There’s good and bad news. Let’s start with the latter. As everyone knows—at least, those who are sane—there’s this thing called global warming. Earth is rapidly becoming uninhabitable, with polar ice caps melting and sea levels rising, and more frequent wildfires and hurricanes. This is bad news. Very bad news.
But the good news, though not really comparable in magnitude as, you know, our planet dying, is that there are people building things that could help fight climate change. So while it is easy to view our future as a dystopian hell world with rising sea levels, dead agricultural crops, and a massive die-off of the human species— The Debrief has decided to provide a nice little list of how some people are working to save our asses. So, here we go.
The Top 4 Ways Humanity Can Be Saved from Global Warming:
China’s Artificial Star
A non-negotiable way of fighting climate change is switching to renewable energy. Solar energy is one thing, but what if we can generate energy comparable to that of the Sun itself? Instead of using our Sun as a source of energy, scientists are wondering if it’s possible to create the Sun itself.
That line of research has led to the birth of an artificial star. In the hopes of finding a better way to fuel the Earth, China is betting on one of its own inventions: EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak).
Harnessing the power of nuclear fusion, EAST burns at temperatures eight times hotter than the Sun. And it’s sustainable, too! Nuclear fusion reactors not only produce an extreme abundance of energy, but it also generates (practically) zero waste and is safe to use, despite having the word “nuclear” in its title.
So how does this artificial star do all this?
When particles of hydrogen nuclei collide, they fuse to form helium nuclei. The resulting helium atom is lighter than the two hydrogen ones, and since energy is conserved, the lost mass of the collision results in the creation of pure energy.
To get enough of these hydrogen nuclei particles to collide, they need to be sped up via heat. This is basically what is going on in the Sun, and it’s the same process that is replicated in the artificial star. It’s nuclear fusion.
The problem scientists have previously faced with nuclear fusion is not blowing things up. But in the 1950s, Russian scientists discovered a way around that unfortunate side-effect. Nuclear fusion can happen safely when it’s in a donut-shaped chamber filled with magnets—a Tokamak.
So really, China’s artificial star is more of a hot nuclear donut.
EAST isn’t anywhere close to producing enough energy for consumers yet. Scientists behind the project are still focused on the goal of keeping the temperature stable for a long time, but so far, it’s looking like a positive step towards solving the energy crisis.
We’ve established that we need clean energy if we’re to fight climate change, but we also need clean water. An algae photobioreactor can help us get both.
NASA invented a new method to grow algae, clean wastewater, and capture carbon dioxide to produce biofuel.
A photobioreactor uses a light source to cultivate microorganisms. These microorganisms then generate biomass from light and carbon dioxide. NASA’s photobioreactors in particular have semi-permeable membranes which utilize osmosis to clean the water as well.
Algae-derived fuel is an emerging practice in the field of renewable energy, with similar projects coming out of Scotland-based BioEconomy (ENBIO). ENBIO’s photobioreactor uses LED technology to produce microalgae and has cultivation systems that allow for integration with local renewable energy grids.
“Since microalgae are grown using only light, CO2, and nutrients, the use of algae-based fuel could limit the impact on the environment,” said ENBIO business development officer Carole Shellcock.
While NASA and ENBIO have pushed for algae in discussions on biofuel, algae-derived fuel isn’t going to be the kind of showstopper-energy-producer that China’s EAST plans to be. Instead, algae proves to be a hub of innovation in the realm of biofuel, with more projects using the organism to refine and re-invent.
Alternatives to lithium-ion batteries
What good is producing energy if there’s no sustainable way to store it?
A central reason why renewable energy has yet to catch up with the petrochemical industry is because of the challenges that come with producing, storing, and disposing of this energy form. Renewable energy is already difficult to store, but the whole dilemma is made even harder when factoring in how expensive it is to create energy storage tools, and how unsustainable it is.
Lithium-ion batteries are currently viewed as the go-to renewable energy storage solution, but they are costly to produce and dispose of. They also require sourcing raw materials—lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and graphite—a process which has led to dire ecological consequences, such as toxic black holes and ecological die-offs (like the flamingos in Chile!).
But there are innovators in search of technology that can dethrone the lithium-ion battery. Volt Storage is a new company looking to use its new vanadium redox flow storage technology. Volt Storage uses a vanadium-based liquid electrolyte, which flows through the battery cells in two separate circuits. The technology promises to be resource-saving and CO2-reducing.
Another company looking to put forth a new battery is Form Energy. With the invention of flow battery, a new type of sulfur-based battery, Form Energy promises to reform the electricity grid to run on low-cost, renewable energy.
Yet-Ming Chiang, Form Energy co-founder, said, “this battery literally inhales and exhales air, but it doesn’t exhale carbon dioxide, it exhales oxygen.”
In August, Form Energy announced that it raised $240 million in funding, with backing from investors like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Talk about an energized industry!
It’s long been understood that meat consumption is bad for the environment. Yet there’s no stopping us carnivores. The average American eats 274 pounds of meat per year, and that doesn’t include seafood. Meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. Safe to say, we should all be eating way less meat.
Targeting those who just can’t seem to give up meat, companies have started producing alternatives: laboratory-grown meat.
In the last decade, this field of cellular agriculture has raised $7 billion worth of investor and venture capital funding, with Bill Gates and SoftBank showing support. There are currently over 70 startups worldwide dedicated to the production of this alternative meat product. But what is this form of lab meat exactly, and how is it different from most of the vegan meats you can find at Whole Foods?
Cultured meat is meat created using animal stem cells. These cells are nurtured to grow into muscle cells or fat cells, then assembled to replicate the structure of meat itself. This method bypasses animal slaughter and cruelty and promises to have a smaller environmental footprint than traditional meat production.
The first time cultured meat was approved for sale was in December 2020. In Singapore, a private members club started serving chicken nuggets made by San Francisco-based Just Eat. Now companies have manufactured lab-grown Italian pork sausages and bluefin tuna.
While a report from consulting firm AT Kearney predicts that most meat in 2040 would not come from dead animals, and innovation in the field of cellular agriculture is rapidly growing, cultured meat is still a long way away from being a dinnertime staple. But at least it’s on its way.
Humanity still has a way to go to solve the climate crisis. However, if any of these ideas can become a mainstream change, there may be hope for us. Otherwise, we are all going to have to go ‘Mad Max’ for a few centuries…
Candy Chan is a journalist based in New York City. She recently graduated from Barnard College with a degree in History. Follow her reporting on her Twitter @candyschan.