Many chemicals used in households and factories today are manufactured from petroleum. Sean Hunt, 33, cofounded Solugen, which uses enzymes and metal catalysts to turn sugar into industrial chemicals with a much lower carbon footprint. The company’s first facility, in Texas, can crank out 10,000 tons per year of chemicals used in water treatment, agriculture, and industrial cleaners, offsetting more than 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. It operates on 100% renewable electricity and doesn’t generate any emissions or wastewater.
A huge portion of the energy consumption around the world is used to heat and cool buildings. To reduce this consumption and its related emissions, Kaichen Dong, 32, has developed a “smart” coating that can be attached to any roof. The key material is vanadium dioxide, which automatically switches from radiating heat away from a home on a hot day to insulating it in cooler weather. The coating works best in areas where the temperature changes significantly from summer to winter or day to night, and it is not meant to replace heating and cooling systems entirely. Instead, it eases demand on these systems by keeping a building’s temperature within a more manageable range.
Lithium-metal batteries could offer double the energy density of the lithium-ion batteries typically used in today’s EVs, but they have a drawback: it’s hard to control the growth of lithium dendrites as the battery is used, which increases the risk of a fire and shortens its life. Chengcheng Fang, 32, says her lithium-metal anode solves those problems. Her technique involves applying pressure to arrange the lithium in a more orderly fashion, which hinders the growth of dendrites, the spiky structures that form as lithium ions build up on the anode. She still needs to find a way to integrate her process into existing manufacturing lines, but her innovation could theoretically allow a car to travel twice as far on a charge as existing electric cars.
Shannon Nangle, 33, has built a fermentation technology that converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen into fats for the food industry. “This technology will allow us to produce fats to make meat alternatives juicier and more savory, ice cream and cheese alternatives creamier, and cacao butter for truly guilt-free chocolate,” Nangle says. Her main aim is to undermine the need for large-scale animal agriculture, sparing land that would otherwise be used for grazing and growing feed. “We’re trying to incentivize regenerative practices to support a revitalized food system,” Nangle says. “By being intentional with how we source and produce, we can provide truly delicious, climate-friendly foods.”
By now most people know that meat production is a nightmare for the environment, but fewer people focus on the negative ramifications of dairy production. Magi Richani, 33, is working to skip the cows, making dairy products that are less harmful while tasting just as good. “Our technology allows us to make dairy proteins directly from plants without the need for cows,” says Richani. In her view, most plant-based dairy products are missing one key ingredient: a protein called casein, which gives them their creamy texture. Nobell is making cheese using casein from genetically engineered soybeans and aims to have its first products on the market by next year.
Lithium-ion batteries are used for electric cars, but they don’t pack enough power for other critical sectors, such as aviation, heavy trucking, and marine transport. Richard Wang, 33, founded Cuberg to address this problem. He’s developed lithium-metal batteries, which have extremely high energy density, with ease of manufacturing in mind. “These advanced batteries are critical for accelerating the electrification and decarbonization of the transportation sector,” he says. Swedish battery maker Northvolt acquired his company in 2021, and Wang says Cuberg is now working toward its first demonstration flight with partners in the electric aviation sector.
Perovskites have been a major focus of photovoltaic research in recent years because of their intriguing optoelectronic performance, but the poor stability of these synthetic materials has thwarted their commercialization. They quickly fall apart when out in the world. Rui Wang, 29, found that adding caffeine and its derivatives—an idea that occurred to him while drinking coffee—could improve the stability of perovskites “from several hours to almost five years.” His next challenge? Making a perovskite solar cell that will last for decades.