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How lightning strikes could explain the origin of life—on Earth and elsewhere

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The search for life on other planets is a lot like cooking. (Bear with me for a second.) You can have all the ingredients in one place—water, a warm climate and thick atmosphere, the proper nutrients, organic material, and a source of energy—but if you don’t have any processes or conditions that can actually do something with those ingredients, you’ve just got a bunch of raw materials going nowhere. 

So sometimes, life needs a spark of inspiration—or maybe several trillion of them. A new study published in Nature Communications suggests lightning may have been a key component in making phosphorus available for organisms to use when life on Earth first appeared by about 3.5 billion years ago. Phosphorus is essential for making DNA, RNA, ATP (the energy source of all known life), and other biological components like cell membranes. 

“This study was actually a lucky discovery,” says Benjamin Hess, a Yale University researcher and lead author of the new paper. “It opens up new possibilities for finding life on Earth-like planets.”

This isn’t the first time lightning has been suggested as a vital part of what made life possible on Earth. Lab experiments have demonstrated that organic materials produced by lightning could have included precursor compounds like amino acids (which can join to form proteins).

This new study discusses the role of lightning in a different way, though. A big question scientists have always pondered has to do with the way early life on Earth accessed phosphorus. Although there was plenty of water and carbon dioxide available to work with billions of years ago, phosphorus was wrapped up in insoluble, unreactive rocks. In other words, the phosphorus was basically locked away for good.

How did organisms get access to this essential element? The prevailing theory has been that meteorites delivered phosphorus to Earth in the form of a mineral called schreibersite—which can dissolve in water, making it readily available for life forms to use. The big problem with this idea is that when life began over 3.5 to 4.5 billion years ago, meteorite impacts were declining exponentially. The planet needed a lot of phosphorus-containing schreibersite to sustain life. And meteorite impacts would also have been destructive enough to, well, kill off nascent life prematurely (see: the dinosaurs) or vaporize most of the schreibersite being delivered. 

Hess and his colleagues believe they have found the solution. Schreibersite is also found in glass materials called fulgurites, which are formed when lighting hits Earth. When fulgurite forms, it incorporates phosphorus from terrestrial rocks. And it’s soluble in water. 

The authors of the new study collected fulgurite that had been produced by lighting hitting the ground in Illinois in 2016, initially just to study the effects of extreme flash heating as preserved in these kinds of samples. They found that the fulgurite sample was made of 0.4% schreibersite. 

From there it was just a matter of calculating how much schreibersite could have been produced by lightning billions of years ago, around the time the first life emerged on Earth. There’s a wealth of literature estimating ancient levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a contributing factor to lightning strikes. Armed with an understanding of how carbon dioxide trends correlate with lightning strikes, the team used that data to determine how much lightning would have been prevalent back then. 

Hess and colleagues determined that trillions of lightning strikes could have produced 110 to 11,000 kilograms of schreibersite every year. Over that amount of time, this activity should have made enough phosphorus available to encourage living organisms to grow and reproduce—and much more than would have been produced through meteorite impacts.

This is interesting stuff for understanding Earth’s history, but it also opens up a new view for thinking about life elsewhere. “This is a mechanism that may work on planets where meteorite impacts have become rare,” says Hess. This life-through-lightning model is limited to environments with shallow waters—lightning must produce fulgurite in areas where it can dissolve properly to release the phosphorus, but where it won’t become lost in a vast body of water. But this limit may not necessarily be a bad thing. At a time when astrobiology is obsessed with ocean worlds, the study puts the focus back on places like Mars that haven’t been submerged in global waters.

To be clear, the study doesn’t suggest that meteorite impacts play no role in making phosphorus accessible to life. And Hess emphasizes that other mechanisms, like hydrothermal vents, may simply bypass the need for either meteorites or lightning. 

And lastly, over 3.5 billion years ago Earth didn’t look the way it does today. It’s not completely clear there was enough rock exposed to the air—where it could be hit by lightning and lead to schreibersite production—to make phosphorus available. 

Hess is going to let other scientists handle those questions, since the study lies outside his normal work. “But I do hope this will make people pay attention to fulgurites, and test these mechanisms’ viability further,” he says. “I hope our research will help us as we consider whether to search for life in shallow water environments, as we currently are on Mars.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Vietnamese electric motorbike startup Dat Bike raises $2.6M led by Jungle Ventures

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Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike on one of the startup's motorbikes

Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike

Dat Bike, a Vietnamese startup with ambitions to become the top electric motorbike company in Southeast Asia, has raised $2.6 million in pre-Series A funding led by Jungle Ventures. Made in Vietnam with mostly domestic parts, Dat Bike’s selling point is its ability to compete with gas motorbikes in terms of pricing and performance. Its new funding is the first time Jungle Ventures has invested in the mobility sector and included participation from Wavemaker Partners, Hustle Fund and iSeed Ventures.

Founder and chief executive officer Son Nguyen began learning how to build bikes from scrap parts while working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. In 2018, he moved back to Vietnam and launched Dat Bike. More than 80% of households in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam own two-wheeled vehicles, but the majority are fueled by gas. Nguyen told TechCrunch that many people want to switch to electric motorbikes, but a major obstacle is performance.

Nguyen said that Dat Bike offers three times the performance (5 kW versus 1.5 kW) and 2 times the range (100 km versus 50 km) of most electric motorbikes in the market, at the same price point. The company’s flagship motorbike, called Weaver, was created to compete against gas motorbikes. It seats two people, which Nguyen noted is an important selling point in Southeast Asian countries, and has a 5000W motor that accelerates from 0 to 50 km per hour in three seconds. The Weaver can be fully charged at a standard electric outlet in about three hours, and reach up to 100 km on one charge (the motorbike’s next iteration will go up to 200 km on one charge).

Dat Bike’s opened its first physical store in Ho Chi Minh City last December. Nguyen said the company “has shipped a few hundred motorbikes so far and still have a backlog of orders.” He added that it saw a 35% month-over-month growth in new orders after the Ho Chi Minh City store opened.

At 39.9 million dong, or about $1,700 USD, Weaver’s pricing is also comparable to the median price of gas motorbikes. Dat Bike partners with banks and financial institutions to offer consumers twelve-month payment plans with no interest.

“These guys are competing with each other to put the emerging middle class of Vietnam on the digital financial market for the first time ever and as a result, we get a very favorable rate,” he said.

While Vietnam’s government hasn’t implemented subsidies for electric motorbikes yet, the Ministry of Transportation has proposed new regulations mandating electric infrastructure at parking lots and bike stations, which Nguyen said will increase the adoption of electric vehicles. Other Vietnamese companies making electric two-wheeled vehicles include VinFast and PEGA.

One of Dat Bike’s advantages is that its bikes are developed in house, with locally-sourced parts. Nguyen said the benefits of manufacturing in Vietnam, instead of sourcing from China and other countries, include streamlined logistics and a more efficient supply chain, since most of Dat Bike’s suppliers are also domestic.

“There are also huge tax advantages for being local, as import tax for bikes is 45% and for bike parts ranging from 15% to 30%,” said Nguyen. “Trade within Southeast Asia is tariff-free though, which means that we have a competitive advantage to expand to the region, compare to foreign imported bikes.”

Dat Bike plans to expand by building its supply chain in Southeast Asia over the next two to three years, with the help of investors like Jungle Ventures.

In a statement, Jungle Ventures founding partner Amit Anand said, “The $25 billion two-wheeler industry in Southeast Asia in particular is ripe for reaping benefits of new developments in electric vehicles and automation. We believe that Dat Bike will lead this charge and create a new benchmark not just in the region but potentially globally for what the next generation of two-wheeler electric vehicles will look and perform like.”

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Binance Labs leads $1.6M seed round in DeFi startup MOUND, the developer of Pancake Bunny

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Decentralized finance startup MOUND, known for its yield farming aggregator Pancake Bunny, has raised $1.6 million in seed funding led by Binance Labs. Other participants included IDEO CoLab, SparkLabs Korea and Handshake co-founder Andrew Lee.

Built on Binance Smart Chain, a blockchain for developing high-performance DeFi apps, MOUND says Pancake Bunny now has over 30,000 daily average users, and has accumulated more than $2.1 billion in total value locked (TVL) since its launch in December 2020.

The new funding will be used to expand Pancake Bunny and develop new products. MOUND recently launched Smart Vaults and plans to unveil Cross-Chain Collateralization in about a month, bringing the startup closer to its goal of covering a wide range of DeFi use cases, including farming, lending and swapping.

Smart Vaults are for farming single asset yields on leveraged lending products. It also automatically checks if the cost of leveraging may be more than anticipated returns and can actively lend assets for MOUND’s cross-chain farming.

Cross-Chain Collateralization is cross-chain yield farming that lets users keep original assets on their native blockchain instead of relying on a bridge token. The user’s original assets serve as collateral when the Bunny protocol borrows assets on the Binance Smart Chain for yield farming. This allows users to keep assets on native blockchains while giving them liquidity to generate returns on the Binance Smart Chain.

In statement, Wei Zhou, Binance chief financial officer, and head of Binance Labs and M&A’s, said “Pancake Bunny’s growth and MOUND’s commitent to execution are impressive. Team MOUND’s expertise in live product design and servie was a key factor in our decision to invest. We look forward to expanding the horizons of Defi together with MOUND.”

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Battery Resourcers raises $20M to commercialize its recycling-plus-manufacturing operations

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As a greater share of the transportation market becomes electrified, companies have started to grapple with how to dispose of the thousands of tons of used electric vehicle batteries that are expected to come off the roads by the end of the decade.

Battery Resourcers proposes a seemingly simple solution: recycle them. But the company doesn’t stop there. It’s engineered a “closed loop” process to turn that recycled material into nickel-manganese-cobalt cathodes to sell back to battery manufacturers. It is also developing a process to recover and purify graphite, a material used in anodes, to battery-grade.

Battery Resourcers’ business model has attracted another round of investor attention, this time with a $20 million Series B equity round led by Orbia Ventures, with injections from At One Ventures, TDK Ventures, TRUMPF Venture, Doral Energy-Tech Ventures and InMotion Ventures. Battery Resourcers CEO Mike O’Kronley declined to disclose the company’s new valuation.

The cathode and anode, along with the electrolyzer, are major components of battery architecture, and O’Kronley told TechCrunch it is this recycling-plus-manufacturing process that distinguishes the company from other recyclers.

“When we say that we’re on the verge of revolutionizing this industry, what we are doing is we are making the cathode active material — we’re not just recovering the metals that are in the battery, which a lot of other recyclers are doing,” he said. “We’re recovering those materials, and formulating brand new cathode active material, and also recovering and purifying the graphite active material. So those two active materials will be sold to a battery manufacturer and go right back into the new battery.”

“Other recycling companies, they’re focused on recovering just the metals that are in [batteries]: there’s copper, there’s aluminum, there’s nickel, there’s cobalt. They’re focused on recovering those metals and selling them back as commodities into whatever industry needs those metals,” he added. “And they may or may not go back into a battery.”

The company says its approach could reduce the battery industry’s reliance on mined metals — a reliance that’s only anticipated to grow in the coming decades. A study published last December found that demand for cobalt could increase by a factor of 17 and nickel by a factor of 28, depending on the size of EV uptake and advances in battery chemistries.

Thus far, the company’s been operating a demonstration-scale facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, and has expanded into a facility in Novi, Michigan, where it does analytical testing and material characterization. Between the two sites, the company can make around 15 tons of cathode materials a year. This latest funding round will help facilitate the development of a commercial-scale facility, which Battery Resourcers said in a statement will boost its capacity to process 10,000 tons of batteries per year, or batteries from around 20,000 EVs.

Another major piece of its proprietary recycling process is the ability to take in both old and new EV batteries, process them and formulate the newest kind of cathodes used in today’s batteries. “So they can take in 10-year-old batteries from a Chevy Volt and reformulate the metals to make the high-Ni cathode active materials in use today,” a company spokesman explained to TechCrunch.

Battery Resourcers is already receiving inquiries from automakers and consumer electronics companies, O’Kronley said, though he did not provide additional details. But InMotion Ventures, the venture capital arm of Jaguar Land Rover, said in a statement its participation in the round as a “significant investment.”

“[Battery Resourcers’] proprietary end-to-end recycling process supports Jaguar Land Rover’s journey to become a net zero carbon business by 2039,” InMotion managing director Sebastian Peck said.

Battery Resourcers was founded in 2015 after being spun out from Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The company has previously received support from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a collaboration between General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

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