In part 1 of this blog, I used water and food as a starting place for how advanced materials are making our world better by improving quality of life in the developing world. I covered topics such as desalination, air conditioning, turning natural gas into food, and even eating bugs!
Of course, insects aren't all good. Malaria, dengue fever, and other mosquito-borne infections are still major killers in the developing world. Pangaea portfolio company Vestaron has found that synthetic mimics of its biopesticides are very effective killers of mosquitoes, with the same benevolent toxicology of its EPA-approved biopesticide. People don't generally like the idea of using synthetic chemicals to address large ecologies, but in this case it is a biorational molecule. The key is cost; a synthetic molecule can be made for a tiny fraction of what it costs to ferment and formulate a natural peptide. When we're talking about large scale water treatment or bed nets for the developing world, low cost is critical. In this case, Vestaron is able to achieve both low cost and low toxicity to non-target organisms.
Although large portions of the developing world are "off the grid", not yet enjoying the benefits of reliable, convenient electricity in every building, it is largely blessed with a surplus of solar radiation. Solar energy is a well-established materials trick; photovoltaic semiconductors absorb photons and emit electrons. But it's not always sunny. Even in the most sun-baked of deserts, it's still nighttime half the time.
The key item still missing from the realization of 24/7 reliable solar power is energy storage. Of course, solar panels are being hooked up to batteries already, but the cost of the storage exceeds the cost of the energy generation, more than doubling the cost of the complete system. This is not good for the developing world, where cost counts even more than it does here. Fortunately, Pangaea has recently invested in ESS Tech, a company that solves this problem with its commercially-available iron-based flow batteries. Yes, it literally runs on rust. Literally dirt cheap. Iron has multiple oxidation states, allowing for a flow battery that has the same elements on either side of its membrane. Although such flow batteries were demonstrated forty years ago, they suffered from low efficiency and low lifetime, key challenges which ESS has overcome.
One of the most powerful trends lifting people out of poverty is the adoption of mobile phones, often even in advance of grid electrification. Many businesses exist just for cell phone charging. The next big step up in the democratization of information will be when the developing world gets widespread access to broadband internet. Smart phones are the most likely way for this to happen, but bright emissive displays are not appropriate in markets where people largely use their phones outdoors, yet cannot reliably charge them every day. While there is certainly an opportunity for next generation high energy density batteries to make an impact here, I believe the nearer term opportunity is for low power displays, probably non-emissive. The challenge is to have a non-emissive display that can still deliver the smart phone experience users want, including video, games, video calling; it must be capable of full color, high frame rate video. Current technologies such as eInk simply can't do that, but Pangaea is evaluating technologies that can.
I can't possibly cover every opportunity in the scope of even a two-part blog, and I've left out big areas such as building materials (see our investments in Switch Materials and CarbonCure), transportation, and climate change. Nevertheless, I hope this has given you some ideas as to how new advances in chemistry, biology, and materials science can make our world – and everyone's lives – better.