Tom Green: Making a Carbon-removing Sand That Reduces Ocean Acidity – Ep. 118

Could an abundant mineral help us store carbon in beaches and reduce ocean acidity?

Tom Green is joining us today, and he’s the CEO of Project Vesta, a company harnessing the natural power of the oceans to remove excess CO₂ from the atmosphere.

The Earth has long sequestered carbon through the oceans, and Tom has found a way, based on decades of prior scientific research, to accelerate this process using a common mineral. He has a BA from Oxford and an MBA from Harvard, and his personal career journey is remarkable.

Today Project Vesta has received millions in funding and is one of the most exciting and novel solutions to climate change I’ve heard yet.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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2:06 – “When I graduated from university back in ‘99, I had experimented with the idea of becoming a scientist myself and pursuing a career in science and, having spent a little bit of time doing that in a lab, I became somewhat disillusioned with the world of academia. Now, scientists are incredible people and they work very hard, often for very little financial reward to advance human knowledge. And at the same time, so much of what scientists do stays stuck in the lab. And that’s what we saw when we founded Vesta, was that there was a body of scientific knowledge that had been established into this way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but it was stuck in academia. The clear next step that scientists have been calling for in their research papers was to execute field trials of this process, and there wasn’t any real progress towards that. And so something that I and the rest of my team are passionate about is bringing the theory and bringing the lab tests of coastal enhanced weathering into the field and actually trying it out to see how well it works.”

4:28 – “There’s a different set of things that need to happen to take a promising idea and bring it into practice versus the things that need to happen to understand it from a knowledge point of view. This journey has been much better established in the field of medicine. So you have a lot of basic research going on into potential therapeutics, and then there’s very well-established processes for spinning those out into commercial development in order to actually create drugs and other therapeutics, which can help a lot of people. So that’s something that we have as a society figured out how to do. But outside of that arena, there are a lot of areas where that bridge hasn’t been built yet. And so what we’re trying to do with Vesta is to build that bridge, to have academic scientists or former academic scientists on our staff who understand the science deeply and who can do that in the context of a mission-driven organization that wants to make a difference in the world, frankly as rapidly as we can responsibly do.”

Take the Jump

*6:21 – (Ross) “In English literature in academia, you’re often comparing things and you’re reading a critique of a critique: so Shakespeare wrote this play, and here is somebody’s literary critique, and here is a critique of that person’s critique and why they got it all wrong. And here’s yet a third critique of why the first two people got it all wrong, and they’re going back and forth and these endless circles. And at a certain point I thought, ‘I don’t want to critique a critique of a critique and use as many big words as I possibly can to make myself sound smarter than the other people,’ which, forgive my crude language here, is nothing more than just a dick measuring contest to put in different words. But then I thought to myself, ‘I’d rather be Shakespeare. I’d rather be the person who creates the play for the masses, for use, to get a laugh, to get people to cry.’ And that was a moment that my life and my brain profoundly changed. I had a realization that this isn’t the path that I want to go down. I want to influence people directly. But in the case of science, that next step isn’t necessarily creative expression, but it could be thought of as entrepreneurship, building something tangible in the world. And that jump that you describe in your life is a jump that I’m very, very, very fascinated with. Any time somebody makes it, any time somebody takes anything and they say, ‘I want to build something,’ that’s sort of where this show kicks in and where my appreciation kicks in.”


Using Olivine To Accelerate The Removal Of CO2 From The Atmosphere

*9:10 – “We have a nature-based solution for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So there is a natural process called weathering, which has been removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for literally billions of years. And this is what’s kept the atmosphere in balance over geological time. The way it works is that when rain falls on certain types of rocks, that actually causes carbon dioxide to leave the atmosphere and into the water where it’s used by corals and shells in the form of calcium carbonate. And then eventually when those organisms die, they form marine sediment which sinks to the bottom of the ocean and hardens into limestone on the ocean floor. So this is nature’s way of turning atmospheric carbon dioxide into rocks. And that’s great, but it’s a very slow process, which happens over geological time. So what we do with coastal carbon capture is accelerate that process. The way we do that is we take an abundant natural mineral called olivine. We grind it into sand and we take that sand to coastal areas. Putting that sand in the water enables the ocean to do what it already does naturally, but faster. It enables the ocean to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it safely in the form of a molecule called bicarbonate, which you might be familiar with as baking soda.”

10:50 – “[Adding olivine] also reduces the acidity of the ocean, and as everybody may be aware or may not be, ocean acidification is a major problem that we are also facing. The oceans are 30% more acidic than they were before the Industrial Revolution. That’s the equivalent of pouring 16 Olympic swimming pools of battery acid into the oceans every minute for the last 100 years. So the oceans are suffering with this problem. And reducing ocean acidity is something that we really need to do alongside removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to mitigate the warming effects of climate change.”

12:26 – “There was a lot of research into olivine, whether it was looking at where is the olivine around the world? Or what are the theoretical carbon capture potential of olivine? And so on. And so what we did is came along and said, well, if we wanted to actually try this out, how would we do that? And we went deep into the science, but also into the practice. And we learned about an industry called Coastal Nourishment, which many of your watchers may be familiar with. If you live near the coast, then you are probably already experiencing the effects of our changing climate. Sea levels are rising and they are rising actually at an accelerating rate. We’re seeing stronger storms and more and more coastal flooding, so that this causes coastal erosion. And there’s an entire industry that moves almost 60 million tons of sand around every year just in the U.S., which is designed to protect coastlines, to replace eroded beaches and to protect coastal homes, coastal habitats and coastal infrastructure against this flooding that is happening. So we learned about this industry and said to ourselves, well, we want to bring sand to coastal areas and there’s already an industry that’s doing this. So why don’t we partner with that industry?”

16:17 – [On olivine] “It is a so-called basic mineral or an alkaline mineral. And so what that means is when it’s placed into the water, it actually gradually dissolves in the water. And this is true for all minerals. It just so happens that olivine sand, when it dissolves, first of all, it dissolves more rapidly than other minerals. And second, when it dissolves, it adds alkalinity to the seawater. And that alkalinity not only counteracts the acidity problem that we talked about before but it also shifts the balance of something called the carbonate system in the ocean water. And what that does is helps the ocean to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

18:14 – “Ultimately, what we are hoping to do is bring this to a level of scale where we can actually contribute to addressing the problem on a planetary level. Now, there’s a long road to go between here and there. We just deployed our first pilot earlier this year and it’s extremely important to us to do this in a gradual and ethical way. That means starting very small and growing gradually and at every stage doing rigorous science to make sure that we really understand the risks, the impacts and the benefits of coastal carbon capture. So we don’t want to rush that process, but at the same time, we want to move as quickly as is possible responsibly. On a planetary level, we’ll need to be removing about 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year by mid-century in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. And our goal is to contribute a meaningful portion of that.”

25:07 – “We move the olivine to coastal areas and then it gradually does its work and it doesn’t require any maintenance. It’s sort of a ‘set it and forget it’ solution, which means that once we put the olivine in the ocean, it does its work. And the other benefit here is actually coastal carbon capture gets more efficient in warmer waters. So as the ocean warms and as the ocean becomes more acidic, which it inevitably is going to do with current emissions, coastal carbon capture actually becomes gradually more efficient over time.”

27:22 – “There’s an analogy that’s been often quoted, which is a bathtub. So if you imagine you have a bathtub that’s half full of water and then you turn on the tap and allow it to overflow, then turning off once it’s full, turning off the tap, you don’t expect the water to go down. It’s just going to stay full. So we need carbon dioxide removal in order to take all of the excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere because it’s going to be continuing to contribute to warming while it’s still there. And then there are also so-called ‘hard to abate’ industries, things like aviation, where there’s, unless you believe that somehow people are going to stop flying, then there’s going to be continued emissions from certain industries. And it makes sense for those industries and the consumers paying for those services to pay to remove carbon dioxide permanently from the atmosphere to offset the contributions of those activities.”

30:31 – “I had always actually wanted to do something about climate change. But when I graduated from university, there wasn’t really any sort of a climate tech industry yet. And so there weren’t opportunities, at least none that I could identify to actually do that. But having had a 20-year career doing a number of different things, I took a step back and said to myself, ‘Well, if not now, when?’ I mean, this is the biggest problem that the planet is facing, and now is surely the time for me to see if I could devote my energies to helping to address it. And so I was very motivated by that. And so there was a lot of hard times at the beginning where we didn’t know, and I had amazing co-founders, and together where we just didn’t know where to start or how to figure this out. But we always came back to this motivation that we had to figure it out because the planet needs that.”

Apply Your Skills To Something That You Care Deeply About

*35:22 – “When I come to work every day, I get so much of my energy to do this from the feeling that this is important. And of course that pervades throughout the team. Everybody comes to work with this shared passion, the shared mission, it reduces the amount of difficulty and sort of conflict in the organization because we’ve all really got the same goal and we care about that and we think it matters deeply. And when I look out there in the workforce, I see the majority of people who have not made that leap into doing something that’s really mission driven in a way that’s going to, or at least has the potential to, positively impact the world. And I encourage people who are on the other side of that fence to really think about what it could be like if you were to apply your skills to something that you care deeply about.”

37:04 – “There’s additional pressure from knowing how important this is. And at the same time, there is so much energy that comes from the importance of the work and the feeling that this is the thing that I should be doing. Now, in previous jobs, there’s always been that nagging doubt – is this really what I want to be spending my time on? Whereas in this job I don’t have any of that feeling. I feel absolutely that I am living in line with my values, that I am focusing my energy on creating a positive impact in the world. And so I would say that the balance between that and the additional sort of pressure from feeling like our actions matter so much more, I think the balance is more toward the energy and centeredness that I feel from having this opportunity to work on what I see as the world’s most challenging issue.”

38:48 – (Ross) “I think we all want that desire for alignment, the desire for centeredness. That’s something that I personally have wanted at many points in my life, and usually when I’ve felt at my lowest and the darker moments, it is often a feeling of not being aligned with something and staying awake at night, there’s this nagging feeling of what isn’t right or what isn’t clicking. And I think for people like ourselves, that comes twofold. It’s: am I using my own skills and talents to the best of my ability? And also what is this external thing that I’m working on? And for me, when I feel bad, it’s a combination of both of those two things, like if I help somebody as a marketer with my company, if I help somebody sell more cigarettes, I can get paid a lot. But then I know that I’m helping something that’s harming the planet, not helping it. And if I, as a creative and expressive person, am doing very boring, mundane things where I don’t get to create or express myself, then I also feel low because I’m not being true to my own set of talents and abilities. So it’s this magical thing that we all want when those all line up…And if there’s one change that I wish that I could get from doing this, it would be to inspire more people to see what alignment looks like and to understand that it’s possible for themselves.”

45:13 – “With something new, there will always be skeptics. And a lot of that is healthy. And listening to the skeptics when there is actual constructive criticism really helps us to sharpen our ideas. And of course, sometimes there are just naysayers. And I think what you have to do is to some extent, just sort of ignore some of the non-constructive naysayers who just say, ‘Well, carbon dioxide removal doesn’t make sense,’ or ‘You guys are just crazy,’ you know, that kind of stuff. You frankly just speaking, just have to ignore it and choose who you listen to. There’s that saying I think that you become the average of your, I think, six closest friends. And so that’s something that I think about a lot just in my life; is really making sure that I spend time with people who I want to be like because I will become like them. And so the analogy there is maybe just listening to supporters to get some motivation and then also listening to constructive criticisers.”

51:30 – (Ross) “The fact that there are a couple of different knock-on effects from this that are all positive, solving multiple issues at the same time is incredibly encouraging. And the fact that it is, to borrow that great phrase from the Showtime Grill infomercial, a ‘set it and forget it’ solution is what is so exciting about this, because it is this new breed of green or social entrepreneurship or eco-friendly solutions do seem to take into account what nature already does. And those to me seem the most elegant and the most beautiful solutions. Whereas pumping a bunch more plastic crap at something seems maybe like it will work, but it’s not quite as elegant as let’s work within these natural processes or hey, Earth has already been doing this. We’re just going to facilitate that.”

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