As an electrical engineer, I’m used to identifying problems and finding technological solutions, and there’s no question climate change is a problem — maybe the biggest problem we’ve faced in generations.
Our clients are increasingly asking us to figure out ways to develop superior products while simultaneously reducing their footprint, and we welcome the challenge! Tactics we’ve used include minimizing the use of plastics and maximizing products’ battery lives.
I’m constantly tracking emerging technologies that we might be able to integrate into product development projects, either now or a few years from now. The creative solutions in this post are just entering the pipeline so they’re more on the “a few years from now” end.
Each innovative technology is clustered inside one of three categories: Carbon Reduction Technologies, Geoengineering the Larger Environment, and Improved Battery Efficiency and Cooling Tech.
Carbon Reduction Technologies
Historically, building materials and technologies have produced more carbon dioxide (CO2) than they’ve removed from the atmosphere. Reducing the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere is essential to keep the world’s temperatures from rising. The following technologies, processes, and materials are providing methods for reducing CO2 contributions — and using up excess CO2 — while also providing other benefits.
Direct Air Capture by ClimeWorks
The underlying problem behind climate change is that we have too much CO2 in the atmosphere. A logical solution is to get rid of some of that CO2. That’s why I like this innovative technology from Swiss startup ClimeWorks — something called “Direct Air Capture.”
Essentially, air passes through a giant filter, which catches the CO2. It can then be separated and sold to the food and beverage industry, pumped into greenhouses, or used to make fuel and carbon-based products like plastics.
CO2-Fueled Bioplastics by Newlight
Newlight takes another approach. It starts with a tank of water, adds salt and minerals to create a growth solution, and mixes in a microorganism culture (like you’d use to brew beer). Then, Newlight pumps in carbon dioxide to feed the microorganisms, which produce a material that can be collected and turned into bioplastics. So, on top of using excess CO2, Newlight’s process also produces biodegradable materials that could be used in consumer goods.
Cement-Free Concrete by Carbicrete
By now, most people know that we have a plastics problem, but fewer people realize that concrete has a large environmental footprint, too. One of its key ingredients is cement, and cement production generates ten percent of the world’s CO2 emissions.
Carbicrete is hoping to change that. Instead of filling concrete with cement, Carbicrete fills it with steel slag, a byproduct of the steel-making process. Then, Carbicrete injects the wet concrete with CO2 to make it stronger. The result is a carbon-negative, cement-free concrete that reduces the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Geoengineering the Larger Environment
We’re starting to see more geoengineering projects that aim to address climate change by shaping the larger environment. These projects provide interesting opportunities for managing the impact of climate change — however, these large-scale environmental projects face several risks such as cost to implement and potential adverse environmental impacts.
Green Beaches by Project Vesta
Project Vesta is looking to create beaches that use the rock-forming mineral, olivine, to absorb CO2. Normally, rocks made with olivine break down due to weathering. The olivine then absorbs CO2, as much as 1.25 tons of CO2 per ton of olivine, but the process takes millions of years.
Project Vesta wants to accelerate that natural cycle by grinding olivine into a fine green sand and spreading it on two percent of beaches worldwide. Doing so would give the olivine the surface area it needs to absorb CO2. But Project Vesta will have to overcome obstacles, including figuring out how to ship 30 gigatons of olivine sand annually, and managing pushback from people who might not want green beaches.
SCoPEx by Harvard
Another example is SCoPEx (Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment), a solar geoengineering experiment led by Harvard, with partial funding from Bill Gates. Using a giant balloon, researchers plan to spread calcium carbonate particles in the stratosphere. Theoretically, these particles would prevent ozone loss and scatter sunlight to minimize its heating effect. Scientists still have a lot of questions to answer about this innovative technology, like whether it would impact crops or global weather patterns.
Improved Battery Efficiency and Cooling Tech
Climate change has been driving technological innovation in our transportation and energy industries, including electric vehicles and improved solar/wind generation technologies. These changes create an immediate need to improve our energy storage capabilities to better take advantage of new technologies. Coinciding with improvements to the energy generation industry, we have a growing need to cool indoor spaces, which again adds to the constraints on these energy sectors.
Lithium Metal Batteries by Penn State
Today, the lithium ion battery is the industry standard for electronics and electric vehicle (EV) batteries, but lithium metal batteries have the potential to deliver twice the energy density. The problem is that lithium metal batteries are highly reactive. During the charge cycle, small needle-like structures called dendrites can form between layers and short the battery cells. That creates a fire and explosion risk.
Researchers at Penn State University are working on an engineering- and chemistry-based solution, a solid-electrolyte interphase (SEI). This uses nanosheets that act as a mechanical buffer to prevent the dendrites from forming. If researchers can perfect this innovative technology, the improved battery efficiency could give EVs twice the range.
Efficient Cooling by SkyCool Systems
Cooling systems are another problem area. They account for seventeen percent of electricity use and eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
The startup SkyCool Systems hopes to use a phenomenon known as “night-sky cooling” to give air conditioning and refrigeration systems a boost. In the most simplistic terms, night sky cooling occurs when heat is emitted from an object as thermal radiation at a very specific wavelength. That allows the heat to escape the atmosphere and travel to space. Because space is so much colder, the object cools drastically.
In nature, this happens at night, but SkyCool uses a specialized material that allows the process to occur at any time. This tech could be added to cooling systems to make them more efficient, and eventually, it could create an electricity-free cooling system.
While many of these ideas might seem implausible at the moment, they’re the kinds of innovative solutions we’ll need to combat the serious threat of climate change.
I’m encouraged by investments being made in forward-thinking solutions. These include financial investments from accelerators and contributions of time and brainpower by way of nonprofit researchers.
Here are some good resources to learn about more about some of the exciting, innovative technology in development:
We all have a lot of work to do, but things are beginning to trend in the right direction.
Read more of our thoughts on Technological Innovation.