By Steve Brearton
World changing. The phrase describes both the dramatic — and often threatening — changes to life on our planet as well as the arrival of potent new scientific and technological shifts. For better or worse, human impact on our environment has never been greater.
Fortunately, our collective ability to respond to these mounting challenges is mighty and every day brings news of groundbreaking discoveries with the potential to improve lives.
“Our perception makes it hard for us to shift and adapt [because] the majority of people aren’t able to perceive and most decision-makers cannot practically address the vastness of the risks we face,” says Sanjay Khanna, a futurist and visiting scholar in strategic foresight at the University of Toronto’s Massey College. “Can we maintain our potential? Can we maintain the human advantages we have? Human ingenuity is going to be crucial.”
In the following pages, we present eight Earth-saving ideas from scientists, researchers, environmentalists and planet-friendly entrepreneurs who are imagining new ways to create a more sustainable planet. From better methods to feed the world to the use of bacteria to dispose of nuclear waste, they turn crisis into opportunity.
By 2050, more than four billion people will suffer severe fresh water shortages, according to the World Health Organization. Desalination of ocean water has become an option of last resort for some water-starved nations, but the energy-intensive process is very expensive and produces toxic waste as a byproduct. An innovative new technology promises to generate pure, drinkable water, while “mining” minerals from the desalination brine to offset the cost.
Breakthrough: The most common means of purifying seawater is through a reverse osmosis process where saltwater is forced at high pressure through a membrane. By adding specific metabolizing bacteria to the resulting brine, an electric charge is produced that attracts and concentrates valuable minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium. Singapore, which proposes to generate 900 million litres of fresh water daily through reverse osmosis by 2060, projects the technology could generate US$4.5 billion in revenue from the collection of magnesium alone.
Hitch: Biomining doesn’t make desalination any less expensive or energy intensive; it only lessens the cost with an offsetting revenue source. Researchers are currently able to “mine” only a small number of minerals.
Goal: Providing fresh water and a global mining industry without environmental or human impacts.
2. CO2 Capture + Reuse
New technologies are capturing planet-warming carbon emissions from power plants, factories or directly from the environment and turning those gases into everyday products.
Breakthrough: Calgary-based firm Carbon Engineering is testing a huge industrial-scale process that extracts carbon dioxide from our air — enough annually from one facility to cancel out the emissions of 300,000 cars. In turn, it hopes to sell that liquid carbon dioxide for use in biofuel, dry ice, carbonated drinks or to pump it into the ground to extract oil. Other firms are testing similar technologies. Australia’s Mineral Carbonization International is mixing carbon dioxide with chemicals to create bricks and paving stones for construction.
Hitch: The challenge is to extract the carbon at an economically feasible price. Carbon Engineering believes it can eventually reduce costs to produce a tonne of pure carbon dioxide for a money-spinning $20.
Goal: Slow or end climate change, one of the defining issues of our age.
3. Chitlin Bioplastic
Plastic is clogging our world. Up to 43% of the 280 million tonnes produced globally in 2012 will end up in a landfill and the United Nations Environmental Programme estimates there are 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in our oceans. Bioplastics use biomass — cornhusks, grass, sugarcane and other natural products — instead of petroleum and have been around for years. They don’t release toxins, but current forms typically use more energy and are more expensive than conventional plastics. Their biodegradability is also often oversold. Remember the SunChips ad with its compostable bag disappearing into the soil after 14 weeks? Well, the bag did degrade, but required a temperature that few home composters reach.
Breakthrough: In 2014, Harvard University researchers announced they had discovered how to commercially manufacture a truly biofriendly plastic from discarded shrimp shells. Scientists used a derivative of chitlin — one of the most prevalent organic materials on earth — to make a bioplastic so degradable that it also functions as a fertilizer. The plastic produced is also suitable for manufacturing everyday items, such as toys and cellphones.
Hitch: The chitlin-based bioplastic has only been prepared in the laboratory. Next up is finding an industrial partner to perfect its commercial production.
Goal: A 100% biodegradable packaging made from a sustainable process, shrinking landfills and reducing dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels.
Geoengineering is a planet-sized idea with a potentially planet-saving payoff. The most promising approach for what the Royal Society of London calls the “deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment” is known as Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and aims to reduce the amount of sun and heat reaching Earth to lower our planet’s temperature. The theoretical process introduces sulphur gas into the atmosphere via aircraft, artillery or perhaps a 29-km hose, where it is converted into particles that will reflect sunlight back into space. A similar option includes placing a Greenland-sized mirror in space (or millions of small ones).
Breakthrough: In September 2013, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said SRM and separate technologies aiming to remove carbon from our air have “the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise.”
Hitch: Tinkering with our atmosphere is highly controversial, with some scientists calling it an unproven, flawed idea and one computer simulation predicting drought will be a major side effect. Former US vice-president Al Gore called geoengineering “insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme,” but the unchecked rise of greenhouse gases is forcing others to seriously consider the technology.
Goal: Avoiding climate disaster by reflecting sunlight back into space to lower global temperatures.
A crystalline form of carbon isolated in 2004, graphene is a supermaterial that may revolutionize electronics, computing and water purification. Lightweight and 200 times stronger than steel, it is nearly invisible (one atom thick) and is an exceptional conductor of electricity and heat. Graphene is also one of the most flexible materials known and 20 grams dispersed in one litre of liquid can coat two soccer fields. Superconductive, strong, pliable and capable of being engineered at a molecular level, graphene is being studied for its use in transmission lines, transistors and computer chips — but especially in solar cells to generate electricity.
Breakthrough: Last January, researchers using graphene in Spain and England announced they had created the most efficient solar cell to date. And because the material can be created at low temperatures, it may be possible to print flexible solar “panels” that can be applied to glass, clothing or to self-power electronics.
Hitch: Graphene is a perfect replacement for silicon in electronics, computers and solar cells, but a gram costs about US$800 to produce, compared to less than US$1 for silicon.
Goal: When combined with other solar cell technologies, including improved storage and the ability to collect energy in cloudy conditions, the world may finally have an affordable and sustainable source of clean energy.
6. Assisted Migration
In July 2014, an international team of researchers warned that up to one-third of all vertebrates — our planet’s most advanced animals — are at risk of extinction due to human activity. Scientists and conservationists have traditionally tried to preserve species by protecting their environment and reintroducing “captive-bred species” to bolster numbers, but because the rate of change in many ecosystems exceeds animals’ natural ability to adapt, some biologists are advocating a dramatic new approach: moving animals to entirely new habitats. Called assisted migration or conservation translocation, it’s akin to Noah gathering and transporting animals to a new locale so they can survive. The practice also offers the possibility of restoring ecological balance following the loss of another species.
Breakthrough: The Aldabra giant tortoise was successfully introduced to a region of Mauritius to eat plants and spread seeds, ensuring the germination of plants. Two extinct turtle species had previously performed the task. Biologists are also using the approach with threatened plant species. The white-bark pine, for example, may not survive climate challenges in the northwest US, but researchers at the University of British Columbia have identified and tested safe habitats in BC where the tree is growing.
Hitch: Introducing plants and animals into new ecosystems without planning and research can result in damage to the environment, economy and human health. For example, purple loosestrife, an invasive European plant, chokes out native Canadian plants and can devastate food chains.
Goal: Saving the planet’s flora and fauna. The survival of elephants, rhinoceroses and polar bears, among many others, is threatened by climate change and habitat loss.
7. Geobacter Bacteria
Bacteria may be small, but they are mighty. We’ve already heard about scientists using bacteria as the feedstock for the bioproduction of raw materials, such as diesel fuel, but now they are employing those tiniest of helpers to contain and eliminate toxins and “eat” other wastes polluting our environment. Some combinations of bacteria turn plastic bags into water and carbon dioxide in a span of months, something that otherwise would occur over thousands of years.
Breakthrough: Researchers at Michigan State University have now identified a bacterium that turns highly radioactive uranium and other toxins into mineral solids to ensure the dangerous material remains contained at hazardous waste sites. Microscopic Geobacter bacteria corral and coat uranium and then use arm-like appendages to zap the compounds with electricity to create solids that won’t leach into groundwater and are more easily collected.
Hitch: These micro-organisms offer the prospect of reducing the amount of garbage in the world, but the process is complex, requiring both the right bacteria and, where necessary, seeding the right element — say iron or carbon — to kick-start the process through a chemical reaction.
Goal: Cleaning the planet by containing and eliminating toxins and waste.
8. Big data and precision farming
The twin threat of climate change and a global population explosion may make feeding the planet our greatest future challenge. Big problem, meet big data. Big data refers to the use of computers and sophisticated programs to sort through huge masses of information to forecast results. Combine big data with advanced agricultural techniques and we get closer to eliminating world hunger.
Breakthrough: Instead of using seeds and traditional crossbreeding techniques to create new plant varieties with specific traits, biologists use computers to simulate outcomes with marker-assisted selection, a process that takes days instead of years. Researchers are also experimenting with location-specific data to optimize crop yields and reduce inputs. Known as “precision agriculture,” the approach may use satellites, GPS tracking, weather reports and sensors to collect data, such as sunlight and the moisture in soil, for immediate analysis and real-time adjustments to farming techniques. An instrument-laden tractor traveling over a field can analyze a crop’s need — say for nitrogen or phosphorus — and deliver the necessary nutrients.
Hitch: Big data and precision farming require expensive, sophisticated technology. That’s a problem in developing nations, but there’s hope macro-level fixes can help the poorest of farmers. In India, for instance, analyzing topography led to a plan to regrade and level small-scale farmers’ plots. The change resulted in 16% better yields and the use of 50% less water.
Goal: Using big data and precision agriculture to reduce water use and more efficiently feed the world.
Steve Brearton is a freelance writer in Toronto.