Recently, Pangaea has been working on a number of opportunities that might not only make our world better (in terms of sustainability), but also look like they can make our lives better (in terms of quality of life). And when I say "our lives", I mean everybody's lives. In this two-part blog, I want to provide a brief overview of some of the opportunities we are following that we think can help raise the standard of living for some of the poorest people on the planet.
One of the clear differentiators between the developed and developing worlds is the presumed ability to take access to clean, fresh drinking water for granted. However, this year on the west coast, with the current drought, we are seeing that even the developed world can't necessarily make this assumption. Yuka Yoshizumi of Pangaea LP Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp., wrote a blog about the materials opportunities in water purification membranes while she was seconded to Pangaea last year (KAITEKI And The Water Cycle), and Pangaea associate Sarah Applebaum covered the space in her 2013 blog (Material Innovation in the Water Cycle: A Deep Well of Innovation). Cleaning up water is clearly a job for materials.
Reverse osmosis, the leading incumbent technology for water purification and desalination, has been in commercial use for 40 years, but there is a move to forward osmosis. What's the difference? Principally cost, either from expensive, capital-intensive plants for reverse osmosis, or from high energy costs due to poor efficiency. Also, reverse osmosis is a commercial reality, whereas forward osmosis is an area in need of technical disruption, perhaps via a membrane that could minimize internal concentration polarization, or the development of an ideal draw solution that could optimize the system efficiency.
Water is not only used for drinking. Air conditioning is a big consumer of water, and as standards of living in the developing world improve, demand is taking off. Unfortunately, much of the developing world is located in hot climate areas that also often suffer from high humidity and a lack of fresh, clean water. Pangaea has been evaluating high efficiency air conditioning technologies that can use unclean or salt water to effectively provide cooling. This amazing trick is also enabled by breakthroughs in membrane technology.
One of the biggest consumers of water is agriculture. We've looked at exciting possibilities in greatly reducing the water requirements of crop production, such as seed coatings and soil amendments that bind water at the plant roots instead of allowing it to run off. These materials, in higher quantity, even have the potential to bind sand, with the long-term vision of making the deserts bloom. In the future, I have a hope that this may reverse the recent trend of decline in arable land.
Sensors are already being adopted to help with water management in agriculture, but there is potential for so much more. Low-energy sensors equipped with energy harvesting technology could be wirelessly networked to trigger the application of water, fertilizers, pesticides, plant growth stimulants, etc. A cheaper option, or at least more easily maintained and upgraded, would be to equip a drone with the sensors and the crop chemicals, so that a single piece of equipment could service a large area. This will require not only new sensor technologies and crop protection chemicals, but further improvements in battery chemistries, such as that being done by Pangaea portfolio company Envia. Increases in energy density will allow batteries to be smaller and lighter, which can increase the range of the drone and/or provide more room for sensors or computer hardware.
I will skip the role of biologicals in increasing crop yield as I've covered that in some previous blogs (Biopesticides: The next crop of cleantech home runs, Black Spots On The Green Revolution, Neonicotinoids: Devastating The Food Chain). Our portfolio companies Vestaron and NewLeaf Symbiotics are making incredible progress in this area.
As standards of living improve, people in developing countries are demanding a more Western diet, heavy on the animal protein. Unfortunately, the Western protein staples are also poster children for unsustainability. You may have read Purnesh's previous blog on our portfolio company Calysta (Gas to liquid (GTL) technology; disruptive change is coming!), but since then, there has been a very surprising development. Calysta is now using natural methanotroph microbes to convert natural gas to protein, which is sold into the aquaculture market, and hopefully soon, feed for livestock. This turns the old food-versus-fuel argument on its head by literally making food from fuel. In fact, at a fraction of the cost of sugar, natural gas is the cheapest carbon-based feedstock for food as well as fuels.
Of course, there are other sustainable sources of protein. Most of the world eats insects. Actually, we all do, at least unintentionally and in small amounts (yes, even you vegetarians and vegans). Yet, in North America, we squirm at the thought (even though most of us happily eat shrimp, which really doesn't seem much different to me). Even if we aren't quite ready for grasshopper smoothies, insects are part of our food chain. Pangaea has looked at a number of start-up companies that use insects to convert vegetable food waste into useful animal protein, which is sold into the feed market.
I'll have more on how advanced materials can make our world better in part two, covering health, energy, and communication opportunities to improve the quality of life in the developing world.