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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

If you follow papers in climate and energy for long enough, you’re bound to recognize some patterns.

There are a few things I’ll basically always see when I’m sifting through the latest climate and energy research: one study finding that perovskite solar cells are getting even more efficient; another showing that climate change is damaging an ecosystem in some strange and unexpected way. And there’s always some new paper finding that we’re still underestimating methane emissions.

That last one is what I’ve been thinking about this week, as I’ve been reporting on a new survey of methane leaks from oil and gas operations in the US. (Yes, there are more emissions than we thought there were—get the details in my story here.) But what I find even more interesting than the consistent underestimation of methane is why this gas is so tricky to track down.

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and it’s responsible for around 30% of global warming so far. The good news is that methane breaks down quickly in the atmosphere. The bad news is that while it’s floating around, it’s a super-powerful greenhouse gas, way more potent than carbon dioxide. (Just how much more potent is a complicated question that depends on what time scale you’re talking about—read more in this Q&A.)

The problem is, it’s difficult to figure out where all this methane is coming from. We can measure the total concentration in the atmosphere, but there are methane emissions from human activities, there are natural methane sources, and there are ecosystems that soak up a portion of all those emissions (these are called methane sinks).

Narrowing down specific sources can be a challenge, especially in the oil and gas industry, which is responsible for a huge range of methane leaks. Some are small and come from old equipment in remote areas. Other sources are larger, spewing huge amounts of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere but only for short times.

A lot of stories about tracking methane have been in the news recently, mostly because of a methane-hunting satellite launched earlier this month It’s designed to track down methane using tools called spectrometers, which measure how light is reflected and absorbed.

This is just one of a growing number of satellites that are keeping an eye on the planet for methane emissions. Some take a wide view, spotting which regions have high emissions. Other satellites are hunting for specific sources and can see within a few dozen meters where a leak is coming from. (If you want to read more about why there are so many methane satellites, I recommend this story from Emily Pontecorvo at Heatmap.)

But methane tracking isn’t just a space game. In a new study published in Nature, researchers used nearly a million measurements taken from airplanes flown over oil- and gas-producing regions to estimate total emissions.

The results are pretty staggering: researchers found that, on average, roughly 3% of oil and gas production at the sites they examined winds up as methane emissions. That’s about three times the official government estimates used by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

I spoke with one of the authors of the study, Evan Sherwin, who completed the research as a postdoc at Stanford. He compared the challenge of understanding methane leaks to the parable of the blind men and the elephant: there are many pieces of the puzzle (satellites, planes, ground-based detection), and getting the complete story requires fitting them all together.

“I think we’re really starting to see an elephant,” Sherwin told me.

That picture will continue to get clearer as MethaneSAT and other surveillance satellites come online and researchers get to sift through the data. And that understanding will be crucial as governments around the world race to keep promises about slashing methane emissions. 

Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

For more on how researchers are working to understand methane emissions, give my latest story a read.

If you’ve missed the news on methane-hunting satellites, check out this story about MethaneSAT from last month.

Pulling methane out of the atmosphere could be a major boost for climate action. Some startups hope that spraying iron particles above the ocean could help, as my colleague James Temple wrote in December.

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: Why methane emissions are still a mystery
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/03/14/1089793/methane-mystery/
Published Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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The Download: Neuralink’s biggest rivals, and the case for phasing out the term “user”

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.

Beyond Neuralink: Meet the other companies developing brain-computer interfaces

In the world of brain-computer interfaces, it can seem as if one company sucks up all the oxygen in the room. Last month, Neuralink posted a video to X showing the first human subject to receive its brain implant, which will be named Telepathy. The recipient, a 29-year-old man who is paralyzed from the shoulders down, played computer chess, moving the cursor around with his mind.

Neuralink’s announcement of a first-in-human trial made a big splash not because of what the man was able to accomplish—scientists demonstrated using a brain implant to move a cursor in 2006—but because the technology is so advanced.

But Neuralink isn’t the only company developing brain-computer interfaces to help people who have lost the ability to move or speak. Read on to take a look at some of the companies developing brain chips, their progress, and their different approaches to the technology.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly health and biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

It’s time to retire the term “user”

People have been called “users” for a long time; it’s a practical shorthand enforced by executives, founders, operators, engineers, and investors ad infinitum.

Often, it is the right word to describe people who use software: a user is more than just a customer or a consumer. Sometimes a user isn’t even a person; corporate bots are known to run accounts on Instagram and other social media platforms, for example.

But “users” is also unspecific enough to refer to just about everyone. It can accommodate almost any big idea or long-term vision. We use—and are used by—computers and platforms and companies. Though “user” seems to describe a relationship that is deeply transactional, many of the technological relationships in which a person would be considered a user are actually quite personal. That being the case, is “user” still relevant? Read the full story.

—Taylor Majewski

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

Three ways the US could help universities compete with tech companies on AI innovation

—Ylli Bajraktari, CEO of nonprofit the Special Competitive Studies Project, Tom Mitchell, the Founders University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT

The ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence has the potential to dramatically improve our lives. Yet ensuring that America and other democracies can help shape the trajectory of this technology requires going beyond the tech development taking place at private companies.

Research at universities drove the AI advances that laid the groundwork for the commercial boom we are experiencing today. But large AI models require such vast computational power and such extensive data sets that private companies have replaced academia at the frontier of AI. Here’s a few ideas for how the US could empower its universities to remain alongside them at the forefront of AI research.

The must-reads

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

1 Bitcoin investors are eagerly awaiting the ‘halving’ 
The scheduled reduction in the number of newly produced bitcoin could mean their current holdings are worth even more. (FT $)
The halving is due to start in the early hours of Saturday morning. (NYT $)
The event is the crypto equivalent of the Super Bowl. (Reuters)

2 Meta is integrating its AI into its social media apps
But LLMs and social platforms are dangerous bedfellows. (WP $)
Case in point: X’s Grok bot offers up fake news based on users’ jokes. (Ars Technica)
Meta launched its newest model, Llama 3, too. (WSJ $)
Big Tech is scrambling to make its AI as easy to use as possible. (The Information $)

3 The World Health Organization’s AI avatar struggles with health questions
The bot has been trained on outdated data, and it shows. (Bloomberg $)
Artificial intelligence is infiltrating health care. We shouldn’t let it make all the decisions. (MIT Technology Review)

4 China ordered Apple to pull Meta-owned apps from its App Store
Beijing is reportedly unhappy with ‘inflammatory’ Threads and WhatsApp content. (WSJ $)
The move is likely to worsen the already-tense relations between the US and China. (FT $)

5 University students are turning to cyber crime to make money
A major phishing site recruited fraudsters to scam tens of thousands of victims.

Read More

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: Neuralink’s biggest rivals, and the case for phasing out the term “user”
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/19/1091515/the-download-neuralinks-biggest-rivals-and-the-case-for-phasing-out-the-term-user/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2024 12:10:00 +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

Read More

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: How to build a thermal battery
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/18/1091481/how-to-build-a-thermal-battery/
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

Read More

————

By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: American’s hydrogen train experiment, and why we need boring robots
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/18/1091490/the-download-americans-hydrogen-train-experiment-and-why-we-need-boring-robots/
Published Date: Thu, 18 Apr 2024 12:10:00 +0000

Did you miss our previous article…
https://mansbrand.com/the-great-commercial-takeover-of-low-earth-orbit/

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