Climate change has always had a rather simple yet daunting solution: plant one trillion trees. The world already holds approximately three trillion trees, so a 33% increase would be significant to say the least. The plan is viable in the long-term, but unfortunately it would require immense resource allocation and international cooperation in a time when mankind cannot agree about burning rainforests. Unfortunately, little action has been taken on the worldwide scale necessary to bring this plan to fruition. However, recent biotech innovations have offered a more efficient alternative: artificial trees.
The tech behind artificial trees
To clarify, artificial trees designate a lot more than the plastic ficus available at IKEA. Synthetic trees are actually machines called “bioreactors”. They use algae to sequester CO2 at a much higher rate than their arboreal counterparts. Algae uses a chemical process similar to plants’ photosynthesis to filter carbon out of the air. In fact, algae is capable of sequestering carbon at a faster rate using much less infrastructure. Several companies have attempted to adapt this natural process by integrating it into an urban setting and two new products were announced in the past month.
Companies at the cutting edge
One such company is Hypergiant Industries, a defense and artificial intelligence tech developer based in Austin, Texas. The company was just founded in 2018 and employs former Silicon Valley CFOs, astronauts, and generals, as well as Bill Nye, the Science Guy himself. This week they introduced the Eos Bioreactor that uses machine learning to accelerate algae’s natural carbon fixation process. Founder and CEO Ben Lamm claims “one Eos Bioreactor sequesters the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere as an entire acre of trees” making it approximately 400 times as effective as a standard tree.
When contacted, HyperGiant Industries provided ample information about their new bioreactor. The company is founded upon the idea of developing technology that improves people’s communities. They are currently showcasing the benefits of the EOS Bioreactor to spread awareness. Soon HyperGiant will begin working with potential buyers interested in carbon sequestering infrastructure. A spokesperson explained that the bioreactor is a “close system model” that uses “AI monitors light, heat, growth, water speed, pH, CO2, oxygen output and more to ensure optimal [algae] growing conditions.” HyperGiant’s dedication to details and maximizing efficiency is obvious in the fully realized end product.
Another company, Biomitech is a Mexican manufacturer with a similar vision of the future. The Biomitech reactor has a more elegant design than that of the Eos; it looks like a street art installation rather than a high-end gaming PC. However, both accomplish the same goal despite their diverging designs. Biomitech claims the structure does the work of 368 trees, a similar statistic to Hypergiant. The technology is already employed in Mexico City, and may be spreading to other urban areas soon.
What does the future look like for artificial trees?
In the last 70 years atmospheric carbon concentrations have skyrocketed, and this trend has an undeniable direct correlation with climate change. Decreasing greenhouse gas concentrations is a necessity, however it can be hard to create actionable plans to address the issue. Artificial trees may not be the only solution, but they could help filter air pollution in urban areas due to their compact size.
Beyond innovation, there is also a financial opportunity for those in the carbon fixation business. The carbon fixated from the air is u in plastics, compost, and carbonated drinks among other goods. Additionally, HyperGiant’s representative explained that the biomass produced by bioreactor algae “can then be harvested and processed to create fuel, oils, nutrient-rich high-protein food sources, fertilizers, plastics, cosmetics, and more.” Economists have indicated that selling fixated carbon could be one a trillion-dollar market by the year 2030.
For now artificial trees, algae bioreactors, and carbon markets remain newly introduced possibilities to solve a mounting environmental disaster. Today Hypergiant and Biomitech may be newly founded companies who have only just introduced their algae bioreactors, but it will be exciting to see the field develop in the following years.
E-Waste Is Becoming A Sustainability Disaster. And Investors Have Taken Notice.
As technology continues to evolve (and end up in landfill), e-waste is proving to be a sustainability disaster. In 2018 alone, humans generated approximately 2.01 billion tons of waste worldwide. To put things into perspective, 2.01 billion tons is comparable to 287,142,857 elephants or 275,342 Eiffel Towers. Certainly, that volume of waste sent into landfills is a significant concern. And along with it, potentially reusable resources are continuously wasted as a result of careless disposal.
Shockingly, e-waste is responsible for 50 million tons of the total generated waste produced each year. Not to mention, it accounts for 70% of the toxic waste lying in landfills.
To uncover more about the e-waste issue, I recently interviewed Amanda O’Toole, a fund manager at AXA Investment Managers (AXA IM). She is a part of the firm’s investment team as the Lead Portfolio Manager for Framlington Equities’s (AXA IM’s qualitative equities business) Clean Economy Strategy fund.
We discussed the primary challenges in e-waste as well as why financiers are looking towards waste management as an investment opportunity.
Why Is E-Waste So Hard To Recycle?
When dealing with the improper disposal of hazardous materials, there is a constant risk of land and water pollution through contamination. E-waste similarly causes these pollutive consequences.
For example, batteries leak heavy metals such as lead, barium, and lithium into the soil when placed in a landfill.
As a result, these heavy metals seep into groundwater channels, which eventually enter larger bodies of water like ponds or streams. And as technology continues to develop, the demand for new electronics continues to rise. Estimates show that the number of connected devices will reach 31 billion by 2020.
In O’Toole’s words, “without fundamental change throughout the electronic supply chain, the e-waste epidemic will get worse.”
Although many companies do already run their own programs for the recycling of e-waste, the reclamation of e-waste is a difficult and complex process.
While complex electronics can contain up to 60 elements from the periodic table, the process of recovering these devices can be complicated and costly.
The question now arises: If it is complicated and costly, what other ways can we deal with e-waste?
Future Economic Potential In E-Waste
The way that O’Toole sees it, e-waste is of particular interest from an investment perspective because of the value of the materials it contains.
When a company is able to extract these raw materials safely, they are able to create a valuable product that can generate revenue.
If the extraction process is cost-effective, it is possible to generate a financial return by reducing e-waste. And in some cases, securing a stable supply of a material may be challenging.
Striving For Clean Technology Through Investments
For the last six months, O’Toole has been working to launch a successful new strategy focused on promoting clean technologies.
In her Clean Economy Investment strategy, she talks about how the fund adopts a unique approach that invests in diverse areas of the market that enjoy structural growth.
Surprisingly, many of these areas are not dependent on macroeconomics. Instead, the product gears towards the interest of mainstream investors.
Through this strategy, O’Toole engages with clients who are not typically interested in environmental value. And with her guidance, clients begin to move towards these areas of the market.
Appealing To the Public
Recently, the rise in social awareness of environmental issues is driving change. This change is partly due to regulations such as building performance regulation and effluence discharge monitoring.
However, consumer demand for things such as meat alternatives and recyclable packaging comprises a majority of the market’s change. In return, brands accommodate this change by developing responsible sourcing policies.
To its advantage, the fund is utilizing this societal trend and implementing it in their own main areas of focus.
Currently, the fund identified four sub-themes to best represent opportunities for long term secular growth in the Clean Economy:
Framlington Equity’s intention is to invest in publicly listed equities in areas of the global economy which benefit from secular tailwinds. And In the long term, O’Toole argues that consumers will continue to demand the transportation of goods and services; the provision of energy, food, and water; and the use of materials.
The Bigger Picture
The common theme across the investments that AXA IM makes through the Clean Economy strategy is that these are companies whose goods and services make economic sense for their customers.
Adoption is not dependent on subsidies or a desire by corporates to address environmental issues.
The business case for adoption is based on the need to meet more stringent regulatory requirements. Additionally, companies can gain market share by addressing the growing demand for sustainable consumer products.
Brands would want to invest in order to mitigate potential reputation damage associated with a poor environmental footprint and build a sustainable production cost advantage.
Companies operating within the clean economy have a critical responsibility to ensure they offer the best solutions for clients while being mindful of the environment.
What’s more, is that when companies demonstrate how their goods and services outperform on relevant environmental metrics, they can gain a competitive advantage.
Financiers have noticed and made waste management a part of their investment strategy.
Final Notes: Is your company doing something to reduce its e-waste or carbon footprint? If so, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hypoxia Is Killing Marine Life. Oregon Scientists May Have Found A Solution.
California has wildfire season. The southeastern states have a rainy season. Now, Oregon has a hypoxia season … and it’s killing fish in their lakes.
What is hypoxia in lakes, and what causes it?
Lake hypoxia occurs when the dissolved oxygen content in the water is too low to sustain marine life. The microorganism phytoplankton is at the base of the mechanism creating regions of hypoxic water. The number of nutrients in the water and water temperature are the main factors affecting the growth of these microorganisms.
They will continue to grow until either of these factors limits them. Increasing water temperature or the number of nutrients in the water can trigger massive phytoplankton blooms.
Though the growing phytoplankton population causes other problems in the marine microenvironment, it isn’t the root cause of lake hypoxia. The trouble begins when once these massive populations of the microorganisms die off. They sink to the bottom of the body of water, where bacteria decompose them.
This step of the food chain underlays the depletion of oxygen. Bacteria use up much of the oxygen in this deepest part of the water when digesting the dead phytoplankton. The more phytoplankton there are to decompose, the more oxygen the bacteria will use. Increased use of oxygen by the bacteria does not significantly change the natural rate at which dissolved oxygen is added to the body of water. Thus, oxygen concentration at this depth decreases, and other organisms in this habitat can die.
Regions where hypoxia is prevalent
Hypoxia is not a new environmental condition. Runoff from farms contain fertilizers and high concentrations of nutrients. Wastewater from cities piped into rivers can combine with this. And when drained into lakes or oceans, it accumulates to create a great environment for microorganism growth. The Gulf of Mexico has low oxygen levels, especially where the Mississippi River drains into it, due to these factors.
In Oregon, however, the main cause of hypoxic water conditions is an increase in the water temperature. This is due to increased overall temperatures, ultimately attributable to climate change. Summers are especially bad times for phytoplankton growth, and because of this, summers have become Oregon’s “hypoxia season”.
With decreased water oxygen content, many of the native fish species in Oregon are struggling. This is an even larger problem for marine life that is place-bound. In other words, in such scenarios, marine life cannot move to another place fast enough to get more oxygen.
A temporary solution to help marine life?
Professor Mason Terry’s research group at the Oregon Institute of Technology is working to help increase oxygen concentration in Oregon rivers where endangered species live. Earlier this month, the group finished designs for and deployed a solar-powered aeration system in the state’s Upper Klamath Lake.
The system is on a raft and obtains power from four 310-watt solar panels. The system is also equipped with a battery that can run the device for up to 32 hours. Hence, it can add oxygen to the lake even when the sun isn’t shining.
Terry’s aeration system is essentially a much larger version of the smaller air pumps used in fish tanks. Two compressors take power from the solar panels and push air from the environment down into the lake. A hose helps ensure that the air is deposited at the bottom of the lake, where it is needed the most.
While this will only help small portions of the lake, the raft has been placed at a spot the endangered species can gather at.
While it is not possible to know the effectiveness of this system until the next fish counts, it is a step forward in helping sustain the diversity of animal life.
Scalability of this solution
As climate change continues, rising air temperatures will lead to increased water surface temperatures and correspondingly lower levels of dissolved oxygen. It is possible that hypoxia in bodies of water could become an increasingly big problem in the future.
If this project from the Oregon Institute of Technology is successful, it will be a victory because it will show that humans can aid in helping marine life suffering from not having enough oxygen in the water.
However, we will also need to consider how to make this a more scalable device. This solution is still low-impact, but with increased research, there is a possibility of maintaining marine diversity.
The Newest Innovations To The Zeppelin May Involve Solar Power
Zeppelins have come a long way since the early 1900s. Specifically, they are significantly faster, lighter, and largely fire-free compared to their modern airplane counterparts. They are also astoundingly safe. Even before the Hindenburg disaster, the airship casualty rate was half that of modern airplanes. The industry crashed with the Hindenburg, and these days seeing zeppelins is rare outside of advertisements and sporting events. Today zeppelins are simply a novelty, but they have surprisingly practical applications. Solar power could be the modern update that grants airships the comeback they deserve.
Innovations to zeppelins
Recently Varialift Airships, a UK based aeronautical company, announced it had begun building a new prototype of its solar zeppelin design. They plan to address all the major problems that plague zeppelins as an airframe. The aircraft will be all-aluminum, wind-resistant, and entirely leak-free during normal use. Zeppelins are inherently slower than airplanes, averaging about double the travel time, but they have a distinct financial and practical appeal.
Varialift is specifically targeting the cargo market, where airships have historically been underused. Varialift airships will operate at approximately 10% of the cost of airplanes making expenses comparable with trucks or railways. Additionally, vertical takeoff and landing will allow access to hard to reach areas with no runways or additional infrastructure required. Their largest zeppelins will be capable of transporting 250 tonnes of cargo, nearly double the payload of a 747. Beyond their incredible weight capacity, Varialift airships also have no immediate size capacity, opening the door for outsize industry transport.
The Varialift prototype will be finished in 9 months, but there are already solar airships in use today. The Yuanmeng, translated as “dream”, is currently China’s largest airship and uses solar power to run its electronics while airborne. It has been flying since 2015, and officials say it is capable of sustained flight for an incredible 6 months straight. The airship is currently used for communication and observation purposes.
Conclusions: the future for the solar zeppelin
Though it may take years for companies to leverage solar zeppelins for commercial use, the prospect is certainly enticing. If Varialift and its contemporaries succeed the zeppelin could reprise the futuristic sky cruiser image it held nearly a century ago. The idea of massive balloons running on solar to transport cargo is outlandish at best, but it is much more feasible than one might think.
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