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🌍 Unlocking the earth's energy #12
Replacing packaging with wool and giving structure to cultivated meat
Welcome to another edition of the ‘tings newsletter 🌍
In this edition we are looking at how one startup is unlocking the energy stored within our earth using a plasma drill, how wool could help curb the packaging problem created by our thirst for online shopping, and how to add texture to cultivated meat production.
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🌏 GA Drilling - Unlocking the earth’s energy
We live on a gigantic and virtually endless battery. The amount of heat within the first 10 kilometres of the Earth’s surface contains 50,000 times more energy than all natural gas and oil resources combined (the diameter of the earth is almost 13,000 kilometres so that’s just a fraction of earth’s heat energy). This energy source is called geothermal energy which comes from the greek words geo (earth) and therme (heat). Geothermal energy is the missing element of renewable energy production, it has the potential to provide a continuous base load of energy that other renewables can’t. The heat energy within our earth runs 24/7 and does not depend on wind or sunshine. Yet, despite the abundance of geothermal energy and the fact that it does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, it makes up less than 0.9% of our energy mix.
Due to the nature of our planet, it being a sphere, there is geothermal energy below each individual or place – it doesn’t matter where in the world you’re reading this newsletter from, there’s a massive energy source below you. Unfortunately, easy access is rather rare and only occurs if the geography is just right, like in Iceland where geothermal makes up 24% of their energy mix. The challenge in harnessing the vast energy reserves our planet has to offer is figuring out how to drill deep enough.
Conventional drilling is efficient when dealing with soft rocks in depths up to 2-3 kilometres but time and cost go up exponentially when trying to drill deeper and through harder rock. GA Drilling from Bratislava, where the GA stands for Geothermal Anywhere, have managed to crack the ability to drill from 3-10 kilometres into the earth through the use of plasma to disintegrate material. Their patented PLASMABIT makes drilling to 10 kilometres faster and cheaper, turning an exponential cost curve into a linear one. The energy this technology unlocks is not only relevant for decarbonising our energy mix but can also be used directly as heating, for farming, water desalination, or even hydrogen production.
Note: Iceland is able to produce tomatoes using geothermal heat!
🐑 Woola - Waste wool as packaging
One hundred and thirty one billion parcels were shipped worldwide in 2020. This figure has tripled in the past six years and is expected to double again in the coming five years. I have seen this change first hand, the surge in online shopping due to the pandemic resulted in the paper and plastic recycling bins outside my apartment overflowing on multiple occasions. One of the largest contributors to the plastic waste from packaging is bubble wrap. Yes, it does keep the contents of parcels safe... but it can have quite the opposite effect on our environment.
The pandemic did not only result in mountains of packaging waste piling up, it also resulted in mountains of sheep wool piling up. The price of sheep wool dropped by half making incinerating or composting the wool a more financially sound decision for farmers than selling it – 200,000 tonnes of sheep wool is discarded in Europe every year.
So, what does wool have to do with bubble wrap and packaging? Wool as a material has characteristics that fit the packaging use case perfectly. Wool is insulating, breathable, resilient, dust resistant, anti-static, and most importantly it is biodegradable. One pile of waste could help address another pile of waste for the benefit of the environment.
Woola, an Estonian startup, are making use of the masses of wool waste to replace plastic bubble wrap with their planet-friendly waste wool based alternative. According to Woola the 200,000 tonnes of wool thrown away in Europe each year is enough to satisfy 120% of the global bubble wrap demand. They also make wool based alternatives to bubble wrap padded envelopes and protective bottle sleeves. Their first products are available in Estonia already and they are now looking to expand to the UK, France, and Germany.
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🧪 Gelatex - Giving texture to lab grown meat
In the ‘tings edition #10 we had a first look at cultivated meat production, more specifically the challenges with producing an animal free growth serum. As a quick recap, there are three basic components to growing meat in a lab: you need stem cells from the animal you are trying to replicate, a growth medium or sometimes called serum, and a bioreactor to do it all in. We talked about how the growth medium is a key factor inhibiting scaling this technology, but scale of production is one thing, being able to convince people to eat it is another.
The process I described above would result in lab grown meat but it would still be quite far from what we expect of meat, it would be a paté-like mush. Texture and mouthfeel is a big part of food. Food doesn’t just have to taste or look good, it also has to feel good. To achieve this with lab grown meat we need something called a scaffold, a structure into which the stem cells can grow.
Existing methods of creating scaffolding, using electrospun and hydrogel liquids, are extremely expensive at up to €100,000 per kilogram. A price tag of this magnitude coupled with the cost issues of growth serum production would result in an end product that only the wealthiest individuals can consume. Estonian startup Gelatex have reportedly figured out a way to reduce scaffold production costs by 90%. Unlike existing electrospun nanofibers (fibres that are 100 times smaller than human hair) that come in flat sheets, Gelatex are able to produce 3D segments that further improve the production of textured cultivated meat. The structure of Gelatex’s fibres can be adapted for each specific type of meat production, to cater to pork, beef, chicken, or even fish. They are already testing their technology with 8 of the 10 leading cultivated manufacturers and hope to scale their technology to reach a cost of €1 of scaffold per kg of meat within the next 10 years.
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Until next time, much love,