InPlanet Takes On Climate Change and Advances Sustainable Farming with Local Soil Remineralizers
Forging partnerships and collaboration: InPlanet cofounders Niklas Kluger (left), and Felix Harteneck (bottom right), along with the InPlanet research lead Philipp Swoboda (bottom center) and Carbon Drawdown Initiative founder and CEO Dirk Paessler (right) and COO Ralf Steffens (center) (photo courtesy of InPlanet).
Is it possible to fight climate change while simultaneously supporting regenerative farming practices? The German-Brazilian company InPlanet is showing that the answer is yes.
Founded in 2022 by Felix Harteneck and Niklas Kluger, InPlanet is a carbon removal and agro tech start-up that helps farmers in Brazil enrich their soils by applying natural, locally sourced rock powders while simultaneously removing significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Our vision is to sequester GTs of CO2 while regenerating tropical soils in order to create a livable planet with nutritious food and healthy ecosystems for future generations.
The company came together when Felix was visiting Niklas in Brazil. They collaboratively identified the urgent need to scalable carbon dioxide removal strategies and realized that Brazil held immense potential as a place to start implementing some of the emerging, nature-based carbon sequestration methods.
Niklas had come to Brazil seeking ways to make sustainable, regenerative farming practices economically viable through (voluntary) carbon markets, with a particular interest in agroforestry and soil restoration. Felix was motivated to get involved in carbon dioxide removal technologies while working on a carbon balance for a software company he had started a couple of years ago. Combining forces, the team initially focused their efforts on a three-pillar approach including agroforestry, biochar and rock powders. Niklas had learned about enhanced rock weathering (ERW) and its powder of removing carbon from the atmosphere already during his masters in resource management at Humboldt-University in Berlin. After some initial field testing and studying the market, it became clear that the potential for enhanced rock weathering in Brazil was enormous, so they decided to focus InPlanet solely on the development and scale-up of ERW.
InPlanet’s Launch and Initial Projects
In the company’s pre-seed stage, InPlanet received 1.2 million euros from the leading impact and climate investors Carbon Removal Partners, Übermorgen Ventures, Trellis Road, Katapult VC, and Carbon Drawdown Initiative. Besides the successful, oversubscribed seed round, already shortly after incorporation, the team also managed to close significant deals with leading climate actors. In 2022 InPlanet established projects with Art-Invest, CarbonFuture, Shopify, and the advance market commitment Frontier Climate to remove a total of 1041 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. And their momentum has continued into 2023. In April, InPlanet closed a deal with Carbonx, an aggregator of corporate demand for carbon dioxide removal, to sequester an additional 1000 tonnes of CO2. This project marks the beginning of a long-term partnership with Carbonx that will allow InPlanet to help large corporations eliminate their historical and future carbon emissions. In addition, Inplanet recently received support from the Swedish company Milkywire, a tech platform that enables companies to address their environmental footprint, and the Swedish fintech company Klarna to remove another 750 tonnes of CO2 as part of Milkywire’s Climate Transformation Fund.
In addition to the corporate partners, InPlanet is also working closely with leading academic institutions to establish a sound scientific underpinning for their CO2 removal methodology. These scientific partnerships include collaborations with leading soil and climate researchers at the University of São Paulo (ESALQ), the University of Brasilia (UNB), and Newcastle University.
So, what is the secret to InPlanet’s success? The answer is rock dust from local Brazilian quarries and mines. It turns out that when applied to agricultural land, rock dust acts as a slow-release fertilizer that improves soil quality and consumes carbon dioxide as part of the rock weathering process.
Rock Weathering and Climate Change
Rock weathering has been a central component of the Earth’s thermostat for over a billion years. The global thermostat consists of sources and sinks (storage reservoirs) of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. High levels of these gasses trap heat near the Earth’s surface, causing the global temperature to increase. This is referred to as the greenhouse effect. Over geologic time the primary source of carbon dioxide (the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere) is the outgassing from the Earth’s interior by volcanic activity. The main geologic sinks for carbon are the oceans, soils, and sedimentary rocks, such as limestone.
The natural process of rock weathering converts carbon dioxide into benign forms of carbon, such as carbonate minerals (e.g., calcite), and dissolved carbonate molecules, such as bicarbonate. The dissolved forms of carbonate are carried to the oceans by streams, where they are used by marine organisms to form shell material and eventually deposited to form sedimentary rocks such as limestone and dolomite. These processes can lock up carbon (keeping it out of the atmosphere) for hundreds of thousands to millions of years.
Another important characteristic of Earth’s thermostat is the temperature dependence of rock weathering rates. As the temperature increases, so does the rate at which rocks weather. So higher global temperatures lead to faster weathering rates, which, in turn, accelerates the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. This natural feedback loop between rock weathering and global temperature has kept Earth’s climate relatively stable for hundreds of millions of years.
The problem is that our global thermostat is currently being overridden by human activity. Over the past 150 years or so (the blink of an eye, geologically speaking), the widespread burning of fossil fuels has dumped more than a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To put this in perspective, it is estimated that natural rock weathering removes approximately one billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually. Global carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are on the order of 40 billion tons per year.
The rapid rise in anthropogenic CO2 emissions is occurring much faster than natural rock weathering can keep up with. So, one of the major questions facing humanity is how can we reverse this trend of rising CO2 levels to avoid catastrophic global climate change caused by rising temperatures. This is where rock dust, enhanced rock weathering, and innovative companies like InPlanet come in.
Enhanced Rock Weathering and Soil Remineralization
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that to avoid a global climate catastrophe, humanity must slash fossil fuel emissions and start removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One of the more promising carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies is enhanced rock weathering. This process takes advantage of Earth’s primary geologic mechanism for removing excess atmospheric carbon dioxide. In enhanced rock weathering, the rates of CO2-consuming reactions are accelerated or enhanced by spreading finely ground silicate rock on soils or coastal areas.
When spread on agricultural soils, the rock powders used for ERW (such as the volcanic rock basalt) have been shown to have significant agricultural benefits. Rock dust acts as a slow-release fertilizer that enriches soils in major, minor, and trace nutrients, helps balance pH, improves cation exchange capacity, and supports thriving communities of beneficial microbes, including mycorrhizal fungi, which are essential for healthy soil structure and efficient nutrient uptake in many plants. It has also been shown that silica released from weathered rock dust reduces attacks by leaf-chewing animals and insects, as well as improves plant resistance to bacterial and fungal diseases.
The agricultural benefits of rock dust make it a great replacement for synthetic nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium salt fertilizers, which can degrade soils and cause environmental damage after years of heavy use. Locally sourced rock dust can, therefore, break the dependence of local farmers on expensive and environmentally damaging imported fertilizers. This is an important part of InPlanet’s vision as it partners with Brazilian farmers for its CO2 sequestration projects.
In addition to these benefits, the large-scale application of enhanced rock weathering has enormous potential as a carbon dioxide removal (CDR) method. It has been estimated that the global application of enhanced rock weathering on agricultural lands could result in the removal of 2 to 4 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere per year. This is 2 to 4 times more than the amount of carbon dioxide removed by natural rock weathering annually. However, for the full potential of ERW to be met, it needs to be scientifically tested in regions with naturally rapid rock weathering rates and in soils that can benefit from the plant nutrients and trace elements provided by the breakdown of rock dust. And this is what InPlanet is focused on.
InPlanet and Enhanced Rock Weathering in Brazil
As Niklas Kluger and Felix Harteneck realized when they started InPlanet, several major factors make Brazil one of the world’s most promising locations for large-scale applications of enhanced rock weathering. First of all, Brazil has a long history of research and on-farm experience using rock dust as an agricultural amendment. The technical work on agricultural applications of rock dust goes back to the 1950s with the studies of Professor Djalma Guimarães and his colleague Dr. Vladimir Ilchenko. This was followed by the pioneering work of Professor Othon Henry Leonardos starting in the 1970s and is continued to the present day by Brazilian experts such as Professor Suzi Huff Theodoro (University of Brasilia) and Dr. Eder de Souza Martins (EMBRAPA), both of whom have served as advisors for InPlanet.
Brazil also has a well-established rock dust market. Around 55 mines in Brazil produce rock powders certified for agricultural use, and it is estimated that Brazilian farmers have spread rock dust on approximately three million hectares of agricultural land.
The development of Brazil’s rock powder market is being supported by Brazilian law and government policy. In 2013 legislation was passed that defines the types of rocks that can be used for agricultural soil enrichment. These rock types, which must be certified based on their chemical composition and grain size distribution, are called remineralizers. There is a push in Brazil to certify up to 1000 mines as certified suppliers of remineralizers over the next few decades. In 2022 it was estimated that the currently certified suppliers could produce around 3 million tonnes of rock dust annually. So InPlanet has an ample supply and thriving rock dust market to draw upon for their ongoing ERW projects.
Other characteristics that make Brazil one of the best places on Earth for enhanced rock weathering include:
- It has a vast expanse of agricultural lands (the world’s fifth largest in terms of agricultural land area).
- Brazilian tropical soils are generally acidic with relatively high temperatures. These conditions favor rapid rock weathering rates.
- Many Brazilian farmers are familiar with using rock dust as soil amendments and therefore are more open to participating in enhanced rock weathering studies.
InPlanet’s Field Trials and Scale-Up
After buying some certified Brazilian rock dust, InPlanet started with what Niklas Kluger calls an operational test drive. They spread a few tonnes of the rock powder mixed with eucalyptus char (for additional carbon sequestration and soil improvement) on two hectares of agroforestry land to test out all aspects of the process.
The operational test included rock dust procurement process, interactions with mining companies, negotiation of contracts with local farmers, transportation of rock powder to the field, rock powder storage, spreading of rock powders on fields, and basic observations of crop growth and soil properties.
With the success of initial small-scale trials, they expanded their field trials. In January 2022 InPlanet applied 500 tonnes of rock dust to another 80 hectares of agricultural land throughout Brazil. Capitalizing on their successful operational test drives, the company is scaling up its field applications and plans to spread up to 50,000 tonnes of rock powder in 2023.
In parallel with scale-up, InPlanet, and their academic partners have initiated a rigorous scientific program to study the biological, pedological, and geochemical aspects of enhanced rock weathering. In addition to the co-founders Niklas and Felix, the scientific program is led by InPlanet’s research team: Dr. Philipp Swoboda, a leading expert in the science of ERW and the benefits of rock powders in agriculture, Dr. Matthew Clarkson, an experienced geochemist previously at ETH Zurich as well as Dr. Mariane Chiapini, a tropical soil specialist who worked at ESALQ in Piracicaba, SP.
InPlanet’s state-of-the-art science projects will focus on measuring, reporting, and verifying (MRV) the amount of carbon dioxide removed by enhanced weathering. However, agronomic investigations will also be performed. This includes studying the co-benefits of ERW, such as improved soil properties, plant resilience and resistance to physical and biological stresses, crop yield, and nutrient density.
InPlanet’s Scientific Approach to Enhanced Rock Weathering Verification
InPlanet’s scientific program is rooted in a rigorous approach, focussed on empirically quantifying carbon removal. Their general aim is to study the fundamental science of ERW in controlled environments and natural deployment locations.
They start each project by initially identifying an area of ca. 1000 hectares of farmland with uniform soil type, consistent climatic conditions, and a single kind of crop. To this area, they apply a single type of locally sourced rock dust at an average application rate of 10 tonnes per hectare (for basaltic rock powder). Every application is followed by a 3-5 years observation period.
Data collection does then occur via the setup of a variety of experiments ranging from the field level to the lab, e.g. mesocosms and InField sampling points. Thereby, a strong focus is on collecting data under real field conditions. This data is then completed and compared with results coming from more controlled environments, e.g. the greenhouse. Throughout all experiments the team focuses on sampling solid, liquid and gaseous phases and does explore a variety of methodologies to directly and indirectly measure the resulting carbon removal, e.g. through carbon mass balance, trace elements or DIC measurements of leachate waters. Furthermore, properties of the vegetation are analyzed to evaluate the rock powders impact on nutrient levels in plants as well as on yield.
Furthermore they rigorously determine the baseline of their soils and rock materials, e.g. through determining bulk chemistry, mineralogy or water retention capacity. Soil solutions are monitored for elements released by the rock powder (such as magnesium and calcium) and bicarbonate (the by-product of CO2 consumption by rock weathering). Gas analyses are also performed to measure the impact on in- and out-gassing of CO2 from rock powder treated soils.
This holistic approach allows InPlanet scientists to obtain especially comprehensive data from a particular soil-rock-crop system from different perspectives. InPlanet’s ERW science program is outstanding in that, in addition to verifying the conversion of carbon dioxide to carbonate molecules during rock weathering, they also study rock powder’s role in increasing soil organic carbon. As discussed above, rock dust remineralizes soils as it removes CO2. This process enhances the overall growth rates, health, and mass of plants. In this way, rock weathering accelerates biomass accumulation in the soil, some of which will be converted to long-lived forms of soil organic matter, which can effectively store carbon for decades.
InPlanet’s ambitious science plan is a collaborative effort. They are partnering with some of the world’s leading experts in enhanced rock weathering and soil science, such as Professor Antonio Azevedo from the University of São Paulo and Professor David Manning from Newcastle University. In addition to these academic collaborations, they are also working closely with Dirk Paessler (CEO) and Ralf Steffens (COO) of the Carbon Drawdown Initiative (CDI). This is an important relationship as CDI provides financial support for InPlanet and is a scientific collaborator with significant technical experience and expertise in ERW.
Working Towards A Sustainable Future
Speaking with RTE, Niklas emphasized that InPlanet is focused on both carbon dioxide removal and promoting sustainable agriculture, especially in tropical regions where farmers have become reliant on imported synthetic fertilizers. He views the financial aspect of CO2 removal by enhanced rock weathering as a powerful incentive for soil remineralization and the adoption of regenerative farming methods. Regenerative practices focusing on nature-based processes and locally-sourced soil amendments will help disentangle Brazilian farmers from reliance on the global fertilizer markets. This issue has become urgent due to deepening market uncertainties caused by the ongoing war in Ukraine that drove a four-fold increase in fertiliser costs. As stated on InPlanet’s website:
“We work closely together with farmers to restore their soils and help them to transition to a low carbon, sustainable and nature-based agriculture. Our silicate rock powders contain many fresh minerals, which make them a natural, long-term fertilizer. They allow farmers to substitute conventional fertilizers, pesticides, and limestone.”
The bottom line is that InPlanet and its corporate and academic partners are showing the world that both climate change and the need for sustainable agriculture can be addressed simultaneously using the natural process of rock weathering.
James Jerden is an environmental scientist and science writer focused on researching and promoting sustainable solutions to urgent environmental problems. He holds a Ph.D. in geochemistry from Virginia Tech and a Master’s degree in geology from Boston College. Over the past 20 years, James has worked as a research geochemist and science educator. He joined Remineralize the Earth because of their effective advocacy, research, and partnership projects that support sustainable solutions to urgent environmental issues such as soil degradation (food security), water pollution from chemical fertilizers (water security), deforestation, and climate change. As a science writer for RTE, his goal is to bring the science and promise of soil remineralization to a broad, non-technical audience. When not writing, he can be found at his drum set.