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Diving deep to meet zero methane challenge

POSTED: 31 December 2019

Divers harvesting asparagopsis seaweed near Rakiura
Divers gathering asparagopsis seaweed along a transect line in Port Pegasus, September 2019. Photo: Toby Dickson

CH4 Global is the most ambitious venture Tuia Innovation has embarked on, and is representative of the tech-driven sustainability, climate change and new carbon economy-focused projects we have undertaken or collectively been involved in over the last two decades.

The project concept was first raised with us over a year ago by good friend and fellow schemer Dr Steve Meller, who has featured on these pages previously through his various collaborations with Nick Gerritsen and his involvement as a strategic advisor with some of our more aspirational start-ups.

Based in Palo Alto near San Francisco since retiring from a lead executive role in innovation/product development and M&A at Proctor and Gamble, Dr Meller had been involved in a review of some of the intellectual property (IP) developed by CSIRO, Australia’s leading Government-funded research organisation.

An appearance at the 2018 Asia Pacific Energy Leaders’ Summit prompted recollection of an interesting piece of IP sitting in CSIRO’s portfolio relating to a seaweed species that had been shown to significantly reduce methane production in ruminant animals.

“It just struck me — why wait for someone else to act on this opportunity? We should be first to do so,” Dr Meller said.

His view was that while the patent was important to any business that would licence it for animal feed, without sourcing a large and consistent supply of the seaweed there would be no need for a licence. So he raised the prospect of forming a company to position itself on the supply side with the four Tuia Innovation principals, and a “tight five” scrum formed.

Of particular appeal was that the seaweed species, asparagopsis armata, is native to West and South Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. It grows particularly well around Rakiura/Stewart Island and into Fiordland, is established in Otago Harbour, Banks Peninsula and the Marlborough Sounds, and appears right around the North Island as far north as Manawatāwhi (Three Kings).

That gave us a significant “natural” advantage, one that we needed to move quickly on, and in short order the newly-formed company put together a high-powered advisory group and started raising capital.

“This was a lot easier than anticipated and we realised there was inherent interest within our investor networks in a project that would have immediate and meaningful impact on climate change,” said CH4's CEO Nick Gerritsen.

“And of course New Zealand has, per head of population, the largest methane ‘headache’ of any country striving to reduce its carbon emissions.”

By mid-2019 the company had secured investment to undertake a scientific survey of the naturally-occurring asparagopsis resource around Rakiura/Stewart Island, and had also put an application for funding to the Provincial Growth Fund, with a focus specifically on Murihiku/Southland.

The survey was undertaken by a team from the Department of Marine Science at Otago University, led by Dr Chris Hepburn. We also recruited the technical support of key scientists from Niwa, including New Zealand’s leading macro-algae expert Dr Wendy Nelson and Dr Andrew Forsythe, the GM Aquaculture based at Bream Bay.

Asparagopsis research crew near Rakiura
Department of Marine Science research field team: [Rear] Will Pinfold, Toby Dickson, Tim Howarth, Chris Hepburn, Daniel Pritchard, Gaby Keeler-May; [Front] Gaya Gnanalingam, Lisa van Halderen, Lucy Coyle, Niall Pearson, Roberta D’Archino.

Discussions were also underway with research providers, established marine farmers and potential supporters in South Australia. Momentum built quickly on the back of some positive survey and test results, and good outcomes from some initial vegetative propagation exercises undertaken in Big Glory Bay (Rakiura) and at Bream Bay.

“It became clear to us that this wild species could be domesticated and looked an ideal candidate for aquaculture,” said Alan Groves, the company’s Chief Operating Officer.

“And it’s the lowest impact form of aquaculture there is. In fact, there a net environmental benefit to farming seaweed.”

By mid-November we had produced our first batch of asparagopsis “product” that could be fed directly to dairy cattle, and weeks later received advice we had been granted $500,000 of PGF funding — two very big wins.

And before Christmas we received confirmation we could access permitted water space for growing trials in Big Glory, the Marlborough Sounds and the Coromandel, with discussions ongoing about water space in Pegasus Bay, the Bay of Plenty, and various harbours around Northland.

So we finish 2019 able to take a breath and reflect on some extraordinary achievements in a very short timeframe, with a dynamic and fast-moving project getting increased interest as it gathers steam. 

The coming year will be even busier as we look to meet the challenges presented by a massive scale-up in production, and move our capital raising to the next level. We’ll keep you posted, but more information is available from the CH4 Global website.

CH4: Rising to the challenge of Zero Methane Agriculture

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