Frontier portfolio

Biomass

Using organic material to create renewable energy and store carbon in creative ways

Permanent carbon removal

24% of fund spend

What’s biomass? Basically, it’s what grows all around us—organic material that comes from plants and animals, like wood, food, or manure. The exciting part happens when you add heat: thermally processed biomass can create electricity, biogas, or biofuels (like ethanol and biodiesel, renewable fuels that often emit less carbon dioxide when used than fossil fuels).

When biomass is heated intensely in the absence of oxygen, magic happens. This process is called pyrolysis, from the Greek “pyro” meaning “fire,” and “lysis” meaning “separating.” When done right, pyrolysis produces two valuable byproducts: bio-oil and biochar. Let’s start with the oil.

Bio-oil

Bio-oil can be refined and converted into a biofuel. The problem is that the bio-oil produced by this process needs a lot of refining. Many researchers and companies are trying to figure out how to do this efficiently and cost-effectively. But one company is flipping the problem on its head and came up with a creative solution for bio-oil use—direct disposal.

Company spotlight

Charm Industrial

Charm Industrial is on a mission to return the earth’s atmosphere to 280 parts per million of CO₂, the level it sat at before the Industrial Revolution. They aim to do this by storing bio-oil deep underground.

Charm’s approach is unique. They asked, what would be possible if bio-oil didn’t need to be refined for fuel, and could stay dirty instead?

The thing is, bio-oil is rich with carbon from the product it came from—in Charm’s case, sawdust and corn remnants. Instead of converting that oil into a usable product, Charm opts to permanently sequester it in the earth. Where? In industrial disposal wells and salt caverns underground.

Bio-oil is easy to sequester permanently. It’s denser than water and sinks to the bottom of the rock formation it’s injected into—it wants to stay underground permanently. It’s a better candidate than the CO₂ used for traditional carbon sequestration which is less dense than water, rising to the top of its injection site and seeking a path back out to the atmosphere.

For every ton of bio-oil sequestered, 1.35 tons of CO₂ are removed (and this takes into account the energy emitted during production, transport, and injection). It’s early days for Charm, but they’re ramping up fast and will begin injection this year. Shopify is Charm’s second-ever customer. Our purchase will bring their cost curve down by 10% and help them prove and scale their technology.

“Over the past century, humans have extracted and burned hundreds of gigatons of fossil fuels, increasing atmospheric CO₂ from 280 to 415 ppm. Charm has developed a new, patent-pending method to help reverse that: bio-oil sequestration.”

—Shaun Meehan, Charm cofounder

Biochar

Biochar is the carbon-rich solid product of pyrolysis. The pyrolysis process was used extensively in ancient Amazonian society when people would bury and burn their waste products, like compost, manure, and broken pottery. The lack of oxygen from this burial led to the beautiful burning process of pyrolysis, producing charcoal full of carbon. The outcome was referred to as “terra preta,” meaning “black earth.” Today, we use pyrolysis machines to replicate this process, using biomass that would otherwise decompose or be burned for disposal.

Every ton of biochar produced sequesters around three tons of CO₂. There is some debate, but biochar seems to have a positive impact on soil quality. Studies have shown that biochar can increase crop yields, water holding capacity, and nutrient delivery. And so many markets are popping up for its usage: improved soil and plant health, drought-proofing, remediation of polluted lands, and carbon removal markets, to name a few.

Company spotlight

Puro.earth

Puro.earth calls itself “the world’s first marketplace for carbon removals.” They bring together suppliers of carbon net-negative technologies (meaning processes that take away more carbon than they emit), and buyers who purchase their verified carbon removal credits.

The marketplace focuses on companies that can remove large quantities of carbon and store it for a minimum of 50 years. Through Puro.earth, Shopify is purchasing carbon removals from three biochar providers:

Carbofex

Location:
Finland

Carbofex creates biochar from forest thinnings that would otherwise be left to decompose. Thinning is the process of selectively removing trees to improve the growth rate and health of those remaining.

ECHO2

Location:
Australia

ECHO2 creates biochar using recycled wood that would otherwise be burned or put in a landfill.

Ecoera

Location:
Sweden

Ecoera creates biochar using residue from industrial seed production that would otherwise go to waste or decompose.