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Seven Technologies That Will Save the Earth

By Eunsun Cho

American environmentalist Lester Brown recently noted in the latest issue of World Policy Journal that a transition to renewable energy will fundamentally change our relationship with nature. We will no longer depend on limited energy sources that pose a tremendous threat to our ecosystem, but instead be able to benefit from the unlimited and non-polluting supply of wind and sunlight at our disposal. 

For some time, solar panels were unaffordable for the average household, and wind turbines were deemed cost-inefficient because of their inability to function without adequate wind sources. However, there have been many attempts to make renewable energy more accessible and available to all. The price of solar panels has decreased 60 percent from 2011, and Chinese scientists have invented frictionless magnetic wind turbines, which can generate electricity with low wind. 

The critical importance of renewable energy is that it will unlock the potential of a number of other green technologies, some of which are discussed below. Whether or not these or any single technology is the answer, a complete replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy is crucial to preserving the planet and human life.

Energy-efficient Lighting

Since the advent of the light bulb in 1880, artificial lighting has become an integral part of human history. Lightbulbs freed us from the risk of catching fire from candles, but more significantly, they allow us to adjust our life patterns independently from the inconsistent supply of natural light.

However, the traditional incandescent light bulb consumes far more energy than we actually use, releasing 90 percent of the energy it consumes as heat. To solve this problem, scientists have come up with an energy-efficient lighting system, the light-emitting diode (LED). Because LEDs can operate on a smaller amount of energy, the diodes can light even the most isolated corners of world where electricity is scarce. The prices of LED bulbs are steadily decreasing as well, so LEDs may soon have a greater competitive edge against compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs in the market. 

For more information on energy-efficient lighting, check out our interview with Hiroshi Amano, a Japanese scientist who helped invent the blue-colored diode. The diode is a key component of not only LED light bulbs, but also a few of the other inventions introduced below. 

Electrofuel

Renewable energy and biofuels are two major alternative energies humanity has already developed. However, they each have critical weaknesses; renewable energy is difficult to rely on in the absence of sunlight or wind, and the production of biofuels takes up a large amount of land, fertilizers, and water. 

However, what if we could store renewable energy in the form of biofuel? This is precisely the function of electrofuels, or new types of biofuel produced by specially designed microorganisms. These microorganisms are genetically engineered to produce energy-containing chemicals in return for consuming CO2. They harness energy ten times more efficiently than plants do, and deplete fewer resources like land and water.

Currently, a U.S. government-funded program is focusing on producing a substitute material for gasoline from these microorganisms. If the electricity needed in the process comes from renewable energy, electrofuels can provide an entirely environment-friendly alternative to gasoline.

Smart Grid 

If we are to make the most out of renewable energy, we will need a new system of transferring and distributing electricity. The traditional electrical grid, which transfers electricity only from the central station to households, has a limited ability to respond to sudden changes in energy demand or unexpected breakages in the system. As a result, it is difficult to incorporate the relatively inconsistent supply of solar and wind energy into the system.

In response to this problem, many countries are preparing for a transition toward a  new ’Smart Grid’ system. By relying on automation and interactivity, the system allows electricity to flow from households back to the central station as well as from city to city. Smart Grid also comes with numerous personalized benefits for the populations that use it. For instance, depending on the price of electricity or the amount of electricity available at a certain time, household appliances linked to the system may turn themselves on or off to save electricity (and therefore, lower your electricity bill). Houses may store electricity at night, when electricity is cheaper, for you to use during the day. In the same way, regions with extra energy needs may draw electricity from other regions with surplus electricity. 

In short, the system allows large-scale populations to maximize efficiency in using electricity, to more effectively respond to increasing energy demands without building additional power plants, and to incorporate the unpredictable supply of renewable energy. According to one study, by 2030, Smart Grid technologies can help us reduce overall carbon emissions by 58 percent compared to levels from ten years ago.

Vertical Farming

The world’s explosive population growth is quickly outpacing the expansion of arable land. While we desperately need to secure more land for food, continued population growth will also mean a greater demand for the conversion of land into residential and industrial districts. To make matters worse, existing arable land needs to regularly lie fallow, and traditional ways of farming are too vulnerable to disparate weather conditions.

Vertical farming may provide us a breakthrough. By cultivating crops and vegetables inside buildings with artificial lighting and mechanical irrigation systems, we can transform densely populated urban environments into arable areas. The insusceptibility of vertical farming to weather changes or deterioration of soil quality makes a year-round harvest possible. Food also grows much faster in vertical farms, all the while using 95 to 98 percent less water, 50 percent less fertilizers, and no pesticides. 

However, there is a huge obstacle in the development of vertical farming: energy. The amount of energy consumed by lighting is so tremendous that no vertical farming experiment has been able to turn a profit so far. A few years ago, scientists found out that a mix of red and blue LED lights stimulates photosynthesis most efficiently with the least amount of energy. In the search for the most cost-efficient way of vertical farming, scientists across the world are continuing to experiment with mini-farms in city environments.  

Carbon-dioxide Reverse Combustion

While it is urgent that we cut down the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, what if we can convert CO2 into fuels? In response to this very question, scientists Chao Lin and Emily Cole created and developed a device that can recycle CO2 emissions. In a typical combustion process, fuels burn while giving off CO2 and water. Their device simply reverses this direction, using an appropriate combination of CO2, water, and a catalyst powered by electricity to produce an effective hydrocarbon fuel.

However, the problem is that it takes a large amount of energy to reverse this process. Direct sunlight is a rather ineffective energy source to facilitate such a reaction, and it would be pointless to burn additional fossil fuels and generate even more CO2. In addition, the existing devices that can carry out reverse combustion are too expensive to be commercialized. 

Fortunately, Cole discovered that using the blue LED raises efficiency in reversing the combustion. Using these findings, she and her professor founded a company called Liquid Light, which works to condense the electric power from renewable energy into a liquid form. If successfully developed, the ‘liquid light’ will further enhance the efficiency and eventually bring the reverse combustion process to an industrial scale.

Hydro-metallurgic Processing of E-Waste

In the process of keeping up with the latest technology, humans are dumping 50 million tons of e-waste into landfills every year. Except for the 15 to 20 percent that ends up being recycled, the majority of the this waste is either buried underground or sent to developing countries, where low-income local residents burn them to extract metals. The byproducts of toxic chemicals are then released into the air and seep into the soil, eventually threatening our health. 

Hydro-metallurgic processing of printed circuit boards (PCBs) in electronic devices is an upgraded method of retrieving metals from e-wastes. Unlike the previous method of pyrometallurgy, which shreds and smelts the wastes, this process ‘leaches’ metals out by using chemical solutions. Therefore, hydro-metallurgy reduces the loss of metals and the emission of toxic gas while recovering highly pure, recycled metals.

Hydro-metallurgy is indeed an incredibly complicated process, with too many variables affecting the final outcome. Still, the technology is receiving more and more attention from the industry, as more studies are showing its health, environmental, and economic advantages. Considering that e-wastes can contain up to 60 different elements on the periodic table, some of which are precious metals, more efficiently recycling our own e-waste would make for a much cheaper and less hazardous way of obtaining valuable raw materials than digging additional mines.

The Ocean Cleanup

Nature is the single most vulnerable victim of human industrialization, and therefore, the most deserving of our preservation. Yet with scientific dilligence, we can understand how to cooperate with nature in the process of healing the damage we have already inflicted. Following the shocking discovery of the gigantic garbage patch in the Pacific in 1999, a similar garbage patch was found in the Atlantic in 2010. About two years later, Boyan Slat, founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, developed an innovative method to collect pieces of plastic floating in our oceans.

The device he designed is massive in size but simple in principle: let the ocean current collect plastics for us. Plastic is concentrated on the top three meters of the ocean surface and moves along the ocean currents. Cutting into the middle of the currents that carry garbage, the two floating wings of the device traps plastic for recycling. A sample device, that spans about 1.24 miles in length, will debut in 2016 off the coast of Japan. If the device delivers on its promise, we will be cleaning up our own waste while simultaneously obtaining additional sources of plastic all with the help of natural forces and human ingenuity.

*****

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Eunsun Cho is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. 

[Photo courtesy of Don Graham, Syntropy, Hunter Desportes, Sarah Murray, Except, David Holt, Derek Gavey, Steven Guerrisi]

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