Covid-19 “long haulers” are organizing online to study themselves

Gina Assaf was running in Washington, DC, on March 19 when she suddenly couldn’t take another step. “I was so out of breath I had to stop,” she says. Five days earlier, she’d hung out with a friend; within days, that friend and their partner had started showing three classic signs of covid-19: fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Assaf had those symptoms too, and then some. By the second week, which she describes as “the scariest and hardest on my body,” her chest was burning and she was dizzy. Her friend recovered, but Assaf was still “utterly exhausted.” A full month after falling ill, she attempted to go to grocery shopping and ended up in bed for days. 

She didn’t initially have access to a coronavirus test, and doctors who saw her virtually suggested she was experiencing anxiety, psychosomatic illness, or maybe allergies. “I felt very alone and confused, and doctors had no answers or help for me,” says Assaf, whose symptoms persist to this day. 

In those first few months, Assaf found a legion of people in situations similar to her own in a Slack support group for covid-19 patients, including hundreds who self-identified as “long-haulers,” the term most commonly used to describe those who remain sick long after being infected. 

There, she noticed, long-haulers were trying to figure themselves out: Did they have similar blood types? Get tested at a certain time? Have a common geographic or demographic denominator?

So Assaf, a technology design consultant, launched a channel called #research-group. A team of 23 people, led by six scientists and survey designers, began aggregating questions in a Google form. In April, they shared it within the Slack group and on other social-media groups for long-haulers like them.

In May, this group, which now calls itself Patient-Led Research for Covid-19, released its first report. Based on 640 responses, it provides perhaps the most in-depth look at long-haulers to date and offers a window into what life is like for certain coronavirus patients who are taking longer—much longer—to recover.

The EU is launching a market for personal data. Here’s what that means for privacy.

The European Union has long been a trendsetter in privacy regulation. Its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and stringent antitrust laws have inspired new legislation around the world. For decades, the EU has codified protections on personal data and fought against what it viewed as commercial exploitation of private information, proudly positioning its regulations in contrast to the light-touch privacy policies in the United States.

The new European data governance strategy (pdf) takes a fundamentally different approach. With it, the EU will become an active player in facilitating the use and monetization of its citizens’ personal data. Unveiled by the European Commission in February 2020, the strategy outlines policy measures and investments to be rolled out in the next five years.

This new strategy represents a radical shift in the EU’s focus, from protecting individual privacy to promoting data sharing as a civic duty. Specifically, it will create a pan-European market for personal data through a mechanism called a data trust. A data trust is a steward that manages people’s data on their behalf and has fiduciary duties toward its clients.

The EU’s new plan considers personal data to be a key asset for Europe. However, this approach raises some questions. First, the EU’s intent to profit from the personal data it collects puts European governments in a weak position to regulate the industry. Second, the improper use of data trusts can actually deprive citizens of their rights to their own data.

The Trusts Project, the first initiative put forth by the new EU policies, will be implemented by 2022. With a €7 million budget, it will set up a pan-European pool of personal and nonpersonal information that should become a one-stop shop for businesses and governments looking to access citizens’ information.

Global technology companies will not be allowed to store or move Europeans’ data. Instead, they will be required to access it via the trusts. Citizens will collect “data dividends,” which haven’t been clearly defined but could include monetary or nonmonetary payments from companies that use their personal data. With the EU’s roughly 500 million citizens poised to become data sources, the trusts will create the world’s largest data market.

For citizens, this means the data created by them and about them will be held in public servers and managed by data trusts. The European Commission envisions the trusts as a way to help European businesses and governments reuse and extract value from the massive amounts of data produced across the region, and to help European citizens benefit from their information. The project documentation, however, does not specify how individuals will be compensated.

Data trusts were first proposed by internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners Lee in 2018, and the concept has drawn considerable interest since then. Just like the trusts used to manage one’s property, data trusts may serve different purposes: they can be for-profit enterprises, or they can be set up for data storage and protection, or to work for a charitable cause.

IBM and Mastercard have built a data trust to manage the financial information of their European clients in Ireland; the UK and Canada have employed data trusts to stimulate the growth of the AI industries there; and recently, India announced plans to establish its own public data trust to spur the growth of technology companies.

The new EU project is modeled on Austria’s digital system, which keeps track of information produced by and about its citizens by assigning them unique identifiers and storing the data in public repositories.

Unfortunately, data trusts do not guarantee more transparency. The trust is governed by a charter created by the trust’s settlor, and its rules can be made to prioritize someone’s interests. The trust is run by a board of directors, which means a party that has more seats gains significant control.

The Trusts Project is bound to face some governance issues of its own. Public and private actors often do not see eye to eye when it comes to running critical infrastructure or managing valuable assets. Technology companies tend to favor policies that create opportunity for their own products and services. Caught in a conflict of interest, Europe may overlook the question of privacy.

And in some cases, data trusts have been used to strip individuals of their rights to control data collected about them. In October 2019, the government of Canada rejected a proposal by Alphabet/Sidewalk Labs to create a data trust for Toronto’s smart city project. Sidewalk Labs had designed the trust in a way that secured the company’s control over citizens’ data. And India’s data trust faced criticism for giving the government unrestricted access to personal information by defining authorities as “information fiduciaries.”

One possible solution could be to set up an ecosystem of data stewards, both public and private, that each serve different needs. Sylvie Delacroix and Neil Lawrence, the originators of this bottom-up approach, liken data trusts to pension funds, saying they should be tightly regulated and able to provide different services to designated groups.

When put into practice, the EU’s Trusts Project will likely change the privacy landscape on a global scale. Unfortunately, however, this new approach won’t necessarily give European citizens more privacy or control over their information. It is not yet clear what model of trusts the project will pursue, but the policies do not currently provide any way for citizens to opt out.

At a recent congressional antitrust hearing in the United States, four major platform companies publicly recognized the use of surveillance technologies, market manipulation, and forceful acquisitions to dominate the data economy. The single most important lesson from these revelations is that companies that trade in personal data cannot be trusted to store and manage it. Decoupling personal information from the platforms’ infrastructure would be a decisive step toward curbing their monopoly power. This can be done through data stewardship.

Ideally, the Trusts Project would show the world a more equitable way to capture and distribute the true value of personal data. There’s still time to deliver on that promise.

Anna Artyushina is a public policy scholar specializing in data governance and smart cities. She is a PhD candidate in science and technology studies at York University in Toronto.

Population immunity is slowing down the pandemic in parts of the US

The large number of people already infected with the coronavirus in the US has begun to act as a brake on the spread of the disease in hard-hit states.

Millions of US residents have been infected by the virus that causes covid-19, and at least 160,000 are dead. One effect is that the pool of susceptible individuals has been depleted in many areas. After infection, it’s believed, people become immune (at least for months), so they don’t transmit the virus to others. This slows the pandemic down.

“I believe the substantial epidemics in Arizona, Florida and Texas will leave enough immunity to assist in keeping COVID-19 controlled,” Trevor Bedford, a pandemic analyst at the University of Washington, said on Friday, in a series of tweets. “However, this level of immunity is not compatible with a full return to societal behavior as existed before the pandemic.”

The exact extent to which acquired immunity is slowing the rate of transmission is unknown, but major questions like school reopening and air travel may eventually hinge on the answer.

What is known is that after rising at an alarming pace starting in May, new cases of covid-19 in Sun Belt states like Florida have started to fall. Some of that may be due to social distancing behavior, but rising rates of immunity are also a factor, according to Youyang Gu, a computer scientist whose Covid-19 Projections is among 34 pandemic models tracked by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Immunity may play a significant part in the regions that are declining,” says Gu. At least until the fall, which is how far his models look forward, he says, “I don’t think there is going to be another spike” of infections in southern states.  

Herd immunity

The US has been recording more than 1,000 covid-19 deaths and 45,000 confirmed cases a day. The flip side of the rapid spread, however, is there are progressively fewer vulnerable people to catch and spread the virus again. Researchers say they hope to determine how great a role the rise of this population immunity can play in managing the pandemic.

“Clearly, as susceptibility drops, disease spreading drops. No one can say different,” says Tom Britton, a statistician who models the pandemic at the University of Stockholm. “The question is to what degree is the effect because of interventions or because of immunity? In regions with very large outbreaks—New York, Milan, Madrid, and London—I am convinced it’s a combination.”

A virus outbreak will cease to grow, even without any control measures, when a threshold called herd immunity is achieved. That’s when so many people are immune that the virus can’t find new hosts quickly enough.

For the new coronavirus, the threshold for reaching herd immunity is unknown. Estimates vary widely: anywhere from 10% to 80% of the population might have to be infected, depending on how well the virus spreads but also on social factors like how much people ordinarily mix with one another.

Once an obscure inflection point known only to epidemiologists, herd immunity has gained what Francois Balloux, a systems biologist at University College London, calls “Kardashian-like” fame and become a lightning rod in politically polarized debates over economic reopening. On social media, some commenters insist that herd immunity has already arrived, meaning lockdowns and school closures are not necessary. Others find reason to doubt that immunity will ever accumulate without a vaccine and say counting on it can only lead to millions of deaths.

“It seems there is the ‘herd immunity is already reached’ team and the ‘we are all going to die’ team. The good thing is, that there is a third ‘let’s get the data and let’s look at what this all means team’ out there,” tweeted Florian Krammer, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City.

What is certain is that in the US, with a raging epidemic, natural immunity is building fast. During June and July, Gu estimates, 450,000 people a day were being infected by the coronavirus in the US, the highest figures since the disease arrived in February.

That number is higher than the official case count because it includes an estimate of infections that go unseen, unfelt, or unreported. In June, CDC director Robert Redfield told reporters that the real number of infections could be many times the official tally. For instance, Gu has estimated that about 35 million Americans have now been infected—roughly 10% of the nation’s population.  

Natural infection also turns out to be extremely efficient at reducing virus transmission—even more effective than an equal number of people getting a vaccine. The reason is that the virus has been finding and infecting precisely those people who—whether because of behavior, circumstances, or biology—are most likely to be part of transmission chains.

Perhaps they are college students on spring break, or hospital nurses, or people who touch their face all the time. Whatever the reason, once these individuals become infected and are removed from the equation through death or immunity, the effect on the pandemic is outsized. By contrast, vaccinating a sheltered older person might protect that individual but does relatively less to stop transmission.

“When the disease itself causes herd immunity, it does so more efficiently than when we give out vaccine at random,” Marc Lipsitch, a public health modeler at Harvard University, told the political pundit Bill Kristol last week during a podcast interview. As a result, “there is discussion” about whether viral transmission could be reduced more quickly than generally believed, he says.

Lessons from Sweden

Outside the US, researchers are also closely tracking the role of population immunity in national responses. Sweden, for example, did not impose a strict lockdown, and saw a large number of deaths starting in April. Since then, however, the number of new infections has declined. The nation’s leaders said last week that children would go back to school unmasked.

“I would say in Sweden there is no doubt that immunity plays an important role, more than in other countries,” says Britton. “Now this epidemic is slowly stopping.”

Britton says a better understanding of how population immunity is shaping outbreaks could help guide the level and intensity of social interventions. He says the goal is to keep the virus’s reproduction number, called R, below 1, meaning every person with the virus infects fewer than one other. Under those conditions, an outbreak dwindles.

“Herd immunity is when all restrictions can be relaxed and you are still below 1,” he says. “But immunity doesn’t have to be at that level to have an effect.”

In some cities, like New York and Miami, blood tests show that 20% or more of the population has had the virus. But in regions still little affected, like small towns or rural areas, the population remains more susceptible. That means the virus can and will continue to cause new outbreaks. For instance, Louisiana saw a large spike in infections, followed by a lull and then a second spike. This occurred as the virus first hit New Orleans and later reached the rest of the state.

The geographic unevenness of the pandemic is one reason Britton does not think Sweden is able to get back to normal yet. “Are we protected from big outbreaks if all the restrictions are released? The answer is no,” he says. “On a national scale the immunity is not that high—it might be 20%. But in Stockholm it’s maybe 30 or 40%. We may be close to herd immunity [there], so they could relax restrictions a bit more.”

Russia says it has a covid vaccine called “Sputnik-V”

Russia has cleared a vaccine against covid-19 for emergency use on health-care workers this fall.

Fast advance:  Russian president Vladimir Putin said during a meeting on Tuesday that the newly registered vaccine “has passed all the necessary tests” and that one of his daughters had received the inoculation.  

“She has taken part in the experiment,” Putin said, according to the Associated Press.

Vaccination program: The Russian vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow. Although it has been tested on some volunteers, Russia has not finished the larger type of study needed to prove it is safe or protects recipients against infection by the coronavirus.

According to reports, doctors, nurses, and teachers will be given the shot first when enough supplies of the vaccine are ready in October, and it could reach the general public by January.

The Russian vaccine uses an adenovirus to deliver components of the pathogen that causes covid-19. The approach is similar to one being advanced by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, according to the New York Times,

National pride: Vaccines against covid-19 could be wielded as a tool of geopolitical power, with nations offering supplies to friends and allies. The Russian shot is named Sputnik-V, a clear allusion to the dramatic Soviet launch of the first space satellite in 1957, according to CNN.

“Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik’s beeping. It’s the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first,” Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said in June.  

There are close to 900,000 reported cases of coronavirus infection in Russia, the fourth-highest number in the world.

Risky race: The Russian vaccine claim could encourage the Trump administration to fast-track emergency approval of one of several vaccines being tested by the US program, Operation Warp Speed. Some scientists fear that the vaccine could become a pawn in American election politics and have cautioned against distributing an untested injection.

China, too: In June, China also approved a vaccine, made by CanSino Biologics, for use by its military. The country has offered experimental vaccines to officials at state enterprises in China.

The dwarf planet Ceres might be home to an underground ocean of water

Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system, seems to have liquid water seeping onto its surface, according to a new paper in Nature Astronomy. Data from NASA’s Dawn orbiter, the study suggests, show signs that it may be harboring an ocean deep underground. 

The background: Ceres, a dwarf planet located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, was studied intensely by the Dawn orbiter from March 2015 to November 2018. In its final weeks, the orbiter came as close as 22 miles from Ceres’s surface and collected a tremendous amount of data about the dwarf planet’s chemical composition. Dawn found many sodium chloride deposits on the surface, which scientists thought likely came from liquid that had seeped up onto the surface and evaporated, leaving behind a salty crust.

What’s new: But there still remained a question of exactly how that liquid got there. In a new analysis of the high-resolution images Dawn collected during those last weeks, Italian researchers found that the liquid comes from an underground reservoir of briny water, 25 miles below the surface of the Occator Crater, that could measure hundreds of miles wide. The salts found on the surface are important in helping to maintain liquid water within an environment like Ceres. 

The findings are being published along with other papers looking into new insights into Ceres and the geology around its Occator Crater, which has a diameter of 57 miles (92 kilometers) and is roughly 20 million years old. Some of that research also teased the presence of water at the crater in other ways, like conical hills that are similar to icy mountains on Earth formed by pressurized groundwater, but the salt deposits offer the best evidence.

So what? The salt deposits are young—some just a couple of million years old. And the Dawn data shows that the dehydrated salts actually still have a bit of water in them. That suggests whatever geological activity is encouraging these deposits might still be happening, which would mean Ceres is still an active world.

Although salty water can be an extreme environment, the presence of an ocean suggests there might be more of these briny water reservoirs located elsewhere on the dwarf planet, raising hopes Ceres was once a habitable world—and might still be. 

Is a successful contact tracing app possible? These countries think so.

If contact tracing apps are following Gartner’s famous hype cycle, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion they are now firmly in the “trough of disillusionment.” Initial excitement that they could be a crucial part of the arsenal against covid-19 has given way to fears it could all come to nothing, despite large investments of money and time. Country after country has seen low take-up, and in the case of Norway and the UK, apps were even abandoned. 

The US, meanwhile, is very late to the party. Singapore launched its app, TraceTogether, back in March, and Switzerland became the first country to release an app using Google and Apple’s exposure notification system in May. 

It took until last week—that is, three months later—for Virginia to become the first US state to launch an app using the Apple-Google system. A nationwide app in the United States seems out of the question given the lack of a coordinated federal response, but at least three more states are planning to launch similar services.

Being a late adopter could have one crucial advantage, though: the opportunity to learn from others’ failures—and their successes.

We talked to the developers behind apps in Ireland and Germany to find out what they had discovered along the way. These two apps rank highly in MIT Technology Review’s Covid Tracing Tracker, a project to monitor the development and rollout of contract tracing apps worldwide.

Ireland’s app has one of the world’s best adoption rates—37% of the population downloaded the app in its first week. Germany’s system, meanwhile, has been downloaded by more than 20% of citizens, and has been lauded as such a success that it’s been advising other governments on how to build their own. 

There are caveats. Many decentralized apps don’t collect information on the number of alerts they are sending out as a measure to protect privacy, and that includes both Ireland and Germany’s systems. That makes success hard to define in some cases. 

But still, not everyone has seen a rollout as chaotic as the US or UK. So what advice do these countries have for others?

1. Remember every case matters

Firstly, let’s dispel a myth. Digital contact tracing apps do not need to be adopted by the majority of the population to be effective: they can work with lower adoption rates, even if they’re not quite so effective. So we need to stop thinking it’s all or nothing. 

Colm Harte is technical director of NearForm, the company that created Ireland’s app, which was downloaded by 37% of the population in its first week. He says that “if you break even a few transmission chains as a result of the app, for me that’s a success.” Preventing just one infection could potentially save a life.

2. Manage expectations

People’s hopes for contact tracing apps were extremely high early on in the pandemic. But apps were never going to end covid-19 on their own. Peter Lorenz, one of the project leads working on Germany’s Corona-Warn-App, says it’s important to put contact tracing apps in their place. 

“The clear stance from the German government was that we’d use every tool available to fight this, including traditional methods like testing, distancing, masks, and manual contact tracing, but we’d combine it with technology,” he says.

Likewise, Ireland’s app fits hand-in-glove with its manual tracing program, which is equally if not more important to keeping coronavirus at bay. “If you test positive, the manual contact tracing team will ask you if you use the app, and if so, they ask if you’ll share keys so they can warn any close contacts through the app,” Harte explains.

This approach makes sense. While the manual tracing program is able to track down people who are acquainted with each other—say friends at a dinner party—the app is able to find people who are total strangers, for example people who have shared the same train carriage for an extended period of time.

3. Work in the open (or you won’t gain public trust)

Both Ireland and Germany have made the source code for their apps open for anyone to inspect. “We did that right from the start, so community feedback could go into the code before it went live,” says Thomas Klingbeil, who is responsible for the architecture of the Corona-Warn-App.

“The stance was that we’d use every tool available, including testing, distancing, masks, but we’d combine it with technology.”

Peter Lorenz, Germany’s Corona-Warn-App

Privacy and security concerns loom large for teams building these systems. Germans are particularly savvy about data protection, and developers there were conscious of the example of Norway, which had to suspend use of its app after criticism from its data privacy watchdog. Germany switched from building its own centralized app to one based on the Apple-Google API almost immediately, which proved to be a wise decision. Ireland did the same. And they both designed their apps with privacy in mind from the start, following a principle of “collect as little data as possible.” All of the information gathered by the apps stays on people’s phones rather than being sent to central servers. It is encrypted and automatically deleted after 14 days.

Both teams took a collaborative and cooperative approach, working across multiple agencies and companies, all focusing on a single goal that everyone could work toward. This—plus a healthy dose of goodwill from the public—seems to have made a significant difference to the success of their projects.

Crucially, the team engaged with critics rather than just dismissing them. You need to invest just as much time into transparency and community outreach as developing the technology, says Lorenz. “If people don’t trust it, it’s worthless. You have got to get people to buy into it,” he says.

4. Set the right parameters

Building a contact tracing app is hard. Although Apple and Google took away some of the burden of development, it’s still up to the authority in charge of the app to set the rules and parameters. How long do you have to spend with someone to be deemed likely to have caught coronavirus? Germany settled on 10 minutes. And how close do you need to be? Some countries say one meter, others say two. But these are tough questions given the basic science of transmission isn’t even settled yet. If you make the rules too loose, you end up letting people who might have been exposed to covid-19 slip through the net. On the other hand, if you’re too strict, the app sends off loads of unnecessary notifications, running the risk of irritating people to the point when they uninstall the app.

That’s why Germany’s public health body, the Robert Koch Institute, is running tests to simulate scenarios like cocktail parties or bus journeys. They are trying to fine tune the app’s parameters to the point where they measure exposure as accurately as possible, in order to avoid either of the problems outlined above.

5. Give it time

It’s too early to judge how effective contact tracing apps will be, given the first decentralized app launched just three months ago. And since the rollout coincided with lockdowns and other suppression methods, it has made some efforts look like failures because they aren’t sending many notifications. 

But Ireland and Germany’s teams are quietly confident that as time goes on, the apps will prove more effective as part of an overall approach to battling the disease. 

“We didn’t have this the first time around. This will make a big difference when the second wave comes,” says Lorenz.

Mars may not have been the warm, wet planet we thought it was

Mars today is a cold, dry wasteland—but things were likely much different billions of years ago. Since we started launching robotic missions to Mars in the 1970s, scientists have collected evidence that points to a warmer, wetter past for the Red Planet, where the surface was teeming with lakes and oceans that could have been home to life of some kind. It’s part of the reason NASA built and launched a new rover that launched last week to look for signs of ancient aliens.

But there’s no complete consensus on what Mars really looked like in the past. “The argument over the climate of early Mars is an old one” going back 40 years, says Anna Grau Galofre of Arizona State University. She’s the lead author of a new study published in Nature Geoscience that upends those dreams of a watery Mars, presenting new findings that suggest the planet’s ancient landscape looked closer to Antarctica than the tropics. Many of the geological features thought to have been carved out by flowing rivers and waterways replenished by frequent rainfall, the research suggests, may have actually resulted from massive glaciers and ice sheets that melted over time. 

The new study focuses on the history of valleys located in the southern highlands of Mars. “Past work has pointed at rivers as the origin of the Martian valley networks,” says Grau Galofre, but her study identifies for the first time a fraction of systems with characteristics “typical of subglacial channels.” That is, it was melting ice, not flowing water, that dug out these valleys nearly 3.8 billion years ago. 

Going with the flow

The research team examined 10,276 individual valleys found in 66 valley networks on Mars, using custom-built algorithms to group them and infer what kind of erosion processes formed them. This was then compared to terrestrial valleys that were shaped by subglacial channels in the Canadian Arctic. 

The major difference between networks formed from rivers and ones formed by melted ice is a result of how water flows. Rivers can only carve out valleys if the water is running downhill. But subglacial channels are pressurized, so the melted water is able to flow uphill too. The researchers’ models can spot and identify tell-tale signs of water direction and assess what the likely cause was. 

The researchers found that 22 of the valley networks seemed to have been carved out by subglacial meltwater, 14 by river water, and the rest formed through other erosion processes. If the authors are correct, “it would suggest that Mars was primarily cold early in its history,” says Jay Dickson, a planetary scientist at Caltech who was not involved with the study. Some climate models have come to the same conclusion, he says, counter to the prevailing image of ancient Mars as a planet covered in oceans and lakes.

The new findings don’t mean Mars was one giant ball of ice in the past, however. Joe Levy, a geologist at Colgate University who wasn’t involved with the study, thinks the glacier research is thought provoking, but does point out it “struggles to pin down a single process that is responsible for forming each valley.” 

“That smeariness in the data could be because there isn’t a single process that resulted in the carving of each Martian valley,” he says. “When you’ve got a few billion years to work with, it’s very possible that each valley experienced everything from glacial erosion to lava flows to surging floods under silver skies. Each of those processes changes the shape of the valley network, and leaves a series of overprinted features behind.” 

The good news

Thankfully, a cool Mars doesn’t spell bad news for the possibility of ancient Martian life. “The subglacial environment could have provided a stable setting—with readily available water, a temperature without large oscillations, and protection from solar energetic particles and radiation without need for a magnetic field,” says Grau Galofre. 

We already know life can survive cold environments like this, as evidenced by the organisms that live under Antarctica’s ice sheet in a place like Lake Vostok. The same may have been possible on Mars, even in these subglacial channels. 

Dickson thinks the new findings will prompt researchers to look at other parts of Mars to compare. “Mars has hundreds of very large dried-up lakes that date from this era and hosted large volumes of meltwater from these valley networks,” he says. 

This includes the landing site for the NASA Perseverance rover arriving next February at the Jezero Crater, and that mission could possibly make some room to look for this sort of evidence. 

“It’s an exciting challenge for the entire Mars science community,” says Dickson.

Software that monitors students during tests perpetuates inequality and violates their privacy

The coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for the test proctoring industry. About half a dozen companies in the US claim their software can accurately detect and prevent cheating in online tests. Examity, HonorLock, Proctorio, ProctorU, Respondus and others have rapidly grown since colleges and universities switched to remote classes.

While there’s no official tally, it’s reasonable to say that millions of algorithmically proctored tests are happening every month around the world. Proctorio told the New York Times in May that business had increased by 900% during the first few months of the pandemic, to the point where the company proctored 2.5 million tests worldwide in April alone.

I’m a university librarian and I’ve seen the impacts of these systems up close. My own employer, the University of Colorado Denver, has a contract with Proctorio.

It’s become clear to me that algorithmic proctoring is a modern surveillance technology that reinforces white supremacy, sexism, ableism, and transphobia. The use of these tools is an invasion of students’ privacy and, often, a civil rights violation.

If you’re a student taking an algorithmically proctored test, here’s how it works: When you begin, the software starts recording your computer’s camera, audio, and the websites you visit. It measures your body and watches you for the duration of the exam, tracking your movements to identify what it considers cheating behaviors. If you do anything that the software deems suspicious, it will alert your professor to view the recording and provide them a color-coded probability of your academic misconduct.

Depending on which company made the software, it will use some combination of machine learning, AI, and biometrics (including facial recognition, facial detection, or eye tracking) to do all of this. The problem is that facial recognition and detection have proven to be racist, sexist, and transphobic over, and over, and over again.

In general, technology has a pattern of reinforcing structural oppression like racism and sexism. Now these same biases are showing up in test proctoring software that disproportionately hurts marginalized students.

A Black woman at my university once told me that whenever she used Proctorio’s test proctoring software, it always prompted her to shine more light on her face. The software couldn’t validate her identity and she was denied access to tests so often that she had to go to her professor to make other arrangements. Her white peers never had this problem.

Similar kinds of discrimination can happen if a student is trans or non-binary. But if you’re a white cis man (like most of the developers who make facial recognition software), you’ll probably be fine.

Students with children are also penalized by these systems. If you’ve ever tried to answer emails while caring for kids, you know how impossible it can be to get even a few uninterrupted minutes in front of the computer. But several proctoring programs will flag noises in the room or anyone who leaves the camera’s view as nefarious. That means students with medical conditions who must use the bathroom or administer medication frequently would be considered similarly suspect.

Beyond all the ways that proctoring software can discriminate against students, algorithmic proctoring is also a significant invasion of privacy. These products film students in their homes and often require them to complete “room scans,” which involve using their camera to show their surroundings. In many cases, professors can access the recordings of their students at any time, and even download these recordings to their personal machines. They can also see each student’s location based on their IP address.

Privacy is paramount to librarians like me because patrons trust us with their data. After 9/11, when the Patriot Act authorized the US Department of Homeland Security to access library patron records in their search for terrorists, many librarians started using software that deleted a patron’s record once a book was returned. Products that violate people’s privacy and discriminate against them go against my professional ethos, and it’s deeply concerning to see such products eagerly adopted by institutions of higher education.

This zealousness would be slightly more understandable if there was any evidence that these programs actually did what they claim. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single peer-reviewed or controlled study that shows proctoring software effectively detects or prevents cheating. Given that universities pride themselves on making evidence-based decisions, this is a glaring oversight.

Fortunately, there are movements underway to ban proctoring software and ban face recognition technologies on campuses, as well as congressional bills to ban the US federal government from using face recognition. But even if face recognition technology were banned, proctoring software could still exist as a program that tracks the movements of students’ eyes and bodies. While that might be less racist, it would still discriminate against people with disabilities, breastfeeding parents, and people who are neuroatypical. These products can’t be reformed; they should be abandoned.

Cheating is not the threat to society that test proctoring companies would have you believe. It doesn’t dilute the value of degrees or degrade institutional reputations, and student’s aren’t trying to cheat their way into being your surgeon. Technology didn’t invent the conditions for cheating and it won’t be what stops it. The best thing we in higher education can do is to start with the radical idea of trusting students. Let’s choose compassion over surveillance.

Shea Swauger is an academic librarian and researcher at the University of Colorado Denver.

“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking

Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate and the elaborate plays she would write and perform with her siblings. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.

There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. Over the next several years, she moved across the country sporadically and spontaneously—she began bouncing from Florida, where Danny lives, to Baltimore to see her grandmother, to Virginia, to Washington, DC, sometimes living in her car. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.

For the next five or six years, Jenny led a remarkable and productive life. She worked for the National Association of Mental Illness, was on the board for the National Organisation for Women, volunteered regularly, tutored college kids, and wrote a book. Her friend Lauren describes her as “a beautiful, smart, funny person who deserved a much easier life than the one she had.”

conceptual illustration

On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. Looking in his sister’s purse after her death, Danny discovered that she had purchased a ticket to Chicago but never boarded the plane. In the years prior to her death, Jenny’s mental health had deteriorated and her delusions had returned—she had begun threatening Danny and his young son, leading him to take out a restraining order against his sister. The judge who granted the order told Jenny she had to get a psychological evaluation within a year. She was dead within two months.

After her death, Jenny’s family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker, who runs his own small technology business—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer.

Right now, on Facebook pages, forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and subreddits across the internet, thousands of people are sharing their belief that they are being “gangstalked.” These self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations. Targeted individuals claim that seemingly ordinary people are in fact trained operatives tasked with watching or harassing them—delivery men, neighbors, colleagues, roommates, teachers, even dogs. And though small compared with the most popular online forums, gangstalking communities are growing quickly; one estimate from 2016 suggested that there might be 10,000 people in such groups across the internet. Today, just one subreddit and one Facebook group adds up to over 22,000—and there are hundreds more groups scattered across different platforms.

The only academic study on gangstalking, a 2015 research article published in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, involved a questionnaire of 128 gangstalking victims undertaken by forensic psychologist Lorraine Sheridan and stalking expert David James. Sheridan and James found that—compared to people who experienced stalking from an individual—people who believed they were being gangstalked scored more highly on depressive and post-traumatic symptoms, and “had a clear need for psychiatric support.” The authors concluded that gangstalking is “delusional in basis,” with those surveyed making improbable claims about hostile gangstalkers in their children’s schools, traffic lights being manipulated to always turn red, mind-controlled family and friends, and the invasion of their dreams.

Every day, the internet legitimizes these beliefs. A post entitled “confessions from a gangstalker” has been copied-and-pasted widely, while people share their own stories of being targeted by strangers or incapacitated by technology in their homes. Often, people log on looking for help—“Am I going crazy or am i being stalked?” reads a post on a gangstalking subreddit shared at the beginning of 2020 by a teen who claimed to have a schizophrenia diagnosis—and leave with what they believe are the answers. (Editor’s note: we have decided not to link to any of the gangstalking-related posts or forums mentioned in this article.)

As he combed through Jenny’s computer, Danny found his sister subscribed under a series of aliases to what he describes as hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. His discovery sparked memories from the months before Jenny’s death, when she had first mentioned the term “gangstalking.” He had registered it as nonsense at the time. Her illness sometimes manifested as elaborate fictions where Jenny was the victim of some shadowy conspiracy—though she had once attempted to join the Church of Scientology, she also believed the organization was monitoring her and using technology of some sort to torture her in her apartment. She thought her family were gangstalkers and she was going to be forced to become a “breeder.”

“It blew my mind to see there was a giant group of people basically reinforcing this,” Danny says of finding the online groups. “Something like that was probably the worst thing she could have seen. If this was 20 or 30 years ago, there wasn’t the internet. If you went up to somebody and said ‘People are gangstalking me,’ they would think you were crazy. But if you’re on the internet, alone in your apartment, you can get a reply of ‘Oh yeah, me too’.”

Let’s be clear: The internet didn’t kill Jenny—suicide has many, often mysterious causes, and those suffering from psychosis are at particular risk. But Danny believes it played a role. According to Danny, Jenny sometimes struggled with her medication. She built up tolerance to her antipsychotics, he says, and her mental health would often deteriorate when she switched medication.

There is plenty of evidence that the online forums Jenny frequented and digital circles she ran in can be damaging. In a Reddit post from two years ago, a user explains how he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and initially attempted to resist the diagnosis due to his belief in gangstalking. He describes his relief upon taking antipsychotics and finding the stalking stopped. “They got you,” another user wrote back; another still said, “I think that you are wrong to say that you have an illness.” Across the subreddit, many posters encourage a distrust of medical professionals and discourage the use of antipsychotics—“They will make your situation infinitely more worse,” reads a post from the beginning of the year. Some claim that gangstalkers are trying to drive their victims mad in order to delegitimize them.

He describes his relief upon taking antipsychotics and finding the stalking stopped. “They got you,” another user wrote back; another still said, “I think that you are wrong to say that you have an illness.”

Harry is a 23-year-old from Texas who began experiencing delusions when he started college (his name has been changed to retain his anonymity). After witnessing a rape at a fraternity, he began losing sleep; his situation was exacerbated by a breakup and school-related stress. Harry came to believe he was being stalked, filmed, and whispered about—on multiple occasions, he screamed at strangers to stop following him. Eventually, he was institutionalized for a month and diagnosed as bipolar.

Online spaces didn’t exacerbate Harry’s delusions—he only found a gangstalking subreddit after he had been treated. Still, the forum made him angry. “If anyone had acted like they believed me or gone along with my delusions, that probably would’ve added another month to breaking out of it,” he says now. “It’s hard enough to break out of it when nobody believes you … but if you have a community of people that are willing to agree with you that the entire world’s against you, it’s bad, bad trouble.”

Harry decided to post on the subreddit to show people “a way out” of their way of thinking. Commenters labelled his diagnosis “irrelevant” and a correlation between mental illness and a belief in gangstalking was immediately dismissed.

While working as a psychiatrist in a New York City hospital just over 15 years ago, Joel Gold encountered five separate people who believed they were the star of their own reality TV program that was broadcast around the world. Everybody else, Gold’s patients believed, were actors employed in the farce. If these beliefs sound familiar, that’s because they borrow heavily from the plot of 1998’s The Truman Show, a dark comedy about a man watched by the world since birth. Gold christened their beliefs “the Truman Show delusion.”

still from The Truman Show
In 1998, The Truman Show offered a mind-bending take on the idea that we’re each the star of our own movie.

In 2014, Gold—now a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine—co-authored a book with his brother, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness. In it they argue that delusions are shaped by society, and that the world around us influences the form psychosis takes. “As technology has evolved, people with delusions have absorbed the technology of the day,” Gold says. He argues that it’s natural that people feel they’re under surveillance—thanks to social media and the rise of CCTV cameras, we often are. “So it’s a double hit, if you will,” he says. “There’s an underlying delusion that many people might have come to anyway, and then there are the seeds of reality that people use to build their delusion upon.”

Many who share stories of gangstalking online write of televisions that talk back, hacked computers, microwave weapons, and “voice to skull” technology that allows a harasser to transmit messages directly into the mind of the harassed. Gold says many of his patients with the Truman Show delusion only came to believe they were a TV star after they had watched the movie, with many of them explicitly referencing the film as a moment of enlightenment.  It’s possible that some people stumble upon gangstalking sites and these sites influence the form their delusions take.

Gold notes it is obviously “not necessary to be on these chat rooms” in order to develop gangstalking delusions, but from a treatment perspective, he says gangstalking sites “complicate matters.” “If I was seeing someone who believed they were being gangstalked and I gingerly explained why I thought they were suffering from mental illness, they could very simply and confidently point to these chat sites and say, ‘Are we all crazy?’ It becomes much more challenging.”

book cover for Suspicious Minds

Then again, he says, these sites could have benefits for some people who believe in gangstalking—it could be soothing for an individual to learn they are not alone. There’s evidence that this happens, or at least that some people are trying to connect in a positive way through these forums. Many posters who do not believe in gangstalking come to offer help to those who believe they’re being stalked, including by sometimes challenging those beliefs. In the Reddit post where the user described antipsychotics stopping his delusions, there were also supportive comments alongside the negative ones. “Congrats! You are speaking very clearly now with such a positive view,” read the most-upvoted comment, in which a user asked questions about medication.

Harry, the young man who tried to offer a voice of dissent on a gangstalking subreddit, says that despite receiving negative comments, a handful of people messaged him privately for help. “A lot of time the people that were posting there had no one to help them, no one to talk to,” Harry says. “Even though there are resources out there, they need help to figure out what those resources are. I thought I could use my experience as a way to help.”

For many experiencing mental illness, the internet can be a lifeline—a resource that allows people to talk freely in a world that still heavily stigmatizes their suffering. Therapy remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many in the US—the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years, while 60% of US counties do not have a practicing psychiatrist. “I would just really like to talk—about anything,” wrote one user on a gangstalking subreddit in May, asking users to chat with him about Netflix, the weather, and birds. A couple of users offered to strike up friendship, and it seems the original poster achieved his desire to find, “people who understand you, believe you, just know what it’s like.” In a Facebook group for people who believe themselves to be victims of gangstalking, which has nearly 8,000 members, users discourage suicide, pray for one another, and encourage each other to “stay strong.”

"Not what yall say" on right side view of Remington rifle
Aaron Alexis scrawled “Not what y’all say!” into the shotgun he used to kill 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013.

Others argue that any benefits that may come from such sites are outweighed by the real-world harm that could result from stoking belief in gangstalking. Robert Bartholomew is a sociologist and author of A Colorful History of Popular Delusions (in this context, “delusions” refers to social delusions—false beliefs and panics shared by a society, such as the Salem Witch Trials, or the Red Scare—not psychotic delusions).

A few years ago, he joined the mailing list of a man who believed he was a targeted individual. The man’s newsletter went out to over 800 people, and he became increasingly erratic over time. In May 2019, he sent an email using threatening language before claiming he could “could easily break Alexis’ record.” Aaron Alexis was a 34-year-old US Navy contractor who shot and killed twelve people in the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013. He left behind a note on his computer in which he claimed he was being controlled by low frequency electromagnetic waves. When Bartholomew received the newsletter from the man who threatened to imitate Alexis, he (and others) contacted the man’s local police department—he is now in prison.

In a separate instance in 2014, a lawyer in New Mexico filmed a video about his experiences being gangstalked by the government before shooting and injuring three people.

Some on gangstalking forums encourage one another to act on their delusions. In one Reddit post, a user shares tips on how to “fuck with” stalkers (who they call “perps”): cut them off in traffic, bump into them, provoke them to anger. In another, someone threatens to shoot at drones. Bartholomew believes online gangstalking spaces are a “public health issue” but also says, “the genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back.”

There is another genie that has emerged from its bottle over the last decade, one that touches almost everyone who uses the internet: the dangerous impact of online misinformation. According to a March survey by Pew Research Center, 48% of American adults reported seeing made-up news about the Covid-19 virus. In light of the pandemic, social networks have increased their efforts to tackle false news, with Twitter now labelling misinformation and Facebook directing its users to the World Health Organisation’s website.

How can someone distinguish delusions from conspiracies fed by misinformation? In the UK, dozens of phone masts were burned or vandalized in April after misinformation spread on social media that 5G damages people’s health, with some blaming the technology for the coronavirus. Celebrities such as actor Woody Harrelson and boxer Amir Khan have spread the conspiracy, while broadband engineers have been attacked and threatened. In a Facebook group for people who believe they are the targets of gangstalking, an April post read, “Burn all 5g towers down,” to which commenters added, “NO! Burn those who created them!” and “Destroy them or they will destroy us.”

London anti-5G protestors on May 2, 2020

There is a murky overlap between these two worlds, but Bartholomew argues—as the 2015 research paper demonstrated—that most gangstalking beliefs are based on clinically delusional tendencies. “Your run of the mill conspiracy theory believer is not psychotic,” he says. Not everyone who frequents gangstalking forums is clinically paranoid or experiencing persecutory delusions, of course, just as everyone who visits 5G conspiracy forums cannot be declared free of psychosis. Yet both phenomena highlight how the internet can legitimize and spread fringe beliefs.

While Google, Twitter, Facebook, and others have taken steps to combat many sources of misinformation and dangerous content online—Reddit banned the pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald in late June for violating several of the site’s policies—activity and discussion around gangstalking continues to fly beneath the radar. If you Google “5G coronavirus,” for example, the first result is a promoted link from WHO “busting myths,” and the first page of results is full of words like “conspiracy theory” and “false.” Searches for “gangstalking” also include news articles questioning the veracity of the phenomenon—but at the time of writing, a worrisome Facebook post from 2013 is still among the top ten results. The 3,000-word screed claims that gangstalking is real, arguing, “If we don’t want to be overpowered, we need to take appropriate measure as soon as possible.”

Danny is legally not allowed access to Jenny’s medical records and therefore doesn’t know if she stopped taking her medication, or a medication change prompted her death. But he believes gangstalking forums played at least some part in his sister’s decline. “From the amount she was reading and subscribed to, it was taking up a really large space in her life,” he says. He estimates that she logged on to at least one gangstalking forum every day.

Danny reported the gangstalking groups he found on Jenny’s computer to Facebook and Reddit, but he never received any response. He remains “pissed off” by the fact these spaces are permitted, and firmly believes they are dangerous. The subreddit’s own sidebar rules say giving specific medical advice is banned. Reddit itself bans subreddits that explicitly encourage or incite violence, but gangstalking subs do not violate any of its current policies. A Facebook company spokesperson said: “We always want people to feel welcome and safe on our platforms which is why we have a set of community standards which set out the limits for acceptable behaviour and content. We will take action against any content which violates our policies, and encourage people to use our reporting tools for any posts they are concerned about.”

Jenny was six years older than her little brother Danny, which means she often babysat him when she was a teen. With fondness, he recalls that she invented a “Sunny Day School” to occupy her younger siblings in the summer holidays—there were lesson plans, costumes, badges, classes, even an anthem. When Danny became a teenager himself and life got tougher, Jenny would drive him to the bookstore or to a movie or to Taco Bell—“literally just driving, the longer the better.” Sometimes, the siblings simply sat in a parking lot and spoke for hours at a time. “She had all of that big sister wisdom,” Danny says. “That’s what I use the most from her now.”

When asked what he thinks about the fact that people like his sister can still participate in gangstalking forums today, he doesn’t mince words. “I think about my sister in her more lucid moments, when she was medicated, when she volunteered to help people who were mentally ill—if she saw what I saw, she would be on the internet every day trying to shut it down .”

How falling solar costs have renewed clean hydrogen hopes

The world is increasingly banking on green hydrogen fuel to fill some of the critical missing pieces in the clean-energy puzzle.

US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s climate plan calls for a research program to produce a clean form of the gas that’s cheap enough to fuel power plants within a decade. Likewise, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have all published hydrogen roadmaps that rely on it to accelerate greenhouse gas reductions in the power, transportation, or industrial sectors. Meanwhile, a growing number of companies around the world are building ever larger green hydrogen plants, or exploring its potential to produce steel, create carbon-neutral aviation fuel, or provide a backup power source for server farms.

The attraction is obvious: hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, could fuel our vehicles, power our electricity plants, and provide a way to store renewable energy without pumping out the carbon dioxide driving climate change or other pollutants (its only byproduct from cars and trucks is water). But while researchers have trumpeted the promise of a “hydrogen economy” for decades, it’s barely made a dent in fossil fuel demand, and nearly all of it is still produced through a carbon polluting process involving natural gas.

The grand vision of the hydrogen economy has been held back by the high costs of creating a clean version, the massive investments into vehicles, machines and pipes that could be required to put it to use, and progress in competing energy storage alternatives like batteries.

So what’s driving the renewed interest?

For one thing, the economics are rapidly changing. We can produce hydrogen directly by simply splitting water, in a process known as electrolysis, but it’s been prohibitively expensive in large part because it requires a lot of electricity. As the price of solar and wind power continues to rapidly decline, however, it will begin to look far more feasible.

At the same time, as more nations do the hard math on how to achieve their aggressive emissions targets in the coming decades, a green form of hydrogen increasingly seems crucial, says Joan Ogden, director of the sustainable transportation energy pathway program at the University of California, Davis. It’s a flexible tool that could help to clean up an array of sectors where we still don’t have affordable and ready solutions, like aviation, shipping, fertilizer production, and long-duration energy storage for the electricity grid.

Falling renewables costs

For now, however, clean hydrogen is far too expensive in most situations. A recent paper found that relying on solar power to run the electrolyzers that split water can run six times higher than the natural gas process, known as steam methane reforming. 

There are plenty of energy experts who maintain that the added costs and complexities of producing, storing and using a clean version means it will never really take off beyond marginal use cases.

But the good news is that electricity itself makes up a huge share of the cost—upwards of 60% or more—and, again, the costs of renewables are falling fast. Meanwhile, the costs of electrolyzers themselves are projected to decline steeply as manufacturers scale up production, and various research groups develop advanced versions of the technology.

A Nature Energy paper early last year found that if market trends continue, green hydrogen could be economically competitive on an industrial scale within a decade. Similarly, the International Energy Agency projects that the cost of clean hydrogen will fall 30% by 2030.

Voestalpine's H2H2FUTURE green hydrogen plant in Linz, Austria.
Voestalpine’s H2FUTURE green hydrogen plant in Linz, Austria.

Green hydrogen may already be nearly affordable in some places where periods of excess renewable generation drive down the costs of electricity to nearly zero. In a research note last month, Morgan Stanley analysts wrote that locating green hydrogen facilities next to major wind farms in the US Midwest and Texas could make the fuel cost competitive within two years.

A June study from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory found it may be closer to the middle of the century before hydrogen is the most affordable technology for long duration storage on the grid. But as fluctuating renewables like solar and wind become the dominant source of electricity, utilities will need to store up enough energy to keep the grid reliably working not just for a few hours, but for days and even weeks during certain months when those resources flag.

Hydrogen shines in that scenario compared to other storage technologies, because adding capacity is relatively cheap, says Joshua Eichman, a senior research engineer at the lab and co-author of the study. To increase the length of time that batteries can reliably provide electricity, you need to stack up more and more of them, multiplying the cost of every pricey component within them. With hydrogen, you just need to build a bigger tank, or use a deeper underground cavern, he says.

Putting hydrogen to use

For hydrogen to fully replace carbon-emitting fuels, we’d need to overhaul our infrastructure to distribute, store, and use it. We’d have to produce vehicles and ships with fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity, as well as fueling stations along ports and roads. And we’d need to stack up fuel cells or build or retrofit power plants to use the fuel to power the grid directly.

All of which will take a lot of time and money.

But there’s another scenario that sidesteps, or delays, much of this infrastructure overhaul. Once you have hydrogen, it’s relatively simple to combine it with carbon monoxide to produce synthetic versions of the fuels that already power our cars, trucks, ships, and planes. The industrial process to do so is a century old and has been used at various times by petroleum-strapped nations to make fuels from coal or natural gas.

Direct Air Capture pilot plant
Carbon Engineering’s pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia.

Carbon Engineering, based in Squamish, British Columbia, is developing facilities that capture carbon dioxide from the air. The company plans to combine it with carbon-free hydrogen to make synthetic fuels. The idea is that the fuel will be carbon neutral, emitting no more carbon dioxide than was removed or produced in the process.

In a presentation at a Codex conference late last year, Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith said that falling solar prices should enable them to bring “air-to-fuels” to market for about $1 a liter (around $4 per gallon) in the mid-2020s–and that the price will continue to fall from there.

“The big news here is that this could be done with commodity hardware starting soon,” he said. “You could get to something like a million barrels a day of air-to-fuels synthetic hydrocarbon capacity, I think, soon after 2030, and after that there’s no obvious scaling limit.”

In effect, the process provides a way to convert fleeting, fluctuating solar power into permanently storable fuels that can fill the tanks of any of our machines. “This is about an energy pathway to … deal with the intermittency problem and deal with it in a way that allows you to power high-energy density needs around the world; allows you to fly airplanes across the North Atlantic,” Keith said.