Mon. May 29th, 2023

Jim Mann kneels down in a quarry filled with the roar of massive machinery and gathers a handful of tiny black rocks.

Jim Mann calls the rocks that could help cool our planet his "magic dust"

He smiles and rubs them between his fingers, "This is my magic dust,"

He is carrying basalt fragments. It is a tough volcanic rock that is neither unique nor noteworthy.

But through a procedure called "enhanced rock weathering," it might assist in bringing down the temperature of our planet.

UN scientists now agree that cutting greenhouse gas emissions won't be sufficient to halt hazardous warming. They claim that some carbon dioxide removal, or actively removing it from the atmosphere, will be necessary.

The most natural way to achieve this is to plant trees, but this has drawbacks as well; for one thing, there are restrictions on how widely trees can be planted, and the CO2 that is captured is released when the wood rots or burns.

While Direct Air Capture (DAC) permanently removes CO2 from the atmosphere and buries it, it is an energy-intensive process, so does it make sense to develop it at a time when we're trying to transition away from fossil fuels?

Enhanced rock weathering is a hybrid of natural and artificial processes. It accelerates the naturally occurring, but extremely slow weathering process to get rid of the carbon faster.

I traveled to a quarry near Edinburgh to meet Jim, whose enhanced rock weathering company UNDO recently received a new investment of £12 million and is eager to expand its business.

The black mountainside all around us is slowly being eaten away by gigantic diggers as they create concrete and asphalt for the roadways. The mood is more one of post-nuclear doom than of preserving the environment.

But Jim's business values the few bits of basalt rock that are still present. They have a beneficial quality in that they take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere when they weather in the rain.

Volcanic cliffs and boulders have been gently absorbing carbon while deteriorating in the rain for ages. Utilizing minute fragments, enhanced rock weathering increases the amount of interaction between the rock and rain, hence increasing weathering and carbon removal.

The basalt weathers very slowly when it is heaped up in a quarry or when it is a cliff. It must be dispersed across a larger region to maximize carbon reduction.

Local farmers may contribute to the environment while receiving free fertilizer by doing this. Trials have demonstrated that basalt increases crop yields and grazing quality in addition to sequestering carbon.

I saw it being sprinkled on a field a half-hour's drive from the quarry.

There is no specialized equipment needed. A tractor drives a trailer that has 20 tonnes of basalt loaded on it up and down while a rotating wheel at the back scatters the small rocks.

As the basalt is applied to his field, John Logan chuckles and says, "It's free, which is rather significant to a farmer. He had witnessed UNDO's testing on a nearby farm.

"It appears to be improving the grass, which can only benefit the cattle since they are consuming better grass,"

Some scientists are concerned that methods for removing carbon from the atmosphere like these could divert attention from the more urgent need to reduce emissions and possibly serve as justification for keeping up our carbon-intensive lifestyles.

As we watch the tractor travel up and down using GPS, Jim says, "CO2 reduction has to come first, but we also need to be developing these technologies that can accomplish removal at scale. Additionally, enhanced rock weathering is permanent, which is a wonderful feature.

It must be mentioned that the math is difficult. According to UNDO's scientists, four tonnes of basalt rocks are required to absorb one tonne of CO2.

A typical Briton is thought to emit around 7 tonnes of CO2 yearly, which means each of us has to spread roughly 30 tonnes, or 1.5 trailer loads, of basalt each year to break even.

Over the coming years, UNDO expects to significantly expand and has gained some significant backing. Microsoft has agreed to pay to spread 25,000 tons of basalt over farms in the UK. Microsoft will also assist in auditing the project as part of the agreement to make sure it is operating as intended.

Dr. Steve Smith from Oxford University, a specialist in carbon removal, told me that "the fundamental chemistry of it makes sense."

"One of the major challenges is measuring how much CO2 would be removed and where that ultimately goes, and there isn't a standardized system at the moment."

According to UNDO, basalt can absorb roughly 5 tonnes of CO2 each 20-ton trailer load.

In the end, according to Dr. Smith, the concept might just become a routine aspect of how land is farmed.

It's something that can be incorporated into how we already utilize land and offer a carbon removal benefit in addition to other benefits in terms of how we use land for food and crops, the author claims.

The extent of its scalability is still a subject of much debate. UNDO's projects utilise by-product from the neighborhood quarry, but if this is greatly increased, it will also need to account for the energy and emissions required to grind up the basalt, transport it, and scatter it.

"At this time, there is no drawback; it's a win-win situation for everyone involved." I learn from Jim Mann.

The UNDO intends to remove a million tonnes of CO2 by 2025 and is preparing to distribute 185,000 tonnes of basalt this year. Comparatively speaking, it still amounts to a drop in the ocean. The world is estimated to have released roughly 37 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2022.

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