In a warehouse laboratory in Berkeley, California, Nicholas Flanders stands in front of a shiny metal box about the size of a washing machine. Inside is a stack of metal plates that resemble a club sandwich – only the filling is a black polymer membrane coated with proprietary metal catalyst. “We call the membrane the black leaf,” he says.
Flanders is the co-founder and CEO of Twelve, a startup founded in 2015, which received a $57m funding boost in July. It aims to take air – or, to be more precise, the carbon dioxide (CO2) in it – and transform it into something useful, as plants also do, eliminating damaging emissions in the process. Taking the unwanted gas wreaking havoc on our climate and using only water and renewable electricity, Twelve’s metal box houses a new kind of electrolyser that transforms the CO2 into synthesis gas (syngas), a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be made into a range of familiar products usually made from fossil fuels. Oxygen is the only by-product. This August, the pilot scale equipment made the syngas that went into what Flanders claims is the world’s first carbon neutral, fossil-free jet fuel. “This is a new way of moving carbon through our economy without pulling it out of the ground,” he says.
Twelve is one of many companies beginning to make stuff out of CO2, captured either from industrial emissions or directly from the air. High-end goods such as vodka, diamonds and activewear, industrial materials such as concrete, plastic, foam and carbon fibre, and even food, are all beginning to be created using CO2. In addition to jet fuel, which is a partnership with the US air force, Twelve has been using its syngas to explore making parts of car interiors with Mercedes-Benz, laundry detergent ingredients with Tide and sunglasses lenses with Pangaia. Online marketplaces such as Expedition Air and SkyBaron are even springing up to sell consumer goods made with CO2 emissions.
“We are at the very early end of a new carbon tech industry,” says PatSapinsley, of the Urban Future Lab at New York University, who oversees a new accelerator programme to help fledgling startups get a foothold. While the industry is still only emerging – most activity is only at bench or pilot scale – it is estimated by the Lab there are now about 350 startups hoping to deliver so-called carbon-to-value. Venture capital investment has sharply risen. This year, over $550m had flowed in by the end of September according to research and consulting firm Cleantech Group; that’s more than in the previous five years put together.
The sector could have the potential to reduce the world’s CO2 emissions by more than 10%, according to analysis by the University of Michigan’s Global CO2 Initiative, which aims to help the sector emerge (fuels and building materials such as concrete and aggregates are considered to hold the biggest CO2 mitigation – and market – potential). That contribution, advocates argue, firmly makes carbon utilisation part of the suite of technologies we are going to need to reach the net zero commitments governments and corporations have been making and which, it is becoming clear, can’t be met by renewable electricity alone. “I don’t see a path to net zero without these kinds of technologies,” says Richard Youngman, CEO of Cleantech Group.
Premium running shoe brand On – which went public this September – realised that if it was going to reach its aggressive net zero targets it would need to rethink its materials. Its vision is now that half of all its shoe bottom foam will be made not from petrochemicals butcaptured carbon. Last month, it announced plans to team up with US-based startup LanzaTech – an early pioneer of the sector, which uses a patented fermentation process to make ethanol out of waste carbon monoxide collected from factories which would otherwise be burnt to emit CO2 – and chemical manufacturer Borealis, which makes the foam by polymerising ethylene (to which ethanol can be converted). On is hoping to unveil its first pair of shoes made wholly from captured carbon sometime next year (it has separate arrangements to make the shoe uppers). That first pair will cost about $1m to make, says Caspar Coppetti, On’s co-founder and executive co-chairman. It’s a lab endeavour to prove viability – but, eventually, when it scales, he doesn’t expect the shoes to cost much more than a regular pair.
It’s not that CO2 isn’t already used industrially (think carbonated beverages). But those uses either put the gas unchanged back into the atmosphere or, in the case of enhanced oil recovery, where injected CO2 pushes out oil and then remains underground, still perpetuates the extraction of new fossil fuels. What’s different here is that waste CO2 is chemically transformed to make new products. Some, such as building materials, eliminate emissions by locking the carbon away permanently; others, such as jet fuel, prevent new emissions by recycling already emitted carbon. Often grouped with utilisation is CO2 sequestration, which promises to store large amounts of captured CO2 permanently underground, but the two are quite different, as advocates point out. “It’s almost a sin to throw away a valuable resource,” says Volker Sick, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan who directs the Global CO2 Initiative. “The beauty of carbon is you can make so many different things.”
New York-based startup Air Company, launched in 2017, is selling CO2-made vodka and perfume, and produced hand sanitiser during the pandemic. Like Twelve, it starts with CO2, water and renewable energy but combines them in its reactor to make alcohols such as ethanol. A litre of vodka removes a pound of CO2, and it may soon even use CO2 captured from the heating systems of Manhattan office buildings (in a collaboration with capture startup CarbonQuest).
But, like Twelve, Air Company has jet fuel in its sights – which can also be produced from ethanol. It is a crowded field – others pressing ahead with CO2-made jet fuel include LanzaJet, a spinoff from ethanol maker LanzaTech, and SynHelion, which uses solar energy to transform CO2 to syngas.
Typically, it is small amounts – think litres per hour – of jet fuel being made at this stage, says Ian Hayton, a materials and chemicals analyst at Cleantech Group. But countries are beginning to introduce quotas for sustainable aviation fuels, which could move things forwards. And the advantage of making it from CO2, rather than biomass or waste vegetable oils, is that it uses far less land.
Canadian company CarbonCure, founded in 2012, is one of the pioneers on the building materials side. Backed by investors such as Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’s investment firm, its technology involves injecting CO2 into concrete as it is being mixed. The injected CO2 reacts with the wet concrete and rapidly becomes permanently stored as a mineral, the same one as in limestone. Between 5% and 30% of the concrete is derived from CO2, says co-founder and CEO Robert Niven. CarbonCure’s business model is to license its technology to concrete manufacturers themselves. CarbonCure retrofits their systems, transforming them into carbon tech companies (the CO2 is supplied by waste emission sources in their region). It gives them a green sales advantage, but really what the concrete producers like is the economic benefit, says Niven. It means less cement is needed to make the concrete – most are able to reduce their cement content by about 5% – and the addition of the CO2 also strengthens the final material.
It is hard to imagine that food in the form of protein could be mass produced from CO2, but that is exactly what another subset of carbon tech companies are working on. Some, such as Solar Foods in Finland, and Air Protein in California – which uses the tagline “meat made from air” – intend their products for human consumption, while others, such as UK- and Netherlands-based Deep Branch, are focusing on animal feed ingredients. With inputs typically of CO2, water and renewable electricity along with ammonia and nutrients, their proteins are produced in bioreactors from naturally occurring microbes. The microbes grow and multiply and are then dried out to produce a protein powder with all the essential amino acids. “It is somewhere between dried meat, dried soy and dried carrot,” says Pasi Vainikka, Solar Foods co-founder and CEO, of its product Solein. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very appetising, but, says Vainikka, the taste comes in the final product and Solein is versatile. It could replace pea and soy protein isolate in processed foods or even be used as a feed for the cultivated meat industry. Treated with heat and pressure, it can be eaten like a tasty slab of steak or tofu. Two kilograms of CO2 makes a kilogram of the product and it has been submitted to food regulators in Europe and the UK for novel food approval.
Yet the field also faces many challenges to come to fruition. First, if the technology is really going to serve the climate, it has to be scaled up for mass production quickly and offer price-competitive products. “There’s no point unless we can deliver on scale,” says Allison Dring, CEO of German startup Made of Air, which is focusing on plastics replacements. Many of the companies have plans for their first commercial facilities – Twelve, for example, which has designed its equipment to be modular so it can easily be added to to increase capacity, a bit like a solar farm, hopes to have its first shipping container-sized plant by next year and predicts significant commercial volume by 2023. But scaling up is capital intensive and takes time.
One specific roadblock is finding customers. The startups need bigger companies to pair up with to buy their CO2-made raw materials, but it can be hard for them to break into established supply chains. A big focus of the startup accelerator programme run out of the Urban Futures Lab, called the C2V Initiative, is on making inter-industry connections but, really, more early movers like On are needed.CarbonCure is proud of the fact that 450 concrete plants have been retrofitted with its technology – accounting for virtually all the carbon utilisation project deployments to date, says Niven – but it is only a tiny fraction of the more than 100,000 concrete plants there are worldwide. “Right now, what we need is partners,” he says.
Another bottleneck to scale may be providing the large and low-cost quantities of CO2 needed. While technologies are certainly established to capture CO2 from industrial sources, it is only done on a minuscule scale at present, experts note. Direct air capture is less technologically developed and more expensive. And infrastructure will be needed to move the CO2 if, for example, it is being captured in a different place from where it is being used.
Massive government intervention and support are required for rapid growth, say advocates – be that by setting a carbon price, through procurement policies in government contracts that require CO2-based alternatives, or by infrastructure investment. “This needs to be exponential growth… and we need policies to support it,” says Peter Styring, an expert in carbon capture and utilisation at the University of Sheffield, who directs its Centre for Carbon Dioxide Utilisation. And while recent US efforts are welcomed – the US infrastructure bill, for example, includes over $8bn for direct air capture and CO2 transportation and storage – “there is space for governments to be braver,” says Cleantech’s Youngman.
More detailed guidelines for carbon accounting might also be needed to aid consumer acceptance. Life cycle analyses for the products need to take the whole of the supply chain into account, but companies can set the boundaries in a way that excludes some processes. “We studied concrete production and, in some cases, it actually was worse than just making regular concrete,” says Sick. Both he and Styring are working on improving how companies might perform their assessments as part of an international effort.
And just how controversial carbon utilisation will be remains an open question. Not everyone is gung-ho. Innovation has a role to play in curbing climate change, says Mike Childs, head of policy at the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, but such “wonder technologies” are “unproven” to work at the massive scale envisaged and are therefore a “huge gamble” with both people’s lives and the planet. “We know that driving down emissions at source is the best and cheapest way to limit global heating,” he says, adding that the technology also risks providing political and business leaders with justification to keep burning fossil fuels.
The transition away from fossil fuels is a must, say the advocates of CO2 utilisation. But if we want modern life to go on as normal without sacrifices, we’ll need to find new ways of continuing to produce the goods fossil fuels have given us. This industry, they argue, will not only help mitigate climate change but provide the carbon-based products we will always need. “There’s a lot of ‘climate don’ts’,” says Flanders. “[But] you can actually continue to use products that you like, just made in a better way.”
Comment Intel puts on a show for its biggest manufacturing announcements, with episodes every few years using a rotating cast of CEOs and US presidents.
Intel boss Pat Gelsinger and President Joe Biden were the latest to join the series, on Friday jointly announcing the chip maker’s investment of $20bn in plants near Columbus, Ohio. The fabs could be operational by 2025 and make chips down to 2nm and beyond.
“This is our first major site announcement in 40 years,” Gelsinger said on on-stage later in the day with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R).
“Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America,” DeWine said.
Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America
Intel has previously wheeled out chief executives and commanders-in-chief to announce the plowing of billions into factories, with the presidents using the events to highlight the bump in manufacturing and jobs for the United States. But the aftermath has been littered with unfulfilled promises and failed goals, partially due to Intel’s sometimes incoherent manufacturing and product strategies.
This time around, Gelsinger has identified manufacturing as a major growth driver, as part of his Integrated Device Manufacturing 2.0 strategy. Intel has promised to expand its contract manufacturing in a meaningful way, fabricating components that use the non-x86 Arm and RISC-V architectures, and signed on Qualcomm, a semiconductor rival, as a foundry customer.
Intel’s latest $20bn commitment will be used to build two plants on a 1,000-acre site that could be expanded to up to 2,000 acres and eight fabs. The site will employ 3,000 folks with an average salary of $135,000, and also bring 7,000 construction jobs to Ohio, DeWine said.
You can’t fault Gelsinger for announcing the factories: his shareholders and the world, amid a chip supply crunch, expect it. But not only should the news be seen in an historical context, it remains to be seen if Intel can meet the promises it laid out for the Ohio facilities.
In 2011, then-CEO Paul Otellini announced Intel was investing $5bn to complete Fab 42 when President Barack Obama visited an Intel facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. At the time, Fab 42 was to make 14nm chips, including smartphone processors, and create 4,000 jobs.
Ultimately, the announcement turned out to be a false promise. Intel cancelled completion of Fab 42 in 2014 after manufacturing woes and blunders in markets including mobile devices. In 2016, Intel laid off 12,000 employees to prioritize its products in the data center and the Internet of Things markets.
In 2017, then-CEO Brian Krzanich repeated the pledge to complete Fab 42, this time repackaged as a fresh announcement with President Donald Trump. Intel said it would invest $7bn to complete Fab 42 to make 7nm chips.
Intel powered up Fab 42 in Arizona in late 2020 to make not 7nm but 10nm chips. That’s the process node that was delayed for years due to critical fabrication missteps, causing Intel to lose its manufacturing lead over TSMC and Samsung.
Chipzilla hopes to do better on its commitments with Gelsinger, who wants to bring Intel back to its engineering roots.
Intel in September broke ground on more factories in Arizona, which carry a $20bn price tag. Work is also underway on manufacturing expansions in Oregon and New Mexico, and overseas in Ireland.
There’s a growing need to commit capacity to foundry customers, and to meet the higher demand for the company’s chips, an Intel spokesman told The Register in an email.
Gelsinger has stressed the “importance of building a more resilient supply chain and ensure reliable access to advanced semiconductors in the US for years to come. Today’s announcement is a critical step in our plans to fulfill these objectives,” the Intel spokesman said. ®
The draft DSA measures include tackling illegal content and holding social media platforms accountable for their algorithms.
The European Parliament has voted in favour of the long-debated Digital Services Act (DSA), Europe’s attempt to shift the balance of power from the hands of Big Tech and into the hands of EU residents.
MEPs voted 530 votes to 78 – with 80 abstentions – to approve the draft DSA text that will see tech giants held accountable for content on their platforms in a spate of new rules and regulations.
The move comes just a month after MEPs voted in favour of the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a similar set of proposed laws that seek to impose stricter rules around tech competition in the EU and rein in the monopoly large multinationals hold in Europe’s digital space.
The set of draft DSA measures include tackling illegal content, preventing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and holding social media platforms accountable for their algorithms.
The Parliament introduced several changes to the initial proposal by the European Commission, including exempting small businesses from certain DSA obligations, making targeted advertising more transparent and easier to refuse, and prohibiting targeted ads for minors.
Online platforms will be prohibited from using “deceiving or nudging techniques to influence users’ behaviour through ‘dark patterns’”, according to the revised DSA draft. Large platforms will also be required to provide “at least one recommender system that is not based on profiling”.
The approved text will now be used as the mandate to negotiate with the French presidency of the Council, representing member states. The negotiation will be led by Christel Schaldemose, an MEP from Denmark.
“Today’s vote shows MEPs and EU citizens want an ambitious digital regulation fit for the future,” she said after the vote. “Online platforms have become increasingly important in our daily life, bringing new opportunities, but also new risks,” she added.
Schaldemose said it was the duty of the European Union to make sure “what is illegal offline is illegal online” and that new digital rules need to benefit consumer and citizens, not Big Tech.
She said that, if enacted and enforced correctly, the DSA has the potential to inspire other nations such as the US to take on Big Tech and “safeguard democracy” before it’s too late.
“Every modern disinformation campaign will exploit news media channels on digital platforms by gaming the system,” Haugen told MEPs in her opening statement. “If the DSA makes it illegal for platforms to address these issues, we risk undermining the effectiveness of the law,” she said.
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When FC Barcelona took to the pitch for the 2021 Spanish Super Cup final, the trophy wasn’t the only prize at stake.
Thousands of blaugrana fans were also keeping an eye on the market for FCB’s “fan token”, the club’s very own cryptocurrency. Socios, the web-based platform that pioneered fan tokens, had promised to “burn” 20,000 tokens for every goal Barcelona scored – and 40,000 if they lifted the cup.
In theory, success on the pitch would increase the scarcity of the currency, boosting its value. In practice, Barcelona lost the game and, footballing passions aside, it didn’t make much difference anyway. With 3.5m of the tokens in circulation, not to mention millions more retained by the club for future issuance, a few thousand here or there wouldn’t have moved the needle.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire thinks clubs have latched on to crypto because revenues from other sources are starting to level off, having risen reliably for decades.
“Football clubs have realised that we’re now at max broadcast revenues, with modest growth at most to look forward to,” he said.
“As far as commercial sponsors are concerned, we’re seeing deals being renewed but not with increased money. The only way to increase matchday sales is to increase prices and fans are reluctant.”
Manchester United – whether one believes the club or not – claims to have 1.1 billion fans on the planet. With revenue of £488m in 2019-20, that’s just 45p per year, per fan.
“Clubs are thinking: ‘Can we ‘find another way of extracting money out of that huge fanbase?’ That’s where tokens come in.”
When AC Milan launched a token in early 2021, it raised $6m (£4.4m) in under an hour, or about 12% of the value of the club’s record signing, Leonardo Bonucci. Paris Saint-Germain’s token, the most valuable, has a market value of $45m.
In the murky and unregulated world of crypto though, it’s hard to know how much clubs are actually making. Socios said last year it had sold $300m worth of fan tokens but would not say how much of that went to the clubs with which it partnered.
Other platforms, such as Binance, are also moving into the fan token market, indicating there is room for growth, particularly given that only a few dozen clubs have entered the market in any meaningful way.
Pedro Herrera, senior blockchain analyst at DappRadar, a marketplace for blockchain-related apps, said that most fans buy tokens for the associated perks, such as votes on small decisions about which song to play over the stadium tannoy after a goal, or entry into a draw to win a signed shirt.
“It’s a win for the fan because they feel more involved; it’s a win for the team because it’s adding a layer of monetisation; and it’s a win for the [crypto] industry because you attract the masses and it’s one step closer to mass adoption.”
Maguire isn’t against crypto but adds a more sceptical tone: “Lots of fans love crypto and in its purest form it’s great. Banks have been overcharging people for years in terms of transaction fees and if crypto can reduce those fees that’s fantastic.”
“The problem is when unscrupulous traders, particularly via social media, seek to exploit fans who think a token is a serious investment product, rather than a glorified collectible.
“It’s magic beans. So long as it’s sold as a digital Panini card, it’s OK. But when it’s being seen as a form of investment, it’s moving into uncomfortable territory.”
“It’s unregulated, it’s volatile and it’s subject to manipulation by people who own large amounts of the asset.”
Fan tokens, though, are a mere paragraph in football’s rapidly unfolding crypto saga.
In 2021, crypto sponsors piled into football and were welcomed with open arms by cash-hungry clubs, leagues and players.
Exchange app Crypto.com sponsors Italy’s Serie A, one of the world’s most glamorous leagues, while Socios is Internazionale’s shirt sponsor. EToro, a trading platform that facilitates investment in multiple cryptocurrencies, has deals with more than half of the clubs in the Premier League.
Southampton players are understood to have been offered the option to be paid bonuses in bitcoin, as part of a £7.5m-a-year deal with Coingaming Group. And in January 2021, striker David Barral made history when he became the first player in a major league to be signed with bitcoin, albeit in Spain’s third tier with Internacional de Madrid.
This should come as no surprise given the reach that big-name stars have via social media and the money they can make from promotions. Other partnerships are perhaps more unexpected. Visitors to the Twitter profile of former Republic of Ireland international Tony Cascarino might have been wrongfooted by the former striker’s sudden change of pace midway through 2021. One moment he was musing on the latest developments in the Premier League, the next he was evangelising about blockchain bank Babb (no relation to former Ireland teammate Phil) and musing that the “crypto market is on fire”.
Even in its infancy, the reputational risks of this new commercial pact between crypto and football have become all too clear. Last year, Manchester City’s deal with a mysterious firm called 3Key Technologies fell apart in a matter of days as it emerged that nobody seemed to know anything about the company or its executives.
In December, Arsenal were rapped on the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which banned a club promotion that it said was exploiting fans’ “inexperience or credulity, trivialising investment in crypto assets, misleading consumers over the risk of investment and not making it clear the ‘token’ was a crypto asset”.
“For those in sport looking for sponsorship, it’s a whole new market of opportunity but it’s a bit of a landmine you’re dealing with,” said Bill Esdaile, managing director of sports marketing agency Square in the Air.
“My gut feeling is that such a small percentage of people understand how [crypto] works that too many decisions are made on trust, thinking that if [crypto firms] say they’ve got the money, they do.”
The amounts on offer appear to be going up.
Premier League strugglers Watford have perhaps the country’s biggest crypto deal, a front-of-shirt sponsorship from Stake.com. The site offers crypto gambling, which isn’t legal in the UK but may appeal to the league’s hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.
The arrangement even means that Watford players’ shirt sleeves bear the logo of Dogecoin, a “joke” currency whose value swings around wildly, often in response to tweets by Tesla multibillionaire Elon Musk.
Kieran Maguire estimates that the shirt deal could be worth up to £8m, based on the typical value of such partnerships, while an insider at Watford told MSN in August that the Dogecoin sleeve display added £700,000 into the mix.
Sums like these will become increasingly difficult for clubs to ignore, he thinks, particularly if the government goes ahead with a root-and-branch overhaul of gambling regulation that could see football lose the cash cow of shirt deals with betting firms.
“They [clubs] see the token market as slightly to one side, it won’t get picked up by the gambling review and it will help fill the gap,” says Maguire.
“Those deals of £5m to £8m could be replaced by NFT advertising and by crypto.”
In a recent paper, psychology researcher and gambling expert Dr Phil Newall warned that football sponsorship may be about to swap one risky product for another.