Krzysztof Strug
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This economist wants to abolish private property using blockchain

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Some months ago, Glen Weyl – a principal researcher at Microsoft Research with a liking for nineteenth-century political economics – noticed that someone had been tweeting about him. A guy called Vitalik Buterin had posted something on Weyl’s proposal for a new wealth tax.

Weyl had never heard of him, but quickly realised that Buterin was a celebrity in some quarters. Indeed, Buterin was one of the brightest stars in the cryptocurrency galaxy: in 2013, at only 19, he had proposed the creation of Ethereum, a blockchain-based project aimed at building a decentralised version of the internet. Ethereum’s subsequent launch, in 2015, had transformed Buterin into a guru-like figure: a mysterious savant to whom everybody looking for crypto-related answers would turn. Now, Buterin seemed to have found some answers in Weyl’s work.

At the time, Weyl was co-writing a book which explored his wealth tax idea, among other things. “I thought he was interesting, so I asked him to have a look at a copy of the book before it came out,” he tells me. “He sent back 20 pages of comments.”

We are sitting in a cafe in the basement of Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall. Weyl, a personable, 33-year-old American with curly dark hair and blue eyes, says that he wants to address a bunch of seemingly intractable problems including economic stagnation, inequality, corporate abuse, the housing crisis, and liberal democracy's failings. His solution? Abolishing private property, and doing away with the "one person, one vote” system. And that’s just the start.

The full plan is in Radical Markets, the book Weyl co-authored with University of Chicago professor Eric Posner, and on which Buterin commented so lengthily. Weyl says that, like innumerable recent political essays, Radical Markets was partly conceived as a reaction to the political upsets of 2016.

“When Brexit happened I realised that we really needed hope in order to avoid this wave of populism, that we needed to have a different idea about how to solve inequality” Weyl says. “That’s how we decided to write the book. Then Trump made it even more important.”

Posner and Weyl’s post-mortem subverts a widespread reading of the current predicament— the one that economic inequality, stagnation and the consequent descent into populism are all pathological consequences of free-market capitalism. In fact, Weyl argues, we are where we are because we did not embrace market principles with enough rigour, allowing for an unhealthy concentration of property and power in the hands of a few monopolists.

Drawing on the teachings of liberal thinkers such as Henry George and John Stuart Mill, Weyl proposes to transform society into a continual auctioning process: people should set an ideal price for each of their possessions—houses, cars, pieces of clothes—and be ready to sell it to whoever comes forward bidding for it.

Obviously, people keen to latch onto their stuff would set a very high price to keep bidders at bay. Here’s the rub: in Posner and Weyl’s blueprint, every person would pay a hefty tax on their overall wealth, which would of course be higher the higher the self-assessed value of their chattels. In other words, property will either be auctioned and decentralised across the society, or generate a high tax revenue, which could go on to fund a Universal Basic Income for the have-nots.

Glen applies the same decentralising logic to democracy, proposing a new system called Quadratic Voting. Weyl maintains that the "one person, one vote" setup results in a tyranny of the majority; instead, he envisions an electoral system where each voter is allotted a certain number of “voting credits” they can dispose of however they like. Voters could stick with the one vote convention, or maybe saving their credits for a while and cast them all in an election or referendum whose result they particularly care about.

The idea is that minorities who feel strongly about a certain issue won’t be ridden roughshod over by an unthinking majority. In the same breath, the price for each extra vote will exponentially grow, limiting vote-hoarders’ power.

“If racists threw all their votes at racist measures, they would have no impact on anything else,” Weyl says.

Other topics Posner and Weyl grapple with in their book include antitrust regulation, immigration, and data privacy (they propose a marketplace for personal data).

The boldness of their proposals was bound to catch many people’s eye: when we meet in London, Weyl has just left the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change; in less than an hour, he’ll have to speed away to the office of the Behavioural Insight Team — a company, partly owned by the British government, researching behavioural science’s policy applications. The day before, he says, he was in Brussels, meeting MEPs and EU officials.

Several politicians and policy-makers are interested in exploring what use Posner and Weyl’s ideas might have in fields such as anti-trust regulation, and data protection. But a full-blown implementation of Weyl’s blueprint (no private property and all) is unlikely to happen in the real world anytime soon. Still, that doesn’t mean those ideas cannot be tested out somewhere. Which brings us back to Vitalik Buterin.

That 20-page-long comment was not the end of it; it was the beginning of an intellectual partnership between Buterin and Weyl. In May, they published a joint manifesto in which they announced they would join efforts “to find ways to harness markets and technology to radically decentralize power of all sorts”. The two are now in touch almost daily, and are working together on an essay.

“I have really enjoyed getting to know [Buterin]. He knows a lot about economics. He’s very self critical, open-minded and compassionate,” Weyl says. "Ideologically, we are very close."

If you think about it, a blockchain is the ideal testing ground for Weyl’s utopia. The over-hyped digital ledger was first conceived as a mechanism for exchanging virtual money—i.e. bitcoin—in a peer-to-peer fashion. But over time, the blockchain community has set its sights higher. At its core, Ethereum, like many other blockchain platforms, is an experiment in economic design: it aspires to become a completely leaderless market-based community, where users can exchange any sort of virtual assets— cryptocurrency, documents, data— without going through a middleman. Yet, it lacks decidedly in the governance department— a feature that chimes with many of its members’ libertarian leanings, but which on the other hand has caused frictions, gridlocks and splits in the past.

Buterin wants to address that, and the principles laid out in Radical Markets might be a way of guaranteeing Ethereum’s decentralised nature and establishing some kind of quadratic vote-based governance. Already, Ethereum’s head of special project Virgil Griffith has started searching for people willing to implement Posner and Weyl’s ideas on the platform. (One of the big hurdles is the question of identity: key for voting, but almost impossible to verify on an anonymous network.)

Weyl himself couldn’t be more chuffed. “It's a really amazing chance to have people experiment and learn what the limitations are, what's necessary to make these ideas work,” he says.

It is somewhat funny that one of the largest communities built on the blockchain — a technology ostensibly rooted in a hardcore libertarian worldview — is now toying with ideas such as the abolition of private property. All the same, Buterin’s backing holds formidable sway in the space: Weyl’s may well wind up becoming Ethereum’s chief economic thinker. That, though, is not a label he likes.

“I wouldn't want to be that: these ideas belong to the community,” Weyl says. “I don't believe in private property over physical things and I don't believe in private property over ideas.”

Updated 14.06.18, 15:00: Buterin didn't tweet about Quadratic Voting, he tweeted about Weyl's idea for an ownership tax.

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5 days ago
Warsaw, Poland
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Trump-Kim summit in Singapore: why uranium enrichment will be a key point in talks

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President Trump will soon negotiate the future of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a historic meeting in Singapore. The specific agenda of the meeting isn’t totally clear, but limiting nuclear enrichment was a key element in past negotiations with North Korea and will likely be integral to any future deal.

The summit comes just a week after Iran announced plans to build a new facility to make hardware used to enrich uranium, a hint that it would move forward with assembling centrifuges to potentially build nuclear weapons if the deal Trump pulled the US out of falls apart.

It’s shaping up to be the most dramatic — and perhaps dangerous — moment of Trump’s presidency so far, with the future of Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, and their uranium enrichment activities specifically, hanging in the balance.

Enriching nuclear material is a crucial step in harnessing the atom to generate electricity and in building the most devastating weapon humanity has ever devised, the atomic bomb. A couple dozen countries in the world have nuclear power plants, but 13 have figured out how to do nuclear enrichment themselves, and nine of them have built nuclear weapons.

Given the extraordinary destructive power of a nuclear weapon, keeping a close eye on enrichment around the world is crucial to global security. But in the decades since the Manhattan Project, the enrichment process has gone from a massive, power-hungry, brute-force operation to a sophisticated and potentially clandestine affair.

Since it’s immensely important in international diplomacy right now, it’s worthwhile to understand what goes into enriching nuclear material, how the nuclear process works, and the strategies for keeping it in check.

Uranium and plutonium are the key elements in a nuclear reaction

Like the spark that ignites a fire, a nuclear chain reaction can propagate from a very small input. And like a controlled flame, a nuclear reaction can provide useful energy. Unharnessed, it can destroy cities.

However, specific starting materials, most commonly uranium and plutonium, must be processed or enriched to drive a chain reaction.

Here are some of the basics: Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element in the periodic table, with an atomic number of 92, representing the number of protons in its nucleus.

It’s scattered in trace amounts in “virtually all soil, rock and water,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Some countries have tried to extract uranium from seawater, but right now it’s far more cost-effective to mine it in mineral deposits.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency, about 55,000 metric tons of uranium are mined every year. The top producers are Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia — which account for two-thirds of the world’s uranium mining.

Plutonium, on the other hand, is a synthetic element. It has an atomic number of 94 and is formed in nuclear reactors as a byproduct of neutrons being captured by uranium. Plutonium can be acquired from reprocessing spent fuel from conventional nuclear power plants, or reactors can be designed specifically to produce plutonium for use in weapons.

But making plutonium usually requires a reactor to begin with, so uranium remains the choke point for both uranium-based and plutonium-based weapons.

The nuclear reaction is the same for weapons and energy. The desired outcome is different.

So you have your uranium (or plutonium). Can you now make a bomb?

Not quite. Let’s wade into the history and science of splitting atoms to set the stage for nuclear negotiations today.

Researchers found since the 1930s that they could bombard uranium with neutrons to create heavier isotopes and form new elements that have never before been seen in nature, like plutonium.

An isotope is a variety of an element with the same chemical structure but a different internal composition. In comparing isotopes of an element like uranium, the atomic number stays the same, but the isotope number — the sum of the protons and neutrons in a nucleus — can differ. Uranium-235 (U-235), for example, has three fewer neutrons than uranium-238 (U-238), but they undergo the same chemical reactions.

In their experiments, German scientists Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann in 1938 found another curious result. Among the atoms resulting from neutron bombardment were much smaller atoms like barium, which has an atomic number of 56. Meitner, along with Austrian scientist Otto Frisch, realized that this was the result of splitting the uranium atom into smaller atoms, a phenomenon that also emits a huge amount of energy. The finding marked the dawn of the nuclear age.

Isotopes of atoms that can split apart (undergo fission) are described as fissile. When there are enough fissile atoms close together — a quantity known as critical mass — the particles ejected by fission can strike other fissile atoms, triggering more atoms to split apart and so on. The energy released in the process can generate heat to boil water to spin a turbine or wreak devastation from a bomb.

But not all uranium atoms can easily split apart and trigger a chain reaction. In fact, most can’t. In nature, about 99.7 percent of uranium is in the form of the non-fissile isotope U-238.

Only about 0.7 percent of uranium occurs in the fissile form of U-235. And in nature, U-235 is in such a low concentration that even if a stray neutron were to strike it with enough force to break it apart, it’s unlikely that the resulting neutrons would find another U-235 atom nearby to continue the reaction.

To produce a chain reaction, you need to increase the concentration of U-235 relative to U-238. This is called enrichment.

For plutonium, all isotopes are fissile, but some are easier to use in nuclear weapons than others. Plutonium rich in the isotope Pu-239, called weapons-grade plutonium, poses the fewest technical challenges and can be extracted from nuclear fuel that is only irradiated in a reactor for a short time.

Making uranium and plutonium useful is a major technical challenge

Enrichment is the sorting problem from hell.

Instead of uranium atoms, imagine you have a bag filled with 1,000 marbles, each identical in material, size, shape, color, and texture. However, there are seven marbles in the bag that weigh 1.3 percent less than the others. For 5-gram, 1.5-centimeter diameter marbles, we’re talking about a difference of about 65 milligrams for the light marbles, or the weight of a few grains of sand.

Since it’s tedious to weigh each individual marble, you’ll want to come up with some sort of group sorting mechanism. But weight is the only thing setting them apart and the difference between desired and undesired marbles is small, so the sorting process won’t be perfect and you’ll still have a mixture of light and heavy marbles at the end. So you run the results through the sorter again. And again. And again.


With each iteration, you have a higher percentage of lighter marbles, but every repetition costs time, money, and energy.

And remember, the marbles in this analogy are atoms, the smallest unit of matter, so they’re that much more difficult to manipulate, and it takes far longer to get the quantities you need when you’re trying to go from atoms of uranium to tons of it.

For a nuclear reactor cooled with ordinary water, you need only about 3 to 5 percent U-235 enrichment, but you need it by the ton. A 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor uses 27 tons of nuclear fuel per year. A comparable coal-fired plant burns 2.5 million tons of coal per year.

Uranium with more than 20 percent U-235 is considered highly enriched. Conversely, the residual uranium with U-235 removed is called depleted (this is the uranium used in armor-piercing ammunition).

A nuclear weapon, on the other hand, requires even higher enrichment, typically around 90 percent, though it needs much less mass than a reactor. The Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, used 141 pounds of highly enriched uranium, though only 2 percent actually underwent fission due to inefficiencies in the design of the bomb. The Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki used just 14 pounds of plutonium.

The International Atomic Energy Agency defines a “significant quantity” of nuclear material for a weapon to be 55 pounds of U-235 within a quantity of highly enriched uranium, or 17.6 pounds of plutonium.

Some countries with civilian nuclear reactors, like South Korea, don’t bother with the whole enrichment process and have opted instead to buy their nuclear fuel on the open international market. But for others, like France, mastering the fuel cycle is a vital pillar of their energy strategy.

The enrichment process has become easier, which makes controlling nuclear weapons harder

Both Iran and North Korea have developed surreptitious enrichment networks for producing nuclear material. These facilities are hard to detect and easy to reconfigure, so without regular inspections and monitoring, the possibility of a clandestine nuclear weapons program remains.

This wasn’t always the case.

The Manhattan Project marked the first successful effort to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. One of the earliest and most primitive enrichment techniques used in this endeavor was gaseous diffusion. Here, uranium is reacted with fluorine to make uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). The gas is then pumped through membranes, the idea being that lighter isotopes of uranium would diffuse faster than heavier isotopes (fluorine has only one naturally occurring isotope, so any differences in the mass of the gas come from uranium).

But each stage of the process could only separate a tiny amount of uranium, so gaseous diffusion required huge buildings and devoured energy to power the pumps needed to move the gas through the separation stages.

“The original ways of doing it were very inefficient,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They required very large amounts of land, lots of power.”

For example, the K-25 gaseous diffusion building in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was completed in 1945 at a cost of $500 million. It was half a mile long and 1,000 feet wide, making it the largest building under one roof at the time. The facility employed 12,000 workers at its peak and consumed enough electricity to power 20,000 homes for a year.

These days, uranium enrichment is much more subtle. The most common tool is the gas centrifuge. This is where uranium hexafluoride gas is fed into a column spinning at upward of 100,000 rotations per minute.

As the centrifuge spins, the heavier isotopes push harder against its wall than the lighter ones. The centrifuge also induces the gas to circulate within the device, further increasing separation. The output of one centrifuge is then fed into another and another in an arrangement called a cascade.

Centrifuges are more energy-efficient than other enrichment techniques and are harder to detect. The centrifuges themselves don’t take up much floor space, so their plants have a much smaller physical footprint than gaseous diffusion facilities. They also don’t draw as much electricity, nor do they leave much of a heat signature.

A declassified 1960 report from a contractor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory noted that “it would not be too difficult to build a relatively small clandestine gas centrifuge plant capable of producing sufficient enriched uranium for a small number of nuclear weapons.”

The point is a primitive enrichment apparatus is massive; a modern one is small.

“Centrifuges are the only [enrichment process] today that makes economic sense,” said R. Scott Kemp, director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy at MIT. “[A centrifuge plant] capable of producing a weapon can fit in a garage or a small office building, and the energy consumption is less than typical office lighting per square foot.”

That’s why arms control discussions focus so much on centrifuges, and why the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — went to great lengths to specify the number and type of centrifuges allowed, as well as how closely they are monitored. Centrifuges are the key variable in how long it takes to enrich a usable quantity of uranium, whether for fuel or for weapons.

To produce nuclear energy, where you need tons of uranium but at low levels of enrichment, an enrichment operation would need many parallel cascades, but only a handful of enrichment stages. For a weapon, which demands kilograms of uranium but at much higher enrichment, it’s almost the reverse: You would only need a few parallel cascades, but those cascades would involve dozens of stages. With enough centrifuges, getting enough usable uranium for either would only take a few weeks.

The term of art for the amount of effort required to enrich uranium is a separative work unit, or SWU. It’s built on a complicated formula, and it’s useful for describing the efficiency of a centrifuge cascade. It takes about 120,000 SWU per year to produce enough fuel for a 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor, but it only takes about 5,000 SWU to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. So a country with enough enrichment capacity to sustain a small nuclear energy program theoretically has enough throughput to build dozens of weapons.

And switching between a nuclear fuel centrifuge arrangement and a nuclear weapon arrangement isn’t all that difficult or time-consuming. It’s a matter of changing how pipes are routed, so converting a plant from supplying energy material to supplying weapons material could take no more than a few months.

“That’s the real danger,” the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Lyman said. “Whether or not you can enrich to ‘highly enriched’ just really depends on if you have enough [centrifuges] to string them together.”

Uranium enrichment is the main focus of the Iran nuclear deal

So how do you design an enrichment system that can produce nuclear energy but not a nuclear weapon?

You can’t, really.

The expertise and technology overlap too much. This was the fundamental technical challenge behind the Iran nuclear deal. Iran remains a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty; North Korea withdrew in 2003. India, Israel, and Pakistan also have nuclear weapons but haven’t signed the NPT.

Under the NPT, countries that don’t currently possess nuclear weapons are prevented from developing or spreading nuclear weapons technologies, but they can pursue nuclear activities for peaceful purposes like research or energy.

In 2003, Iran was found to have violated nuclear activity reporting requirements in the NPT, which spurred the international effort to get Iran to suspend its enrichment work. The US has argued that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium since it was caught violating some of the safeguards imposed by the NPT, though Iran has not violated the treaty itself.

The goal of the six countries that signed the JCPOA with Iran in 2015 was to limit what is called “breakout time.” That is, how long it would take Iran to enrich enough material for a nuclear weapon if the country suddenly decided to ditch all international agreements and aggressively ramp up enrichment.

Prior to the agreement, Iran’s breakout time was estimated at four to six weeks. The provisions of the deal (Vox’s Zack Beauchamp put together an excellent explainer on this) aimed to extend this to more than a year, which would give international observers time to detect such a shift and enact countermeasures.

In short, the agreement made Iran limit uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent and decommission about 14,000 of its centrifuges, allowing just roughly 5,000 of Iran’s first-generation units to keep spinning. These IR-1 centrifuges produce between 0.75 and 1 SWU per device, whereas the IR-8 centrifuges Iran was developing at the time of the deal could theoretically manage 24 SWU, making them much more efficient.

Iran also gave up much of its low-enriched uranium stockpile, going from 25,000 pounds to 660 pounds. Iranian officials also agreed to pour concrete into their Arak reactor, a potential source of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

In addition, the JCPOA requires round-the-clock monitoring of Iran’s enrichment facilities in Fordow and Natanz, with only the Natanz facility allowed to operate. These are likely the only places where Iran can enrich uranium for a weapon.

“I think in Iran, we are pretty confident that there is no undeclared plant,” said Alex Glaser, director of the Nuclear Futures Laboratory at Princeton University.

International observers are also monitoring Iran’s uranium mining operations.

As it stands, the agreement effectively eliminates Iran’s prospects for enriching enough uranium for a civilian nuclear program and makes it much more tedious to gather the material required for a weapon. What little enrichment Iran is allowed under the deal is effectively a face-saving measure. But, critics argue, pausing Iran’s entire nuclear enrichment apparatus only extends the breakout time by a few months since the country could just rebuild or reinstall its centrifuges if it decided to leave the agreement.

In fact, it might be beneficial for observers to keep a small enrichment program in place. “If they shut down the nuclear program entirely, actually your insight into what’s going on in Iran drops precipitously,” Kemp said. Surveillance — both open and clandestine — remains key. Highly skilled nuclear workers remain employed at monitored sites. Whatever phone lines are tapped are still operating. The informants who were recruited remain in place. “If you shut all that down, all that disappears, and it actually becomes much easier to open a secret plant in the future,” Kemp said.

When Trump withdrew the US from the international accord in early May, Iran was in compliance, according to the IAEA. But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech last week that Iran is now looking to enhance its enrichment capabilities.

“The Atomic Energy Organisation is obliged to quickly make preparations to reach to 190,000 SWU within the nuclear agreement,” he said. “The Iranian nation and its government will not tolerate to be both subject to sanctions and have its nuclear programme restricted and imprisoned.”

Iranian officials also announced that they are constructing a new plant to build components for advanced centrifuges. Under the deal, Iran is allowed to manufacture parts for centrifuges but isn’t allowed to install them for 10 years.

North Korea poses an even bigger challenge to controlling uranium enrichment

In the runup to the June 12 summit, President Trump said he would “like to see normalization with North Korea.”

But the key challenge of negotiating with North Korea is devising a way to downscale an enrichment program that has already produced material for what is estimated to be dozens of nuclear weapons, with the added complication that we may not know where all the enrichment facilities actually are. That gives the North Koreans tremendous leverage in negotiations.

“In North Korea, the train has left the station, so to speak,” Glaser said. “Everyone in our community is working on this right now and trying to come up with ideas. Unfortunately, we don’t know what [North] Korea is going to ask for.”

There is a distinct possibility that North Korea could have one or more hardened, secret enrichment sites capable of producing a nuclear weapon. The first steps in a negotiation would likely involve asking the North Koreans how much enriched uranium they have on hand and to cease enriching more nuclear material, but even those demands are difficult to verify.

“We would have to take their word for it in the beginning,” Glaser said.

So before negotiators even start talking about the number of centrifuges, uranium stockpiles, or monitoring, much of the discussions with North Korea are likely to snag on access — simply on finding out what’s going on. And, by the way, Trump is heading to the North Korea summit without a nuclear physics expert or science adviser by his side. He is the first president since 1941 not to name a science adviser.

And it seems the US and North Korea are not even on the same page as to the scope of the discussion in Singapore. The US wants North Korea to dismantle its weapons and to deconstruct its entire network for building new ones (“complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization”). North Korea wants an international drawdown of nuclear weapons, including US capability.

Negotiators have their work cut out for them, and any practical limits to North Korea’s nuclear program via treaty would likely take months, if not years, to come to fruition.

But like with Iran, a deal with North Korea will likely be a compromise of sorts, where the US doesn’t get everything it wants. Even if North Korea conceded much of its enrichment apparatus in an agreement, its government has backed out of international agreements before — both openly and in secret — and could do so again.

If Trump is hoping for a big, single deal that solves the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons forever, he likely will be disappointed. The reality is that once a country develops enrichment capabilities, the specter of a mushroom cloud never leaves the picture. The knowhow is always there; it’s just a matter of will.

The process for crafting a denuclearization agreement with North Korea may drag on as all parties patiently work to build up fragile trust. But negotiations, however tedious and imperfect, are surely better than the tensions of late 2017 — when North Korea was proceeding headlong in a race to perfect its intercontinental ballistic missile technology and threatening to bomb Guam. Peace is at the door, but science holds the key.

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10 days ago
Warsaw, Poland
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The Green Promise of Vertical Farms

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graphic link to special report landing page
graphic link to special report landing page

I emerge from the Tokyo Monorail station on Shōwajima, a small island in Tokyo Bay that’s nestled between downtown Tokyo and Haneda Airport. Disoriented and dodging cargo trucks exiting a busy overpass, I duck under a bridge and consult the map on my phone, which leads me deeper into a warren of warehouses. I eventually find Espec Mic Corp.’s VegetaFarm, in a dilapidated 1960s office building tucked between a printing plant and a beer distributor. Stepping inside the glass-walled lobby on the second floor, I see racks upon racks of leafy green lettuce and kale growing in hydroponic solutions of water and a precisely calibrated mix of nutrients. Energy-efficient LEDs emit a pinkish light within a spectral range of 400 to 700 nanometers, the sweet spot for photosynthesis.

I’m here to find out how plant factories, called vertical or indoor farms in Western countries, can help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional field agriculture. According to the World Bank, 48.6 million square kilometers of land were farmed worldwide in 2015. Collectively, agriculture, forestry, and other land uses contributed 21 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, per a 2017 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, mostly through releases of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

Vertical farms avoid much of these emissions, despite the fact that they rely on artificial light and have to be carefully climate-controlled. Indeed, according to vertical farms evangelist Dickson Despommier, who’s widely credited with taking the fledging industry mainstream, these kinds of farms could significantly reduce the amount of land devoted to farming and thereby make a serious dent in our climate change problem.

“What if every city can grow 10 percent of its food indoors?” he asks, and then answers himself: That shift could free up 881,000 km2 worth of farmland, which could then revert to hardwood forest. That’s enough, Despommier claims, “to take 25 years’ worth of carbon out of the atmosphere.” He adds that Japan, which began experimenting with plant factories in the 1980s, is now the world’s leader, and most of those farms lie near or within cities. As he noted in his 2010 book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century (Thomas Dunne Books), the vertical farm solution to anthropogenic climate change is both “straightforward” and “simple.”

But how realistic is it?

Determining what contributes to agriculture’s share of overall greenhouse gas emissions is fairly straightforward. Paul West, codirector and lead scientist of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, says that half of agriculture’s share of greenhouse gas emissions comes in the form of carbon dioxide from clearing forests for cattle and soy in South America and for oil palms in Southeast Asia. Another huge chunk comes from livestock and rice paddies, which release staggering quantities of methane. Nitrous oxide from fertilizer accounts for a good portion of the rest.

I ask West whether vertical farms could help. He notes that the vast majority of calories produced on cropland come from grains like wheat, rice, corn, and soy, none of which are particularly good candidates for indoor farming.

And it’s true—I don’t see any rice, wheat, corn, or soy growing at the VegetaFarm in Tokyo. Instead, the 160-square-meter space is filled with a fecund profusion of leafy greens. The farm produces 1,000 heads of lettuce per day, according to Shun Kawasaki, production manager and plant scientist.

To enter the farm, Kawasaki and I don clean-room bunny suits, face masks, and rubber boots, step on a sticky mat, walk through an air shower, and exit into the plant room. Each of the six racks holds five tiers of water-filled canals on which float rafts of plants. Two bunny-suited workers tend this indoor garden, occasionally pushing a new tray of seedlings onto one end of a shelf and another ready-to-be-harvested tray off the other.

Through his mask, Kawasaki tells me that besides controlling temperature, the HVAC ducts and fans snaking under the shelving also pump in carbon dioxide to keep levels at about 1,000 parts per million, about two and a half times the typical outdoor level. Trays of lettuce and kale soak up light from LED tubes, which stay on for 16 to 17 hours per day and use up to 70 percent of the 600 to 700 kilowatt-hours consumed per day.

If you have US $1 million, you can buy a medium-size VegetaFarm like this one from Espec Mic, including the racks, control systems, HVAC, and lighting. Besides the lettuce and kale, the Tokyo farm grows bok choy, mint, mizuna, and shiso, and is experimenting with basil and radishes. Lettuce grown in the field takes about 60 days from seed to harvest. In the VegetaFarm, it takes 40 days. Other plant factories claim faster rates, in the 30-day range. So instead of one to three harvests per year on a conventional farm in the middle latitudes, a plant factory can produce one harvest every month or so. And unlike field-grown lettuce, which is harvested all at once, the indoor harvest is continual and the yields extremely high, with no loss from pests or inclement weather.

After the tour, Kawasaki gives me a sample of Espec Mic’s Mineraleaf green lettuce, freshly harvested and packaged on-site that day. One of the major benefits of plant factories is that you can tune the plant’s chemical composition to engineer its nutrient content and flavor profile. The company grows its Mineraleaf lettuces in seawater pumped up from 800 meters, which makes for a tender, delicious leaf—maybe the tastiest lettuce I’ve ever had—that’s also dense in calcium, potassium, and magnesium. A 100-gram package sells for about 200 yen (about $2). On the package, where you might expect to see an image of a lush field or the Jolly Green Giant, there are photos of plants basking in pink light.

Proponents of urban indoor agriculture tout a number of benefits—such as increasing city dwellers’ access to fresh produce and revitalizing rundown warehouse districts. But the most audacious claims center on indoor farms’ environmental benefits over those of conventional field agriculture, including the elimination of pesticides and much more efficient use of water. According to Toyoki Kozai, professor emeritus at Chiba University and president of the Japan Plant Factory Association, plant factories use water 30 to 50 times as efficiently as a traditional greenhouse does. Many plant factories don’t even wash their produce. Instead, as at VegetaFarm, harvested plants go straight into packaging, and they’re clean enough to eat.

Kozai says that a vertical farm is most economically viable when its output is consumed fresh within a few kilometers of the farm itself. That cuts down on fuel for transportation and processing as well as the loss of produce en route to the consumer.

Reduction of the fuel used to transport food—known as food miles—is an obvious benefit of urban vertical farms. And yet, the carbon savings are relatively minor, says West. “Eighty percent or more of the emissions for agriculture happens on the farm—not in the processing, not in the transportation,” he says. Real reductions in greenhouse gases will come from “how we are managing our soils, how we are managing the crops on the land, the types of mechanization that’s used, the types of fertilizer.” West says he’s all for “urban gardening and vertical systems, but I don’t see it being at the scale that’s needed to meet food demand or have environmental impact on a massive scale.”

Certainly, Japan’s vertical farming industry is still tiny, despite being around for several decades. Eri Hayashi, director of international relations and consulting at the Japan Plant Factory Association, says there are 182 plant factories in Japan. One of the largest is Spread Co.’s Kameoka plant near Kyoto. Its two 900-m2 towers have a total cultivation area of 25,200 m2 and produce 21,000 heads of lettuce per day. Later this year, Spread will open the Techno Farm in Kyoto, which the company says will exploit advanced automation to more than double productivity, to 648 heads per square meter.

According to a 2014 market study [PDF] by the Yano Research Institute, total revenue for the Japanese vertical farm industry was 3.4 billion yen ($31.2 million) in 2013. Japan’s domestic market for vegetables that year was 2,253 billion yen, according to the Statistics Bureau of the Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which means that vertical farms accounted for a scant 0.15 percent of the country’s vegetable market.

Still, interest in vertical farms has never been higher. Outside of Japan, the most active markets are China, Taiwan, and the United States, Hayashi says. As the concept has spread, new hybrids have sprung up. These include indoor aquaponics farms, where fish poop fertilizes the plants, and the “aeroponics”⁠-based AeroFarms in Newark, N.J., which employs proprietary spray nozzles to mist plant roots with water and nutrients. A recent white paper by investment firm Newbean Capital counted 56 commercial warehouse, aquaponics, and rooftop greenhouse farms in the United States in 2017, up from 15 in 2015, and notes that at least three 6,500-m2 farms are under construction.

One of the biggest farms slated to open this year is Plenty’s 9,300-⁠m2 facility located just south of Seattle. Unlike most indoor farms, which grow trays of plants on multilevel racks, Plenty will grow its plants “on the vertical plane,” says Nate Storey, Plenty’s cofounder and chief science officer. “Imagine rows of towers with product growing on either side of them,” he explains. “That orientation allows us to put about three times more product into a given space than we could if we stacked it.”

Plenty has attracted $200 million in investment from SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son’s Vision Fund as well as from funds that invest for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (who also owns Whole Foods), reported. With Bezos involved, Plenty could be positioned to do what no other indoor farming company has been able to do so far: grow produce indoors on a global scale.

Plenty’s betting big on a suite of technologies that Storey believes can usher in a new era of farming, one powered by renewable energy and lit by LEDs, with sensor networks collecting tens of thousands of data points that feed into machine-learning algorithms to optimize growing conditions for particular plants at specific stages of their life cycle.

“We came to realize that the future of these farms really rests in the hands of artificial intelligence,” Storey tells me. “We’re trying to improve both the amount that we can produce for a given cost or unit of energy as well as the quality of that product.”

Plenty will start with greens and herbs, but in the next 12 to 18 months the company intends to branch out into fruits that until now have been grown indoors only experimentally. “I think that the industry as a whole will be surprised at the speed with which we begin to introduce crops that have historically only been viable in the field,” Storey says.

He is also concerned with extending the shelf life of produce, along with saving food miles. “Half of what people are buying they’re just chucking in the trash, right? That is a huge carbon cost,” says Storey. “By delivering something that’s superfresh, that has two weeks more of shelf life in your fridge than something you bought that was transported a very long way, we basically chop the carbon cost in half…. If we can get consumers to eat everything that they buy, we’ve done a lot better.”

But can superfresh lettuce save a forest? Despommier’s thesis relies on converting farmland back to hardwood forest. To free up 881,000 km2 of land, you’d need an area equivalent to Spread’s 25,200-m2 Kameoka plant multiplied by 35 million. Despommier’s vision for skyscraper-scale vertical farms coupled with much shorter growing seasons could certainly cut that number from millions to tens of thousands, but even an optimist can’t imagine such a building boom within this century. And in the unlikely event such a boom were to ensue, you’d be getting only a small percentage of the vegetables and fruits grown on traditional farms and none of the wheat, corn, soy, or rice, at least not in the foreseeable future. Nor will vertical farms raise livestock or grow oil palms, which are mainly what people are clearing hardwood forests to make room for.

As West puts it, “We have heard that people can’t live on bread alone. Well, if they can’t do that, they’re not going to live on kale either as their main source of calories.”

If not kale, then what? Neil Mattson, an associate professor of plant science at Cornell University, in New York, has been looking into which crops make the most sense to grow indoors. He’s the principal investigator on a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and he and his team are analyzing how plant factories stack up against field agriculture “in terms of energy, carbon, and water footprints, profitability, workforce development, and scalability.” It is probably the best-funded, most comprehensive study on indoor farms to date, one that will help quantify how much they can mitigate climate change.

Mattson notes, for example, that it makes no sense to grow wheat indoors. His Cornell colleague Lou Albright looked at the lighting costs of vertical farms for a 2015 presentation [PDF], and he calculated that if you grew wheat indoors, just the electricity cost per loaf of bread made from that wheat would be $11.

“Lou Albright would say indoor production like that doesn’t really make sense until you get completely renewable energy,” Mattson says.

For its part, Plenty is committed to integrating renewable energy sources into its power mix. The Seattle facility will source hydroelectric power. But to make a dent in, say, methane emissions by moving rice cultivation indoors, the amount of renewable energy you’d need would be truly massive: Of the 48.6 million km2 of land being farmed, 1.61 million km2 are devoted to rice cultivation.

Plenty’s Storey isn’t daunted. “We can grow things like rice and wheat and sorghum. We can grow commodities,” he says. “It doesn’t work for us right now, but I wouldn’t rule out a future in which it starts to make sense.”

It may well be that before that future arrives, we’ll be growing more of our food in plant factories. Will it be the 10 percent that Despommier hopes for? Even if plant factories and vertical farms wind up being only a small part of the overall solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the near term, they might be our insurance policy. As climate change starts to erode the viability of croplands, we may be forced to grow indoors, where the climate is still under our control.

Harry Goldstein’s adventure in vertical farming began at the deserted Shōwajima monorail station, on an island in Tokyo Bay. Goldstein, IEEE Spectrum’s online editorial director, had an hour before his appointment to tour the Espec Mic VegetaFarm plant factory.

It was a warm, sunny afternoon on the first day of March. But where was the farm? It wasn’t vertical enough to be visible from the train platform. Fortunately, he’d downloaded a PDF map for just this eventuality.

Froggering across a service road jammed with semis and going left under an overpass, Goldstein emerged into a snarl of warehouses aswarm with forklifts loading beer kegs onto trucks and workers in hard hats tossing scrap metal into piles. It was a comforting sort of déjà vu for Goldstein, who encountered much the same scene in Minnesota and Wisconsin when he last covered indoor farms for Spectrum in 2013. (You can see images from Goldstein’s trip to Japan in this issue and on our Instagram account, @ieeespectrum.)

The building itself was a bit of a disappointment. The term “vertical farm” is richly futuristic, conjuring visions of green towers gleaming in the sun. But the VegetaFarm turned out to be a shabby office building with Espec Mic’s sign hanging on an ornamental gate out front. After a brief, mostly gestural exchange with a janitor, Goldstein was escorted into the grow room, an eerily quiet, moist, warm warren, like a library with plants instead of books. Having heard that some plant factories require workers to shower before entering the grow room, he was relieved that the only clothes he had to remove were his shoes and that he needed only a shower of puffed air to dust off the bunny suit he had to put on.

When the tour ended, Goldstein took the stairs down. On a landing, he snapped his last picture: a ladder leaning against a window, a mop propped next to it, a pair of men’s trousers slung over a middle rung. He stealthily rounded the next corner and slipped through the empty lobby, avoiding the half-naked janitor the tableau suggested.

A correction to this article was made on June 5, 2018.


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World’s first grid-scale liquid air energy storage plant opens

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The world’s first grid-scale liquid air energy storage plant has been officially opened near Manchester.

The demo project, which has maximum power output of 5MW and a storage capacity of 15MWh, was ceremonially switched on by the chief scientific advisor at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), John Loughhead.

The plant is located at Pilsworth landfill gas site in Bury and was developed by Highview Power in partnership with recycling and waste management company Viridor, which is part of Pennon Group. The project was supported by £8 million of government funding.

The technology works by using excess electricity to compress air and cool it down to minus 196 degrees Celsius, condensing it into a liquid. The liquid is then stored in low-pressure insulated containers.

When electricity is needed, the air is removed from the containers and reheated, causing it to evaporate back into a gas and rapidly expand. The expanding air is used to drive a turbine and generate power.

Waste heat from the liquification process is stored and reused to assist with regasification. Waste cold from the regasification process is likewise stored and reused to assist with liquification. The technology has an efficiency of 60 to 75 per cent.

Source: Highview Power

According to Highview Power, liquid air energy storage (LAES) offers several advantages over alternative storage technologies.

Unlike most batteries, LAES does not require the use of expensive rare metals or harmful chemicals. The plant is comprised largely of steel, giving it a working lifespan of 30 to 40 years, compared to just 10 years for a typical lithium-ion battery. At the end of its life, the steel can be recycled without difficulty.

The storage capacity can be easily increased by scaling up the storage vessels. It is not dependent on the availability of appropriate geographical features, which limits the potential capacity of pumped hydro storage. This also means it can be located close to generation or demand, minimising transmission and distribution losses.

Highview Power says these qualities make the technology well-suited to providing affordable long-range storage, which will be essential to operating the power grid entirely on renewables.

The company expects the first commercial plant to have a power output of 50MW and a storage capacity of 200MWh. It has envisioned creating a “gigaplant” with a power output of 200MW and a storage capacity of 1.2GWh, and there are no technical barriers to creating even larger facilities.

Highview Power chief executive Gareth Brett, said: “Support from government, our partners and our supply chain, has enabled Highview Power to successfully design and build the world’s first grid-scale LAES plant here in the UK.

“The plant is the only large scale, true long-duration, locatable energy storage technology available today, at acceptable cost. The adoption of LAES technology is now underway, and discussions are progressing with utilities around the world who see the opportunity for LAES to support the transition to a low-carbon world.”

BEIS chief scientific advisor John Loughhead, said: “We welcome the accomplishment of Highview Power, working together with their project site partner Viridor, to successfully build and operate this grid-scale liquid air energy storage technology demonstration plant.

“The deployment of smart, flexible technologies, such as energy storage, will help to ensure the UK has a secure, affordable and clean energy system now and in the future in keeping with the priorities within UK government’s modern industrial strategy.”

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The Race to Make a Great Fake Steak

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graphic link to special report landing page
graphic link to special report landing page

Atze Jan van der Goot removes a laptop-size slab from a refrigerator and deposits it on a table with an icy thump. It’s a reddish-brown mass, with clearly visible fibrous striations. And though it’s half frozen, it’s still pliable: You can pick away small pieces with your fingers, but it retains its shape, just like a hunk of frigid raw beef would.

This is no ordinary fake steak. For one thing, it has attracted the interest—and money—of some of the world’s leading food conglomerates, including Unilever, the Swiss flavor maker Givaudan, and Avril Group, the Paris-based agro-industrial concern. Then, too, it was not made with an ordinary food extruder, like most meat substitutes on the market today. Rather, it was produced with a new and radically different kind of machine. This machine was designed by Van der Goot to do one thing extraordinarily well: turn vegetable-based ingredients into something so similar to meat that it can grab a healthy share of the fast-growing market for meat substitutes, which was estimated at US $4 billion last year by the research firm Visiongain, in London.

There’s more than money at stake here. The global meat industry is the source of about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, or roughly as much as what comes from all the vehicles on the planet. Producing the beef in just one hamburger creates about the same amount of greenhouse gases, in carbon-dioxide equivalents, as driving a Mazda Miata 60 kilometers.

And it’s going to get worse. The United Nations predicts that as the global population grows from 7.6 billion today to 9.8 billion by 2050, more countries will industrialize, and food production will soar by 60 percent. At the same time, global meat consumption will surge because as people become more prosperous, they tend to consume more meat and dairy. In 2014, about 315 million metric tons of meat were produced worldwide, and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) figures that will increase to 455 million metric tons by 2050.

“Using animals as a technology for food production worked when we had millions of people, maybe up to a billion people,” says Nick Halla, the chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods, of Redwood City, Calif., whose plant-based burger has been rolling out to favorable reviews in the United States. “But it doesn’t work now that we have 7 billion going on 10.”

Cows are a remarkably inefficient food source. Barely 4 percent of the calories a cow eats becomes beef that people can eat. Producing 1 kilogram of protein from beef uses about 18 times as much land, 10 times as much water, 9 times as much fuel, 12 times as much fertilizer, and 10 times the amount of pesticides as producing the same amount of protein from kidney beans. And beef production occupies almost 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land, even though it accounts for less than 2 percent of the calories consumed by the world’s population.

“It would be hard to imagine a more inefficient means of producing protein,” says Liz Specht, a biologist with the nonprofit Good Food Institute. “Raising animals for food,” she declares, “is one of the top contributors to every single one of the most severe environmental problems plaguing us.”

Scores of organizations, including startup companies and multinational conglomerates, are now pursuing alternatives to meat in general and beef in particular. The work isn’t part of an organized effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions, but if it succeeds, it will have that effect.

Plant-based meat analogues are a growing business—the global market is expected to swell to $5.8 billion by 2022, according to the market research firm Million Insights. Across the board, production of these surrogates is associated with much lower greenhouse gas emissions than actual meat is, according to an analysis of 39 meat substitutes conducted by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Replicating meat convincingly, however, is no mean feat. Meat consists of muscle, fat, water, connective tissues, amino acids, and minerals, all of which have to be created and blended with exquisite precision to produce flavors, textures, aromas, and cooking properties to which many people have become accustomed. Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are selling generally well-regarded ground-beef substitutes, so the race now is to the next logical step: a product that has both the taste and springy, fibrous mouthfeel of genuine muscle meats, such as beefsteak.

A fake steak is much more difficult to produce than a good stand-in for ground meat. Researchers are pursuing two main avenues: cultured meat, and vegetable-based meat substitutes. Cultured meat is also known as lab-grown meat, cellular meat, in vitro meat, or, as its adherents like to say, “clean meat.” To produce it, researchers start with self-renewing cells, such as embryonic or pluripotent stem cells, from animal tissue. They then create genuine meat by culturing and multiplying those cells in a nutrient mix in a bioreactor.

Cultured meat was thrust into the media spotlight in 2013 when Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, unveiled his cultured meat burger, which cost about $330,000. A pair of taste testers found it underwhelming. Nevertheless, three companies—San Francisco–based Just and Memphis Meats, and MosaMeat in the Netherlands—have announced plans to bring cultured meats to market in the near future. A fourth company, SuperMeat, in Israel, recently raised $3 million in seed funding.

Just (known until recently as Hampton Creek Foods), which already sells a range of plant-based foods, is the most specific about its near-term plans. The company’s head of communications, Andrew Noyes, said in April that Just plans to have a cultured-meat product for sale by the end of this year.

Cultured meat has a lot going for it. Unlike real meat, its production wouldn’t generate toxic runoff, and it wouldn’t spawn bacterial superbugs. Producers could precisely control the proportion and type of fats in the product, tweaking its flavor and nutritional content. And unlike plant-based analogues, cultured meat actually is meat, so in theory, it wouldn’t require consumers to adapt to new flavors, textures, or cooking methods.

But against these advantages must be weighed some sobering difficulties. One of the biggest technical challenges is choosing the nutrient mix in which the muscle cells are cultured and encouraged to grow into muscle fibers. Most of the work so far has used fetal bovine serum, which is harvested from cow fetuses. It’s expensive and not at all compatible with the sustainability and ethical imperatives driving the development of meat alternatives.

So researchers are now investigating a wide assortment of nonanimal serum alternatives—for example, ones based on algae or mushroom extracts. These solutions, or “substrates,” contain varying proportions of oxygen, sugar, vitamins, minerals, and, typically, compounds selected from a vast array of amino acids, growth factors, and other biological agents. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), in Zurich, food technologist Alexander Mathys says it would be “a clear game changer” if another kind of medium could be successfully developed.

Just, Memphis Meats, and SuperMeat all insist they are close to solving the serum problem, but they decline to give any details.

Another problem is the very high costs of cultured meat. Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti claims that the company’s production costs have dropped “dramatically” since mid-2017, when the costs had fallen below $2,400 per pound ($5,300 per kilogram).

In terms of sustainability, there’s no guarantee that the production of lab meat will use less energy than animal-grown meat. The few analyses that have been carried out so far have been inconclusive. In a 2015 study in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture, Carolyn S. Mattick and her colleagues considered the type of energy inputs that might be needed for a full-scale cultured-meat production facility: The facility itself would need to be built, large quantities of growth media would need to be produced and heated to the right temperature, the massive bioreactor tanks would need to be frequently cleaned and drained, various materials would need to be shipped in, and much of the water involved in the production process would need to be sterilized. Although cultured meat will certainly use less land and water than livestock production, “those benefits could come at the expense of more intensive energy use,” the authors wrote.

Specht, at the Good Food Institute, cautioned that the life-cycle analyses that have been done so far “are based on cell-culture operations for biopharma production, which may be of little relevance to food applications.” Cultured meat is also expected to beat conventional meat on greenhouse gas emissions, but mostly because of the absence of methane production (cows and sheep belch quite a lot, it turns out).

Larger reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would come from a wide embrace of vegetable-based meat substitutes, which are now a hotbed of tech innovation. Though puny when compared to global meat sales, the multibillion-dollar market for meat substitutes is growing briskly and has attracted interest from technologists, researchers, and venture capitalists.

Van der Goot, whose academic career began in fluid-dynamics research, has been developing his machine for more than a decade, together with colleagues at Wageningen University & Research and at Delft University of Technology, both in the Netherlands. He calls it a Couette-cell machine, and it looks like a shiny makeshift version of the meat slicer you’d find at your local deli, with duct-taped tubes connecting various cylindrical parts.

When the project started, few people were interested and even fewer companies, Van der Goot says. But after the prototype machine was unveiled in 2015, companies started lining up. In 2017, a consortium called Plant Meat Matters was launched to commercialize the technology, with partners currently including Givaudan, Unilever, and Dutch meat-analogue maker The Vegetarian Butcher. The consortium now has a waiting list. The prototype was designed together with TU Delft, but new machines will be built, a bit ironically, by Meyn Food Processing Technology, a Dutch manufacturer of poultry-slaughtering equipment.

Van der Goot’s machine updates a method called extrusion, which is how most plant-based meat replacements are made today. Food extruders, which have been producing breakfast cereals, pasta, snacks, and pet foods for decades, use high pressures and temperatures to squeeze a doughy mixture through a tube. A cooling step then causes the smooshed proteins to solidify, eventually rolling out of the device as crumbly pieces. The most popular variant, known as high-moisture extrusion cooking, blends the ingredients together while the water-rich mixture is heated to 130 to 180 °C.

The Couette-cell machine is a stripped-down version of an extruder. It has two nested cylinders, one of which spins while the other is fixed. This motion creates linear shearing as the “dough” is stretched out between them. The spinning pulls the proteins in a single direction, causing meatlike fibers to appear spontaneously. These fibers are key to replicating the look and texture of muscle meats, as opposed to ground meats.

In addition to creating a more realistic, meatlike product, the shear-cell machinery uses less power than does traditional extrusion. Both processes require thermal energy to heat the machines and materials and mechanical energy to shear or mix the materials (and, in the case of traditional extrusion, to push them through a die). In fact, traditional extruders use slightly less thermal energy, but the Couette machinery uses 90 percent less mechanical energy, Van der Goot says, and that’s where the technology’s main energy and cost savings come from. “If the process requires less mechanical energy,” he says, “then we need a smaller engine, and the wear on the shear-cell motor will be far less.” The upshot is cheaper equipment and lower maintenance costs.

Van der Goot shows me one of his recent creations: a slab that looks stunningly like beefsteak. It’s about 3 centimeters thick, 60 cm long, and 25 cm wide. Although the lab was not set up for a tasting on the day I visited, Van der Goot’s team insists that the slab cooks and cuts like an actual steak. If true, that would be a big improvement over essentially all of the plant-based beef analogues currently in supermarkets, which mimic ground beef rather than steak and take the form of tiny chunks that have been smooshed together to form a patty or meatball.

To make the steaklike slab, Van der Goot starts with a mixture of soy protein isolate (a highly purified form of soy protein), water, and wheat gluten, which is required to create the fibrous structures. The water and soy isolate are mixed together and left to rest for about 30 minutes, as this “prehumidification” period enhances the later protein structuring. The gluten is added last, to prevent globules from forming.

This water/soy isolate/gluten mixture is then quickly poured into the Couette device through a tube, until the space between the two cylinders (known as the shearing zone) is completely filled with the mixture. The material is then heated to 95 °C and spun at a modest 30 rpm for about 15 minutes, as the heat helps to solidify the fibrous structures created during the shearing. Experiments have found that these fibrous structures won’t appear at temperatures higher that 100 °C or lower than 90 °C.

“It’s mild and simple,” Van der Goot says of the shear-cell process, “and that is also why it can be very inexpensive.” He envisions a scenario where the local butcher shop would have a small version of the machine on a countertop to create artisanal blends at will. His team has experimented with alternative mixtures of peas or lupines, but so far getting the right texture has proved difficult. That’s why one of the goals of the Plant Meat Matters consortium is figuring out how ingredients other than soy can be used in such mixtures.

Van der Goot acknowledges that his latest machine is not yet ready for commercial production, but he’s confident it will be within a couple of years. Biologist Specht, of the Good Food Institute, thinks the machine could be well received. “The capital expenditure associated with the high-moisture extruders that many plant-based meats use is a significant bottleneck,” she says, “so a lower-cost production strategy can certainly democratize access to plant-based meat.”

Though meat-free options are steadily improving in quality and growing in number, expanding their availability beyond upscale outlets such as Whole Foods in the United States isn’t going to be easy. A Finnish study from February 2018 found that while messages pointing out the negative health and environmental consequences of meat had some effect on people who already believed that meat is unhealthy and unsustainable, they had hardly any effect on everyone else.

And yet, the need to cut back on the amount of energy used in producing protein is becoming increasingly urgent. Besides the emissions, raising billions of animals for food takes up 26 percent of the planet’s ice-free surface, land that could otherwise be used for CO2- absorbing forests or to grow more efficient high-protein plants.

Ultimately, there will probably be not one large food miracle but many small ones. Plant-based and cultured meats will coexist. “I believe that 30 years out, both will be on the market and will occupy significant fractions of market share,” says Specht. “Visionaries like Bill Gates are investing in both plant-based and clean meat, as are huge companies like Tyson Foods. They see this as a two-pronged solution.”

Another possibility is that people will start eating more chicken and eggs rather than cows and lambs, notes Peter Alexander, a land-use researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Alexander recently authored a study that hailed plant-based meat substitutes and insects (yes, insects) as the most sustainable long-term food solutions, but also noted that similar environmental benefits would accrue if people simply ate a lot more chicken and eggs and a lot less beef.

“Sure, there are potentially transformatory changes that we could have,” Alexander says, “but in order to achieve those, we have to imagine consumers radically altering their preferences, which just doesn’t seem likely.”

“Our goal is to drastically reduce the impact of our agriculture system on the world,” says Halla of Impossible Foods, capturing the driving motivation of the bustling new industry growing up to produce meat alternatives. “If we can create better products than animals can, and that people like better—and we are approaching that—then it will be an easy choice for consumers to switch. We can create a much more sustainable food system.”


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Coming to a plate near you soon? Rice grown by Chinese scientists using seawater in Dubai’s deserts

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Chinese scientists have successfully grown and harvested rice in the deserts of Dubai after developing a strain that allows the crop to grow in saltwater.

A team of scientists, led by China’s “father of hybrid rice” Yuan Longping, has already started growing the crop in diluted sea-water at home and is now bringing the technique to the Middle East, where fresh water is too precious to use for growing water-intensive crops.

Last week’s rice harvest, which had been planted in January on the outskirts of the city, far exceeded scientists’ expectations, according to a report by the state news agency Xinhua.

Yuan Longping, the father of hybrid rice, centre, visits a project in Chain’s Hebei province. Photo: TopPhoto/Alamy Live News

The high yield reported – 7,500kg per hectare compared with the global average of 3,000kg per hectare – has encouraged scientists to expand the project.

They now plan to set up a 100-hectare experimental farm later this year, put it into regular use next year and then start expanding after 2020.

Eventually, the report said, the goal is to cover around 10 per cent of the United Arab Emirates, which has a total area of 83,600 sq km (32,278 sq miles), with paddy fields – although details as to how this will be achieved have yet to be disclosed.

Where did that rice in your bowl originally come from?

Xinhua said the Dubai venture is the result of a collaboration between China’s research centre into saltwater rice, based in the eastern port of Qingdao, with The Private Office of Sheikh Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum, a billionaire member of Dubai’s ruling family.

The two parties have also signed an agreement to promote seawater rice across the Arab world to reduce the risk of food shortages in the future.

Farmers in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia pictured harvesting a salt-resistant strain of rice. Photo: Xinhua

While scientists in some countries where water shortages are a serious concern – such as Israel or Australia – have been developing desalination techniques to convert seawater for use in agriculture, China has been working to develop strains of salt-resistant rice for the past four decades.

Although it is not yet clear how the Dubai project will be able to secure enough fresh water to dilute seawater for large-scale rice cultivation, Chinese scientists have already started growing it closer to home on a commercial scale.

Cockroach sushi? Farming revolution could cure cancer, compost waste and shake up menus

China has one million square kilometres of waste land – an area the size of Ethiopia – where plants struggle to grow because of high salinity or alkalinity levels in the soil.

If a tenth of this area was planted with saltwater rice, it could boost China’s rice production by nearly 20 per cent, producing 50 million tonnes of food – enough to feed 200 million people, Yuan told mainland media last year.

Chinese scientists put rice grown in seawater on the nation’s tables

The project began in the 1970s when a researcher named Chen Risheng discovered a species of wild rice that grew near a mangrove forest in the southern province of Guangdong.

After four decades of cross-breeding and genetic screening, researchers had developed eight separate species but their yields remained too low to make widespread cultivation worthwhile.

But last year the team made a breakthrough by doubling the yield to more than 4.5 tonnes per hectare.

The kids are alright: world’s first cloned cashmere goat fathers 16 young

Last autumn the first salt-resistant rice, grown on a beach near Qingdao, made it into the shops.

As the South China Morning Post reported at the time one woman who had bought a bag of the rice found it was “very good”, adding that her boyfriend said it reminded him of the rice he had eaten in his home village as a boy.

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