🔮 Breakthrough week; Reaching net-zero; Australian hydrogen & the inflationary diet ++ #332

Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.

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Dept of Near Future

Breakthrough week

🌟 Two major breakthroughs for the exponential transition in one week. The first is from Demis Hassabis and his team at Deepmind, which announced work that had “more than doubled humanity’s accumulated knowledge of high-accuracy human protein structures”. This data set, built using their AlphaFold technology, includes the 20,000 proteins expressed by the human genome (the proteome), as well as 350,000 other proteins from common organisms. It’s a massive deal.

The new protein structure database is freely available and will form a bedrock of collective knowledge for scientists. It will allow them to accelerate research in neglected diseases as well as speed up our shift to the bioeconomy. (An accessible backgrounder on this project and what it will do for the stock of human knowledge is available here. Nature’s slightly deeper dive is here.)

Source: Nature; Credit: Yuan He

The second breakthrough is in the domain of energy. Form Energy, a Boston-based startup, announced a significant milestone in a new battery technology that could be suitable for large-scale grid deployments. Their technology – iron-air batteries – have been around for around fifty years. NASA first experimented with them back in 1968 and Swedish researchers built a reasonably interesting prototype in the wake of the oil crisis back in the mid-1970s. But progress in nanotechnology and catalysts have enabled the path for Form.

Iron-air batteries are attractive for several reasons. We have plenty of iron, we know how to extract it, it is cheap (about $200 per tonne of ore compared to $12-15k per tonne for lithium salts), and iron extraction, while full of environmental degradation, may not be as complex as the cobalt supply chain needed in Li-ion batteries. Iron-air batteries have appealing technical characteristics too. The theoretical energy density, at 764 Wh/kg is higher than that of Lithium-Ion batteries (about 265 Wh/kg), and in volumetric terms, they do well too (9700 Wh/l compared to 2000 Wh/l). Current estimates are that Form’s batteries should be able to operate at around $20 per kWh, sufficient to compete with fossil fuel systems.

Weighing these two developments up, the Deepmind work is more significant because it opens a tremendous new vista for research and because it lives, in the public dataset, as a permanent gift to humanity. However, a sustainable alternative to li-ion batteries will also have far-reaching environmental ramifications.

Reaching Net Zero

🔋 Bloomberg NEF released its annual New Energy Outlook, which outlines three transition scenarios to Net Zero: a green path (lots of renewables), a red path (nukes) and a grey path (more carbon capture, less defossilisation).

Cities are the key to achieving net-zero emissions targets by 2050, argues the IEA (and me!). According to the International Energy Agency, cities account for more than 50% of the globe’s population, 80% of its economic output, two-thirds of global energy consumption and more than 70% of annual global carbon emissions. For cities to lead, they will need to emphasise smart city digitalisation efforts along with ambitious local leadership so they can scale investment in urban net-zero projects.

The key to this transformation will be next-generation energy systems able to leverage the data from all manner of smart city nodes such as connected buildings, appliances and transportation systems to reduce energy consumption, improve grid stability and better manage city services. (See also: carbon capture technology works, but we need better chemistry and engineering to reach scale. Complicating matters is that different types of CO2 emission sources need different carbon-capture methods. For example, ammonia processing waste needs physical solvents or membranes, while power plant exhaust needs chemical solvents. This is a very good overview.)

Institutional cryptocurrency

🏦 Despite the wild swings in crypto markets over the last seven months, a new survey by Fidelity's cryptocurrency arm found that seven in 10 institutional investors are looking to buy digital assets in the future. The vast majority of these institutional investors said they will include digital assets in their portfolios in the next five years. Another survey conducted by Goldman Sachs found that half of its larger family office clients want to add cryptocurrency to their portfolios (if they don’t already hold digital assets). Without commenting on the long-term prospects for cryptocurrency, we can’t ignore the institutional interest that continues to pick up steam. These investors will transform how the markets operate and might lead to less volatility. (See Also: Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX exchange closed the largest private crypto deal ever by raising a $900m at an $18bn valuation. Serious stuff.)

🔋 Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 416.62 ppm | 3,252 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of July 21, 2021): 416.62 ppm; July 2020: 415.51 ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.

🚙 Battery-powered electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles powered by renewable electricity are the best bets to achieve deep global greenhouse gas emissions reductions. This is the finding of a rigorous survey published by the International Council on Clean Transportation. Peter Mock, the managing director at ICCT, broke down the results on Twitter. Driving a mid-size passenger car with synthetic e-Fuels requires about six times the energy of a battery-powered EV and two times more than a fuel cell hydrogen vehicle (see chart below). More evidence of where the industry must move to realise the Paris Agreement’s climate goals.

🇦🇺 Australia is an unusual country when it comes to green energy. The country has a deep dependence on coal (80% of the country’s electricity comes from coal-burning). This could be changing with an announcement that southwest Oz is slated for one of the world’s largest wind and solar hydrogen hubs (which would comprise 50 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity). Hydrogen will be a critical fuel source of the future, and let’s hope that Australia can capitalise on it now (and get off coal!).

Short morsels to appear smart the spectator-less Tokyo Olympics

🕺 Hats off to the team at the Wall Street Journal that went deep into TikTok’s algorithm to understand what makes it so unique [excellent animations to boot, see below]. It’s the sort of classic journalism we desperately need in the technology space.

The TikTok algorithm as envisioned by the Wall Street Journal

🇨🇳 China is ramping up cyber-espionage efforts in France by exploiting routers to gain access.

🕵️ A curious plotline in the NSO saga: Amazon Web Services have shut down infrastructure and accounts linked to the Israeli company. (What took them so long?)

🏭 ASML, the Dutch company specialising in lasers needed to manufacture semiconductors, is experiencing a sharp jump in sales. Orders are up nearly 35 per cent this year.  

🤖 The demand for semiconductors is driving a boom in AI chips, of which there are already some incredible additions in 2021.

🇬🇦 Great news! Gabon becomes the first African country to get paid (from Norway) to protect its forests.

🔮 Mind reading! Scientists were able to decode sentences from a paralysed person who couldn’t speak at a median rate of 15 words per minute with a median word error rate of 25.6%. (Twenty years ago, state of the art dictation systems had an error rate between 8.4% and 13.85% at about 40 words per minute when tested on medical notes.)

🗣 EV reader, Joe Cohen, pointed me to this story of Joshua Barbeau who managed to, in some sense, recreate the personality of his long-dead fiancée by training a GPT-3-based chatbot on her old text messages. It is quite a moving tale.

🚕 Are robotaxis a dead-end product investment for the likes of Google and Amazon?

⌚ ️Excellent analysis of Rockley Photonics, a component maker whose largest customer is Apple. Rockley’s lasers (yes, mini-lasers on your wrist!) will power a range of biomarker analytics, including blood pressure and glucose levels, in upcoming Apple Watches.

🌱 Food inflation is hitting meat-eaters particularly hard these days. The cost of a vegetarian diet, on the other hand, is coming down. Maybe it’s time to make the switch.


🌲 Earlier this week, we asked our members whether they offset their carbon footprint.

  • 51% of members who responded offset all of their footprint and have taken steps to reduce their consumption.
  • 10% of members offset their footprint but haven’t reduced their consumption.
  • 14% of members occasionally offset.
  • 25% of members who responded don’t offset their footprint.

A couple of our readers (David Goldblatt and Hugh Reid) made the sharp observation that the idea of the personal carbon footprint was, of course, largely promulgated by the oil industry in an attempt to push responsibility for carbon pollution to the consumer.

On balance, I think personal carbon offsetting is a useful thing to do, even if only 5% of offsets actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It keeps the scale of our carbon footprint front of mind. And while the market for reputable carbon offsets is broken, and carbon pricing is all over the shop, increasing demand will trigger entrepreneurs to look for ways of making the market work (both in terms of liquidity, price discovery and verifiability - listen to my discussion with Diego Saez-Gil where we explore these questions.)

It’s also vital to recognise that offsetting is not really sufficient. Certainly, it is better than only going as far as avoiding plastic straws. But the move towards a sustainable economy and mitigating the worst effects of climate change will require more.



P.S. 👀 We are looking for a brilliant generalist to join our team. If this is you or someone you know, take a look at what we’re hoping to achieve together.

What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Sam Barcroft launched Creatorville, a blog that aims to assist people wishing to succeed in the creator economy.

After 18 years, Katie Lips closed her SMS archive startup treasuremytext.com. She reflects on why a service designed to protect privacy wasn’t such a bad idea.

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