These startups hope to spray iron particles above the ocean to fight climate change

Within the next 18 months, a Palo Alto–based startup wants to begin releasing a small quantity of iron-rich particles into the exhaust stream of a shipping vessel crossing the open ocean.

Blue Dot Change hopes to determine whether the particles will accelerate the destruction of methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If it works, the four-person company hopes to begin spraying the particles on commercial scales within a year after that, says David Henkel-Wallace, the founder and chief executive.

The business is among a handful of small commercial ventures that are itching to test whether releasing similar particles could curb climate change, mimicking a phenomenon that some believe may have amplified ice ages. At least two other firms have also proposed outdoor experiments to evaluate this approach, MIT Technology Review has found.

There’s increasing academic work exploring this concept as well, driven by growing climate concerns and rising emissions of methane, which exerts about 85 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide over a 20 year-period. But most scientists in this area stress that the iron idea is speculative, limited so far to early lab and modeling work. Little is known about other effects that releasing the particles could cause, including potentially dangerous ones. And some argue that for-profit efforts to intervene in such a complex, little-understood area is rash and counterproductive at this stage.

“Any commercial venture that proposes we’re ready to do this in the field is premature and possibly misguided,” says Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford, without addressing any specific company’s plans. “We don’t know enough about it. We don’t know enough about unexpected or unpredicted reactions. And we don’t know about social acceptance and the public’s view of this process.”

Several startups hope that releasing tiny particles of ferric chloride (FeCl3) could accelerate the destruction of methane in the atmosphere.

The basic concept behind the so-called iron salt aerosol method is that if we release iron-rich particles that contain chloride into the air, sunlight will irradiate them, producing chlorine radicals (uncharged molecules with an electron available for bonding). These, in turn, can drive reactions that convert methane into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But it’s also possible the same particles could produce dangerous gases, spawn phytoplankton blooms, or brighten marine clouds, the last of which would muddy the line between greenhouse-gas removal and the more controversial field of solar geoengineering.

In addition, the chemistry is so complex that it’s not clear to some whether releasing these aerosols would increase or decrease methane concentrations, on balance.

“We have no idea what will happen there,” says Natalie Mahowald, an atmospheric scientist at Cornell and an expert on iron aerosols.


Peter Fiekowsky, an engineer and entrepreneur who cofounded the Foundation for Climate Restoration, has emerged as a kind of Pied Piper of the iron salt aerosol method, advocating for groups to forge ahead in this field. He has funded academic research, acts as an advisor to several startups and is listed as a shareholder in one. He has also established a handful of related organizations himself.

Fiekowsky argues that resigning ourselves to merely meeting the UN climate panel’s temperature target, mainly through emissions cuts, doesn’t offer humanity “a decent chance of survival.” (That goal is set at a maximum of 2 ˚C above preindustrial levels, which will have severe impacts on humans and ecosystems, and could trigger certain climate tipping points. But the body of research doesn’t suggest that level of warming creates a risk of human extinction.)

Instead, Fiekowsky says, we should strive to restore the climate to preindustrial conditions through more aggressive interventions, including using iron to break up methane.

“Methane is really only important once you take on [the goal] of restoring the climate and making sure our kids survive,” he says.

Fiekowsky shares few of the doubts about iron salt aerosols or the wisdom of using them, asserting that the approach is safe, effective, cheap, and inevitable. He says it would cost only $1 billion to

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By: James Temple
Title: These startups hope to spray iron particles above the ocean to fight climate change
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Published Date: Wed, 15 Feb 2023 10:00:00 +0000

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