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Tuesday
Nov222011

TOMORROW’S PLANET: TOP 3 TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS

This week on Into the Wild we are looking to the future: investigating inventions designed to help problems associated with the modern world. Today we present our top three technological innovations, intended to help combat a variety of issues mainly related to population increase. These groundbreaking creations could be the answer to water shortages, energy consumption, air pollution and much more…

1) SPACE-BASED SOLAR POWER

The invention: Space-based solar power (SBSP) is the concept of collecting solar power from space for use on Earth. The energy would be collected using solar cells, situated on a satellite orbiting the Earth’s surface. Photovoltaic conversion converts photons to electrical power, which would be transmitted to Earth via wireless power transmission. Microwave antenna on Earth would then receive the frequencies of microwave or laser radiation, for use as a renewable energy source.

The problem: With world energy consumption growing by approximately 2.3% every year, renewable energy resources are in high demand. The burning of fossil fuels produces 21.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, making a significant contribution to global warming. Solar energy presents a safe and renewable alternative.

Advantages:

  • A satellite in space would be unobstructed by weather or atmospheric gases, resulting in a collection rate of sunlight approximately 144% greater than is possible on the Earth’s surface.
  • Orbiting satellites can be exposed to sunlight for 24 hours per day, whereas solar panels on Earth can collect radiation for 12 hours per day at the most.
  • The satellite could transmit energy on demand to areas on the Earth’s surface that need it the most.

Disadvantages:

  • The space environment is hostile and space debris would be a major hazard. It is estimated satellites would be 10 times more vulnerable to damage compared to panels on Earth, and system lifetime is estimated as one decade.
  • Loss of energy between the satellite and the receiver on Earth would be huge: it is estimated only half the generated power would be delivered. This loss is comparable to the losses associated with fossil fuel plants.

The idea: The concept was first introduced by Dr. Peter Glaser in 1968. His idea was later patented, before NASA began extensive research on the solar power satellite in 1978. Research continues to this day, with a notable achievement occurring in 1994: the United States Air Force launched a satellite into orbit using the Pegasus rocket, in order to test photovoltaic conversion. Similar SBSP development has occurred in Japan. Additionally, the National Space Society has recently published a paper The First International Assessment of Space Solar Power: Opportunities, Issues and Potential Pathways Forward.

Photo courtesy of NASA

2) SEAWATER DESALINATION

The invention: Desalination refers to the process by which salt and other minerals are removed from seawater, in order to make it suitable for irrigation or human consumption. Vacuum distillation is typically used, in which water is boiled at a pressure level less than atmospheric pressure. This means the water is boiled at a lower temperature than usual, and less energy is required. The water is then purified using multi-stage flash distillation.

The problem: The world’s supply of fresh and safe water is running out: one in five people already have no access to safe drinking water, and our water usage is expected to increase by 40% in the next two decades. The oceans cover approximately two thirds of the Earth’s surface, meaning desalination presents a potential solution to the water crisis.

Advantages:

  • Once the infrastructure is in place, desalination is very cost effective: desalinating 1,000 gallons of water costs approximately £2, whereas the same amount of bottled water costs around £5,000.
  • Desalination is not dependent on rainfall, meaning the process is unaffected by drought and does not require dams to provide water.
  • Rivers and groundwater supplies are gradually being depleted: desalination presents a new source of water which could be life-changing to developing countries.

Disadvantages:

  • Desalination requires specialised and expensive equipment, making it less cost effective than sourcing fresh water from rivers or groundwater supplies.
  • The desalination process requires large amounts of energy: this is typically sourced from fossil fuel plants, which release chemicals that contribute to air pollution and global warming.

The idea: The world’s largest desalination plant is the Jebel Ali Plant in the United Arab Emirates, with comparable plants also located in Tampa Bay, Florida and Chennai, India. There are a total of 14,451 operating desalination plants worldwide, producing an average of 59.9 million cubic metres per day. The only plant in the United Kingdom is located in the British Isle of Jersey, which first opened in 1970 and was renovated in 1998.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Mitchell

3) POLLUTION-NEUTRALISING CEMENT

The invention: TX Active is the name given to cement enhanced with titanium dioxide, which has the ability to neutralise some harmful pollutants under the right conditions. When exposed to sunlight or ultraviolet light, the chemical composition oxidises pollutants that come into contact with the surface of the cement. In this way, damaging nitrogen and sulphur oxides are converted to harmless nitrates and sulphates.

The problem:
Urban air quality was listed as one of the world’s worst pollution problems in the 2008 Blacksmith Institute’s report. Air pollution is caused by the release of chemicals into the atmosphere; it can harm humans or other living organisms, and cause damage to ecosystems and the natural environment.

Advantages:

  • The addition of titanium dioxide to cement is an easy and relatively cheap way to help combat pollution problems in cities and urban areas.
  • TX Active claims to reduce pollution by nitric oxides by up to 60%.

Disadvantages:

  • The benefits of TX Active should not be mistaken for a cure to air pollution.

The idea: TX Active was developed by the Italian company Italcementi. When working on the Jubilee Church in Rome, Italcementi added titanium dioxide to their cement mixture, commonly used to brighten and whiten paint. It was only afterwards they noticed the additional benefits of the chemical. Recently, Essroc Cement Corporation in the United States has begun production of TX Active.

Also worth checking out: how vehicle automation could cut fuel consumption, and a cheap microchip designed to monitor HIV.

By Denise Bartlett

References (2)

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    Response: Brian Poe
    Gap Year Blog - Into the Wild - TOMORROW’S PLANET: TOP 3 TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS
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