Technological innovation is undoubtedly one of, if not the most important factor in sustainable development. In a world where 20% of the population uses 80% of its resources, huge behavioural changes must occur in order for us to build a sustainable future. Aiding that change is technology that reduces wasteful resource use, and generates clean and renewable energy. New technologies that once seemed impossible are being developed and perfected all the time, such as solar gasoline or magnetic air conditioners. This article looks at a few of the technologies could previously could only dream of, many of which are now almost within our reach.
One of the most pressing future challenges the world is facing is that of food security. In the face of climate change which will seriously impact global agricultural productivity, the world’s population is estimated to grow by another 2 billion in the next 40 years, reaching 9 billion in 2050. With so many more mouths to feed, and developing countries drastically increasing their meat consumption, food technologies such as lab-grown meat could feed more people for less. Cattle farming currently occupies 60% of agricultural land, and it takes over 15000 cubic metres of water to produce one ton of beef, compared to less than 150 for potatoes. A recent Guardian poll found that 68% of people would eat lab-grown meat, after reporting that Dutch scientists have grown strips of muscle in the laboratory. There is still a way to go before lab-grown meat is cost effective and tastes good, but it seems that it is only a matter of time before lab-grown burgers are on-sale in supermarkets.
In addition to the problem of food security, wastage needs to be reduced or dealt with more effectively. Despite recent huge growth in nanotechnology research, it remains a poorly understood area. There has been discussion of the huge potential for nanotechnology to aid recycling and reduce pollution by breaking down waste materials and converting them back into useful forms. Nanotechnology could desalinate water, monitor or sense pollutants, make chemical reactions less wasteful and conserve energy used in production, the list goes on. However, with such huge power will come high risks for environments to become contaminated and for human health to be affected. Releasing self-replicating nanotechnology, for example, could have disastrous consequences. Studies are already showing that some existing nanomaterials are potentially lethal to humans. You have probably heard of nanotechnology, but did you know nanomaterials are already in thousands of products? Lux Research recently predicted the total market value of nanotechnology containing products to reach $2.9 trillion. This is somewhat misleading, as it includes any product that incorporates nanotech. Still, the figure shows the huge spread of nanomaterials into all kinds of products around the world.
If the preceeding technologies have seemed fanciful to you, be warned. We are about to ‘boldly go’ into the realms of complete science fiction. It is clear that the increasing global demand for energy is one of the driving factors in developing new, clean energy technologies and is at the core of the reasoning behind sustainable living. But what if humanity’s energy needs were to grow beyond the renewable resources of planet Earth? Surely the Sun radiates more energy than humanity could ever need, if we were only able to capture it. Theoretically we could do this with a Dyson sphere, named after Freeman Dyson, a physicist and mathematician who envisaged a thought experiment whereby a civilization might eventually develop to the point where it would demand all or most of the energy output of the star around which it orbits. Building a series of solar power generators in a shell around the star could intercept and collect all the energy produced by the star. This would capture enough energy to provide for around 33 trillion times the amount of power used by humanity. While Dyson spheres and similar structures are far beyond the current capabilities of science, it is good to know that renewable energy sources are available if we can continue to develop technologies to harness them.
According to the EPIA/Greenpeace Advanced Scenario, by the year 2030, solar power could be generating 1.8 TW of electricity globally. That would be enough to provide energy to almost 14% of the world’s population. However, this will only happen if a serious commitment to increase uptake renewable energy sources is made by the global community. Currently, solar cells have a sunlight to electricity conversion efficiency of about 20% on average, but research is increasing this all the time – already some cells have achieved as much as 40% efficiency. This is a far cry from enclosing a star in a solar cell shell, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.