For Earth Day here're five big areas where tech breakthroughs are helping fight climate change

Updated: May 7



While the dire news around climate change keeps getting... well... more dire, over the past year alone technological breakthroughs are coming fast and furious in ways that could make a big difference for the planet.


Here are five big areas of innovation that are giving some folks a bit of hope that the future won't be as bad as it could be -- and maybe we can actually start looking up.





Energy generation


You've heard of wind, solar and nuclear fission, now meet geothermal, hydropower, and nuclear fusion.


Companies like AltaRock, Fervo Energy, Quaise Energy, Sage Geosystems, and Eavor are all working on advanced geothermal energy production technologies that can provide constant sources of renewable energy using the heat from the Earth. Unlike solar and wind power, which are variable sources of power (and aren't always producing) geothermal energy is a reliable and 24-7.


Advanced hydropower offers another always-on source of power. Ocean energy harvesting is the focus for businesses like CalWave Power, which has received several grants from the Department of Energy to develop its tech.


Harnessing the power of river systems across the U.S. and irrigation canals which have sent water flowing down into the agricultural valleys of the West Coast for nearly 100 years are another option to meet the world's power needs. Emrgy and Natel Energy are both trying to tackle that challenge with new tech.


Finally, there's fusion energy. Since the 1950s, scientists and researchers have tried to figure out how to replicate the power of the sun on earth by mechanically fusing atoms together to release massive amounts of power. Thanks to breakthroughs in material science, computer modeling, machine learning, optical electronics and other super high-tech stuff, those solutions are at hand.


Fusion energy promises to provide emission-free power without any of the downsides of nuclear fission. And there are a huge number of companies that say they're close to generating power in pilot plants by 2025. FootPrint Coalition Ventures has invested in Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which is one of the new businesses working on this breakthrough energy technology. But they're one of several. In the U.S. alone, Helion Energy, Avalanche, CT Fusion, Zap Energy, and TAE Technologies are working on advanced reactor designs to generate power.


Energy storage


To ensure that the world can use all of the low-cost renewable energy being generated by wind power and solar power will require breakthroughs in ways to store that energy so that electricity is available when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.


As more individuals and communities deploy renewable energy -- like solar power -- on rooftops, yards, farms, and fields energy storage can help develop micro-grids -- miniature utility systems for neighborhoods or corporate developments that are independent from the main power grid developed by utilities or governments.


New energy storage is also vital to make sure that electric vehicles can run for long durations without needing to be recharged -- and that those storage devices aren't losing efficiency with every charge.


Long duration energy storage companies including Energy Vault, Antora Energy, Form Energy, Malta Energy, are used by utilities around the nation to store power from renewables and release that power when it's needed.


And the lithium ion batteries that are now used in electric cars are getting upgrades from startups like the FootPrint Coalition portfolio company, Lyten, have the promise of making cars more efficient and batteries more affordable by getting rid of the rare earth elements that are so expensive (and getting pricier). Other businesses working on solving this problem are SolidPower, EnPower, Volexion, and EnergyX.


These new battery technologies can take electrification of mobility places it has never been before -- that includes shipping (a huge source of emissions where businesses like FleetZero are trying to make a difference). Or it's in the aviation business. where a host of electric vertical take-off and landing companies are building planes for short haul, zero-emission transportation.


Next generation materials and chemicals

New types of materials made through genetic engineering of existing organisms or using complex datasets to imagine new chemistries and physical structures are creating new, sustainable ways to replace or reduce fossil fuels across industries.


FootPrint Coalition's own portfolio company RWDC is making biodegradable plastics, while other companies like NotPLA, or the Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher-backed Cruz Foam are replacing dissolvable plastic packaging and styrofoam -- respectively. A company called Papkot is in its earliest stages, but promises to have a process that can treat paper with a substance to make it act like plastic -- same durability, same preservative applications, but without the polluting potential of its predecessor.


Icon Build is using a novel material that has lower greenhouse gas emissions to make 3D printed homes -- and businesses including Cover, combine new materials with prefabrication to make building homes easier and more affordable. Brimstone is making a low emission concrete and has competition from companies like Fortera, Blue Planet, and Material Evolution. While companies like Carbicrete, Carbon Cure, Heimdal, and a host of others are looking at ways to capture CO2 within cement and concrete.


Solugen, another early stage company, is even taking fossil fuels out of the chemicals industry with a new process that lets them use organisms to make the kind of specialty chemicals that previously required fossil fuels.


Meanwhile, Verdox, Noya Labs, Remora, ClimeWorks Carbon Engineering and others are using new chemical and electrical processes to capture carbon dioxide from point source emissions and from the ambient air.


Some companies, like LanzaTech, Twelve, and others are even using captured greenhouse gases to feed microbes that can produce direct replacements for plastics and chemicals.


The next step will be converting carbon dioxide into carbon nanotubes and nano fibers for use in the bodies of cars, airplanes and ships, or in construction materials.


21st Century agriculture and forestry

Imagine trees and plants that can light up a roadway or a home, or timber that can replace steel in skyscrapers. Or imagine finding ways to make steaks and seafood using nothing but tissue that's grown from a petrie dish. Ginkgo Bioworks is working with companies to develop both of those applications.


At FootPrint Coalition we're backing the non-profit New Harvest, which supports the development of cellular agriculture, and Wild Type, which uses that cellular agricultural technology to make salmon filets produced without trawling any of the seven seas.


Motif Foodworks is a company that's trying to make plant-based replacements for the entire meat industry -- since livestock accounts for 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions and meat is about 60% of that figure.


These businesses are following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which showed that there's an appetite for plant-based replacements for burgers -- if those replacements are tasty enough.


Taste is at the heart of Upside Foods cellular production method for making real chicken without the eggs. And that company just raised nearly half-a-billion dollars to bring its poultry to production levels that could satisfy consumer demand.


Perfect Day is making a one-for-one dairy replacement using mycelium -- the root structures of mushrooms. And FootPrint Coalition's Nobell Foods is using genetically modified soybeans to make the cheese proteins that make cheese cheesy.


There are even companies, like Aloha, which are working on making it possible to grow crops in saltwater or even seawater -- as a way to make our harvests more resilient and address the drought issues that are being caused by global warming.


Finally, there are businesses working literally at the seed stage, to improve the health of the soil and biological environment that crops rely on to grow.


These companies are treating seeds and soil to reduce the need for fertilizers that can pollute waterways and wind up making agricultural land less productive in the long term. They're also using robots to make farmers less reliant on pesticides and fertilizers by precisely targeting areas where there are problems and alerting farmers to the issues before they take down an entire harvest.


But it's not just food that's facing a new agricultural revolution. Living Carbon, is genetically engineering trees that can absorb more carbon dioxide, grow faster, and grow in land that previously wasn't suitable for forestation. Galy is growing cotton three times faster in a lab than it would on a farm -- and Algiknit is growing an algal replacement for cotton so the water intensive crop wouldn't need to be cultivated at all. These natural fibers could replace synthetic ones in the textile industry -- another huge source of wasted resources.


New dyes are being grown, organically, in labs, by companies like Huue to replace the toxic chemicals currently being used in the fashion industry.


And don't get us started on the mushroom business -- making everything from bacon to leather to waste remediation fungus among us.


Better resource efficiency

Of course, in addition to using more sustainable sources of energy, biologically friendly chemicals, and relying on plants to do the work that dinosaur bones did for generations -- we could always just... use less.


In our homes, that could mean using new heat pumps designed by Gradient, old heat pumps installed by FootPrint Coalition portfolio company, Sealed, and getting rid of fossil fueled appliances everywhere.


Other businesses are hoping to help seal up the home and save energy from being wasted as well. Indoor Windows has window inserts that can save an average home 20% on energy bills and block 80% of outside noise. Shifted Energy can turn electric water heaters into a network that can be turned up or down depending on the needs of a utility grid to avoid power outages. While Flair is a smart ventilation system that can automatically maintain temperatures in rooms throughout a home.


New control panels from companies like Span.io (another investment of ours) make managing the energy appliances use a breeze, and at the smallest level possible, Menlo Micro is making chip-sized switches that can bring on/off functionality to any device for better power management and control.


Secondhand and circular fashion options like Depop -- the billion dollar used clothing marketplace -- or Trove, Archive and ThredUp, which help clothing brands manage their own secondhand marketplaces -- are a huge business now. And helping clothes get a second life and avoid landfilling reduces methane emissions and waste. It's a double-whammy of efficient reuse goodness.


Even packaging is going circular. Kroger stores are testing out a reusable packaging platform called Loop, from the company Terracycle, to give refillable containers to consumers that they can return. It's an extension of the zero-waste store model and bulk goods offerings that some local companies are experimenting with.


Using computer vision technologies and robotics, Amp Robotics is actually turning trash into new treasures by better sorting and handling recycling... to make the long held belief that plastics could be recycled and reused a reality instead of the fiction most recycling programs currently are.

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