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A startup using minerals to draw down CO2 has scored funding – and its first buyer



A startup using minerals to draw down CO2 has scored funding – and its first buyer

A new startup is relying on minerals to pull carbon dioxide out of the air, in one of the first commercial efforts to deploy what’s known as enhanced weathering to slow climate change.

Heirloom Carbon Technologies says it could do carbon dioxide removal for $50 a ton once it reaches commercial scale, which would come in well below the estimates for other industrial approaches. Its goal is to remove 1 billion tons of the main greenhouse gas fueling climate change by 2035.

The San Francisco–based company will announce on May 26 that it has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from major investors including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Lowercarbon Capital, and Prelude Ventures. (Industry sources say it’s in the millions.)

In addition, the payment processing company Stripe, which has been funding demonstration projects in the technology, will announce that it plans to purchase nearly 250 tons of carbon removal from the company at $2,054 per ton.

Noah Deich, president of Carbon180, a research firm that advocates for the removal and reuse of carbon, says the company could help address a core challenge in carbon removal: technical approaches like those offered by direct-air-capture companies such as Climeworks and Carbon Engineering promise permanent results but cost a lot, while natural solutions like soil and forest offsets are cheap but often raise concerns about how reliable and durable the carbon removal is. If Heirloom hits its cost targets, it could offer permanent removal at relatively affordable prices, Deich says. (Heirloom’s CEO, Shashank Samala, took part in Carbon180’s entrepreneur-in-residence fellowship program.)

But the technology is at an early stage and the company will face numerous technical and market challenges along the way, including finding more buyers—like Stripe—willing to pay high prices for carbon removal for years to come.

A novel approach to carbon removal

The venture is getting attention in part because the process, described in a paper published in Nature Communications last year, was developed by prominent researchers exploring the use of minerals to capture and store carbon. Those include Greg Dipple at the University of British Columbia and Jennifer Wilcox, who is now principal deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy in the Biden administration. The lead author of the paper was Noah McQueen, a graduate student of Wilcox’s and now head of research at Heirloom.

Preventing the planet from warming by 2 ˚C could require pulling 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year by 2050 and 20 billion annually by 2100, according to a 2018 study. But only a handful of mostly early-stage startups are actively working on this today, exploring a variety of means like creating machines that directly grab carbon dioxide molecules out of the air, converting biowaste into oil that is injected underground, or developing systems to incentivize or validate natural approaches like reforestation or agricultural practices that may take up more carbon in soils.

A number of scientists and nonprofits have also researched the possibility of accelerating the processes by which various minerals—particularly those rich in silicate, calcium, and magnesium—pull carbon dioxide out of air or rainwater. Some are grinding up and spreading out materials like olivine, while others are putting to use the already pulverized by-products of mining operations, even including asbestos.

Heirloom is taking a very different route, however.

How it works

The company will cook materials such as ground limestone, which is mostly calcium tied up with carbon dioxide, at temperatures of 400 to 900 ˚C—high enough for it to break down and release the greenhouse gas. This is similar to the first step in producing cement. (It could use other feedstocks as well, such as magnesite, which was the focus of the Nature Communications paper.)

Heirloom eventually intends to rely on electricity-driven kilns. That means the process can run on clean renewable energy sources and produces a stream of carbon dioxide free from fossil-fuel impurities. That carbon dioxide can then be relatively easily captured, compressed, and injected underground, storing it away basically forever.

The leftover oxide minerals, which would be calcium oxide if the process starts with limestone, can be spread out in thin layers across sheets, stacked vertically, and exposed to the open air. Think lunch trays on cafeteria racks.

The minerals are highly reactive, eager to bond with carbon dioxide in the air. With some additional enhancements, the company’s researchers believe, most of the materials will bond with the greenhouse gas in as fast as two weeks. Normally it would take around a year.

The startup won’t discuss the enhancements, but they might include automated ways of mixing the materials to continually expose them to open air.

That process would convert calcium oxide back into calcium carbonate, the main component of limestone, at which point the process can simply begin again. The company believes it can reuse the materials at least 10 times, possibly dozens, before they degrade too much to capture enough carbon dioxide.

Scaling carbon removal

All of this is very expensive today, as reflected in the price Stripe is paying. The payments company will announce on Wednesday that it will spend nearly $2.8 million to purchase carbon removal credits from six projects, plus another $5.25 million when (or if) those efforts complete certain milestones. The other recipients include CarbonBuilt, Running Tide, Seachange, Mission Zero, and the Future Forest Company, which is planning a mineral-weathering field trial that involves spreading basalt rock along a forest floor.

Heirloom’s Samala says these early, high-priced purchases are crucial for helping emerging carbon removal companies scale up and cut costs.

“Deployment is what makes this cheaper, unleashes new markets, and drives down costs further,” he says.

But finding more buyers willing to bear such costs is going to be a serious challenge for all carbon removal companies—particularly given the availability of cheap forest and soil offsets that allow buyers to claim they’re balancing out their emissions, whether or not such programs are reliable.

Meanwhile, the world needs to provide support for many more carbon removal research groups and startups, says Nan Ransohoff, head of climate at Stripe.

We have to “radically increase the number of projects” if we want to have “any shot” of hitting those 2050 carbon removal targets, Ransohoff says. “Ten gigatons is a lot—it’s just a massive number, and even in the best scenario, all the companies we have today aren’t going to get us there.”

Driving down costs

Heirloom is confident it can drive down the costs significantly because it’s avoiding expensive sorbents and the energy-intensive fans that blow air through the system in other approaches to direct air capture. In addition, it intends to rely heavily on robots, software, and other automation to speed up and slash the costs of the process, drawing on Samala’s earlier experience as the cofounder of Tempo Automation.

Heirloom will be leveraging several other advances under way as well, including improvements in electricity-driven heat technology, the declining costs of renewable energy, and the increasingly decarbonized grids across the world, says Clea Kolster, director of science at Lowercarbon Capital.

But their ultimate costs and ability to rapidly scale up will depend a lot on how much and how quickly those things continue to improve.

As it stands, generating the necessary temperatures from electricity with today’s technologies can be 5 to 10 times as expensive as directly burning coal or natural gas, says Addison Stark, director of the energy and environment program at advisory firm Clark Street Associates, who coauthored a recent paper in Joule on the topic. In addition, if the source of the electricity itself isn’t carbon-free, it undermines any carbon removal benefits.

Another question is how much and how reliably Heirloom will be able to cut down the time it takes for the oxides to bond with carbon dioxide, which will dramatically affect the economics, says Jeremy Freeman, executive director at CarbonPlan, which analyzes the scientific integrity of carbon removal efforts and helped evaluate the projects that applied for Stripe’s program.

Heirloom will also have to raise a far larger round of funding to eventually build a demonstration plant.

The company’s main business model will be selling carbon removal credits to corporations or individuals, through either voluntary offset systems or government-based carbon programs. Heirloom is banking on its offerings becoming ever more attractive as their costs decline and public policies provide carrots or sticks that make it more attractive—or more necessary—for companies or governments to pay for carbon removal over time.


The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush



The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan



The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI



Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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