This is part 1 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet.
Susanne Koch, an anesthesiologist and neurologist, reached a pivot point when she was up to her neck in water, almost literally. The basement of her house in Berlin had flooded in the summer of 2018, when Berlin was pummeled by unusually strong rains. After she drained the house, “I wanted to dig into facts, to understand how exactly these extreme weather events are related to climate change,” she says.
Studying the scientific literature, she realized how urgent the climate crisis is, but the biggest shock was to learn that her profession contributed substantially to the problem: Inhalation gases used during medical procedures are among the most damaging greenhouse gases. Some inhalation gases are 3,000 times more damaging for the climate than CO2, Koch discovered. “Spending seven hours in the surgery room is the equivalent of driving a car for four days nonstop,” she says. Her job of helping people at Europe’s largest university hospital, the Charité in Berlin, was inadvertently damaging both the people and the planet.
“Nobody had ever even mentioned a word about that during my training,” Koch says.
On the whole, the medical sector is responsible for a disproportionally large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, with the U.S. as the biggest culprit. According to a key paper published in 2020 in Health Affairs, the health industry “is among the most carbon-intensive service sectors in the industrialized world,” accounting for between 4.4 percent and 4.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s not just anesthesia but health care that has a problem,” says Jodi Sherman, anesthesiology professor and Medical Director of the Program on Healthcare Environmental Sustainability at Yale University as well as co-director of the Lancet Planetary Health Commission on Sustainable Healthcare. In the U.S., health care greenhouse gas emissions make up about 8.5 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. They rose 6 percent from 2010 to 2018, to nearly 1,700 kilograms per person, more than in any other nation.
Of course, patients worry primarily about safety, not sustainability. Yet, Koch emphasizes that “as doctors, we have the responsibility to do no harm, and this includes making sure that we use resources as sustainably as possible.” Studies show that 2018 greenhouse gas and toxic air pollutant emissions resulted in the loss of 388,000 disability-adjusted life years in the U.S. alone. “Disease burden from health care pollution is of the same order of magnitude as deaths from preventable medical errors, and should be taken just as seriously,” Sherman cautions.
When Koch, the anesthesiologist, started discussing sustainable options with colleagues, the topic was immediately met with plenty of interest. Her experience is consistent with the latest representative poll of the nonprofit Foundation Health in Germany. Nine out of ten doctors were interested in urgently finding sustainable solutions for medical services but lacked knowhow and resources. For teaching purposes, Sherman and her team have developed the Yale Gassing Greener app that allows anesthesiologists to compare how much pollution they can avoid through choosing different anesthesia methods. Sherman also published professional guidelines intended to help her colleagues better understand how various methods affect carbon emissions.
Significant traces of inhalation gases have been found in Antarctica and the Himalayas, far from the vast majority of surgery rooms.
A solution espoused by both Sherman and Koch is comparatively simple: They stopped using desflurane, which is by far the most damaging of all inhalation gases to the climate. Its greenhouse effect is 2,590 times stronger than carbon dioxide. The Yale New Haven Hospital already stopped using desflurane in 2013, becoming the first known healthcare organization to eliminate a drug based on environmental grounds. Sherman points out that this resulted in saving more than $1.2 million in costs and 1,600 tons of CO2 equivalents, about the same as the exhaust from 360 passenger vehicles per year.
At the Charité, Koch claims that switching to other anesthesiology choices, such as propofol, has eliminated 90 percent of the climate gas emissions in the anesthesiology department since 2016. Young anesthesiologists are still taught to use desflurane as the standard because desflurane is absorbed less into the patients’ bodies, and they wake up faster. However, Koch who has worked as an anesthesiologist since 2006, says that with a little bit of experience, you can learn when to stop giving the propofol so it's timed just as well with a person’s wake-up process. In addition, “patients are less likely to feel nauseous after being given propofol,” Koch says. Intravenous drugs might require more skill, she adds, "but there is nothing unique to the drug desflurane that cannot be accomplished with other medications.”
Desflurane isn’t the only gas to be concerned about. Nitrous oxide is the second most damaging because it’s extremely long-lived in the environment, and it depletes the ozone layer. Climate-conscious anesthesiologists are phasing out this gas, too, or have implemented measures to decrease leaks.
Internationally, 192 governments agreed in the Kyoto protocol of 2005 to reduce halogenated hydrocarbons – resulting from inhalation gases, including desflurane and nitrous oxide – because of their immense climate-warming potential, and in 2016, they pledged to eliminate them by 2035. However, the use of inhalation anesthetics continues to increase worldwide, not least because more people access healthcare in developing countries, and because people in industrialized countries live longer and therefore need more surgeries. Significant traces of inhalation gases have been found in Antarctica and the Himalayas, far from the vast majority of surgery rooms.
Certain companies are now pushing new technology to capture inhalation gases before they are released into the atmosphere, but both Sherman and Koch believe marketing claims of 99 percent efficiency amount to greenwashing. After investigating the technology first-hand and visiting the company that is producing such filters in Germany, Koch concluded that such technology only reduces emissions by 25 percent. And Sherman believes such initiatives are akin to the fallacy of recycling plastic. In addition to questioning their efficiency, Sherman fears such technology “gives the illusion there is a magical solution that means I don’t need to change my behavior, reduce my waste and choose less harmful options.”
Financial interests are at play, too. “Desflurane is the most expensive inhalation gas, and some think, the most expensive must be the best,” Koch says. Both Koch and Sherman lament that efforts to increase sustainability in the medical sector are entirely voluntary in their countries and led by a few dedicated individual professionals while industry-wide standards and transparency are needed, a notion expressed in the American Hospital Association’s Sustainability Roadmap.
Susanne Koch, an anesthesiologist in Berlin, wants her colleagues to stop using a gas called desflurane, which is by far the most damaging of all inhalation gases to the climate.
Other countries have done more. The European Union recommends reducing inhalation gases and even contemplated a ban of desflurane, except in medical emergencies. In 2008, the National Health Service (NHS) created a Sustainable Development Unit, which measures CO2 emissions in the U.K. health sector. NHS is the first national health service that pledged to reach net zero carbon by 2040. The carbon footprint of the NHS fell by 26 percent from 1990 to 2019, mostly due to reduced use of certain inhalers and the switch to renewable energy for heat and power. “The evidence that the climate emergency is a health emergency is overwhelming,” said Nick Watts, the NHS Chief Sustainability Officer, in a press release, “with health professionals already needing to manage its symptoms.”
Sherman is a leading voice in demanding action in the U.S. To her, comprehensive solutions start with the mandatory, transparent measurement of emissions in the health sector to tackle the biggest sources of pollution. While the Biden administration highlighted its efforts to reduce these kinds of emissions during the United Nations Climate Conference (COP27) in November 2022 and U.S. delegates announced that more than 100 health care organizations signed the voluntary Health Sector Climate Pledge, with the aim to reduce emissions by 50 percent in the next eight years, Sherman is convinced that voluntary pledges are not enough. “Voluntary measures are insufficient,” she testified in congress. “The vast majority of U.S. health care organizations remain uncommitted to timely action. Those that are committed lack policies and knowledge to support necessary changes; even worse, existing policies drive inappropriate consumption of resources and pollution.”
Both Sherman and Koch look at the larger picture. “Health care organizations have an obligation to their communities to protect public health,” Sherman says. “We must lead by example. That includes setting ambitious, science-based carbon reduction targets to achieve net zero emissions before 2050. We must quantify current emissions and their sources, particularly throughout the health care supply chains.”
When Martin Weber climbs the steps to his apartment on the fifth floor in Munich, an attentive observer might notice that he walks a little unevenly. “That’s because my calf muscles were the first to lose strength,” Weber explains.
About three years ago, the now 19-year-old university student realized that he suddenly had trouble keeping up with his track team at school. At tennis tournaments, he seemed to lose stamina after the first hour. “But it was still within the norm,” he says. “So it took a while before I noticed something was seriously wrong.” A blood test showed highly elevated liver markers. His parents feared he had liver cancer until a week-long hospital visit and scores of tests led to a diagnosis: hereditary limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, an incurable genetic illness that causes muscles to deteriorate.
As you read this text, you will surely use several muscles without being aware of them: Your heart muscle pumps blood through your arteries, your eye muscles let you follow the words in this sentence, and your hand muscles hold the tablet or cell phone. Muscles make up 40 percent of your body weight; we usually have 656 of them. Now imagine they are slowly losing their strength. No training, no protein shake can rebuild their function.
This is the reality for most people in Simone Spuler’s outpatient clinic at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, Germany: Almost all of her 2,500 patients have muscular dystrophy, a progressive illness striking mostly young people. Muscle decline leads to a wheelchair and, eventually, an early death due to a heart attack or the inability to breathe. In Germany alone, 300,000 people live with this illness, the youngest barely a year old. The CDC estimates that its most common form, Duchenne, affects 1 in every 3,500 to 6,000 male births each year in the United States.
The devastating progression of the disease is what motivates Spuler and her team of 25 scientists to find a cure. In 2019, they made a spectacular breakthrough: For the first time, they successfully used mRNA to introduce the CRISPR-Cas9 tool into human muscle stem cells to repair the dystrophy. “It’s really just one tiny molecule that doesn’t work properly,” Spuler explains.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that lets scientists select and alter parts of the genome. It’s still comparatively new but has advanced quickly since its discovery in the early 2010s. “We now have the possibility to repair certain mutations with genetic editing,” Spuler says. “It’s pure magic.”
She projects a warm, motherly air and a professional calm that inspires trust from her patients. She needs these qualities because the 60-year-old neurologist has one of the toughest jobs in the world: All day long, patients with the incurable diagnosis of muscular dystrophy come to her clinic, and she watches them decline over the years. “Apart from physiotherapy, there is nothing we can recommend right now,” she says. That motivated her early in her career, when she met her first patients at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology near Munich in the 1990s. “I knew I had 30, 40 years to find something.”
She learned from the luminaries of her profession with postdocs at the University of California San Diego, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, before serving as a clinical fellow at the Mayo Clinic. In 2005, the Charité offered her the opportunity to establish a specialized clinic for myasthenia, or muscular weakness. An important influence on Spuler, she says, has been the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, who received the Nobel Prize in 2020 along with Jennifer Doudna for their CRISPR research, and has worked in Berlin since 2015.
When CRISPR was first introduced, it was mainly used to cut through DNA. However, the cut can lead to undesired side effects. For the muscle stem cells, Spuler now uses a base editor to repair the damaged molecule with super fine scissors or tweezers.
“Apart from physiotherapy, there is nothing we can recommend right now,” Spuler says about her patients with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy.
Last year, she proved that the method works in mice. Injecting repaired cells into the rodents led to new muscle fibers and, in 2021 and 2022, she passed the first safety meetings with the Paul-Ehrlich Institute, which is responsible for approving human gene editing trials in Germany. She raised the nearly four million Euros needed to test the new method in the first clinical trial in humans with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, beginning with one muscle that can easily be measured, such as the biceps.
This spring, Weber and his parents drove the 400 miles from Munich to Berlin. At Spuler’s lab, her team took a biopsy from muscles in his left arm. The first two steps – extraction and repair in a culture dish – went according to plan; Spuler was able to repair the mutation in Weber’s cells outside his body.
Next year, Weber will be the youngest participant when Spuler starts to test the method in a trial of five people “in vivo,” inside their bodies. This will be the real moment of truth: Will the participants’ muscles accept the corrected cells? Will the cells multiply and take over the function of damaged cells, just like Spuler was able to do in her lab with the rodents?
The effort is costly and complex. “The biggest challenge is to make absolutely sure that we don’t harm the patient,” Spuler says. This means scanning their entire genomes, “so we don’t accidentally damage or knock out an important gene.”
Weber, who asked not to be identified by his real name, is looking forward to the trial and he feels confident that “the risks are comparatively small because the method will only be applied to one muscle. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work. But in the best case, the muscle function will improve.”
He was so impressed with the Charité scientists that he decided to study biology at his university. He’s read extensively about CRISPR, so he understands why he has three healthy siblings. “That’s the statistics,” the biologist in training explains. “You get two sets of genes from each parent, and you have to get two faulty mutations to have muscular dystrophy. So we fit the statistics exactly: One of us four kids inherited the mutation.”
It was his mother, a college teacher, and father, a physicist by training, who heard about Spuler’s research. Even though Weber does not live at home anymore, having a chronically ill son is nearly a full-time job for his mother, Annette. The Berlin visit and the trial are financed separately through private sponsors, but the fights with Weber’s health insurance are frustrating and time-consuming. “Physiotherapy is the only thing that helps a bit,” Weber says, “and yet, they fought us on approving it every step of the way.”
Spuler does not want to evoke unrealistic expectations. “Patients who are wheelchair-bound won’t suddenly get up and walk."
Her son continues to exercise as much as possible. Riding his bicycle to the university has become too difficult, so he got an e-scooter. He had to give up competitive tennis because he does not have the stamina for a two-hour match, but he can still play with his dad or his buddies for an hour. His closest friends know about the diagnosis. “They help me, for instance, to lift something heavy because I can’t do that anymore,” Weber says.
The family was elated to find medical support at the Munich Muscle Center by the German Alliance for Muscular Patients and then at Spuler’s clinic in Berlin. “When you hear that this is a progressive illness with no chance of improvement, your world collapses as a parent,” Annette Weber says. “And then all of a sudden, there is this woman who sees scientific progress as an opportunity. Even just to be able to participate in the study is fantastic.”
Spuler does not want to evoke unrealistic expectations. “Patients who are wheelchair-bound won’t suddenly get up and walk,” she says. After all, she will start by applying the gene editor to only one muscle, “but it would be a big step if even a small muscle that is essential to grip something, or to swallow, regains function.”
Weber agrees. “I understand that I won’t regain 100 percent of my muscle function but even a small improvement or at least halting the deterioration is the goal.”
And yet, Spuler and others are ultimately searching for a true solution. In a separate effort, Massachusetts-based biotech company Sarepta announced this month it will seek expedited regulators’ approval to treat Duchenne patients with its investigational gene therapy. Unlike Spuler’s methods, Sarepta focuses specifically on the Duchenne form of muscular dystrophy, and it uses an adeno-assisted virus to deliver the therapy.
Spuler’s vision is to eventually apply gene editing to the entire body of her patients. To speed up the research, she and a colleague founded a private research company, Myopax. If she is able to prove that the body accepts the edited cells, the technique could be used for other monogenetic illnesses as well. “When we speak of genetic editing, many are scared and say, oh no, this is God’s work,” says Spuler. But she sees herself as a mechanic, not a divine being. “We really just exchange a molecule, that’s it.”
If everything goes well, Weber hopes that ten years from now, he will be the one taking biopsies from the next generation of patients and repairing their genes.
Starting this summer, the public buses in the Oberhaching suburb of Munich, Germany, won’t have to be plugged in to charge overnight anymore. Stefan Schelle, the mayor of Oberhaching, is taking advantage of the fact that an innovative startup has its offices in his community: Magment, short for “magnetizing cement,” will install its underground charging pad in the coming months. As soon as that happens, the buses will charge while they wait at the city’s main station or while stored at their overnight quarters.
In his light-filled office, Magment’s co-founder and CEO, Mauricio Esguerra, demonstrates how the new technology works: The lights on his black model car only flash when he puts the miniature Porsche directly atop the induction plate. “This works just like when you charge your iPhone on its charging pad or heat a pot on an induction range. People don’t have to be afraid of magnetic fields or anything like that,” says the 60-year-old Colombia-born entrepreneur. “The induction only gets activated when the storage battery is placed directly on top.
Patented by Esguerra, the “magnetizing concrete” is able to target the charge quite precisely. The batteries will be mounted in a box underneath the vehicles such as the retrofitted public buses. “Look, here’s one passing by,” says Esguerra, pointing out the window as a blue city bus rides past his office.
An invention finds its purpose
Esguerra grew up in Bogotá, studied physics at the Technical University Munich where he fell in love with a German woman, and started a family in her home country. For 15 years, he developed magnetic products, including the magnetizing cement, for Siemens, Europe’s largest industrial manufacturing company. The patent belonged to Siemens, of course. “But there were hardly any electric vehicles yet,” Esguerra says, “and Siemens didn’t quite know what to do with this invention.”
Esguerra changed companies a few times but, in 2015, he got an offer from Siemens. The patent for the magnetizing cement was expiring and Siemens wasn’t interested in keeping it. Would he, as the inventor, want it back? “I did not hesitate a second,” Esguerra remembers with a smile. “I’m a magnetician at heart.” That same year, he founded Magment to finally make use of the technology he created 20 years ago.
To demonstrate how his cement is made, he opens the lid of a plastic bucket filled with cement powder. Mixed in are fingernail-sized black pieces, so-called ferrites, mainly consisting of three ceramic oxides: iron, nickel and zinc. Conventionally, they are used in electronics such as cell phones, computers and cables. Molded in concrete, ferrites create a magnetic field that can transport charge to a vehicle, potentially eliminating range anxiety for EV drivers.
Molded in concrete, ferrites create a magnetic field that can transport charge to a vehicle, potentially eliminating range anxiety for EV drivers.
“Ferrites have extremely high rejection rates,” Esguerra adds. “It’s comparable to other ceramics: As soon as there is a small tear or crack, the material is rejected. We are talking about a rejection pile of 500,000 tons per year worldwide. There are mountains of unused materials.”
Exactly this fact was the starting point of his research at Siemens: “What can we do with this energy-intensive material? Back then, it was crushed up and mixed into the cement for building streets, without adding any function.” Today, too, the Magment material can simply be mixed with the conventional material and equipment of the cement industry. “We take advantage of the fact that we don’t have to build factories and don’t have high transportation costs."
In addition to saving resources, recycled ferrite also makes concrete more durable.
No plugs, no charging breaks
A young intern in the office next door winds cables around a new coil. These coils will later be lowered underground in a box, connected to the grid and encased in magnetizing concrete. The recipient box looks similar; it’s another coil but smaller, and it will be mounted underneath the carriage of the vehicle. For a car, the battery box would be 25 by 25 centimeters (about 10 inches), for a scooter five by five centimeters (about two inches).
Esguerra pushes an electric scooter into a cemented scooter rack next to his office. The charging pad is invisible. A faint beep is the only sign that it has started charging. “Childs play!” Esguerra says. “Even when someone puts in the scooter a little crooked, the charge still works. Our efficiency rate is up to 96 percent.” From this summer on, hotel chains in Munich will try out this system with their rental scooters, at a price of about 500 Euros per charging station.
Compared to plug-in charging, Magment’s benefits include smaller batteries that charge slower and, therefore, gentler, so they may last longer. Nobody needs to plug in the vehicles manually anymore. “Personally, I’ve had an EV for six years,” Esguerra says, “and how often does it happen that I forgot to plug it in overnight and then start out with a low charge in the morning? Once people get used to the invisible charging system, it will become the norm.“
There are also downsides: Most car companies aren’t ready for the new technology. Hyundai is the first carmaker that announced plans to equip some new models with inductive charging capability. “How many cars are electrified worldwide?” Esguerra asks and gives the answer himself: “One percent. And how many forklifts are electrified? More than 70 percent!” Therefore, Magment focuses on charging forklifts, e-scooters and buses.
Magment has focused most of its efforts on charging forklifts and other vehicle types that are entirely or predominantly electric, unlike cars.
On the morning of my visit to Esguerra’s office, a developer of the world’s third-biggest forklift manufacturer is there to inspect how the technology works on the ground. In the basement, a Magment engineer drives an electric forklift over a testbed with invisible charging coils, turning on the green charging light. Esguerra opens the interior of the forklift and points out the two batteries. “With our system, the forklift will only need one battery.” The savings, about 7,000 Euro per forklift, will pay for the installation of Magment’s charging system in warehouses, Esguerra calculates. “Less personnel and no unnecessary wait times for charging will lead to further savings,” he says.
To implement the new technology as efficiently as possible, Magment engineers began recording the transport routes of forklifts in warehouses. “It looks like spaghetti diagrams,” Esguerra explains. “Soon you get the areas where the forklifts pass or wait most frequently. This is where you install the chargers underground.” The forklifts will charge while in use, without having to pause for charging breaks. The method could also work for robots, for instance, in warehouses and distribution centers.
Roads of the future could be electric
Potential disadvantages might become apparent once the technology is more broadly in use. Therefore investors were initially reluctant, Esguerra admits. “Some are eager to be the first but most prefer to wait until the technology has been extensively used in real life.”
A clear hurdle today is that electrifying entire freeways with induction coils would cost at least 1 to 1.5 million Euros per kilometer. The German Department for Transportation even calculates overall costs of 14 to 47 million Euros per kilometer. So, the technology may only make sense for areas where vehicles pass or dwell the longest, like the Oberhaching train station or a busy interstate toll booth.
And yet, Magment is ramping up to compete with other companies that build larger inductive charging pads. The company just finished the first 20 meters of a testbed in Indiana, in partnership with the Purdue University and the Indiana Department of Transportation. Magment is poised to build “the world’s first contactless wireless-charging concrete pavement highway segment,” Purdue University announced.
The project, part of Purdue’s ASPIRE (Advancing Sustainability through Powered Infrastructure for Roadway Electrification) program, is financed by the National Science Foundation. “Indiana is known as the Crossroads of America, and we’re committed to fortifying our position as a transportation leader by innovating to support the emerging vehicle technology,” Governor Eric J. Holcomb said. If testing is successful, including the concrete’s capacity to charge heavy trucks operating at higher power (200 kilowatts and above), Indiana plans to identify a highway segment to install Magment’s charging pads. The earliest would be 2023 at best.
In the meantime, buses in the Californian Antelope Valley, trams at Hollywood's Universal Studios and transit buses in Tampa, Florida, are already charging with inductive technology developed by Wave, a company spun out of Utah State University. In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced plans to build a test route for vehicles to charge while driving, in collaboration with the Israel-based company Electreon, and this year contracted to build the first road-based charging system in the U.S. The state is providing support through an innovative grant program.
Costs remain one of the biggest obstacles, but Esguerra’s vision includes the potential that toll roads could charge a premium for inductive charging capabilities. “And in reverse, a driver who has too much energy could feed his surplus into the grid while driving,” Esguerra dreams.
Meanwhile, Wave’s upcoming big projects are moving trucks along a route in Southern California and running a UPS route between Seattle and Portland. Wave CTO Michael Masquelier describes the inductive power transfer his company champions as “similar to a tuning fork. By vibrating that fork, you sent energy through the air and it is received by another tuning fork across the room. So it’s similar to that, but it’s magnetic energy versus sound energy.”
He hopes to partner with Magment, saying that “the magnetizing cement makes installation easier and improves the energy efficiency.” More research is needed to evaluate which company’s technology will prove to be the most efficient, practical, and cost-effective.
Esguerra’s vision includes the potential that toll roads could charge a premium for inductive charging capabilities. “And in reverse, a driver who has too much energy could feed his surplus into the grid while driving,” Esguerra dreams.
The future will soon arrive in the idyllic town of Bad Staffelstein, a quaint tourist destination in the Upper Franconia region of Germany. Visitors will be taken to and from the main station and the popular thermal bath by driverless shuttles. Together with the University of Wuppertal, the regional government of Upper Franconia wants to turn its district into “the center of autonomous driving.” Magment is about to install inductive charging pads at the shuttle stations and the thermal bath, eliminating the need for the shuttles to stop for charging times. No more drivers, no cable, no range anxiety. Masquelier believes that “wireless and autonomous driving go hand in hand.” Science fiction? It will become science reality in spring 2023.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story erroneously mentioned that Electreon required overhead cables.