Carbon Capture

276: Microbial fungi and bacteria for CO2 capture


The Soil Carbon Co. of Orange, New South Wales, Australia is developing a solution that allows plants to sequester way more carbon than they do naturally. On farms along the East Coast of Australia, growers are testing out the solution of planting seeds coated in microbial fungi and bacteria that can help capture CO2 from the air.

Farmers Mick Wettenhall & Guy Webb had been working together for over a decade on ways of building their soil carbon with methods like reduced-till, mixed cover crops and experimenting with compost, when their heard how Peter A. McGee of Sydney University had been developing recalcitrant soil carbon using fungi. More carbon in soils would not only give agronomic benefits but creates an opportunity for farmers to trade a new commodity: sequestered carbon.

They called this the Second Crop. If it were to be used on farmland globally, they calculated it could sequester around 8.5 gigatons of carbon every year—or around a quarter of total CO2 emissions. It could also store that carbon for a longer time than some “regenerative agriculture” techniques that also aim to capture carbon. The solution involves inoculating crops with symbiotic micro-organisms.

Not only do these microbes improve the host plant’s fertility and protection against disease, but they also help the soil around the plant’s roots to store carbon more effectively, leading to better quality soil for future planting. The “Second Crop” process also makes the soil healthier, so farmers should see better yields and be able to use less fertilizer. It’s a relatively simple change to make; farmers either buy microbe-coated seeds or coat their own seeds themselves, something that is commonly done with other products.

In June 2020 Soil Carbon Co raised A$10 million ($6.94 million) in seed funding in a round led by Horizons Ventures, the VC firm set up by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. After finishing trials in both Australia and the USA, the Second Crop system will be launched commercially. Unlike other solutions such as carbon-capture machines, it can scale up almost immediately and does not require the acquisition of new equipment.

There are around one billion farmers around the world working at the intersection of atmosphere and soil every day—and the infrastructure already in place.

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