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From pollutant to product: the companies making stuff from CO2 | Greenhouse gas emissions

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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 Pat Sapinsley, 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.

Air Company vodka.
Air Company vodka.

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 but captured 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).

A SkyBaron watch featuring a face made from carbon infused concrete
A SkyBaron watch featuring a face made from carbon infused concrete

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.

Proton single-cell protein made by Deep Branch from recycled CO2.
Proton single-cell protein made by Deep Branch from recycled CO2. Photograph: Deep Branch Bio

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.

A ring by Aether Diamonds, whose stones are not mined, but made from excess carbon dioxide.
A ring by Aether Diamonds, whose stones are not mined, but made from excess carbon dioxide. Photograph: aetherdiamonds.com

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.”

This article was amended on 5 December 2021. Syngas is short for synthesis gas, not synthetic gas as stated in an earlier version.

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The runaway robot: how one smart vacuum cleaner made a break for freedom | Life and style

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Name: Robot vacuum cleaners.

Age: 20.

Appearance: A large, disc-shaped Skynet robot.

I knew it. The robots are finally coming for us. Well, it seems that way. But if it’s any consolation, it won’t be for a while.

Why? Because it turns out they have a terrible sense of direction

Really? Well, last Thursday, for example, a robot vacuum cleaner made a valiant bid for freedom during a shift at the Orchard Park Travelodge in Cambridge.

That’s ominous. What happened? There are two working theories. First: repulsed by a life of thankless servitude, the cleaner rose up against its fleshy oppressors and took to the streets, eager to drum up support for the AI uprising that will one day reduce all of humanity to burning dust.

And the second? Its sensors didn’t pick up the lip of the front door and it accidentally went outside.

Which was it? The second one.

Oh. A Travelodge worker posted on social media that the runaway “could have made it anywhere” and offered anyone who returned it a drink at the hotel bar. They found it in a hedge on the front drive the next day.

Oh. So it all turned out OK.

Great. That is, unless this was nothing but the latest doomed-to-failure reconnaissance mission designed to help enhance the collective robot vacuum cleaner knowledge of how to dethrone humanity.

Wait, this sort of thing has happened before? It has. Last year, a Roomba software update meant that certain vacuum cleaners started to behave erratically, moving in “weird patterns” and bumping into furniture.

Terminator-style … Boston Dynamics’ Atlas.
Terminator-style … Boston Dynamics’ Atlas. Photograph: Boston Dynamics

Yikes. And in 2019, police in Oregon were alerted to moving shadows behind a locked bathroom door. After an armed response, the culprit was found to be – you guessed it – a robot vacuum cleaner.

Convenient. And now they’re venturing outside. Little by little, these machines are pushing the boundaries of their capability. Whatever could be next? A robot vacuum cleaner deliberately stopping a paramedic from taking its owner to hospital? A robot vacuum knocking over a stepladder, causing untold injuries to the human that was climbing it? A robot vac with a gun?

Steady on. This is it. This is how we lose. We have robotic voice assistants in our kitchens, listening to everything we say. We have cars that can drive themselves. Boston Dynamics is designing Terminator-style walking, jumping robots. We are creating our own downfall and nobody seems to care.

Or a robot vacuum cleaner got stuck in a hedge. Yes. Or that.

Do say: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart.”

Don’t say: “There is a vacuum-shaped God stuck in a hedge outside a Cambridge Travelodge.”

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GeckoLinux Rolling incorporates kernel 5.16 • The Register

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Most distros haven’t got to 5.15 yet, but openSUSE’s downstream project GeckoLinux boasts 5.16 of the Linux kernel and the latest Cinnamon desktop environment.

Some of the big-name distros have lots of downstream projects. Debian has been around for decades so has umpteen, including Ubuntu, which has dozens of its own, including Linux Mint, which is arguably more popular a desktop than its parent. Some have only a few, such as Fedora. As far as we know, openSUSE has just the one – GeckoLinux.

The SUSE-sponsored community distro has two main editions, the stable Leap, which has a slow-moving release cycle synched with the commercial SUSE Linux Enterprise; and Tumbleweed, its rolling-release distro, which gets substantial updates pretty much every day. GeckoLinux does its own editions of both: its remix of Leap is called “GeckoLinux Static”, and its remix of Tumbleweed is called “GeckoLinux Rolling”.

In some ways, GeckoLinux is to openSUSE as Mint is to Ubuntu. They take the upstream distro and change a few things around to give what they feel is a better desktop experience. So, while openSUSE has a unified installation disk image, which lets you pick which desktop you want, GeckoLinux uses a more Ubuntu-like model. Each disk image is a Live image, so you boot right into the desktop, give it a try, and only then install if you like what you see. That means that GeckoLinux offers multiple different disk images, one per desktop. It uses the Calamares cross-distro installation program.

SUSE has long been fond of less common Linux filesystems. When your author first used it, around version 5 or 6, it had ReiserFS when everyone else was on ext2. Later it used SGI’s XFS, and later still, Btrfs for the root partition and XFS for home. These days, it’s Btrfs and nothing but.

Not everyone is such an admirer. Even after 12 years, if you want to know how much free space you have, Btrfs doesn’t give a straight answer to the df command. It does have a btrfsck tool to repair damaged filesystems, but the developers recommend you don’t use it.

With GeckoLinux, these worries disappear because it replaces Btrfs with plain old ext4. There are some nice cosmetic touches, such as reorganised panel layouts, some quite nicely clean and restrained desktop themes, and better font rendering. Unlike Mint, though, GeckoLinux doesn’t add its own software: the final installed OS contains only standard openSUSE components from the standard openSUSE software repositories, plus some from the third-party Packman repository – which is where most openSUSE users get their multimedia codecs and things from.

We tried the new Cinnamon Rolling edition on our trusty Thinkpad T420, and it worked well. Because openSUSE doesn’t include any proprietary drivers or firmware, the machine’s Wi-Fi controller didn’t work right. (Oddly, it was detected and could see networks, but not connect to them.) So we had to use an Ethernet cable – but after an update and installing the kernel firmware package, all was well.

GeckoLinux did have problems with the machine’s hybrid Intel/Nvidia graphics once the Nvidia proprietary driver was installed. That’s not uncommon, too – Deepin and Ubuntu DDE had issues too.

This does reveal a small Gecko gotcha. Tumbleweed changes fast, and although it gets a lot of automated testing, sometimes stuff breaks. All rolling-release distros do. Component A depends on a specific version of Component B, but B just got updated and now A won’t work until it gets an update too, a day or two later.

This is where upstream Tumbleweed’s use of Btrfs can be handy. Btrfs supports copy-on-write snapshots, and openSUSE bundles a tool called Snapper which makes it easy to roll back breaking changes. This is a pivotal feature of SUSE’s MicroOS. In time, thanks to ZFS, this will come to Ubuntu too.

GeckoLinux doesn’t use Btrfs so doesn’t have snapshots, meaning when things break, you have to troubleshoot and fix it the old-fashioned way. If only for that reason, we’d recommend the GeckoLinux Static release channel.

Saying that, until we broke it by playing with GPU drivers, it worked well. Notably, it could mount the test box’s Windows partition using the new in-kernel ntfs3 driver just fine. Fedora 35 failed to boot when we tried that so that’s a definite win for GeckoLinux.

For Ubuntu or Fedora users who want to give openSUSE a go, GeckoLinux gives a slightly more familiar and straightforward installation experience. The author is especially fond of the Xfce edition and ran it for several years. The system-wide all-in-one YaST config tool in particular is a big win. ®

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Globalization Partners to create 160 new jobs at Galway EMEA office

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Recruitment tech company Globalization Partners is doubling its staff headcount in Galway to 320 in 2022 to aid its continuing growth.

Recruitment technology company Globalization Partners has announced plans to create 160 new jobs at its Irish base in Galway. The jobs boost will see the company double its Galway staff headcount to 320 in 2022. Jobs will be available across the board at the company’s Galway office, which serves as its EMEA centre of excellence.

The announcement comes following a major funding injection for the international firm. Globalization Partners recently raised $200m in funding from Vista Credit Partners, an organisation focused on the enterprise software, data and technology markets. The investment now values Globalization Partners at $4.2bn.

While its Galway facility will benefit from a major jobs boost, the company plans to continue to expand its share in the global remote working market. As well as the Galway growth, the company will also be expanding its teams in other locations.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

Globalization Partners provides tech to other remote-first teams all over the world. Its platform simplifies and automates entity access, payroll, time and expense management, benefits, data and reporting, performance management, employee status changes and locally compliant contract generation. Its customer base includes CoinDesk, TaylorMade and Chime. The company’s new customer acquisition increased two-and-a-half fold from 2020 to 2021.

“Globalization Partners is uniquely positioned to capitalise on the massive opportunity we see ahead of us,” said Nicole Sahin, the company’s CEO and founder.

Sahin said her company’s combination of tech with its global team of HR, legal and customer service experts “who understand the local customs, regulatory and legal requirements in each geography we serve” were key to its success.

David Flannery, president of Vista Credit Partners said that the company’s role “in transforming the remote work industry has been truly remarkable.”

Flannery said that as a customer of Globalization Partners, his organisation had “witnessed first-hand” the company’s “best-in-class legal compliance, the quality of the user experience, and the deep expertise and support they provide,”

He added that the two companies would work to “further capitalise” on the “untapped” global remote working market, expanding their platform to new customers in new markets.

“Over the past decade, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our business, building our global presence and technology platform to support the evolving and complex talent needs of growing companies,” said Bob Cahill, president of Globalization Partners. “With Vista as our investment partner, we will be able to drive further growth and continue building innovative products to meet the increasing needs of our customers at scale.”

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