MIT Technology Review Tue, 24 Aug 2021 10:12:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1,33px,1272px,716px&w=32px MIT Technology Review 32 32 172986898 Is Ginkgo’s synthetic biology story worth $15 billion? Tue, 24 Aug 2021 10:00:00 +0000 The Boston genetic engineering company Ginkgo Bioworks and its CEO, Jason Kelly, have been spectacularly successful selling a story: that synthetic biology will transform the manufacture of physical products. What computers did for information, Kelly says, biology will do for the physical world. Instead of making a chemical from petroleum, why not have Ginkgo’s multi-floor “foundry” in Boston’s seaport design a yeast cell to manufacture it instead from a broth of sugar water?

I first saw Kelly, a boyish figure in a tight sport coat and sneakers, give his pitch a few years back. It was the same talk he’d been giving successfully in Silicon Valley for years. One slide featured a photo of an Apple computer, an iPhone, a camera, and a metal watch on a gray desk decorated with a potted plant and a black swivel lamp. “What’s the most complicated device on this table?” Kelly asked.

Of course, it’s the house plant. The point is that biology can make just about anything. Think of its incredibly sophisticated miniature machines, like the swirling flagellum that helps a bacterium swim. In Ginkgo’s hands biology would become programmable, revolutionary, and insanely lucrative, just like those famous tech products in the slide. “This is a much more powerful manufacturing platform than any of those other things,” Kelly said.

Given Kelly’s spiel, it is surprising that 13 years after it was founded, Ginkgo can’t name a single significant product that is manufactured and sold using its organisms. To the company’s fans, that’s no problem. They say Ginkgo embodies the biggest trends in DNA science and surely will become the Intel, Microsoft, or Amazon of biology. Kelly has compared Ginkgo to all three. To skeptics, however, Ginkgo is a company with modest scientific achievements and little revenue, and its greatest talents lie in winning glowing press coverage and raising money.

Ginkgo’s story matters because it has become the face of synthetic biology to many investors as it prepares to begin trading as a public stock in September following a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, called Soaring Eagle. A SPAC is a shell company that sells shares to the public in an IPO with the intention of merging with a promising private business, thereby taking it public too. SPACs can open exciting (and risky) young tech companies to ordinary investors, although it’s at a price negotiated by a small circle of dealmakers. Earlier this year, Soaring Eagle announced it would merge with Ginkgo in a deal that valued the Boston company at $15 billion. Kelly’s stake will be worth well more than $700 million.

Some biotech investors believe this valuation is excessive for a company with little revenue; in 2020 Ginkgo brought in $77 million providing research services and covid-19 tests but lost plenty of money while doing so (more than $137 million, to be exact). “It looks like a great example of a clever story that caught the attention of investors,” says Jean-François Formela, a venture capitalist at Atlas Venture in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If you boil down the message, it’s that biology is programmable. But it’s not that easy,” he says. Formela adds that the $15 billion valuation “seems insane.”

But in today’s bull market, being a skeptic doesn’t pay. So it’s difficult to say with any certainty what Ginkgo is really worth. After all, a single Bitcoin now costs $48,500 and Tesla has a market capitalization of around $700 billion, more than 10 times that of Ford. “Speaking with assurance on certain types of companies belies how difficult it is to know,” says Doug Cole of Flagship Pioneering, an organization that forms biotech startups in Cambridge. That’s especially true with companies that, like Ginkgo, are “creating new markets.”

Ginkgo’s success telling its story and raising money without introducing significant products has some skeptics wondering whether it will be next in line to crater once reality sets in. Earlier this month Zymergen, a competing synthetic-biology company, saw its stock price plunge 75% in a day after it said sales of its main product, a biological film for foldable phones, would be delayed by at least a year. Zymergen’s CEO, Josh Hoffman, who had also touted a coming era of “biofacturing,” resigned as well.

In a phone call, Kelly said his company purposely isn’t betting on any one product. Instead, he says, Ginkgo is a science and engineering “platform” for other companies to use. He compared Ginkgo to an online app store, except that the apps are programmed cells. Like an app store, Kelly says, Ginkgo will eventually profit by taking a cut of customers’ revenues, in the form of royalties or shares. It will be up to them to make and sell the biomanufactured products.

 “I am not a product company, and I have no desire to be a product company,” Kelly told me. “People in biotech are brainwashed to think only products matter.”

Super unicorn

Ginkgo was started in 2008 by Thomas Knight, an MIT computer engineer who had become fascinated with “standardizing” biological research, along with four graduate students, including Kelly. At first the company got by on government grants and cast-off equipment salvaged from MIT’s campus; “we had $150,000 and a U-Haul,” says Kelly. It was a time flush with funding for “synbio” companies, many dreaming of brewing transportation fuel, and Ginkgo barely stood out.

Its fortunes were transformed in 2014, when the startup entered the Y Combinator entrepreneurship program in Silicon Valley. Soon Ginkgo was selling the dream of biology West Coast style, likening it to computing, and investors’ successive injections of cash put it on a path to “super-unicorn” status. It was a private, profitless company that investors were valuing at $1 billion by 2017 and $4.8 billion by 2019, according to PitchBook.

“They were the first real biotech company to come through Y Combinator,” says Michael Koeris, a professor of bioprocessing at the Keck Graduate Institute, who once ran a startup, Sample6, in the same building as Ginkgo. “I think the YC people taught them to package the story so that it is fundable. That is a skill. A lot of science doesn’t get funded because there’s no story.”

Kelly’s gifts as a pitchman are widely acknowledged, and his company is famous for its lavish scientific window dressing. Last year it started printing its own glossy vanity magazine, Grow by Ginkgo,which exists to “tell creative stories” about the endless possibilities of synthetic biology. A recent issue contained a scratch-and-sniff card impregnated with the scent of an extinct flower.

“Times must be good when a young biotech company can afford to hire people to write unrelated magazine-style articles,” snarked Dirk Haussecker, a savvy biotech stock picker who is active on Twitter.

Kelly says the magazine was inspired by Think, a periodical printed by IBM starting in the 1930s. “Why did they do that? Well, no one knew what the heck a computer was,” says Kelly, who sees Ginkgo playing a similar role as an evangelist for the possibilities of genetic engineering.

During a podcast, journalists with Stat News compared Ginkgo to a “meme stock,” or “stonk,” positioned to appeal to an investing public chasing trends without regard for business fundamentals. When the SPAC deal is finalized—sometime in September—the company is going to trade under the stock symbol “DNA,” once owned by Genentech, an early hero of the biotech scene. “Ginkgo Bioworks does not deserve to use the DNA ticker,” said Stat stock reporter Adam Feuerstein.

SPACs are a Wall Street trend that offers an IPO path with a little less than the usual scrutiny of a company’s financial outlook. Will Gornall, a business school professor at the University of British Columbia, believes that they democratize investor access to hot sectors but can also overestimate companies’ value. Some deals, like the one that took Richard Branson’s space company Virgin Galactic Holdings public, have done well, but five electric-car companies that went public via SPACs were subsequently pummeled with what Bloomberg called “brutal” corrections.

Gornall can see a bettor’s logic to the Ginkgo gamble. In recent years stock market profits have been driven by just a handful of tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—each now worth more than a trillion dollars. “The valuation could make sense if there is even a 1% chance that biology is the computer of the future and this is the company that achieves that,” says Gornall.

Other people’s products

Since it was founded, Ginkgo has spent nearly half a billion dollars, much of it building labs equipped with robots, gene sequencers and sophisticated lab instruments such as mass spectrometers. These “foundries” allow it to test genes added to microorganisms (often yeast) or other cells. It claims it can create 50,000 different genetically modified cells in a single day. A typical aim of a foundry project is to assess which of hundreds of versions of a given gene is particularly good at, say, turning sugar into a specific chemical. Kelly says customers can use Ginkgo’s services instead of building their own lab.

What’s missing from Ginkgo’s story is any blockbuster products resulting from its research service. “If you are labeling yourself ‘synbio’, that is setting the bar high for success—you are saying you are going to the moon,” says Koeris. “You’ve raised so much money against a fantastic vision that soon you need to have a transformative product, whether a drug or some crazy industrial product.”

To date, Ginkgo’s engineering of yeast cells has led to commercial production of three fragrance molecules, Kelly says. Robert Weinstein, president and CEO of the US arm of the flavor and additives maker Robertet, confirmed that his company now ferments two such molecules using yeast engineered by Kelly’s company. One, gamma-decalactone, has a strong peach scent. The other, massoia lactone, is a clear liquid normally isolated from the bark of a tropical tree; used as flavoring, it can sell online for $1,200 a kilogram. Running a fermenter year-round could generate a few million dollars’ worth of such a specialty chemical.

photograph of the founders of Ginkgo Bioworks
Organism engineers: The five founders of Ginkgo Bioworks met at MIT. From the left: Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, Jason Kelly, Austin Che, Tom Knight.

To George Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School, such products don’t yet live up to the promise that synthetic biology will widely transform manufacturing. “I think flavors and fragrances is very far from the vision that biology can make anything,” says Church. Kelly also sometimes struggles to reconcile the “disruptive” potential he sees for synthetic biology with what Ginkgo has achieved. Church drew my attention to a May report in the Boston Globe about Ginkgo’s merger with Soaring Eagle. In it, Kelly said his firm was an attractive investment because the world was becoming familiar with the extraordinary potential of synthetic biology, citing the covid-19 vaccines made from messenger RNA and the animal-free proteins in new plant burgers, like those from Impossible Foods.

“The article was a list of achievements, but the most interesting achievements were from others,” says Church. “It doesn’t seem to add up to $15 billion to me.” Still, Church says he hopes that Ginkgo does succeed. Not only is the company his “favorite unicorn,” but it acquired the remains of some of his own synthetic-bio startups after they went bust (he also recently sold a company to Zymergen). How Ginkgo performs in the future “could help our whole field or hurt our whole field,” he says.

While Ginkgo’s work has not led to any blockbusters, and Kelly allows it’s “frustrating” that biotech takes so long, he says products from other customers are coming soon. The Cannabis company Cronos, based in Canada, says by the end of the year it will be selling intoxicating pineapple-flavored candy containing CBG, a molecular component of the marijuana flower; Ginkgo helped show it how to make the compound in yeast. A spinout from Ginkgo, called Motif FoodWorks, says it expects to have a synthetically produced meat flavor available this year as well.

More recently, Ginkgo has sought to play a bigger role in the manufacture of new biotech drugs, a more lucrative arena. For instance, it says it helped a research supply company called Aldevron improve the production of capping enzymes, which are used in the manufacture of mRNA vaccines. Those enzymes are in high demand because of the covid-19 crisis, and if the process is commercialized, they will represent the most important product Ginkgo has been involved with. That product could see several hundred million in annual sales, which Kelly says Ginkgo will collect part of as royalties.

One problem some see is that making real money in industrial biology is notoriously difficult. Engineering a microbe that performs well in a laboratory reactor is just a first step. Often the organisms need to be further tweaked to grow and thrive under pressure in steel tanks before it’s possible to actually manufacture something. But the trickiest part is making bioproducts inexpensively enough to compete with existing chemical production.

“The biotech landscape is scattered with bodies of companies that couldn’t scale or didn’t think about the economics,” says Chris Guske, a chemical engineer who has worked on some of the world’s largest biorefining products. “Just because you have a bug that produces a gram per liter in a flask doesn’t mean you are ready to be commercial.”

John Melo, CEO of Amyris, another synthetic-biology company, says Ginkgo does not have expertise in large-scale production, and he thinks Kelly is “paranoid” that betting on products “equates to difficulty and failure.” Amyris itself almost collapsed after it failed in a plan to sell biofuels for transportation but is staging a turn-around by manufacturing and selling beauty ingredients and flavors. In Melo’s view, unless things are made with biology at large scales, the dream of renewable manufacturing won’t be any closer. “I think this notion of not being a product company misses the point,” he says. “How can you be enabling sustainability if you don’t make a product?”

Circular revenue

All of biology is being pushed forward by the ability to read DNA, write it, and use those instructions to program organisms or human cells. By automating the use of these technologies, Ginkgo’s backers believe, the company is uniquely positioned to take a commanding position. Harry Sloan, a lawyer and Hollywood executive, is one of the business figures behind Soaring Eagle, and previously took the fantasy sports betting company DraftKings public. “These are companies that are not only leaders in their field but actually created the field themselves,” he told the Globe. “That is certainly the case with Ginkgo and synthetic biology.”

photograph showing a lab at Gingko Bioworks
Showcase lab: A promotional photo showing a view into one of Ginkgo Bioworks “foundries” in Boston where it engineers microorganisms.

In its presentations to investors, Sloan’s group predicts that within four years Ginkgo’s app-store model will have five hundred clients and generate billions of dollars in cash flow. Ginkgo frequently issues press releases announcing new customers, suggesting a growing clamor for its scientific resources. However, many of its customers are not fully independent from Ginkgo. According to Ginkgo’s financial documents, more than half its foundry’s 2020 revenues came from a few “related” companies that it partly owns.

One way Ginkgo creates demand for its services is to form spinout ventures, which then become the customers of its foundries. These deals have sometimes been financed by Ginkgo’s own largest investors, which include the hedge fund Viking Global and Cascade Investments, Bill Gates’s investment firm. Besides Motif FoodWorks, which operates in the same building, Gingko created Allonnia, a company developing microbes to break down pollution, which also subscribes to its foundry services.

Another example of how Ginkgo has financed demand for its services was a collaboration it announced in June 2019: a ”transformational” project with a startup called Synlogic, which is engineering E. coli bacteria to treat serious metabolic disorders. In ongoing studies, patients are swallowing pills filled with germs that have been programmed to carry out helpful functions, like digesting certain excess amino acids, the cause of a disease called phenylketonuria. The deal was important because it signaled that Ginkgo could get involved in potentially profitable new drugs, not only industrial ingredients.

But the way the deal was structured, it was Ginkgo that ended up paying for most of the R&D, not Synlogic. As part of the agreement, Synlogic did cut a check for $30 million in cash to Ginkgo for foundry services aimed at improving its strains. But Ginkgo simultaneously invested $80 million in Synlogic at a sizable premium to its stock price at the time. In effect, the money took a round trip, starting as cash in Ginkgo’s bank account and ending up as payment for foundry services.

Even though Ginkgo underwrote the research, Kelly has touted the collaboration to investors as an example of its successful business model. After adding DNA to organisms and testing them, he explains, “we give you a tube the size of a thimble that’s got a cell with the genome that you need. And that is all that leaves that big factory. And then you as the customer would grow that in your big tanks … if you’re Synlogic, it’ll go into clinical trials as a therapeutic, right?” In preparation for the SPAC merger, Ginkgo also told investors that it improved the performance of one Synlogic strain of E. coli several times over.

Aoife Brennan, Synlogic’s CEO, says Ginkgo “has absolutely demonstrated” it can improve the performance of E. coli strains, particularly if the job involves an automated “bake-off” between versions of a genetic pathway to see which is best. With its investment in automation, Ginkgo says, it is constantly lowering the cost of experiments and increasing the number of organism designs that it can test, a metric it refers to as “Knight’s Law,” after its founder. In this case, Ginkgo screened more than 1,000 genes and created several hundred strains.

Inbound marketing: Ginkgo publishes a vanity magazine, called Grow. It is modelled on Think, a highbrow periodical once published by IBM.

That type of automated procedure, Brennan says, is helpful “when you know what you are looking for” but is “sometimes is still not what we need.” Often, research problems are instead solved by scientific “tinkering,” she says, or tests that aren’t easily automated. Indeed, the particular organisms Ginkgo helped engineer were not successful after they failed to “reach our criteria to advance the project” into clinical testing, Brennan says. Instead, this summer Synlogic announced it would begin human tests of a new version of its E. coli engineered by enEvolv, a startup recently purchased by Zymergen, which she says brought capabilities to the project that Ginkgo did not have at the time.

By forming spinouts and taking equity in its customers, Ginkgo can seem to be acting  as much like a venture capital firm as a research company. For instance, Kelly, along with his company’s largest outside investor, Viking Global (it owns 20% of Ginkgo), came to the financial aid of Genomatica, a company making plastic precursors and facing a costly push to commercialization. That company wound up largely owned by Viking and Ginkgo, while also becoming one of Ginkgo’s customers. A person formerly close to Genomatica described Ginkgo as acting as “an arm of Viking” whose true business could be described as financial engineering, not genetic engineering. This person called Gingko “effective” because of how they can use capital to “organize the market” and “reignite interest in synthetic biology.”

Ginkgo’s practice of juicing up demand by investing in its customers, trading foundry work for equity, and financing demonstration projects, was the subject of a 2020 Harvard Business School case study, which concluded that the arrangements were useful for “explaining Ginkgo’s future growth and untapped potential” to its own investors. But the arrangements make Ginkgo’s finances a little harder to figure out, even for Ginkgo.

Kelly confirmed that some of the CEOs of Ginkgo’s partners, including the head of Motif, raised concerns to him about the unpredictable way Ginkgo was expending the foundry credits they’d been awarded. Basically, Ginkgo was dividing the cost of running its foundry between whatever customers it happened to have, rather than billing them at fixed rates, which it does now. Brennan says the “loosey-goosey” accounting created challenges for her company, which is public already and had to file quarterly reports with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. After the group raised the concerns, Kelly quickly solved the problem. “You can fix a lot of things with money,” says Brennan. “And they have a lot of money.”

In an interview, Brennan says she is pleased to have Kelly involved with her company, calling him a supportive shareholder whose view is that “if we are successful, then they are too.” Kelly’s belief in synthetic biology is unflagging, and his support has continued even as Synlogic’s stock price has slumped, erasing about three quarters of Ginkgo’s investment on paper.

 “He is very charismatic,” she says of Kelly. “It is nirvana to have an investor who also believes engineered bacteria will be on the shelf at CVS helping people one day.”

The Taliban, not the West, won Afghanistan’s technological war Mon, 23 Aug 2021 17:53:05 +0000 Despite their terrible human costs—or perhaps because of them—wars are often times of technological innovation. The Napoleonic Wars brought us canned goods; the American Civil War drove the development of submarines. The Second World War, meanwhile, began with biplanes, cavalry charges, and horse-drawn wagons but ended with radar, V2 rockets, jet fighters, and atomic bombs. (Perhaps most fundamentally, via the breaking of German codes at Bletchley Park, the war also ushered in the start of the computing revolution.) 

The victor, goes the story, is the side that is the most technologically advanced. New inventions allow these forces to adapt to changing conditions, new systems help them track down their targets, and new weapons mean they can crush the enemy more efficiently than before.

But Afghanistan is different. There has been technological progress—the evolution of drone warfare, for example. But the advances made by the US and its allies have not been as pronounced as those seen before, and they haven’t been as profound as some experts have claimed. In fact, contrary to the typical narrative, the technological advances that have taken place during the 20 years of conflict have actually helped the Taliban more than the West. If wars are fought through innovation, the Taliban won.

What do we mean? The West fought the war in much the same way from beginning to end. The first airstrikes in 2001 were conducted by B-52 bombers, the same model that first saw service in 1955; in August, the attacks that marked the end of US presence came from the same venerable model of aircraft.

The Taliban, meanwhile, made some huge leaps. They began this war with AK-47s and other simple, conventional weapons, but today they have harnessed mobile telephony and the internet—not just to improve their weapons and their command-and-control systems, but even more crucially, to carry out their strategic communications and their influence operations. 

What accounts for this underwhelming and unevenly distributed technological gain?

Existential war vs war of choice

For the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan has been existential. Confronted with hundreds of thousands of foreign troops from NATO countries, and hunted on the ground and from the air, they had to adapt in order to survive. While the bulk of their fighting equipment has remained simple and easy to maintain (often no more than a Kalashnikov, some ammunition, a radio, and a headscarf), they have had to seek out new technology from other insurgent groups or develop their own. 

The West fought the war in much the same way from beginning to end. The Taliban, meanwhile, made some huge leaps.

One key example: roadside bombs, or IEDs. These simple weapons caused more allied casualties than any other. Originally activated by pressure plates, like mines, they had evolved by the midpoint of the war so that the Taliban could set them off with mobile phones from anywhere with a cell signal. Because the Taliban’s technological baseline was lower, the innovations they have made are all the more significant.  

But the real technological advance for the Taliban took place at the strategic level. Acutely aware of their past shortcomings, they have attempted to overcome the weaknesses of their previous stint in government. Between 1996 and 2001, they preferred to be reclusive, and there was only one known photo of their leader, Mullah Omar. Since then, though, the Taliban have developed a sophisticated public affairs team, harnessing social media domestically and abroad. IED attacks would usually be recorded by mobile phone and uploaded to one of the many Taliban Twitter feeds to help with recruitment, fundraising, and morale. Another example is the technique of automatically scraping social media for key phrases like “ISI support”—referring to Pakistan’s security service, which has a relationship with the Taliban—and then unleashing an army of online bots to send messages that attempt to refashion the image of the movement.

For the coalition, things were quite different. Western forces did have access to a wide range of world-class technology, from space-based surveillance to remotely operated systems like robots and drones. But for them, the war in Afghanistan was not a war of survival; it was a war of choice. And because of this, much of the technology was aimed at reducing the risk of casualties rather than achieving outright victory. Western forces invested heavily in weapons that could remove soldiers from harm’s way—air power, drones—or technology that could speed up the delivery of immediate medical treatment. Things that keep the enemy at arm’s length or protect soldiers from harm, such as gunships, body armor, and roadside-bomb detection, have been the focus for the West.

The West’s overarching military priority has been elsewhere: in the battle between greater powers. Technologically, that means investing in hypersonic missiles to match those of China or Russia, for instance, or in military artificial intelligence to try outwitting them.

Technology is not a driver of conflict, nor a guarantor of victory. Instead, it is an enabler.

The Afghan government, caught between these two worlds, ended up having more in common with the Taliban than the coalition. This was not a war of choice but a fundamental threat. Yet the government couldn’t progress the same way the Taliban did; its development was hobbled by the fact that foreign militaries provided the main technologically advanced forces. While the Afghan army and police have certainly provided bodies to the fight (with many lives lost in the process), they have not been in a position to create or even operate advanced systems on their own. Western nations were reluctant to equip Afghans with cutting-edge weapons, fearing that they would not be maintained or might even end up in the hands of the Taliban.  

Take the Afghan air force. It was provided with, and trained on, fewer than two dozen propeller aircraft. This enabled a modicum of close air support, but it was far from cutting edge. And working with the US meant that Afghanistan was not free to look elsewhere for technology transfer; it was, in effect, stuck in a stunted phase of development.

So what does this tell us? It says technology is not a driver of conflict, nor a guarantor of victory. Instead, it is an enabler. And even rudimentary weapons can carry the day in the hands of motivated, patient humans who are prepared—and able—to make whatever progress is required.

It also tells us that the battlefields of tomorrow might look a lot like Afghanistan: we will see fewer purely technological conflicts that are won by the military with the greatest firepower, and more old and new technologies fielded side by side. It already looks that way in conflicts such as the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the pattern is one we may see more over time. Technology may not win wars anymore, but innovation can—particularly if one side is fighting an existential battle.

Christopher Ankersen is clinical associate professor of global affairs at New York University. He served in the United Nations across Europe and Asia from 2005 to 2017 and with the Canadian Armed Forces from 1988 to 2000. The author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Civil Military Cooperation and The Future of Global Affairs, he holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mike Martin is a Pushtu-speaking former British army officer who served multiple tours in Afghanistan as a political officer, advising British generals on their approach to the war. He is now a visiting war studies fellow at King’s College London and the author of An Intimate War, which charts the war in the south of Afghanistan since 1978. He holds a PhD from King’s College London.

The $3.5 trillion budget bill could transform the US power sector—and slash climate pollution Mon, 23 Aug 2021 09:00:00 +0000 In the coming weeks, Congress may pass one of the most important climate policies in US history.

The $3.5 trillion budget plan includes a provision known as the Clean Electricity Payment Program, which would use payments and penalties to encourage utilities to increase the share of electricity they sell from carbon-free sources each year. If it works as hoped, the legislation would ensure that the power sector generates 80% of its electricity from sources like wind, solar, and nuclear plants by 2030, cutting more than a billion tons of annual greenhouse-gas emissions.

The measure would mark a foundational step in President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate plan, which aims to put the nation on track to eliminate climate pollution from electricity generation by 2035—and achieve net-zero emissions across the economy by midcentury.

There are real questions, though, about whether the program will achieve its aggressive targets. How the nation’s complex electricity sector actually responds will depend heavily on how the agency that oversees the program implements it, and particularly where it sets the payments and penalties, some economists say.

It’s also still unclear if the measure will pass in anything like its current form—or at all.

How would it work?

The Clean Electricity Payment Program is a twist on a clean electricity standard, a regulation numerous states have implemented that requires utilities to reach certain levels of clean electricity by specific years. The proposal mainly opts for payments and penalties over binding mandates because that could enable it to pass under a legislative process known as budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority of votes in the Senate.

Once companies boost their share of clean electricity above an annual target, they would earn payments for every additional megawatt-hour of electricity they sell that comes from carbon-free sources, according to an analysis by the Clean Air Task Force. Those that fail to reach that threshold would have to pay a fee.

The program wouldn’t require all electricity suppliers to reach the same levels at the same times. It would adjust the yearly goals according to the point from which each is starting. But the overall target would be for the US power sector to produce 80% of its electricity from clean sources, on average, in the next nine years.

US Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota has championed the measure, which the Department of Energy would likely oversee.

The budget plan also includes federal tax incentives for building more clean electricity generation. With those credits, the program would be funded at around $150 billion to $200 billion, according to Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC.

Added together, the measures in the package would amount to “the biggest, most ambitious climate and clean energy policies that the US has ever enacted, by far,” says Josh Freed, head of the organization’s climate and energy program.

What would the program do?

If the measures achieve the goal of 80% clean electricity by 2030, it would more than double the share of carbon-free electricity in the US and significantly accelerate the pace of the transition to clean energy.

Currently, about 38% of the electricity generated in the US comes from carbon-free sources: 18% from renewables and 20% from nuclear power.

Pushing the power sector to 80% would cut carbon dioxide emissions by 86% from 2005 levels, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, included in an Evergreen Collaborative report published this month.

That would eliminate well over a billion tons of annual climate pollution in the next nine years. By comparison, the power sector reduced annual emissions by a little more than 800 million tons in the 14 years leading up to 2019, driven almost entirely by the shift from coal to natural gas and the increase in renewables.

How else does it help?

That takes a giant whack at one of the largest sources of US climate pollution. The electricity sector produces a quarter of the nation’s total greenhouse gases, second only to the transportation sector at 29%.  

Cleaning up the power sector also makes it easier to address other major emissions sources. It ensures, for instance, that far more of the electricity used to charge electric cars, trucks, and buses is carbon free. The same goes for things like heating and cooking if regulations require more homes and businesses to shift to electric stoves, heat pumps, and other cleaner technologies.

“If we want to achieve real, deep cuts in emissions, we’ve got to do it through clean electricity,” says Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has consulted on the policy.  

Meanwhile, other studies have found the shift to around 80% carbon-free electricity would spur $1.5 trillion of investments into clean energy, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and save hundreds of thousands of lives over the coming decades through reduced air pollution.

But will it really get us to 80% clean electricity by 2030?

“Who knows?” says James Bushnell, an environmental and energy economist at the University of California, Davis.

The downside to going with incentives over strict mandates is that you can’t guarantee the end result. The government will need to make some imperfect predictions, or continually assess and refine how big the sticks and plentiful the carrots will need to be to bring about the desired changes, Bushnell says.

It will also have to carefully design the program to prevent the industry from gaming it. He sees scenarios where utilities could pack together big additions of clean electricity in certain years and narrow misses in others, in ways that could minimize penalties, maximize payments, and slow the progress of the program.

Another problem is that much of the data today on US electricity generation and sales is self-reported, while the “cleanness” of electricity purchased in real-time markets isn’t always clear. So the government will likely need to set up stringent processes for monitoring and verification, and develop reliable ways to certify or track where carbon-free electricity originates and where it ends up.

What would it mean for electricity prices?

Most assessments of the Clean Electricity Payment Program conclude it will drive down consumer prices. That’s because it’s funded by the federal government, and utilities would be required to use the payments to benefit customers.

“In a traditional [clean electricity standard], the cost is carried in electricity rates, and therefore by utility customers,” noted the Evergreen report, which Stokes co-wrote. In contrast, the payment program would shield Americans from rising electricity bills, the report said.

But Bushnell says that even if those performance payments are used to reduce prices, it’s still possible they could tick up in some instances. That’s because utilities will all be competing for limited sources of both old and new clean electricity, which would drive up prices. Prices for dirty electricity could fall for the same demand and supply reasons. But how all that balances outs from market to market remains to be seen, he says.

So why not just enact mandates?

While simply mandating utilities to sell set levels of clean electricity by certain times offers a clearer path to the desired result, the proposed payment plan has one powerful advantage: it’s politically feasible.

Specifically, it could enable legislators to include the proposal in the budget reconciliation process. That allows Congress to approve legislation on certain issues, related to taxes and spending, with 51 votes in the Senate—precisely the number Democrats have if Vice President Kamala Harris steps in to cast a tie-breaking vote.

A regulatory rule wouldn’t qualify for reconciliation, requiring it to secure 60 votes to overcome the threat of a filibuster.

So does that mean it will definitely pass?

Not at all.

There are tight restrictions on what sorts of measures can be included in the reconciliation process, under what’s known as the Byrd rule. The Senate can’t consider “extraneous” provisions requiring any proposals to alter federal spending or taxes in ways that are more than incidental to other policy aims, among other tests.

So there’s always a chance that the Senate parliamentarian could rule that certain measures don’t qualify, stripping them from the final bill altogether.

Meanwhile, the Senate approved the broad framework for the budget a few weeks ago, starting a process in which various committees begin determining what measures will go into the package and what they’ll say.

“That’s where the fight now stands,” says Marcela Mulholland, political director at Data for Progress. “We need to ensure [the Clean Electricity Payment Program] continues to be included, that the funding levels don’t get slashed, and that it includes the language needed to ensure it’s implemented in an equitable manner and on the timelines needed.”

But that could be tough. The measure was assigned to the Senate’s energy and natural resources committee, which Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia oversees.

That gives him considerable sway over the final language, putting the fate of the Clean Electricity Payment Program in the hands of a conservative-leaning Democrat from a leading coal state, who has already criticized the spending levels in the package.

To solve space traffic woes, look to the high seas Mon, 23 Aug 2021 09:00:00 +0000 Thanks mainly to the rise of satellite megaconstellation projects like OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, the American Astronomical Society suggests, it’s possible we may see more than 100,000 satellites orbiting Earth by 2030—a number that would simply overwhelm our ability to track them all. Experts have repeatedly called for a better framework for managing space traffic and preventing a future plague of satellite crashes, but the world’s biggest space powers are still dragging their feet. All the while, more and more objects are zooming perilously close to one another. 

Ruth Stilwell, the executive director of Aerospace Policy Solutions and an adjunct faculty member at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, has a suggestion for how we can better manage space traffic. She argues that we should look to the maritime laws and policies developed over hundreds of years to guide how ships and other vessels on the sea ought to behave.

Can you start off by giving me the lay of the land of space traffic management and space situational awareness today? How would you evaluate how well the world currently does these things? 

Space traffic management is very much an emerging field. We’re in the early stages, where the discussions in the international community are in the development of norms and standards of behavior. The fundamental purpose of space traffic management is to prevent collisions in space. Collisions, by their nature, are debris-generating events, which cause the domain itself to become polluted and less safe for future actors. So it’s twofold—it’s not just that a collision damages satellites; a collision also causes long-term damage to the environment itself. And we see that very clearly in all of the evaluations of the [2009] Iridium-Cosmos collision.

Space situational awareness is a different thing—it’s about providing data. Different countries and companies around the world detect where these objects are in orbit and share what’s out there. For 50 years, you didn’t really need much information other than [the location of debris so it can be avoided]. But as the orbital domain becomes more congested with junk, it’s not just a question of “How do you avoid debris?” It’s now “How do you interact with other [satellite] operators up there?” When there’s two maneuverable satellites that want to be in the same place at the same time, that’s when you get to that question of management rather than space situational awareness. 

Along those lines, when there is a possible collision between two objects, what’s the general process in place to prevent a disaster from ensuing? Is there a quick outline you can provide?

I’ve been on a quest to find an authoritative reference that talks about the process from end to end. I wish I could say, “Go to this resource, and it’ll show you what happens from the time they look for a close approach to the time that the decision is made for whether or not to maneuver a satellite.” But it’s a bit opaque. Different operators have different internal processes that they don’t necessarily want to share. 

The US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Command Squadron is constantly watching the skies and reevaluating the situation every eight hours. If they detect that a close approach is possible, they’ll issue a conjunction alert to the owner-operator of the satellite. Then it goes into the hands of the owner-operator to decide what to do with that information. And then the 18th will continue to monitor things. The projection of where something might be in space varies wildly based on the object, how it’s shaped, how it reacts to the atmosphere around it … If there’s any intention by the operator to move it on purpose, that changes the observations as well.

You’ve argued that while air traffic control might seem like a sensible analogue to space traffic control for obvious reasons—namely, that it’s about the prevention of collisions—it is actually an inappropriate model, and that maritime law actually provides a better one. 

All of the world’s international airspace is designated to a single entity state for the purposes of providing air traffic control services. So, for example, the US controls 5 million square miles of domestic airspace but 24 million square miles of international airspace. They are the sole authority to provide those air traffic control services in that airspace by virtue of the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization]. 

Space doesn’t have anything like that. But the high seas don’t have that either. What the high seas have is a collection of agreed-upon rules of behavior and the authority over each vessel: the state under which the vessel flag is flown. There’s not a high-seas authority that says yes or no, you can operate here and you can’t operate here. Everyone has access to this shared resource, and the principles of freedom of the sea include the freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, freedom to lay cables underneath, freedom of fishing. Within the maritime agreements, there is freedom to conduct commercial activities. This is different from airspace, which historically has been an area purely for transportation. 

The orbital domain is not solely for transportation [either]. It’s the domain in which the commercial activity occurs: telecommunications, remote sensing, etc.

Of course, maritime law is also meant to prevent collisions on the high seas. Collision regulations, or colregs, dictate what’s supposed to happen if two vessels are [on course for] a head-on collision: who has priority to maneuver, what to do if something happens in a narrow channel … These sort of principles are laid out very clearly. They have very clear applicability to the challenges we’re facing in the space domain. There are very clear parallels. Whereas if we take the aviation model, we’re really trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

Is there pushback or disagreement on the idea of using maritime law as the inspiration for space law? Is the general consensus moving toward this idea?

I think it’s trending that way, by virtue [of the fact] that it’s really the only viable path forward, but there is always discussion. Having someone or some singular body decide what we can do is not a realistic outcome, given the nature of the space domain. We don’t do space traffic like air traffic because it’s not simply a safety question. It is a diplomatic question and an economic question as well. 

Giving control of space traffic to one regulatory body would be easy, like the 18th Space Control Squadron, which provides these services free of charge. But there are countries that are suspicious of that [idea]. And then, of course, there is the issue of classified data. So you get into these complexities of trust—you know, if there was one trusted global entity, then sure, we could do that. [But] there aren’t any that are trusted by all, and trust is something that changes over time. 

So the path forward is to create a way for that information to be shared and trusted. For example, I’m working on a project where we’re talking about blockchain as an enabler for trusted information sharing. By nature of the blockchain, you can determine who inputted the information and validate them as a legitimate participant, and that information can’t be altered by a third party. 

Space is often described as a new kind of Wild West—lawless and unregulated, and anything goes. How can a framework for something like space traffic management even get established if there’s also just no set pathway for establishing rules to begin with? 

I would argue that space isn’t actually the Wild West. There is an obligation in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty for states to supervise objects that they permit to launch from their countries. So it’s not unregulated; it’s not completely free. It’s just we haven’t agreed on what that actually means for continuing supervision. 

The Iridium-Cosmos accident was a wake-up call. It sparked a lot of activity, like the development of on-orbit servicing technology to dispose of big objects that remain in space, and also the development of commercial sensor networks so that we can have better and better space situational awareness information. 

The next big catalyst, I believe, is megaconstellations. We’re seeing more [potential collision] alerts between two maneuverable satellites, which is a solvable problem if we have a set of rules. This creates a lot of pressure on the system to start reaching these agreements. Capitalism is a pretty effective motivator. When people see more and more economic opportunities in popular orbits, then balancing access to those orbits becomes a motivator as well.

From health care to infrastructure, how AI is changing the world for the better Fri, 20 Aug 2021 14:40:01 +0000 Over the past several years, our world has been confronted with a range of unprecedented and, at times, deadly challenges—from the covid-19 pandemic to severe weather conditions, and a concurrent rise of societal issues including aging population, urban congestion, and unequal access to health care.

But as the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and its applications grow, AI technologies are playing an instrumental role in addressing socio-economic and environmental challenges faced by the modern world, ultimately helping us to reach a better standard of living.

Filling gaps, providing quality care

One of the most promising applications of AI in recent years has been in augmenting human workers in key sectors that are chronically understaffed, contributing to major advances in solving challenging social issues.

In China, for instance, the medical system has long grappled with a shortage of health-care professionals, with an average of just 17.9 doctors for 10,000 people. The situation is even more imbalanced in small towns and rural areas, forcing many patients to travel long distances to cities to access quality medical care and specialist treatments.

Baidu’s Clinical Decision Support System (CDSS) was developed to address this urgent need. Built on a foundation of medical natural language processing and knowledge graph technology, the system provides real-time assistance to doctors, informing their judgments, helping them more accurately recognize symptoms, and providing corresponding treatment options. By bringing the expertise and resources of top-tier medical institutions to local clinics, the system offers patients a quality of treatment that would otherwise be out of reach. To date, Baidu’s CDSS has been applied in thousands of primary care facilities, and the number is rapidly growing.

“In the diagnosis stage, sometimes young doctors may miss or ignore some symptoms due to a lack of experience,” says one doctor from a hospital in Beijing that has been using CDSS for two years. “Through the consultation support and real-time alert functions of CDSS, which provide more suggestions and references to physicians, we were able to significantly improve the quality of our medical department.”

Accessible solutions through humanized technology

By 2022, approximately 14% of China’s population will be aged 65 and over, according to forecasts by the China Development Foundation, with the number expected to grow to more than 30% by 2050.

For older populations, AI-powered smart speakers and displays can serve as a vital lifeline. Baidu has developed a popular smart display unit with computer vision capabilities and voice interaction technology, called Xiaodu, which can provide a wide range of essential services, including offering health tips, arranging shopping and transportation assistance, providing access to emergency care, and even daily conversation and emotional support.

The success of Xiaodu made it one of the stars of the recent Baidu World, the company’s annual flagship technology conference, which explored how local welfare associations are increasingly distributing Xiaodu installations to seniors.

Xiaodu’s popularity among the elderly highlights another key potential of AI: breaking down barriers and inequalities in access to technology in today’s world. While previous generations saw older populations disenfranchised by the advent of new technologies, AI offers the possibility of applications that will be accessible to all. 

Transforming infrastructure, revolutionizing society

Beyond solving targeted problems, new developments show how AI has even greater potential to reduce errors and improve efficiency in the systems that permeate our daily lives, including urban infrastructure in a growing number of cities.

In China’s Shandong province, Baidu AI Cloud supports safety inspections of the electric power grid, providing instant alerts to avert power outages that could affect millions. In Quanzhou, Baidu AI Cloud is being used to accurately forecast water consumption needs at the city’s main water treatment plant for its population of 8 million people. The system analyzes a range of factors, from weather patterns to holidays, helping to boost the plant’s efficiency and cutting its electricity usage by 8%.

“We always need to make sure the system is functioning and the water quality is stable, but it would be impossible for a worker to stay awake and alert for 24 hours a day, never sleeping,” says Shen Peikun, a worker at the Quanzhou plant. “But now this system can handle the equipment and alert us if there are any sudden changes.”

Baidu’s AI technology has revolutionized one of the most ordinary but vital features of city life: the traffic light. Smart traffic systems can monitor vehicle and pedestrian flows, analyzing a vast array of data to predict future traffic conditions and optimize the traffic flow. In the northern Chinese city of Baoding, the use of Baidu’s smart traffic lights has reduced waiting times by up to 20% during peak rush hours, giving people back more time in their daily lives.

With the rapid development of autonomous driving, including Baidu’s Apollo Moon robotaxis unveiled earlier this year, a more comprehensive smart traffic infrastructure is taking shape, with each component building upon the other to enable safer and more efficient travel for all.

In its research on smart traffic solutions, for example, Baidu has found that even a 15% improvement in traffic efficiency correlates to a 2.4% growth in GDP for a given area, as time and resources formerly ensnared in daily inconvenience are freed up to drive economic productivity. In economies grasping for new levers of growth and competitive advantage, optimization like this can provide an invaluable solution. Greater efficiency can also lead to a better use of the earth’s resources, and a reduction in carbon emissions.

As AI applications multiply—including in smart cities and autonomous driving—and become more integrated with one another, their potential to unlock positive value and to help find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing social concerns will continue to grow.

This content was produced by Baidu. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

Afghanistan had a plan to free itself from cash. Now it risks running out. Fri, 20 Aug 2021 10:00:00 +0000 Afghanistan’s banking system is in a state of collapse, and people throughout the country are running out of money. And this cash crisis—partly due to the international community’s efforts to starve the Taliban of resources—is having an outsized effect on everyday Afghan citizens, leaving many without access to important services as the UN warns of a growing humanitarian disaster.

Asef Khademi, who was previously working to modernize the country’s financial systems, is one of the many people now hiding in Kabul who wants to leave Afghanistan, but his hope is waning fast. 

“I’m just knocking on every door, just sending emails to everyone to see if I can get out of this country,” he says.

Khademi is afraid because for the last three and a half years he has been working for an internationally-funded project to bring digital currency and banking into people’s lives. Afghanistan Payments System, or APS, was founded in 2011, funded by the World Bank, and became part of the Central Bank of Afghanistan two years ago. 

It was an important project: the Afghan economy runs on cash, and only an estimated 10 to 15% of citizens have a bank account. APS was meant to help Afghanistan become less cash-dependent, make economic transactions more secure and efficient, and bring real banking to more people. And, says Khademi, it was moving fast before the US withdrew its forces and the Taliban took over.

Now, though, as chaos continues to unfold in Afghanistan, the project has stopped, and cash is running out before any viable alternatives have been put in place. 

But a different outcome was within reach, Khademi says: Afghanistan was perhaps just a year or two away from having a 21st-century digital banking infrastructure that could cope even if cash disappeared. His team was “very committed and hardworking”, he says, regularly working up to 17-hour days to support rapid growth. They were “so passionate about the economy to be standing on its own.” 

“We were hoping our efforts would pay off,” he says, through tears. “It seems like everything was in vain, everything we have done. It seems like a dream, but now it’s never going to come true.”

Frozen assets

The cash crisis is not an accident. Most of the previous Afghan government’s assets were held in offshore accounts that have since been frozen to prevent the Taliban from gaining access, according to former Central Bank governor Ajmal Ahmady. And the US has chosen to prevent the Taliban—which is on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list—from getting hold of other funds by freezing Afghan government cash reserves and halting planned shipments of cash. Many Afghans have been expecting such a situation for weeks, with long lines at banks as citizens worried about the future drained them of cash.

ATM activity went through the roof. “Friends [who work in banks] said where they normally did hundreds of transactions per day, they were doing thousands,” says Ruchi Kumar, a journalist and contributor to MIT Technology Review who worked in Kabul for eight years but fled the country recently.

The problems caused by the lack of cash are building up. US dollars are becoming increasingly scarce, the value of Afghan cash is plummeting and, according to Khademi, the price of basic goods is skyrocketing. Cash remains in circulation—Afghanistan has a sizeable informal banking system, run though local unlicensed currency traders. Sources say that they are still operating, but without banking activity, money supply will soon run tight. 

Some outsiders are trying to fill the gap by running online fundraising campaigns, while others have even suggested that cryptocurrency could step into the void

But getting money into the country from outside has become more difficult. Western Union, the world’s largest money transfer company, has suspended services in Afghanistan, and NBC reports that MoneyGram has halted operations there too. Meanwhile some foreign crowdfunding websites, such as GoFundMe, have been accused of “disingenuous” behavior after blocking some fundraising efforts for the country while letting others proceed.

“I didn’t think this day would come”

While digital alternatives have largely failed to fill the gap left by the cash collapse, there have been some windows of opportunity for alternative services to help out.

Kumar, the journalist, says that vulnerable Afghans are using services like WasalPay—an online payment system for utility bills—to keep their phone credit topped up.

She’s using it to send money that people in distress can use to stay connected. Her network includes journalists, activists, and human rights defenders; they are able to use WasalPay to access funds coming from outside the country, whether from individual donations and contributions, or from larger sources such as the International Women’s Media Foundation. 

Many of the recipients, she says, are indoors, in hiding, with little but their phones and the clothes on their backs. The money helps ensure they can keep in touch with their families, but it also gives them a shot at getting a plane out of Afghanistan. 

“They are trying to leave the country, and they’re waiting for someone to say it’s time to leave and go to the airport,” Kumar says. Women—especially single women who work—are especially at risk. “They cannot leave their homes, especially if they know they are on the Taliban’s target list. So we are trying to facilitate phone credits remotely.”

Kumar says she is inundated with requests: she has made 140 payments so far and already has requests for another 40.

Sher Shah Rahim, the CEO of WasalPay, says that he’s had to shutter some of his other businesses—including KabulReads, Afghanistan’s first online bookstore—over safety concerns. But he’s committed to keeping WasalPay going until at least December, given that it has become essential for some. It’s not easy, though.

“As a company, I have no cash on me because I didn’t think this day would come,” he says. “I had all my money in the banks, and the banks are closed.”

Looming chaos

All these efforts are a race against time, however. With the exit of international forces and media planned for the end of August, the situation could worsen considerably. After that point, it will become much harder for people to flee. 

“They’re already secretly cracking down at night time, going to peoples’ houses to search for them,” says Kumar. “But they will crack down much more after the 31st. They’re even texting people threats saying that.” 

“They might just destroy it. They might just burn all of these technologies.”

As with so much in Afghanistan right now, the broader financial situation is chaotic and hugely uncertain. The value of the afghani, the country’s currency, has plummeted, and it’s unlikely to stabilize for some time, according to Thomas Groll, an economist at Columbia University. 

For now, many Afghans will be forced to rely on any cash reserves, local currency traders or bartering to get the goods they need, Groll says. 

Local entrepreneurs are worried for their own safety and that of their families. Khademi has lost many family members, including his father, to Taliban attacks in the past. Rahim, meanwhile, plans to wait and see what Taliban rule is like, although he’s shutting down his office and orchestrating remote work set-ups for his 18 employees. 

But beyond worrying about their immediate safety, they also see a wasted opportunity to build a genuine future.

“Everybody relies 100% on cash, and this was about to change,” says Rahim. “[APS] finally succeeded bringing digital banking to Afghanistan, but as soon as they launched and began to start walking from crawling, the Taliban came and everything basically turned into dust.”

Khademi, meanwhile, isn’t sure what happens next. “I’ve worked so hard to become who I am today, to reach the level I am at today,” he says. “I don’t want to lose it all at once.”

He’s heard rumors that banks will be open next week, and he thinks the Taliban could even decide to continue the project. But he also thinks that it could be shut down. “They might just destroy it,” he says. “They might just burn all of these technologies. Who knows?”

Chinese astronomers want to build an observatory in the Tibetan Plateau Thu, 19 Aug 2021 22:19:08 +0000 The world’s best astronomical observatories are mainly located in the Western Hemisphere, in high-altitude places like the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, La Palma in the Canary Islands, and the Cerro Paranal summit in the Atacama Desert in Chile. But there are pristine locations with clear views of the sky in the East, too. And a team of Chinese astronomers are now making the case for building an observatory in the Tibetan Plateau—part of the larger region of Asia that’s commonly called the “roof of the world.” 

The group published a new paper in Nature on Wednesday describing the potential they see at the summit of Saishiteng Mountain, near the town of Lenghu in Qinghai province (which is next to Tibet, a region of high political tensions since China first annexed it in 1951). 

More than 2.5 miles in altitude, Lenghu “has been known to have unusually clear skies,” says Licai Deng, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a coauthor of the new study. “At the same time, the Lenghu area has a spectacular landscape similar to Mars.” Deng says the local government, which is eager to attract tourists interested in astronomy and geography, hired his team to survey the area and see whether it would be a good place to build an observatory.

Four major factors affect how suitable any location will be for astronomical research. The first is whether it tends to have clear skies—that means no dense cloud formations, and very little light pollution. The second is the stability of local air and weather conditions—and what effect the atmosphere will have on optical and infrared observations at night (even the tiniest particles in the air can interfere). The third is whether the site is connected to infrastructure (like power) and can be accessed without too much trouble. And lastly, you want an area where the night sky will be protected from human activity. 

High-altitude spots like Lenghu are of great interest to astronomers, since there’s simply less atmosphere to peer through while looking out at objects in space. The researchers monitored the Lenghu area for three years, measuring the darkness of the sky, the weather, the atmospheric conditions, and more. They found that the area scored at least as well on all four factors as other potential sites surveyed in the Tibetan Plateau. In many ways, the researchers think, it could be better than existing sites in Hawaii and Chile. There’s less variability in air temperatures and more stable atmospheric conditions, and the skies are slightly clearer. The amount of water vapor in the air is also low, which is especially useful for infrared observations important to cosmology. About three decades of weather records reveal just an average of 0.71 inches of rain a year. “In this context, Lenghu has the potential to host large facilities,” says Deng. 

In the long run, Lenghu may be more protected from the effects of human activity than Hawaii or Chile. The town passed rules in 2017 to preserve the dark sky, so light pollution should remain minimal.

“The results presented for the Lenghu site are nearly as good as those found for Mauna Kea, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s best sites,” says Paul Hickson, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who has previously conducted site testing at Dome A in Antarctica. “One thing that is particularly attractive about this location is the attention given to the control of light pollution.”

In some ways, this new research is an affirmation of China’s current astronomy plans for the area around Lenghu. Those plans include a 2.5-meter imaging survey telescope that began construction this year, a 1-meter solar infrared telescope that will be part of an international array of eight telescopes, and two others at 1.8 meters and 0.8 meters, for planetary science. 

As Deng points out, Tsinghua University and the University of Arizona are working together on building a 6.5-meter telescope to operate on the Saishiteng Mountain summit. And there are nascent plans for a 12-meter telescope to be located there as well. “It will be very crowded at the mountain top,” says Deng.

These instruments will go far in getting China on the map where infrared and optical astronomy are concerned—they are on par with some of the “large” telescopes operated in places like Chile. But they still pale in comparison with the “extremely large” observatories being built around the world, like the 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, and the 39.3-meter Extremely Large Telescope in Chile. The type of science these instruments could pull off is expected to inaugurate a new era of astronomy. If China is serious about establishing a more ambitious astronomy program, it will have to catch up pretty fast.

It’s a good thing, then, that it has the Tibetan Plateau. “High, dry, isolated mountains are generally the best places for astronomy,” says Hickson. “There may well be other potential sites, perhaps even better ones, on the Tibetan Plateau that have not yet been explored.”

Solar panels are a pain to recycle. These companies are trying to fix that. Thu, 19 Aug 2021 11:00:00 +0000 Millions of solar panels have been installed in the last two decades—and since they typically last between 25 and 30 years, many will soon be ready for retirement and probably headed to a landfill. But new efforts to recycle these panels could reduce both the amount of waste and the new material that needs to be mined.

Only about 10% of panels in the US are recycled—it isn’t mandated by federal regulations, and recycling the devices is currently much more expensive than just discarding them. But the materials in solar panels coming offline each year could be worth an estimated $2 billion by 2050. New efforts, including one approach from a French startup called ROSI, are trying to recapture these valuable materials, especially silver and silicon, to make recycling the panels more financially viable.

Expanding solar-power production is key to reducing emissions worldwide. Globally, solar panels produced 720 terawatt-hours of energy in 2019, accounting for around 3% of the world’s electricity generation. And it took about 46 million metric tons of solar panels to do it.

About 8 million metric tons of decommissioned solar panels could accumulate globally by 2030. By 2050, that number could reach 80 million. Recycling these panels could provide a new source for materials that would otherwise need to be mined (potentially under unsafe or exploitative working conditions), making solar a more sustainable piece of the clean-energy puzzle.

What’s in a solar panel?

Solar panels are laid out like a sandwich with cells in the center. About 90% of commercial solar panels use silicon as the semiconductor, which converts light into electricity. Thin strips of metal, usually silver, crisscross the surface of silicon crystals in each cell and move electricity into the panel’s copper wiring.

The solar cells are encased in a protective barrier, usually a transparent plastic called EVA. Another layer of glass goes on top, and a different kind of plastic, like PET, covers the back. The whole thing is surrounded by an aluminum frame.

This layered construction protects cells from the elements while allowing sunlight through, but it can be difficult to deconstruct when the panels have reached the end of their life.

A second life

Some companies try to refurbish and reuse panels that have lost efficiency, or at least rescue some of their components. Reuse is the simplest and cheapest way to “recycle” panels—it requires the least processing and commands the highest price.

A panel might cost around $55, while a used panel might be resold for around $22. Or the used panel’s components might be sold for a total of up to $18, according to Meng Tao, an engineering professor at Arizona State University and founder of a solar-panel recycling startup called TG Companies.

Although some resellers offer used panels for sale to residential customers, they don’t offer much price savings. Panels only make up, at most, about half the cost of a residential solar array, with the other equipment and permits accounting for the rest. Given that used panels don’t generate as much electricity, the money saved by buying them might not be worth it.

Used panels that can’t be resold are destined for either the landfill or some type of recycling. In the absence of federal mandates, Washington recently passed recycling requirements for manufacturers, and other states are now considering doing the same. The EU, meanwhile, requires manufacturers to collect and recycle used solar panels and fund research on end-of-life solutions for the technology they produce.

About 8 million metric tons of decommissioned solar panels could accumulate by 2030.

Some waste facilities can recycle solar panels using mechanical methods. Most pop off the aluminum frame and grind all the glass, silicon, and other metals into a mixture called glass cullet, which can be sold for building materials or other industrial applications.

But cullet isn’t worth much—around $3 for a panel’s worth of the mixture. And it’s not clear if there will be buyers for all the cullet that would result from recycling many more solar panels, Tao says. Being able to extract pure, valuable materials might help make recycling more profitable.

In 2018 the waste management company Veolia, based near Paris, opened what it says is the first recycling line developed specifically for recycling solar panels. Located in Rousset, France, the plant also uses a mechanical recycling process, although since it’s designed for solar panels, more components are recycled separately than at facilities using general e-waste recycling equipment. But some companies are betting that other methods, like thermal and chemical processes, will be even more efficient.

Mining old panels

ROSI Solar, a French startup founded in 2017, recently announced plans to build a new recycling plant in Grenoble, France. Yun Luo, ROSI’s CEO, says the company has developed a process to extract the silver, silicon, and other high-value materials from used panels. The plant should open before the end of 2022 with a contract from Soren, a French trade association.

Soren is also working with a French logistics company called Envie 2E Aquitaine, which will try to find other uses for decommissioned solar panels. If the panels aren’t operational, the company will remove the aluminum frame and glass before passing them along to ROSI to recycle, Luo says.

ROSI focuses on recovering silver and high-purity silicon, since these two materials make up over 60% of a panel’s cost. The company uses a proprietary chemical process on the remaining layers, focusing on removing the tiny silver threads that transmit electricity through a working solar panel.

Luo declined to go into specifics but says the company can recover nearly all the silver in a solid form, so it’s easier to separate from the other metals, like lead and tin. Luo says that the company also recovers the silicon in a pure enough form to process and reuse in new panels or EV batteries.

To be profitable, ROSI will need to recycle at least 2,000 to 3,000 tons of panels per year, Luo says. Soren expects to collect about 7,000 tons of panels in 2021, and that number will probably more than double by 2025.

However, prices for the recycled materials can be fairly volatile. When Tao published a review paper on solar-panel recycling in June 2020, he calculated that the value of raw materials that could be extracted from a used panel would be around $10. By June 2021, he says, that number had nearly doubled, to $19, because of a jump in the price of solar-grade silicon. That increase made him rethink the recycling process he’s developing for his own startup.

This price volatility means that the economics for recycling remain uncertain. And because silver is so expensive and limited, some researchers are working to reduce or even replace silver in new solar panels. While this could drive their price down further, it would also cut into the economic case for recycling, Tao says.

What remains to be seen is the environmental impact of the recycling efforts themselves. Quantifying the effects they will have on pollution and emissions can help in deciding on the best approach to the solar-waste problem, says Garvin Heath, a senior energy sustainability analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Heath is an expert in life-cycle analysis, which tallies up the environmental impacts of a technology from its production all the way to the end of its life.

The way a technology affects the environment while it’s in use doesn’t always tell the full story. Manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of any technology generates emissions, and it’s important to take all of that into account, Heath says. Exactly how a panel is manufactured and recycled helps determine how helpful it really is in decreasing emissions.

It’s a calculation we should consider for most of the technology we use every day, Heath adds. The total amount of global e-waste could hit 120 million metric tons annually by 2050, according to a UN report.

“All technology has an end of life,” Heath says, “and you have to manage these technologies at that point.”

This story previously stated that ROSI recovers PV-grade silicon. It has been corrected to note that additional processing would be required to purify the recovered silicon to PV-grade.

How the world already prevented far worse warming this century Wed, 18 Aug 2021 15:00:00 +0000 The world has already banded together to enact an international treaty that prevented significant global warming this century—even though that wasn’t the driving goal.

In 1987, dozens of nations adopted the Montreal Protocol, agreeing to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemicals used in refrigerants, solvents, and other industrial products that were breaking down Earth’s protective ozone layer.

It was a landmark achievement, the most successful example of nations pulling together in the face of a complex, collective threat to the environment. Three decades later, the atmospheric ozone layer is slowly recovering, preventing additional levels of ultraviolet radiation that cause cancer, eye damage, and other health problems.

But the virtues of the agreement, ultimately ratified by every country, are more widespread than its impact on the ozone hole. Many of those chemicals are also powerful greenhouse gases. So as a major side benefit, their reduction over the last three decades has already eased warming and could cut as much as 1 ˚C off worldwide average temperatures by 2050.

Now, a new study in Nature highlights yet another crucial, if inadvertent, bonus: reducing the strain that ultraviolet radiation from the sun puts on plants, inhibiting photosynthesis and slowing growth. The Montreal Protocol avoided “a catastrophic collapse of forests and croplands” that would have added hundreds of billions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere, Anna Harper, a senior lecturer in climate science at the University of Exeter and a coauthor of the paper, said in an email.

The Nature paper, published August 18, found that if production of ozone-depleting substances had continued ticking up 3% each year, the additional UV radiation would have curtailed the growth of trees, grasses, ferns, flowers, and crops across the globe.

The world’s plants would absorb less carbon dioxide, releasing as much as 645 billion tons of carbon from the land to the atmosphere this century. That could drive global warming up to 1 ˚C higher over the same period. It would also have devastating effects on agricultural yields and food supplies around the globe.

The impact of rising CFCs levels on plants, plus their direct warming effect in the atmosphere, could have pushed temperatures around 2.5 ˚C higher this century, the researchers found. That would all come on top of the already dire warming projections for 2100.

“While it was originally intended as an ozone protection treaty, the Montreal Protocol has been a very successful climate treaty,” says Paul Young, a climate scientist at Lancaster University and another author of the paper.

All of which poses a question: Why can’t the world enact a similarly aggressive and effective international treaty designed explicitly to address climate change? At least some scholars think there are crucial but largely overlooked lessons in the success of the Montreal Protocol, which are becoming newly relevant as global warming accelerates and the next UN climate conference approaches.

A fresh look

At this point, the planet will continue warming for the next several decades no matter what, as the dire UN climate report warned last week. But how much worse it gets still depends heavily on how aggressively the world cuts climate pollution in the coming decades.

To date, nations have failed, both through the Kyoto Treaty and the Paris climate accord, to pull together an agreement with sufficiently ambitious and binding commitments to phase out greenhouse-gas emissions. Countries will assemble at the next UN conference in Glasgow in early November, with the explicit goal of stepping up those targets under the Paris agreement.

Scholars have written lengthy papers and entire books examining lessons from the Montreal Protocol, and the commonalities and differences between the respective efforts on CFCs and greenhouse gases.

A common view is that the relevance is limited. CFCs were a far simpler problem to solve because they were produced by a single sector—mostly by a few major companies like DuPont—and used in a limited set of applications.

On the other hand, nearly every component of every sector of every nation pumps out greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels are the energy source that drives the global economy, and most of our machines and physical infrastructure are designed around them.

But Edward Parson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, says it’s time to take a fresh look at the lessons from the Montreal Protocol.

That’s because as the dangers of climate change become more evident and dire, more and more countries are pushing for stricter rules, and companies are increasingly approaching the stage that those like DuPont did: switching from steadfastly disputing the scientific findings to grudgingly accepting that new rules were inevitable, so they had better figure out how to operate and profit under them.

In other words, we’re reaching a point where enacting more proscriptive rules may be feasible, so it’s crucial to use the opportunity to create effective ones.

Strict rules, consistently enforced

Parson is the author of Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy, an in-depth history of the Montreal Protocol published in 2003. He stresses that phasing out ozone-depleting compounds was a more complex problem than is often appreciated, because a sizable fraction of the worldwide economy relied on them in one way or another.

He adds that one of the most persistent misunderstandings about the deal is the notion that the industry had already developed commercially comparable alternative products and therefore was more willing to go along with the agreement in the end.

On the contrary, the development of alternatives happened after the regulations were in place. Rapid innovation continued as the rules tightened, and industry, experts, and technical bodies hashed out how much progress could be achieved and how quickly. That produced ever more and better alternatives “in a repeated positive feedback,” Parson says.

To be sure, the prospect of lucrative new markets also helped.

“DuPoint’s decision to support a CFC ban was based on a belief that it could obtain a significant competitive advantage through the sale of new chemical substitutes because of its proven research and development capabilities to develop chemicals, its (limited) progress already made in developing substitutes and the potential for higher profits in selling new speciality chemicals,” a pair of MIT researchers wrote in an analysis in the late 1990s.

All of this suggests the world shouldn’t wait around for innovations that will make it cheaper and easier to address climate change. Countries need to implement rules that increasingly ratchet down emissions, forcing industries to figure out cleaner ways of generating energy, growing food, producing products, and moving things and people around the world.

Another lesson is to adopt sector-wide rules that force all companies in all countries to abide by the same regulations, avoiding the so-called free-rider problem. This could be especially key for high-emitting companies with stiff international competition. For steel, cement, and other industrial sectors, developing and switching to new products will almost inevitably increase costs at first.

Still, Parson says, there are limits to the comparisons here. The oil and gas sector isn’t in the same position as DuPont, able to reengineer substitutable products and largely keep its businesses and markets intact.

The fossil-fuel sector is certainly making the case that it can carry on in climate-friendly ways, talking up means of capturing emissions from power plants, balancing out pollution through reforestation projects and other sorts of offsets, or sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.

But as studies and articles continually show, it’s difficult to ensure that companies are doing these things in reliable, verifiable, long-lasting, and credible ways. Those tensions are likely to continue complicating international efforts to enact the firm rules required and ensure we’re making the progress that we must.

Still, the Montreal Protocol offers a reminder that international rules binding the global behavior of companies and regulating their products do work, if strictly and consistently enforced. Companies will adapt to survive—even to thrive.

Afghans are being evacuated via WhatsApp, Google Forms, or by any means possible Tue, 17 Aug 2021 23:21:20 +0000 The sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s government has led to a frantic attempt to accelerate online relief and evacuation efforts. These attempts, organized largely via Google Forms, WhatsApp and private social media groups, are trying to fill the void left by the US government’s failure to protect vulnerable Afghans. It could be the only lifeline for many trying to flee the country—but at the same time it is not without risk, as observers fear crowdsourced information could be used by the Taliban to identify the very people in need of rescue.

The war in Afghanistan took 20 years and claimed at least 174,000 lives, but the fall of Kabul took place over the course of a weekend. With the Taliban closing in, former president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Saturday, August 14. By Sunday, the Taliban had entered the Afghan presidential palace.

But as residents of Kabul either waited fearfully to see what the takeover would mean for them or tried to flee through chaotic scenes at the city’s airport, Afghanistan’s only evacuation point, a frantic volunteer effort was underway to help as many people as possible.

Bypassing bureaucracy

Afghans and their allies had been organizing for weeks, but as the last major cities fell to the Taliban within the span of a week, often without resistance, these efforts took on a new urgency. Working largely online, informal networks of people in and outside the country—including journalists, nonprofits, universities, and even government officials who sometimes worked outside of official policy—were organizing lists of Afghans eligible for different resettlement programs or even trying to bypass the slow-moving bureaucratic processes completely. 

“Real-time messaging platforms are being used to make snap decisions. It signals the intensity of the crisis and desperation.”

Mark Latonero, Harvard Kennedy School

Several groups were planning to charter planes for private airlifts. Some planned to crowdsource information on road conditions, and identify and help Afghans stuck in the provinces make their way to Kabul. Others, meanwhile, focused on more specific targeted groups such as journalists, women leaders, and Afghans who had worked on specific projects. 

“If you have someone in Kabul that can get to the airport by the end of the week, please input the information here to share with air evac company and the State Department,” reads the top of one Google Form created by a coalition of national-security-related organizations hoping to evacuate Afghans who already have their passports

Like many forms, it asked not only for contact information and resettlement details but also for personal identification numbers and document scans, including national ID card and passport numbers. Another Google form circulating on Twitter appears to be raising money to charter a plane to remove people from the country. Elsewhere, the University of Pittsburgh is using student volunteers to try connecting those still in Afghanistan with their former employers to start the resettlement process. 

One message that appeared to come from an office within the US Department of State urged anyone who might potentially be eligible for a newly established resettlement program to send a long list of documents and personal information to organizers via WhatsApp, which it said was safer than email. State Department representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the origin and legitimacy of these efforts. 

It’s a chaotic, ad hoc approach. 

“WhatsApp or other real-time messaging platforms are being used to make snap [visa] decisions,” says Mark Latonero, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. And that “signals the intensity of the crisis and desperation of both those seeking and those processing evacuations in Kabul right now.” 

How did we get here?

On August 2, the Biden administration announced a new refugee assistance designation that broadened the eligibility requirements for refugee resettlement in the United States. The new priority group expanded eligibility for those who had worked with the US military and, for the first time, extended it to those working for most US- and Afghan-based nonprofits or American media. But the requirements for would-be asylum seekers were complicated. They couldn’t apply themselves but required referral from a US representative. Then, once referred, they were expected to stay in a third country for 12 to 14 months—at their own expense—to await processing.

In the absence of a clear strategy that helps vulnerable Afghans in the near term, individuals and organizations with connections to Afghanistan have been trying to fill the void. Every day, it seems, there is a new list set up by a different organization, spread by individuals in their own social networks.

But these efforts create their own set of risks—including risks to the safety and security of people’s vital personal information, says Łukasz Król, a digital security trainer for Internews, a nonprofit organization that supports journalists in developing countries.

Most security experts, including Król, do not believe it likely that the Taliban has the capacity to hack WhatsApp or Google Forms. But they warn that while it can be easy to trust potential allies in times of crisis, you cannot always be sure who you are interacting with. “The first thing is that you don’t know who’s on the other side,” he says. It’s possible, he says, that the Taliban or other bad actors could pose as friendly organizations, create their own forms, and trap Afghans into sharing information that could later be used to target them. 

Already, widely shared posts on Facebook have urged Afghans to restrict their friend list settings and even delete their digital histories. MIT Technology Review’s Eileen Guo, who was previously based in Afghanistan, has been navigating these issues in an effort to get her friends and former colleagues out of the country. She spent several hours on Monday trying to shut down old social media accounts that showed the faces of participants in programs promoting democracy and women’s rights or decrying violent extremism. 

But even more worrying, Król adds, is that sharing these forms essentially encourages vulnerable people to “not take basic ‘security hygiene,’” but rather to “give out the data very, very quickly and … without doing another verification.” 

Increasingly, Afghans are becoming more conscious of this threat as well, with some of the organizing groups now verifying new requests for names. 

“I hope this is made by US govt and not Taliban,” one commenter wrote in response to a form that had been shared in a private Facebook group. Others quickly verified that particular document’s origins. 

Just hours later, however, another user shared a suspicious email that he believed to be linked to a human trafficker. The threats are coming from both online and off.