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5 Technologies That Will Save The Planet

Current Events, Alternative Energy

Climate change is real, and humans are suffering from it. While the general public may argue over how much of that change is caused by human activities, scientists know one thing for certain—if we don't get a handle on things, they're going to go from bad to worse. Considering that industry and technological progress have made a not-insignificant contribution to pollution, deforestation, and other things contributing to heating the planet, there's a touch of irony in the idea that technology might end up being what saves us. It's true, though. Here are five new technologies that might turn things around.

1. Plant-based Plastic

The very things that once made plastic desirable—the fact that it doesn't break or decay easily—are what have made it an enormous planetary liability. Plastic takes millennia to break down, and, when it does, it doesn't do so the way other materials do. Most plastic keeps its basic molecular form, and just breaks down into particles small enough to infiltrate the food chain. Unfortunately, components of plastic have been found to be endocrine disruptors and potential carcinogens. Enter: Plant-based plastic.

Plant-based plastic, as its name implies, is made of polymers derived from plants like corn and cassava. These polymers behave just like regular plastic, with the exception that some of them can biodegrade. They also have a much smaller carbon footprint, and don't rely on the petroleum industry to produce. While replacing traditional plastic with plant-based plastic won't solve all of the problems of plastic pollution in the environment, it does present an environmentally-friendly solution for situations for which there's no good alternative.

2. Carbon Capture

Everyone talks about carbon footprints, which is the measure of how much carbon a given person, business, or industry causes to be released into the atmosphere. Some activities are more carbon-intensive than others—driving instead of walking, for example. Individuals are urged to make choices that contribute less to their carbon footprints, but individual people don't really contribute much to anthropogenic climate change. The real culprits are industries, but it's much more difficult to get an entire business sector to reduce its carbon footprint. So, what if it was possible to just reclaim carbon from the atmosphere, instead?

Carbon capture and storage technology promises to do just that. This tech separates carbon from other waste gases produced by industry and power plants, and sends it into underground rock formations via pipeline. If enough industries are able to get on board, this technology could drastically slow the rate of climate change.

3. Better Energy Storage

There's one key factor that's kept renewable energy from completely supplanting traditional power like coal and oil: storage. Coal and oil are portable and storable. You can use what you need, and save the rest for another time. That's not really true with power sources like wind and solar—generating extra energy on a sunny day isn't going to be much help when it's cloudy a week later. That's where improved energy storage technology comes in.

Conventional batteries aren't really up to the job, unfortunately, but new tech might be. Aqueous sulfur-flow batteries provide less expensive and longer-term storage when compared to current batteries on the market, and may just be what the renewable energy industry is looking for. Hydrogen offers another potential solution. By using extra energy to split water into its component gases, renewable power plants could store some of their excess in the form of liquid hydrogen.

4. Transparent Solar Cells

By now, everyone's probably seen the shiny rectangular boxes of solar arrays set up on a roof. What if you could put a solar panel literally anywhere, even a window? That's what new solar cell technology will be able to do.

Transparent solar cells can be used wherever regular glass is, allowing light through while converting some of it to electricity. These cells aren't as efficient as regular solar panels—only about 15% compared to 25%—but their versatility presents a distinct advantage. They could turn office buildings into power generators, without having any impact on their looks or function. According to projections from Michigan State University, there're enough usable glass surfaces in the US to provide for 40% of the country's power needs.

5. Environmental Sensors

It's hard to fix a problem you don't know exists. Part of the trouble with climate change is that it's a global phenomenon that impacts everything from precipitation rates, to biodiversity, to the pH of the ocean. Distributed environmental sensors offer a way to keep an eye on water and air quality, atmospheric pollutants, and more. Some of these sensors are as small as a dime, so they can be set up unobtrusively wherever they're needed. These sensors can do everything from help reduce waste by monitoring building power and water usage, to tracking environmental data in sensitive habitats.

Unfortunately, there's no single magic silver bullet that will completely solve the climate crisis, since there isn't a single causative factor that got us here. By changing our habits and exploring a combination of new environmentally-friendly technologies, we can stop climate change before its too late.