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GeekWire

Mammoth zero-emission mining truck makes its debut

After years of development, the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle was unveiled today at a South African platinum mine, with a hydrogen-fueled hybrid powerplant designed and built by Seattle-based First Mode.

Anglo American’s three-story-tall, 200-ton nuGen hybrid mining truck received a grand sendoff from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Mogalakwena open-pit platinum mine. “It is a smart step for Anglo American, but a giant leap for South Africa’s hydrogen economy as we move into the future,” Ramaphosa said. “The hydrogen economy is beckoning us as a country and as an industry.”

Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said zero-emission industrial power will play a key role in addressing the global climate crisis. Large trucks currently account for 70% to 80% of diesel fuel consumption at Anglo American’s mines, but one nuGen truck is expected to keep the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from 700 cars out of the atmosphere.

“At First Mode, we know we are at a ‘fire-everything’ moment,” Voorhees said in a news release. “The urgency in front of us requires that we deploy every tool and every technology to battle climate change. I’m so proud of the team and our partnership with Anglo American, focused on decarbonization at the source to effect the meaningful, necessary change we all seek.”

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GeekWire

Maritime Blue wins $500,000 in clean tech challenge

Maritime Blue, a Washington state public-private coalition focusing on environmentally friendly technologies for the maritime industry, has been awarded $500,000 in the first stage of a clean-tech challenge funded by the federal government.

Sixty finalists were selected nationwide to go on to the next stage of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, backed by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. Maritime Blue is the only Washington state finalist.

Maritime Blue will use its $500,000 award to help integrate Washington state’s blue-economy cluster and commercialize new technologies aimed at decarbonizing heavy-duty transportation and reducing carbon emissions.

Examples of such technologies include an electric-powered hydrofoil passenger ferry that’s being designed by Glosten and Bieker Boats for Kitsap Transit; and a system to distribute, store and use hydrogen that relies on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.

In the next phase of the regional challenge, Maritime Blue will prepare a final proposal for submission to the Economic Development Administration by next March. That proposal, and others submitted by the finalists in the challenge, will be considered for up to $100 million in implementation funding.

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GeekWire

Breakthrough Energy makes a big bet on reusable rockets

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the multibillion-dollar clean-tech initiative created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is leading a $65 million funding round to back Kent, Wash.-based Stoke Space’s effort to create a new breed of fully reusable rockets — and believe it or not, there’s a climate change angle.

“There is no better way to see the Earth and the severity of its climate challenges than looking at the entire globe from space,” Carmichael Roberts, co-leader of Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ investment committee, said today in a news release.

“Imagine being able to detect wildfires in any country within minutes, identifying oil and gas methane emissions in real time for remediation, or verifying carbon stocks globally to enable large-scale carbon offset markets,” Roberts said. “These are just a few of the far-reaching opportunities that greater access to space can provide through advanced satellite technology.”

Roberts said rocket reusability could overcome two of the barriers to such applications. “Stoke’s unique vehicle design and operational capabilities provide a path to achieving ultra-low-cost, fast-turnaround launch for dedicated orbital delivery,” he said.

The rocket business isn’t known as an environmentally friendly industry — especially when toxic chemicals like hypergolics and perchlorates come into play, and when thousands of pieces of space junk litter the sky. But Stoke Space’s co-founder and CEO, Andy Lapsa, told me that his company wants to change all that.

“There are a lot of unsustainable rocket practices that have been done through history,” Lapsa said. “I think we’re in general getting smarter about that, and a reusable second stage is a big, important part of that. We can’t be dumping rockets in the ocean as we start flying hundreds or thousands of times per year.”

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos plays up the Earth-space connection

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has been getting a lot of press lately, but the Amazon founder and chairman says he’s spending more money nowadays on Earth’s environmental welfare through his Bezos Earth Fund.

Four and a half years ago, Bezos told reporters that he was selling about a billion dollars’ worth of his Amazon stock on a yearly basis to put toward Blue Origin.

But at least for the time being, he says that’s trumped by his $10 billion, 10-year commitment to the Bezos Earth Fund, which distributes grants to projects around the globe. During this month’s U.N. climate summit in Scotland, the fund announced a $2 billion round of grants supporting land restoration and food production.

Bezos cited the funding during last week’s Ignatius Forum at the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. as evidence that he wasn’t just a starry-eyed billionaire with no concern about Earth’s welfare.

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GeekWire

How the ‘Dune’ sci-fi saga parallels the science of dunes

The deserts of Abu Dhabi and Jordan play starring roles in the blockbuster sci-fi movie “Dune,” which premieres this week in theaters and on HBO Max — but the origins of the classic tale go back to a different set of dunes on the Oregon coast.

“Dune” creator Frank Herbert spent much of his life in the Pacific Northwest, from his childhood days in Tacoma to his stint as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s education editor. (When I worked at the P-I back in the 1980s, some of my fellow copy editors could still reminisce about Herbert’s habits.)

In 1957, Herbert spent some time researching what he hoped would be a magazine article about a U.S. Department of Agriculture project to stabilize the shifting sand dunes near Florence, Ore., by planting invasive beachgrass. The article was never finished, but according to “Dreamer of Dune,” a biography written by Herbert’s son Brian, the idea of transforming the dunes made a huge impression.

“Dad realized he had something bigger in front of him than a magazine article,” Brian Herbert wrote. “He sat back at his desk and remembered flying over the Oregon dunes in a Cessna. Sand. A desert world. He envisioned the earth without the technology to stop encroaching sand dunes, and extrapolated that idea until an entire planet had become a desert.”

From that initial thread of an idea, the elder Herbert wove six novels, published between 1965 and 1985. Since then, Brian Herbert and  longtime sci-fi collaborator Kevin J. Anderson have written more than a dozen of their own “Dune” sequels and prequels. (The latest was published just last month.)

The newly released movie covers just the first half of the original “Dune” novel. But in subsequent books, Herbert traced how fictional scientists tried to green up the desert planet of Arrakis — and how that brought about unanticipated, even problematic consequences.

Strangely enough, that part of the story parallels what’s now happening amid Oregon’s dunes. It’s a case of life imitating art … imitating life.

“It feels very extreme and sci-fi when you see it in a movie or in a book, but it’s also just like real U.S. government land management,” said Rebecca Mostow, a graduate research assistant at Oregon State University.

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GeekWire

Bezos Earth Fund pledges millions for climate justice

The Bezos Earth Fund today announced $203.7 million in grants and pledges aimed at advancing climate justice, supporting climate-oriented economic recovery projects and spurring innovation in pathways to decarbonization.

The pledges are part of a 10-year, $10 billion initiative backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to fund scientists, activists, non-governmental organizations and other actors who can address the challenges posed by climate change.

“This funding is just the next step in the Bezos Earth Fund’s commitment to creating catalytic change during this decisive decade,” Andrew Steer, the recently appointed president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund, said in a news release. “With each grant, we are helping organizations unblock progress and create pathways to a more sustainable future.”

Today’s announcement covers $73.7 million in immediate donations to 12 organizations, as well as a pledge of another $130 million to be given out by the end of 2021 to organizations supporting the Biden administration’s Justice40 climate initiative. Justice40 is aimed at delivering at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate in clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

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Cosmic Tech

Carbon XPRIZE winners capitalize on concrete

More than five years after it began, the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition is complete — and for both of the top competitors, converting CO2 into concrete turned out to be the winning strategy.

The carbon conversion contest was launched in 2015 to encourage the development of technologies that turn CO2 into useful products, with the effect of reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.

“Flipping CO2 emissions into valuable products is now a proven, successful strategy to build a better world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said today in a news release announcing the winners.

Concrete is an attractive target for decarbonization because the current production process is said to account for 7% of global CO2 emissions.

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Fiction Science Club

Why the natural world will never be the same

This is a bad time for Mother Nature — but it’s no use trying to turn the clock back. Instead, why not turn the clock forward?

That’s what Nathaniel Rich prescribes for what’s ailing the environment in “Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade.” And he lays out the symptoms to support his diagnosis.

One set of symptoms is the global prevalence of pollutants, including a class of synthetic chemicals called PFAS. Nearly every American has been exposed to PFAS, which is used in nonstick cookware as well as water-repellant and stain-resistant products. An infamous case of PFAS water contamination and its health effects in West Virginia became the focus of a story that Rich wrote for The New York Times, and that story inspired a 2019 movie titled “Dark Waters.”

The opening chapter of “Second Nature” revisits the “Dark Waters” saga, but Rich goes on to document other ways in which human influences are reshaping nature, through pollution and climate change as well as genetic engineering and land development. The impacts can take the form of disappearing glaciers on Mount Rainier — or disintegrating sea stars in Pacific coastal waters, including Puget Sound.

“It’s not that intervention in the natural world is new,” Rich said. “We’ve been doing that from the get-go. What’s new is that we are, I think, finally coming to terms as a society and individually with the incredible depth and scope of the intervention, to the point that … there’s really nothing natural that can be found in the natural world, by any conventional definition of the term.”

Rich is due to discuss what ails the global environment, and the strategies that researchers and conservationists are developing to address those ailments, during a live-streamed Town Hall Seattle presentation next week. To set the stage, Rich explores the theme of “Second Nature” in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the intersection of science fact and fiction.

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GeekWire

Allen Institute for AI expands its frontiers

Two and a half years after the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, his legacy in science and philanthropy is still being reshaped — and this time, the reshaping involves two of his deepest passions: conservation and computation.

Over the next few months, an entire portfolio of AI-centric environmental projects will be shifted from Vulcan Inc., the diversified holding company that Allen created, to the nonprofit Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (a.k.a. AI2).

“It’s a classic Paul Allen move,” Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf told GeekWire.

Hilf said the shift is part of a years-long program to follow through on the “testamentary directives” that Allen laid out before he died in 2018 at the age of 65.

The late billionaire’s sister, Jody Allen, and her executives were left with the task of reorganizing a set of enterprises including real estate holdings and investmentsmuseumsscientific institutes, a production company and a launch company, plus Seattle’s Cinerama, the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Some aspects of that reorganization have stirred controversy, but Hilf said the transition to an expanded AI2 should be straightforward.

“All of the AI products and the teams that are currently managed by Vulcan will transfer in to that new entity and expand the mission of AI2,” he said. “It’s really bringing together Paul’s vision for AI, improving life on Earth, human lives, and leveraging AI2’s mission of ‘AI for the Common Good.’”

The projects include EarthRanger, which uses sensors and software to track endangered species and fight illegal poaching; Skylight, which monitors maritime traffic to head off illegal fishing; Vulcan’s climate modeling group, which is developing more accurate climate projections; and the Center for Machine Learning, which applies AI to a wide range of environmental challenges.

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Cosmic Tech

Elon Musk puts up $100M reward for capturing carbon

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is putting $100 million into a different kind of “X”: An XPRIZE competition to develop new technologies for sucking carbon dioxide out of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

Musk and his foundation will provide the prize money for XPRIZE Carbon Removal, an incentive-based competition that’ll be open to teams around the world.

Teams will be required to create pilot systems capable of removing 1 ton of carbon dioxide per day, and show that their systems can be scaled up economically to the gigaton level.

Reducing CO2 is considered a key requirement for heading off the worst effects of the greenhouse effect and climate change. Total annual emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide currently amount to about 33 gigatons. The long-term goal for the XPRIZE teams should be to contribute to removing 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050.

In today’s news release, Musk said XPRIZE Carbon Removal “is not a theoretical competition.”

“We want to make a truly meaningful impact,” he said. “Carbon negativity, not neutrality. The ultimate goal is scalable carbon extraction that is measured based on the ‘fully considered cost per ton,’ which incudes the environmental impact.”