Bernstein works as a professor at UiT The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø where he runs an 18-person research group. The team specializes in three main areas: marine microalgae biotechnology focused on carbon capture and utilization (CCU); marine microbiomes focused on Arctic ecosystems; and engineered or synthetic biology.
“Our three themes actually fit together, and it's the space between those topic areas that we look into. We observe natural ecosystems, mostly those related to the Arctic, and try to learn their principles that we can use for engineering and new biotechnology solutions for CCU. It’s difficult and ambitious, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
Solving the climate crisis with CCS and CCU
It is common knowledge that carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions caused by human activity are contributing to the climate crisis. “We’re at the stage where we have to develop and rapidly implement technology to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, not just avoid or cut back on them. We have to capture CO2 and CH4 where they are being produced, and also consider stripping them out of the atmosphere, storing them long term or converting them into something else. It's inevitable – we have to do this,” Bernstein states in no uncertain terms.
Technologies for carbon capture and storage (CCS) exist, but their implementation is expensive. “We're talking about retrofitting energy infrastructure all around the globe just to essentially deal with waste management. That's not very attractive. What is quite a bit more attractive is carbon capture and utilization (CCU) which allows us to stimulate the economy. This means capturing carbon dioxide or methane and converting it into a product or service that has economic benefit; something that services an existing market or creates a blooming new market with innovations and jobs. It might not turn a profit, but it can offset the costs. But we need to develop the technologies that make it feasible – not just a thing that could happen someday, but the thing we're doing right now. In many ways, it's in line with the premises of the green shift.”
Learning from nature’s own processes
Although human activities increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the planet itself has geochemical cycles that try to keep everything in balance, maintaining an environment we can live in. The carbon cycles are integral parts of ecosystems; without them, there would be no life.
“We know a lot about these cycles and processes. The real problem is actually the upsetting of them – not just our emissions, but when the cycles shift and get out of balance,” Bernstein explains. “The biology associated with the cycles is one of the major control points of how carbon is regulated and how humans will experience climate change that is caused by increased amounts of greenhouse gases.”
“There are three major ecosystem types: marine ecosystems, terrestrial ecosystems, and the deep subsurface. As an example, there's dissolved organic carbon in the ocean – dissolved organic matter – and that is a pool of carbon roughly the same size as the pool of CO2 in the atmosphere. But people don't really realize that natural ecosystems are offsetting this carbon in many different ways.”
“The whole point of arranging our workshop was that we believe there's much to gain by translating our existing knowledge of the ecosystems, or the new knowledge that we're about to obtain, into our efforts to innovate new technologies for CCU or CCS. We can use that knowledge to build new technologies, and as we build them, we need to be aware of how they're interfacing with the existing ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles – the engine of how carbon is regulated on this planet. We think that borrowing from ecology to build new biotechnologies, specifically biotechnologies for CCU, is part of the solution that will eventually get us to the sustainable path.”
Planning and collaborating for maximum impact
Bernstein and his colleagues planned the workshop with a broad perspective and interdisciplinarity in mind. They brought in academics on the fundamental science behind the three major ecosystems, experts on the CCU and CCS technologies, as well as representatives from the industry. Already planning for the long term, they also reached out to the Norwegian Research Council and invited their program managers to attend. “These are the people who have an influence on what kind of research will be funded in the future, so it was important to engage them. If you look at the trajectory and the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere before we hit the major tipping points, we're only four or five funding cycles away from that. What we get done in the next five research funding cycles is what we will have in place to fight the climate crisis.”
In order to reach maximum impact, Bernstein and his colleagues also involved in their plans the chief editors of One Earth, a prestigious scientific journal, so they could weigh in on how to best reach the public with the conclusions of the workshop. This was a successful strategy, as the workshop resulted in a paper published by One Earth. “It was on our mind the whole time that we had the responsibility to produce something beyond an academic exercise. It was our job to work with the funders and publishers and engage them in a conversation, take their input, and integrate their ideas in a way that could help produce something with an impact.”
Producing direct and indirect results
When asked what other results the workshop has yielded beyond the One Earth publication, Bernstein does not hesitate to start listing outcomes.
“Several projects have been funded and resulted out of those three days of interaction. The newest is a PhD school called Photosyntech which is funded by the Norwegian Research Council and operated out of UiT. Many of the collaborators were introduced to each other at our workshop, and they are now educating the next generation of biotechnologists. Another example is a relatively large internal investment at UiT on a project called ABSORB – Arctic Carbon Storage with Biomes. The concept is exactly what we were addressing at our workshop: studying marine and terrestrial ecosystems, specifically the way that they draw down atmospheric CO2 and methane; trying to derive some very specific mechanistic principles; and show how those principles can be used in future biotechnology. Within that project we also work with the SALK Institute for Biological Studies. Two of their scientists spoke at our workshop, and now we have this relationship and project with them, and we're sending PhD students back and forth. That is a great success. The next thing we're doing is designing a Norwegian centre for carbon capture and utilization. We're planning on building a lab in Northern Norway dedicated to the concepts that we put out in our workshop paper.”
Bernstein also points to the educational component of the workshop as one of the more immediate successes.
“The day before the workshop we arranged a student day with a couple of speakers. During that day, students went through the process of defining the problem, talking about how ecosystems underpin carbon cycling, and how our knowledge of these ecosystems might translate to new technologies and solutions. The following day they wrote a report collaboratively and then fed their input to us, to our workshop. The input we got from all these students was amazing, and when we moved forward to the publication process, we made sure to include them.”
Bernstein emphasizes that the workshop was the key to success in creating all the connections, networks, and all other direct and indirect outcomes that have resulted since.
“You have to see it from my perspective. I'm a new young professor moving from the US to Norway. I get this opportunity to invite big names into my university and write a paper that's being guided by a prestigious editor. And we also have funding agencies in the room. That's a win. And honestly, if I get the opportunity, I'm going to do it like that again. It is just a more direct path to impact than being talked at by fifty people with PowerPoint presentations.”
Bringing ideas to life
Bernstein estimates that the funding for the workshop has produced outcomes many times over the initial investment. One of the bigger wins for him and his team has been the AlgScaleUp project that is linked with another project called AlgOpti, together totalling 90-million NOK as part of green platform investment from Norway. Bernstein and other workshop attendees are collaborating with SINTEF Ocean, a Norwegian research and innovation institute, and the ferrosilicon smelter plant Finnfjord AS to establish basic research needed to scale up photobioreactors for algal carbon capture into megaliter facilities.
“In this project we’re actually implementing the ideas developed at the workshop on an industrial scale. My job is to understand how bioreactors that capture CO2 from a metallurgical plant act as complex microbial ecosystems. Think of a really large tank of seawater inside which we induce a bloom of algae, and then we bubble the industrial wastewater through to capture the CO2. That's the setup. We are looking at the way the entire microbial community interacts, and trying to control those interactions to increase the rate of carbon capture and make it more economically viable. The paper we produced after the workshop has a schematic of that, long time before this project was financed. These were the conversations we were having on day three at the workshop: if we were to do this, how could we make it industrially relevant?”
Despite the success they are now seeing, scaling up an idea or concept to viable and wide-spread application takes time, effort, and, perhaps above all, funding.
“We who do fundamental science know a lot, because we tinker with nature and in labs. The people who drive industry also know a lot from managing factories, businesses, and market-driven processes. In between those two sets of expertise is a valley – the ‘valley of death’ – that is really hard to cross. It's typically a huge investment to translate fundamental science to economically relevant industry. Most people won't do that. Our AlgScaleUp project is one of the examples where this has worked, thanks to a lot of effort for a lot of years from a lot of people. But the valley of death is very real.”
“High-risk, high-reward funding does exist, but it is also highly competitive. I mean, who doesn't want to design a potentially world-changing project?”
Three main takeaways
1. Action. "Rapid innovation as well as implementation of greenhouse gas management is mandatory if we are to avoid large-scale climate crisis."
2. Innovation. "Natural ecosystems interact with and underpin geochemical cycles. We may influence the engine that controls the way carbon is managed on our planet, but the planet is a machine already. Armies of scientists have studied this machine and these ecosystems for hundreds of years – now we need to bridge and render this information into new biotechnology."
3. Implementation. "Not just innovating or coming up with ideas, but actually implementing the idea – that is key. This is one of the ways we are going to avoid climate catastrophe."
Photo: Eucampia zodiac by Gunilla Eriksen, Microalgae & Microbiomes Research Group, UiT the Arctic University of Norway. Marine microalgae underpin global carbon cycles and food webs. They are also promising biotechnology agents for carbon capture and utilization.
The EcoTech4CCU: Biotechnology for Carbon Capture and Utilization from Ecosystem Inspired Solutions workshop was held in Tromsø, Norway on October 16–18, 2019. It was the first of the UArctic Frederik Paulsen High-level Seminars.