Prioritizing the Planet: Developing Technology with Sustainability in Mind

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Wind farm

Technology is often associated with optimizing processes or amping up analytics, but many new developments are also designed to support environmental initiatives. Sustainability-focused innovations can provide insights into environmental impacts, allow precise control to minimize pollution and improve energy efficiency, offer new fuel sources, and alter our view of product sourcing.

Developing New Fuel Sources

Embracing energy alternatives to reduce our fossil fuel dependence is a major goal of technology for sustainability. Engineering students at New York University have designed a reactor that relies on solar energy and plant waste to support sustainable chemical manufacturing. Their technology, which aims to help the chemical industry decrease carbon emissions, is already in use converting acrylonitrile (AN) into adiponitrile (ADN) to make sustainable Nylon.

Australian researchers have developed a new technique to convert carbon dioxide back into carbon at room temperature. The process was described as a “crucial first step in delivering solid storage of carbon.” German economists, meanwhile, support the commercial viability of “environmentally friendly power-to-gas technology.” Even E. coli - yes, the life-threatening bacteria - is being genetically engineered to help expand biodiesel production.

Harnessing Machines for Precision Control

Machine learning (ML) algorithms have made a noticeable difference in energy consumption and production. DeepMind and Google, for example, apply ML to 700 megawatts of wind power capacity in the central United States. The wind farms’ production can be optimized based on ML predictions based on weather forecasts and historical data. This technological innovation, according to DeepMind, has helped boost “the value of our wind energy by roughly 20%, compared to the baseline scenario of no time-based commitments to the grid.”

Remote management is another technology helping businesses to cut labor costs and improve compliance consistency. With cloud-based control of irrigation systems spread out over multiple geographically-distributed properties, a business can better manage watering schedules based on recent and future weather conditions as well as historical trends and sustainability planning.

Reducing Environmental Impacts

Ridding the environment of extra plastics is another focal point. In Sweden, researchers have developed technology to aid wastewater plants in breaking down microplastics in the water streams; this could turn the rampant materials into harmless elements.

While we’re considering water, think of the environmental cost of a seemingly minor water leak; not only does it have compounding impacts on water conservation, but it leads to wasted operating expense. New leak detection technology and sensor systems are one way to save costs and reduce the waste of a valuable resource. In Los Angeles, the police department installed leak detection monitoring on 14 of its car washes and estimated it got a full return on its investment in just a few months.

With smart water technology and hydraulics management to optimize efficiency, an industrial business can also effectively reduce its total watering times (to meet state-mandated water restrictions) while using less water overall. 

Getting Creative with Eco-Friendly Sourcing

Sourcing water from the air is another technological innovation in the works. At the University of Texas at Austin, engineers have developed a solar-powered technology to absorb moisture from the air and return it as clean, safe drinking water. Whether in a humid or dry environment, the researchers’ hydrogels collect the water and release it when heat is applied.

Finally, a team at Pennsylvania State University has discovered a squid protein that “could revolutionize materials in a way that would be unattainable with conventional plastic.” The protein, found in squid ring teeth (“circular predatory appendages located on the suction cups of squid, used to strongly grasp prey,” according to the official documentation) can be processed into biodegradable, sustainable films and fibers.

Image Credit: Space-kraft

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