On World Earth Day- New Technologies Saving the Planet

Technologies Saving the Planet

Pretty much everyone born after the 80s must have now grown sick of hearing that renewable energy will save the planet. Where is all that solar and wind we were promised?

Well, the answer to this lies in the sheer scale of the problem. Renewable technologies have made some stunning progress, as the graph below shows-

Renwable Energy capacity

Unfortunately, even this rate of growth isn’t fast enough. A UN report says that with current projections, there is little chance that the rise in global temperatures can be capped at the critical 2 Degrees.

Clearly, we need some help to save our butts. Luckily, it’s on the way, in the form of these six technologies.

a) Batteries:

Battery Technology.jpg

What is the Technology: Storing energy when and where it is available and not needed, and delivering it where it is unavailable but needed.

How will it help: By helping tide over the fluctuating nature of energy generated from Renewable Energy. It will also increase the efficiencies of the energy system. And oh yeah, it is THE component in electric cars.

The Humble Battery, a cornerstone of modern society, entered the public conscious following Elon Musk’s spectacular debut of the Powerwall. There have, however, been continuous advances unnoticed by the broader public.

Consumers can now seriously consider going off-grid. That means that they forgo energy generated by the state and relying only on energy generated by solar panels and small wind turbines commercially available. Batteries such as the Powerwall to make sure that power is delivered regularly.

But the biggest impact will be with Electric Cars. Elon Musk’s persona and the technology delivered by Tesla have put the spotlight on the electric car industry, and almost every car manufacturer has seriously started making electric cars. Don’t be surprised if, in 10 years, most of the cars you see on the street are powered by a Battery!

b) Material Science

Material Science

What is the Technology: An incredibly broad field with the objective of designing and creating new materials.

How will it help: While the applications range from Space Elevators to bullet-proof suits, the immediate impact for this field is in reducing waste and offering substitutes for plastic.

In 2014, Merril Lynch estimated the value of the ‘Trash’ industry at $1 Trillion Dollars. A significant percentage of this included recycling and waste management. As technology creates more methods for recycling and new kinds of materials, the size of the market begins increasing and even overlapping with other major markets, such as packaging.

The big elephant in the room is definitely plastic, and despite all the technological advancements, it might be business (or specifically startups) that finally take rid of the world of this problem.

Solegear Bioplastics, a company that went public in 2014, is one of several players that are actively working to solve this problem.

c) The Internet of things and Big Data:

IoT-&-Big-Data.jpg

What is the Technology: A combination of electronic and digital that help build the much-hyped ‘Smart Homes’ and ‘Smart Cities’

How Will it Help: Primarily through energy efficiency and smarter transportation. Smart Cities will also help us get comprehensive information on the sources of pollution.

If ‘Smart Cities’ as a term is hard to understand- blame it on the numerous ways that you can apply Electronic and Digital technology to improve urban lives. It might be more useful to think in terms of the outcome- Cities using technology in order to enable better lives for their residents, a significant part of which would require a clean environment.

Smarter transportation systems based on real-time data of the citizens are the first step. A smarter design can reduce the ‘heat island’ effect, better utilize the energy spent on things like streetlights, and even optimize the energy consumption across the city.

Here is how the proposed smart city of Kashiwa-no-ha in Japan plans to optimize energy spend.

Energy Efficiency in a City

d) Big Data, Drones, and Sensors:

Big-Data, Drones and Sensors.jpg

 What is the Technology: Again, Electronic and Digital components coming together, this time joined by advancements in flight, to allow environment monitoring on an unprecedented scale.

How Will it Help: To borrow the use of a buzzword- actionable insights are drawn from valuable information

Drones are being used, among other things, to fight elephant poachers in Africa and monitor the rate at which glaciers are melting in the Himalayas. But perhaps their greatest application lies in agriculture. After all, covering large swathes of lands in a short period is a very drone-like thing to do.

Meanwhile, as the cost of hardware continues to decrease, sensors continue to be traverse hitherto unchartered territory. For example, underwater sensors have the potential to help both fish population and fisheries– never thought that was possible, did you?

Paraphrasing the article referenced above- you can’t protect what you can’t measure. Data Science constantly advances our understanding of what we can do to protect the environment

Here’s a case study that gives you a small glimpse of this power: The Australian Program ‘Back on Track’ “identified threats and developed management actions for 383 priority species and these priority actions have been translated into tangible conservation outcomes”

e) Nuclear Technology

Nuclear Technology

Wait, Haven’t I heard this before: You have, but it’s different this time. Here’s how:

  1. Many countries, particularly India and China, are charging ahead with a different fuel for nuclear reactors– Thorium. Thorium produces less nuclear waste, has a far lesser chance of a meltdown, is easier to obtain, and much harder to turn into a bomb!
  2. A new kind of design- called ‘Modern Salt Reactors’, with potentially other innovations and often used with Thorium also reduces the threat of a melt-own.
  3. But perhaps what’s most exciting is that we might finally be close to seeing nuclear fusion being developed as a power source. Unlike Fission, Fusion machines can be run with plentiful Deuterium atoms, generate no waste, and have no chance of a meltdown. It’s also the same way that stars generate energy- isn’t that so cool?

Some of the startups working on this ground-breaking technology are Tri-Alpha Energy, General Fusion, Firstlight Fusion, and Helion Energy.

f) Driverless Cars:

Driverless Cars

 What is the Technology: Extremely sophisticated sensors, Data Science and Machine Learning will allow your car to drive itself

How will it help: Driverless Cars will not only lead to more efficient road driving, but it can hugely push the concept of carpooling and shared ownership of a car and hugely reduce the total number of distances traveled in a city. Think of how cheap a cab from a Uber can become if they use driverless cars.

Nearly every car manufacturer you can think of is joining the bandwagon.

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Keep a close eye on what’s happening around you in the next decade. You never know what you might miss.

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