Our planet is dying. As cities develop and grow into the powerhouses they are today, humans have been consuming resources at a rate far too quick to be sustainable for much longer. There is an urgent need to bring in eco-friendly methods to let humanity happily coexist with the nature around us. With technology, humans have been able to innovate solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Here are some ways technology can save the environment.
1. Solar Glass
Imagine if every single window in a skyscraper could generate energy. Sounds impossible? Think again. Solar glass is an emerging technology with major buzz, understandably. It may seem like glass, but it can capture the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity. The main setback in this innovation is its efficiency. As we still want it to work as regular glass, the material must be able to convert some energy into electricity, while also letting some light shine through the window. However Ubiquitous, a San Francisco-based start-up, claimed a world record for efficiency of a prototype organic solar cell with a 9.8 percent power conversion efficiency and now they hope to scale up their technology to a mass production level. By depositing organic layers directly on glass using standard glass coating equipment, Ubiquitous Energy claims that the transparent solar coating selectively absorbs and converts ultraviolet and near-infrared light to electricity while letting visible light through. This holds great promise for the mass consumption of the product in the near future.
2. Plant-based Plastic
If you’ve ever been to the beach, I'm sure you won't be surprised to see plastic litter scattered across the sand, no matter where you are in the world. We are all fully aware that single-use plastics are bad for the environment, yet we still can't seem to get rid of them, quite literally. Companies around the world have tried doing their part to reduce their plastic consumption, from recyclable packaging to reducing the use of plastic straws, but the problem is deep-rooted and deeply ingrained in our consumption economy. Ideally, we need biodegradable plastic, to avoid clogging up the world any further. The problem is, not all bioplastics are actually biodegradable. However, a new plastic made by researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany could be just the answer. It is a type of polyethylene—the world’s most commonly used plastic—made from plant and microalgae oils, and that can be recycled with near-perfect efficiency. The recycling method requires relatively low temperatures, making it more energy-efficient, and also recovers 96% of the original material.
3. Fake Meat
I'm sorry meat lovers - as decadent as your steaks and baby-back ribs truly are, meat production is simply horrendous for the environment. The situation is so dire, that scientists around the world have signed a Warning to Humanity to call for, among other things, a drastic decrease in our per capita consumption of meat. The extensive amount of land needed to meet the enormous demand for cattle causes deforestation at an alarming rate. We are cutting down trees much faster than we can replace them, leading to unprecedented levels of carbon release into the atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean we need to stop eating meat, just the kind that comes from animals. Today, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have finally managed to make fake meat taste just like the real deal. Not only is it better for the environment, but plant-based meat is better for you too. The technology behind fake meat will only get better, to bring you juicy cuts and patties that taste just as delicious.
4. Carbon Capture
For decades now, scientists have been screaming at corporations to reduce their carbon emission. It's common knowledge that the widespread use of fossil fuels has released immense amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but what if we could capture it back? Capture technologies allow the separation of carbon dioxide from gases produced in electricity generation and industrial processes by one of three methods: pre-combustion capture, post-combustion capture, and oxyfuel combustion. The carbon is transported by pipeline and stored in rock formations far below ground. Until recently, removing CO2 from gas has been difficult, expensive and often frustrating. While the gas has the power to warm the planet, it is a relatively small ingredient of power plant emissions. Carbon dioxide is also hard to separate from accompanying nitrogen and hydrogen. With advancements in technology, this could help reverse one of the most alarming environmental trends of our time.
5. Artificial Intelligence
We have talked about AI more than once on this blog, and that fact itself nods at AI’s immense technological potential in various fields. We are already using AI to reduce our carbon footprint - look at electric vehicles. AI will be vital in the widespread transition to autonomous connected electric vehicles (EVs), which will ultimately transform short-haul mobility while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and delivering cleaner air. A smart transport system enabled by AI can be expected to lower emissions.
Another example would be Microsoft's AI for Earth program, which has given more than 200 research grants to teams applying AI technologies to planetary health in one of four areas: biodiversity, climate, water, and agriculture. Primitive AI and machine learning algorithms are currently analyzing icy surfaces to measure changes over time, helping researchers plant new forests with precise layouts to maximize carbon sequestration, and enabling warning systems to help stem destructive algae blooms.
It's an exciting time we live in, with endless possibilities for change. But the time to act is now. Technology is one of our most powerful tools, and its potential knows no bounds. Fundamentally, AI will be the bedrock of our future efforts to undo the damage already done to the planet while figuring out scalable solutions to sustaining our species' energy, food, and water needs. Or, as too many sci-fi movies have shown us, it could possibly be the beginning of our end.