many, many gigatons of CO2 every year. That just goes through natural systems and through plant growth.”

We Need To Think Big!
*24:06 – “When I was a management consultant, applying my management consultant thinking to the problem of climate change, the question I asked myself: what is the biggest thing that I know that can move a lot of carbon? And it’s cool and wonderful when people make some really nice, sustainable product, but chances are they’re not going to move gigatons of carbon. It’s very important that we have our sustainably sourced coffee with our nice recyclable drinking cup and all that stuff. Every little bit helps and I don’t want to at all minimize the impact of that. But when it comes to the scale of the problem, it’s the size of the entire oil industry’s emission every year that’s accumulating in the atmosphere. It’s a big problem. But the plant activity, it moves even more resources. So the question I asked myself was: how can I make a lot more biology happen? That was the real question. It had to be new plant activity. Today, the lingo is it had to be additive. It had to be something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I didn’t want to displace the forest. I didn’t want to displace the tundra and just shift the problem around. I wanted to do something new.”

25:41 – “I had spent a lot of time in my academic life working on algal blooms. These are natural events that are at the base of the food chain. These are the little microorganisms in the ocean that not only feed all of the ocean and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But every puddle fills up with green algae. If you don’t take care of your pool, it becomes green. And so these things grow for free. So the question was: can I do a lot more of that to the point where I can pull down a lot of carbon?”

30:40 – [What are toxic algae blooms?] “There are about 27 different organisms that either make a toxin, and some of them are really nasty, I mean really spectacularly nasty, or they irritate organisms or they eat other things that you don’t want. And very often they’re a result of some form of environmental perturbations. So we’ve added a lot of nutrients to the local environment through detergents or other things, or they’re the result of the water heating up and stratifying and you get a warm layer on top that doesn’t support the normal biology. And then only these harmful organisms can find a way to use that environment. And so they’re often a result of things going wrong somewhere else. And you are correct that they can cause quite a lot of damage and that some of them need to be managed and avoided. They make fumes that cause asthma, all kinds of things, diarrhea that can paralyze you. I mean, there’s all kinds of problems.”

32:14 – “You have…hundreds of different organisms, viruses, predators, all coexisting at the same time. And then one organism says: ‘These are just the right nutrient levels with just the right amount of stratification. I can grow faster than the next organism.’ And if you just keep growing faster, you outcompete everything else and you crowd out all the other organisms. So what’s interesting about these blooms, these harmful blooms, is that they find ways to sort of dominate the water column for a while. And that method of propagating that exponential growth, again, was one of those connections. I thought, well, if I can do that with the sort of normal blooms that are actually the base of the food chain that are feeding the animals in the ocean and making all the fish, the clams, the crustaceans that we like to eat, then if I can apply those same principles to maintain the bloom, then I can in a sense, make these blooms happen in my ponds, in the desert.”

34:55 – “In the ocean there are five times more animals than there are on land. So the ocean is a very rich, productive environment. We don’t have the kind of big forests and the big familiar landscapes that we know in the ocean. But there is actually a lot of food being produced and a lot of biological activity. The ocean at any one point in time has 50 years’ worth of all the nitrogen demand. So all the fertilizer demand we have on land, both the natural fertilizer as well as the manmade fertilizer, available at any one point in time. So there’s lots of nutrients. The ocean has 38,000 plus gigatons of CO2 dissolved in it. In the atmosphere we only have about 700 gigatons. So it’s a very rich environment. It supports a lot of life and a lot of biological activity. So the one way to make it more additive and to make more ocean happen was to bring that deep water that would not have come to the surface onto land, make those blooms happen, take the algae out, sun dry them there in the desert, super cheap again so that we can bury them. And then the de-acidified sea water that can absorb a lot of CO2 goes back to the ocean.”

Using Algae To Sequester Carbon At The Gigaton Scale.
*36:34 – (Ross) “So the solution is: you take the sea water out, you put it into a giant pool, you let these good algae blooms happen, then you take the algae out, you dry it and you bury it, as you said, putting the oil back in the ground. So 70 million years from now, there will be new oil that you are creating instead of just a layer of toxic plastic that they’ll discover. And so doing, you have de-acidified the ocean water. Because many of the climate solutions that we have, like desalination for ocean water to create drinking water, the results are more toxic. It’s salt and it’s other chemicals at higher concentrations that damage the ecosystem. That’s the big problem with desalination, ‘water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.’ And that’s why it only can represent even in places like California or Morocco or Spain or any of the Mediterranean, it can only represent a small portion of the drinking water solution for any country, unfortunately, which is a great shame for now, until we discover, like you said, something massive that might change that in the next 50 years.”

43:07 – “One advantage that we have is that we work in countries, in jurisdictions; we work in politically stable countries that have their environmental impact assessments. You have to create local jobs. We pay taxes. It’s something that the local communities can benefit from and can participate in. And it turns out that that is a really important part, not from an ESG kind of certification point of view, but from a local engagement and local support. Again, connections, because it is the local solutions, often working in those environments where the people who’ve lived in that desert for many generations know exactly how to handle certain situations, sandstorms or other challenges, power outages. And so we found that actually working within the jurisdiction of countries, we’ve worked in South Africa, in Oman, and now in Morocco, we want to go to places like Chile, Mexico, Australia, Namibia, parts of the Arabian Sea, parts of the Gulf, parts of Red Sea, lots of parts of the Mediterranean. So there are many places we can do this. And having that local buy-in is really important.”

47:17 – “What we want to do as a company is turn this into a recipe that we can give to people to show them how to do it and make it accessible in places like Chile, Namibia, Peru, the Sea of Cortez, Baja, California, those kinds of places. The reason why I say that is to have that impact; that’s a lot more than 8000 cars. We got to build a lot of these farms. And yes, we’ll do our bit to build those farms. But the real trick now, in our near-term future is to scale everything to a really substantive scale. The good news is in our experience, the bigger we get, the more stable the algal growth gets. So that kind of helps. And the other good news is, is we found some really, really supportive, very receptive funders both here in the UK (Innovate UK is a state agency that has given us grant money when it really mattered) as well as in the private sector and in the venture capital community. So I feel well-supported and I’m actually quite optimistic that we will make a meaningful contribution in a really sensible timeframe, put it that way. So by the end of next year, I want to be fully building a 30 hectare demonstrator site. But two years later we want to be fully doing that commercial site and from there on it’s just a cookie cutter. But we take that model and repeat it over and over again.”

50:50 – “The way I see photosynthesis is: we’ve got that sunlight. It has started four and a half billion years ago, right at the get go, when the planet was this toxic, brown, acidic anoxic marble. And it certainly was a very hostile environment. And in that hostile environment, these little biological organisms started growing. And the first thing they did is they cleared out the oceans. They changed the oceans to the degree where all that acid literally started precipitating out and all that iron started raining out. And they changed the geology and the chemistry of the ocean. Then they changed the atmosphere. When these algae grow and sort of settle out, they get so heavy that they crack the continents and the continental plates and are a factor in the kind of tectonics that move Earth, the Earth’s crust around. And so the way I saw it is, is there is one consistent force that driven by that sunlight has continued to grow from the very beginning. There was very little life in the beginning in these little niches and these tiny, tiny little sort of mud domes and that life has just increased and increased and increased. Every so often there were some setbacks, some ice ages. But the fact is, when it comes to clearing out an entire atmosphere of toxic stuff and changing the world, biology has done it over and over and over again. And so it’s a growth story. And the reason why I thought that was very cool when we all feel like we’re running out of resources, actually nature has made more resources available than in any previous epoch or era.”

If We All Do Our Bit, We Can Actually Get A Really Long Way!
*52:56 – “The other part that I enjoyed about writing that book was that the people who figured all of this out were definitely the often path beaters. They were everything from mystics, priests, doctors, showmen, entertainers that were trying to figure out how all this stuff kind of works and they did this through very difficult times. The Spanish Inquisition chasing them, the French Revolution, periods of starvation. And yet they found a way to stay, in a sense, positive in those times. And so what I also wanted to show was that things are difficult, but we can help ourselves and people are pretty ingenious, actually, and they come up with pretty awesome solutions. And there’s 8 billion of us. And if 8 billion of us kind of try to do our little bit, we can actually get a really long way.”

56:57 – “When you read the book, very quickly, there are examples where some very humble people who really don’t have much in life who happen to like to drink beer, for example, just fill that beer can with dirt, put a sunflower seed in, then grow sunflowers and grow sunflower seeds. It doesn’t take money. You can do a lot. Every fruit has seed in it. Avocados, I’ve got lots of avocado trees. You can do all kinds of things with just a little bit of ingenuity. Internet is fantastic for finding recipes of how to grow things, and you can do a lot, but it’s also healthy. It makes you engage. It’s nice to watch a plant grow simply because it’s slow and it grows and it does it on its own, and it has this whole program of developing. And so it’s just fascinating to do something that is in a different pace than normal life.”

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