Coolest Things from 2021

Ah, 2021: a significant improvement from 2020. But one thing I started last year that I want to keep as a tradition is sharing my annual list of the coolest things I read or saw in 2021.

In no particular order:

  1. The continued research into better battery chemistry. The neat part is that much like the mRNA technology, the research has been going on for decades but we’re finally getting to the point where its bearing fruit. The two most interesting developments were advances in Iron Air batteries and Sodium-Ion batteries. Both technologies, while addressing different markets, continue to work to drive down the cost and increase the performance of power storage.
  2. SunDrive figured out how to replace the silver in solar panels with copper while also achieving a world-record efficiency for commercially-sized silicon solar cells. Copper sells for about $4.40 per pound while silver sells for $303 per pound. Since the average solar panel uses about 20 grams of silver, switching them out saves about $12 per panel. Take the Astronergy 365W panel: it costs ~$250 and has an efficiency rating of 18.9 percent. Combine the 5 percent price reduction from switching to copper and the ~25 percent efficiency rating of the SunDrive panel, and instead of needing 10 panels at $2,500 (before installation costs), you now only need 8 panels at a cost of $1,900.
  3. Scientists successfully hooked up a genetically-engineered pig kidney to a human. Besides the genetic engineering used to minimize rejection, they also transplanted the pig’s thymus, which is a gland involved in the immune system, to further bolster the acceptance of the kidney. While they have a lot more clinical trials to go before pig kidneys are regularly implanted into people, it represents a huge advancement in solving the severe shortage of organ donors. [As a side note, it’ll be interesting to see how much this impacts DaVita’s long-term business prospects. Hopefully they’ll need a pivot.]
  4. Osmoses, a spin-off from MIT, has developed a super-thin membrane that can remove carbon dioxide from emitters using 60 percent less energy than existing technology. As much as I’d love to see every power plant and industrial process that emits carbon dioxide shut down immediately, it’s not feasible for a host of political and economic reasons. The next-best option is to capture the carbon dioxide before it gets into the atmosphere. This technology has the potential to make that approach more viable.
  5. An absolutely massive vaccine roll-out with more than 7.5 billion shots given. Additionally, a vaccine for kids that was approved within 2 years of the virus first being identified, which is also an incredible feat of research and technology. Unfortunately the US still only has ~60 percent of its total population vaccinated.
  6. Ted Lasso. I know season one came out in 2020, but I didn’t get around to watching it until this year. Let me tell you, I should have watched this in 2020. It’s a delightful show and you almost inevitably end up happier after watching an episode.
  7. The political will for accelerating the systemic changes required to stave off the worst of climate change continues to gather momentum, albeit with a giant Fuck You to Joe “Fossil Fuel Campaign Donations Accepted Here” Manchin. The Build Back Better plan includes $550B for climate mitigation efforts, which is the largest ever. It would have been better if the clean electricity program would have made it in, but this is not the last climate fight we’ll see this decade. The other bit of political momentum came from the COP26 conference. While the resulting agreement and the political will to implement it is weaker than needed and hoped for, any forward movement is positive.
  8. And lastly, the best book I read this year, which was first published in 2015, was Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice. It was a great non-fiction work on one guy’s career investing in Eastern Europe after the Wall fell and the craziness that occurred during the looting of the Soviet Union’s economy. It’s a good reminder that the rule of law is important for long-term investment success.

The 2020 pandemic turned our world upside down but 2021 was better and hopefully 2022 will be better still. So for everyone reading this: I hope you enjoy the holiday season.

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