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This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

It’s official—after over a month of open voting, hydrogen planes are the readers’ choice for the 11th item on our 2023 list of Breakthrough Technologies!

I’d like to thank the academy, and all of you, on behalf of hydrogen planes. This is an honor, a true honor. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the rest of this year’s list, check it out here.)

It just so happens there’s also some news about hydrogen planes this week. Startup Universal Hydrogen is planning a test flight for tomorrow. If all goes according to plan, it’ll be the largest aircraft yet to fly powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

So for the newsletter this week, let’s take a look at what Universal Hydrogen is up to, why its CEO says he wants to make the equivalent of Nespresso capsules for aviation, and what’s coming up next for hydrogen planes.

Aviation accounts for about 3% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and the field is growing. Most planes today run on a variation of kerosene, a fossil fuel that generates emissions when it’s burned in aircraft engines. This kind of jet fuel is hard to replace, since it carries a lot of energy in a small amount of space without being too heavy.

There are some options on the table to decarbonize flight. Batteries might work for shorter flights on smaller planes. Sustainable aviation fuels are another option—those can drop into existing planes but might be limited in supply and could be expensive. For more on these possible paths, check out the newsletter from a few weeks ago.

Here, though, let’s focus on hydrogen. Efforts to fly planes using hydrogen as fuel date back to the 1950s. Interest has been rekindled recently as concerns about climate change have put a target on fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is having a moment More capacity for renewable energy means green hydrogen—generated using renewable electricity—is becoming more available, and cheaper. New subsidies for hydrogen are also coming online across Europe and the US.

At the same time, there’s been some significant progress in efforts to fly hydrogen-powered planes in recent years. Startup ZeroAvia has been running test flights of small planes partially powered with hydrogen fuel cells. Airbus has also started up a program to test out hydrogen combustion engines.

And Universal Hydrogen is joining the race this week. The company has a test flight planned for its Dash 8-300, a regional aircraft with over 40 seats.

The major goal is to test out the propulsion system, which will use hydrogen fuel cells that turn hydrogen and oxygen into water vapor, generating electricity to power the plane.

The aircraft will fly with hydrogen fuel cells powering one side while a traditional jet engine runs on the other. It’s a standard practice for testing out new systems in flight, says Universal Hydrogen CEO and cofounder Paul Eremenko.

Even if the test flight is successful, there’s a long road ahead before cargo or passengers will climb aboard a hydrogen-powered plane. That’s because there’s a lot of infrastructure around airplanes, and a broad switch to hydrogen-powered flight may require rethinking a lot of it.

Take fueling, for example. Commercial airports today have an established network to fuel up planes. Jet fuel is carried in, usually on trucks or in pipelines to a central fueling system. Trucks can then pick it up and bring it to a plane as it sits at a gate.

That whole system might not work so well for hydrogen, Eremenko says. Pipelines carrying hydrogen are prone to leak, and keeping hydrogen in a liquid form requires cooling it down to cryogenic temperatures, which often means there’s a lot of loss when moving it from one container to another.

The solution, as Eremenko sees it, looks a lot like one of my prized possessions: a Nespresso coffee maker. Universal Hydrogen plans to build and use pods filled with hydrogen fuel that can be loaded and unloaded from its airplanes, preventing the need to transfer hydrogen between different containers.

The test flight this week won’t use those pods, since the focus is making sure the plane’s propulsion system works as intended. The Dash 8-300 that will be flying will be powered using hydrogen tanks filled up before flight, but future test flights will use the capsule system to test out how that works in the air, Eremenko says.

In the longer term, Universal Hydrogen wants to build a solution for all the hydrogen planes he hopes will be taking off in the years to come.

(As a side note, in order to fit these fuel capsules onboard, planes might need to get a little longer, Eremenko says. Others say planes might change shape completely to fly using hydrogen.)


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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: The 11th Breakthrough Technology of 2023 takes flight
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Published Date: Wed, 01 Mar 2023 15:55:27 +0000

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How to build a thermal battery

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here

The votes have been tallied, and the results are in. The winner of the 11th Breakthrough Technology, 2024 edition, is … drumroll please … thermal batteries!

While the editors of MIT Technology Review choose the annual list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies, in 2022 we started having readers weigh in on an 11th technology. And I don’t mean to flatter you, but I think you picked a fascinating one this year.

Thermal energy storage is a convenient way to stockpile energy for later. This could be crucial in connecting cheap but inconsistent renewable energy with industrial facilities, which often require a constant supply of heat.

I wrote about why this technology is having a moment, and where it might wind up being used, in a story published Monday. For the newsletter this week, let’s take a deeper look at the different kinds of thermal batteries out there, because there’s a wide world of possibilities. 

Step 1: Choose your energy source

In the journey to build a thermal battery, the crucial first step is to choose where your heat comes from. Most of the companies I’ve come across are building some sort of power-to-heat system, meaning electricity goes in and heat comes out. Heat often gets generated by running a current through a resistive material in a process similar to what happens when you turn on a toaster.

Some projects may take electricity directly from sources like wind turbines or solar panels that aren’t hooked up to the grid. That could reduce energy costs, since you don’t have to pay surcharges built into grid electricity rates, explains Jeffrey Rissman, senior director of industry at Energy Innovation, a policy and research firm specializing in energy and climate. 

Otherwise, thermal batteries can be hooked up to the grid directly. These systems could allow a facility to charge up when electricity prices are low or when there’s a lot of renewable energy on the grid.

Some thermal storage systems are soaking up waste heat rather than relying on electricity. Brenmiller Energy, for example, is building thermal batteries that can be charged up with heat or electricity, depending on the customer’s needs.

Depending on the heat source, systems using waste heat may not be able to reach temperatures as high as their electricity-powered counterparts, but they could help increase the efficiency of facilities that would otherwise waste that energy. There’s especially high potential for high-temperature processes, like cement and steel production.

Step 2: Choose your storage material

Next up: pick out a heat storage medium. These materials should probably be inexpensive and able to reach and withstand high temperatures.

Bricks and carbon blocks are popular choices, as they can be packed together and, depending on the material, reach temperatures well over 1,000 °C (1,800 °F). Rondo Energy, Antora Energy, and Electrified Thermal Solutions are among the companies using blocks and bricks to store heat at these high temperatures.

Crushed-up rocks are another option, and the storage medium of choice for Brenmiller Energy. Caldera is using a mixture of aluminum and crushed rock.

Molten materials can offer even more options for delivering thermal energy later, since they can be pumped around (though this can also add more complexity to the system). Malta is building thermal storage systems that use molten salt, and companies like Fourth Power are using systems that rely in part on molten metals.

Step 3: Choose your delivery method

Last, and perhaps most important, is deciding how to get energy back out of your storage system. Generally, thermal storage systems can deliver heat, use it to generate electricity, or go with some combination of the two.

Delivering heat is the most straightforward option. Typically, air or another gas gets blown over the hot thermal storage material, and that heated gas can be used to warm up equipment or to generate steam.

Some companies are working to use heat storage to deliver electricity instead. This could allow thermal storage systems to play a role not only in industry but potentially on the electrical grid as an electricity storage solution. One downside? These systems generally take a hit on efficiency, the amount of energy that can be returned from storage. But they may be right for some situations, such as facilities that need both heat and electricity on demand. Antora Energy is aiming to use thermophotovoltaic materials to turn heat stored in its carbon blocks back into electricity.

Some companies plan to offer a middle path, delivering a combination of heat and electricity, depending on what a facility needs. Rondo

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: How to build a thermal battery
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Published Date: Thu, 18 Apr 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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The Download: American’s hydrogen train experiment, and why we need boring robots

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology

Hydrogen trains could revolutionize how Americans get around

Like a mirage speeding across the dusty desert outside Pueblo, Colorado, the first hydrogen-fuel-cell passenger train in the United States is getting warmed up on its test track. It will soon be shipped to Southern California, where it is slated to carry riders on San Bernardino County’s Arrow commuter rail service before the end of the year.

The best way to decarbonize railroads is the subject of growing debate among regulators, industry, and activists. The debate is partly technological, revolving around whether hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, or overhead electric wires offer the best performance for different railroad situations. But it’s also political: a question of the extent to which decarbonization can, or should, usher in a broader transformation of rail transportation.

In the insular world of railroading, this hydrogen-powered train is a Rorschach test. To some, it represents the future of rail transportation. To others, it looks like a big, shiny distraction. Read the full story.

—Benjamin Schneider

This story is for subscribers only, and is from the next magazine issue of MIT Technology Review, set to go live on April 24, on the theme of Build. If you don’t already, sign up now to get a copy when it lands.

Researchers taught robots to run. Now they’re teaching them to walk

We’ve all seen videos over the past few years demonstrating how agile humanoid robots have become, running and jumping with ease. We’re no longer surprised by this kind of agility—in fact, we’ve grown to expect it.

The problem is, these shiny demos lack real-world applications. When it comes to creating robots that are useful and safe around humans, the fundamentals of movement are more important.

As a result, researchers are using the same techniques to train humanoid robots to achieve much more modest goals. They believe it will lead to more robust, reliable two-legged machines capable of interacting with their surroundings more safely—as well as learning much more quickly. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

How to build a thermal battery

Thermal energy storage is a convenient way to stockpile energy for later. This could be crucial in connecting cheap but inconsistent renewable energy with industrial facilities, which often require a constant supply of heat. It’s so promising, MIT Technology Review’s readers chose it as an honorary 11th technology in our annual list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies.

Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, wrote about why this technology is having a moment, and where it might wind up being used, in a story published earlier this week. Now, she’s dug into what it takes to make a thermal battery, and why there are so many different types.

Read the full story.

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Amazon posed as a small retail business to snoop on its rivals
It used competitors’ payment and logistics data to inform its own operations. (WSJ $)+ The company insists its cashierless tech is powered by AI, not humans. (The Verge)

2 Landlords are asking prospective renters for 3D scans of their faces
And in many cases, if you don’t consent, you can’t tour the property alone. (The Markup)
The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty. (MIT Technology Review)

3 India’s elections will be a major test of AI literacy
AI-generated videos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are addressing voters by name. (NYT $)
Three technology trends shaping 2024’s elections. (MIT Technology Review)

4 The US National Guard will use Google’s AI to analyze disaster zones
Just in time for the summer wildfire season. (WP $)
The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes. (MIT Technology Review)

5 OpenAI’s GPT-4 outperformed junior doctors in analyzing eye conditions
But a lot more work would be needed before deploying it in a clinical setting. (FT $)
Artificial intelligence is infiltrating health care. We shouldn’t let it make all the decisions. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Digitizing the real world is a long, tedious process
Engines originally developed for video games are bridging the uncanny valley. (New Yorker $)

7 AI is unlikely to improve the welfare of factory-farmed livestock 
While AI tools could make farming more efficient, it probably won’t make it humane. (Undark Magazine)
How CRISPR is making farmed animals bigger, stronger, and

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: American’s hydrogen train experiment, and why we need boring robots
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Published Date: Thu, 18 Apr 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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The great commercial takeover of low Earth orbit


Washington, DC, was hot and humid on June 23, 1993, but no one was sweating more than Daniel Goldin, the administrator of NASA. Standing outside the House chamber, he watched nervously as votes registered on the electronic tally board. The space station wasn’t going to make it. The United States had spent more than $11 billion on it by then, with thousands of pounds of paperwork to show for it—but zero pounds of flight hardware. Whether there would ever be a station came down, now, to a cancellation vote on the House floor.

Politically, the space station was something of a wayward orphan. It was a nine-year-old Reagan administration initiative, expanded by George H.W. Bush as the centerpiece of a would-be return to the moon and an attempt to reach Mars. When voters replaced Bush with Bill Clinton, Goldin persuaded the new president to keep the station by pitching it as a post-Soviet reconstruction effort. The Russians were great at building stations, which would save NASA a fortune in R&D. In turn, NASA’s funding would keep Russian rocket scientists employed—and less likely to freelance for hostile foreign powers. Still, dissatisfaction with NASA was a bipartisan affair: everyone seemed to agree that the agency was bloated and ossified. Representative Tim Roemer, a Democrat from Indiana, wanted to make some big changes, and he introduced an amendment to the NASA authorization bill to kill the station once and for all.

Goldin had made more than 100 phone calls in the day and a half before the vote, hoping to sway lawmakers to endorse the station, which he saw as critical for studying biomedicine, electronics, materials engineering, and the human body in a completely alien environment: microgravity. Things down to the molecular level behave profoundly differently in space, and flying experiments a week at a time on the shuttle wasn’t enough to learn much. Real research required a permanent presence in space, and that meant a space station.

Supporters of the space station had gone into the vote expecting to win. Not by much—20 votes, maybe. But the longer the vote went on, the closer it got. Each side began cheering as it pulled ahead. The 110 new members of Congress, none of whom had ever before cast a vote involving the station, revealed themselves to be less reliable than expected.

Finally, the tally reached 215–215, with one vote remaining: Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights legend. As Lewis walked down the hall toward the legislative chamber, Goldin’s legislative aide, Jeff Lawrence, told the administrator to say something—anything—to win him over. As Lewis walked by, Goldin had only one second, maybe two, and the best he could get out was a raw, honest, “Congressman Lewis, the future of the space program depends on you.” He added: “The nation is counting on you. How will you vote?”

Lewis smiled as he walked by. He said, “I ain’t telling you.”

The station, later named the International Space Station, survived by his single vote, 216–215. Five years later, Russia launched the first module from Kazakhstan, and since November 2000, not a single day has elapsed without a human being in space.

NASA designed the International Space Station to fly for 20 years. It has lasted six years longer than that, though it is showing its age, and NASA is currently studying how to safely destroy the space laboratory by around 2030. This will involve a “deorbit vehicle” docking with the ISS, which is the size of a football field (including end zones), and firing thrusters so that the station, which circles the Earth at five miles per second, slams down squarely in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, avoiding land, injury, and the loss of human life.

As the scorched remains of the station sink to the bottom of the sea, however, the story of America in low Earth orbit (LEO) will continue. The ISS never really became what some had hoped: a launching point for an expanding human presence in the solar system. But it did enable fundamental research on materials and medicine, and it helped us start to understand how space affects the human body. To build on that work, NASA has partnered with private companies to develop new, commercial space stations for research, manufacturing, and tourism. If they are successful, these companies will bring about a new era of space exploration: private rockets flying to private destinations. They will also demonstrate a new model in which NASA builds infrastructure and the private sector takes it from there, freeing the agency to explore deeper and deeper into space, where the process can be repeated. They’re already planning to do it around the moon. One day, Mars could follow.

From the dawn of the space age, space stations were envisioned as essential to leaving Earth.

In 1952, Wernher von Braun, the primary architect of the American space program, called them “as

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By: David W. Brown
Title: The great commercial takeover of low Earth orbit
Sourced From:
Published Date: Wed, 17 Apr 2024 08:00:00 +0000

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