What it will take to clean up our food supply
The main highlights from the first day of MIT Technology Review's inaugural climate technology conference.
If you'd like to read more from the second day of ClimateTech, check out our live blog.
5.20 And that's a wrap on the first day of ClimateTech! See you all back here tomorrow. I hope you learned as much as I did.
5.10 Ronald also talked about the power of photosynthesis, which she notes is the oldest tool to fight climate change. Her research group is “trying to enhance photosynthesis to bring down more carbon dioxide from the air.” They’re engineering plants with deeper roots to trap more CO2 in minerals underground. Roland wants to do "one more big thing" in her career and says this project is it.
5.03 Farming is “totally destructive of the ecosystem,” because you’re disrupting a natural environment to make an artificial one. Ronald says modern agriculture should accept that reality but minimize harm. She says scientists and farmers need to aim for higher productivity on less land, preserving biodiversity and soil fertility, and maximizing carbon capture.
4.53 Something exciting about waterproof rice is that it’s “scale neutral.” Small farms and enormous farms both benefit from adopting the new technology. Installation is as simple as planting a seed.
4. 51 An ancient Indian variety of rice can naturally survive two weeks underwater—but it barely grows anywhere now. Ronald and her collaborators figured out what gene made this rice waterproof, and introduced it into modern varieties. After floods, farmers that planted Ronald’s waterproof rice saw a 60% yield increase compared to farmers who planted conventional rice.
4.42 Most rice varieties die if they’re submerged in water for more than three days. That’s a huge problem. It’s estimated that 4 million tons of rice, or “enough to feed 30 million people,” is lost every year, according to Ronald.
4.40 Our last talk of the day is on using genetic modification to produce weatherproof rice! It comes from Pamela Ronald, a professor from UC Davis. Ronald starts her talk by emphasizing that virtually everything we eat has been improved using some genetic tool—“except maybe blueberries or mushrooms.”
4. 33 On the topic of when Impossible Foods might release new products that compete with other types of meat beyond the burger, Brown says he’s tasted other prototypes (including one meant to emulate filet mignon) and “they’re pretty damn good.” But the company won’t release any until they feel it can compete head-to-head with existing beef products. He can’t give a date but says “stay tuned, it’s definitely coming.”
4.32 Switching to plant-based meat would be hugely beneficial for biodiversity, reducing methane emissions and land use. Brown emphasizes that taste is key and so is reframing the way people think about beef: “No meat eater considers the fact that their meat comes from a cadaver to be part of the value proposition.” He says consumers have rated the Impossible Burger at least as tasty as traditional beef.
4. 27 Raising animals for food is a “shitty business to be in,” Brown argues. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average profit for people in the beef industry, “whether they’re grazing cattle or managing the feedlot” is a negative number. Brown thinks this leaves an opening for plant-based food to disrupt animal agriculture. Here’s a feature we published in 2019 about how companies like his are racing to create products that will fill that gap.
4. 18 Photosynthesis is the most proven and mature carbon capture technology on the planet, Brown says. Therefore, “as far as I’m concerned, the best carbon-removal technology is… delicious, nutritious, affordable beef made from plants.”
4.12 Patrick Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, says the only way to reduce animal agriculture is to “replace it with a product consumers prefer.” He’s giving our next talk, which focuses on how plant-based meat can drastically cut our carbon footprint and preserve land and water.
4.07 There’s an unwillingness to substitute Russian gas with another source outside of the continent, Tsafos says, but it’s become a short-term necessity. “We’re importing liquefied natural gas from United States,” he says. But there is resistance across the continent to signing long-term contracts.
4.02 Tsafos says the time he and other energy leaders like him spend on trying to see their way out of this energy crisis is time they don’t get to spend on developing coherent strategies for a sustainable long-term energy transition. “That tension is something you appreciate when you sit on this side of the table,” he says.
4.00 Natural gas consumption doubles during European winters compared to summer. Greece still gets a bit of gas from Russia but Tsafos says he doesn’t know whether that will continue through winter. Already, energy prices for consumers in Greece have increased by 7 or 8 times compared to before the war. His plan to prepare Greece for the cold is to store as much natural gas as possible, to find ways to reduce consumption of gas and electricity in the short term, and to accelerate the switch to competing fuels.
3.45 Russia invading Ukraine has strained global oil and natural gas supplies. Prices have skyrocketed and demand for coal has spiked to higher than it's been in a decade. “We’re seeing industries left and right in Europe not being able to afford energy,” Tsafos says. Russia’s decision to curtail energy exports to Europe by almost 90 percent has created a huge gap to fill. He joins us tonight from Athens.
3. 26 We’re on to the last session today! Thanks for sticking around. I'm Hana, a reporting fellow at MIT Technology Review.
Our closing session focuses on how the industrial food system feeds climate change. First, we have a talk that spotlights the climate impacts of the invasion of Ukraine led by Nikos Tsafos, Chief Energy Advisor to the Prime Minister of Greece
3.05 Crownhart wonders whether steel is a difficult industry to break into: How does H2 Green Steel interact with other steelmakers and also customers? Customers are very excited, but as an industry "we have mixed reviews," Persson Gulda says. But some competitors see a potential to partner up and learn from each other technically.
And that's it from this session! We're taking a half hour now for a networking break. Be back shortly!
3.01 The policy landscape affects the viability of this technology commercially. Persson Gulda says originally the company thought it was only possible in Europe because of policy, but now is also looking into possibilities in Japanese and US markets.
2.55 Flat steel in Europe is usually produced in a blast furnace, which is where most of the carbon emissions are produced in the steel-making process, Persson Gulda says. Two tons of CO2 is produced for every ton of steel using this traditional route, while H2 Green Steel uses an electrified process instead, which reduces CO2 emissions down to less than .1 tons for every ton of steel.
2.49 And that's a wrap on Kendra Kuhl, fascinating stuff. Now on stage is Maria Persson Gulda, CTO and CPO of H2 Green Steel. The steel industry is another one that contributes significantly to carbon emissions, and green steel aims to eliminate 200 million tons of CO2 from the European market.
2.43 Kuhl says that supply chain issues are an existing challenge for Twelve, getting the right suppliers for their inputs, especially at the medium-scale level the company is working on now. Another exciting challenge, Kuhl notes, is having a diverse amount of talent with the necessary technical skillsets.
2.35 Like with Sublime, scaling up Twelve's technology is critical in order to make a dent in the vast amount of global carbon emissions. Twelve's goal, Kuhl says, is impact. A short flight uses roughly a thousand gallons of fuel, and the company has plans to eventually have multiple plants, with each plant capable of producing enough fuel to power thousands of flights.
2.29 Some early customers for Twelve are the US Air Force, which is using jet fuel produced by the company, and also chemicals that go into the laundry detergent Tide by Procter and Gamble. Kuhl says their technology in carbon transformation "can impact 10% of world’s carbon emissions."
2.24 Crownhart asks what Ellis is bringing her background in lithium ion batteries into her company in Sublime. "Coming out with something outrageous and bold and necessary," in order to find better solutions, Ellis says.
And that's it from Leah Ellis! Now on stage is Kendra Kuhl, CTO and co-founder of Twelve, which takes CO2 emissions and turns it into usable chemicals. Kuhl was one of Technology Review's Innovators Under 35 in 2016.
2.19 Ellis emphasizes that innovation in carbon capture and storage (CCS) isn't a threat to companies like Sublime. "We're going to need mops to mop up this carbon but we’re also going to need to turn off the tap," she says. "What Sublime is doing is turning off the tap."
2.15 More policy, such as the recent Inflation Reduction Act, is needed to encourage pilot projects and help nurture them into commercial scale. "We're going to need carrots and sticks," Ellis says. Getting from the small scale to the industrial scale is very expensive.
2.09 They dig into the chemistry of cement production. Sublime uses a technique that uses electricity and can do it at much lower temperatures. One issue the company is currently thinking about is scaling up. "Scale is everything. We use more cement than any other material besides water," Ellis says.
2.06 Crownhart introduces Leah Ellis, CEO at Sublime Systems, which looks to make cement production greener. "One ton of cement equals one ton of CO2," Ellis says. We need less carbon intensive ways to produce steel because carbon capture techniques won't be able to keep up with the industry's output.
Ellis was one of Technology Review's Innovators Under 35 in 2021.
1.58 And that's it from Dubourg. Now on stage is Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at MIT Technology Review! "Some industries are especially carbon intensive," Crownhart says, such as the steel, cement and chemical industries. Those three industry emissions make up a large portion of global carbon emissions.
1.52 Dubourg says that climate science is increasingly moving into financial industries, necessitating work with regulators that can impact various industries. In the cement industry, for example, considering these environmental and regulatory changes factors into their economic viability.
1.45 Moving from a purely financial framework to accommodating ESG concerns takes using a different framework, Dubourg says, joining remotely via video. JPMorgan Chase built a tool to track accountability internally called ESG Discovery. Even non-purely financial concerns can have a financial impact, Dubourg says.
1.37 On stage now is Laurel Ruma, director of custom content at MIT Technology Review, speaking with Hugo Dubourg, co-head of ESP & sustainability research at J.P.Morgan Chase, in a session presented by J.P.Morgan Chase. They'll talk about sustainable finance.
1.30 Welcome back! Thanks for joining us for the afternoon sessions of ClimateTech—I'm Tammy, a reporting fellow at MIT Technology Review, and I will be updating you on the hard-to-solve climate technologies covered in this next session.
12.35 It's a really important moment for climate, says Rae. "Government bills can help push this thing even faster." she adds.
We're breaking for lunch now—so I'm going to hand over the live blog to my capable colleagues Hana and Tammy. Thank you for reading, I'll be back with you tomorrow morning for the early sessions.
12.25 Rae is excited about investing in the build environment—clean cement and steel, everything that enables a lower carbon footprint is super important, she says. All kinds of energy generation and heat systems are also key: will our crops stand up to much higher temperatures, she asks. "The way diseases are spreading is quite different as the world warms. You have to look at how you address the human health side of this."
"Almost every company that we work with uses [AI] software...it's essential," she adds.
12.15 Tough tech, by its definition, recognizes that addressing some of the biggest problems takes time. The current US innovation system is optimized to support faster-growing technologies, which means exciting and disruptive technologies that are slower growing can end up overlooked.
"High capital is only one part of the equation—what is the eventual outcome?" asks Rae. "Everything is risky, but every software company is risky too. So if you're not comfortable with risk, you're probably not playing the game."
12.13 The Engine invests in early-stage companies solving the world’s biggest problems through the convergence of breakthrough science, engineering, and leadership. Boston Metal is one of the companies in its portfolio, which is making some fascinating inroads into cleaning up the dirty steel industry.
12.06 That's it from Dumas and Kolster. Our final session before lunch is with Katie Rae, the founding CEO & Managing Partner of The Engine, a venture capital firm built by MIT with more than $670M assets under management.
12.00 "It's not just enough to get to zero," says Dumas. The United Nations is on the same page—it released a major report back in April that underscored the price the world is paying for the long delays in addressing global warming despite decades of warnings, adding that carbon dioxide removal was now "essential."
Kolster acknowledges that there is an existing market for CO2 (for producing chemicals, making drinks etc), but maintains we need to create an industry that's essentially the oil and gas industry in reverse—working backwards from removal, at scale.
"This is still a very nascent industry," adds Dumas. "But seeing the growing demand—and not just from the expected actors; from mining and shipping companies—that was an indication for us this wasn't confined to a few high-minded CEOs in the Bay Area."
11.55 Our climate dream team James and Casey explained why carbon removal is such a big deal for this year's TR10 list of breakthrough technologies.
The hope is that building more and larger plants like these to capture carbon from the air will help companies figure out how to optimize operations, drive down the costs, and realize economies of scale.
11.50 If we want to have a tenable world order where temperatures aren't destroying large swathes of the population, we need to actively remove that CO2 from the atmosphere, says Kolster. Even reforesting all of the deforested trees wouldn't be enough, she adds. But she's heartened by the flux of talent into the sector, including experienced Big Tech workers leaving the established FANG companies heading into startups.
"There are hundreds, if not close to a thousand teams working on carbon removal today, that's mind blowing. Just a few years ago, it was a handful."
11.45 While removing existing carbon is necessary, we also need to actively reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, says Kolster. The company is excited by the brand new businesses working to reduce the amount of emissions in their air that are springing up.
Lots of people assume carbon removal revolves solely around direct air capture, which involves sucking emissions directly from the air, adds Dumas, but there are plenty of different approaches. Now, there are billions of dollars in play to fund carbon removal, but there are plenty of firms that are "still in stealth" at the industry's forefront that you won't have heard of, he adds.
11.40 Thats all from Roberts, great stuff. Next up, David is speaking to Clay Dumas, and Clea Kolster, who are both partners at Lowercarbon Capital, which funds research and invests in technologies to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.
Dumas invests in startups and research organizations developing technology to reduce emissions, suck carbon out of the air, and cool the planet, while Kolster is also head of science and leads the firm’s technical research, development, diligence, and scientific strategy efforts.
11.25 Roberts is excited about the opportunities to do more with water, adding that Source Global, which makes clean drinking water from sunlight and air, is a great example of how people are motivated to innovate from tough conditions (in this case, Arizona).
“When you think about it, if you were ever to solve a problem, the ones solving the problem are the most greatly impacted," he says. "Because they’re motivated.
11.20 When looking to invest in someone, the individual has to have something special about them, says Roberts, an insight into how to address the problem they're looking to solve. It's important to have the right attitude, as well as the required expertise, he adds.
"The one thing that is a key ingredient is optimism," he says. "The problems that we solve are hard, and they're going to be around in some form for the rest of the people in this audiences lifetime." It's crucial to believe you can make a difference.
It's crazy that we're still surprised by a hurricane or other natural disaster, he points out. "The only thing to be surprised about is when it comes," he adds, rather than the fact it's actually happening.
11.16 James Temple, our senior climate change and energy editor, profiled some of Breakthrough Energy Ventures's very first investments back in 2018, covering everything from geothermal and grid storage to biofuels.
11.12 We're back! Our editor at large, David Rotman, is now onstage with Carmichael Roberts, a investment partner at Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a mission-oriented group committed to changing the world by creating and building companies that address the threat of climate change and long-term sustainability of the planet. The company was founded by a little-known entrepreneur called Bill Gates in 2015.
10.40 We believe we have to have more distributed water infrastructure, says Schneider. That's the end of our first three sessions, and we're taking half an hour off now for a networking break. See you shortly!
10.30 Hydroelectric power inspires strong, often negative reactions, says James. How do we change that conversation, he asks. All of our activities are resource-extractive, Schneider says, but the challenge is how to make that sustainable.
10.25 Beavers are also a key ally in water-based ecosystems, Schneider says, adding that they inspired some of the company's concept designs for dams.
10.21 Natel Energy has developed a fish-safe turbine with curved blades, to avoid hitting any scaled friends. The design helps to deflect fish, including trout, eel, and herring, and has a 99% safety level.
10.20 We have to think about hydropower differently to how we've thought about it in the past, she says. We need to rethink our approach around it, particularly around the equipment, which is not terribly friendly to the poor fish that end up passing through it. “Hydro power today is an important contributor that underpins a reliable grid, she adds.”
10.18 Climate change is water change, Schneider says. We really have to deal with increasingly uncertainty around the water cycle, and hydropower has a role to play in that.
10.16 Thank you Lou Martinez Sancho! Next up is Gia Schneider, a cofounder and the CEO of hydropower company Natel Energy.
10.15 Safety is a huge concern with nuclear, says James. You need to have a technology that is capable of stopping by itself without human intervention, Martinez Sancho says.
10.09 Enabling the transition to clean energy and improving people's lives cannot come without environmental and social justice, she says.
10.06 We need to be certain when it comes to supply chains and manufacturing, she adds. Building a nuclear project is very complicated, and scaling up the technology requires new manufacturing and testing facilities.
10.02 The nuclear industry has failed to deliver in the past two decades, Martinez Sancho says. Now we can benefit from the research of the past, and maybe now is really the right moment to realize these technologies. What we designed 20 years ago doesn't really fit now.
09.58 We forgot how to build nuclear reactors, she says. Kairos believes we need to shift technology and make it safer. Here's some extra reading on the new, safer nuclear reactors that might help stop climate change.
09.54 This time round, the nuclear renaissance will be feasible, unlike in the past, says Martinez Sancho. Around 490 million still don't have access to electricity worldwide, she says, adding that energy needs to be both affordable and scalable. Nuclear's main problem is its cost, and that very few countries and communities have access to it (advanced nuclear was a TR10 breakthrough technology back in 2019, too).
09.52 That's the end of the session with Yet-Ming Chiang, fascinating stuff. Our next session is with Lou Martinez Sancho, the vice president of strategy and innovation at California-based nuclear startup Kairos Power.
09.50 It's worth pointing out that iron batteries on the grid were on our TR10 list for 2022—our list of breaking technologies published earlier this year.
09.42 The Inflation Reduction Act is going to have a really positive effect on investment for private businesses, says Chiang.
09.40 Electrifying aviation is a little bit cart-before-the-horse, says Chiang. Cleaning up aviation with battery technology is incredibly ambitious, but we could feel very differently in just five years. Here's our climate reporter Casey Crownhart's take on what’s keeping electric planes from taking off.
09.37 Never say never to a new battery startup, says Chiang, although he'd never start anything that competed with his current company Form Energy. It would have to be a very different approach to energy storage or solutions to catch his eye.
09.34 Sometimes you hear breathless reports about a 100 hour battery, says Chiang. It's easy to think: 'what's the big deal?' but the key is how to do this affordably, he adds. In order to store and deliver electricity competitively, you need a battery that costs about 20 dollars per kilowatt hour.
09.28 We've already seen a big move towards demand for EVs, says Chiang. Research in the battery spaces has pivoted dramatically towards better solutions, and iron-air is the lowest cost battery solution he can think of. Iron-air battery technology pulls oxygen from ambient air in a reversible reaction that converts iron to rust.
09.25 The tax credits come with some pretty strict requirements for US produced minerals and materials, points out James, asking how Chiang sees that playing out in the battery space.
We don't have a lot of cobalt, but that's okay because we're moving away from it, says Chiang. Our resources are adequate, but scaling production of batteries is a real challenge. This motivates us to look at chemistries for batteries that are much more abundant, he adds.
09.21 The Inflation Reduction Act is going to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into cleantech sectors, says James. It's an "enormous boon to cleantech development," says Chiang. "It'll really accelerate the move towards manufacturing...Scaling is really the key, and this will have an enormous impact on that scaling."
09.20 Our first discussion is with Yet-Ming Chiang, professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. He'll be talking us through what's needed to bring us closer to a fossil fuel-free economy. Welcome to the stage!
09.19 But all is not lost. We may have far to go, but we have the technological potential and economic capacity to limit how much hotter the planet gets.
09.17 If we assume every country follows through on its latest commitments under the Paris climate deal, the world will be on track for about 2.4 ˚C of warming over the levels of the late 1800s, he adds. That's still far too high, but some scientists are warning the increase is going to be closer to 4˚C this century.
09.16 We've seen remarkable progress in climate action over the past few months, says James. A big part of this was the US enacting a trio of major laws that could add up to the largest federal investment ever into climate and clean-energy technologies. Read our piece all about the Inflation Reduction Act.
09.10 Welcome to ClimateTech! Thank you for joining us—I'm Rhiannon, a reporter at MIT Technology Review, and I'll be taking you through all of the developments from the conference this morning.
We're kicking off now with some welcome remarks from James Temple, our senior climate change and energy editor.
Come back to this page for rolling updates throughout the day as we kick off ClimateTech, MIT Technology Review's first ever conference dedicated to finding solutions for climate change. Programming starts at 9am ET on Wednesday October 12, and you can follow along here to find out what's being said on stage. It's not too late to get tickets, if you haven't already.
For a taste of what's to come, read our senior climate change and energy editor James Temple's essay, in which he lays out the unbelievably high stakes we're grappling with, the vast challenges that stand in the way of preventing the planet getting hotter and hotter, and—believe it or not—the reasons for optimism, despite the urgency.
Today we'll be hearing from a vast array of different voices working in this space, including political advisors, MIT professors, clean energy experts, venture capitalists, startup founders, and more. Tune in at 9am!
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