DALL·E generated image of unusual piece of futuristic technology with red flags all over it, digital art

Technology Red Flags: What Accessible Tests Can You Apply To Cleantech Innovations?

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Years ago, I developed a basic framework of red flags I looked for when assessing wind generation technologies. I generalized it for an engineering magazine at one point at their request. A couple of years ago I used it as the basis of seminar I was invited to give at Columbia University. I apply the filter constantly and mostly unconsciously. And in recent weeks, I’ve had a series of conversations that make it clear it’s time to update it a bit.

One conversation was with a Dutch journalist who is writing an article for the government about how to avoid being conned or duped by poor solutions. Another was with an aerospace contact, where I pointed out that airborne wind energy types worked for years without realizing that they had to compete with a solution which required no human involvement in operations. Another was a discussion with a South American client group about potential investments.

The red flags are broken into three categories: technology, business model, and marketing, and this article lays out the technology ones, with the rest to follow. The intent is that anyone who can Google well can apply this filter. Like John Cook’s Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change, which provides very accessible cognitive inoculation against bad logic and disinformation, I offer it to assist readers to avoid falling into cleantech silver bullet traps.

A bit of caution here. None of these red flags by themselves make a company, a product, or a purported solution a guaranteed failure or an outright scam. But the more red flags pop up, the less likely something is to be something worth bothering with.

Red flag: Does the solution exceed known physical limits?

This one can be pretty easy. One of the big limits are the first and second laws of thermodynamics, which you don’t have to know much about except that perpetual motion isn’t possible. I see this one in action regularly, as people, often con artists, sometimes just delusional, claim to be getting more energy out of a system than they put into it.

I wrote about Joi Scientific almost four years ago, when the wheels came off of that bus. The company was offering an electrolysis technology that turned sea water into hydrogen, then used the hydrogen to power the process, generating excess hydrogen that could be used for energy outside of the system. You don’t need to be a PhD or engineer to know that a system which says it will create 2-4 times as much energy as it uses is bullshit. That said, it managed to con Gaetan Thomas, the CEO of New Brunswick power, a professional engineer, and another guy with a PhD in physics from a local university into believing that this was possible. And when I say con, it was to the tune of $23 million. They eventually admitted that they had nothing, have been silent since 2020, and have given up their NASA office.

And I wrote about Sheerwind Invelox nine years ago. The company claimed its wind generation funnel exceeded Betz’ Limit, which says that the maximum amount of energy a wind capture device can theoretically take is 59.3% of the kinetic energy in the wind. They were wrong, I’m pretty sure at least some of them knew it, and they went out of business, of course.

How do you test for this? Google for natural laws or limits related to the domain and figure out if they are claiming to break them if you can.

Red flag: Is it old tech claiming to be new tech?

A lot of ‘inventors’ re-invent the wheel. Or wind turbine. Or car. Or whatever. There’s a class of people who, when they get an idea, have a serious failure to recognize that Dunning and Kruger have a word or two to share with them. They think that no one else could possibly have thought of this idea, and they don’t bother to look for prior art. And so certain classes of failed inventions get dusted off every decade or two. Oh, and con artists know very well that they can slap a coat of Photoshop on old failures and sell them to new marks.

It’s big in aerospace, one of my areas of focus. Ekranoplans, planes that always stay close to the water where they can take advantage of ground effect lift, are having another moment in the sun right now, hence their inclusion in my sexy vs practical aviation quadrant chart in the bad-dog quadrant. They’ve been around since the 1960s, and every 10 or so years someone rediscovers them and starts pitching them. There’s an electric ground effect aircraft company, as well as a leisure one. Their best use is as a character device in novels to show that the person in question has far too much money and dubious taste, something William Gibson does in with Bigend in the last novel in his Blue Ant trilogy (very strongly recommended).

Also in that space are blimps, rigid-framed lighter-than-air vehicles like the Goodyear Blimp that sports fans know and ignore. They’ve been superseded, they’ve been an available technology forever, but every decade someone dusts off the concept, claims that it’s the solution to everything and gulls investors out of their pocket money. The current entrant I’m aware of is claiming that they are perfect hydrogen delivery vehicles, and people actually take that nonsense seriously. I mean, it uses hydrogen for lift, delivers the hydrogen, and then can’t lift anymore. Is that not obvious to anyone smarter than Forrest Gump?

How do you test for this? Google is your friend again. Whatever the thing calls itself, Google it and read up on the technology and its history. If it’s been a thing for decades, ask yourself what is different now? Does being battery-electric make a ground effect vehicle magically overcome its defects? Does hydrogen for energy being a thing make blimps useful?

Red flag: Is it just a design concept?

Photoshop is easy. Heck, three-dimensional NURBS modeling is easy, or at least easy enough for me to become proficient at using Rhino several years ago. Sketchup is easy. These days, photorealistic rendering is easy. For that matter, AI is now making it possible to have that technology generate very plausible looking things in minutes.

I see this one all the time. There’s a PDF with a product description that’s awfully light on specifications. There’s a glowing render of something that looks almost real, but no indication of engineering documents behind it.

Venture capitalists (VCs) fall for this all the time. Most VCs have no STEM background, just money backgrounds. And in a lot of cases, what they consider due diligence is all about whether the business model is internally consistent (not accurate or plausible) and whether they can sell it hard. An awful lot of Silicon Valley money has gone into things with an idea, a presentation, a rendering or two, and nothing but vapor beneath it.

I’ll point out Lightsail Energy as an example of this one. It was one of the several we’re-going-to-disrupt-energy plays that Peter Thiel’s acolytes failed at, in this case the failing founder being Danielle Fong. The only place I wrote about it was a brief answer on Quora six years ago. They thought they would reinvent energy storage by compressing air in carbon fiber high pressure tanks, combining a really well understood mediocre technology with carbon fiber and glossy pictures, and raised a bunch of money. Then they ran into the reality of compressed air storage being a very low margin and thermally problematic business, pivoted to storing natural gas in a couple of places, and went bankrupt.

How do you test for this? Dig through their website and articles about them looking for any indication that they have built anything or have actual engineering documents. If you can’t find any evidence that anything except renders exist, it’s a red flag.

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Red flag: Is there any independent verification of claims?

It’s easy to make a claim of how much energy something will generate, or how much time it will work for, or how efficient it is. But in the real world there are agencies which test things like that.

For large and small wind energy, there are organizations like Sandia Lab and the Atlantic Wind Test Site on Prince Edward Island. They’ll set up a turbine, run a standard set of tests, and provide a report of the results. For others, there are professional engineers who will do independent assessments of a technology and write a report. And, of course, a lot of innovations start with science, so they will have peer-reviewed studies in one or more journals to provide some guarantee that there is some there there.

Credible organizations have done technical due diligence and publish those credentials on their websites. Non-credible organizations don’t, or their claimed technical due diligence were obviously written up by Joe’s Scam Credentialing service.

Sheerwind Invelox tried to get this going with its wind funnel by having its founder and CEO, Daryoush Allaei, co-author a paper with a computational fluid design guy. The CFD guy had the academic credibility to get a publication, the CEO added in their own test results, which were as bogus as the day is long in Juno, Alaska, in the summertime, and then they pretended they had a credential.

How do you test this? Look for anything on their website or publications that wasn’t authored by them. Look for any claimed independent verification and Google the organization.

Red flag: Are any claimed patents for anything that they are actually doing and are the patents active?

Patents are really, really easy. It’s cheap to submit one, patent checkers appear to be deeply gullible and easily duped into putting the tick mark on one, and they don’t get expensive until later. And they stay in the system even if they lapse. Oh, and ChatGPT is very, very good at writing convincing patent applications.

One of the ways that con artists game this is that they write up lengthy patents in dense mumbo-jumbo, file them for the initial filing fee, then never pay to keep the patents alive. Then they claim that their product is patent pending or patent protected, sometimes being so daring as to actually link to the patent from their website.

Joi Scientific did this. Its multiple patents were things of awful beauty, with at least two claims I found which, had they been even tangentially related to reality, would have won it two Nobel Prizes at least. They reek of being intentionally written by a con artist to deceive, although unlike with many other firms like theirs, it wasn’t clear to me who the con man was. I have my suspicions.

And then there was Saphon Energy’s Saphonian wind disk, a solid plate that oscillated in the wind to generate electricity. Its patent was for a completely different device than the one that they were peddling like mad.

Then there’s the Eco-Gen Energy Joulebox, which violates so many red flags it’s in a category of its own. Its patent exists, is nonsense, and has lapsed. I haven’t published on it, but did include it in my Columbia seminar as it’s such a fascinating tale.

How do you test for this? Google Patents is a search engine of patents maintained by Alphabet. It’s a great resource, and there are other publicly available patent search engines that scoop up different countries’ collections with their local numbers, usually hosted by their patent offices. If someone is claiming a patent, they should have a number you can search on, which might require you to use the country’s patent search engine. And you can use Google search on the names of the principles, claimed inventors, or firm names. Check the status of the patent. If it has lapsed, that’s a red flag. If the diagrams are for something completely different, that’s a red flag. You don’t have to nerd out the way that I do.

Red flag: Are the assessments being done following existing standards, such as ISO lifecycle approaches?

For most major industries and processes, a standardized assessment methodology has been created and numbered. That’s a very boring, but very necessary, fact of life. Quality professionals in industries outside of software spend most of their time going through standardized checklists and capturing standardized data. That what an ISO number and certification implies.

I forget which con I found this on, but a firm claimed to be ISO certified, but the databases of certifications contained absolutely no record of them. But mostly this is a matter of an organization that’s claiming to sell a product that needs one and not listing an ISO certification.

This is rife in small wind energy. There are standards for certifying small wind generation devices. Virtually no small wind generation devices have certifications, and the only ones that do are horizontal axis turbines. The only vertical axis turbine that certified was UGE’s, before it eventually sold the entire vertical axis turbine portion of its efforts to someone who wanted to fail in an interesting way.

How do you test for this? Google other competitive products. See if they have ISO or other certifications. If they do and the company you’re looking at doesn’t, that’s a red flag.

Red flag: Are there really obvious technical challenges in the space?

Some spaces are really hard. Some solutions make things really hard. Sometimes that is really obvious. None of these things are actually reasons to think a solution is viable, but in fact reasons to be skeptical about it.

The entire urban air mobility electric vertical take off and landing (EVTOL) Jetson’s fantasy is rife with this. Flying is hard. That’s why it took so long for humanity to figure it out, and why so many people have died trying to fly. Flying safely over cities is harder. Urban heat islands have very active air, meaning smaller aircraft can get bounced around a lot, which is a problem. Vertical take-off and landing is hard, which is why the vast majority of aircraft and an even more absurdly big multiplier of flight miles are taken with fixed-wing aircraft, and why it takes so long to learn how to fly helicopters. Transitioning from vertical to horizontal flight is hard, which is why no one except the military uses aircraft that do it. Adding all of those challenges together multiplies the risk. It’s not just additive.

Hypersonic airplanes are incredibly hard. Supersonic aircraft are hard enough, but they only exceed the speed of sound. Hypersonic means more than five times the speed of sound, and fluid dynamics gets non-linear at those speeds. Destinus is trying something absurdly hard to do with its hypersonic hydrogen passenger jet, even harder than Boom’s supersonic nonsense where it can’t get anyone to make its engine, among many other red flags.

And then there’s fusion energy, recreating the interior of the Sun safely here on Earth. Fission is simple. Uranium wants to urane. Okay, urane isn’t a word, but it should be. But radioactive material emits radiation. That’s what it does naturally. Radiation makes heat. Gathering a bunch of radioactive material together and refining it until it makes a lot of heat is pretty easy. Controlling the radiation and heat rates has some complexity. But fusion? That’s only a natural act inside of stars.

How do you test for this? Well, compare it to some technology you already know, like a car or a wind turbine. Start checking off how many additional layers of complexity and technical risk are being added. Lots of complexity and risk? Red flag. And look for successful existing solutions that are already in operation in the same space. None around? Red flag.

Red flag: Is novelty being added for no apparent reason?

This is the opposite of suspenders and a belt, more like a ham and cheese sandwich with candy sprinkles. Who doesn’t like candy sprinkles? Well, if the solution does one thing, and something else is being added that’s getting some buzz these days, you are quite possibly looking at a company trying to ride the hype with a bad product.

For a while the candy sprinkle de jour was blockchain. Everything had blockchain in 2016 and 2018. There are places where it’s a useful tech, there are places like 99.999% of cryptocurrencies and 99.999% of NFTs where it’s a money pit for suckers, and there are a lot of places where blockchain has been sprinkled on something that doesn’t need it, like virtually every software product ever.

Machine learning is often a candy sprinkle too, with a very large number of firms claiming that they are using artificial intelligence or machine learning just using basic algorithms. Now, of course, ChatGPT is making large learning models and AI both sexy and scary again.

And in energy, hydrogen is everything everywhere all the time, and is usually as useful as Michelle Yeoh’s hotdog fingers in the movie. I’ve mentioned the blimp firm which is now a hydrogen delivery firm. Joi Scientific was an outright con with hydrogen sprinkles. Destinus’ hypersonic aircraft now comes with added hydrogen for extra value.

Of course, solar panels on cars that are supposed to travel at highway speeds have to be one of the shiniest and most obvious of candy sprinkles. Aptera has a form factor that made sense if you squinted in the early 2000s when batteries were much less awesome and cheap. But then it reinvented itself after a fire sale and a bankruptcy as an electric vehicle when Teslas were rocking 0.23 drag coefficients. The combination makes Aptera’s claim to efficiency fame completely irrelevant. So what did it do? Sprinkled on candy solar panels! And the sugar addicts ate it up. The bad vehicle firms like Sion that keep trying this keep failing, unsurprisingly. But the candy sprinkle addicts keep clicking on the addiction buttons. This doesn’t make solar panels on electric cars anything more than a marketing gimmick.

Tesla gets this right most of the time. It spends a great deal of time removing things from its cars. Sometimes it goes too far, like getting rid of radar from its self-driving sensor suite and then has to add it back. But Tesla is rigorous, as Steve Jobs was at Apple, about simplifying as far as possible. If something has value, it should be able to deliver it without candy sprinkles.

How do you test for this? Well, one way is Google Trends. It’s the search engine for how many times a thing has been searched for in Google. Plug something in, maximize the timeline and pick a geography, and you can see if something is experiencing a lot of attention all of a sudden, which is a good way to spot candy sprinkles. Check out the Buzzword Bingo tracker too.

Hopefully this basic set of due diligence tests helps you avoid wasting too much brain space on nonsense. Many of these tests can be done in a minute or two, or are obvious just by applying a few brain cells. They aren’t onerous tests. You don’t need to rewire your brain to be a bad substitute for a chemical process engineer as I did to fully understand the waste of time and money that is Carbon Engineering and direct air capture in general.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 720 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard