Sunday, April 25, 2021

Where Bill Gates et al.'s Breakthrough Energy Ventures Fund Is Investing

From Forbes, April 22:

Bill Gates Is Betting On These Cleantech Outfits To Help Save The Planet

Gates-led Breakthrough Energy Ventures—which counts 24 other billionaires as co-investors—has put money into some 40 startups that are developing clean energy technologies for everything from lithium extraction to steelmaking.

Four years ago, Bill Gates launched a $1 billion fund, called Breakthrough Energy Ventures, that brought together more than 20 (now 28) like-minded investors to invest in scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to deliver cheap and reliable clean energy to the world. The ultimate goal is to shepherd new zero-emissions technologies to market.

Since then, it’s backed dozens of startups developing green technology innovations that range from replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free equivalents to inventing meat alternatives. “We’re only focused on investments that will have a substantial effect on climate change,” Gates told Forbes earlier this year. So far one of the startups it’s backed has gone public via SPAC: solid-state lithium-metal battery maker QuantumScape, which hasn’t started selling its batteries yet. Some of the clean energy innovations Breakthrough Energy Ventures invests in are moonshots, and the technology may take a decade or more to develop. But finding solutions is imperative. “If we’re going to avoid a climate disaster, we have to get from 51 billion [tons of greenhouse gases] to zero in just 30 years,” the group says on its website.

The fund raised another $1 billion earlier this year to bankroll more startups, with Gates as the largest investor. Some of the 24 other billionaire backers include Indian tycoon Mukesh Ambani, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma and mutual fund giant Fidelity CEO Abigail Johnson. Gates told Forbes in February that he would “put in at least $2 billion” more toward zero-carbon technologies over the next five years.

On Earth Day, Forbes looks at five of Breakthrough Energy’s portfolio companies that are building innovative solutions to help save the planet:

Boston Metal: Low-carbon steel

For thousands of years, steel has been produced the same way: Mix iron ore with coke (a product of coal) and put it in a blast furnace. The result is a high-carbon product, which is then put into a furnace, where the carbon is burned away to become steel. The whole process results in significant carbon emissions (steelmaking accounts for 7% of all greenhouse gases annually), all of which Boston Metal promises to eliminate through a method called metal oxide electrolysis. This new technology uses electrolytic cells rather than a blast furnace, and electricity rather than carbon, ultimately emitting oxygen instead of carbon dioxide.

Electricity-based steelmaking was first demonstrated by MIT researchers in the early 2010s, leading to the creation of Boston Metal as a spinoff company. The Woburn, Massachusetts, firm closed a $50 million funding round at the start of this year that valued it at $165 million, according to Pitchbook. Boston Metal CEO Tadeu Carneiro says he plans to use the funds to get the company’s pilot plant running continuously by the end of 2022. After that, Carneiro hopes to construct Boston Metal’s first industrial facility by 2024 and begin commercial production the following year.

Lilac Solutions: Lab-enhanced lithium extraction

To power the growing number of electric vehicles around the world, car makers need lithium-ion batteries. Most of the world’s lithium is found in brines, which are deposits of salt water mostly found in deserts. Lithium mining company Lilac Solutions introduces proprietary technology that replaces the old, water-intensive lithium extraction process with a new method that uses ion exchange beads and far less water. Cofounder and CEO Dave Snydacker says Lilac’s technology is faster and cheaper than existing methods. “We need to bring those brines into production,” he says. “Otherwise, all the promises that electric vehicle manufacturers like GM, Volkswagen and Tesla have been making about a 100% electric future, we’re not going to be able to get there.”

Lilac works with resource owners—legacy lithium producers, oil and gas companies looking to enter the market and small developers—by designing the extraction systems they use for projects. Brines are fed into a tank filled with small beads that, through an ion exchange process, are able to absorb the lithium. The Oakland-based startup has projects under way in Chile, Argentina and the United States—the Americas are its primary focus area—as well as Europe and Asia....