Taking on climate change with technology
While politicians argue about what climate change is doing, what to do about it and, depressingly, if it’s happening at all, the world’s scientists are more resolute. Climate change is here, and the consensus is that it’s probably best to do something about it.
Technology will play its part, and between robots, space-age materials and – seriously – fake shrubbery, we’ve rounded up five ways technology could help mitigate climate change’s worst effects.
Climate change technology: Robots
“Our company is called BioCarbon engineering, and we’re going to plant one billion trees per year.” That’s BioCarbon’s CEO Lauren Fletcher, whose simple mission statement belies a rather more complex reality.
Deforestation is responsible for clearing trees covering an area equivalent to Panama every year, and apart from the loss of valuable wildlife habitat, the loss of trees and their valuable work absorbing carbon dioxide helps drive global warming. Deforestation is happening on an “industrial scale”, according to BioCarbon’s Susan Graham, and can only be countered with “industrial scale reforestation.”
BioCarbon’s solution is quad-copter drones. The automated aviators will fly over land to be reforested, producing 3D maps to assess an area’s suitability for tree planting. Then – the clever bit – the drones will use a canister of pressurised air (think a very lightweight paintball gun) to fire a pellet containing a germinated seed and a sac of nutrient-rich gel into the ground. The advantage is a numerical one – a fleet of drones could be capable of planting up to 36,000 trees per day according to BioCarbon. The company won a £20,000 grant from the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in 2015.
NASA is also launching drones, this time in the name of research. Its huge Global Hawk UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) has a wingspan of 35 metres, a range of 11,000 miles and can fly for up to 30 hours. It operates at altitudes up to 65,000 feet, making it perfect for weather and climate research. Global Hawk isn’t the maddest thing in NASA’s arsenal, though: the concept Helios Prototype drone, powered by 10 solar driven electric motors, was designed to fly at nearly 100,000 feet for at least 24 hours, again in the name of performing high-altitude atmospheric research tasks. Alas, the Helios was less successful: the program was shelved in 2003 after a dramatic crash.
“NASA is also launching drones in the name of research. Its huge Global Hawk UAV has a wingspan of 35 metres, a range of 11,000 miles and can fly for up to 30 hours.”
Robots won’t just be buzzing around over our heads, though. Take the National Oceanography Centre’s Autosub project. Autosub is an AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle, not to be confused with the inconveniently similar unmanned aerial vehicle) that loves to explore. In 2005, Autosub 2 swam for nearly 30km beneath the Fimbul Ice Shelf in the name of measuring the impact global warming is having on the underside of Antarctic ice.
Three days later, it was gone: a systems failure saw it consigned to the icy depths forever. Still, the Autosub programme has gone from strength to strength: Autosub 6000 can dive up to 6,000 metres below sea level. Its range is 1,000km and, like its lonely predecessor, it’s going to work as an under-ice specialist. The latest Autosub, the LR, will be capable of plodding along underwater at a stately 1.4 metres per second for up to six months at a time, and at depths of up to 6,000 metres.
Finally: nanobots. The tiny submarines developed by scientists at the department of nanoengineering at the University of California look particularly promising. The micromachines (couldn’t resist) are effectively tiny hollow tubes full of hydrogen peroxide. Dunk them in the water and the resulting reaction propels them through the water. Once they hit oil, they collect it, providing a potentially more effective way of cleaning up spills. It’s debatable how much of an impact oil spills have on climate change, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping the world tidy.
Climate change technology: Better energy
“Here’s the problem with renewable energy: it spends a lot of its time generating energy when you don’t want it, and a lot of time not generating energy when you really do.”
Here’s the problem with renewable energy: it spends a lot of its time generating energy when you don’t want it, and a lot of time not generating energy when you really do. Take solar: you get the most out of the sun at noon, but that isn’t when most people are in their houses. You need the most energy in the evenings, when the sun’s on the wane. Storing the energy your pricey solar panels are generating is the hard bit. Enter battery enthusiast and “futurehead” Elon Musk. Tesla is currently hard at work building the Gigafactory, a $5 billion installation that will build more lithium-ion batteries on its own by 2020 than were manufactured worldwide in 2013. Enough batteries, in fact, to power 500,000 Tesla cars, some ten times what it managed in 2014.
Still, if it falls short on car deliveries it will always be able to catch up on Powerwall, Tesla’s wall-mounted, lithium-ion battery units that are designed to provide crucial backup in an emergency, or store energy from renewable sources for use when you actually need it. A bit like those electric storage heaters that turned electricity into stored heat overnight and then released it once you needed it. Economy 7 and all that.
The Powerwall will be available in 10kWh and 7kWh variants, and can be chained together to provide enough oomph for larger homes. It’s certainly captured the imagination: in an earnings call less than a week after the Powerwall announcement, Musk claimed the company had received 38,000 reservations. Not all of these will turn into a sale, but if they were to, Tesla would be kept busy making Powerwalls until the middle of 2016.
The argument is that storing renewable energy will allow more people to live independently of the grid, and that communities shut off from mainstream power will benefit. The reality is likely to be a little less halcyon-tinged: the smaller of the two Powerwall units costs $3,000, the larger $3,500 – both of those costs are before installation or the necessary DC/AC converter that will change the juice coming out of the Powerwall into a charge that won’t fry your fusebox. Without subsidies, this arguably invalidates Tesla’s argument that the Powerwall will be of benefit to remote, off-grid communities.
“The US has a vast amount of land that’s too hot and dry to live or grow anything on, which is why it has eight of the world’s top ten solar power stations.”
Still, those on the grid could see a benefit, particularly in the United States. The US has a vast amount of land that’s too hot and dry to live or grow anything on, which is why it has eight of the world’s top ten solar power stations. Top of the pile is the Solar Star field around 80 miles north of Los Angeles. Capable of generating 579 megawatts – around half the output of the Dungeness nuclear power station in Kent – Solar Star will produce power for over quarter of a million south Californian homes.
Here in the UK, a European Union directive means we’re aiming to generate 15% of our energy renewably by 2020, assuming of course that Britain doesn’t vote to leave the EU in 2017.
The UK isn’t blessed with the kind of weather that makes solar a decent bet, but converting kinetic energy to electricity could be the answer. Wave energy is much-mooted, but troublesome: Scottish company Pelamis built an £800,000 ocean-going electricity generator but collapsed with debts of £15 million in 2014.
Elsewhere, London-based company Pavegen’s brainwave is to use the collective pounding of feet on British pavements to produce power, using its 450 x 600mm floor tiles to convert downward kinetic energy into electricity. You’ll find its tiles generating power in London Zoo, while its largest project was covering a football pitch in Rio de Janeiro and using the resulting impact from players to run the floodlights.
Climate change technology: Better fuel
The received wisdom is that the electric car is the future. But, while it’s hard to resist the charms of Elon Musk and his Tesla Model S, you simply cannot beat the energy density of good old-fashioned petrol. Kilogram-for-kilogram you’ll go further; and the problem becomes even more pronounced when you try to get a 40-tonne articulated lorry from Bristol to Brussels.
Of course, the problem of getting fuel out of the ground – compounded by the pollution released when it’s burned – means there’s plenty of effort going into finding better ways to move cars about. Take Audi’s E-Diesel, for instance, which saw everyone’s favourite Vorsprung create road-going diesel fuel from nothing more than water and carbon dioxide. Renewable electrical energy powered the process. The Sunfire plant that produced the first batch of Audi’s superfuel is currently limited to making 160 litres per day (about two and a half fill-ups’ worth), but the company reckons it’s on the cusp of industrial scale production.
Synthetic diesel isn’t the only way of getting a car from A to B. Toyota’s Mirai – on sale in very limited numbers in California later this year for $50,000 (a shade over £30,000) – is an electric car that mixes a tankful of hydrogen with oxygen to produce DC electrical power. The Mirai has a range of 300 miles and the only thing coming out of the exhaust pipe is water.
“Drivers may find it hard to accept a passenger car in which backseat passengers are sitting directly over a tank full of very-flammable hydrogen at 10,000psi.”
The Mirai’s big advantage is how long it takes to fuel: run a Tesla out of juice and it will recharge at a maximum of 68 miles per hour of charging, which works out at over four hours to go from empty to fully charged. The Mirai can be replenished with hydrogen in five minutes, which is on-par with a normal petrol station visit.
The current issue is fuel availability: hydrogen is notoriously difficult to transport and store. It needs to be pressurised all the time, which makes it hard to use, and public perception is a hard thing to overcome: American drivers may find it hard to accept a passenger car in which backseat passengers are sitting directly over a tank full of very-flammable hydrogen at 10,000psi. Still, the Mirai has given a chance for Toyota to answer Elon Musk’s assertion that the fuel-cell car is “bullshit”: here’s a video in which a Mirai is powered by the very stuff.
Climate change technology: Better plants
“Nature knows best”, goes the saying, but whoever came up with it may not have banked on nature being assaulted on all fronts by carbon dioxide-spewing bipeds. That’s us. Mother Nature needs a hand, and it’s coming from scientists such as those at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University, leading figures in the world of carbon capture.
Carbon capture is something that happens naturally: plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide and helpfully convert it into delicious, breathable oxygen. But they can only do so much, which is why carbon capture – using man-made objects to convert harmful, climate change-causing greenhouse gasses into something more helpful – is coming of age.
The material developed by the Lenfest Center is a resin that absorbs carbon dioxide when it’s dry, and releases it when it gets wet. “We basically stumbled across this material,” explains Allen Wright, senior staff associate at Columbia University, and although the university’s space-age material looks like toilet brushes and “smells like dead fish”, being able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and keep it somewhere safe could remove billions of tonnes of CO2 every year. It can even be re-used, with carbon dioxide a key ingredient in Audi’s synthetic diesel.
Climate change technology: New food
Bad news: the food you eat is terrible for the environment. According to DEFRA statistics, the average UK household bought under a kilogram of meat per person, per week in 2013. That’s bad: raising, sustaining and killing livestock for food accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas production – more than the entire efforts of the transportation industry. Meat production also pollutes water and uses a vast amount of land that might be put to better use.
“An individual cow produces more methane per year than the average car.”
Beef production is a particular problem: cattle are a notoriously inefficient way of turning feedstock into food fit for humans, and an individual cow produces more methane per year than the average car. The really bad news: methane is much better (around twenty times) at trapping heat and warming the planet than carbon dioxide.
That means the planet’s voracious carnivores will need to get their protein elsewhere. There are plenty of options: tofu, rice and beans all have their place alongside meat substitutes, but for those who refuse to accept their meat-eating days are over, science could have the answer. In 2013, scientists from Maastricht University performed a biopsy on a cow and grew, in vitro, a 140 gram burger. The result: a burger that required a fraction of the land and resources as the real thing. The burger itself was a somewhat dry, but tasty, slice of meat that the scientists behind it described as “a very good start”. The current challenge is economic: the world’s first in vitro burger cost £215,000, although the price has come down dramatically and the researchers hope to have a product on the shelves within five years.
“Insects are incredibly nutritious – per 100 grams they have almost the same amount of protein as red meat.”
Lab-grown meat isn’t the only option: there are billions of tiny, multi, multi-legged creatures on earth already, just waiting to relieve some of the environmental strain caused by traditional livestock. Insects are incredibly nutritious – per 100 grams they have almost the same amount of protein as red meat. They’re also very sustainable: you don’t need much space to rear a kilogram of insects, and they’re much more efficient when it comes to turning food (for them) into food (for you).
The problem is the much-discussed “yuck factor”: around 80% of the world’s population practices entomophagy (insect eating), but convincing your average household that deep-fried crickets are a decent alternative to a pack of sausages will take some doing. That said, the march of the insects could already be underway: earlier this year diners at top Mexican restaurant Wahaca were invited to try chapulines fundido, or deep-fried grasshoppers baked in cheese. The restaurant claims the dish was “very popular”: the future of food could be scuttling your way sooner than you think.
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