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7 Green Technologies We Need to Save the World

I’ve written extensively about new and future technologies over the past few years. As a strategy consultant, it’s my job to know what’s coming, how useful it might be, and make relevant recommendations.

As often as I’m asked “what technologies do we need to make money?”, I’m rarely (if ever) asked “what technologies are going to change the world for the better?”. It’s a much better question, and one we need to address quickly if we are to live as well as our parents did. Below are some answers.

Good Green Tech

1. Carbon capture and storage

What is it?

Carbon capture and storage is the process of capturing CO2 before it enters our atmosphere, transporting it, and storing it underground for the next few hundred years.

This happens generally at the industrial source, which is imperfect but cost-effective. There are many capture techniques, including absorption, adsorption, chemical looping, membrane gas separation and gas hydration. One way or another, these techniques separate harmful molecules from the gas being produced industrially.

After capture, the CO2 is compressed and transported via pipelines, road transport or ships for storage. Storage takes many forms today: trapping the CO2 underground in deep geological formations, in empty oil fields, or in specific minerals. The most promising method, however, is to feed the CO2 to algae or bacteria that could degrade it.

As of 2020, about one thousandth of global CO2 emissions are captured by CCS technology. This highlights the need for better direct air capture technology, which today is criminally under-developed.

Why do we need it?

We need water and breathable air to live. That means first reaching carbon neutrality, then actively reducing our pollution. This will first and foremost happen by reducing consumption and developing technologies that pollute less. Where that is not possible, a combination of CCS, direct air capture (DACCS) and biomass capture (BECCS) will need to be implemented.

Challenges

These technologies only work effectively where there is a high concentration of CO2. Extracting CO2 from thin air is possible, but the lower concentration compared to combustion sources complicates the engineering and makes the process more expensive. Even then, the technology has also yet to fulfill its promise of significantly reducing emissions from fossil fuel plants.

Carbon Capture and Storage is indeed costly, but yields nothing of value. To remedy this, companies have turned to utilizing captured CO2 in value-added products such as polymers, building materials, chemicals and synthetic fuels.

Meanwhile, long-term predictions about storage security are difficult to make and uncertain. There is still the risk that some trapped CO2 might leak into the atmosphere.

Finally, CCS is seen as providing a loophole to move away from burning oil and gas as a source of energy.

  • Learn more about Carbon Capture and Storage here [European Commission]

2. OceanTech

What is it?

OceanTech offers tools based on the exploitation of data or natural resources of marine origin. The field is positioned as an ideal response to issues relating to energy, agriculture, medicine, and even cosmetics.

According to Ocean Energy Europe, our oceans are the world’s largest untapped source of renewable energy. Many start-ups have sprouted to fill this gap. Some are managing to produce hydrogen using deep-sea microbes. More conservative ones use tidal turbines or wave energy converters. There are also discussions around capturing solar energy absorbed by the ocean to produce clean, reliable renewable energy. By 2050, ocean energy can provide 10% of Europe’s current electricity needs and 400k jobs.

OceanTech is even more diverse when it comes to aquaculture. In fish farming, first of all, where large floating structures can be used to more sustainably and more productively produce food. The commercial fishing industry can also use artificial intelligence (AI) and the IoT to reduce over-fishing and optimize fuel consumption patterns.

Finally, some companies are farming marine organisms to produce complex biopolymers that can be used to produce medicine, cosmetics, or biodegradable sugars and plastics.

Why do we need it?

71% of Earth’s surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5% of all Earth’s water. They are widely unexplored, but we know for a fact that marine biodiversity is larger than that of the terrestrial ecosystem.

Using this precious resource can help us produce green energy and food more sustainably and in larger quantities. We must however be wary of over-using technology in the oceans, lest we also waste this precious resource.

Challenges

Vast amounts of investments are necessary to get started in OceanTech. Large companies are however wary of a field which is yet to produce lucrative returns. Start-ups are thus left to their own device, and struggle to make a dent in energy or food production.

This is where governments come in. They need to fund big bets for our future, while monitoring the work being done to ensure we avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of meddling with our oceans. Few have answered this call, but those who have are sure to reap the rewards in the coming decades.

  • Learn more about OceanTech here [Ocean Energy Europe]

3. Green Mining

What is it?

Green mining is not a technology, but rather a technological concept. It promotes material, water, and energy efficiency to reduce the environmental footprint of mineral-based products life-cycles.

This can (and should) be done in several different ways, all across the value chain. Natural gas produced and treated onsite can minimise pollution, and sprinklers can be used to reduce the amount of dust released in the air. As the mining industry uses a gargantuan amount of water, steps can also be taken to recycle it in order to reduce its use, and to eliminate evaporation ponds. Tailings, a mining by-product, can be recycled or deposited in impermeable ponds to avoid chemical components seeping into the soil.

Finally, the area around a closed mine should be restored to make it safe and to allow other types of land use.

Why do we need it?

Beyond its (many) societal issues, mining is an incredibly polluting industry. It uses land we need, vast amounts of water, and ejects CO2 and dust into the atmosphere.

We need Green Mining to ensure that future generations are also able to use minerals, while preserving the planet they will be living on.

Challenges

Money and politics, this is what it so often comes down to. Green Mining involves investments for the future, which late-stage capitalism rarely sees a use for. Politicians are of no help, as making the industry more sustainable would also mean making short-term sacrifices.

Furthermore, Green Mining is an oxymoron. There is no such thing at worse, and at best it’s a form of greenwashing. Perfect, however, is the enemy of the good. The other solution would be to reducing our global consumption — an enviable solution, which few see happening any time soon.

  • Learn more about Green Mining here [Frontiers]

4. EVTOLs

What is it?

EVTOLs are Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing aircrafts. They combine the vertical take-off of helicopters with the horizontal flight of airplanes. These vehicles are today being discussed thanks to great strides in the fields of motors, batteries, fuel cells, and electronic controllers.

It’d be easy to think the aim of such a technology would be to produce more ecological aircrafts. But that is not the case. EVTOLs, above all, aim to improve urban air mobility. Applications include the development of air taxi services (unsure why we need those), a more efficient way to transport goods in cities, and quicker emergency services’ responses. Other applications are more military-minded, and will not be discussed in this article.

Why do we need it?

It’s fair to be sceptical of such a technology. Maybe even view it as a new plaything for millionaires. And it may very well start that way.

We however cannot deny that urban transit can be marginally improved, especially when it comes to deliveries. Those big trucks take too much space, and pollute too much for us to keep using them. Using the skies to transport goods and people may be a way to reduce our over-reliance on trucks and cars in the city, and reclaim the streets. Won’t that be nice?

Individual aircrafts have an added, hidden benefit. They’re exciting. Using them as poster-children to develop better ways of electrifying other modes of transportation at a large scale might be worth the troubles they will undoubtedly bring. That’s why so many car manufacturers are paying close attention to the space.

Challenges

In order to have working skies, we first need safety regulations, which will not be easy to agree to in today’s environment. We also will need to develop urban infrastructure (vertiports) in the right places to ensure optimum efficiency while limiting inconvenience for inhabitants.

Finally, it will be incredibly difficult to mass-produce the very complex components needed to make EVTOLs a success. More on that below.

  • Learn more about EVTOLs here [eVtol.com]

5. NextGen batteries

What is it?

As the name indicate, NextGen batteries are the future of energy storage. They can take many forms, and the world has not yet decided which technology will be the winner.

Lithium-ion batteries are the ones used in a majority of electric cars, PCs and mobiles today. They use a liquid solution to store lithium ions in the battery’s “pockets”. Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries offer worse performances, but are cheaper to produce.

These batteries use cobalt. Because of issues described below, alternatives are being developed. Batteries using highly-conductive graphene, for example, are promising a life-span lasting decades. Silicon might yet yield even better results. Other experiments include lithium-sulphur batteries which lower environmental impacts and manufacturing costs while reducing the battery’s weight and providing high energy density. Sodium-based batteries, interestingly, don’t use lithium… and salt is cheap.

The batteries above use liquids, which cannot be compressed. The Holy Grail, as such, is solid-state batteries. They would first and foremost improve safety levels: solid electrolytes are non-flammable, unlike their liquid counterparts. Secondly, these batteries permits the use of new materials, enabling denser, lighter batteries with a better shelf-life.

Why do we need it?

We can get all the energy we want from renewable sources, it will be useless if we cannot store it properly.

Batteries, will play a central role in the fight against climate change by helping to move cars, trucks and the power sector away from oil, coal and gas.

Challenges

Components from batteries come from mining, which is extremely harmful to the environment as previously mentioned. There are also sociological and political aspects to the issue. Cobalt, for example, comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is mined by Chinese-financed companies or by freelancers who sometimes employ children. The nickel industry, on the other hand, relies heavily on Russian suppliers

Even if we blind ourselves to these challenges, NextGen batteries will need to be cheaply produced at a large scale, with manufacturing capacities we do not have today. They will need to have a long life-span to avoid them ending in landfills after a couple of charges. They will also be dependent on the chargers we use, a technology that still needs to evolve. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

  • Learn more about NextGen Batteries here [Pocket Lint]

6. Wireless Electricity

What is it?

Wireless electricity, or Wireless Power Transfer, is a technology that allows electricity to be transferred from one place to another without the use of a wire. This is done via “coupling” for short distances (toothbrushes, phones, cars…) or electromagnetic radiation, like microwaves, or laser beams for long distances (satellites, aircrafts such as EVTOLs…).

The technology is not new, and already has plenty of commercial uses. But as our needs evolve, it could go much further. Wireless power transmission can eliminate (in part) the wires and batteries cluttering our everyday lives, thus increasing the mobility, convenience, and safety of our devices.

Why do we need it?

Wireless uses more energy than its alternatives. That much is true. But that amount is fairly small, and the benefits of WPT outweigh the negatives.

We need this technology to minimize the need for new hardwiring of homes and businesses. We need it to decrease our dependency on batteries, which will continue to end up in landfills, polluting our water supplies. We need it to have a more efficient IoT industry.

Finally, we need them because they’re easier and more convenient to use; I’m tired of looking for the damn charger every night before going to bed.

Challenges

Challenges will come from inside the house. We’ve bet a lot on NextGen batteries, and Wireless electricity threatens that industry.

Furthermore, human health has to be taken into account. Electromagnetic field can be potentially dangerous, and we need to run thousands of tests before we clear the technology for a wider range of use cases. So far, so good.

  • Learn more about Wireless Electricity here [The Electricity Forum]

7. Synthetic biology

What is it?

Synthetic biology is the process of redesigning living organisms to allow them to have abilities nature hadn’t foreseen for them. Whereas “genome editing” simply changes existing DNA in a “small” way, synthetic biology allows the insertion of new DNA in organisms. Think Indominus rex from Jurassic World, but a million times more boring.

This technology is not new per say. It’s however incredibly complex (and expensive) to change a genome, which has made progress slow. But it’s worth the wait. Synthetic biology can transform organisms to ecologically and cheaply produce substances like biofuels, silk, vitamins, and chemicals for more accessible medicine.

We can also make organisms get new abilities. This can mean creating crops that act as biosensors, or giving microbes the ability to biologically degrade soil, air and water pollutants into non-toxic substances, in a process called bioremediation. Some experiments have even been made to degrade gas waste to turn it into fuel, while bio-printed organs are slowly being tested on humans.

Why do we need it?

There are now 8 billion people on earth. These people need to be fed. These people need to stay healthy. These people need a planet on which they can grow old. The ability to create heat-resistant crops, to develop cheap medicine, and to potentially slow down or reduce the harm we’re causing our planet seems too good to be true. But it’s a world we could live in. That is, if we overcome seemingly unsurmountable challenges.

Challenges

Many challenges of this technology are ethical above all. In 2002, for example, scientists were able to recreate a polio virus from scratch. Bio-security concerns have led to necessary regulations. They will however need to be reviewed in the coming years if we want to be able to create a world better adapted to global warming and 8 billion inhabitants.

We also have to contemplate the long-term implications of using and consuming synthetic biology, if only for our health and safety. Chaos theory is nothing to laugh at when you’re playing God.

  • Learn more about Synthetic Biology here [Nature]

No Green Tech
 

None of these technologies are magical. Politicians and entrepreneurs will try to tell us otherwise, but there is no such thing as a magic solution to our unfolding ecological disaster.

This is however not a reason to avoid persevering. Tackling complex challenges in the face of daunting odds is what humans do best. One thing to remember, however, is that these technologies are heavily intertwined: success in one may mean doom for the others. That’s why it’s so important to understand the possibilities offered; we may soon need to make hard decisions, the ramifications of which might be felt for centuries.

Good luck out there.

 

This article was originally written for Honeypot.io, Europe’s developer-focused job platform.

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