By Kimberly Mitchell
In the fight against climate change, Bluefield Technologies aims to be a game changer, and quickly. Founded in 2017 by Yotam Ariel, the company uses satellites to detect methane emitted around the earth. By “making the invisible visible,” the company provides clients with actionable data on one of the greatest threats to our world today. In this interview, Anthony Anzalone of Satellite Network News speaks with Yotam Ariel on how Bluefield is addressing climate change and the technology behind the company.
Would you like to introduce yourself, what you’re currently working on now and a little bit of your background?
I’m Yotam. I’m the co-founder and CEO of Bluefield. We provide independent emissons data by using satellites and AI. My background includes several years in the Navy where I had a team focused on remote sensors analytics. After that I set up a clean energy company where we had operations in 15 countries. And then, of course, I started Bluefield to track every critical emitter on the planet and make sure nobody has to fight climate change blindfolded anymore.
Let’s dive into the idea of climate change. Where do you see yourself in the efforts of fighting it and then essentially making this world better?
Climate change is possibly the biggest challenge of life on our planet, and we are trying to fight it without the ability to see the emissions. They go unnoticed, invisible. We see the impact. We don’t know who is emitting, exactly how much, where, and at what time. It doesn’t have to be that way. Because of what I would call the four key pieces of a timing puzzle, we now have an opportunity to develop this tool to actually track all of the emitters in real time.
These pieces of the timing puzzle, essentially, one is the pressure by the investors, the banks, the financial institutions that fund energy projects, or other emitting projects, even feedlots or dairy farms, anything that meets methane and other greenhouse gases. Five years ago, only banks and financial institutions managing $50 billion were requiring environmental data, Today, that went up to $14 trillion. The majority of banks now require financial data, which puts a lot of pressure on the emitting companies. It is essentially “disclose your emissions, show progress, or no money for you.”
That is a key pressure, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean we can now track everything. So the other three pieces are one, the cost to launch a satellite has decreased because Elon Musk one day tweeted that the price to launch a satellite is 10 times less than what it used to be, and all of the sector had to follow suit. And so you can launch satellites more economically. And the other two is the advancement in optical components, in the materials, which gives them 100 times better performance at half the size. And at the same time, you have the image processing capabilities or algorithms in AI machine learning techniques, but it’s been around the processing of images, which is now a million times better than it was a few years ago. And interestingly enough, that has been in part thanks to computer games. So, with all of that, we are now able to put a very high performance remote sensor on a suitcase sized satellite that basically covers the whole earth and sees every critical emitter and we can make that data accessible in a user friendly, subscription based service.
Do you have assets in space currently?
We are currently using data from the European Space Agency methane satellite, and next year we will start adding abilities for more greenhouse gases. And then the year after that, essentially, in two years, we will deploy our own satellites to bring the resolution to new levels.
Can you talk more about those future plans?
Yes. So today, we’re at a very good starting point with what you can do with the data. However, it’s limited. The pixel resolution is about seven kilometers. And so when you do see a methane plume, for example, you’re only able to say, okay, it came from that seven by seven kilometer area. But in that area, you might have five different types of infrastructure, like a power plant, and an oil and gas well and a pipeline, and also a storage facility. So which one of these emitted it is an answer that today’s satellite cannot offer. With our satellites, we will take it from seven kilometer pixel to 20 meter pixel resolution, and we will be able to pinpoint and attribute the emitting source.
So do you have plans to move outside of methane?
Yes, absolutely. The way that you can see methane and other greenhouse gases from such a long distance is by looking at sunlight that hits the earth and reflects back to space. As it reaches the earth, if it passes through methane, or other greenhouse gases. It blocks a specific part of the light spectrum, just essentially distorting it, leaving a unique signature of that gas. That information is captured in the photon in the light, which is then picked up by the sensor in the satellite. The challenge of the sensor is that you have to remove all the noise.
If you’re looking for methane, and you start seeing, you know, the CO2 and aerosols and what’s available, you don’t know which one is which. That’s a challenge. And so the way we do that is we integrated a glass capsule or tube inside the sensor in the satellite. And in that tube, we put methane. And so as the light goes through, there is a perfect natural correlation between what is methane in the tube and what is that methane information we’re getting in the light. By correlating the two, we’re able to tell which one is the methane information and which one is noise. Then we run an algorithm and process it down, but essentially that technique allows us to have the ability to see over 90% of the emissions in the sector.
So just like we put methane in that glass tube, you can think what happens if you put SO2 or CO2 or a range of other gases in that tube and tune the detectors. The principle works the same. It helps you target and correlate with that. And that’s how we’re going to expand to cover at least six more gases other than methane.
I see you did some work in Gainesville, Florida?
In July, we were the first to detect a very large methane release in proximity to Gainesville, Florida. I say large because in that single day, the methane that was released there, the quantity was 300 tons, which is equivalent to 1% of the total natural gas emissions in the US in a single day by a single company. Before we processed the data from the satellite and came to that conclusion, I’d say maybe a handful of people knew about it. After we picked it up with the satellite, Bloomberg also covered it. And then, of course, tens of millions of people knew about it, including the federal government who decided to launch an investigation into violations by the emitting source. I think the takeaway from that is we have a tool now to see those emissions quite quickly and to allocate the limited time and resources that we have to stop them. Fortunately, and unfortunately, we’re detecting thousands more in Florida and Louisiana and Texas, in Russia, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, Japan. These emissions are all over the planet.
Methane plume monitored over Gainesville, Florida by Bluefield Technologies.
How did you get involved in this? You talked about the Navy. How did you transfer those skills over to more of a public sector company?
In my last company, we were bringing in modern, sustainable electricity to over 60,000 people. And we’ve donated the profits to improve the working conditions in the factories that produce the goods. I was able to gain some entrepreneurship and business skills through that. And then, just to entertain myself with thinking a little bit bigger, I thought, “60,000 people is a lot, but all of the life on the planet is even more.” I got curious about space and how the smaller satellites and new types of technologies can be used. And it was really when I took a course with a NASA advisor that showed some of these concepts that I realized the opportunity that Bluefield is now pursuing.
Now that you are open to the public, what would you say is your split in customer base public versus private sector?
Right now it is 80% private sector and it includes ESG data or energy data companies, as well as emitting companies from the energy sector, and we’re also getting some interest from financial institutions and insurance companies. And of course, the government agencies, mostly local, that are looking to regulate or incentivize the emissions in the county or the state.
Moving forward, do you want that split to move more towards the public side? Or do you want to stay towards the private side?
I think the private sector, especially the financial institutions, is a very good client base to have. It kind of means two things. One, they do have budgets, they spend for data, and they make use of the data. And the second is they’re the ones that can drive the impact from that data. They’re the ones integrating it into ESG – environmental, social, and governance – performance indexes, and then decide to divest half a billion dollars out of this company and move it to those companies that are performing better. And I think once we create that kind of race, in the private sector, the race to show that you are reducing emissions, and that’s what’s allowing you access to more funding and expanding of your operations. I think that could be healthy, and the direction we want to go and we can really make a difference within a short timeframe. And the limited resources that we have, we can really have a chance against climate change.
Where do you see the company 10 years out?
I think 10 years out, we could really be a source of independent environmental information. Our vision is to create what we call the breathing monitor of our planet. If you can think of a Google map, but instead of just seeing addresses, you actually see how the planet is breathing, or essentially all of the industrial impact or manmade impact that’s happening. We will see it just as if you go to a clinic, and get an ultrasound. We’ll have the same thing for our planet. Just like a smoke detector or any kind of measurement instrument, you have to have it so you can catch the problem.
On raising funding, where are you guys currently? Are you looking to expand?
We have raised several millions of dollars from a number of venture capital firms. Several are backed by Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. We are building relationships with new investors in preparation for our future funding needs.
Any advice for anyone trying to break into the industry in this aspect?
If you think it’s worthwhile, then do it. Of course, people are going to tell you that it’s hard and 99% fail, but I think it’s really worth trying. And I think it’s maybe needed that we try and push it.
Has your business been affected by COVID?
It changed some of the logistics for the hardware development. It really gave us the challenge and the opportunity, depending on who’s looking at it, to prioritize our software side of the business, the algorithm that processes the data. We put a lot of our resources into that and we’ve been able to get to a stage where we get a lot of interest from large clients and it could actually be a very nice thing to allow it to develop alongside the hardware. It’s proved to be really valuable, both for us and clients.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
There’s a couple of things to do individually to help with slowing down climate change. One is as we go about our day, stop between doing something and think if it’s causing climate change, or reducing it. You could consider diet changes. There’s a lot of new options now. You don’t need to take extreme things, just experiment. See how you feel about those things. And then within your own work or community, I think there will be opportunities for supporting an initiative. I think it is just, look at your day or your week and just before you do something, stop for a few seconds and think if you could do it in a way that’s getting us to slow down climate change.
To find out about Bluefield’s methane gas detection technology and subscription services, visit bluefield.co.