From artificial intelligence that tracks honey bees, to hydrogen atoms that make energy without greenhouse gases, scientists and engineers are working to solve the world’s most pressing environmental problems.
Words by Ella Liascos
If we can fly to the moon, suspend people in the sky in a large metal flying device, talk to each other through objects on different sides of the world and capture reality onto tangible pieces of paper, then surely we can solve the climate crisis?
Mankind has proven time and again that with a vision, persistence and innovation, even the seemingly impossible can be achieved. As the urgency has increased to keep our CO2 output under 1.5 degrees by 2050, the world’s scientists, engineers, tech wizards and designers are determinedly developing solutions.
From clashing atoms to create fuel to vacuuming carbon directly from the atmosphere — these are five futuristic tech innovations that are already under way:
1. Direct Air Capture
When conversations around climate solutions arise, the idea of a big carbon sucking machine usually gets a moment of air time. But this isn’t some futuristic pipe dream. Carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) already exists, and it’s been around since the 80s. The first carbon capture technology was ironically used as part of the process to extract more oil from the ground.
Today, there are 21 large scale CCUS projects around the globe used to sequester carbon from factory emissions, but they don’t capture carbon directly from the air. There are, however, 15 direct air capture plants in the United States and Canada, and while they’re expected to play a key role in transitioning to a net zero system, it’s still a very expensive technology.
To speed up the process, Elon Musk recently tweeted that he’d offer a $100 million incentive for whoever comes up with the best carbon capture technology. The technology is there, just not at the scale we need.
So is money better spent on natural carbon capture technology like trees or kelp? Tom Crowther, professor of Global Ecosystem Ecology at ETH Zürich, says that while nature-based solutions can help, “we will need thousands of solutions in combination.” One of the most exciting carbon capture companies is Carbon Engineering, which has the capacity to capture one million tonnes of CO2 per year and repurpose it into fuel.
“It’ll be the first city with no cars, streets or CO2 emissions.”
2. Redirecting Traffic Flow
Between 9 and 56% of traffic and the resulting pollution is caused by drivers who are cruising for parking. To tackle this problem, Google spinoff company Sidewalk Labs is using a small disc sensor called Pebble to revolutionise the way traffic flows. The disc is placed in each parking spot and offers real time data helping drivers navigate directly to a free parking space, thereby reducing traffic, pollution and driver stress.
Pebble comes with a few additional benefits, like helping developers prove that there are already ample existing parking spaces available to meet demand, saving the need for new parking lot developments and the emissions that come with it. “Real-time parking information can also alert would-be drivers when spaces are limited before they even leave home” shares Sidewalk Labs’ senior creative technologist, Nick Jonas. “Leading them to use alternative travel modes, such as park-and-ride transit or ferries.”
3. General Fusion
Taking cues from the way the sun and stars produce energy, Canadian company General Fusion uses magnetic fields to mimic the extreme pressure and temperature conditions that cause hydrogen atoms to collide, fuse and create energy. The energy produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only helium as exhaust. It also requires less land than other renewable technologies and is an on demand technology that’s completely independent of the weather.
General Fusion estimates that while solar, wind and geothermal energy will rise by 52% by 2040, fossil fuels will still make up the difference in the global energy mix. General Fusion is currently searching for the fastest and most practical path to commercialise the technology and are on course to power homes, businesses and industry with Fusion energy by 2030.
“We will need thousands of solutions in combination.”
4. Honey Bee Tech
The population of the crucial honey bees are declining worldwide, with a 20% mortality rate in Europe. This is due to a combination of factors like the chemically intensive agricultural model and climate change. Without honey bees, one-third of the crops we eat would have to be pollinated in other ways. All the most colourful and interesting fruit and veg in our diet would also decline dramatically. Other habitats depend on bees too, with 90% of wild plants relying on animal mediated pollination.
In a bid to save these life-sustaining creatures, The World Bee Project and cloud technology company Oracle have teamed up to create the Hive Network to help conserve declining bee populations. The network closely monitors bee colonies, enabling beekeepers and conservationists to take action to protect colonies by preventing swarming at the wrong time of year, or helping to anticipate and remove predators like the Asian Hornet from their obstacle course.
5. Smart Cities
Plans for smart and carbon neutral cities are popping up everywhere. Saudi Arabia is building a city called “The Line,” a 500 billion dollar region powered entirely by renewables. It’ll be the first city with no cars, streets or CO2 emissions, where all necessary facilities are a 5-minute walk away for every resident. The project is expected to generate 380,000 jobs and add $48 billion in GDP for the kingdom.
Singapore is planning its own 42,000-home town called Tengah, which is expected to have a huge impact on the country’s emissions. The car-free city will feature a 328-foot-wide ecological “corridor,” providing a safe passage for wildlife to access the surrounding water catchment and nature reserve.
A report by IFC revealed that investing in green cities holds a market opportunity of $24.7 trillion, and to put that in perspective, electric vehicles account for $1.6 trillion. Aside from green transportation, the hallmark of a smart city is utilising technology to reduce the use of resources and capture data to inform sustainability initiatives. Applications include sensored street lights that dim themselves or turn on and off depending on how many pedestrians are in the area. Another approach is equipping bins with sensors that measure fullness to avoid unnecessary mileage from an arbitrary trash pickup schedule.