Three tech breakthroughs that will help transform the world


Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, is a computer scientist, inventor and investor. He is a principal and chief scientist at Water Street Capital.

We are living unsustainably. Greenhouse gas emissions threaten runaway climate change, and excessive nitrogen pollutes our waters. We sense the impending sixth extinction but are shocked by breaking news of a mass decline in insects. Information technology has rapidly transformed our economy but not areas such as energy, materials and food, where we desperately need sustainability. We need to change our course.

Using a target list of 25 clean-tech “grand challenges,” I worked for over a decade to find, fund and commercialize big breakthroughs. One such challenge was radically cheaper batteries. Another was sustainable building materials, especially concrete. A third target was sustainable “meat.” They’re not the only breakthroughs that will help us transition to a more sustainable economy and society, but innovations in these three fields have the potential to radically transform the way we live. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an investor in some of these companies; I want to tell you about them because I’m convinced they can change the world.

Batteries are already vital as we transition away from an economy based on fossil fuels. But cheaper and safer batteries, and ones made from more abundant materials, are needed to decarbonize the grid and transportation. So we looked for a rechargeable room-temperature battery where the unsafe and costly liquid electrolyte, which allows ions to move, was replaced with a safe and cheap solid. We were lucky to find a material scientist who had invented such an electrolyte, a crystalline polymer.

Major countries like France and the United Kingdom have already announced bans of new sales of diesel and petrol cars by 2040, and the breakthrough battery technology we developed at Ionic Materials (IM) will allow lithium-ion battery cars to reach cost parity with combustion vehicles much sooner than many people expect. Separately, IM’s next-generation alkaline batteries, made inexpensively from abundant materials such as zinc, aluminum and manganese, will be even cheaper than the lithium-ion batteries, allowing electric cars to be thousands of dollars less expensive than those with combustion engines. This will help speed the electric vehicle transition and allow us to consider policies to retire legacy vehicles more quickly.

But electric vehicles won’t be truly emissions-free unless we decarbonize the grid. Rechargeable alkaline batteries can be made so cheaply that we can imagine a grid where we can store a kilowatt-hour of electricity for less than a cent, saving wind and solar energy so it is available when we need it. This could be a grid that runs entirely on renewables; a grid that can move energy 24 hours a day from producers to and between storage locations; a grid where utilities can be not just providers of power but provide a marketplace for energy; a grid where fossil fuel and other existing generation capacity is used only for backup in extreme cases.

Cheap energy storage also makes microgrids and off-grid systems work better. Rural India, for example, can consider leapfrogging over grid dependence to a distributed and more resilient system. Such a system allowed Cuba to recover quickly from Hurricane Irma. Ionic Materials’ polymer can also enable alkaline fuel cells that can replace marine diesels, greatly reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of marine transportation; lightweight polymer batteries with sulfur or air cathodes can be used to electrify most aviation, leaving only the longest-haul jets using renewable liquid fuels.

The profits and benefits from renewable energy will flow to the innovators, manufacturers and users and then to all of us as renewables address climate change via radically lower emissions. The extraction-dependent fossil fuel industries are threatened with decline and even extinction in this transition; they are fighting hard, using subterfuge, misdirection and political chaos to keep their profits — environmental and social consequences be damned. This resistance must be overcome.

Beyond batteries, there are other breakthroughs that could completely transform our economy and society. In materials, for example, we funded a breakthrough in the making of cement, which is emissions and energy-intensive and accounts for about 5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The new Solidia cement saves energy by using a lower kiln temperature for its manufacture and, when used to make concrete, consumes a substantial amount of carbon dioxide rather than water. The result is an up to 70 percent reduction in overall footprint even while substantially reducing costs without subsidies; such higher profits are of great interest to the low-margin cement and concrete industries.

The Solidia technology also enables inexpensive aerated concrete. Lightweight, strong, insulating and fireproof, aerated concrete can displace the materials usually used for construction like wood, gypsum, brick and cinder blocks, which would thereby take enormous pressure off vitally important forests. The new cement can also be mixed with polymers to form a lightweight, strong and nailable replacement for wood boards, thereby also reducing pressure on forests.

And what about food? We funded the startup company Beyond Meat in 2011 to make substitutes for meat from plant sources — first chicken strips and then ground beef, currently in grocery stores across the U.S. Widespread substitution would bring huge positive impacts in land use and for forests and human health. We can become much more sustainable by switching to these and other innovative products such as Memphis Meat’s laboratory-grown synthetic meat, which has attracted investment from Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and Mycotech’s innovative complete protein product made from mushrooms.

But it’s not all good news. About 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are now fully depleted or overfished, yet production continues to increase, often using destructive techniques like long-lining and purse seining, especially in international waters where there are no controls. Innovators are working on fish farming, but overconsumption and certain habits — such as eating slow-developing and now nearly extinct bluefin tuna as sushi and sashimi — are pushing species and whole ecosystems toward extinction. Innovators may be able to develop substitutes for tuna, but it is not at all certain this will happen in time. We need to do more, urgently.

We sought “grand challenge” breakthroughs because they can lead to a cascade of positive effects and transformations far beyond their initial applications. The grand challenge approach works — dramatic improvements reducing energy, materials and food impact are possible. If we widely deploy such breakthrough innovations, we will take big steps toward a sustainable future.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.