🇺🇸 Making low-carbon chemicals from sunlight, seawater, and seaweed

By Misha Radkevitch - April 19, 2023

By Matthew Perkins, Founder & CEO, Macro Oceans

We grow insane amounts of corn – about one ton for every person in the United States. Most of it doesn’t end up on dinner plates but in cars, animals, and materials as fuel, feed, or feedstocks. Our corn addiction consumes vast amounts of land, water, chemicals, and fossil fuels. Ethanol production alone uses more land than all of England or New York State. And without a viable substitute, a growing global population and booming bioeconomy mean much more corn.

Fortunately there’s a new corn: kelp.

Kelp is the perfect industrial crop – scalable, sustainable, and extremely chemical-rich. It only needs sunlight and seawater to grow; no land, freshwater, fertilizers, or chemicals necessary. As it grows, kelp sequesters carbon, reduces ocean acidification, and draws down excess nutrients in seawater. Most importantly, it’s convertible into a wide array of drop-in chemical feedstocks and products typically made from fossil fuels or corn, offering a sustainable and regenerative building block to some of the world’s most consumed materials like plastics, textiles, fuels, and fertilizers.

After more than a decade in the seed industry, I began looking for alternatives to destructive modern agriculture. I was intrigued by kelp’s environmental benefits, but what really caught my attention was the compositional similarities between sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) and field corn (zea mays). Like its terrestrial soulmate, sugar kelp is roughly 60% carbohydrates, 10% protein and 10% lipids. To me, it seemed intuitive that kelp should be the new corn – sustainable, low carbon and compositionally useful.

Today kelp is a tiny speck of US and global agriculture. The total 2022 harvest in the US was just ~750 metric tons, just 0.000002% of corn production. If kelp is so chemically rich and has so many potential benefits, why is US production so tiny? It’s roughly 50x more expensive. Kelp is also 90% water, making transport difficult and costly. Today’s processing options – freezing or drying – are energy intensive and add yet more costs. Because of this, the only markets which work are food, limiting the growth of production.

What we’re building at Macro Oceans

To make kelp the new corn, we need to reverse these dynamics by bringing down costs and expanding uses. In late 2020, we launched Marco Oceans to do both those things. The plan is two-fold:

  1. Kickstart the supply flywheel
    Scaling supply enables a virtuous cycle where investment generates technology improvements which in turn enable better products, unit economics, and greater scale. Bigger scales bring better farm designs, improved crop genetics, and more efficient processing methods.We do this by rethinking kelp processing from first principles. To avoid drying or freezing the biomass, we have developed an alternative preservation technique to store wet kelp at room temperature for up to 12 months. This “primary processing” stabilization step allows us to reduce the size (and capex) of our biorefinery as we can now run it 300+ days per year.
  2. Unlock new products and customers
    Our mission is to also broaden the universe of seaweed-based products. High value chemicals are an important wedge. However, our intent is to capture the same scale benefits we’ve seen in other crops and sell into bigger markets. As Solugen and other pioneers have shown, there are multiple $100bn+ markets such as intermediate chemicals and plastics looking to transition from traditional fossil-fuel feedstocks.If we want to tackle big markets, we have to find a simple way to make multiple products with zero waste. We have pioneered a new approach centered on processing wet kelp (no freezing or drying!) and green chemistry (no toxic solvents!). This gentle process preserves bioactive compounds whilst also securing maximum yields. This multiproduct, zero waste model drives our biorefinery’s superior unit economics.

Low carbon chemicals that customers love

Macro Oceans is a processor, not a kelp grower or a maker of consumer products. Our commercial strategy is laser-focused on transforming kelp into low carbon chemicals that customers love.

  • Cosmetics: Today, we are building our initial wedge, making unique bioactive compounds for the $80bn US cosmetics market. Our work with leading brands, manufacturers and creators in the clean beauty movement such as the Oh Oh Organic and Aubri Thompson unlocks the extraordinary power of these natural ingredients for beauty products.
  • MaterialsNext, we are partnering with innovators like Sway to supply the low-carbon chemicals they need to develop seaweed-based compostable packaging. We are also exploring material solutions for Keel Labs, a pioneer in sustainable yarns made from seaweed.
  • Chemical Feedstocks: Our mission is to produce kelp-derived chemicals as drop-in replacements to a number of high-volume, intermediate chemicals markets. These partnerships illustrate how we can replace petrochemical or corn-based feedstocks, to decarbonize a wider-array of industrial products than just the chemicals themselves.

If you are interested in using natural, low carbon products in your supply chain, please reach out – we’d love to start the conversation!

Getting farmers to kilo-ton scale

Getting to scale starts on the farm and Alaska is the perfect place to scale up. It has an endless coastline, a well established fishing industry, and a supportive state government. Over the past five years, an energetic kelp industry has emerged, with pioneers like Seagrove Kelp, Barnacle Foods, Blue Evolution and many others growing and processing kelp.

Because of this vibrant community, we’ve decided to build our initial products around Alaska kelp. We are trying to contribute too by forging new partnerships with industry leaders like Greenwave and Hortimare to speed up the adoption of the latest technologies such as dockside stabilization, direct seeding and hatchery innovations.

Rebalancing humanity’s relationship with Nature

We started Macro Oceans to help tackle the climate crisis. Back of the envelope arithmetic shows that replacing 33% of the US corn crop with kelp would eliminate ~46m mt of carbon emission every year, equivalent to taking ~10m cars off the road. And this is before we add in the impact of displacing petroleum-based products. We are excited to see the results of ongoing research, but we are convinced of kelp’s potential to play an important role in decarbonizing our economy.

Human progress often depends on new technologies and powerful stories that help us imagine a different future. Kelp is a nature-based solution to climate change. But it also offers us a future full of new possibilities; a future of regenerative materials, carbon-busting business models, and a new, more balanced relationship with Nature.

We are extraordinarily lucky to have the support of Refactor CapitalLowercarbon CapitalMcKinley Capital and a fantastic group of angel investors. Together these teams are some of the most creative, committed and experienced climate tech investors and builders in the world.

Finally, we are building a world-class team of scientists, engineers, operators, entrepreneurs and mavericks. If you love rolling up your sleeves and want to help us scale, then come get kelpy with us at Macro Oceans!

This article was originally produced and published by Macro Oceans.

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