Rising above it all

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM

Note: The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Azolla Ventures or Prime Coalition.

Making it rain

For a while I’ve thought that we’ll need to do a significant amount of geoengineering, or “deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system,” in order to keep parts of the world habitable. This topic tends to elicit strong reactions.

To me, geoengineering is an idea that (1) starts at the fringe sounding too good to be true. Then (2) serious people get concerned about the hazards it presents, then (3) it gains some traction in those circles, and then (4) oh shit we really need this now, go go go! I think it’s at stage two or three in most places.

The main flavor of geoengineering that gets discussed is solar radiation management. The easiest way to manage the sun seems to be manipulating clouds – brightening them, thinning them to cover more area, seeding more of them. Makes sense; they reflect and scatter light.

What’s nice is that you can do these sorts of things relatively cheaply. You do need high-altitude aircraft, but the cost isn’t high compared to alternatives. What’s less nice is that we don’t know a lot about what the downstream effects might be. For that reason, geoengineering was banned by the UN in 2010.

My rough theory here is that a country at the front lines of climate change is going to go first, likely following a climate disaster and likely without permission. It’ll be a fairly rich or fairly large nation, for whom an intervention wouldn’t break the bank. An authoritarian central government will help with speed. These factors point me toward Southeast Asia or the Middle East. Climate sci-fi novel The Ministry for the Future makes a similar guess (I won’t spoil it).

I swear I didn’t read this before coming up with this theory, but I guess here we are already? From Forbes:

The United Arab Emirates have been hit particularly hard by this season’s sweltering heat, recording a 51.8°C this June (that’s over 125° Fahrenheit for the Americans in the room). What’s worse, Dubai receives a paltry 4-inches of rainfall annually, making summers unbearable and agriculture nearly impossible (the country imports more than 80% of its food). As people do their best to stay inside, cool, and hydrated, experts at the country’s National Center of Meteorology have introduced a novel technology to make a world of difference: using drones to force precipitation via laser beams. …

The UAE have invested more than $15 million on 9 “rain enhancement projects” over the years, the first 8 of which used traditional cloud seeding methods. But the country is now taking a different approach in their quest for water security. Rather than dispersing particulates as done in traditional cloud seeding, the Emirati Weather Center is using drones to “zap” the air into submission. These drones are designed to target certain clouds and use electrical discharges via concentrated lasers to forcibly pool water droplets in the air, thus triggering desired rainfall. With the equivalent of an atmospheric cattle prod, Dubai has achieved just that — depicted in several videos posted to Instagram — electrocuting the air into rain.

First, bravo – $15MM is a tiny amount of money to realize our inevitable laser drone future. Some startups raise seed rounds larger than that. True sci-fi stuff.

Second, as I watch the (Instagram!) videos and try to put myself in the moment, it would be a bit worrisome knowing that this rainstorm... was caused by the government… on purpose? Ordinarily when storms happen, it’s nobody’s fault. But that’s distinctly not the case here? Seriously, watch the videos, this is pretty heavy rain.

A post shared by المركز الوطني للأرصاد (@officialuaeweather)


A post shared by المركز الوطني للأرصاد (@officialuaeweather)


Could you sue the government if their storm damaged your stuff? Maybe the courts would come back and say, “Hey, sorry about the damage to your stuff from the rainstorm we caused, but it’s for the greater good, that’s the cost of doing business, here’s a check to replace some of your stuff”? It all seems self-consistent, I guess? I wonder what the conspiracy theorists will think.

Third, if I’m the government, I’d try to fire just enough drone-lasers to generate a manageable amount of rain only when I want it. But weather systems are sensitive and non-linear. Say the drones fire their lasers over here and nothing happens, so you have them fire over there. Suddenly works too well and oops, we washed some cars into the sea. Or say someone at laser drone HQ misplaces a decimal and whoops, we flooded the financial district. This stuff seems hard to get right.

How would you go about getting it right? Governments have valuable meteorological data, but will they be able to reliably convert it into weather engineering instructions? The latter seems harder, or at least distinct. Do they even want that liability, or would they rather contract out the hard, risky parts to private firms more equipped to take on that risk? Would it be useful to have someone to point fingers at if things go sideways?

You can probably see where I’m going: this seems like an opportunity for a technology company. You bring together a few top cloud scientists and a tech company CEO type, and you start a company to get really good at the hard parts of cloud seeding campaigns. Maybe you’d call yourself the “OS for climate adaptation” and you’d develop a subscription offering, since governments will want to create more than one rainstorm and investors like recurring revenues. You’d have other offerings in the pipeline, like cloud brightening and flood prediction and maybe an insurance product.

You’d start off scrappy and get your foot in the door with a small, relatively nimble government that needs cloud seeding now (see oh shit) and will try out your new unproven technology. You’d need to make sure your pilot project doesn’t end up washing away cars and flooding financial districts and getting fingers pointed at you. That would be bad. You’d need to be very good at your job and get lucky. Then you’d raise more capital, get your foot in a couple more doors with eager governments who have heard about your successful pilot, build up a proprietary dataset through your work in different environments, sell to ever-larger governments, and boom you’ve got yourself a roaring business.

There would be occasional crises. Occasionally you’d wash away cars and flood financial districts and get fingers pointed at you, but hopefully you’d have reached escape velocity by then and these would be minor setbacks that your insurance product could address. After a decade or so, you’d have the next big climate tech company, a Palantir for the Anthropocene. I see no problems with this model whatsoever.

Anyway, so far this doesn’t seem to be happening. Based on a quick skim, there are a few cloud seeding companies, but the field generally seems kind of sleepy. That being said, apparently we’ve been seeding clouds in Utah and other western states since the 1950s, and yeah, there are open questions, but it does sort of work?

Nitrous oxide DAC

Here’s a tweet from Shayle Kann of Energy Impact Partners this summer:

This is interesting and I have to admit I hadn’t thought about it before! If direct air capture (DAC) is new to you, here’s a great primer. For context, methane (CH₄) and nitrous oxide (N₂O) are greenhouse gases #2 and #3, respectively, after carbon dioxide (CO₂). How much harder would it be to capture and remove them directly from the air? Let’s dive in.

DAC requires you to do three things, which we’ll cover in order:

  1. Move a lot of air
  2. Capture the gas of interest
  3. Do something with it

Step 1: Move a lot of air

As you try to capture more and more dilute gases, you need to move more air. Since we know the concentrations of greenhouse gases, so we can estimate how much more air we’ll need to move. We’ll call this number the “difficulty” compared to CO₂:

  • CO₂: 415 ppm; difficulty = 1x
  • Methane: 1.87 ppm; difficulty = 220x
  • Nitrous oxide: 0.33 ppm; difficulty = 1,250x

But methane is (conservatively) ~25x more planet-warming than CO₂. Nitrous oxide is ~298x more planet-warming. Factoring this in, the difficulties are now:

  • CO₂: still 1x
  • Methane: 220/25 = 8.8x
  • Nitrous oxide: 1,250/298 = 4.2x

Much better, but still not great – CO₂ DAC is hard enough as is. All else being equal,1 if CO₂ DAC costs $100/ton (spoiler: not there yet), methane DAC would cost $880/ton CO₂-equivalent and nitrous oxide would cost $420/ton CO₂-equivalent. This leaves out all the practical realities of moving lots of air: repairing broken fans, changing filters, and so on, let alone how you might capture the gas.

Step 2: Capture the gas of interest

Next, you have to somehow separate the gas from the surrounding air. For CO₂, we have a convenient trick. It’s slightly acidic, meaning it will react with basic compounds like hydroxides and amines. The rest of air is not acidic, so we can select for CO₂ this way. Quite a bit of work has gone into understanding CO₂ reactivity and engineering “air contactor”2 systems to optimize CO₂ capture and release.

With methane, this is less straightforward. When methane is concentrated (5%+), you can burn it to form CO₂, which is less bad than leaving it as methane. However, at atmospheric concentrations (0.000187%), it doesn’t burn. In fact, it blends in with air really well. There are researchers working on methane-air separations from a few angles, but the bottom line is that it’s just hard. As a few people pointed out in response to Shayle’s tweet, this one may be DOA.

Nitrous oxide is somewhere in the middle. It’s also not very reactive, but you have more options. Here are three:

  1. You can capture it, concentrate it, and sequester it somewhere else.
  2. You can break it down into harmless nitrogen and oxygen (i.e. more air). Catalytic converters in cars already do this to varying degrees.
  3. You can oxidize (burn) it to form other nitrogen oxides that are easier to deal with.

There may be others I’m not thinking of.

Step 3: Do something with it

For CO₂, there are all sorts of niche (kiloton) markets you could imagine selling into, but at the scale of climate change (gigatons), there aren’t currently markets large enough to absorb it all. This is a challenge.

But for nitrous oxide, maybe we could get creative? Coming back to options 1-3 above:

  1. It’s valuable in its own right. It’s laughing gas, it’s rocket fuel, it’s a recurring plot point in The Fast and the Furious franchise. Bulk delivery goes for $1,800-2,500/ton, according to one website.
  2. If you’ve broken it down into nitrogen and oxygen, the story ends there. Your souped-up catalytic converter made more air, and you’ll probably want a carbon credit.
  3. If you’ve turned it into nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), you could bubble it through water to make nitric acid, a commodity chemical and fertilizer.

These are starting to sound interesting. To make things even more interesting, nitrous oxide emissions largely come from one source: agricultural soils. Although it’s hard to find data, I think it’s reasonable to assume that nitrous oxide levels are substantially higher on farms.

How much higher would be enough to matter? Coming back to our difficulty multiple, about 4.2x higher (1.4 ppm) would get it to parity with CO₂. There are a ton of missing factors here, not the least of which is the actual workings of a machine, but stepping back, I think it’s not crazy to consider capturing nitrous oxide from the air on farms.

Putting it all together

CO₂ DAC is hard but well-characterized, methane DAC looks prohibitively hard, and nitrous oxide DAC is harder than CO₂ but could be interesting. Has anyone looked at this seriously? I’d love to hear from people working on this.

A few odds and ends:

  • Farms operate seasonally. To maximize effectiveness of a nitrous oxide DAC system, maybe you’d build a unit that can be cheaply shipped back and forth between Northern and Southern Hemispheres for each growing season?
  • There’s an impressive startup called Nitricity working on an analogous technology that creates nitrogen fertilizer from air, water, and electricity.

Hoisting houses

This seems like something we’re gonna have to do more of (via NYT):

Today low-lying Charleston is seeing its eternal struggle with flooding exacerbated by climate change, with intensifying storms, a rising sea and downtown streets that transform into impassable creeks with distressing regularity. As a result, this coastal city, whose ardent defense of its historic neighborhoods set off a 21st-century tourist boom and contributed to a regional economic renaissance, is being forced to accept that the very concept of preservation must now, paradoxically, embrace change – and that some of its most historic buildings need to be hoisted up.

This seems like a nightmare. How on earth do you hoist a house?

“The elevation process is expensive and complicated. Metal beams are placed beneath homes ... before computer-assisted hydraulic jacks lift the structure.”

I kind of love it. I think about the coasts a fair bit, and it’s sad to think that so much is going to be destroyed by rising sea levels. But: coastal real estate represents >$1T in assets; are we really going to just write off the loss and politely ask residents to sell their houses and move? Hell no, we’re gonna hoist ‘em up!

Before we get into it, obviously lifting houses is an imperfect solution. You’d rather not have the intensifying floods and storms, but here we are. You’d rather live in a city more than a few feet above sea level, but those are harder to move. You’d rather have a more equitable and wide-reaching solution, but that has often been the realm of slow-moving and inadequate policymaking. All that being said, raising homes seems good enough for some people for a while? Sure, it’s expensive, but so is coastal real estate. If you have the means, then sure, go ahead, why not? Most beach homes are already built on stilts.

Could home hoisting work as a standalone business? Could it become something big? Let’s take a minute to explore.

The average home value in Charleston is about $440k today. How much would you spend to lift one? It’s a complicated question for many reasons. Let’s hold our collective fingers up in the wind and call it $100k, which is roughly consistent with with major foundation work.

Specialty contractors can charge ~30% gross margins; this means you, as business owner, can spend ~$70k in costs and remain competitive. Let’s assume you could apply modern technologies to this challenge, say computer vision, 3D printing of custom parts, maybe even an AI-powered recommendation engine trained on your proprietary house hoisting dataset. Maybe this reduces your cost base to $50k and enables you to lift more houses more easily. Now your margins are 50% – not bad! And that’s just if you’re the contractor.

Maybe you let someone else do the low-margin construction-y parts of the business and you focus on the technology part of the business. In exchange for your $20k cost reduction, maybe you can charge contractors $10k per house and it’ll still be worth it for them. Maybe you’d develop a range of offerings tailored to each region and type of house. Multiply that by the 40% of 120MM US households located in coastal counties, and you get a total addressable market of… $480B?! We haven’t even broached business model innovations that are all the rage these days. I’m sure this is way oversimplified, but holy hell that’s a large opportunity.

Let’s look around: there are a handful of companies in the business of lifting or moving houses, but none I could find that positions itself as a technology company. On the flip side, there are quite a few building technology startups out there, but none that I’ve seen who are in the business of lifting homes.

So I guess let’s get going?



Thanks for reading!

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