Elba Horta with Sampo Tukiainen, CEO of Carbofex, one of the biochar carbon removal suppliers for Puro.earth, at its facility. The woodchips behind them will be converted to biochar, stabilizing and locking up the carbon for hundreds of years. Photos courtesy of Puro.earth.

Advancing the Science of Carbon Removal

Puro.earth is a Finnish startup company launched by two women and their male co-founder that aims to provide the world’s first marketplace for the nascent business of selling something they call “carbon removal.” Finland, a country that does not have a domestic fossil fuels industry, seems an unlikely place to base a carbon capture and storage (CCS) company, but co-founders Marianne Tikkanen, a Finn, and Elba Horta, an American and longtime resident of Finland, (along with a third founder, Antti Vihavainen) created Puro.earth, to help companies get their carbon emissions down to zero by 2050, if possible.

As their story shows, innovation at its finest can be born when a seeming lack of opportunity, coupled with general skepticism – or outright rejection – come together to produce new ways of thinking.

“When we started with the idea and told people that it is possible to remove carbon and put it away for the long term, we were very alone with our message,” says Tikkanen. “Some people wouldn’t even listen to us.” She says things definitely have changed just since Puro.earth’s founding one year ago. “Companies that have put out requests for proposals (RFPs) have made a big effort in this space – both Stripe and Microsoft have [created] a lot of good publicity for the industry.”

Elba Horta
Elba Horta

Horta agrees that those companies have sent a powerful message that corporations must reduce emissions and what they cannot further reduce, they must remove, and have set the example, not just by making pledges, but actually putting out tenders for carbon removal.

Not only are they seeing public campaigns in support of their mission, they are seeing critical financial support, as well. Most recently, Shopify, through its Sustainability Fund, is purchasing carbon removals through Puro.earth from three biochar providers: Carbofex, ECHO2 and Ecoera. These companies manufacture a kind of glorified charcoal called biochar, which is made by heating wood scraps to high temperatures without oxygen via pyrolysis – thus creating a charred, charcoal-like product that can be mixed with soil to improve its quality. It can also be used as an animal feed additive or filtration substrate. In theory, biochar represents a net carbon sink because it sequesters the carbon inside the wood chips, preventing it from turning to carbon dioxide and contributing to global warming. With Shopify’s purchase, for instance, these biochar producers are able to remove obstacles to production and scale more quickly.

“It’s really important to move from words to action,” says Tikkanen. Both women point out current events are not unrelated. “Science is advancing – like we’ve seen with the coronavirus – learning new things every day. That’s the case with carbon removal, as well.”

Horta echoes her comments. “In the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen new, related science – [and now] for example, in carbon removal – that needs to be amplified in the media and how to connect everything that is happening.”

Tikkanen presents it in stark terms, “We only have one climate.”

Marianne Tikkanen
Marianne Tikkanen

Sustainability has long been on her mind and when she chose an engineering path at university, she says, “I took the cleanest one: computers and telecom. I have enjoyed the journey, but ended up far from telecommunications and more in automation and information technology, digitalization of hard plants (facilities), like energy. I’m still using the same education, but from a different angle.”

Horta, who has an MBA, and handles business development at Puro.earth, says, “I’ve come full circle. My bachelor’s degree is in geosciences. My thesis was on earthquakes and I ended up working in California for the U.S. Geological Survey during the first dotcom boom. There was big energy about the Internet and the start-up scene and I got swept away by all of that and moved to technology. It wasn’t until 20 years later that I’ve gone back to my original urge or drive, which is to work on things related to the earth. In the last few years, as the whole sustainability conversation has become part of our everyday lives, it became clear to me that I could use my skills and talents.”

This is a point both women want to make abundantly clear to those who believe the energy transition will cause a loss of jobs, mainly as a result of skills not being transferrable.

“We have to trust that many skills are,” Horta says, using herself as an example, “and start advocating for making this transition. Carbon removal could be that transition moving from oil and gas toward another type of industry that can also bring jobs.”

Tikkanen adds, “There is an old saying, ‘All the jobs we need to master in this world, we will learn in this life.’ We will take the skills that we have already gathered with us. It’s actually more interesting in your career; it would be really dull to work at the same thing for decades.”

As the world starts to accept the climate imperative, the co-founders put forth another strong argument – the business case for carbon capture and storage.

“We are in this for business and we are very strong believers that, if it can be made into a sustainable business, it will lead to jobs and profits and grow an industry and supply chains, like solar and wind energy have done, so it’s important that there are new developments,” says Tikkanen. “[Certain] fuels are falling out of the energy mix because of their cost; there are others that are more economically viable. Climate and economics are doing much of the persuasion work. The industry has to change. It can still produce [energy], but differently. There are many ways to have jobs and have carbon removal at the same time.”

Horta wants to emphasize the fact that Puro.earth is focusing on carbon removal which can be scaled at industrial levels, something that will help provide solutions to the issue of jobs and the transition from fossil fuels.

“We’re essentially talking about factories, actual facilities, where something would be produced or energy [created]. Not only would there be the economic benefit from selling those commercial products, but there will be the climate benefit from removing the emissions, and there will be the economic benefit of selling carbon removal. Just as Marianne and I have changed [direction] in our careers, communities that are now based on coal or oil and gas – especially coal communities in the U.S. – have had difficult times and they know themselves in terms of pollution and health, the state and federal governments need to make those priorities to start moving toward other types of energy and, from the economic point of view, to start transitioning those [industries].”

“The world can change,” Tikkanen says resolutely. “There is a path.”

For more information, go to https://puro.earth.

Reprinted by permission from the author. This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on September 22, 2020.

Headline Photo: Elba Horta with Sampo Tukiainen, CEO of Carbofex, one of the biochar carbon removal suppliers for Puro.earth, at its facility. The woodchips behind them will be converted to biochar, stabilizing and locking up the carbon for hundreds of years. Photos courtesy of Puro.earth.

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Rebecca Ponton
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Rebecca Ponton has been a journalist for 25+ years and is also a petroleum landman. Her book, Breaking the GAS Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry (Modern History Press), was released in May 2019. For more info, go to www.breakingthegasceiling.com.

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