The greenhouse in Hinwil where Climeworks uses carbon dioxide pulled from the air to grow fruits and vegetables. Luca Locatelli for The New York Times
When this platform started in 2011 it was two young men, one a senior at Amherst College and the other a sophomore at Cornell University, who thought it would be useful to share their experiences with other students. It continued beyond their summer internships. At some point, hard to pinpoint the date, it started serving as a daily exercise for me. It became an exercise in finding something in the world that is worthy of attention, as much as possible something that inspires hope rather than reinforces dread (though that has been unavoidable from time to time).
The title I give to today’s post is impossible to justify with any metrics, but read on and you may see my point. Jon Gertner, for this first time featured in our pages, and for what is likely the longest of any longform treatments of any topic in the New York Times, thank you for making it about this:
Christoph Gebald, left, and Jan Wurzbacher, the founders of Climeworks, at their plant in Hinwil, Switzerland. Luca Locatelli for The New York Times
Two European entrepreneurs think they can remove carbon from the air at prices cheap enough to matter.
A pilot project at a Swiss university that uses Climeworks equipment to make methane out of airborne CO₂. Luca Locatelli for The New York Times
Just over a century ago in Ludwigshafen, Germany, a scientist named Carl Bosch assembled a team of engineers to exploit a new technique in chemistry. A year earlier, another German chemist, Fritz Haber, hit upon a process to pull nitrogen (N) from the air and combine it with hydrogen (H) to produce tiny amounts of ammonia (NH₃). But Haber’s process was delicate, requiring the maintenance of high temperatures and high pressure. Bosch wanted to figure out how to adapt Haber’s discovery for commercial purposes — as we would say today, to “scale it up.” Anyone looking at the state of manufacturing in Europe around 1910, Bosch observed, could see that the task was daunting: The technology simply didn’t exist.
Over the next decade, however, Bosch and his team overcame a multitude of technological and metallurgical challenges. He chronicled them in his 1932 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Chemistry — an honor he won because the Haber-Bosch process, as it came to be known, changed the world. His breakthrough made possible the production of ammonia on an industrial scale, providing the world with cheap and abundant fertilizer. The scientist and historian Vaclav Smil called Haber-Bosch “the most important technical invention of the 20th century.” Bosch had effectively removed the historical bounds on crop yields, so much so that he was widely credited with making “bread from air.” By some estimates, Bosch’s work made possible the lives of more than two billion human beings over the last 100 years. Continue reading
The illustrative video above is on its own worth a couple minutes of your time. But the innovative approach to one of the world’s most pressing problems is the thing to take note of. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for bringing Evelyn Wang and Omar Yaghi’s work to our attention in this story:
A prototype MOF-based water-collection device is set up for testing on the roof of a building on the MIT campus.
Courtesy Evelyn Yang, MIT
Researchers have come up with a new way to extract water from thin air. Literally.
This isn’t the first technology that can turn water vapor in the atmosphere into liquid water that people can drink, but researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, say their approach uses less power and works in drier environments. Continue reading
A direct air capture facility in Zurich, created by the Swiss-based technology company ClimeWorks. JULIA DUNLOP / CLIMEWORKS
I was not aware that Elizabeth Kolbert has been writing for Yale e360 for the entire time we have been linking to her New Yorker work on this platform. And then some, because she started publishing there ten years ago. This is her 17th publication for Yale e360 and it can help a layperson understand in a relatively short read whether technology has any chance of accelerating our progress on climate change mitigation:
A U.S. scientific panel reports that technologies that take CO2 out of the atmosphere could be a significant part of a strategy to mitigate global warming. In an e360 interview, Stephen Pacala, the panel’s chairman, discusses how these fast-developing technologies are becoming increasingly viable.
Is there still time to avoid runaway climate change? To a large degree, the answer depends on the feasibility of “negative emissions” — techniques or technologies that suck CO2 out of the air. In the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius depend on negative emissions technologies, or NETs. Most 2-degree scenarios also rely on negative emissions; many call for removing billions of tons of CO2 per year by mid-century.
Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) range from low-tech, such as planting more trees, to more high-tech options, such as developing machines to scrub CO2 from the air. NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2018
Yet most NETs remain either untested or unproved. To help bridge this gap, the National Academies convened a panel of scientists and asked it to propose a research agenda. The panel considered several possible techniques, ranging from the low-tech — planting more trees — to the high-tech — developing machines to scrub CO2 from the sky. It also looked at a hybrid technology that has become known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS. The panel recommended several billion dollars be directed to research on NETs. Such technologies, it suggested, ought to be viewed as a “component of the mitigation portfolio,” rather than as a futuristic, last-ditch effort to reduce atmospheric CO2.
Stephen Pacala. CREDIT: ISOMETRIC STUDIOS
Stephen Pacala, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, chaired the panel. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why NETs are needed, what should be done to advance them, and why he believes that “direct air capture” technologies could come into widespread use within the next decade. Continue reading
Climate change has reared its big ugly head enough that I no longer count on seasonal consistency, but for now nine days in a row it has felt familiar, the greenest month of the green season in Costa Rica. And today, as of dawn, it looks like more of the same. “Some things never change” would be a real head in the sand cliché when thinking of seasons, but at least this October, so far, mornings have been sunny and by early afternoon the clouds roll in and the afternoons remind me of our 2010 to 2017 Kerala life, until dinner time. The photo above was from our second monsoon season there. Just up the hill from where I am writing at this moment, in Tarrazu–the Costa Rica equivalent of Munnar’s tea region–you might see something comparable, like this:
A few years ago Seth and James worked to restore a coffee plantation across the valley from the home where Seth grew up. The coffee they restored had been removed two decades earlier, a moment in time when coffee prices had crashed, even for the premium arabica that grows in Costa Rica. As it happens the same is true of the property where I am writing from, which had been a coffee plantation for most of the last century. In 2019 a restoration project will bring coffee back to this land, with tree shade for both the coffee and for the sake of restored bird habitat, and I look forward to sharing that progress here. And it is with this in mind that time, as an ingredient, is a theme for today. Work that Seth and James did demonstrated, with the passage of time, the fruitfulness of restoration and conservation. Now a replica project is ready to roll.
Time as an ingredient during green season is also a theme. Reading and cooking pass the time pleasantly during such afternoons, at least when the weekend schedule permits. Time for reading was on my mind a couple days ago, and the author featured in this podcast gets me thinking about time as an ingredient in the cooking I have been doing recently–almost all vegetarian and with the conscious effort to cook as minimally as possible to retain nutrients and flavor. As a bonus, this episode of a podcast we have been listening and linking to for two years shares the story behind espresso, so worth a listen:
A Los Angeles distillery aims to speed up a 10-year aging process to a matter of days.
Why does fish cook so fast? What’s the “wasabi window”? And can you really make 20-year-old aged whiskey in six days? This episode, we’re looking at the role of time in food and flavor: what it does and how we’ve tried—and sometimes succeeded—to manipulate that. To explore these questions, we visit a whiskey time machine tucked away in a low-slung warehouse in downtown Los Angeles and meet its inventor, Bryan Davis. And we speak with Jenny Linford, a food writer and author of a new book, The Missing Ingredient, all about time and food. Listen in now—this one’s well worth your time! Continue reading
Infinitum recycling plant in Fetsund, Norway. Worker Michael Gebrehiwet is sweeping up paper from the bottles. Photo: Elin Høyland Photograph: Elin Høyland for the Guardian
Thanks to Matthew Taylor and colleagues at the Guardian for this news:
Thanks to Redhouse Studio and the Guardian’s Laura Dorwart for this story:
You can click on any of these photos to go to their source, and they are inserted here because the article that brought this farm (?), this company, this phenomenon to my attention did not have any images. It was good to have only the New Yorker words to start with because, like all good writing, it forced me to imagine what this might look like. However, my imagination fell short.
Farm.One is New York City’s grower of rare herbs, edible flowers and microgreens for some of the best restaurants in the city. Our Edible Bar and Tasting Plates make these fresh, exciting ingredients available for the first time in an event setting. Guests can discover botanical ingredients for the first time, with the expert guidance of our farm team. Taste ingredients on their own, or paired with cocktails and other beverages, for a colorful, flavorful and aromatic experience like no other.
This short piece by Anna Russell below continues our stream of thought about the farm of the future, and takes it into very unexpected territory. Hydroponics and urban farming have been featured many times in these pages over the years so that is not what has our attention. It is the mixing of art and agriculture that gets us thinking outside the box:
Chic stems and tender greens thrive deep below Worth Street on the rolling shelves of Farm.One.
Hydroponics are a slippery slope. You might find yourself, one Sunday morning, at a Santa Monica farmers’ market, loitering among the apples, say. You come across a bunch of papalo, a leafy herb native to central Mexico, and toss it in your mouth (your tastes are expansive; a papalo leaf is nothing to you) and wham!: a brand-new flavor. Suddenly, you’re up at all hours, watching vertical-farming videos on YouTube, ordering seed packets from eBay, buying rhizomes—rhizomes!—and worrying about spider mites. You get some fennel crowns and a pouch of parasitic wasps, and you’re on your way. Continue reading
Thanks to our friends at the salt, and National Public Radio (USA) for this:
If you’re interested in sustainability, you’ve probably thought about how to reduce your carbon footprint, from how you fuel your car to how you heat your home. But what about carbon emissions from growing the food you eat?
Most of the crops in the United States are grown using chemical fertilizer – a lot of it: American farmers used over 24 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer in 2011. And making nitrogen fertilizer requires fossil fuels like natural gas or coal. Continue reading
Ryan Donnell for The New York Times
Our attention has been on food entrepreneurship recently, and here we continue the thread. With agroecology, a new word and robust concept, we have new food for thought. And for that we thank one of our favorite food writers, who we have relied since the first year of this platform. Many of the food stories we have linked to over the years have been authored by him. A year ago we linked to this story, which marked the first time we noted him as an activist. We expect, after reading Bringing Farming Back to Nature, which he co-authored with Daniel Moss, that he has found his new calling:
Workers in a paddy field in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India. Credit Noah Seelam/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Farming the land as if nature doesn’t matter has been the model for much of the Western world’s food production system for at least the past 75 years. The results haven’t been pretty: depleted soil, chemically fouled waters, true family farms all but eliminated, a worsening of public health and more. But an approach that combines innovation and tradition has emerged, one that could transform the way we grow food. It’s called agroecology, and it places ecological science at the center of agriculture. It’s a scrappy movement that’s taking off globally. Continue reading
Prototype wind turbines whirl at a testing site in Osterild, near the northern end of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. By Rasmus Degnbol
Thanks to the New York Times for this reminder that, in spite of what headlines often lead us to believe, progress is out there on as many fronts as we care to look to:
Blades for wind turbines lie outside a factory, waiting to be transported to wind farms.By Rasmus Degnbol
OSTERILD, Denmark — At the northern end of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, the wind blows so hard that rows of trees grow in one direction, like gnarled flags.
Technicians reach the roof of these enormous wind turbines either via an internal elevator or, if the turbine is installed offshore, by helicopters that lower them into the fenced-off area.By Rasmus Degnbol
The relentless weather over this long strip of farmland, bogs and mud flats — and the real-world laboratory it provides — has given the country a leading role in transforming wind power into a viable source of clean energy.
After energy prices spiked during the 1973 oil crisis, entrepreneurs began building small turbines to sell here. “It started out as an interest in providing power for my parents’ farm,” said Henrik Stiesdal, who designed and built early prototypes with a blacksmith partner. Continue reading
Photographs courtesy Rorhof / Stadtarchiv Kronberg
Thank you Andrea DenHoed. We did not know how much we should appreciate them:
In 1907, just a few years after the Wright brothers lifted off in Kitty Hawk, and while human flight was still being measured in metres and minutes, Dr. Julius Neubronner, a German apothecary, submitted a patent application for a new invention: the pigeon camera. The device was precisely what it sounds like—a small camera fitted with straps and equipped with a timer so that pigeons could carry it and take photos in flight. Neubronner first used the device on his own flock of homing pigeons, which he sometimes employed to deliver prescriptions. In the following years, he showed his camera at international expositions, where he also sold postcards taken by the birds. Additionally, he developed a portable, horse-drawn dovecote, with a darkroom attached to it, which could be moved into proximity of whatever object or area the photographer hoped to capture from on high. Continue reading
Gabrielle Lurie / Reuters
Derek Thompson, writing in the Atlantic recently, has a very readable consideration of the fashionable obsession with disruptors, a topic we give too little attention to in these pages. So, a small step forward:
Tech analysts are prone to predicting utopia or dystopia. They’re worse at imagining the side effects of a firm’s success.
The U.S economy is in the midst of a wrenching technological transformation that is fundamentally changing the way people sleep, work, eat, shop, love, read, and interact.
At least, that’s one interpretation. Continue reading
Pieces such as leaves, bushes and trees will be made entirely from plant-based plastic. Photograph: Maria Tuxen Hedegaard/Lego
Among contributors to this platform, the number of lego pieces bought over the last fifty years likely aggregates into the hundreds of thousands. And yes, we all eventually knew that the product is petroleum-based and therefore worthy of reconsideration in for the next generation. But they have remained irresistible anyhow, and so we are glad to hear the company is moving in a new direction. Rebecca Smithers, the Consumer affairs correspondent for the Guardian, offers this news on where the company is going with green:
Models of stain-fighting enzymes, displayed on clothes in a washing machine. Credit Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times
We’ve been highlighting mycological innovation since the early days of this site, and our enthusiasm has yet to wane. The range of fungi-power will never cease to amaze.
A Danish biotechnology company is trying to fight climate change — one laundry load at a time. Its secret weapon: mushrooms like those in a dormant forest outside Copenhagen.
In the quest for a more environmentally friendly detergent, two scientists at the company, Novozymes, regularly trudge through the mud, hunting for oyster mushrooms that protrude from a fallen beech or bracken fungi that feast on tough plant fibers. They are studying the enzymes in mushrooms that speed up chemical reactions or natural processes like decay.
“There is a lot going on here, if you know what to look for,” said Mikako Sasa, one of the Novozymes scientists.
Their work is helping the company develop enzymes for laundry and dishwasher detergents that would require less water, or that would work just as effectively at lower temperatures. The energy savings could be significant. Washing machines, for instance, account for over 6 percent of household electricity use in the European Union.
Enlisting enzymes to battle dirt is not a new strategy. Over thousands of years, mushrooms and their fungi cousins have evolved into masters at nourishing themselves on dying trees, fallen branches and other materials. They break down these difficult materials by secreting enzymes into their hosts. Even before anyone knew what enzymes were, they were used in brewing and cheese making, among other activities. Continue reading
Biomethane is an age-old concept in much of what is frequently called the “developing world”, so it’s difficult to overstate the irony of “1st world” adoption. That said, it’s heartening to read of more projects aimed at maximizing poo’s full potential.
A long winding road climbs into a gathering dusk, coming to an abrupt dead end in front of a house. Here, a solitary flickering flame casts out a warm glow, illuminating the nearby ridge line of the Malvern Hills.
Below the light sits a mysterious green contraption resembling a cross between a giant washing machine and a weather station. This is the UK’s first dog poo-powered street lamp, and it is generating light in more ways than one.
The idea seems simple enough: dog walkers deposit the product of a hearty walk into a hatch and turn a handle. The contents are then broken down by microorganisms in the anaerobic digester, producing methane to fuel the light, and fertiliser…
…Humans have used animal dung as fuel since the neolithic period, and have known how to get flammable gas from decaying organic matter since the 17th century. Small-scale anaerobic digesters are commonplace in many developing countries, while larger plants producing heat and electricity from animal manure and human sewage have long been used in the west.
Yet the energy in most excrement still goes to waste. Continue reading
An illustration of a solar train in action. Photograph: Esther Griffin
Thanks to Alice Bell and the Guardian for a look into the latest on harnessing the sun to power more of our transportation needs: