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It’s been an exciting week here at MIT Technology Review, because on Monday we released our 2023 list of the 10 Breakthrough Technologies! This is always one of my favorite times of the year, when we get to take a hard look at technologies that will matter in the upcoming year and beyond. And this year, two of the items on the list are related to climate and energy.
Read on to find out what they are (if you haven’t already peeked at the list by now) and learn a little bit about why we picked them. Also, there’s been a lot of news floating around about gas stoves. So if you’re confused by the hullabaloo, I’ve got you covered with what you need to know.
The 2023 Breakthrough Technologies
We’ve been working on this list since July, sifting through our coverage and keeping our eyes on the news to pick out technologies we think will be important.
If you haven’t perused it yet, a good place to start is the introductory essay from my editor, David Rotman. In it, David talks about the government’s role in innovation and explains what the recent embrace of industrial policy, both in the US and in many other countries, will mean for future technologies. In a nutshell, Silicon Valley’s approach isn’t doing a great job boosting productivity and transforming the economy. But there’s another way.
If you’re interested in understanding what it takes to help technologies make an impact, or if you just want to learn what the phrase “industrial policy” really means, I’d highly recommend giving the piece a read before diving into the rest of the list.
Now, on to the breakthroughs, starting with the inevitable EV.
I know some of you might be thinking that electric vehicles aren’t exactly new. The first Tesla Roadsters were delivered 15 years ago (yes, 2008 was 15 years ago), and small numbers of other electric cars, like the GM EV1, had even made it onto roads in the 1990s.
EVs made the list this year not because of any one technical milestone, but because they’ve reached critical mass. They’re a real commercial contender now, reaching about 13% of global new vehicle sales in 2022. This is a big moment for electric vehicles, marked by progress not only in technology but also in infrastructure, manufacturing, and consumer acceptance.
It was a tricky thing to crystallize exactly what about EVs should be on the list this year. Different forms of this idea came up early on when we were planning, with several members on the team proposing ideas that touched on EVs in some way.
My original pitch was the EV pickup. Trucks are massively popular in the US: the top three vehicles sold in the country in 2022 were pickups, with the Ford F-series topping the list. So the release of the new electric version of the F-150 (the Lightning), along with other major releases from GMC and Rivian, felt like a significant moment.
But the rollout for EVs looks so different around the world. While people in the US are chasing bigger EVs, in other countries vehicles are shrinking. The Hongguang Mini in China, a minicar that costs less than $5,000, is skyrocketing in popularity, and two- and three-wheeled vehicles are surging in India.
So ultimately, electric trucks would have been a limited representative of this moment for EVs. (Not to mention there are major issues with supersizing vehicles.)
But around the world, it’s increasingly becoming clear: the age of the electric vehicle is here.
The other climate item on the list, covered by yours truly, is battery recycling.
Lithium-ion batteries in EVs, as well as in devices like cell phones and laptops, contain valuable materials that can be reused for new batteries.
Developments in the recycling process are helping companies recover more of those valuable metals and other materials. Today, the market for battery recycling is concentrated in China. But North American companies like Redwood Materials, Li-Cycle, and Ascend Elements are getting hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private funding and building factories that could be a key part of the battery materials ecosystem for decades to come.
That’s all I’m going to say about that for now, because (spoiler alert!) we’ll be diving deeper on battery recycling next week in the newsletter. (If you haven’t already, be sure to go back and read the very first issue of The Spark from last October for a sneak peek at what’s coming ...)
Find the full list of breakthrough technologies here. They’re all fascinating and worth learning about, but I’d especially recommend checking out CRISPR for high cholesterol and ancient DNA analysis. Plus, you can vote for what you think the 11th technology should be!
What’s the fuss about with gas stoves?
On Monday, a US Consumer Product Safety Commission representative told Bloomberg News the group would consider new regulations for gas stoves. The appliances have been in the news since a study published in December found that about 12% of current childhood asthma in the US can be attributed to them.
This statement from the CPSC isn’t as dramatic as some headlines are making it sound, though. A member of the federal agency told Bloomberg that even issuing a proposal in the coming year would be “on the quick side.” He also later clarified on Twitter that regulations would apply to new products: “To be clear, CPSC isn’t coming for anyone’s gas stoves.” The comments were enough to send Senator Joe Manchin into a tizzy, though.
So, should you be worried about your gas stove?
There’s a growing body of research showing both health and climate risks.
Last year, a study found that gas stoves release methane even when turned off, and confirmed that during cooking, they can emit nitrogen oxides (NOx) at levels that surpass standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. NOx are common pollutants also found in cigarette smoke and vehicle exhaust, and they can cause or aggravate respiratory problems, especially in children.
In addition to raising health concerns, the methane that leaks from stoves and the carbon dioxide released by burning natural gas are both greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. About 35% of households in the US cook with gas stoves. Rates are similar in Europe, with about 30% of energy for cooking coming from gas.
Critics point out that we have bigger fish to fry when it comes to both climate and human health. And that’s probably true—cooking is a small piece of any individual’s natural-gas use, and likely only a sliver of total individual emissions. There are plenty of other sources of nitrogen oxides you probably encounter every day too (I’m looking at you, cars).
What’s there to do about it?
Still, replacing your gas stove can help cut the harms to climate and health from cooking. It can be an expensive prospect, but new policy in the US could make replacing gas-powered stoves significantly cheaper. Tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act could help cover the cost of new electric appliances for middle- and low-income households.
And if you are stuck with a gas stove (like I am, in my rental), you can help with ventilation by using range exhausts and opening windows when cooking, which is a good practice even if you’re using an electric or induction range. And if you happen to be researching new stoves, consider that industry groups are working hard to influence public opinion, so make sure you’re getting information from sources worth trusting.
Keeping up with Climate
Sales of EVs and plug-in hybrids smashed records in China last year, with over 5.67 million vehicles sold in 2022. The market for gas-powered cars shrank 13%. (Wall Street Journal)
→ Hybrid cars aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. (MIT Technology Review)
→ China is betting on another alternative: methanol-powered cars (MIT Technology Review)
The most talked-about climate change papers last year included research on covid-19, climate tipping points, and the Arctic. (CarbonBrief)
If you’ve ever wanted backup debunking basic climate change myths at a party or family dinner, this is a great starter pack. (Discover)
Nearly 200 countries just agreed to conserve 30% of land and seas by 2030. But details about how to reach that goal, often called 30x30, are a bit fuzzy. (Grist)
The Great Salt Lake in Utah is a fascinating ecosystem. But unless lawmakers make changes to allow more water to flow into it, the lake could dry up in the next five years. (CNN)
A new UN report confirms that the atmospheric ozone layer is on its way to recovering. Most parts should be back to their 1980 state by 2040. (NPR)
→ In the 1987 Montreal Protocol, dozens of countries agreed to phase out chlorofluorocarbons and other synthetic chemicals that were harming the ozone layer. In 2007, we took a look back at what the treaty meant for the world. (MIT Technology Review)
→ The action also prevented some warming we would have otherwise seen. (MIT Technology Review)
US emissions rose about 1% last year. The good news is that they could have risen faster, given the pace of economic growth, but we need to cut emissions to make progress on addressing climate change. (Vox)
A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate
Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.
Radar and laser breakthroughs serve humanitarian ends
Innovations in directed-energy systems could save lives and aid disaster recovery.
This is where Tesla’s former CTO thinks battery recycling is headed
JB Straubel speaks about his company, Redwood Materials, and what challenges loom for batteries.
Why EVs won’t replace hybrid cars anytime soon
Plug-in hybrids won’t get the world to zero emissions, but they can help cut climate impacts somewhat. Toyota is betting they’ll stay in the mix for a while.
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