🌍 Storing energy in molten salt #09
Producing fat using yeast and turning waste into biochar
Welcome to the ninth edition of the 'tings with impact newsletter and the final one for this year 🌍
I’ve sent this one out on a Wednesday to avoid bothering anyone’s inbox on Christmas Eve and to be able to spend the Christmas days with my family 🎄
A bonus email will land in your inbox on the 31st or 1st, I haven’t decided yet, taking a look back on the 9 editions of ‘tings released this year, giving an insight into the carbon impact of writing the newsletter, and letting you vote on how we offset the impact.
Now, back to the regularly scheduled content.
This week we are looking at Hyme who accidentally discovered a much improved method of storing energy in molten salt, Carbo Cure who are commercialising carbon capture using biochar, and Melt&Marble who are engineering yeast cells to produce animal-like fats instead of alcohol.
As a little ‘ting we’ll have a look at the difference between energy, electricity, and power.
⚡️ Hyme - Storing energy in molten salt
One of the big issues with decarbonising our energy grid is that renewable sources such as wind and solar, which are the fastest growing sources of renewable electricity generation, are intermittent. This means that the generation of energy is controlled by factors outside of our control. This unreliability creates a big issue for humans. We are very habitual creates. We all need energy/electricity* around similar points of the day but we can not ensure that every evening when the lights, stoves, and TVs turn on that the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. In order to move away from fossil based energy sources we need to store energy generated by renewables to be deployed during peak hours.
*As the terms energy, electricity, and power are used a lot, and what seems like interchangeably at points, we will look at what they exactly mean in the little ‘tings section.
Energy storage systems can be classified into mechanical (e.g. pumped hydro), electrochemical (e.g. li-ion batteries), chemical (e.g. hydrogen storage), electrical (e.g. super-capacitors), and thermal (e.g. molten salt). They all have their own strengths and weaknesses and it would not be right to call out specific winners (I am also no energy storage expert), but what is certain is that we need a mix of them for various applications. Thermal storage could be particularly interesting for buildings as it can have a dual use, to either convert the heat energy to electrical energy or to use the heat energy to warm buildings directly.
The commercial viability of thermal energy storage in the form of molten salt may be accelerated significantly thanks to an accidental discovery by Danish startup Seaborg. In their pursuit of developing smaller, safer, and modular nuclear reactors as alternatives to fossil fuels, they discovered an improved method of molten salt energy storage by using sodium hydroxides that can reduce costs by as much as 90% compared to conventional methods. This has now been spun-out as its own startup called Hyme. They use excess energy from renewable sources to heat molten hydroxide salts from 350 degrees celsius to 700 degrees where it is stored and insulated to maintain the temperature. Once the stored energy is needed it is released through a heat-exchanger to transform it into usable energy. The team at Hyme believe that an improvement of this magnitude will allow them to be competitive even without any government subsidies to make sure energy from renewable sources can be stored affordably.
🪵 Carbo Culture - Removing carbon by turning waste into biochar
Reducing our emissions will unfortunately not be enough to avoid a climate disaster, it will slow the process down but a large amount of the already emitted carbon will need to be captured to reduce the greenhouse effect. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we need to remove as much as 1000 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2050. To achieve this we need to deploy carbon capture on a mass scale at an affordable price.
Existing startups tackle this by capturing CO2 directly from the air with what are very complicated and advanced vacuums. The issue with deploying these at a large scale is that it requires a lot of expensive infrastructure and the appropriate geography to be able to store the captured carbon. To scale carbon capture to the level we need, geography agnostic and lower cost solutions need to be deployed. One such method could be the production of biochar which removes the need for expensive capturing and storage tech by using the natural ability of plants to capture CO2. The biochar industry has an estimated annual carbon sequestration potential of two gigatonnes, which is double the annual CO2 emissions of Germany.
Carbo Culture, a Finnish-American startup, is working on commercialising such technology. The process, compared to capturing, separating, and storing carbon mechanically, uses almost no external energy. CO2 is captured from the atmosphere by plants through photosynthesis. Once these plants die they would normally slowly release the captured carbon back into the atmosphere as they decompose. Carbo Culture takes such waste biomass from agricultural or wood waste to transform it into biochar, a stable form of carbon that securely stores it for 1,000+ years instead. Biochar is created by heating biomass to temperatures in excess of 700 degrees celsius resulting in a carbon rich charcoal that can be used to improve soil fertility for example. The process also results in carbon removal credits that can be sold to companies looking to offset their impact and the waste heat can be used as a renewable heat source for communities. Each tonne of Carbo Culture biochar contains 3.2 tonnes of CO2 in solid form.
Image: the Carbo Culture process. Source: carboculture.com
The Carbo Culture team are already operating a demonstration reactor in California with an expanded capacity reactor set to open at the beginning of 2022 to test and improve the process for a larger scale. The ambition is to have next-gen reactors with a capacity of capturing 100k tonnes of CO2 per year by 2025.
🥩 Melt&Marble - Engineering yeast to produce animal-like fat
Yeast, according to the smart people over at NASA, is probably one of the earliest domesticated organisms. Traces of yeast have been found by archeologists in ancient Egyptians ruins and in 4,000 year old drawings of bakeries and breweries. The understanding of yeast came much later but it has been used to make bread and alcoholic beverages for a long long time. Yeast is single-celled organisms that belongs to the fungus kingdom. Like most fungi, yeast respires oxygen, but thankfully also ferments sugars to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide – allowing us to enjoy marvels such as beer and wine!
If alcohol and bread wasn’t already good enough, a group of researchers from the Swedish Chalmers University of Technology have figured out how to engineer yeast to produce fats rather than alcohol. I’m sure you have at some point heard that ‘fat is flavour’ in the context of talking about meat. Fat is an excellent vehicle for flavour and helps create nice mouthfeel, which is something that is often missing from plant-based alternatives that rely heavily on coconut fat or palm oil.
I think by now we are all aware that we need to reduce meat consumption and switch to plant-based alternatives to preserve our planet. Food production accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions, of which a majority is attributed to animals. So, figuring out how to create alternatives that are just as tasty is vital.
The researchers from Chalmers have founded Melt&Marble to use these capabilities of modifying yeast to make plant-based food taste better. They are able to rewire yeast to turn sugar into fat instead of alcohol and dictate the structure and properties of the fats in order to create identical replicas of animal fats or even design new properties. Melt&Marble was founded by top researchers from Chalmers including Jens Nielsen (Chairman of the Board), a highly respected researcher in the field who has co-authored over 600 papers and been cited over 400,000 times. The team is currently working on creating a beef fat alternative but we may have to wait a while for commercialisation.
🌍 A little 'ting - energy, electricity, and power
In my research for Hyme and many other energy-related startups, the terms energy, electricity and power have been used a lot and seemingly interchangeable at points, but they do not actually mean the same thing.
Energy comes in many forms such as radiant energy (like sunlight), gravitational energy, and electrical energy (electricity) to name a few. We cannot create or destroy energy but only convert it from one form to another. As an example, radiant energy from sunlight can be converted into electrical energy through solar panels which can then be converted to sound energy by speakers to play your favourite song which is then slowly converted to heat energy as it travels through the air. Lastly, power is the rate at which energy is transferred and is usually described in watts or watt-hours.
So, in short, electricity is a form of energy and power is a measure of energy transfer.
Thank you for making it to the end!
If you happened to enjoy reading this, why not send it around to a few friends so that more people can get an insight into what is being done to preserve the future of our planet 🌍
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Until next time, much love,