To stay within the targeted limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, scientists insist that we need to reduce the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere as well as dropping new emissions to net-zero. So, even as keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the surest known way to prevent further warming, we are also searching for carbon dioxide removal strategies that capture carbon from the air and safely store it. Looking to the natural world for solutions may sound obvious and we are certainly amplifying the carbon-capturing qualities of the ocean, forests, and sedimentary rocks, creating underwater kelp farms, planting trees, and soil carbon sequestration. There are even various large-scale schemes to intervene in the earth’s oceans, soils, and atmosphere being explored through climate geoengineering.

But, other new technologies are being explored such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) — whereby plants are burned for energy at a power plant, which then captures and stores the resulting emissions so that the CO2 previously absorbed by the plants is removed from the atmosphere. It can then be used for enhanced oil recovery or injected into the earth where it is sequestered in geologic formations. We are looking at carbon mineralization whereby CO2 is turned into stone.

And, we are seeing advancements across other sectors like emission tracking. A new initiative called Climate TRACE, for example, aims to develop an app that can track all human-produced pollution and trace it to its source. TRACE’s goal to promote radical transmission transparency through publicly available, comprehensive data, could drive accountability on emission reductions as well as more accurately alert corporations, municipalities, and countries where they can cut emissions. They are not alone in working to harness satellite data into actionable information.

Existing clean energy technologies were, as recently as 2020, evaluated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to determine whether it is possible to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Scenario of net zero emissions by 2070. Four main decarbonization approaches were identified as significant: electrification of end usage (particularly heating and transportation); carbon capture, utilization, and storage; low-carbon hydrogen and hydrogen fuels; and bioenergy. The unsettling news is that, of the more than 400 technologies within these categories, few are on track to meet the necessary goals. Even in low-carbon electricity, where we have made important progress in solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear generation, our infrastructure and use in industry is lagging dramatically. And, as far as carbon capture is concerned, little is in early adoption or mature enough to be ready for market. Time is our enemy. Broad adoption can take 80 years or more (even LED light bulb adoption took between 10-30 years). It is critical that we accelerate clean technologies before we find ourselves further locked into dirty power plant & factory investment commitments. Big industrial equipment, for example, can be 20-25 years out. “If the right technologies in the steel, cement, and chemical sectors can reach the market in time for the next 25-year refurbishment cycle – due to start around 2030 – they can prevent nearly 60 gigatons of CO2 emissions (GtCO2)”, IEA reports.

There is some good news, however. In 2020, 81% of all new electricity generation installed in the U.S. was solar and wind. Of course, the development of storage is, therefore, on everyone’s mind as a solution is needed to extend the reach of renewable energy –otherwise limited by the amount of time the sun shines and the wind blows. One solution has been found in lithium-ion batteries, which are both improving and becoming cheaper — critical to the transportation sector because as they become less expensive and more efficient, so do EVs. And, aluminum-ion batteries are promising ever more improvements and cost efficiencies. Neither are ideal for long-duration energy storage, however, and utilities are looking hard for other cost effective solutions. Zero-carbon hydrogen is also attracting attention not just for use in industrial transportation but also as chemical energy for industry. A leading contender in this category is electrolyzer systems used to produce hydrogen as a fuel. When hydrogen is used as a fuel, the only emission is water vapor. This concept is better known as ‘Power-to-X’, taking grid electricity (power) and turning it into something else. In this case the ‘X’ is hydrogen fuel.

And, this is not all: greening up agriculture is another sector entrepreneurs are looking at, as well as floating solar, the “air gen” system which makes electricity out of moisture in the air, and “perovskite-silicon cell which converts sunlight into electricity.

Some of these investments will no doubt be controversial with climate activists, who are likely to argue (legitimately) that they perpetuate natural gas extraction processes. There is no doubt, however, that regulating methane gas is critical for advancing President Joe Biden’s goal to slash U.S. emissions in half from 2005 levels over the next decade and achieve a net-zero economy by 2050.

The DoE has already awarded $5 million to LongPath Technologies, which is developing a methane gas detection network in the Permian Basin. Another high-profile project is MethaneSAT, a satellite operation being launched by the Environmental Defense Fund. The organization’s launch partner is Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, and the hope is to put a satellite into orbit in fall 2022. Infrared detection technology from Ball Aerospace will be on board. Another satellite network you should watch closely is Carbon Mapper, which includes climate-tech firm Planet and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The first launch in its “constellation” of satellites for monitoring methane and CO2 is anticipated in 2023. (More on methane detectives.)

Equally contentious are technologies and ventures that turn methane into biogas, such as Vanguard Renewables, which is partnering with companies like Unliever and Starbucks to turn their food and agricultural waste (including manure) into renewable natural gas (RNG) and byproducts such as fertilizer.

Although, he RNG market has been limited by distribution challenges and processing scale, incentives such as California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard and similar mechanisms in other states are changing the economics. These approaches use the methane already created to reduce overall emissions — taking it out of the atmosphere. But the long-term climate benefits are more difficult to quantify, which is why more cities and states are considering the benefits of electrification as an alternative for the heating and cooling processes that often rely so heavily on natural gas. (To learn more about electrification, you might want to listen in on an event hosted by Green Biz in May, 2021; or read David Roberts (the inventor of the term Electrify Everything) in Vox already in October, 2017.

And what of HFCs? While emerging methane innovations mainly seem to be about monitoring and reusing, there are dozens of entrepreneurs developing entirely new approaches to cooling that sidestep HFCs — and it’s about to heat up more, pun intended.

At the end of the day, given carbon capture, removal, and storage’s long-term importance for the decarbonization of energy-intensive industries and reduction of historical emissions, the challenge lies in making them commercially viable, at scale, and swiftly.


How each sub-discipline of machine learning can help fight climate change, where the darker colors represent more opportunities to pursue. SOURCE: MIT Technology Review




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