How Can Technology Help the Environment?

Like many people I’ve often wondered about technology that might help the environment. My motivation is a strong belief that science will one day help undo the environmental problems caused by human activity. What follows is a small selection of ideas that show some promise with regard to saving the planet.

How Technology can Help Protect our Forests

Robots in the Trees

How can technology help the environment

High up in the forest canopy, where 90% of the interaction between the atmosphere and the forest occurs a robot aptly named Treebot does its daily rounds. Its job, to monitor the subtle changes in light, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels crucial to detecting environmental change. As the solar powered robot moves along specially designed cables it takes measurements to determine the interaction between the atmosphere and the forest environment.

Treebot, is the first of its kind to combine networked sensors, a wireless net link and a webcam. The data it collects allows scientists to make predictions about how climate change is likely to effect the forest’s future.

This little robot might provide some key answers to the problems caused by environmental change.

Radar Remote Sensing

Technology in action - Radar Remote Sensing
It is not an easy task monitoring the rate of deforestation. The data provided by conventional satellites is wrought with errors because forest destruction is often hidden by cloud cover typically associated with tropical regions.

This is not good for policymakers who have placed their faith in REDD, a mechanism for rewarding those countries that reduce emissions by cutting back on deforestation.

But then along came radar remote sensing, a radar technology capable of penetrating cloud cover. Accurate measurement of forest degradation should ensure financial compensation reaches the right places. Let’s hope that the incentive for cutting down trees is not greater than leaving them alone.


How Ocean Technology will Help the Environment

The sea covers seven tenths of the globe. It would seem only natural that some of the answers to global warming be found in our oceans.  Here are a couple of ideas that show great promise

The Technology of Underwater Turbines

 

In the USA it has been estimated that the full scale installation of underwater (mainly rivers) "wind style axial" turbines will generate half the energy currently generated by dams. Imagine how much energy there is waiting to be harnessed in our oceans - the gulf stream comes to mind!

In the UK, a team of engineers have developed a new type of turbine called THAWT (Transverse Horizontal Axis Water Turbine) that is mechanically much simpler than axial flow devices. This is important because the likelihood of barnacles etc preventing operation is significantly reduced. The design of THAWT has resulted in a device that can be extended to exploit the largest possible area of ocean current. It can also be scaled regardless of how deep the water is. Interestingly, the device is capable of handling water flow in both directions making it ideally suited to tidal movement.

If THAWT devices were extended over the same area as axial flow devices they would require less generators, less primary seals and less foundations resulting in a very cost effective solution to our future renewable energy requirements.

Iron In the Sea

Originally pioneered by oceanographer John Martin in the late 80s, iron fertilization of the ocean was surrounded by controversy. The idea of dumping large amounts of iron into the sea to halt the progression of global warming was not received well by environmentalists and policymakers. Today, with the problem of global warming reaching critical levels the concept is receiving growing support. But how does iron fertilization work?

When the ocean is spiked with iron the tiny class of organisms called phytoplankton thrive. Living at the bottom of the food chain, phytoplankton are mostly consumed by other species. What is significant is the fact that these little organisms suck up CO2 and then store it in their tissues - a great way of reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere.

It is interesting to note that the same effect produced by iron fertilization happens naturally. The desert sands of the Sahara are rich in iron. Constant winds and sand storms ensure the Atlantic is regularly provided with its fair share of fertilization.


The Technology of Desert Reclamation

Deserts take up about one third of the earth’s total land surface. It is not hard to see why reclamation of this land could possibly undo some of the damage done by deforestation and other human activities. For instance, the massive tree planting projects designed to stop deserts drifting and stabilize the environment might in their own small way, help with the global warming problem.

The problem with such large projects is of course the amount of water needed for irrigation. A number of technological developments have made it possible to use less water to achieve the same ends - a significant step in the right direction considering the world’s shortage of fresh water!

Controlled use of cloud seeding, a technology where certain chemicals are shot into cloud formations allow rainfall to be targeted at specific regions. If we can direct the rainfall where it’s needed then less water is required from other sources.

The over cultivation of land without nourishment is partly responsible for it turning into desert. Some hi-tech fertilizers have been developed to retain water and stop it escaping into the sand below.

Dripline irrigation technology developed in Israel allows water to be delivered right to where it’s needed. The pressurised system consisting of several main pipes and hundreds of drip lines maintains consistent water pressure and volume no matter the terrain. The city of Korla in China has successfully used the system to grow more than 3,000 hectares of trees with a 75% saving of water.


Home Energy Power Systems

DIY Solar Panels
Technological advances have made it increasingly worthwhile to install home based energy systems. DIY Solar and wind power systems have become so cheap that payback can be seen in as little as a year. Even areas where these types of technology were previously inefficient are suitable considering the latest technological developments. A case in point might be Denmark where even though there is little sunshine there has been a large uptake of solar technology.

One technology gaining ground is that of the geothermal heat pump - not least because it doesn’t rely on prevailing weather conditions.  Regardless of the Earth’s surface, the temperature a few hundred feet under ground remains pretty constant at about 60 degrees. That warmer environment is key to providing a renewable source of energy that has little impact on the natural environment. The technology involves drilling deep holes (200 to 300 feet deep) and inserting U-shaped earth-heat exchange tubes which are then connected to a primary heat exchanger inside the property. The system can be used in the winter to heat a property and in the summer for air conditioning.

Another renewable home power source can be found in BIO-fuels. Manufactured and safer for the environment, BIO-fuels can be created for less cost than fossil fuels.

What Will We Do With Our Trash?

Out of all the technologies discussed so far I am most impressed by the technology known as Plasma Gasification.

Inside a sealed container a high voltage current is passed between two electrodes to convert gas into plasma. Current is passed through the plasma creating a field of intense energy not unlike lightning. This energy is so powerful it can reduce trash to its basic molecular structure. It doesn’t combust waste as incinerators do so the environmental impact is minimal. The only by-products are a glass like substance which can be used to make bathroom tiles and a synthesis gas that can be converted into different types of fuel.

One of the most amazing things about this technology is its sustainability. After using power from the grid to get the process started the high temperature synthesis gas is fed into a cooling system where steam is generated to drive turbines. About two thirds of the energy is required to run the system; the rest can be used for local heating or sold back to the grid.

It has been estimated that a city with an average tipping fee can recover the costs of a $250 million system within about 10 years. There may be a day when cities actually make money from garbage.

How Does Science and Technology Harm the Environment?

As with all technological advances there are always some drawbacks. Consider the planting of trees to prevent deserts drifting. If the sand and dust from the Sahara never reached the Atlantic it might effect marine life in unexpected ways. Then there is the idea of cloud seeding. Rainfall targeted at one place might cause a lack of water in another - leading to disputes between neighbouring regions or even countries. Also, the long term effects of iron fertilization are unknown. Not all phytoplankton are gobbled up by other marine life. A huge amount sinks to the bottom of the ocean creating a massive store of CO2. When it is finally released what would be the consequences? The fact is, we just don’t know. Sometimes we just have to make a decision. After all, any decision is better than no decision and at least we learn something in the process!

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4 Responses to “How Can Technology Help the Environment?”


  1. 1Don

    You state that a Plasma Gasification Plant will use about 75% of the power that it produces.
    Plasco’s plant in Ottawa uses only 20% of the power it produces the [planed plant in St. Lucie FL. will use about 25% of the power it will produce.

  2. 2admin

    Hi,
    I stated 66% but those figures just come from articles I read. I guess the most important thing is getting rid of all that
    waste without too much impact on the environment. All the best.
    Stuart

  3. Incredible writing. will definitely come back again soon:D

  4. 4admin

    Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it. All the best.

    Stuart

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