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The public intellectual and professor of African-American studies will head to Union Theological Seminary in New York.
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VaccineFinder.org is an ambitious but limited attempt to simplify Americans’ search for vaccines.
He created the first effective heart defibrillator and co-founded a physicians group that campaigned against nuclear war, earning a Nobel Peace Prize.
Royal Dutch Shell Group, one of the largest publicly traded oil producers in the world, just laid out its plan for how the company will survive in a zero-emission, climate conscious world.
It’s a plan that rests on five main pillars that include the massive rollout of electric vehicle charging stations; a greater emphasis on lubricants, chemicals, and biofuels; the development of a significantly larger renewable energy generation portfolio and carbon offset plan; and the continued development of hydrogen and natural gas assets while slashing oil production by 1% to 2% per year and investing heavily in carbon capture and storage.
These four large categories cut across the company’s business operations and represent one of the most comprehensive (if high level) plans from a major oil company on how to keep their industry from becoming the next victim of the transition to low emission (and eventually) zero emission energy and power sources (I’m looking at you, coal industry).
“Our accelerated strategy will drive down carbon emissions and will deliver value for our shareholders, our customers and wider society,” said Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Officer, Ben van Beurden, in a statement.
To keep those shareholders from abandoning ship, the company also committed to slashing costs and boosting its dividend per share by around 4% per year. That means giving money back to investors that might have been spent on expensive oil and gas exploration operations. The company also committed too pay down its debt and make its payouts to shareholders 20% to 30% of its cash flow from operations. That’s… very generous.
Shell is a massive business with more than 1 million commercial and industrial customers and about 30 million customers coming to its 46,000 retail service stations daily, according to the company’s own estimates. The company organized its thinking around what it sees as growth opportunities, energy transition opportunities, and then the gradual obsolescence of its upstream drilling and petroleum production operations.
In what it sees as areas for growth, Shell intends to invest around $5 billion to $6 billion to its initiatives including the development of 500,000 electric vehicle charging locations by 2025 (up from 60,000 today) and an attendant boost in retail and service locations to facilitate charging.
The company also said it would be investing heavily in the expansion of biofuels and renewable energy generation and carbon offsets. The company wants to generate 560 terawatt hours a year by 2030, which is double the amount of electricity it generates today. Expect to see Shell operate as an independent power producer that will provide renewable energy generation as a service to an expected 15 million retail and commercial customers.
Finally the company sees the hydrogen economy as another area where it can grow.
In places where Shell already has assets that can be transitioned to the low carbon economy, the company’s going to be doubling down on its bets. That means zero emission natural gas production and a trebling down on chemicals manufacturing (watch out Dow and BASF). That means more recycling as well, as the company intends to process 1 million tons of plastic waste to produce circular chemicals.
Upstream, which was the heart of the oil and gas business for years, the company said it would “focus on value over volume” in a statement. What that means in practice is looking for easier, low cost wells to drill (something that points to the continued importance of the Middle East in the oil economy for the foreseeable future). The company expects to reduce its oil production by around 1% to 2% per year. And the company’s going to be investing in carbon capture and storage to the tune of 25 million tons per year through projects like the Quest CCS development in Canada, Norway’s Northern Lights project, and the Porthos project n the Netherlands.
“We must give our customers the products and services they want and need – products that have the lowest environmental impact,” van Beurden said in a statement.”At the same time, we will use our established strengths to build on our competitive portfolio as we make the transition to be a net-zero emissions business in step with society.”
For the company to survive in a world where revenues from its main business are cut, it’s also going to be keeping operating expenses down and will be looking to sell off big chunks of the business that no longer make sense.
That means expenses of no more than $35 billion per year and sales of around $4 billion per year to keep those dividends and cash to investors flowing.
“Over time the balance of capital spending will shift towards the businesses in the Growth pillar, attracting around half of the additional capital spend,” the company said. “Cash flow will follow the same trend and in the long term will become less exposed to oil and gas prices, with a stronger link to broader economic growth.”
Shell set targets for reducing its carbon intensity as part of the pay that’s going to all of the company’s staff and those targets are… eye opening. It’s looking at reductions in carbon intensity of 6-8% by 2023, 20% by 2030, 45% by 2035 and 100% by 2050, using a baseline of 2016 as its benchmark.
The company said that its own carbon emissions peaked in 2018 at 1.7 giga-tons per year and its oil production peaked in 2019.
Shell’s not taking these steps because it wants to, necessarily. The writing is on the wall that unless something dramatic is done to stop fossil fuel pollution and climate change, the world faces serious consequences.
A study released earlier this week indicated that air pollution from fossil fuels killed 18% of the world’s population. That means burning fossil fuels is almost as deadly as cancer, according to the study from researchers led by Harvard University.
Beyond the human toll directly tied to fossil fuels, there’s the huge cost of climate change, which the U.S. estimated could cost $500 billion per year by 2090 unless steps are taken to reverse course.
We can thank our heads and shoulders — and not just our knees and toes — that we evolved to run as well as we do.
As impressive as the cameras in our smartphones are, they’re fundamentally limited by the physical necessities of lenses and sensors. Metalenz skips over that part with a camera made of a single “metasurface” that could save precious space and battery life in phones and other devices… and they’re about to ship it.
The concept is similar to, but not descended from, the “metamaterials” that gave rise to flat beam-forming radar and lidar of Lumotive and Echodyne. The idea is to take a complex 3D structure and accomplish what it does using a precisely engineered “2D” surface — not actually two-dimensional, of course, but usually a plane with features measured in microns.
In the case of a camera, the main components are of course a lens (these days it’s usually several stacked), which corrals the light, and an image sensor, which senses and measures that light. The problem faced by cameras now, particularly in smartphones, is that the lenses can’t be made much smaller without seriously affecting the clarity of the image. Likewise sensors are nearly at the limit of how much light they can work with. Consequently most of the photography advancements of the last few years have been done on the computational side.
Using an engineered surface that does away with the need for complex optics and other camera systems has been a goal for years. Back in 2016 I wrote about a NASA project that took inspiration from moth eyes to create a 2D camera of sorts. It’s harder than it sounds, though — usable imagery has been generated in labs, but it’s not the kind of thing that you take to Apple or Samsung.
Metalenz aims to change that. The company’s tech is built on the work of Harvard’s Frederico Capasso, who has been publishing on the science behind metasurfaces for years. He and Rob Devlin, who did his doctorate work in Capasso’s lab, co-founded the company to commercialize their efforts.
“Early demos were extremely inefficient,” said Devlin of the field’s first entrants. “You had light scattering all over the place, the materials and processes were non-standard, the designs weren’t able to handle the demands that a real world throws at you. Making one that works and publishing a paper on it is one thing, making 10 million and making sure they all do the same thing is another.”
Their breakthrough — if years of hard work and research can be called that — is the ability not just to make a metasurface camera that produces decent images, but to do it without exotic components or manufacturing processes.
“We’re really using all standard semiconductor processes and materials here, the exact same equipment — but with lenses instead of electronics,” said Devlin. “We can already make a million lenses a day with our foundry partners.”
The first challenge is more or less contained in the fact that incoming light, without lenses to bend and direct it, hits the metasurface in a much more chaotic way. Devlin’s own PhD work was concerned with taming this chaos.
“Light on a macro [i.e. conventional scale, not close-focusing] lens is controlled on the macro scale, you’re relying on the curvature to bend the light. There’s only so much you can do with it,” he explained. “But here you have features a thousand times smaller than a human hair, which gives us very fine control over the light that hits the lens.”
Those features, as you can see in this extreme close-up of the metasurface, are precisely tuned cylinders, “almost like little nano-scale Coke cans,” Devlin suggested. Like other metamaterials, these structures, far smaller than a visible or near-infrared light ray’s wavelength, manipulate the radiation by means that take a few years of study to understand.
The result is a camera with extremely small proportions and vastly less complexity than the compact camera stacks found in consumer and industrial devices. To be clear, Metalenz isn’t looking to replace the main camera on your iPhone — for conventional photography purposes the conventional lens and sensor are still the way to go. But there are other applications that play to the chip-style lens’s strengths.
Something like the FaceID assembly, for instance, presents an opportunity. “That module is a very complex one for the cell phone world — it’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine,” said Devlin. Likewise the miniature lidar sensor.
At this scale, the priorities are different, and by subtracting the lens from the equation the amount of light that reaches the sensor is significantly increased. That means it can potentially be smaller in every dimension while performing better and drawing less power.
Lest you think this is still a lab-bound “wouldn’t it be nice if” type device, Metalenz is well on its way to commercial availability. The $10M round A they just raised was led by 3M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, M Ventures and TDK Ventures, along with Tsingyuan Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures — a lot of suppliers in there.
Unlike many other hardware startups, Metalenz isn’t starting with a short run of boutique demo devices but going big out of the gate.
“Because we’re using traditional fabrication techniques, it allows us to scale really quickly. We’re not building factories or foundries, we don’t have to raise hundreds of mils; we can use whats already there,” said Devlin. “But it means we have to look at applications that are high volume. We need the units to be in that tens of millions range for our foundry partners to see it making sense.”
Although Devlin declined to get specific, he did say that their first partner is “active in 3D sensing” and that a consumer device, though not a phone, would be shipping with Metalenz cameras in early 2022 — and later in 2022 will see a phone-based solution shipping as well.
In other words, while Metalenz is indeed a startup just coming out of stealth and raising its A round… it already has shipments planned on the order of tens of millions. The $10M isn’t a bridge to commercial viability but short term cash to hire and cover up-front costs associated with such a serious endeavor. It’s doubtful anyone on that list of investors harbors any serious doubts on ROI.
The 3D sensing thing is Metalenz’s first major application, but the company is already working on others. The potential to reduce complex lab equipment to handheld electronics that can be fielded easily is one, and improving the benchtop versions of tools with more light-gathering ability or quicker operation is another.
Though a device you use may in a few years have a Metalenz component in it, it’s likely you won’t know — the phone manufacturer will probably take all the credit for the improved performance or slimmer form factor. Nevertheless, it may show up in teardowns and bills of material, at which point you’ll know this particular university spin-out has made it to the big leagues.
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