The Download: Locking up carbon with corn, and the path to greener steel

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal

In recent weeks, a crew of staffers from a company called Charm Industrial have been working on the edge of Kansas corn fields, moving rolled bales of stalks, leaves, husks, and tassels up to a semi-trailer.

Inside, a contraption called a pyrolyzer uses high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to break down the plant material into a mix of biochar and bio-oil. This oil is pumped into EPA-regulated deep wells used for industrial waste, or into salt caverns. Charm says it solidifies there, locking away carbon for thousands to millions of years that would otherwise go back into the air as farmers burn crop remains or leave them to rot.

The San Francisco startup has been sequestering carbon this way for the past two years, working on behalf of companies including Microsoft. Late last year, it announced that the process has safely locked up nearly the equivalent of 5,500 tons of CO2 so far, claiming that’s the largest amount of long-term carbon removal delivered to date. 

But there are still plenty of questions  about how reliable, scalable, and economical this approach will prove to be. Read the full story.

—James Temple

How Charm Industrial hopes to use crops to cut steel emissions

Charm Industrial is also exploring whether the same bio-oil could be used to cut emissions from iron and steelmaking, pursuing a new technical path for cleaning up the dirtiest industrial sector.

The approach could be welcome news to companies compelled to explore cleaner production methods, amid hefty emissions and increasingly strict climate policies. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The Texas gunman detailed his plans in Facebook messages before the shooting
Meta said the direct messages weren’t discovered until after the tragedy. (WP $)
+ Repeated mass shootings is a problem unique to America. (New Yorker $)
+ AI-powered metal detectors are a controversial solution. (WP $)
+ Three false claims surrounding the shooting are circulating online. (NYT $) 

2 Twitter has been fined for sharing users’ phone numbers
It allowed numbers and email addresses to inform targeted advertising. (Variety)
+ Elon Musk needs more money if he wants to buy the company. (FT $)

3 A quantum network has successfully teleported information
Good news for the future of a super-secure quantum internet. (New Scientist $)
+ We still don’t know if quantum computers will ever live up to their potential. (Vox)
+ Quantum computing has a hype problem. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Carbon removal companies are betting big on kelp 
Seaweed seems an attractive natural solution to our growing carbon problem. (The Atlantic $)
+ But eager companies may be rushing ahead of the science. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Dyson is turning its attention to household chore robots
And wants them in our homes by 2030. (The Guardian)
+ This tiny robotic crab is smaller than a flea. (TechCrunch)

6 The obvious flaw in our hunt for alien life 👽
Our assumptions that they live as we do could be blinding us to real clues. (The Economist $)
+ The best places to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system, ranked. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Improving plant-based food is an uphill struggle 🌿🍔
While vegan startups have boomed in recent years, not all their offerings are good. (Vox)
+ And the appeal of plant-based dishes isn’t international, either. (Economist $)
+ Battles over patents isn’t making it easy for the alt-meat industry. (Sifted)
+ Your first lab-grown burger is coming soon—and it’ll be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Teens are running social media coping workshops to help their peers
Their lived experience can be more valuable than programs run by adults. (Time $)

9 China’s short-video obsession is giving faded celebrities a second shot at fame
Shopping channel-style livestreams are extremely lucrative—for a lucky few. (Rest of World)
+ TikTok can be a scary place if you’re pregnant. (LA Times)

10 Meet the artist who’s been making computer art since the 1950s
And it’s taken him until now to gain the recognition he deserves. (Elephant)

Quote of the day

“If we enter a real recession, NFTs are going to be the first to go.” 

—David Hsiao, chief executive of the crypto magazine Block Journal, isn’t optimistic about the lasting value of NFTs in an economic downturn, he tells the Washington Post.

The big story

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation
November 2021

Last fall, a collection of internal documents known as the Facebook Papers reaffirmed what civil society groups have been saying for years: Facebook’s algorithmic amplification of inflammatory content, combined with its failure to prioritize content moderation outside the US and Europe, has fueled the spread of hate speech and misinformation, dangerously destabilizing countries around the world. 

But there’s a crucial piece missing from the story. Facebook isn’t just amplifying misinformation—it’s also funding it.

Tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world, an MIT Technology Review investigation found. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Clubbing in the metaverse still sounds awful, I’m sorry.
+ In fact, who needs the metaverse, when you’ve got DJ Gandalf on the decks?
+ Nothing but best wishes for this happy couple.
+ An essential investigation into why we’re all such big fans of delicious shawarmas.
+ I enjoyed this look back at cult Japanese magazine FRUiTS’ coolest images—which shut down because there were “no more cool kids left to photograph.”

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