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Technology will aid human adaptation to environmental change

Each year, we have seen increasing frequency of severe natural disasters, higher average temperatures, and increased flooding events. We know the environment around us is changing at an unprecedented rate, causing the need for humans to adapt to a more unpredictable future climate.

As the climate changes, humans have started to innovate and prepare for the future. We see companies accessing the growth in big data and processing power to make better future predictions. As technology continues to evolve, we see better materials and inputs for renewable energy and battery storage that will radically transform our electrical grid. Finally, we see the immense strides in robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and biological research used to tackle our plastics and recycling challenges. With these technological solutions on the horizon, we have hope for a sustainable future.

The rate of change currently happening poses a threat to many industries that rely on historic data to inform decision-making like investing, agriculture, real estate, insurance, and city planning. When future risks are expected to be more volatile than the past, how can a firm adequately assess and prepare for a future that will not fit with historical data patterns?

Rapid developments in supercomputing give a broader range of industries the ability to pull multiple data sources for better predictive analytics than the traditional methods typically used by banks and insurance agencies.

In the past, models predicted flooding from coastal hurricanes by storm power and coastline shape, not taking into account more localized features like lack of vegetation in certain areas or even overall duration of storms. This lack of on-the-ground detailed data led to a substantial underestimation of large hurricanes in recent years. However, without the necessary computing power to analyze increasing amounts of data that level of predictive analytics was out of reach.

Supercomputing now allows individual cities and towns the ability to see how storms of varying sizes could impact local flooding, so they can prepare their infrastructure for the future of powerful storms. This is where new companies like Jupiter Intelligence have started preparing for the future by providing catastrophic risk modeling for municipalities. Using machine learning, their dynamic models are always learning and improving as data continually adds to the system. With the ability to lean on additional data sources, more accurate prediction models may help companies and cities prepare their economic viability for the future.

Recent innovations in renewable energy source extraction and storage will lead us in adapting to our changing atmosphere and climate.

Adoption of solar power has grown over the years along with critical arguments against its proposed environmental impact. However, recent breakthroughs in the technology create a stronger case for solar energy, as cost has dropped and it has finally reached “grid parity” of coal and natural gas. As the market for solar grows, new compound materials offer lightweight, thin film alternatives to silicon-based Photovoltaic (PV) cells. The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has conducted researching showing that compounds like cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenium, and the rock family of perovskite provide thin films that can generate electricity from light. A new study on perovskite solar shows that caffeine holds a promising solution to stabilize the compounds of these crystalline structures that are notoriously susceptible to degradation from air, moisture, and oxygen. For long-term use, the lone electron pairs of caffeine bound to the lead found in perovskite, providing increased stability of the molecules. The caffeinated panel has logged thousands of hours in run-time and an increase in panel efficiency. These discoveries should lead to more scalable, lightweight solar solutions.

Toyota is already testing out solar power embedded in a new Prius model to extend the range of electric vehicles. The hope is that lighter and cheaper solar options will promote the technology in new applications that were not previously economically possible. For the foreseeable future, renewable energy will require the use  of lithium-ion batteries and there might finally be a domestic availability of lithium for battery manufacturing. EnergySource has developed a plant in California harnessing lithium from geothermal energy production facilities along the Salton Sea. The promise of combining lithium extraction with geothermal energy production offers a more lucrative solution for long-term sustainability of geothermal infrastructure. The process also does not affect the Salton Sea itself, as they extract the brine solution from an underground reservoir and return it after the energy harnessing process. As renewable technology advances, we will benefit from a variety of new efficiencies in energy solutions.

 

Traditional waste companies like Waste Management and new robotics companies are tackling the sorting process in recycling plants to make it more efficient and profitable. This step in the process is notoriously difficult to staff, so robotics are a logical answer if speed and accuracy can be established with the high rate of contamination present in US recycling streams. Using AI driven robots with grippers, sensors, and cameras helps algorithms learn to identify visual patterns of recyclable goods. However, robots would need to double or triple the rate of manual selection to justify the initial investment.

While some are optimistic that robotics and AI will solve our recycling dilemma, other solutions are being developed.

Researchers at NREL developed a new biological enzyme that can eat through plastics, breaking them down into new input compounds instead of just providing smaller versions of plastic that are currently recycled into lower quality plastic materials. The main dilemma is that these enzymes take too long to break down plastic, not allowing for efficient industrial use on the scale necessary to combat current waste.

Recently, the research project recruited new scientists from Montana State University to study extremophiles, bacterium that exist in the boiling pools of Yellowstone, in hopes of evolving a mutation in the enzymes that would supercharge its capability with the addition of high heat. It has produced promising results thus far, but the research project is only just beginning. If the enzyme is pushed to mutate into a form that eats through plastic at higher rates with the addition of heat, industrial waste management facilities could breakdown plastic into smaller compounds that could then provide an additional revenue stream. We will likely need to use a combination of these solutions to address the growing waste problem with a continually expanding global population.

As the climate around us changes, we will need to adapt quickly to support the growing human population around the globe.

By harnessing innovation in technology and big data, we can adequately provide renewable energy sources, tackle our waste issues, and properly prepare our infrastructure and emergency planning for a rapidly changing world. With new developments happening more quickly, we are poised to see an explosion of growth in industries that may change the way we live and consume.