What guides our policy efforts, both in the United States and internationally, is that they’re all stops along the global pathway to net zero . Though it requires complex navigation of local partnerships and political realities, our policy work is conducted with an eye towards accelerating innovation around difficult problems, and getting solutions into the real world as fast as possible over the next decade.
Our criteria for the projects and technologies we support focus not focuses on two main attributes: impact and replicability.
Not every project is a fit for Catalyst, but we let innovators know why they fall out of our scope. For example, we wouldn’t support a conventional investment in wind or solar energy, which can usually attract funding elsewhere. Nor would we support a project that can only work in the American Southwest.
What we take on must be scalable around the world, including and especially in emerging markets. Certain technologies may have already achieved some level of success — via pilot projects or a technical demonstration — but require additional funding for much larger FOAK projects to prove that they can scale up.
Second, it’s vital for developers and investors to structure construction and equipment contracts that isolate risk, incentivize high performance, and ensure tech reliability and replicability. New projects can often face delays and unexpected costs, especially during the physical construction phase. In fact, only about 10% of capital projects come in on time and on budget.
To put investors at ease, those developing FOAK projects should insist on engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contracts that create clear accountability for quality, costs, and risks among qualified contractors, as well as build in incentives and adequate resources (such as time and dedicated funds) for on-time and on-budget execution. There needs to be a very strong risk sharing framework that allows all parties to be able to rely on these contracts and have a high certainty that the project will be built.
Here’s the good news: Compared to some of the other sectors we’ve discussed, the technologies we need to decarbonize heating and cooling already exist for the most part — from heat pumps and smart controls to energy-efficient air conditioners and double- or triple-glazed windows.
The main issue is deployment.
We’ve already built a lot of buildings, and as we’ve discussed, they last a long time. It’s going to take a colossal effort not only to update the way we construct our homes and offices, but to retrofit the buildings we already have to make them more energy efficient. We need to update building regulations to allow for the use of new materials and processes, and encourage building and home owners to make the changes needed.
Several companies are exploring ways to meet this cooling demand in an energy efficient way. Take Blue Frontier , for example, which has developed a liquid desiccant that behaves like a battery for your air conditioner. Blue Frontier uses this liquid desiccant to store energy as “dehumidification potential.” Combined with evaporative cooling, their technology can pull moisture out of the air in your home and make it cooler. This not only cools your home without the use of harmful refrigerants, but it also reduces peak energy demand by allowing you to store electricity at its cheapest and deploy it when costs are high.
The technology was actually first discovered as a way to kill anthrax, not unlike the original concept for air conditioning, which was developed as a (misguided) way to treat malaria.
Blue Frontier is just one example of several companies working to revolutionize the air conditioning space. enVerid is another innovator in this space. enVerid’s solution pulls CO₂ and other gaseous contaminants out of indoor air, which allows you to recycle more air and lower the load on your A/C. This especially helps in hot summer and cold winter months; it also allows you to use a smaller A/C unit.
But even as these technologies get better, consumers aren’t taking advantage of them. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the typical A/C unit sold today is only half as efficient as what’s widely available. That means they either don’t have the information or the incentives to make energy efficient choices. We need to change that.
Heat pumps aren’t without their flaws. For example, they struggle to operate at full capacity in extremely cold weather. But they have improved enormously in recent years.
30 years ago, heat pumps were only effective down to about 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or freezing. Today, we have heat pumps that are effective at -15 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite this progress, we still have work to do. And we’ll need continued heat pump innovation and other solutions, like e-fuels, for areas of the world where heat pumps aren’t fully effective. Nevertheless, heat pumps will be a key piece of the decarbonization puzzle. In fact, we need an estimated 400 million more heat pumps installed this decade to reach our net-zero target.
Direct Reduced Iron
The first pathway centers on Direct Reduced Iron, or DRI, which arose from the discovery that you don’t have to melt iron ore to turn it into iron; if you just keep it hot enough with certain fuels — like natural gas, coal, hydrogen, or biofuels — you're left with the same metal. Today’s DRI uses natural gas, so there is still a CO₂ byproduct — albeit less of it than with traditional steel — but, in the future, DRI using green hydrogen can have a CO₂ footprint of steel as low as zero. (That being said, hydrogen makes the reducing reaction endothermic, which requires more energy on the front end.)
So why don't we just use DRI for everything? For starters, alternative reducing agents like hydrogen also cost far more than natural gas; green hydrogen can be over five times the price of the latter. So in the short run, hydrogen DRI simply costs more than ordinary steel. But as we drive down the cost of hydrogen and alternative fuels, we can expect wider applications.
DRI also typically leaves behind other metals like aluminum and silicon that need to be melted again, so you can only use it on high-grade ores without too many contaminants. It’s currently only about six percent of the global iron supply — and is becoming even more expensive and rare — so we need a hydrogen solution that can work on a wider range of ores. One Breakthrough Energy Fellows project, Hertha Metals,
is working on this very challenge. Hertha is developing an iron and steel manufacturing
technology that converts any grade of iron ore into ultra-low carbon footprint iron and steel through a hydrogen-electric approach.
Recycling secondary steel
The second major pathway for driving down steel emissions is recycling secondary steel — essentially, remelting and reshaping it. Secondary steel already accounts for about 24% of global steel production and is the least energy- and emissions-intensive process we have for making steel today. The major constraint is that, over time, recycled steel accumulates impurities again — which is why recycled steel has fewer applications over time, like in the automotive industry, which mandates high-purity steel .
Several companies today are exploring better ways to separate recycled iron from contaminants, so we can expand the secondary steel market beyond the place where it has plateaued in recent years.
Further down the road, carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) can also help decrease the energy needed to manufacture steel. To date, we haven't shown that we can achieve a sufficiently high rate of capture (90% or more) to make it worthwhile, and, like with cement, it would likely come at a high price. But it’s something to keep in our arsenal for a time when we’ve maximized the other solutions at hand.
One answer is battery recycling . Another is developing batteries that use far less nickel and cobalt — or even none at all. There are a handful of possible configurations, but a promising one is a lithium-iron phosphate battery, or LFP.
LFPs don’t use any nickel or cobalt, and while they pack less energy than a standard lithium-ion battery at a cell level, they have higher safety properties. That means you can pack more cells in a smaller space and basically provide the same range you get with a nickel cobalt manganese (NCM) battery. In February, a company called Our Next Energy outfitted a BMW with their LFP for a test drive. The BMW made it 400 miles on a single charge.
Both innovations — battery recycling and batteries with less critical minerals — are still years away from widespread use. But they will need to be critical pieces of our strategy as the world’s lithium, nickel, and cobalt resources begin to wane.
The other roadblock is battery safety — or more specifically, battery fire safety. Electric vehicles are actually more fire safe than traditional vehicles. Generally speaking, for every one electric vehicle that catches fire, there are 35 regular cars that go up in flames. Still, fires involving lithium-ion batteries tend to burn hotter and longer than fires fueled by gasoline.
For car makers, addressing battery fires isn’t just a matter of protecting lives; it’s also a matter of preventing bankruptcy-threatening recalls, factory fires, and loss of inventory in transit. Today, two percent of the cars on the road are electric. If an automaker has to recall two percent of its fleet because of a battery defect, that’s a big financial problem. But it’s not company-ending. The math changes, however, when electric cars are 100% of the vehicles a carmaker sells.
To make matters worse, the two largest sources of emissions in the agricultural sector — enteric methane and synthetic fertilizer — have received disproportionately low levels of research funding.
Over the past year, we've collaborated with climate groups to champion greater funding for several key agricultural programs, including the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which supports innovations that curb enteric methane emissions without cutting back on beef and dairy outputs; the Agricultural Research Service, another USDA branch, which delivers valuable information to the public on nutrition, food safety, crop protection, conservation, and more; the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit established by the 2014 Farm Bill, which ensures that federal funds for agricultural research are matched from private sources; and the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA), which focuses on high-risk, high-reward projects that conventional funding sources overlook but could usher in the next wave of agricultural advancements.
As we advocate to better fund and expand all of these programs, we recognize that the future of agricultural policy in every part of the world must be proactive. Through increased investment, bold incentives for farmers and consumers, and revolutionary innovations in livestock management, fertilizer production, and plant-based alternatives to meat, we can feed the world and mitigate climate change at the same time.
In a process called enteric fermentation, bacteria inside a cow’s stomach breaks down food, ferments it, and produces methane, which the cow then mostly burps out. Methane is a much stronger warming agent than CO₂, and the methane cows burp and fart out (known as “enteric emissions”) accounts for four percent of global emissions alone.
That’s a serious problem, because cows are a vital part of our global food system. They contribute about 34% of our diet’s protein and 16% of its calories. And as the world’s population and food demand grow, there could be an additional 500 million cows roaming the planet by 2050, according to projections by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
That’s where the vaccines come in. In fact, the word vaccine is derived from the Latin word for cow. We’ve invested in a company called ArkeaBio , which uses a cutting-edge, multivalent vaccine that delivers antibodies to the rumen, a compartment of the cow’s stomach, to reduce methane production.
There’s a high scientific risk here and it may not work. But it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of this vaccine. We know this technology is highly scalable. Look no further than the massive effort to administer nearly 14 billion COVID-19 vaccines in three years. If successful, ArkeaBio’s vaccine could become one of the most important climate breakthroughs.
Rumin8 , an Australia-based company, is tackling this problem in a different way. In recent years, farmers discovered that bovine methane production can change based on what cattle consume. A seaweed diet, for example, has been shown to significantly reduce the production of methane in cows. Only problem is, transporting seaweed to cow farmers just doesn’t make economic or logistical sense, not to mention the fact that cows just don’t like the salty taste of seaweed very much.
Rumin8 has created a workaround, taking the active ingredient in seaweed and using it to target enzymes in the cow’s stomach to reduce methane production. If ArkeaBio’s technology works like a vaccine, Rumin8’s works more like a probiotic that can be administered in cow feed.
Of course, the simplest way to reduce livestock’s impact on the climate is to stop eating them. But reducing demand for beef has proved harder than we imagined.
Plant-and cell-based alternative meat companies have exploded in recent years, but Americans’ hunger for meat alternatives has plateaued. Plant based meat is still only about one percent of the meat market in the United States. The Green Premium for plant-based beef remains absurdly high, and most surveys show consumers still find the taste lacking. And internationally, beef demand is expected to increase as low- and middle-income countries get wealthier, since per capita meat consumption is strongly correlated with per capita GDP.
Nature's Fynd has produced a new-to-the-world protein
That doesn’t mean we should give up. Breakthrough Energy is working with several companies focused on accelerating the adoption of plant-based alternatives to meat. Take Savor , for example, which creates zero-carbon fats using a thermochemical process. Most fat used today comes from palm oil, which is in nearly half of all packaged goods, and which, as we’ve discussed, is a major driver of deforestation. Fat is critical to a food’s flavor and texture. If companies like Savor can improve the way we make plant-based meats by replacing palm oil and animal fats, it could help shift consumer preferences and significantly reduce emissions.
Nobell is another company working in this space. Founded by a Lebanese immigrant looking for better vegan cheese, Nobell helps farmers create dairy-free products using soybeans to grow the dairy protein casein, which gives cheese its gooey texture.
Accelerating consumer adoption of plant-based alternatives would have a cascading effect on emission reduction. Not only would it help reduce the emissions from livestock themselves, but it would also free up land currently used for livestock feed such as corn and soy.
The Carbon Casting process preserves nearly all the carbon stored in the biomass while also consuming less energy than other removal approaches (an order of magnitude less than the leading direct air capture solutions). In addition, the use of a purpose-built sequestration site enables comprehensive monitoring of the sequestered carbon, making Graphyte’s approach the only permanent negative-emissions technology that can be monitored directly.
By making high-quality carbon removal affordable to companies and governments today, Graphyte accelerates progress toward the billions of tons of carbon removal needed to meet the IPCC’s projected path. It also broadens the opportunity to areas in the Global South that are rich in biomass but simply can’t afford expensive and energy-intensive DAC solutions.
Graphyte collaborates with farmers and foresters who sustainably manage agriculture and timber lands across the world, and turns their unused biomass into permanent carbon removal. As we work to accelerate the clean energy transition, climate leaders should consider this important addition to the toolkit to deliver higher volumes of permanent removals at an affordable price today.