A startup is farming algae to reduce the environmental footprint of cows

In a new factory on the Swedish coast, a startup called Volta Greentech will soon begin commercial production of Asparagopsis taxiformis, a type of red seaweed that’s never been grown before on land. The seaweed is being farmed because it has a unique ability to fight climate change: When it’s added to cattle feed, the cows that eat it burp less methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Cow burps are a huge environmental problem. In fact, 4 to 5 percent out of total global greenhouse gas emissions are released by the 1.5 billion cows on the planet — by some estimates, a larger number than the emissions from airplanes.

Luckily, the race is on for finding viable solutions to this gas problem. Earlier this month, we wrote about Mootral, a startup that is now testing a new garlic-based supplement for cows to help them curb their methane footprint. But the red seaweed farmed by Volta Greentech appears to be particularly effective.

According to researchers at UC Davis, adding just 1% of the seaweed to cattle feed can reduce methane emissions by as much as 60%, twice as much as Mootral’s supplement; in lab tests in Australia, researchers found that adding 2% of the seaweed to cattle feed reduced emissions 99%.

The only caveat is that wild red seaweed can’t easily be harvested at the scale needed to feed 1.5 billion cattle, which is why Volta Greentech is trying to industrialize the process. Over the last year, it has tested ways to grow the seaweed most efficiently and sustainably in its lab. The new factory will use waste heat from a nearby oil refinery to heat the building and water needed to grow the algae.

What’s more, the factory will be pumping CO2 into the production facility, which the seaweed will capture, enabling it to grow faster. The company is beginning to source that CO2 from carbon capture technology used at other polluting companies.

The basic elements of the new facility are ready now, including the system for filtering seawater, and with a new round of funding, the company plans to finish building out the factory and begin production later this year.

The product doesn’t mean that burgers will suddenly become environmentally harmless—producing meat and milk often have other consequences, such as clear-cutting rainforests to grow soy for cattle feed. But the supplement can help while consumers begin to transition to alternatives such as plant-based.

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