Planet Earth is in peril. A few of our less-than-benevolent legacies, including deforestation, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures, are caused and worsened by humans. Although the data is complex, the trends are difficult to dispute. However, in order to avoid provoking a combative posture in the reader, the topic of global peril is currently one that provokes anger. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we are perpetually exposed to the worst of the worst and rarely given the opportunity to celebrate solutions.
Therefore, the idea that technology has a role to play in making our planet a more comfortable and sustainable place for humans to continue their meandering is less contentious. It is likely futile to attempt to live up to the article’s lofty title by providing a definitive list of five technologies that will aid in the survival of our planet.
It is also essential to recognize that some of these technologies carry their own risks. In actuality, our best opportunity to save the planet may also spell our extinction. I cannot help but feel optimistic when I contemplate the threat landscape and the aiding tools currently in development. Here are the top five technologies that I believe are most likely to aid in saving the planet.
Graphene, which is stronger than steel, thinner than paper, and more conductive than copper, is a truly miraculous material that, until recently, existed only in theory. Graphene is an ultrathin layer of graphite discovered at the University of Manchester in 2004. It is currently the subject of intense research and speculation, with many predicting that it will be the next material to promote the cultural and technological evolution of our species, following bronze, iron, steel, and silicon.
Graphene, which is only one atom thick, is flexible, transparent, and extremely conductive, making it suitable for a vast array of applications in planet-healing. Among them are water filtration, superconductors able to transfer energy over enormous distances with minimal loss, and photovoltaic applications. Graphene may serve as a cornerstone of the green renaissance by significantly enhancing the efficiency of existing materials.
2. Fake meat
I have both positive and negative news for meat-lovers. First the negative: The production of meat is a catastrophe for the environment. In 2017, more than 15,000 scientists from around the globe signed a Warning to Humanity urging, among other things, a drastic reduction in our per capita meat consumption. Land use is an issue. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock is responsible for approximately 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Animals also consume vast quantities of freshwater, while industrial livestock operations pollute local waterways with contaminated effluent.
The glad tidings? Finally, fake meat tastes delicious. Really excellent. Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are producing meat alternatives that are tasty and passable substitutes for the real thing. As much as the technological achievements and refined food science are impressive, the true triumph of these businesses is that they have made fake meat culturally cool.
3. Environmental sensors
We must assess the planet in order to heal it. Distributed sensors are one of the unheralded technologies enabling this, and the continued spread of the networked sensor environment will be one of the underpinning technologies for nearly all conceivable sustainability initiatives.
Want an instance? In the 1980s, towering smokestacks on the east coast helped reduce local air pollution. The issue was that smokestacks were linked to an increase in acid rain, which was causing widespread deforestation. How was the link established? Early networked sensors for pollution.
Obviously, technological advancements have occurred since then. Networked sensors as small as a dime are currently monitoring air and water quality, identifying pollutants, tracking acidification, and collecting real-time data on phenomena vital to our social and economic well-being. On the horizon are wearable air quality sensors, and localized sensor networks monitoring energy and water usage in buildings are reducing waste. The expansion of these sensors will have a profound effect on our way of life.
4. Smart grids
Our current electrical infrastructure, also known as the grid, is a problematic holdover from the 19th and 20th centuries. The majority of energy production is still centralized and distributed downstream, eventually reaching end consumers. The issue is that these grids are extremely sensitive to utilization and output fluctuations. For dependable operation, they require an excess of energy. They are vulnerable to attack and reliant on energy sources that emit pollution.
Smart grids are already being implemented in testbeds in the United States and abroad. To design a new grid for the twenty-first century, the concept involves the deployment of multiple energy, distribution, networking, automation, and sensing technologies. Smart grids will facilitate household-level energy production, which can be fed back into the grid’s upstream portion. Sensing technology and more precise prediction models will fine-tune energy production to prevent overproduction, and improved battery technology (see #7 on this list) will enable the storage of energy derived from renewable sources. The concept extends past the light receptacle. As appliances become more intelligent, the grid may begin to automatically signal them to turn off in order to conserve energy. All of this could have a significant impact on the operation of our power infrastructure.
5. Nuclear fusion
Our sun derives its energy from the fusion of hydrogen nuclei, which produces helium. Scientists have spent decades attempting to leverage the same process to generate sustainable terrestrial energy. The initiative is ecologically compelling because it represents a source of energy with negligible carbon emissions. Unlike nuclear fission, the process currently used to fuel nuclear power plants, fusion does not produce long-lived radioactive nuclear waste.
The issue is the weather. In order for the fusion of two particles to generate net positive energy, the reaction must occur at millions of degrees Celsius, which means that the fusing vessel will dissolve. Researchers think powerful magnets can suspend the reaction in a plasma to keep the intense heat out of the chamber. The typical timeline for fusion power is 30 years, but a team at MIT working with a new class of magnets believes it can get fusion power onto the grid in just 15 years. This would be a tremendous boon in the fight to halt the warming trend on the planet.