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Climate change and energy

How copying plants could produce the fuel of the future

Quickly catch up with the latest from our inaugural climate technology conference.

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If you'd like to read more from the first day of ClimateTech, check out our live blog.

5.05 And that wraps up our first-ever ClimateTech conference! I hope you’ve learned as much as I have about what humanity is cooking up to beat back climate change. I’m looking forward to the strides we’ll discuss next year and feel more optimistic about our ability to confront this massive challenge. Signing off, and see you next year!

4.53 Fun fact: imitating photosynthesis to make fuel is one of the first topics our head climate and energy editor, James Temple, covered as a journalist. In the ten years since he wrote about the tech's first prototype, artificial leaves have developed significantly but still have "no industry," Houles says. Now that much of the basic science is figured out, she emphasizes industry partners are necessary if artificial leaves are going to impact the energy grid.

4.44 The device Houle is working on resembles solar panels, but takes the “next step,” as she puts it, of using the charged particles that devices solar panels produce to “drive chemistry.”

4.40 Plants make energy from carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight. 40 years ago, Houle thought, “Gee, we know so much about natural photosynthesis. We should be able to do it ourselves.” So she’s worked to use inorganic materials to do the same thing.

4.34 Our last guest (can you believe it) is Frances Houle. She’s working to develop new fuels inspired by how photosynthesis works. Houle is a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the deputy director of the Liquid Sunlight Alliance, a Caltech-based collaborative research effort. Read more about the development of artificial leaves here.

4.32 White says the future of long-hyped fusion research is brighter than ever because of funding invested in the past 10 years in basic science research into plasma, theoretical physics, and super-computing resources.

4.28 Plasma is the scorching hot state of matter in which fusion reactions occur. Magnets that can confine plasma help us harness the power produced by fusion reactors. Last year, we profiled one of the fusion startups White highlights, Commonwealth. Commonwealth’s uniquely powerful magnets are a big part of why White thinks the company will help us realize the promise of fusion energy in 15 years.

4.17 Fusion reactors break “heavier nuclei into lighter nuclei” releasing enormous amounts of energy. White says if you could harness the energy produced by breaking up the positively charged nuclei of the element tritium, “you could power a city like Boston for a year with just a pickup truck full of fusion fuel.”

4. 10 Next is Anne White, who will talk with us about “the energy within the stars.” Plasma! Professor White is the head of nuclear science and engineering here at MIT. We selected practical fusion reactors, which White works on, as one of 2022's breakthrough technologies.

4.06 When it comes to the oil and gas industry, Araque says he’s talked to “all the majors over the years but they're just waiting to see what happens” with geothermal, which is a newer fuel source. He says partnerships with traditional fuel companies will be necessary to scale geothermal.

4.01 The deeper you drill into the Earth’s core, the hotter it gets, and the more energy you produce. To get to “geothermal prime time,” where geothermal is powering industries and the energy grid at a large scale, Araque says drilling has to get “hotter and deeper.” Casey wrote last year about the potential for geothermal energy to get there and new funding directed toward its expansion.

3.54 Araque wants to tap into the energy beneath our feet. During the Earth’s formation, thermal energy was trapped in the planet’s crust. By drilling down “less than the distance of a half marathon,” he argues, we can get “more energy for a fraction of the land” fracking uses.

3. 48 First up is Carlos Araque. He is the CEO and co-founder of Quaise Energy. This startup aims to retrofit fossil fuel-guzzling power plants to unlock deep geothermal energy.

3.43 We’ve now arrived at ClimateTech’s final session. It’s Hana again—an MIT Technology Review fellow. I’ll walk you through our speakers' approaches to overcoming the global climate crisis. Their battle plans include pulling heat from the earth’s depths, using plasma to generate unlimited energy, and copying how plants power themselves using the sun. These ideas might fail—or be how we save the planet.

3.12 And that's it for this session—we'll be back after a short break to discuss moon-shot climate innovations!

3.10 Jackson says FedEx set an emissions goal for 2040, 10 years before those in Paris Accords, because the company "looked at it" and "thought [they] could do it sooner." But still, there were inherent challenges: "We can't go out and buy those vehicles right now at the quantities we need—they're not being produced," he says of an electric fleet.

3.03 "It's a great business to be investing in sustainability," Jackson says. He says that if the Inflation Reduction Act is able to foster more electric vehicle production, that will help the company reach their 2040 carbon neutral goals.

2.59 "Aviation is the biggest component of our footprint," Jackson says, and it's not just true for FedEx but for the entire sector. (We published a story earlier this year about the challenges in reducing aviation emissions.)
FedEx is looking for sustainable aviation fuels, as a gigaton of carbon is emitted per year from aviation.

2.51 Last year, FedEx announced a goal of having carbon neutral operations by 2040, including an all electric fleet. "We were pleased that there was measurable goals" included in the Inflation Reduction Act toward transportation electrification, Jackson says.

2.44 Now on stage we have speaker Mitch Jackson, staff VP of environmental affairs and chief sustainability officer at FedEx.

2.40 Metro is currently working on a universal basic mobility project to provide "free, frequent, reliable, and safe" transit, Reynolds says—starting with areas in south LA, where there are the biggest disparities. She sees this as not just a climate intervention but an anti-poverty intervention. It includes protected bike lanes and bus-only lanes, as well as investments in community infrastructure and community committees to help create the program.

2.31 The idea of "innovation" shouldn't overlook the individuals on the ground doing the hard work of already managing these existing systems. Reynolds says cities' traditional way of dealing with expansion and increased population is to add more concrete—"and that doesn't scale."

2.25  "Telling people that they have to drive less is controversial," Reynolds says. And how much people have to drive is an equity issue, with more need to commute in lower income communities, where people are forced to spend more time on the road—which includes all the drawbacks and risks associated, like traffic accidents.

We covered LA's changing transportation landscape last year.

2.19 An audience member asks a question about avoiding dendrite formation in batteries, which grows exponentially with fast charging, like with lithium-metal batteries. "Dealing with lithium-metal dendrites is the key challenge" for the company, Holme says. The company has spent five years picking the right material to prevent these problems, then seven years to perfect the manufacturing process.

That's all the time we have with Holme! Very exciting technology. Now Arieff welcomes Seleta Reynolds to the stage. Reynolds is chief innovation officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees bus, light rail, and subway systems within LA County.

2.12 Holme says policy has an important role to set the right incentives, and worries that incentives are still being given to fossil fuels. "A level playing field is at least the lowest bar" in terms of policy, Holme says.

2.10 "Over the last few years, things have been changing much faster than people predicted," Holme says. But he expects that a bottleneck for battery production could appear for mining materials like nickel, which would need to ramp up.

QuantumScape's goal is to deliver a prototype that demonstrates the main proof of principle later this year. They have submitted some products to third-party testing, which Holme says backed up the positive results they have seen internally in the company.

2.05 "To achieve these advantages, we've had to change a lot of the battery architecture," Holme says. QuantumScape is working on a lithium-metal battery, which eliminates the traditional anode material in lithium-ion batteries. That technology is expected to be able to increase the range for electric vehicles and give it a faster charge. He also says their battery will be greener to produce, since roughly 40% of the emissions from creating a battery are from the anode material.

2.00 Electric vehicles are now the most dominant market for batteries today, surpassing the production of batteries for things like smartphones, laptops, and tablets. This sector is also affected by countries' policy decisions around transportation electrification. "A large majority of Americans want to drive EVs, but see some impediments," Holme says, such as range anxiety and worries over the cost of the vehicles. The "battery is single biggest line item” in electric vehicle, he notes.

1.56 Holme says that transportation accounts for the single largest sector responsible for emissions every year:  "I don't think we’ll get to a zero carbon future without addressing transportation." Luckily, electric vehicle adoption has been ramping up over the last few years, and the cost of creating batteries for electric vehicles has been decreasing exponentially since 1996.

1.51 Now on stage is Tim Holme, CTO and cofounder of QuantumScape, a company working on developing solid-state lithium metal batteries for use in electric vehicles. We wrote about lithium-metal batteries as one of the breakthrough technologies last year, which you can read more about here.

1.49 On stage is Allison Arieff, editorial director of print at MIT Technology Review. She will be speaking with representatives from companies working on next-generation batteries for electric vehicles, city transportation, and logistics.

1.44 Hello, we're back with the third session of today's ClimateTech talks—I'm Tammy, a reporting fellow at MIT Technology Review, and I'll be filling you in on this segment, which focuses on climate-minded transportation innovations.

12.30 Okay, it's time for lunch! I'm now going to hand over to my colleagues Tammy and Hana, who will talk you through the rest of the sessions when we resume afterwards. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference!

12.20 We're now hearing from Kent Larson, an architect, entrepreneur, and academic. He is Director of City Science at MIT Media Lab. His research focuses on compact transformable housing, ultralight autonomous mobility systems, sensing and algorithms to recognize and respond to complex human behavior, and advanced modeling, simulation, and tangible interfaces for urban design.

AI modeling tools are particularly useful because they allow diverse groups of stakeholders to come and meet and explore scenarios, he says, pointing out that open mic-style meetings are often dominated by the loudest, angriest voices.

"I think this process could be used for controversial topics in our cities, related to zoning or affordable housing, parking, issues like that," he adds.

12.05 Next up, we have Jacopo Buongiorno, the TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. He teaches a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in thermo-fluids engineering and nuclear reactor engineering.

"We're going to need a lot of clean energy to reduce the emissions, this is kind of obvious," he says. "We'll also need a lot of energy to actually power our adaptation solutions...and to defend geopolitical instability and competition for resources."

One possible solution could come in the form of a nuclear battery, a nuclear micro reactor that uses air from the atmosphere for cooling, rather than a water source. One major advantage is that it's transportable in standard containers, and can operate for five to 10 years and provide that energy on demand.

12.00 Andreas Rico, a graduate student from Mexico City at the MIT Media Lab with a background in Robotics, AI, and Innovation, is now talking about communities without infrastructure.

"The richest 10% [of the world] is accountable for 50% of the global CO2 emissions. And sadly, on top of this, the impacts of climate change are not equal either," he says. "Typically, the regions that tend to be the most vulnerable are not the ones that are producing the most CO2."

Securing energy, food and waste resources for vulnerable communities is crucial, he says, particularly ones that are low cost, lightweight, and easily distributed.

11.58 So, how do we encourage people to shift towards a plant-based diet, she asks? The solution should, and can, involve delicious plant based alternatives and fresh local food, but that won't necessarily be enough. Policy and strategic nudges may be required, but they're often both unpopular and controversial. Read more about how reducing your meat consumption really can help the climate.

Shifting towards a plant-based diet is crucial for environmental sustainability, but can also improve animal welfare, public health, food security and create new local economic opportunities. Plus, it's a change that individuals can make on their own, she adds.

11.50 Now, Alex Berke, a PhD student in the MIT Media Lab's City Science group, is talking about low-carbon diets.

Animal products contribute the majority of food related emissions, and are much more resource intensive than plant based foods, she says. Producing animal products contributes more than 56% of food related emissions, and takes up more than 75% of global farmlands, yet only contributes about 37% of the protein and 18% of calories to the global food supply.

The world is producing more animal products that people need, she adds, which is particularly problematic in the US and other affluent countries where meat is consumption is the highest.

11.40 Now Maitane Iruretagoyena, a technical associate at the City Science Group, has taken to the stage.

"We want to create more vibrant, productive, and creative spaces," she says. One way to do this, she explains, is through transformable wall systems that integrate furniture storage, lighting, office and entertainment systems.

"Sometimes the living room could be transformed to a bathroom," she adds. "So the rooms are created on demand they can they function that you need."

11.30 Next up is Ronan Doorley, an engineer and data scientist at MIT City Science, talking about hybrid working and proximity to the workplace from where you live.

Commuting contributes to emissions. AI models can provide interesting insights into how to reduce the amount of time people spend commuting by creating a kind of a proximity matrix of job to job skill, similarity, and work, he says.

"By modeling and simulating the likely job transitions that would occur in any particular industry development scenario, we can actually start to understand how many of the newly created jobs could be attained by the local population versus how many would have to be filled from the outside community, which would likely lead to more commuting and potentially even displacement pressure on the local population," he explains. Another important element to reducing the amount of car journeys people make is to make key amenities, such as healthcare, easily accessible by foot, or bicycle.

11.27 We love cities here at MIT Technology Review—so much so we wrote a whole issue about how technology is shaping cities in June last year, and another more recently about urbanism

Gabrielle Merite and Andre Vitorio wrote a really interesting piece for us in April 2021 exploring how megacities could lead the fight against climate change—because reducing emissions in a few of the world’s most populous cities (including New York, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen) could have an outsized impact on climate change.

11.22 Onstage now is Luis Alonso, a research scientist in the City Science group and Principal Investigator of the Andorra Living Lab Project.

When we talk about deep building retrofitting, we're talking about increasing the thermal isolation, and improving exterior cladding, he says. This will reduce the amount of operational energy required.

11.20 Welcome back to the day’s second session, and the topic is how to create realistic ways for cities to adapt to the changing climate, while also creating new spaces and opportunities for people to thrive. 

10.36 We’re now taking a short break, so we should be back in half an hour. Catch you in a bit!

10.30 "The internet is running out of data centers, and data centers are running out of electricity," she says. When Google started its sustainability journey in 2007, it realized that cutting down on electricity use was the best way to cut its carbon footprint, she adds.

Businesses should feel accountability for their emissions and carbon footprint, she says. "I do think we have a responsibility, right? From a governance perspective, how do we participate in the changes that we want and we need, but also make sure that we create the incentives and the market signals for that?" she asks. "It's also about how do we reduce the barriers of entry for other buyers to be able to join such efforts as well."

10.20 Renewable energy sources are going to be a key piece of the puzzle for 24/7 electricity, says Texier. But we also know that to maximize those resources, we're going to need the storage capacity at low cost, she adds, pointing out that we already know that wind and solar supply can be unpredictable. Like our other speakers, she notes how we're going to need to reduce emissions, but we're also going to need to remove emissions that are already in the atmosphere to make a real long-term difference in the future.

10.12 Two years ago, Google committed to achieving a goal of “24/7 carbon-free energy” by 2030. The company says this means  “matching each hour of our electricity consumption with carbon-free electricity sources on every grid where we operate.” Read more about its plans to support emerging technologies that can provide carbon-free power around the clock. 

10.10 Next up, Maud Texier, who is head of clean energy & carbon development at Google. She leads a team responsible for developing and scaling 24/7 carbon-free energy for Google's global infrastructure worldwide with various initiatives including new technologies, clean energy supply, and policy efforts.

10.06 "In some ways, climate is more recession-proof because the government has basically written a $370 billion check for it," says Ransohoff. Read our climate team James and Casey's takes on the biggest technology wins in the breakthrough climate bill when it was announced back in July.

"I think that applies to some parts of climate, and doesn't apply to others," she adds. "But I think we are slowly moving to a world where there is more certainty, and that gives the private markets, investors, and entrepreneurs more certainty that if they build something, there will be customers and they will be able to make money."

10.00 The fundamental principles of net zero are to measure emissions, reduce it as much as you possibly can, and then deal with the rest, she says.

"I think, I think that carbon removal is a fundamental part of net zero. But I don't think it's fully been metabolized by corporates or companies yet, and part of the work of building the ecosystem is figuring out how do we do that," she adds.

09.50 Stripe's carbon removal started as an experiment, but positive customer feedback pushed it towards a proper project, Ransohoff says, adding that around 25,000 businesses are contributing to Stripe's carbon projects. Around 8-10% of companies sign up to this when they first join Stripe, which acknowledges shifting attitudes towards businesses really wanting to contribute to the climate change fight, she says. Lowering friction for them is a really important part of that—making it as easy as possible.

09.45 Our next discussion is with Nan Ransohoff, head of climate at financial company Stripe. Read more about how the company is putting its money where its mouth is to fund carbon removal. 

09.43 The top things ordinary people can do to help climate initiatives are:

1) Cleaning up the energy coming into their homes

2) Switching to an electric vehicle or a bike

3) Changing your consumption habits (eating less beef, lamb and cheese).

09.40 "A lot of the biggest actors that benefit a lot from the way the world currently works, they need to step up their game," says Panchadsaram.

The best example of this is Tesla, he says, which has a six to eight year headstart over Volkswagen, Ford, GM, and a bunch of Chinese companies, who are now all racing to catch up with the company.

"They're all-in on electric," he explains. "If you're a large company that's behind in this way, you need to hurry up really fast—you can see the hunger than GM and Ford have."

09.35 We're going to need a lot more innovations to reach our 2030 goals, and we'll need to think seriously about scaling up and investing in the technologies we're going to need in 2040, 2050, and beyond, he says.

"I think it is taking longer these days to build companies and businesses," he explains. "The software one-hit wonder doesn't exist as often any more, and so the venture capitalism industry is extending its timeline, but if you're a fund focused on the clean tech transition and acceleration you do likely have longer time horizons."

09.30 "It's really neat that energy security today is relying on clean, green things, and that's truly the credit of the market in bringing down these costs," says Panchadsaram.

"I think if you're in a space that's delivering energy, that's moving people, feeding people, those customers will always be there—no matter what happens."

09.27 A new wave of entrepreneurs are completely focused on bringing down the cost curve, and know they need to bring in capital, he says. "Last year $57 billion went into clean tech jobs, and that is so inspiring."

One thing that could distract us is things that only tackle a small part of the problem, he adds. Instead, multiple solutions will become more common across industries like energy, transportation, and food. "These industries are so big, and we need to take every chance we can [to work out what's going to work]."

09.20 Speed and scale is an action plan for tackling the climate crisis, says Panchadsaram. There's a lot of optimism, he says, but notes how the plan to reduce carbon emissions by 59 billion tons a year is a tough goal to reach.
"Energy provides how we move, how we eat, and so the scale of the problem requires all of these accelerators," he says.

09.15 Our first session opens with a discussion with Ryan Panchadsaram, who is an engineer and investor focused on solving systemic, societal challenges at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.

09.10 Hello, and welcome back to ClimateTech day two! We’ve got a great lineup of speakers ahead of us today. I’m Rhiannon, a reporter at MIT Technology Review, and I’ll be covering this morning’s sessions with you up until lunch.

Like yesterday, we’re opening with a few words 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 the second day of ClimateTech, MIT Technology Review's first ever conference dedicated to finding solutions for climate change.

Programming starts at 9am ET on Thursday October 13, and you can follow along here to find out what's being said on stage.

Today we'll be hearing from a wide range of different people working in this space, including top clean energy execs at Big Tech firms, climate scientists, government officials, startup founders, and of course, MIT Technology Review reporters and editors. Tune in at 9am!

Deep Dive

Climate change and energy

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

These artificial snowdrifts protect seal pups from climate change

The human-built habitats shield the pups from predators and the freezing cold, but they’re threatened by global temperature rise.

How thermal batteries are heating up energy storage

The systems, which can store clean energy as heat, were chosen by readers as the 11th Breakthrough Technology of 2024.

The hard lessons of Harvard’s failed geoengineering experiment

Some observers argue the end of SCoPEx should mark the end of such proposals. Others say any future experiments should proceed in markedly different ways.

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