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The Newest Airline Climate Solution? Burying Sawdust

American Airlines is working with a startup that says it can slash the cost of carbon removal.

By Ed Ballard and Amrith Ramkumar, The Wall Street Journal

American Airlines is joining the race to remove carbon from the atmosphere, tapping a novel method that is much cheaper than many existing approaches and could boost the fledgling industry.

The airline company is purchasing credits from a startup that uses bricks of carbon-absorbing plant material to sharply lower costs, potentially making carbon removal a widely used climate solution earlier than anticipated. It is one of the first carbon-removal deals by an airline and shows how some of the biggest corporate emitters are trying to find new ways to cut their environmental footprint.

“We’re excited about this new technology because it is within reach for us,” Jill Blickstein, American’s vice president of sustainability, said in an interview.

Graphyte, the startup working with American, collects agricultural waste products such as sawdust or tree bark that naturally absorb carbon dioxide. It compresses that dried biomass into shoebox-size bricks and seals it using a special barrier to prevent the plant matter from decomposing and releasing carbon. The bricks are then buried and monitored using an embedded tracer substance to ensure they are locking away carbon.

Graphyte charges a fraction of the price companies pay for direct-air capture, the most heavily funded carbon-removal technology. That process—which employs giant fan-like devices to suck up air and separate the carbon—isn’t expected to be deployed at a large scale for at least a few years and costs an average of about $675 a metric ton, according to data provider

By contrast, Graphyte is charging American Airlines $100 a metric ton to remove 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That is the price the U.S. Energy Department and many industry executives say is the crucial threshold for broadening access to carbon removal.

The transaction could prove pivotal because scientists say billions of tons of carbon will need to be removed by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global warming, even if emissions fall rapidly. Companies have pledged to sharply reduce their emissions by then and balance out any remaining emissions with carbon removals and other offsets.


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