Money Married to the Right Technology – Better than Money

Larry Fink of BlackRock recently released his 2022 letter to CEO’s.

It is immodest of me, but truthful nevertheless, to point out that Mr. Fink’s understanding of capitalism is nicely tracking the work of the Caux Round Table’s founders some 36 years ago.

For example, Fink wrote:

At the foundation of capitalism is the process of constant reinvention – how companies must continually evolve as the world around them changes or risk being replaced by new competitors.  The pandemic has turbocharged an evolution in the operating environment for virtually every company.  It’s changing how people work and how consumers buy.  It’s creating new businesses and destroying others.  Most notably, it’s dramatically accelerating how technology is reshaping life and business.  Innovative companies looking to adapt to this environment have easier access to capital to realize their visions than ever before. 

I believe in capitalism’s ability to help individuals achieve better futures, to drive innovation, to build resilient economies and to solve some of our most intractable challenges.

Then, he gets specific about how capitalism makes the world better – brings inventions to scale for mass consumption:

Engineers and scientists are working around the clock on how to decarbonize cement, steel and plastics; shipping, trucking and aviation; agriculture, energy and construction.  I believe the decarbonizing of the global economy is going to create the greatest investment opportunity of our lifetime.

The next 1,000 unicorns won’t be search engines or social media companies, they’ll be sustainable, scalable innovators – startups that help the world decarbonize and make the energy transition affordable for all consumers.

So, how is all the money Larry Fink is talking about going to find the right technologies to get our world to zero net carbon emissions?

Well, we have been commenting on that process as the secret sauce of capitalism – reaching out to tech types and risking funds in the development of new technologies to commercialize.

Another such opportunity is a battery capable of powering passenger aircraft in flight.  From The Independent:

Researchers have achieved a world-leading energy density with a next-generation battery design, paving the way for long-distance electric planes.

The lithium-air battery, developed at the Japanese National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), had an energy density of over 500Wh/kg.  By comparison, lithium-ion batteries found in Tesla vehicles have an energy density of 260Wh/kg.

The new battery can also be charged and discharged at normal operating temperatures, making them practical for use in technologies ranging from drones, to household appliances.

According to the researchers, the battery “shows the highest energy densities and best life cycle performance ever achieved” and marks a major step forward in realizing the potential of this energy storage.

“Lithium-air batteries have the potential to be the ultimate rechargeable batteries: they are lightweight and high capacity, with theoretical energy densities several times that of currently available lithium ion batteries,” according to a release posted by NIMS.

Energy density has been the biggest obstacle towards the advancement of electric planes, with 500Wh/kg viewed as an important benchmark for achieving both long-haul and high-capacity flights.

The batteries work by combining oxygen in the air with the lithium present in the anode, which comes with safety issues that the latest research was able to overcome.

Until now, electric planes have been small and incapable of carrying large numbers of passengers over long distances, with efforts typically focusing on short-distance, private aircraft.

This week, Rolls-Royce’s Spirit of Innovation electric plane was confirmed to be the world’s fastest battery-powered vehicle after achieving speeds of over 600kph (380mph).

Achieving such feats on a larger scale would not only reduce pollution from fuel-burning engines, but also eliminate noise pollution that forces airports to be located in areas with low population densities.

I once heard a biologist say why don’t we make our own photosynthesis machine – no need to rely on plants to store solar energy?  Well, an item in SciTechDaily reports on just such innovation:

A research team has developed a new artificial photosynthesis device component with remarkable stability and longevity as it selectively converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into two promising sources of renewable fuels – ethylene and hydrogen.

The researchers’ findings, which they recently reported in the journal Nature Energy, reveal how the device degrades with use, then demonstrate how to mitigate it.

“By understanding how materials and devices transform under operation, we can design approaches that are more durable and thus reduce waste,” said senior author Francesca Toma, a staff scientist in the Liquid Sunlight Alliance (LiSA) Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division.

For the current study, Toma and her team designed a model solar fuels device known as a photoelectrochemical (PEC) cell made of copper(I) oxide or cuprous oxide (Cu2O), a promising artificial photosynthesis material.

Cuprous oxide has long puzzled scientists, because the material’s strength – its high reactivity to light – is also its weakness, as light causes the material to break down within just a few minutes of exposure.  But despite its instability, cuprous oxide is one of the best candidate materials for artificial photosynthesis because it is relatively affordable and has suitable characteristics for absorbing visible light.

To better understand how to optimize the working conditions for this promising material, Toma and her team took a closer look at cuprous oxide’s crystal structure before and after use.

Electron microscopy experiments at the Molecular Foundry confirmed that cuprous oxide quickly oxidizes or corrodes within minutes of exposure to light and water.  In artificial photosynthesis research, researchers have typically used water as the electrolyte in the reduction of carbon dioxide into renewable chemicals or fuels, such as ethylene and hydrogen – but water contains hydroxide ions, which leads to instability.

But another experiment, this time using a technique called ambient pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (APXPS) at the Advanced Light Source, revealed an unexpected clue: cuprous oxide corrodes even faster in water containing hydroxide ions, which are negatively charged ions comprised of an oxygen atom bound to a hydrogen atom.

“We knew it was unstable – but we were surprised to learn just how unstable it really is,” said Toma.  “When we began this study, we wondered, maybe the key to a better solar fuels device isn’t in the material by itself but in the overall environment of the reaction, including the electrolye.”

To validate their simulations, the researchers designed a physical model of a Z-scheme artificial photosynthesis device at Toma’s LiSA lab at Berkeley Lab.  To their delight, the device produced ethylene and hydrogen with unprecedented selectivity – and for more than 24 hours. “This is a thrilling result,” said Toma.