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Natural science

Why we should discuss soil as much as we talk about coal

I’m done with cow farts.

I’ve written about them several times over the last six months, and I bring them up in polite conversation more than I should. In my defense, I have a legitimate reason: cow farts are a good example of something that contributes to climate change but isn’t related to generating electricity.

Most discussions about fighting climate change focus on electricity and the need for renewable energy. De-carbonizing the way we generate electricity would be a huge step, but it won’t be enough if we don’t reach zero net emissions from every sector of the economy within 50 years (and make a serious dent in the next ten). That includes the agriculture, forestry, and land use sector, which is responsible for 24 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions—just one percentage point less than electricity.

Gassy cattle are a memorable and significant example of emissions—but it’s not the only major contributor to agriculture, forestry, and land use’s slice of the emissions pie. If you’re looking for a climate change boogeyman, you’re just as well-off picking on soil..

Here’s a mind-blowing fact: there’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. That’s not a big deal when left to its own devices. But when soil gets disturbed—like it does when you convert a forest into cropland—all that stored carbon gets released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That’s one reason why deforestation alone is responsible for 11 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. (Another reason is that forests and grasslands are natural carbon sinks. Clearing them reduces the planet’s capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.)

The microbes in soil can also create greenhouse gases when they come into contact with fertilizer. Synthetic fertilizers revolutionized how we feed the world, but they release a powerful greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide when broken down by those microbes. Natural fertilizers like manure aren’t any better, because they release greenhouse gases as they decompose.

So how do we fight climate change caused by agriculture? We can’t simply get rid of soil—or stop growing crops, using fertilizer, and raising livestock. There are some changes that societies can make—people in level 3 and 4 countries will eat more meat as they move up the income ladder, so people in level 3 and 4 countries could consume less to compensate, for example—but at the end of the day, people need to eat.

That’s why the goal with agriculture is not to reduce the amount created, but to reduce emissions per product. Because every country and every culture approaches food production differently, there are a lot of different ways to do that (I’m involved with a group called Breakthrough Energy Ventures that is backing a number of creative solutions to tackle the problem). Here are some of the ones I find most interesting:

  • Microscopic nitrogen factories that replace fertilizer: What if we could fertilize plants without releasing so much harmful nitrous oxide into the air? BEV is invested in a company called Pivot Bio that has genetically modified microbes to provide plants with the nitrogen they need without the excess greenhouse gases that synthetic alternatives produce.

Watch this video to learn more about how it work:

  • Longer roots that store more carbon: Kernza has developed a new strain of wheat with longer and denser roots, so it can absorb more carbon dioxide from soil. Since traditional wheat is an annual plant and only lasts for one growing season, it has short and relatively fragile roots. Kernza’s seeds produce a perennial wheat with roots that are twice as long as traditional wheat. Plus, its hardier structure creates higher yields for farmers—which in turns leads to less water use, greater climate resiliency, and healthier soils.
  • Lab-grown palm oil brewed from microbes: Palm oil has earned its bad environmental reputation: the destruction of Borneo’s forests to build new palm oil plantations resulted in the largest single-year increase in emissions in over two hundred years. But it’s a fixture of modern society, found in everything from food to shampoo. C16 Biosciences has created an alternative to natural palm oil by using fermentation to brew a synthetic version.
  • An invisible barrier that helps food stay fresh longer: Approximately one-third of all food produced gets lost or wasted every year. That’s bad for people who don’t have enough to eat, bad for farmers, and bad for the environment. Two companies—Apeel and Cambridge Crops—are working on protective skins that keep food fresh longer. The coating is invisible and doesn’t affect the taste at all.
  • Collective crop storage: Not all innovations are technological: Babban Gona is a novel business model in Nigeria that helps farmers hold onto their crops longer. Many Nigerian farmers don’t have facilities to store their crops. They can only move their products right after harvest when the market is flooded with goods, so they sell for a rock-bottom price, or sometimes not at all (Nigeria loses 50 to 60 percent of its food before it even gets to the consumers). Babban Gona farmers go in together to purchase a grain silo. This means they can wait to sell their crops at a more advantageous time—reducing emissions from waste and increasing income at the same time.

There will never be one silver bullet that stops climate change—but I’m hopeful that these innovations and others will chip away at agricultural emissions enough to prevent the worst from happening. (Unfortunately, farmers in places like sub-Saharan Africa are already experiencing the effects of climate change, so we also have to help them adapt.

I wish agricultural innovation got as much attention as the impact on climate change from electricity, because its success is just as critical to stopping climate change. Future changes in income and population may come close to doubling the current environmental impacts of the food system. I believe creative, scalable solutions to this challenge are out there, and now is the time to invest in their R&D.

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Medicine

New pill shows early promise for blocking many strains of flu

CHEATING
The flu season is at its height in the Northern Hemisphere, but—as many are discovering—seasonal flu vaccines don’t always provide complete protection, because unexpected flu strains show up unannounced. Now, researchers report they’ve developed an experimental oral medicine that protects mice from a wide range of influenza viruses. If it works in humans, it could lead to a new pill to fight one of the deadliest infections humanity faces.

Every year, influenza causes a severe illness in some 3 million to 5 million people worldwide and kills up to 650,000, according to the World Health Organization. Medicine’s primary defense against the flu is the seasonal flu vaccine, an injected cocktail of killed viruses designed to prod the immune system to produce antibodies. Those antibodies disable the flu strains deemed most likely to circulate that season. But sometimes unforeseen strains end up spreading instead, rendering the vaccine less effective.

Normally, antibodies target an individual strain of flu. But in 2008, researchers discovered a class of so-called broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) in humans that can bind to and disable multiple flu strains at once. Detailed studies of one the best of these bnAbs, called CR6261, showed it binds to the stem portion of a mushroom-shaped hemagglutinin (HA) protein on the surface of the virus. This portion of the protein is virtually identical in multiple flu strains and is essential for enabling the virus to fuse with the membranes of cells it infects.

Close-up images of CR6261 bound to the HA stem revealed the antibody binds by holding on to five tiny indentations in the stem, much as a rock climber uses minute toe and finger holds to hang onto an otherwise sheer granite cliff face. “CR6261 targets all five pockets up and down the stem,” says Ian Wilson, a structural biologist at Scripps Research in San Diego, California.

In 2011 and 2012, researchers led by Wilson and David Baker at the University of Washington in Seattle used computer design techniques to create a much smaller protein called HB80.4 that binds to HA’s stem using the same holds and blocks viral fusion. But proteins typically don’t work as oral medicines because digestive enzymes break them down in the stomach.

Now, Wilson, Maria van Dongen, a drug discovery expert at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson in Leiden, The Netherlands, and their colleagues have used the previous discovery of HB80.4 to help them find small molecules that do the same thing. Van Dongen and her team created a lab test in which they first bound HB80.4 to the flu virus’s HA stem. They then screened 500,000 small molecules from the company’s proprietary library to see whether any bound to the same site so tightly that they essentially pushed HB80.4 out of the way.

They initially got some 9000 hits, which they whittled down to a top binder. They tweaked this compound further to create JNJ4796, a molecule containing six rings in a line, which not only binds better than HB80.4 to the HA stem’s indentations but has improved properties for acting as a drug, such as increased solubility in blood.

Van Dongen’s team showed the would-be drug blocks a group of flu viruses from infecting mouse and human cells in a petri dish. And studies in mice given the drug orally showed it prevented animals from getting sick after being exposed to lethal doses of multiple strains of the flu, the researchers report today in Science.

“It’s a beautiful story,” showing how scientists have steadily progressed toward coming up with a new antiflu drug, says Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. If the drug proves safe and effective in humans, it would join two approved oral medications—Tamiflu and Xofluza—that can help fight the flu. Unlike JNJ4796, which blocks viruses from entering cells, the approved drugs block viruses from spreading once they have already infected cells. But viruses have already shown signs of developing resistance to the current drugs. “It’s important to have drugs against different targets,” Kawaoka says.

That said, JNJ4796 doesn’t work against all flu viruses. The compound blocks influenza A group 1 viruses, which includes the H1N1 virus that accounts for nearly half of flu infections this season. But it doesn’t block two other classes—influenza A group 2 or influenza B viruses—that account for the rest of this year’s infections.

Nevertheless, Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, says the “elegant” screening approach Van Dongen’s team used to identify the initial HA binder could also help find drug leads that bind the other viral classes. The same strategy could even work for finding novel drugs to block other viral diseases, such as Ebola, he says. “This is just the start.”

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Entertainment

Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle shot and killed at 33

Nipsey Hustle shot dead

 — Rapper Nipsey Hussle was fatally shot outside the clothing store he founded to help rebuild his troubled South Los Angeles neighborhood, police said, cutting short a career that earned him a Grammy nomination this year for his major-label debut. He was 33.

Police said Hussle was one of three men shot Sunday outside Marathon Clothing, his store in South Los Angeles; the other two were in stable condition. A large crowd gathered outside the store as night fell. Detectives were canvassing the area for witnesses and looking to see if any surveillance video captured the shooting, police Lt. Chris Ramirez said. Investigators had not yet determined a motive or identified any suspects, Ramirez said."Our hearts are with the loved ones of Nipsey Hussle and everyone touched by this awful tragedy. L.A. is hurt deeply each time a young life is lost to senseless gun violence," Garcetti tweeted.

Hussle, who had two children and was engaged to actress Lauren London, was an Eritrean-American whose real name was Ermias Asghedom.

"This doesn't make any sense! My spirit is shaken by this!," Rihanna wrote while posting photos of Hussle with his daughter and another with his fiance. "Dear God may His spirit Rest In Peace and May You grant divine comfort to all his loved ones! I'm so sorry this happened to you @nipseyhussle."

Hussle was born on Aug. 15, 1985, in the same Crenshaw neighborhood where he died, and where he had been working to provide youths with alternatives to the hustling he did when he was younger.

Los Angeles Police Commissioner Steve Soboroff tweeted that he and Police Chief Michel Moore had agreed with Hussle to meet with him on Monday to "talk about ways he could help stop gang violence and help us help kids."

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Hussle explained where he was coming from in a Los Angeles Times interview last year: "In our culture, there's a narrative that says, 'Follow the athletes, follow the entertainers,'" he said. "And that's cool, but there should be something that says, 'Follow Elon Musk, follow (Mark) Zuckerberg.'"

Hussle said his first passion was music but getting resources was tough after leaving his mother's house at 14 to live with his grandmother. Hussle said he got involved in street life as he tried to support himself, and he joined the gang Rollin 60's Neighborhood Crips as a teenager.

Nipsey_Hussle_06799

"The culture of my area is the gang culture," he explained in a 2014 interview with VladTV. "So by being outside, being involved with hustling, being in the hood, doing things to try to get money, being young, you know riding your bike through the hood, getting shot at, your loved ones and homies that's your age getting killed, getting shot at ... it's like, we were just raised like if you with me and something goes now, I'm in it."

Music eventually happened for Hussle, who said in interviews that his stage name, a play on the 1960s and 70s rhyming standup comic Nipsey Russell, was given to him as a teen by an older friend because he was such a go-getter — always hustling.

Nipsey_Hussle_10218

Hussle released a number of successful mixtapes that he sold out of the trunk of his car, helping him create a buzz and gain respect from rap purists and his peers. In 2010 he placed on hip-hop magazine XXL's "Freshman Class of 2010" — a coveted list for up-and-coming hip-hop acts — alongside J. Cole Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa and others.

The proud West Coast rapper continued to build more hype for himself, scoring big when Jay-Z bought 100 copies of his 2013 mixtape "Crenshaw" for $100 each, and sent him a $10,000 check.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hussle and rapper YG released the protest song "FDT," short for "(Expletive) Donald Trump." He later hit a new peak with "Victory Lap," his critically acclaimed major-label debut album on Atlantic Records that made several best-of lists last year, from Billboard magazine to Complex. The album debuted at No. 4 on Billboard's 200 albums charts and featured collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Diddy, CeeLo Green and more.

Nipsey_Hussle_72647

At this year's Grammy Awards, "Victory Lap" was one of five nominees for best rap album in a year that hip-hop dominated the pop charts and streaming services and a number of top stars released projects, including Drake, Eminem and Kanye West. Cardi B's "Invasion of Privacy" won the honor.

"It's my debut album so for my first one (to be nominated) out the gate, it's like, it was overwhelming a little bit. It was ... inspiring, humbling," he said in an interview with the Recording Academy on the red carpet of the 2019 Grammys, which he attended with this daughter.

Many celebrities were mourning his death on social media. NBA star Steph Curry tweeted, "God please cover and restore @NipseyHussle right now!!!"

Nipsey_Hussle_07941

Snoop Dogg posted a video of himself and Hussle together on Instagram, and posted a second clip sending prayers to the rapper's family.

"Prayers out to the whole family man. This (stuff has) got to stop man," he said in the second video.

Rapper Nas mourned Hussle's death on Instagram and wrote, "It's dangerous to be an MC. Dangerous to be a b-ball player. It's dangerous to have money. Dangerous To Be A Black Man... Nipsey is a True voice. He will never be silenced."

Outside of music, Hussle said he wanted to provide hope and motivation to those who grew up in Crenshaw like him, and pay it forward. Forbes magazine reported in February that with business partner Dave Gross, the rapper had purchased the Crenshaw plaza where his Marathon Clothing store is located, and had plans to knock it down and "rebuild it as a six-story residential building atop a commercial plaza where a revamped Marathon store will be the anchor tenant."

Obit_Nipsey_Hussle_81789

"Watching Nipsey inspired me to invest and own in our communities," Emmy-nominated actress Issa Rae, also from Los Angeles, wrote on Twitter.

TV commentator Van Jones also tweeted, writing: "AWFUL. This brother was JUST getting started. He'd finally figured out how to use celebrity to build real wealth and opportunity in the hood. AND HE WAS DOING IT — FOR ALL OF US!!!"

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Natural science

Stacking concrete blocks is a surprisingly efficient way to store energy

Thanks to the modern electric grid, you have access to electricity whenever you want. But the grid only works when electricity is generated in the same amounts as it is consumed. That said, it’s impossible to get the balance right all the time. So operators make grids more flexible by adding ways to store excess electricity for when production drops or consumption rises.

About 96% of the world’s energy-storage capacity comes in the form of one technology: pumped hydro. Whenever generation exceeds demand, the excess electricity is used to pump water up a dam. When demand exceeds generation, that water is allowed to fall—thanks to gravity—and the potential energy turns turbines to produce electricity.

But pumped-hydro storage requires particular geographies, with access to water and to reservoirs at different altitudes. It’s the reason that about three-quarters of all pumped hydro storage has been built in only 10 countries. The trouble is the world needs to add a lot more energy storage, if we are to continue to add the intermittent solar and wind power necessary to cut our dependence on fossil fuels.

A startup called Energy Vault thinks it has a viable alternative to pumped-hydro: Instead of using water and dams, the startup uses concrete blocks and cranes. It has been operating in stealth mode until today (Aug. 18), when its existence will be announced at Kent Presents, an ideas festival in Connecticut.

On a hot July morning, I traveled to Biasca, Switzerland, about two hours north of Milan, Italy, where Energy Vault has built a demonstration plant, about a tenth the size of a full-scale operation. The whole thing—from idea to a functional unit—took about nine months and less than $2 million to accomplish. If this sort of low-tech, low-cost innovation could help solve even just a few parts of the huge energy-storage problem, maybe the energy transition the world needs won’t be so hard after all.

? Quartz is running a series called The Race to Zero Emissions that explores the challenges and opportunities of energy-storage technologies. Sign up here to be the first to know when stories are published.

Concrete plan

The science underlying Energy Vault’s technology is simple. When you lift something against gravity, you store energy in it. When you later let it fall, you can retrieve that energy. Because concrete is a lot denser than water, lifting a block of concrete requires—and can, therefore, store—a lot more energy than an equal-sized tank of water.

Bill Gross, a long-time US entrepreneur, and Andrea Pedretti, a serial Swiss inventor, developed the Energy Vault system that applies this science. Here’s how it works: A 120-meter (nearly 400-foot) tall, six-armed crane stands in the middle. In the discharged state, concrete cylinders weighing 35 metric tons each are neatly stacked around the crane far below the crane arms. When there is excess solar or wind power, a computer algorithm directs one or more crane arms to locate a concrete block, with the help of a camera attached to the crane arm’s trolley.

ENERGY VAULT
Simulation of a large-scale Energy Vault plant.

Once the crane arm locates and hooks onto a concrete block, a motor starts, powered by the excess electricity on the grid, and lifts the block off the ground. Wind could cause the block to move like a pendulum, but the crane’s trolley is programmed to counter the movement. As a result, it can smoothly lift the block, and then place it on top of another stack of blocks—higher up off the ground.

The system is “fully charged” when the crane has created a tower of concrete blocks around it. The total energy that can be stored in the tower is 20 megawatt-hours (MWh), enough to power 2,000 Swiss homes for a whole day.

When the grid is running low, the motors spring back into action—except now, instead of consuming electricity, the motor is driven in reverse by the gravitational energy, and thus generates electricity.

Big up

The innovation in Energy Vault’s plant is not the hardware. Cranes and motors have been around for decades, and companies like ABB and Siemens have optimized them for maximum efficiency. The round-trip efficiency of the system, which is the amount of energy recovered for every unit of energy used to lift the blocks, is about 85%—comparable to lithium-ion batteries which offer up to 90%.

Pedretti’s main work as the chief technology officer has been figuring out how to design software to automate contextually relevant operations, like hooking and unhooking concrete blocks, and to counteract pendulum-like movements during the lifting and lowering of those blocks.

Energy Vault keeps costs low because it uses off-the-shelf commercial hardware. Surprisingly, concrete blocks could prove to be the most expensive part of the energy tower. Concrete is much cheaper than, say, a lithium-ion battery, but Energy Vault would need a lot of concrete to build hundreds of 35-metric-ton blocks.

So Pedretti found another solution. He’s developed a machine that can mix substances that cities often pay to get rid off, such as gravel or building waste, along with cement to create low-cost concrete blocks. The cost saving comes from having to use only a sixth of the amount of cement that would otherwise have been needed if the concrete were used for building construction.

AKSHAT RATHI FOR QUARTZ
Rob Piconi (left) and Andrea Pedretti.

The storage challenge

The demonstration plant I saw in Biasca is much smaller than the planned commercial version. It has a 20-meter-tall, single-armed crane that lifts blocks weighing 500 kg each. But it does almost all the things its full-scale cousin, which the company is actively looking to sell right now, would do.

Robert Piconi has spent this summer visiting countries in Africa and Asia. The CEO of Energy Vault is excited to find customers for its plants in those parts of the world. The startup also has a sales team in the US and it now has orders to build its first commercial units in early 2019. The company won’t share details of those orders, but the unique characteristics of its energy-storage solution mean we can make a fairly educated guess at what the projects will look like.

Energy-storage experts broadly categorize energy-storage into three groups, distinguished by the amount of energy storage needed and the cost of storing that energy.

First, expensive technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries, can be used to store a few hours worth of energy—in the range of tens or hundreds of MWh. These could be charged during the day, using solar panels for example, and then discharged when the sun isn’t around. But lithium-ion batteries for the electric grid currently cost between $280 and $350 per kWh.

Cheaper technologies, such as flow batteries (which use high-energy liquid chemicals to hold energy) can be used to store weeks worth of energy—in the range of hundreds or thousands of MWh. This second category of energy storage could then be used, for instance, when there’s a lull in wind supply for a week or two.

The third category doesn’t exist yet. In theory, yet-to-be-invented, extra-cheap technologies could store months worth of energy—in the range of tens or hundreds of thousands of MWh—which would be used to deal with interseasonal demands. For example, Mumbai hits peak consumption in the summer when air conditioners are on full blast, whereas London peaks in winters because of household heating. Ideally, energy captured in one season could be stored for months during low-use seasons, and then deployed later in the high-use seasons.

David vs Goliath

Piconi estimates that by the time Energy Vault builds its 10th or so 35-MWh plant, it can bring costs down to about $150 per kWh. That means it can’t fill the needs of the third category of energy-storage use; to do that, costs would have to be closer to $10 per kWh. In theory, at the current capacity and price point, it could compete in the second category—if it could find a customer that wanted Energy Vault to build dozens of plants for a single grid. Realistically, Energy Vault’s best bet is to compete in the first category.

That said, some experts told Quartz that the cost of lithium-ion batteries, the current dominant battery technology, could fall to about $100 per kWh, which would make them cheaper even than Energy Vault when it comes to storing days or weeks worth of energy. And because batteries are compact, they can be transported vast distances. Most of the lithium-ion batteries in smartphones used all over the world, for example, are made in East Asia. Energy Vault’s concrete blocks will have to be built on-site, and each 35 MWh system would need a circular piece of land about 100 meters (300 feet) in diameter. Batteries need a fraction of that space to store the same amount of energy.

Batteries do have some limitations. The maximum life of lithium-ion batteries, for example, is 20 or so years. They also lose their capacity to store energy over time. And there aren’t yet reliable ways to recycle lithium-ion batteries.

Energy Vault’s plant can operate for 30 years with little maintenance and almost no fade in capacity. Its concrete blocks also use waste materials. So Piconi is confident that there’s still a niche that Energy Vault can fill: Places that have abundant access to land and building material, combined with the desire to have storage technologies that last for decades without fading in capacity.

Meanwhile, whether or not Energy Vault succeeds, it does make a strong case for the argument that, while everyone else is out looking for high-tech, futuristic battery innovation, there may be real value in thinking about how to apply low-tech solutions to 21st-century problems. Energy Vault built a functional test plant in just nine months, spending relative pennies. It’s a signal of sorts that some of the answers to our energy-storage problems may still be sitting hidden in plain sight.

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Natural science

Stacking concrete blocks is a surprisingly efficient way to store energy

Thanks to the modern electric grid, you have access to electricity whenever you want. But the grid only works when electricity is generated in the same amounts as it is consumed. That said, it’s impossible to get the balance right all the time. So operators make grids more flexible by adding ways to store excess electricity for when production drops or consumption rises.

About 96% of the world’s energy-storage capacity comes in the form of one technology: pumped hydro. Whenever generation exceeds demand, the excess electricity is used to pump water up a dam. When demand exceeds generation, that water is allowed to fall—thanks to gravity—and the potential energy turns turbines to produce electricity.

But pumped-hydro storage requires particular geographies, with access to water and to reservoirs at different altitudes. It’s the reason that about three-quarters of all pumped hydro storage has been built in only 10 countries. The trouble is the world needs to add a lot more energy storage, if we are to continue to add the intermittent solar and wind power necessary to cut our dependence on fossil fuels.

A startup called Energy Vault thinks it has a viable alternative to pumped-hydro: Instead of using water and dams, the startup uses concrete blocks and cranes. It has been operating in stealth mode until today (Aug. 18), when its existence will be announced at Kent Presents, an ideas festival in Connecticut.

On a hot July morning, I traveled to Biasca, Switzerland, about two hours north of Milan, Italy, where Energy Vault has built a demonstration plant, about a tenth the size of a full-scale operation. The whole thing—from idea to a functional unit—took about nine months and less than $2 million to accomplish. If this sort of low-tech, low-cost innovation could help solve even just a few parts of the huge energy-storage problem, maybe the energy transition the world needs won’t be so hard after all.

? Quartz is running a series called The Race to Zero Emissions that explores the challenges and opportunities of energy-storage technologies. Sign up here to be the first to know when stories are published.

Concrete plan

The science underlying Energy Vault’s technology is simple. When you lift something against gravity, you store energy in it. When you later let it fall, you can retrieve that energy. Because concrete is a lot denser than water, lifting a block of concrete requires—and can, therefore, store—a lot more energy than an equal-sized tank of water.

Bill Gross, a long-time US entrepreneur, and Andrea Pedretti, a serial Swiss inventor, developed the Energy Vault system that applies this science. Here’s how it works: A 120-meter (nearly 400-foot) tall, six-armed crane stands in the middle. In the discharged state, concrete cylinders weighing 35 metric tons each are neatly stacked around the crane far below the crane arms. When there is excess solar or wind power, a computer algorithm directs one or more crane arms to locate a concrete block, with the help of a camera attached to the crane arm’s trolley.

ENERGY VAULT
Simulation of a large-scale Energy Vault plant.

Once the crane arm locates and hooks onto a concrete block, a motor starts, powered by the excess electricity on the grid, and lifts the block off the ground. Wind could cause the block to move like a pendulum, but the crane’s trolley is programmed to counter the movement. As a result, it can smoothly lift the block, and then place it on top of another stack of blocks—higher up off the ground.

The system is “fully charged” when the crane has created a tower of concrete blocks around it. The total energy that can be stored in the tower is 20 megawatt-hours (MWh), enough to power 2,000 Swiss homes for a whole day.

When the grid is running low, the motors spring back into action—except now, instead of consuming electricity, the motor is driven in reverse by the gravitational energy, and thus generates electricity.

Big up

The innovation in Energy Vault’s plant is not the hardware. Cranes and motors have been around for decades, and companies like ABB and Siemens have optimized them for maximum efficiency. The round-trip efficiency of the system, which is the amount of energy recovered for every unit of energy used to lift the blocks, is about 85%—comparable to lithium-ion batteries which offer up to 90%.

Pedretti’s main work as the chief technology officer has been figuring out how to design software to automate contextually relevant operations, like hooking and unhooking concrete blocks, and to counteract pendulum-like movements during the lifting and lowering of those blocks.

Energy Vault keeps costs low because it uses off-the-shelf commercial hardware. Surprisingly, concrete blocks could prove to be the most expensive part of the energy tower. Concrete is much cheaper than, say, a lithium-ion battery, but Energy Vault would need a lot of concrete to build hundreds of 35-metric-ton blocks.

So Pedretti found another solution. He’s developed a machine that can mix substances that cities often pay to get rid off, such as gravel or building waste, along with cement to create low-cost concrete blocks. The cost saving comes from having to use only a sixth of the amount of cement that would otherwise have been needed if the concrete were used for building construction.

AKSHAT RATHI FOR QUARTZ
Rob Piconi (left) and Andrea Pedretti.

The storage challenge

The demonstration plant I saw in Biasca is much smaller than the planned commercial version. It has a 20-meter-tall, single-armed crane that lifts blocks weighing 500 kg each. But it does almost all the things its full-scale cousin, which the company is actively looking to sell right now, would do.

Robert Piconi has spent this summer visiting countries in Africa and Asia. The CEO of Energy Vault is excited to find customers for its plants in those parts of the world. The startup also has a sales team in the US and it now has orders to build its first commercial units in early 2019. The company won’t share details of those orders, but the unique characteristics of its energy-storage solution mean we can make a fairly educated guess at what the projects will look like.

Energy-storage experts broadly categorize energy-storage into three groups, distinguished by the amount of energy storage needed and the cost of storing that energy.

First, expensive technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries, can be used to store a few hours worth of energy—in the range of tens or hundreds of MWh. These could be charged during the day, using solar panels for example, and then discharged when the sun isn’t around. But lithium-ion batteries for the electric grid currently cost between $280 and $350 per kWh.

Cheaper technologies, such as flow batteries (which use high-energy liquid chemicals to hold energy) can be used to store weeks worth of energy—in the range of hundreds or thousands of MWh. This second category of energy storage could then be used, for instance, when there’s a lull in wind supply for a week or two.

The third category doesn’t exist yet. In theory, yet-to-be-invented, extra-cheap technologies could store months worth of energy—in the range of tens or hundreds of thousands of MWh—which would be used to deal with interseasonal demands. For example, Mumbai hits peak consumption in the summer when air conditioners are on full blast, whereas London peaks in winters because of household heating. Ideally, energy captured in one season could be stored for months during low-use seasons, and then deployed later in the high-use seasons.

David vs Goliath

Piconi estimates that by the time Energy Vault builds its 10th or so 35-MWh plant, it can bring costs down to about $150 per kWh. That means it can’t fill the needs of the third category of energy-storage use; to do that, costs would have to be closer to $10 per kWh. In theory, at the current capacity and price point, it could compete in the second category—if it could find a customer that wanted Energy Vault to build dozens of plants for a single grid. Realistically, Energy Vault’s best bet is to compete in the first category.

That said, some experts told Quartz that the cost of lithium-ion batteries, the current dominant battery technology, could fall to about $100 per kWh, which would make them cheaper even than Energy Vault when it comes to storing days or weeks worth of energy. And because batteries are compact, they can be transported vast distances. Most of the lithium-ion batteries in smartphones used all over the world, for example, are made in East Asia. Energy Vault’s concrete blocks will have to be built on-site, and each 35 MWh system would need a circular piece of land about 100 meters (300 feet) in diameter. Batteries need a fraction of that space to store the same amount of energy.

Batteries do have some limitations. The maximum life of lithium-ion batteries, for example, is 20 or so years. They also lose their capacity to store energy over time. And there aren’t yet reliable ways to recycle lithium-ion batteries.

Energy Vault’s plant can operate for 30 years with little maintenance and almost no fade in capacity. Its concrete blocks also use waste materials. So Piconi is confident that there’s still a niche that Energy Vault can fill: Places that have abundant access to land and building material, combined with the desire to have storage technologies that last for decades without fading in capacity.

Meanwhile, whether or not Energy Vault succeeds, it does make a strong case for the argument that, while everyone else is out looking for high-tech, futuristic battery innovation, there may be real value in thinking about how to apply low-tech solutions to 21st-century problems. Energy Vault built a functional test plant in just nine months, spending relative pennies. It’s a signal of sorts that some of the answers to our energy-storage problems may still be sitting hidden in plain sight.

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Culture

Welcome to the Mars

Welcome to Nextmars!

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Entertainment

Red Dead Redemption 2 review

There’s no way to say the following without sounding wildly definitive, so here goes…. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best looking video game of all time. Yes, EVER. And that includes Uncharted 4. It’s also the best game of the past five years. Compare this Wild West epic to GTA 3’s blocky Liberty City and its cast of fugly thugs you probably kneecapped on a tiny TV 17 years ago, and the evolution is astounding. At times, it’s scarcely believable how good Rockstar’s latest sandbox looks and feels. 

Not counting GTA 5’s remaster, this is the first game the studio has properly released this console generation. Unsurprisingly, in the years since the Los Santos sensation launched, Rockstar has built up a wealth of things to say. As such, RDR2 is a game of big themes and even bigger ideas. The evils of creeping capitalism. Corrupt regimes. The loss of long-held beliefs. With its contextual conversations, where its outlaw lead can either greet or antagonise hundreds of bespoke NPCs, the game also tries to move open-worlds forward. Here, your main interactions often involve swapping pleasantries (or devastating, old timey disses), while significant portions of the main story involve quiet, peaceful character-building. Compared to the wanton carousel of slaughter so many other sandboxes choose to ride, RDR2’s more thoughtful, less trigger-happy approach feels like a progressive step. Although that said, you still end up shooting hundreds of dudes. Don’t worry, most of ‘em deserve it. 

 

Playing on Xbox One X at 4K, this frontier fable isn’t just incredibly sharp, it boasts the most impressive lighting and weather effects around. Wait until you see a soupy morning mist coat the game’s southerly plantation fields or get caught in a screen-shaking thunderstorm, then try to disagree. If you’re lucky enough to own a high-end 4K TV, the visual splendour RDR2 routinely spits out is a match for even the most cutting-edge games on PC; remarkable seeing as this is running on (slightly) ageing consoles, not an insanely expensive graphics card. Even if you’re ‘only’ playing at 1080p on a standard Xbox One or PS4, this supremely pretty open-world is filled with incredible environments and super expressive character models. 

Cowboy meets World

A prequel and companion piece to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, the story of criminal cowboy Arthur Morgan unfolds like one of Sergio Leone’s sombre yet knowingly playful Spaghetti Westerns. Of course, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly lasts a couple of hours, not upwards of 70. A twisting tale of torn loyalties and outdated ideals, it features several returning (albeit younger) characters from its predecessor, including a fresh-faced John Marston, who has a pleasingly crucial role in Arthur’s journey. Mournful, melancholy, majestic, the game’s sweeping tale of out-of-their-depth outlaws plays out across the backdrop of a rapidly changing U.S. heartland in the dying days of the 19th century. 

Before wading further into the Old West weeds to tell you exactly why RDR2 is the best game of the last half decade, it’s difficult to entirely separate the adventure from the recent accusations levelled at Rockstar Games. Much of the conversation surrounding the launch of the open-world epic has focused on claims of a caustic culture of 100-hour working weeks. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is a complex issue that could spill deep into this review and beyond. RDR2 bears all the the hallmarks of an intensive, eight-year-long production schedule; a labour of love (and perhaps less positive aspects of triple-A development) which nevertheless stands a cut above its contemporaries. As of right now, the cowboy classic represents the current pinnacle of video game design. This is an all-time great: a masterpiece that deserves to be mentioned alongside Ocarina of Time, Half-Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Skyrim, and most recently, The Witcher 3.

RDR2 is a ready-made anecdote generator. Sit a dozen people down with the game and I’ll bet you Clint Eastwood’s last Fistful of Dollars every last one would see scenarios totally individual to their playthrough. Rockstar’s extraordinary open-world is as wide as it is deep. This is an adventure so stuffed full of amazing emergent moments, when the end credits roll after a full week of captivating, criminal play, there are enough incredible memories to fill ten lesser games. 

You might see a hungry gator pull a screeching boar into the bayou abyss of Lemoyne’s richly detailed swamplands (think Rockstar’s take on an old timey Louisiana). You’ll enter into countless slow-mo Dead Eye shootouts using Arthur’s impactful array of guns – some battles improve even further with RDR2’s optional, awesome first-person mode. You may fall for a horse (then quickly lasso the filly to make it your mount) after watching it joyfully roll around the flooded grasslands of Grizzlies West. Your Arthur might even be treated to a free jacket from one of the game’s general stores when a stranger rewards you for that time you saved their life near the snaking rivers of Cumberland Falls. Said good (totally random) deed most likely involved Morgan sucking snake venom out of the guy’s thigh. Now let's never speak of the serpent slurping incident again.

Wild West is best

The world these emergent activities occur in is astounding. Forget GTA 5’s Blaine County, or the blustery beauty of The Witcher 3’s fantasy kingdom: RDR2 has the most impressive map you’ve ever explored. Honestly, it’s astonishing. Far bigger than GTA’s fictional California – and remember, you can’t zip around Morgan’s Western world in a helicopter – it spans snow-covered mountain regions, dense swamps, dramatic oil fields lifted straight from There Will Be Blood, and even a sizeable New Orleans-inspired city. There’s also a secret, sprawling area folk will lose their minds over.

When it comes to scripted story missions, there’s no other open-world – well, perhaps GTA 5 – that comes close to matching the sheer quality of Redemption 2’s core campaign quests. Over 60-odd hours of sheriff-shooting, bank-robbing, bridge-blowing action, there’s only one generic, cookie cutter ‘tail the target’ objective that springs to mind. The majority of Arthur’s law-breaking missions all centre on strong story-building. Most involve constantly inventive tasks, including unlikely costume changes, outrageous modes of transport, or challenges as varied as mingling at a cocktail ball to teaching a young boy how to fish. Considering there are 104 main missions – for context, Franklin, Michael and Trevor’s Los Santos caper ‘merely’ has 79 – such variety is even more impressive. 

Story-wise, this is perhaps the boldest triple-A game ever made. Arthur’s tale undergoes the least predictable, most ambitious twists you could ever imagine. If you’re sensitive to very minor spoilers, you might want to step away until the next paragraph. Still here? Lovely. Then let’s just say the final 15 hour epilogue (yup, you read that right) is nothing short of astonishing. Wholly surprising and thoughtfully mature, it’s an example of the sort of high caliber storytelling we all deserve in 2018, but few big budget games have delivered since 2013’s The Last of Us.

 There are also a ridiculous amount of detailed side systems in RDR2, and every last one is worth your time. Engrossing animal hunts involve tracking scent trails before targeting a critter’s vitals organs, and they’re all more engaging and in-depth than every Cabela’s game combined. Upgrading your gang camp’s food, medicine and ammo tents also adds a tactical management element to the action, while fully fledged weapons-crafting and meters affecting Arthur’s health, hunger and stamina ensure you have to keep your outlaw’s belly full and fitness up if he’s to stay at his sharpshooting best. 

RDR2 is so detailed, even Morgan’s hair and beard grow in real(ish) time. If you don’t want Arthur ending up like some Wild West yeti, treat your cowpoke to regular trips to one of the game’s barbers. In a cute nod to CJ from GTA: San Andreas, the outlaw also loses or gains weight if he eats too little or too much – don’t worry, the results are less cartoonishly exaggerated than shoving Clucking Bell bucket meals down Carl's throat. Couple this with extensive wardrobe options, which let you tweak everything from your antihero’s shirts and vests, to even the spurs on his boots, and few open-worlds give you this much agency over your character. 

Face the music 

A word – alright, several gushing sentences – on the music. Woody Jackson has done a sensational job on the soundtrack. The composer has scored every Rockstar title since the original Redemption, and this is his most aurally arousing work yet. The last game was celebrated for several wonderfully judged music moments, the most famous being Marston’s ride into Mexico to Jose Gonzalez’s ‘Far Away’. While the prequel may not have a song that’s as note-perfect as that haunting melody, the tracks that accompany the story’s key moments all work beautifully. As for general background music, Jackson’s score is both electrifying and eclectic. Somehow, it can dovetail between shredding your nerves during a terrifying cave assault involving cannibals, and perking up a scene where your cowboy chums celebrate some successful DIY by downing all the whiskeyAre there criticisms? Of course. For large parts of the game, there’s no fast-travel, which is bound to rub time-poor people up the wrong way. The first act is also downright slow, especially placed next to GTA 5’s barnburner opening. Some may struggle with this initial blast of uncompromising pacing, though when the full map open ups, the wait ultimately proves more than worth it. The early camp-building options are also jettisoned too soon, and certain missions can involve annoying, insta-fail objectives. And while the epilogue is generally brilliant, the last half hour lacks the brilliantly lean gut punch of the first Redemption’s finale.

Just how good is Red Dead Redemption 2? Over the past few years, I’d argue the only games that deserve to be considered at this same ultra elite level are GTA 5, Metal Gear Solid 5, and The Witcher 3. This is a stone cold 5/5 classic that combines brilliant writing – Rockstar’s Houser brothers deliver another affecting, scythe-sharp script – amazing tech, and one of the most boldly structured plots to ever grace a triple-A title. The story is so well told, you’ll emotionally invest more in a horse during one crucial scene than you did even for Kratos in this year’s stellar God of War revival. If you only buy one game this year, it absolutely has to be this wondrous Wild West quest. 

Reviewed on Xbox One X, and if you want to know which 4K TV is best for Red Dead Redemption 2 we've got you covered.

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Technology

Chinese tech giant Huawei has developed its own operating system as a 'plan B' in case it's barred by the US government from using Google and Microsoft products


Huawei
Huawei Rotating Chairman Guo Ping, center, speaks in front of other executives during a press conference in Shenzhen, China's Guangdong province. AP/Kin Cheung

  • The Chinese tech-giant Huawei confirmed it has developed its own operating system that could replace Google's Android and Microsoft's Windows should it be barred from using American-made products, according to a recent report by the German newspaper Die Welt.
  • The prospect of being banned from such products has intensified for Huawei in the wake of its recent lawsuit against the US government.
  • "We have prepared our own operating system. Should it ever happen that we can no longer use these systems, we would be prepared," Huawei executive Richard Yu said, according to a translation of the original German text.
  • Huawei currently uses Android's operating system for its smartphone devices and Windows for its laptop and tablets.

UPDATE: Since this article was originally published in March 2019, Google severed ties with Huawei following an executive order from US President Donald Trump. Here's what that means if you own a Huawei phone.

The Chinese tech giant Huawei confirmed it has developed its own operating system that could replace Google's Android and Microsoft's Windows should it be barred from using American-made products, according to a recent report by the German newspaper Die Welt.

The prospect of being banned from such products has intensified for Huawei in the wake of its recent lawsuit against the US government.

"We have prepared our own operating system. Should it ever happen that we can no longer use these systems, we would be prepared," Huawei executive Richard Yu said, according to a translation of the original German text.

A Huawei spokesperson did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment on the report.

Huawei is suing the US government for not allowing its federal officials to use the Chinese firm's telecom equipment over security concerns. The company has said that the US government has failed to provide evidence to substantiate the security claims and that the US is acting unconstitutionally.





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