In an uncertain future, these technologies can be a force for progress. Of course, number one could also spell our doom.
The planet is in jeopardy. Humans are both causing and contending with deforestation, ocean acidification, and climbing temperatures, to name a few of our less-than-benign legacies.
The facts are complex but the trends aren’t easily disputed. And yet, the topic of global peril is an ire-raising one these days, liable as not to put a reader into a defensive crouch. Perhaps it’s because we’re thrummed over the head with the worst of it all and rarely allowed to revel in solutions.
Less controversial, therefore, maybe the idea that technology has a role to play in making our planet a more comfortable and sustainable place for humans to continue plodding along. Living up to the lofty title of this piece with a definitive list of 10 technologies that will help our planet survive is probably a losing proposition. You’re likely as not to take issue with some aspect of this list. That’s OK. It’s what the comments section is for; I’d love to hear from you.
It’s also worth noting that some of these technologies come with risks of their own. In fact, our number one best bet to help our planet could also spell doom for our species.
But, as I look at the threat landscape, as well as the tools under development to help, some optimism can’t help but creep in. Here are my picks for 10 technologies most likely to help save the Earth.
10. SOLAR GLASS
What if every window in a skyscraper could generate energy? That’s the promise of solar glass, an emerging technology that’s getting a lot of buzz in design and sustainability circles. Just like it sounds, solar glass is suitably transparent window material but also captures the sun’s energy and converts it into electricity.
The big hurdle has been efficiency. High-performance solar cells can achieve 25% efficiency or greater, but maintaining transparency means sacrificing the efficiency with which light is converted into electricity. But a University of Michigan team is developing a solar glass product that offers 15% efficiency and climbing while letting a full 50% of light pass through. According to projections from nearby Michigan State, 5 to 7 billion square meters of usable window space exists, enough to power a full 40% of US energy needs with a solar glass product.
Stronger than steel, thinner than paper, more conductive than copper, graphene is truly a miracle material—and until recently a completely theoretical one. Graphene is an ultra-thin layer of graphite that was first discovered in 2004 at the University of Manchester. It is now the subject of intense research and speculation, with many predicting it will be next in line after bronze, iron, steel, and silicon in promulgating the cultural and technological evolution of our species.
A mere one-atom thick, graphene is flexible, transparent, and highly conductive, making it suitable to a huge range of planet-healing applications. These include water filtration, superconductors capable of transferring energy across vast distances with minimal loss, and photovoltaic uses, to name a few. By vastly increasing efficiencies over current materials, graphene may prove to be a cornerstone in our green rebirth.
8. PLANT-BASED PLASTIC
We have to put an end to single-use plastics. Initiatives are already underway across the U.S. to ban or severely limit their use. Where I live, in LA, plastic straws are only given out upon request and single-use plastic bags have disappeared from grocery stores. But the problem is deep-rooted and deeply ingrained in our consumption economy. I live near the ocean, and the quantity of plastic debris that’s visible on an average day is devastating.