Initially, Pull to Refresh focused upon the idea of growing kelp in the Pacific. "So that was kind of our initial prototyping and development that we did," explains Laurel Tincher, another of the organization's leaders. But the focus recently has shifted from kelp to Caribbean sargassum, in part because it provids an opportunity to have an impact not just on climate change, but upon another environmental problem as well.
"We also came across this really massive issue of invasive sargassum in the Caribbean," Tincher says. "Really, in the past 10 years it has become a huge problem. And we thought, well, there's already all of this seaweed out there, this is already carbon that's been captured. Let's do something with this. And so we kind of pivoted to create this stepping stone where we have a vessel that can drive around and gather up that sargassum and sink that. So that can really help us to prove out a lot of different aspects of our technology that will ultimately be used in both systems but can also help solve this forgotten problem."
If the sargassum is allowed to wash up on beaches, it not only is an eyesore, but the carbon in the sargassum eventually can be released in the form of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Instead, by lowering the sargassum into the water, the algae eventually becomes compressed and loses its buoyancy, so that it can sink to the bottom, according to Crumley.
To actually make a serious dent in the Earth's atmospheric carbon, Pull to Refresh would have to put a lot of robotic vessels out in the world's oceans — perhaps as many as a billion. "I understand that's a crazy number," Crumley says. But he also notes that it's the equivalent of a decade's worth of production in the global automobile industry. With a sufficiently broad base of support, "it's doable," he insists.
But before Pull to Refresh can attract funders to scale up to that size, it has to prove that its technology works and that it can reduce atmospheric carbon. In the meantime, the organization is operating on a shoestring, dependent upon pro bono labor and donations from its members. Pull to Refresh recently rented a house on the water in Panama, where it plans to conduct research on prototypes.
"We're crowdsourcing to a group of over 50 volunteers and growing," notes Crumley, who also says that a major industrial design software firm has helped out by providing "seats," i.e., user access, to some of its products. Eventually, Pull to Refresh hopes to attract backing from companies who want to offset their own carbon output, as well as individual contributors.
Crumley says that Pull to Refresh is aware of potential downsides to sequestering carbon on the ocean floor, such as possibly changing the content of the "Marine snow" that life in the oceans depends upon for nutrients. For that reason, Pull to Refresh would "follow it down and carefully monitor it," and look for ways to mitigate any negative effects.
In the meantime, as Pull to Refresh develops its technology, it's also working to find creative ways to get the word out about its alternative method for reducing atmospheric carbon.
"There's such a big storytelling element to what we're trying to do, because it's such a large scale that we need to get to, and we really need to get everybody on board and people don't even really know about carbon removal that much yet," Tincher says. "So we're trying to figure out ways of how do we show, how do we tell the story in a visual way, or what audio are we using? How do we simplify it down, so that people really get it?"