Originally published on Sunday, April 10th, 2022
It’s moonshot watch! 🚀🌕
In recent weeks, researchers and innovators have made progress towards so-called climate moonshots— still-unproven climate technologies that could make an order-of-magnitude difference in mitigating climate change assuming they ever see the light of day.
Many of these solutions didn’t make it into the third and final instalment of the IPCC’s state-of-the-climate report released this week (spoiler: we need to decarbonize yesterday.)
Still, the urgency of the report recalls John Kerry’s infamous (but truthful) warning that “50% of reductions are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.”
Here is the latest on three of those technologies...
No climate tech fantasy is as sweet as direct air capture (DAC). Given the continued inaction of world leaders to reduce emissions, and the deep complexity of doing so even where there is sufficient political will, it is impossible not to dream of a solution that effectively hits “ctrl+z” on decades of emissions.
The trouble with DAC is not the feasibility of harvesting carbon dioxide from thin air, it’s what to do once you’ve harvested it. By one method, extracting carbon from its chemical captors is so energy-intensive it almost defeats the purpose. Beyond that, the current market for captured carbon is mainly fossil fuel producers looking to squeeze out more oil.
That’s why in February, the climate VC Breakthrough Energy Ventures announced it was committing $80 million to a technology that has shown it can reduce the energy requirements of DAC by up to 70%.
Verdox’s innovation is a charged plastic film that can pull CO2 from a mix of gas and release it with a change of electrical charge. After iterating on versions that captured too much oxygen, Verdox claims it has a technology that can ultimately bring the cost of carbon down to $50/ton.
That scenario is a ways down the road for a solution that is still in the lab, but it offers a tantalizing and ambitious alternative to a carbon market currently trading as high as $1,200/ton.
Readers of this newsletter are familiar with the shortcomings of lithium-ion batteries: they’re mining-intensive, hard to recycle and vulnerable to bottlenecks all too similar to those currently throttling the global energy market.
Carmaker Nissan announced this week that a new solid-state battery factory will produce a market-scale solution to those problems. While light on technical details, a close reading of the announcement indicates the company will leverage computation materials science to model the properties of new materials in silico (on a computer).
That means researchers could optimize the cost and speed of innovation by crunching vast data sets on supercomputers that produce a short-list of configurations for engineers to try in the lab. The project, which includes researchers from NASA and UC San Diego, promises to produce a solid-state battery for electric vehicles by 2028.
Climate moonshots are not necessarily "deep tech". As the most ubiquitous, recognizable and readily available climate solution across the world, solar energy is practically the opposite of a moonshot in the conventional sense.
But the scale of solar energy called for in every serious net-zero plan is very much a moonshot that poses difficult technological challenges of its own.
Solar is expected to make up as much as 69% of global energy production once fossil fuels are phased out. Even more modest proposals foresee growth in the sector that will require “the equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day,” through 2050.
The problem is that such an expansion would mean converting the use of extraordinary amounts of land away from traditional uses like agriculture toward a power source that only generates electricity when the sun is shining.
Indeed, the number one factor slowing down American solar farm construction is local protests against the requisite enormous land-use changes, according a report released this week.
A program launching in Colorado this year might yield answers to the land-use issue. Jack’s Solar Garden is the United State’s largest agrivoltaics demonstration project, where farmers produce crops, such as wheat and hay, underneath a canopy of 3,200 solar panels.
The successful farm is one of several such projects funded by the DOE’s InSPIRE project focused on developing productive, pollinator-friendly farm lands paired with solar.
Meanwhile, a team of Stanford researchers announced they have a prototype solar panel that can generate electricity at night. The panels leverage built-in thermoelectric generators that retain some of the heat solar panels typically emit into the night sky. Researchers say there’s plenty of room for improvement, but that these panels could provide stand-by power for rural communities and mini-grid applications in the future.
Some corners of the climate world have decried the attention given to speculative technologies like carbon capture and geoengineering as morally hazardous distractions from the hard and necessary work of reducing emissions.
Those arguments are not without merit. The same strain of technological utopianism driving the fossil fuel industry to adopt carbon capture also underlies the dubious notion of “climate overshoot” at the heart of many climate policies.
The global priority for climate action needs to be cutting greenhouse gas pollution. Yet, for many, hope springs that if we can invent our way into the climate crisis, perhaps we can invent our way out of it.
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Sunday, August 24th, 2022: In our climate news column, "This Week in Climate", we look at the IRA’s impact on electric vehicles, and how they are making waves in the hills of Nevada and halls of power in Beijing.
Sunday, August 7th, 2022: In our climate news column, "This Week in Climate", we take a look at the dwindling future for natural gas, a big step for modular nuclear plants and Australia’s next climate law.
Today, in our climate news column, "This Week in Climate", we take a look at the breakthrough climate bill in the United States, the communications strategy that made it happen, and what stands in the way.
This week, in our news section "Recent Rounds", we provide you with a breakdown of the latest climate tech funding rounds — because where there is funding, there will be jobs! 🌱
We check in on "climate moonshots" — speculative innovations that could be game-changers in the fight against climate change, if only somebody would invent them.