From carbon-eating trees to mobile technology: using tech to halt climate change

  • Technological issues call for technological solutions
  • Tech giants focus on clean, reliable and cheap energy solutions
  • How mobile technology helps cut carbon emissions
  • Carbon sucking machines cleaning up the skies
  • The breakthroughs we need are also moral, not just technological

Approximately 40 billion metric tons of CO2 end up in our Earth’s atmosphere every year and even though the world’s trees, plants and oceans absorb some of this, CO2 concentrations continue to rise to alarming levels. In a world with almost 2 billion cars, thousands of power plants fired with coal and billions of tons of natural gas, oil and coal mined and combusted, these high levels of carbon dioxide should come as no surprise. All of this is causing catastrophic changes, from rising seas and unusual weather patterns to thawing glaciers all over the globe. What can we do to slow these levels, or better yet, reverse them? Is there any hope?

Technological issues call for technological solutions

The Japan Meteorological Agency, the European Environment Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the entire scientific community are all of the opinion that climate change is mainly a technological issue – the result of human activities. The only upside of this fact is that this also means there is hope for (technological) solutions. But will we be able to implement enough technologies in time to prevent major catastrophes as a result of climate change? Our main problem is our use of fossil fuels and this can be solved by switching to clean and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. But even with this baseline alternative energy technology, we do still have a long road ahead of us, as turning the tide will be a slow process. Approximately 80% of global energy consumption is from fossil fuels and worldwide implementation of wind and solar energy, which is still expensive, will not happen overnight. Besides clean, renewable energy there’s mobile technology, CO2 eating trees (yes, you read that right) and self-driving systems that could all help reverse climate change.

People listening to a woman pointing at a whiteboard using a telescopic pointer
The Japan Meteorological Agency, the European Environment Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the entire scientific community are all of the opinion that climate change is mainly a technological issue – the result of human activities.

Tech giants focus on clean, reliable and cheap energy solutions

In order to slow down the world’s fossil fuel consumption and slow the impact of climate change, Silicon Valley has been focusing on clean, reliable and cheap energy solutions. Big players such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Google are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in cleantech such as solar, wind and nuclear power, in the hope that these can ultimately become reliable and cheap sources of power that can replace fossil fuels.

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Wind energy example:

MIT researchers are developing offshore wind turbines that store the power generated in enormous concrete spheres on the ocean floor.
California-based startup Makani, recently taken over by Google, is focusing on harnessing energy from high altitude winds. They do this by floating turbines a couple of hundred feet above the ground.

Solar energy example:

National Laboratories, in collaboration with MIT have recently developed atom-thin, ultra-light solar cells that can be integrated in a multitude of products such as the outer shell of a tablet and even in flexible products such as curtains or clothing to generate power. The transparent solar cells can be installed on windows.

Nuclear energy example:

Although this type of energy is disliked by many because of safety concerns, scientists welcome it because it’s a major non-carbon emitting source of energy. Washington-based startup TerraPower, partly funded by Bill Gates, is currently developing a 500-megawatt reactor that runs on nuclear waste. The TWR (Travelling Wave Reactor) can go for forty years without having to be refuelled. TWRs, compared to conventional reactors, produce less high-level waste and require much less uranium mining. TerraPower is planning to build a demonstration plant in China.

Energy storage example:

The real game changer for wind and solar energy will be storage. Major companies, universities and startups are therefore working on boosting battery performance. One of the advances in this field include GE’s battery which, paired with a wind farm in Texas, provides continues wind energy.

How mobile technology helps cut carbon emissions

Mobile technology puts the world at our fingertips and connects people like never before. Of course manufacturing, charging and operating these devices puts a strain on power infrastructures. But according to a report from the Carbon Trust, mobile tech and smartphones actually help cut CO2 emissions in Europe and the US by an unbelievable five times more than are produced by operating mobile networks. The most significant savings are made in transportation and the operation of buildings and this is due to improved route planning and building management, leading to reduced fuel and energy usage.

Even individual mobile users are making a difference. According to an international study involving 4,000 smartphone users across the US, Mexico, South Korea, Spain and the UK, mobile technology has a significant impact on reducing CO2 emissions. Most users stated using their mobiles for travel route planning, leading to less ‘driving around’ and thus cutting down on their personal carbon emissions. They also indicated that they prefer digitally downloading music and books, resulting in less transportation cost for the distribution of the physical counterparts of these products. Most of the people surveyed in this study said that they were willing to adopt different ‘mobile’ behaviour, if it meant further cutting down on CO2 emissions. Some examples included using apps to control temperature and appliances and teleconferencing with a doctor instead of a physical visit. The study indicates that mobile technology has a positive impact on the environment and will continue to assist in cutting CO2 emissions through innovations such as self-driving cars and smart grids.

Carbon sucking machines cleaning up the skies

Reducing our CO2 output is one approach to slow, stop or reverse global warming. But what if we had ways of removing CO2 from the air? Trees are very efficient at doing this but the problem is that we have fewer trees every year. Even if we would plant them everywhere, it still wouldn’t be enough to offset our CO2 emissions. Carbon sucking devices could be the answer.

Artificial CO2 sucking trees

Director of the Lenfest Centre for Sustainable Energy at the Columbia University, Klaus Lackner, has developed a technique that could be a solution: a fake plastic ‘tree’ that passively soaks up CO2 from the air. Compared to real leaves, the papery plastic ‘leaves’ of the artificial trees are 1,000 more efficient at doing this. The leaves don’t need sunlight for photosynthesis so they can be more closely spaced or overlapped. To make them even more efficient, they can be configured in a honeycomb shape. The carbon dioxide is pulled from the air and stored on the sodium carbonate-impregnated ‘leaf’ like a type of baking soda. To clean it off, the leaves are rinsed in water. Over the years, Lackner’s fake tree design has changed shape many times. From miniature shaggy rugs to scrub brushes and even a tuft of needles looking like a cylindrical Christmas ornament. In fact they were thin streamers that ‘mop up’ carbon dioxide from the air. One thing the scientists still need to find a solution for is the further purification of the CO2 after it is washed off the leaves. Furthermore, they need to come up with safe ways to bury the gas under the ground or below the ocean floor.

Diamonds from the sky

Finding ways to transform CO2 from a climate disaster into a valuable commodity has been a long-time dream of many. Now, a team of chemists at George Washington University, lead by Stuart Licht, Ph.D., have recently developed a technology that can convert atmospheric CO2 into carbon nanofibres for consumer and industrial products such as wind turbine blades, high-end sports equipment and even aeroplanes. Licht calls the approach ‘diamonds from the sky’, referring not only to the high value of the carbon nanofibres, but also to carbon being the material diamonds are made of. The process involved taking carbon dioxide and bathing it in molten carbonates at 750° C. Then, air from the atmosphere is introduced and a direct electrical current of nickel and steel electrodes added. This makes the carbon dioxide dissolve, resulting in carbon nanofibres forming on the steel electrode. The system is still experimental but the team is scaling up and will soon be able to create tens of grams of nanofibres per hour.

The breakthroughs we need are also moral, not just technological

Man-made problems require man-made solutions and positive changes are happening as we can see from the examples in this article, even though it may take us a very long time to reverse climate change. From mobile technology that allows for more energy efficiency and CO2-eating ‘trees’ that turn smog into carbon nanofibres, many technologies needed to transition to a climate-safe world are already available or being developed. Technology enables us to lessen our environmental impact and reduce our carbon footprint but what we also desperately need in order to be successful is worldwide adoption. The breakthroughs we need are also moral, not just technological. We need innovative thinking and we need the courage to change. We have to realise that we must move away from failed methods. This is not easy, but it is certainly achievable.

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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