Five Technologies Leading the Way to a Carbon Neutral Future
Laura Del Vecchio
Brian Garrity @ unsplash.com
Part of the Paris Agreement encompasses the "[...] technology development and transfer for both improving resilience to Climate Change and reducing GHG emissions." It also establishes "a technology framework to provide overarching guidance to the well-functioning Technology Mechanism. The mechanism is accelerating technology development and transfer through its policy and implementation arms."
The Technology Mechanism consists of the Technology Executive Committee (TEC) and the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN), a coalition created to address the transformational shifts aimed by the Paris Agreement and to promote results that enhance transparency and resource management in technology development and transfer to improve resilience to Climate Change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, in the same way technologies are helping achieve carbon neutrality in the future; other types of technology also support virtually all industries in emitting even more CO2. According to Kranzberg's First Laws of Technology, "technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” So how can we use technologies in favor of carbon neutrality?
In order to discover the potential behind emerging technologies working on the challenge to achieving a carbon neutral future, we have selected the top five technologies expected to play a pivotal role in the following years in adaptation and mitigation measures to tackle Climate Change. From alternatives to fossil fuels to communication protocols that establish taxation to carbon-intensive activities, these technologies propose different dynamics from the current fossil fuel-based society.
You are now invited to discover these exciting emerging technological solutions.
1. Biochar: Capturing CO2 through Fire
Why Does it Matter?
As a charcoal-like form of solid carbon, Biochar acts as a carbon sink, able to store CO2 in its pure state. Unlike standard capture and storage methods, often complex involving tanks, compression equipment, pumps, pipelines, and vast airtight underground or subsea caverns, Biochar is stable, as little contaminating fumes are released during the creation process.
Simply put, Biochar is achieved through Pyrolysis, a method where biomass, such as bones, food scrap, and dry leaves, is burned in a recipient with very little oxygen at lower temperatures. Then, the biomass decomposes until the point of blackening and converting it into a stable form of carbon. Biochar holds various beneficial properties, such as working as a sustainable alternative to activated carbon filters (ACs) for purifying water, an effective feedstock, improving the water retention of soil, and helping reduce animals' digestive greenhouse gas emissions as an additive in livestock feed.
Also, as getting rid of biomass can be costly and often result in landfills overload, Biochar production can significantly reduce the amount of biomass that would otherwise go to waste. However, since Biochar gained attention on its manifold advantages in the early 2000s, research only demonstrates its potential rather than scientific proof on its usage. This means that studies on Biochar opportunities are particularly variable, which demands additional analysis on the environmental, social, and economic impacts of long-term applications before widely implementing this material. For example, according to the Biochar Report released in February 2021, Biochar should be made out of waste materials for it to be truly sustainable. If, in the future, entire crops are reserved for Biochar production, this could lead to supply competition for land use, potentially leading to deforestation and considerable impact on biodiversity.
On the other hand, Biochar filters used for filtering water are usually made of local agricultural waste, which often contain high levels of ash and oily compounds. This can subsequently result in less-efficient filtration when compared to commercial activated carbon filters (ACs) that employ coal instead of Biochar, and normally pass through a previous step that separates unwanted materials. Also, if the biomass employed to create Biochar is contaminated, such as polluted plant matter, it could introduce toxins into the soil when used as feedstock, thus generating unbalanced pH levels of plants.
2. Algae Biofuel: Fueling Nature and Society
- applicationAlgae BiofuelapplicationAlgae Biofuel
A nearly carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels. Algaculture produces minimal impact on freshwater resources and holds higher biofuel yields. It can be used in the creation of a wide range of fuels, including ethanol and biodiesel.
Why Does it Matter?
It is becoming increasingly urgent to find renewable and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. As biofuels production is gaining traction, plant-based fuels such as Algae could substitute petroleum as a source of energy.
The most prominent positive feature of algae biofuels is that it consumes CO2 instead of emitting. In other words, through photosynthesis, algae can extract CO2 from the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen, thus reducing pollution and improving air quality altogether. In addition, algae is very competitive due to its high growth rates and does not require arable land for its production, as it can be manufactured indoors.
Even if promising, algae biofuel production costs are considerably high. However, research is being conducted, offering solutions to this matter. Currently, producing Algae Biofuel demands the extraction of lipid oil, essential for transforming the carbohydrate contained in algae into biofuel. However, the extraction of lipid oil is costly and energy-consuming, which restrains Algae Biofuel adoption. Solutions to this matter nowadays range from making lipid oil extraction faster by using a mixing reactor that jets the algae with a bio solvent, rapidly diluting the lipids with its generated turbulence.
Also, tests with genetically modified algae are being conducted, in which the concentration of lipids is 50 percent higher. Although it would make the process more energy-efficient, there are concerns over the risk of putting into motion new algae species that would overpopulate natural biomes.
3. CO2 Extractor Array: Towering the Next Level of CO2 Neutrality
- applicationCO2 Extractor ArrayapplicationCO2 Extractor Array
Huge array fans able to extract CO2 directly from the atmosphere. It can decarbonize the environment while producing synthetic fuel to supply ships, planes, and vehicles.
Why Does it Matter?
By extracting CO2 directly from the air through giant arrays of fans, these structures could, besides decarbonizing the atmosphere, also synthesize a carbon-neutral synthetic fuel (similar to gasoline and diesel).
This technology could help achieve the goal of negative emissions by removing and storing CO2 while meeting long-term climate targets by capturing emissions from major industries, such as refineries and steel mills, where the volume of carbon produced is considerably high. For example, a future scenario would be placing a massive wall of extractor fans on the outskirts of cities to extract the CO2 emitted.
However, achieving the goal of removing significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere requires overcoming social challenges and changing political policies, not only investing in the development of emerging technologies. If society decides to rely only on technological solutions, it could bring significant risk to the implementation of stringent and politically challenging policies. These technologies, such as CO2 Extractor Arrays, must work together with regulations to assist authorities in creating policies that require, for example, existing carbon-intensive activities to repurpose the air pollutant gas they emit.
4. Blockchain Carbon Credit: Rewarding Green Practices
- applicationBlockchain Carbon CreditapplicationBlockchain Carbon Credit
Carbon credits tokenized in the blockchain which are able to create economic incentives to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
Why Does it Matter?
This emission reduction protocol provides a positive economic and social reward for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It creates an economic benefit, capital, and demand for emissions reduction opportunities and, ultimately, incentivizes change in both individual and group behavior. By taking advantage of the integrity and accountability that blockchain provides, the carbon trading market would make their carbon data emissions traceable and reliable.
Low-carbon projects that reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, for instance, could receive carbon credits to be used as revenue for reducing carbon emissions or for sequestering carbon. Conversely, companies that produce greenhouse gases could buy carbon credits to offset their emissions instead of actually working at reducing their carbon footprint.
By creating a financial pathway for incentivizing emissions reductions, it would stimulate the creation of proactive investment into climate projects, technologies, and policies. New peer-to-peer and business-to-consumer marketplaces would emerge, making it easier for everyone to participate in these new carbon markets. Also, this blockchain protocol could open up existing carbon markets and create a broader range of players, including smaller businesses and individuals. The public and transparent nature of the information could encourage international collaboration and strengthen trust in the system.
Ultimately, this solution could focus on, instead of credits being purchased by the carbon-emitting industry, but on retail integration and attaching carbon credits to everyday purchases. Blockchain technology could not only lower the barrier of entry but also allow carbon credits to be broken down into per product or per transaction quantities.
5. Anti-pollution Moss Culture: Extracting CO2 Naturally
- applicationAnti-pollution Moss CultureapplicationAnti-pollution Moss Culture
Self-sustaining walls, covered with thousands of moss units, able to purify the air and naturally reduce the temperature and moisture of outdoor environments.
Why Does it Matter?
Due to moss's capability of stabilizing and maintaining moisture levels, these systems could provide cities with practical ways to fight today's rising temperatures, a product of intensive fossil-fuel emissions and high concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. These solutions could be scaled down to be installed indoors, such as in schools and hospitals. As moss can remove dirt, it could even provide a dirt-reducing effect, mitigating the need for intensive cleaning.
Also, moss can remove ozone gases from the air and feed on pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx), digesting them within 24 hours. By creating autonomous walls with colossal surface areas made up of thousands of palm-sized moss units, its air purification capacity is said to reach that of about 250 trees.
In the future, we can foresee these structures blending with urban landscapes seamlessly, even applied to housing covered with moss. The human living space could be more intertwined with plants and organized according to climatic zones, thus reframing traditional living mindsets.