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Silicon Valley is enamored with a company that pumps poop underground

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Silicon Valley is enamored with a company that pumps poop underground

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aBig brands are paying startup Vaulted Deep $58.3 million to shoot poop and other organic waste products into underground wells as a way to fight climate change.

The deal was brokered by a group called Frontier Climate, which Stripe, Alphabet, Meta, Shopify, and McKinsey Sustainability launched in 2022 to support emerging climate tech. Specifically, Frontier is interested in trying to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They connect buyers with startups like Vaulted Deep that are developing ways to capture CO2 and sequester it underground so that it doesn’t heat up the planet.

Vaulted Deep’s strategy is to gather sewage, manure, and agricultural and paper mill waste and inject it deep underground to keep carbon in the waste from rising into the atmosphere as it decomposes. On top of Frontier’s founding companies, Autodesk, H&M Group, JPMorgan Chase, Workday, and other brands are also part of the deal Frontier announced today. Vaulted Deep agreed to sequester 152,480 tons of carbon dioxide by 2027 as part of the deal. That’s equivalent to taking around 36,000 gas-guzzling cars off the road for a year.

It’s Frontier’s biggest agreement yet and a big endorsement of Vaulted Deep’s technology

It’s Frontier’s biggest agreement yet and a big endorsement of Vaulted Deep’s technology that the startup says will allow it to scale up a lot faster than its competitors in the growing carbon removal industry.

Vaulted Deep says its advantage is that it is built on technology that’s already been used for decades to get rid of sludge from oil and gas fracking. Hydraulic fracturing — aka fracking — is a particularly messy way to extract fossil fuels. Companies needed to find a way to dispose of all the rock and fluids leftover from drilling that might carry heavy metals like arsenic and radioactive materials like uranium.

Omar Abou-Sayed, Vaulted Deep’s executive chairman, says his father and his colleagues developed the technology to inject the nasty stuff deep underground while working for Arco. His dad went on to become a consultant to other companies that needed to comply with rules established under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

The trick is to find a way to inject solid waste underground without plugging up the well (Abou-Sayed compares the problem to grounds building up on a coffee filter). He adopted his dad’s technology to do the same with carbon-rich organic waste, injecting it with enough pressure to open up fissures and pores in rock.

“There’s no technology magic that has to happen. It’s not a science fair experiment. So our coming down the cost curve is not [like other companies] where they have to invent science to do the thing they’re doing more efficiently,” says Abou-Sayed. “Ours is more like the McDonald’s problem of what’s the best intersection to put the McDonald’s to get the most car traffic.”

A flurry of other companies have opened up shop to suck carbon dioxide out of the air or water, but it’s still an exorbitantly expensive endeavor. The US might need to spend roughly $100 billion a year on these kinds of technologies in order to scale up to a level that would help the country meet its climate goals, according to one recent report

The company operating the largest facility filtering CO2 out of the air today charges customers (including Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify) roughly $600 per ton of captured CO2. Frontier’s deal with Vaulted Deep breaks down to around $382 per ton, although the industry goal is still to get to under $100 per ton to make it a feasible tool for tackling climate change. Vaulted Deep says it’ll reach that goal in large part by siting its wells closer to where it’s getting the waste it pumps underground. The deal with Frontier is supposed to enable the company to commission three new wells in the US (if it can get the permits for them, of course).

Vaulted Deep already takes about 20 percent of Los Angeles’ sewage sludge, for example. That might be a better feedstock for this technology than manure or farm waste that could be reused as fertilizer in regenerative agriculture. “It just seems like a lot of good stuff along with some bad stuff that’s going to go down into a hole forever,” says Brian Roe, a professor of farm management at Ohio State University. “It’s nice to have more tools in the toolbox. I’m just kind of fascinated to figure out where this is going to work.”

To have a positive environmental impact, Vaulted Deep will have to prove in its carbon accounting that it’s actually avoiding CO2 emissions. If a farm gives up manure that it otherwise would have used to add nutrients back to the soil, for instance — what are the environmental costs of that farm potentially turning to synthetic fertilizers instead? Vaulted Deep says it’s taking these kinds of questions into account and is working with a carbon removal registry called Isometric to vet its process.

Vaulted Deep just spun off from waste management company Advantek, where Abou-Sayed is also executive chairman, in September. But its mature technology means “that we were sort of born a teenager,” says Vaulted Deep CEO Julia Reichelstein, who was an investor at climate VC fund Piva Capital before she hopped on board. “When I met Omar … there was an aha moment,” she says, and Frontier’s backing now is, “really huge.”

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