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LICHEN-The Inspiration For a New, Cutting-Edge Climate Change Solution

Updated: Jan 11

UPDATE: "After their presentation at the Democratizing Decarbonization Summit at the National Press Club (in Washington, D.C. in November of 2022)," Explains Embassy Row Project Founder James Scott, "XPRIZE Carbon Removal Team Lichen has been offered a pilot project to launch their much-anticipated carbon capture technology by the Bulgarian government."

By Steve McDaniel Ph.D.

The natural carbon cycle is a balanced one; animals and plants emit CO2 into the atmosphere through respiration, while plants and algae absorb it through photosynthesis. CO2 in the ocean is cycled in the same way, also in almost perfect balance. In fact, the natural carbon cycle emits and captures about 100 billion tons of CO2 annually, and stays in nearly perfect equilibrium. It is human activity-the burning of fossil fuels to the tune of 30-40 billion tons annually- that has knocked this natural balance off kilter.

The result? Man-made climate change, and ever-increasing extreme weather events. In order to counteract the effects of climate change, it is a foregone conclusion that we must not just reduce our emissions, but also permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This is where Direct Air Capture (DAC) technologies come in…the idea is to capture and durably sequester great amounts of atmospheric CO2, and then sequester it so that it cannot be re-emitted into the atmosphere.

As pointed out, the earth’s natural carbon cycle is a well-oiled machine. It does the work of capturing atmospheric CO2 emitted by natural systems by spreading tiny photosynthetic microbes (cyanobacteria aka blue green algae) in ultra-thin layers on practically every square micrometer of surface that is exposed to sunlight. That’s every square meter of soil, and every square meter of ocean surface.

And, these little green micro-factories do something really cool - they reproduce exponentially. Starting with one cell on day one, then double, then double again, etc…. After 20 such doublings, there’s a million cells from one mother cell.

Team Lichen, a competitor for the $100 million Carbon Removal XPrize, began by looking to Nature for ways they could mimic this natural powerhouse. The odd 2-spirited organisms called Lichen are very good at allowing microalgae to photosynthesize. We’ve all seen them…every-color-in-the-rainbow patches splashed all over rocks, treetops, and soils, very tightly-adhering to the underlying substrate. Lichen are comprised of both a fungus and an algae. The algae do the work of photosynthesis, while the fungus provides a safe, comfy refuge for the algae, allowing it to receive all the nutrients, water and sunlight it needs, while shielding it from too much UV. In this way, the algae within the lichen capture CO2, converting it to carbohydrates that both the fungus and algae can use.

What else do we know of that is colorful and spread all over surfaces, in ultra-thin layers, adhering tightly to its underlying surface? Paint!

At the core of XPRIZE Team Lichen’s technology is a paint innovation company, Reactive Surfaces, out of Austin, Texas, that for the past couple of decades, has been entraining biologicals into paints and coatings to derive some sort of functionality on a particular surface. In this case, that functionality is photosynthesis, and the paint allows for the photosynthesis to take place on whatever surface desired. Like the fungus in lichen, the paint provide a home for the algae. Beth McDaniel, President of Reactive Surfaces explains: “To affect climate change in the most effective, efficient way possible, we need to maximize the amount of photosynthesis that takes place. In this regard, we have designed a modular system, inside of which are densely hanging substrates painted with our Carbon Capture Coatings, which capture atmospheric CO2 and fix it in the paint. Then the resulting algal biomass can be separated from the paint and bio-charred for durable (more than 100 years) sequestration of the CO2 or, if desired, utilized as valuable byproducts of the process. This technology does not require the CO2 to be injected deep into the earth, which other carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies rely upon.”

If Team Lichen is right, they will be able to meet the XPrize’s 1,000 net tons captured and sequestered condition stipulation by Earth Day 2025, the award deadline. And, if they’re able to expand the painted vertical surface technology to floating, painted horizontal marine surfaces, then gigatonnes of annually-captured CO2 falls within their reach.

In cooperation with the DC-based NGO, the NetZero Incubator & Accelerator, (launched and managed by the Embassy Row Project) Team Lichen plans to collaborate with EU-member Bulgaria in launching a country-wide Carbon Capture Coatings program and ASAP expanding to its EU neighbors in 2023.

What’s it gonna cost to pull down a tonne of CO2 using Carbon Capture Coatings? What’s it cost for a tonne of anything? Chicken manure will set you back $415 a tonne. Team Lichen’s 3rd party Life Cycle Analyses suggest that the cost of capturing and sequestering a tonne of CO2 will come in around $600-700, before accounting for favorable tax exemptions, sales of carbon offset credits, sales of by-products like nano-cellulose, energy such as hydrogen, and economies of scale. Let’s just say surviving climate change may ultimately be cheaper than chicken you-know-what.

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The latest books by Embassy Row Project's founder James Scott entitled

Green Conflict Minerals: The Mad Dash to Net Zero Is About to Get Rough

Climate Change Economics: Carbon Capitalism, Regenerative Agriculture & Beyond

A Fast Track to Carbon Neutral: Using Environmental Commodities to Rapid Launch Commercial Sustainability Programs

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