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Why capturing carbon is an essential part of Biden’s climate plans



Shuchi Talati

President Biden’s early climate efforts prioritized popular actions: rejoining the Paris agreement, purchasing clean energy and vehicles, and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. But the administration’s strategies to drive the nation toward net-zero emissions also lean heavily, if less obviously, on a touchier area: capturing or removing huge amounts of the carbon dioxide driving global warming.

In July, the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy tacked “and Carbon Management” onto its name, signaling a distinct shift in an agency traditionally focused on developing more efficient ways of extracting fossil fuels and converting them into energy. Now, the central goal of the office, backed with around 750 federal employees and nearly a billion-dollar budget, is to develop better, cheaper ways to clean up climate polluting industries.

Shuchi Talati, chief of staff at the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.


New priorities include: advancing technologies and techniques that can prevent CO2 from escaping factories and power plants, remove it from the atmosphere, turn it into new products and store it away forever.

The office placed several researchers focused on these issues into leadership roles, including naming Shuchi Talati chief of staff. She’ll oversee many of the changes in the agency alongside Jennifer Wilcox, the principal deputy assistant secretary. Talati was previously the deputy director of policy at Carbon 180, a proponent of carbon removal and recycling, and a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

President Biden’s agenda is also playing out in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which the Senate already passed. It provides billions of dollars to develop direct-air capture plants that can suck CO2 out of the air, pipelines to move it around, and sites where it can be buried in geological formations deep underground.

Many in the climate movement argue that carbon capture is a distraction from the core mission of eliminating fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And the field is littered with failures, including a variety of Department of Energy-backed boondoggles like the nearly $2 billion FutureGen clean coal project.

But research finds it will be far harder and more expensive to eliminate emissions and prevent dangerous levels of warming without carbon capture and removal, particularly in heavy industries where few other options exist. And the number of successful commercial projects is growing around the globe, curtailing the emissions from steel, hydrogen, and fertilizer plants.

In the interview that follows, I asked Talati what role carbon capture should play in our response to climate change and how the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management is working to accelerate progress in the field.

The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why was it important to shift or expand your office’s mandate?

When it comes to climate goals, especially net zero, carbon management has an increasingly important role to play. That means not only dealing with our continued emissions, but recognizing that for every type of fossil fuel that’s burned we have to manage the carbon that comes with that.

Ensuring that those two were connected in the name of our office is important to how this office does its work and how it’s perceived. Because we don’t want to do any work on fossil fuels that is not related to mitigating the environmental impacts associated with it.

How does the Department of Energy see carbon capture and storage specifically fitting into the broader effort to accelerate decarbonization and address climate change?

Where we can transition to renewables, we want to make those choices. But where we can’t, CCS [carbon capture and storage] has a really important role to play. With industries like cement, we know that CCS is absolutely essential to capturing those emissions.

We can capture not only the emissions from the actual energy that’s needed, but the emissions released during the production process, where there are no other mechanisms to prevent that CO2. CCS is just an incredibly versatile way to capture emissions from a lot of these hard-to-decarbonize sectors.

When it comes to the power industry, looking at natural gas, especially, there are a lot of natural gas power plants that are not scheduled to retire until after 2035, which is after our 100% clean electricity goal. That represents over 200 gigawatts that is going to continue operating with natural gas. So to enable that to be clean, CCS is really the only option.

I want to say too, for natural gas, we’ve never actually demonstrated this technology before. So if we really want to understand the true costs and what commercialization will really look like, we need to first invest in demonstration. That’s really what our office could do.

Many climate activists consider support for carbon capture akin to granting a social license for the fossil fuel industry to continue operating. How do you respond when you hear people raise those concerns?

I understand where a lot of these critiques are coming from. This has not been an industry that has been necessarily straightforward. And I think the fact that it’s coupled to the fossil fuel industry is really challenging, and that’s something that we are grappling with.

But I think when it comes to the committed infrastructure we have, and especially looking at the industrial sector—where it’s not necessarily about the fossil fuel industry, but about creating products that we know we’re going to continue to need, like concrete—we have to think about what that means for emissions, and getting to zero. There really are no other options.

The role of our office, and the role of the federal government, is to ensure that we’re doing this properly and creating an industry that is responsible and building the environmental safeguards around this technology that might not have existed in the past. 

You mentioned the role carbon capture can potentially play for natural gas plants that are going to continue operating for decades. But do you anticipate carbon capture playing a role in the building of new electricity generation energy going forward?

Honestly, I think that’s really dependent on the market and how private companies are viewing their investments.

We are only supportive of abated fossil fuels, so when it comes to building new natural gas, our support is very dependent on whether that CCS infrastructure is there. And I think a really important component of that, too, is reliable storage. Right now, a lot of CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery [freeing up remaining oil from wells] and we want to make sure that we are helping to build a durable storage infrastructure, around geologic reservoirs and around CO2-to-products that have long duration storage, like building materials.

Even if this can be an effective tool for cement plants or for some element of existing natural gas plants, there’s still a reasonable fear that there could be fudging here. That emissions could leak out more than companies are saying, both from plants themselves or from extraction sites, or because carbon storage sites don’t work as effectively as hoped. How can we ensure that the industry does these things in reliable ways?

I think that’s the role of our office, and I think that’s the role of this administration. I totally agree. I think we need to ensure that reliable storage is actually working. We have experience in terms of the way CO2 has been stored in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, but we don’t have as much experience with saline aquifers [permeable rocks filled with salt water].

We need to do demonstration projects. We need to have [monitoring, reporting, and verification] capabilities that we trust, that are robust, and that work at scale. And that takes investment from the government and really dedicated capacity.

I think, too, our infrastructure has leaks all throughout the supply chain for natural gas. So that is actually one of the priorities we listed in our upcoming budget: reducing methane.

That means changing the way our office has often worked in the past. We want to shift the conversation to having the least environmental impacts possible from the extraction that’s happening.

The infrastructure bill that’s moving forward includes funding for direct-air capture plants. What role does the Department of Energy see carbon removal directly from the air playing in the efforts to address climate change?

It’s incredibly exciting that this is the biggest investment in carbon removal in history. The fact that we are recognizing the need to have focused demonstration funds for direct-air capture is the absolute first of a kind globally. And so [the Department of Energy] plays a really important role in helping to invest in these early technologies, to demonstrate them and to really be able to help private companies leverage the incredible work that they’ve done in this space.

When it comes to direct-air capture, these demonstrations are incredibly expensive. And $3.5 billion dollars doesn’t actually go as far as most people think that it might.

We are incredibly excited about this technology. But there are others that I think merit equal focus, like enhanced mineralization [developing ways to accelerate the natural process by which certain types of minerals capture carbon dioxide].

When we talk about engineered carbon removal, I think enhanced mineralization hasn’t quite had its moment in the sun yet. [Direct-air capture] is the first thing that comes to mind—and we want to change that. Enhanced mineralization has incredible capacity to scale.

How do you feel about the tension, or if there is a tension, between scaling up carbon removal, but also being mindful of the potential limits on our ability to do it?

That’s an incredibly important question.

Carbon dioxide removal should not be applied in cases where we can reduce emissions other ways. For companies, that means reducing their emissions through energy efficiency, or electrification, or whatever those other ways might be. Avoiding emissions first is always the priority. Always. Because it’s going to be cheaper, it is going to be more efficient to do that. Carbon removal is hard. It’s expensive. And the industry doesn’t exist yet at scale.


The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics



Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.

The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.

Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?

Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.

Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us? 

The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

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Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?



Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?

Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.

There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.

It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.

Read more from Tech Review’s archive

It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year. 

We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …

… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!

Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.

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Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.



Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.

Fast and cheap

Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.

Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”

To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.

The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says. 

Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”

The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”

This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.  

The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”

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