Decades ago, technological development and environmental security were considered at odds. For good reasons, this idea is no longer popular. Technology is leading the way in correcting past failures and creating a brighter future for everyone. Here are six ways scientists and engineers are building a more promising tomorrow.
1. Renewable Energy
The number one technology leading the way in sustainability is (unsurprisingly) renewable energy. More specifically, affordable renewables. The reason is an economy of scale in energy production. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the cost of utility-scale solar energy has dropped to $0.83 per watt. Some of the impetus for the rapid advance of renewables has come from government incentives, of course. Programs like tax credits and the ability of companies to purchase carbon offsets are making a sizable impact. The fact remains: Renewable energy continues to become more efficient and effective as technology advances.
2. Carbon Sequestration
Even with these advancements, phasing out fossil fuels will take time. Thankfully, the carbon dioxide released by combustion doesn’t have to go into the atmosphere. There are two ways to accomplish this: geological and biological sequestration. The former involves liquefying the carbon compounds and storing them deep underground. The latter method has been a fixture of life on Earth for millions of years. Plants and soils are used to capture greenhouse gasses by planting forests for that specific purpose. Until non-renewables are obsolete, these methods will minimize their impact.
Carbon storage isn’t the only reason to plant forests. Damage has already been done to the planet by the misuse of technology in the past. Repairing that harm is a job for better technology. There is already an array of tools available for environmental remediation. Solidification and stabilization, for example, add reagents to contaminated land to chemically stabilize pollution. Nanoremediation, however, could represent a massive leap forward. This technique employs nanoscale reactive agents to immobilize or degrade contaminants. As nanotechnology evolves in utility, its use in remediation efforts could help undo centuries of damage.
4. Hydrogen Power
Renewable energy isn’t the only player in the clean energy game. Hydrogen is the simplest element in the universe, and it burns clean. Hydrogen can be produced via electrolysis to break apart water molecules. Steam can also react with traditional hydrocarbon fuels to make hydrogen. When hydrogen is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell to release energy, the only waste product is water. Because of this, the technology could be a nearly ideal replacement for electric car batteries and gasoline engines. Concerns regarding safety and cost persist, so this technology will take a while to develop. When it does mature, it could be revolutionary.
5. Biomimetic Design
Cities and the buildings that they contain are pretty inefficient things. The “urban heat island” effect (in which urban areas generate waste heat) is partly due to building emissions and the properties of construction materials. Biomimetics is a design philosophy that leverages the efficiency created by over four billion years of evolution. In other words, if the functionality of buildings, materials science, and tools can mimic that of nature, they can operate with less waste. Already, architects are taking inspiration from termite mounds to design more efficient cooling systems. Engineers are realizing that understanding how ecosystems work is crucial to human progress.
6. Aerospace Technology
Resources on Earth are, by definition, finite. Perhaps the best way to secure the future of civilization on our planet is to realize that it’s just one part of a larger universe. The utilization of space-based resources (if done right) could banish scarcity. Asteroids contain resources like hydrocarbons, nickel, and iron, and extracting them won’t damage Earth. Sample return missions like Hayabusa illustrate the challenges and vast potential of becoming a multi-planet civilization.
The misuse of technology in the past has taught society some hard lessons. Industrialists are now embracing the idea that ecological responsibility and progress can coexist. Keep an eye on the news as these and other technologies continue to make an impact.