In a cross-continental effort led by MIT and the University of California Berkley, researchers are taking advantage of the properties of Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) which have phenomenally large pores and a strong affinity for water. It’s actually quite amazing: one MOF crystal the size of a sugar cube has an internal area approximately the size of an American football field. By using these MOFs, the initiative forgoes the usual way of removing water from air (like your home dehumidifier) which takes lots of energy. The places that need this water (where billions of people suffer from the lack thereof) require a lot of electricity – something those same people also don’t have. These systems can be powered by the sun.
Projects to implement this technology are already taking place. A startup in Scottsdale, Arizona called Zero Mass Water has already started selling a system which, with one solar panel can produce 2 to 5 liters a day. The company has even shipped such systems to Lebanon to provide water to Syrian refugees.
Fuel From An Artificial Leaf
Researchers at Harvard University, in partnership with commercial interests, have actually exceeded the efficiency of a leaf in converting energy from the sun to create glucose. The researchers, Daniel Nocera and Pamela Silver, paired the technology with microbes specifically engineered to produce multiple types of fuels, even with low CO2 concentrations. Now, Nocera and his team are working on a new idea that allows the bacteria to produce nitrogen-based fertilizer into the soil. This bacterium can actually form a biological plastic which can serve as its own fuel supply – a closed system which would not contribute to the greenhouse effect. Reminiscent of scenes from the movie Sleeper, this technique has yielded radishes that weigh 150% more than a control group. So this is about more than fuel – it could assist in the capabilities of farming.
Continuing the farming theme, this initiative focuses on combining the technologies of drones, big data analytics, sensors, improved seed development, and advanced software to produce healthier crops with increased yields for a world that has increasing need for food. Who’s involved? Lots of stakeholders and concerns, small startups, government, and companies such as John Deere, Dow, and DuPont. However, in another example of how this set of technologies brings other technologies into play, this combination of technologies requires movement of vast amounts of information – which in turn means an increased demand for broadband.
Hydrogen Cars For The Masses
Want a hydrogen-fueled car? It’s possible. All you need is $57,500 and that will buy you a Toyota Mirai. But projects galore – at the moment research projects – are aimed at removing the most expensive part of a hydrogen fuel-cell: the catalyst. Many fuel cells today use platinum. Palladium, one substitute, doesn’t perform quite as well and is still fairly expensive. So the researchers are looking for radically different catalysts, made from more readily-available materials, such as copper or nickel. Even more radically, researchers such as Liming Dai at Case Western University, are working on a catalyst that uses no metal at all, and instead uses nitrogen and phosphorous-doped carbon foam. Working together with manufacturers, the goal is to create inexpensive fuel-cells that power vehicles with no emissions, and also produce zero emissions during their production in quantity.
While building a green house is an admirable goal, this emerging technology is about building blocks of homes in such a way as to be even more effective and efficient. An example is the Oakland EcoBlock project. Near the Golden Gate Bridge, this collection of about 35 contiguous older homes will have existing sustainability technology applied – but there will be additional program advantages at the community level – such as a smart microgrid and shared electric vehicles. Other innovations involve the use of community water, reducing the demand of this block by up to 70%. But perhaps of the most interest to project managers is the collaborative nature of the program, a multidisciplinary effort involving urban designers, engineers, social scientists, policy experts, governments, and academics.
Sitting on top of a waste incineration facility near Zurich, a new carbon capture plant is now sucking CO2 out of the air to sell to its first customer. The plant, which opened on May 31, is the first commercial enterprise of its kind. By midcentury, the startup behind it–Climeworks–believes we will need hundreds of thousands more.
To have a chance of keeping the global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius, the limit set by the Paris agreement, it’s likely that shifting to a low-carbon economy won’t be enough.
“We really only have less than 20 years left at current emission rates to have a good chance of limiting emissions to less than 2°C,” says Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and coauthor of a recent paper discussing carbon removal. “So it’s a big challenge to do it simply by decreasing emissions from energy, transportation, and agriculture.” Removing carbon–whether through planting more forests or more advanced technology like direct carbon capture–will probably also be necessary to reach the goal.
At the new Swiss plant, three stacked shipping containers each hold six of Climeworks’ CO2 collectors. Small fans pull air into the collectors, where a sponge-like filter soaks up carbon dioxide. It takes two or three hours to fully saturate a filter, and then the process reverses: The box closes, and the collector is heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which releases the CO2 in a pure form that can be sold, made into other products, or buried underground.