• Tech Tech

This company is developing incredible, bioengineered trees of the future: 'That's actually what you need'

Living Carbon's bioengineered trees can grow up to 53% faster than unmodified trees.

Living Carbon

Photo Credit: iStock

Living Carbon went public last year with its first ambitious project: bioengineered, fast-growing trees designed to filter out as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution from our atmosphere as possible.

Maddie Hall, the CEO and co-founder of the environmental technology startup, met her partner, Patrick Mellor, at a climate tech conference in 2019, planting the seeds of an idea that would bring together Mellor's previous climate work and Hall's venture capital experience. 

"There was a lot of money and resources going towards creating research institutes that were working on frontier AI research," Hall told The Cool Down. "And there weren't as many going toward doing something similar within the climate tech space." 

But Living Carbon has changed that, attracting $36 million in investments so far, explained a company representative.

With the help of Dr. Yumin Tao, Living Carbon's Vice President of Biotechnology, the partnership has borne fruit. 

Living Carbon planted a greenhouse full of genetically engineered seedlings that grew up to 53% faster than the unmodified trees planted alongside them, according to the company's website. 

Now, Living Carbon has left the greenhouse. The company is putting seedlings in the ground in Georgia and Pennsylvania, bringing life back to land left barren by mining and other human activities.

Living Carbon's quick-growing trees are one possible answer to deforestation — the destruction of large areas of the forest and jungle ecosystems that the Earth relies on to filter the air. 

Although the company's modified poplar trees can't perfectly replace ancient jungle giants and the smaller species that rely on them, they can put oxygen into the air to make it breathable, while removing excessive carbon pollution that's warming up our planet. 

The trees store carbon in a durable form — wood — which will keep it out of the atmosphere long-term. This helps to make up for human activities like manufacturing, driving, and power generation, all of which put more planet-overheating pollution into the air.

According to Hall, that offset is what Living Carbon will rely on for funding. The company sells carbon credits, which allow companies to invest in removing pollution from the air. 

"To keep forests forests, you have to have some sort of income stream from them," she explained.

Landowners who plant Living Carbon's trees will also have another option for profit: lumber. 

Because the trees mature particularly quickly, owners will be able to harvest them more frequently — as long as they're not being burned and putting stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Hall told The Cool Down that one of the conditions included in Living Carbon's contracts is that any lumber from their trees can only be used for durable wood products, like furniture.

"Our focus is mostly on degraded land where there isn't a timber market," Hall added. There, the trees could be used to establish permanent forests that will continuously produce oxygen and trap carbon. 

If successful, Living Carbon estimates its planned activities will remove over 600 million tons of carbon pollution from the atmosphere, which would go a long way toward cooling down our planet. That means safer, more predictable weather patterns and less costly damage from worsening extreme weather events.

On that front, Living Carbon is moving more quickly than many research organizations. 

"Actually bringing a product to market and having it deployed at large scale in a way that allows for a meaningful amount of carbon to be removed — that is something that is not done in academic institutions," said Hall. "If you have a thousand companies like Living Carbon with a 10% success rate at removing one gigaton of carbon — that's actually it. That's actually what you need to do to solve climate change." 

According to Hall, it's important that we grow to that point before the damage from rising global temperatures is too great. 

"A lot of the engineered solutions are not going to get to scale in the timeframe that we need," she explained. "We can do something that can get to scale without building out completely new infrastructure."

Living Carbon also wants individual people to help in its mission. The company has a waitlist for interested landowners to request future seedlings. Hall recommends raising the issue at work, too. 

"Really push your employer to offset their Scope One emissions, and work with high-quality carbon credit providers to do so," she said. 

Most of all, she hopes individuals avoid getting "caught up in the problem-centric approach." 

"'Ah, the world is burning!'" she added. "We know! What solutions are you going to work on to help change it?"

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