A Startup to Save All Startups: Mitigating Arctic Methane Release

Frost Methane is targeting arctic methane release to avert climate catastrophism.

 

It’s a sunny morning in Alameda, California. Olya Irzak and Ethan Caleff carry the white octagon draped with seaweed over their heads, up the path towards the USS Hornet Naval Museum. The prototype is a white tarp bound to a PVC octagonal frame, and the seaweed is from their initial launch from the beach into a strong headwind. Olya flashes a wicked smile as they march to the pier opposite the USS Hornet where a small, retired Icelandic ferry is moored. From their micro puffies, sports glasses and sharp jogging shoes, they look like happy campers toting a tent to another site. Olya and Ethan walk the prototype to the edge of the pier. On three, they drop the 8’ diameter prototype over the pier into the San Francisco Bay behind the Ferry.

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Unfortunate for us, the human race cannot simply move campsites at this stage of our development. Global warming has caused thawing in the Arctic Circle, releasing stored methane from the bottoms of over 150,000 previously frozen lakes. If CO2 is a single-walled tent in direct sunlight, methane (which is 28 times more insulating than CO2) is the rain fly sweltering the inhabitants alive. The mid-range and long term effects were reiterated in this report, which was subsequently declared false by the Trump Administration, highlighting the need for stronger political will to address the climate crisis. In a short few decades, climate refugees are all but certain. According to a World Health Organization report from earlier this year, millions of lives are at stake.

And so, Olya Irzak, Ethan Chaleff and Laughlin Baker are launching Frost Methane to mitigate climate change by capturing arctic methane and igniting it before it hits the atmosphere.

 

Creating a Team and a Technology

The ferry’s rear loading hatch is open to the bay and the team is sorting through equipment. The interior of the ferry is something straight out of a Neal Stephensen novel. Where commuters once parked is an electronics shop with hundreds of parts in numerous drawers. In the very back is an extemporaneously decorated lounging area with random cushions and tapestry beneath a ramada. There are stations with optical equipment and soldering guns beneath the oceanic viewing ports, and the chandelier is some kind of geodesic with every point connecting to every point across the interior.

Olya suits up in her neoprene as Ethan and Laughlin motor the zodiac beyond the stern of the ferry to scout the deployment. The team attaches milk jugs for positive buoyancy and free weights for negative buoyancy to control ascent and descent. Their prototype is shaped like a patio umbrella with vacuum hose in the center. The hose leads to a 4″ cylinder where the electronics will be housed at the water’s surface.

Water gently laps against the hull of the quiet ship. The team co-directs the slow descent of the white tarp into the emerald green waters of the San Francisco Bay. The vacuum hose noodles from the middle of the baggy tarp, extending out to a methane collector and ignition unit. It is designed to be deployed concavely over a methane breach in an arctic lake. The collector will communicate through satellites, reporting on the amount of methane captured and ignited. Carefully, the team ascends the device, and lugs the components to the loading bay.

The entire time, I have listened to them communicate to enable the best ideas to be found by solution-based thinking. Today was relatively problem free, but success is still far away. The following week, the team will attempt a second deployment. This time they must attempt to assemble on the water. They will need to know how to launch the disassembled device from two kayaks and a dingy at their test site near Kotzebue, Alaska.

Sunlight ripples off the water beneath the flight deck of the USS Hornet. The flags of the USS Hornet lift to an urgent whip. On the pier, the octagonal white tarp catches the wind in long swells, simultaneously rising and falling like sand dunes crawling across the deserts. Olya, Ethan and Laughlin assemble the prototype as tourists enter the decommissioned aircraft carrier.

Olya walks over to Ethan and Laughlin toiling over the flapping corner, “What can I do to not be useless?” she asks. They ziptie the white tarp to the frame. Ethan inserts the exit port at the center, securing it with blue duct tape and more zipties. They origami the now 35’ diameter prototype into a bundle and descend into the ferry.

On the water, the stronger current and high wind create issues for the team. Connecting the elbow joints proves difficult at this scale. Components begin to sink before they are connected. The entire rig is pushed against the pier as the two boats manipulate the piping and tarps.

The team moves quickly to even out the descent. Their hands become cold in the extended deployment. With so much at stake, there is nothing as reassuring as strong teamwork in the face of small details, all of which the team addresses with support and deference to the best ideas being offered up. They are even kind enough to let me unprofessionally chime in. My specialty, really. The desire to feel helpful is difficult to resist.

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The evening light diffuses in the San Francisco fog. Shadows soften and disappear. Today was a success, in the sense that redesigns were identified and protocols were reality tested. In two weeks, the prototype will be on its way north of Fairbanks for testing in far colder conditions.

Olya gets out of the kayak and goes below deck to change. “Evaporative drying is a bitch,” she says with a smile, shivering in her wet suit. The team breaks down the components and debrief over a spread of Thai food. None of them eat meat for carbon and health reasons. They sequence their experiences, creating an education for themselves based on what went wrong. Their chemistry is easier for me to appreciate than the technical aspects of their discussion. Ethan feels organically like a big brother, Laughlin like the negotiator middle sibling, and Olya the goofy younger sister; with the addition of professional respect as peers. They agree to scale down the prototype for the field test in Kotzebue, Alaska.

 

Perseverance and Lost Permafrost

The effects of climate change are already here. Two years ago, the Mendocino Complex Fire destroyed 459,123 acres of woodland in Northern California. The next year, we saw the deadliest yet with the Camp Fire, where 86 people lost their lives and 18,804 structures were destroyed. The cause is thought to be a combination of human intrusion into woodland areas as well as a 3° Fahrenheit increase in California over the past century. My home, Sonoma County, is already redrawing topo maps to account for the potential rise in sea level.

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Firefighters back burn the forest east of Kenwood, California, in order to stop the Tubbs Fire, October 2017. Sonoma County, California.

The trip to the Arctic Circle taught the team what the field conditions would require. I was unable to attend due to a wedding at Burning Man (my own, alas). The team agrees to make daily logs of their experimental deployment in Alaska. Olya and Laughlin spend many hours debugging the electronics. Ethan punch-drunkenly reports the daily toils and the numerous obstacles. In areal footage, the team demonstrates the collapsing of the shoreline due to the loss of permafrost.

It is a bewildering sensation coming back from your own high-carbon footprint wedding to the video logs of three scientists in the Alaskan bush, explaining how microvolts fried  the iridium modem (but they had a backup!) in their save-the-world prototype, not to mention the meta-encounter with a reporter from the Washington Post doing a story on this very subject. Do follow that link for a professional summation of this topic.

Each log entry reminds me how frustrating these small steps can be. No matter how good a collaborator you are, camping food is always bad. And although a persevering attitude is important in the creation of reliable technology, don’t forget to bring a shotgun in case a bear decides to attack your only computer scientist, too.

Everyone seemed tired yet optimistic by the end of their trip to Kotzebue. Their last video correspondence was from a bar in Seward, Alaska. Everyone agreed it was more work than they’d expected. The asymmetry of the tarp caused the gas to collate unevenly and escape out the sides rather than at the port in the middle. As Ethan put it, it was not a #success. His tarp design needs to be more conical, and Laughlin’s electronics and batteries could be lighter. The team was able to measure the flow rate and uplink to the satellite, which was a huge bit of progress and not to be understated.

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Frost Methane is drawing nearer to a design that could be part of a global solution to climate change. According to a critical report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the UN’s body for assessing science related to climate change) we have 12 years left to avert global disaster. In the back of our minds is the same understanding – The time to triage climate change, like cancer, is before it metastases.

Frost Methane could be among many future companies that can curb greenhouse gas emissions — provided an economic incentive, such as a carbon tax, is available. In a comforting display of rational self-interest, a hedge fund representing 32 trillion in global investments demanded governments do more to mitigate the global rise in temperatures by implementing carbon taxes, among other measures. For every ton of methane eliminated, Frost Methane could be paid from these carbon tax revenues. Such potential revenues are essential to incentivize broader investment in climate change mitigation.

For Olya, hacking the problem is their first goal. Frost Methane’s priority is rapid deployment to avert an increase in global temperatures. For them, the business side seems to be a means to an end more than anything else.

 

Note: Unless stated, all photos are by the author. This article was written almost a year ago. With the confluences of seasonal flooding in and new babies in the author’s hometown, it was not edited and published until August 2019. Since then, Frost Methane has made significant progress in their organization and refinement of the technology underpinning this critically necessary advancement in planetary stewardship. A potential followup article will address those updates.

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