How Is Technology Helping The Environment?


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Depending on which futurologist you choose to pluck your cards from our dear environment is either finished, going to finish or finished last Thursday, which is a bit like being finished.

But even the most miserable scientists believe it’s still better to give something a go and get a few more minutes paddling around in the new world ocean rather than sit in the corner with their hands over our ears shouting, There’s no such thing as global warming… There’s no such thing...

Take pre-eminent scientist, originator of the Gaia hypothesis and inventor of the microwave oven James Lovelock: “Climate change is happening and will shape the future world. It is unlikely that we will succeed in slowing the pace of change, mainly because we are too slow and unable to make effective responses in under 20 to 40 years. I think that our best course of action is to spend at least as much effort adapting to global heating as in attempts to slow or stop it happening.”

And with the developed world on the one hand declaring a new green love-in and on the other doing next to nothing to change the way it lives and works, adaptation may be the inevitable solution. Still some people think it’s worth trying to save the planet and technology appears to be its biggest hope. Here are some of the things that are either happening now
or will be soon:

The Fuel Cell

OK, let's start with a big one... The internal combustion engine changed the way we lived, so much so that now to keep on living we are having to think of ways to change the internal combustion engine. One big idea has been the battery-powered electric car, often extremely slow, ugly and unreliable.

But way back in the 1970s Canadian Geoffrey Ballard was thinking differently. Why not produce clean electricity from a hydrogen-powered fuel cell? In the fuel cell hydrogen would combine with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, heat and water. No carbon dioxide! Not only that, the fuel cell would be reversible. It could be made to produce hydrogen when supplied with electricity. If all the cars could somehow be plugged into a ‘national grid’, in car parks and garages for example, the cells could act as generators.

Like all great ideas the world has taken a long time to comprehend it. In recent years Dr Ballard could be found driving around car shows demonstrating his fuel-cell in a municipal bus. He was hailed as a ‘Hero of the Planet’ by Time Magazine and sadly died in 2008.

Carbon Scrubbing

Wouldn’t it be good if we could simply go about cleaning the atmosphere of all the nasty carbon dioxide and keep the nice fresh air to breathe? Mmm, well, actually this is what is currently being discussed in several environmental projects. It's called carbon scrubbing and comes in several forms, one of which involves ion exchange membranes used to trap the carbon dioxide much like a plastic sheet. One big question is what to do with the carbon once you’ve got it nice and clean. Put it in the ground? Make plastics out of it? The answer is unclear but if fully realised the technology could wipe tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere from different locations all over the world. The good or the bad side of scrubbing, depending on your viewpoint, is that it requires no behavioural or philosophical change. If the technology is cleaning dirty air, then you can keep making the air dirty.


Plankton may be small but they could have a very big role to play in saving the planet. Phytoplankton love nothing more than a bit of sunlight and carbon dioxide. So the more green stuff you can get growing in the sea the better for the environment. To do this scientists have been ‘seeding’ the world’s oceans with iron dust to stimulate the growth of plankton. More plankton in the sea equals less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When the plankton die they fall to the bottom of the ocean where the carbon remains trapped.

Exploding Stuff In The Sky


When a volcano explodes a huge amount of sulphur is released into the atmosphere. This becomes sulphur dioxide. Sulphur reflects sunlight extremely well and so the temperature of the atmosphere cools. Scientists put this volcanic research together with the need to make the world a safer place to live in and came up with the idea of shooting vast quantities of sulphur into the sky from a cannon!

Big problems concern acid rain and the terrifying prospect of a huge increase in temperature should the cloud cover suddenly disappear in one go.


Another exploding scheme comes in the plan create more clouds from water. Clouds are better reflectors than sea or land, so we should have more of them. That's the theory. How to do this remains the contentious issue. Do we shoot sea water into the sky? And if so how much and how often? And how does this then change the environment? How much more rain will be produced? There are more questions but I don’t have any answers. Sorry.

Making Changes At Home

Washing Machines

One of the biggest problems with washing machines is the amount of water they use. So scientists have developed one that doesn’t use any. Or very little anyway. Instead the machine utilises thousands of polarised nylon beads to stick to dirt and leave clothes dry. The machine uses 40 per cent less energy than a conventional washer.

Electrical Appliances

Did you know the amount of energy you waste by leaving your phone charger plugged into the wall is enough to power an aeroplane for an entire year? Well shame on you. But now, thanks to a new smart controller developed by a company in Australia, there is absolutely no excuse for leaving any electrical appliance in your house on. The controller works by linking all your devices together onto your mobile phone or laptop. When you leave the house you can simply switch everything off. Just don’t touch the fridge.

Fridges and Air Conditioners

And talking of fridges, if you’ve got one you are doing terrible, terrible things to the environment. Much better to eat out every night. No? Well how about a new white tub that uses a magnetic field to cool metal alloys down. The same technology is being used in air conditioners cutting energy use by 40 per cent.

Things To Do With The Sun

If you want to go renewable you need to think big. Cover the moon in solar panels, or the Sahara, or a place called Seville in the south of Spain. This final one is happening. The Gemasolar Power project is a 17-megawatt solar thermal energy farm using 2,500 heliostats or energy-focusing mirrors, spread over 185 hectares. The heliostats will focus solar thermal energy into a central tower to produce steam, which in turn will produce electricity. And the farm won’t stop working when the sun goes down. By using molten-salt technology to store heat the plant will be able to generate electricity for 15 hours a day. The solar thermal system can produce as much as three times the electricity of normal solar energy systems.


However, if Sci-Fi is more your thing then how about constructing a giant mirror between the Earth and the Sun. That's the idea of Roger Angel from the University of Arizona. He wants to launch some 16 trillion gossamer light-spacecraft into space and float them a kilometre apart to refract harmful light away from the globe. Should the planet need more light the mirror could be adjusted. Don't expect to see this soon, though. Unsurprisingly it is very, very, very expensive, will take about 30 years from launch date and in the wrong hands could be extremely dangerous.  

Pond Life

Plant life and microbes love the things we hate. So scientists are trying to encourage their growth. Microbes clean nitrates in polluted water and plants can suck up arsenic from contaminated soil. But even more amazing is the fact that biologists are attempting to genetically modify plants that will soak up contaminants in their roots and transport them to their leaves. Then all you have to do is grab a pair of gloves and go to harvest.

As big fans of carbon dioxide, algae will grow and grow when given the gas. There are obvious benefits from this, but did you know that algae is a fantastic producer of biofuel? Far superior to corn and many other crops. Of course when burned the algae releases all that carbon dioxide again, which is bad but perhaps not as bad as if you were to release a whole new lot of carbon dioxide anyway.


In this crazy world one thing is certain: There is a lot of water and there is no water. So what to do? Well one thing scientists have been working on is getting all that salt out of the seas so people can start drinking it. This is happening in dry regions such as the Gulf where water is filtered at high pressure, treated with minerals and disinfected, but it’s also starting to happen in big cities such as London due to the high demand for clean water. The technology is expensive and uses a lot of energy but people need to drink.

Things To Do With The Wind

The windmill is one of the oldest and prettiest little machines in the world. But now we need more from our wind. Enormous wind turbines have been planted across vast areas of land, on mountains and in oceans. Some people think they look nice, others would prefer the end of the world.

The continual point of discussion concerns how to harness enough wind to make a substantial contribution to the world’s energy needs. We know the wind blows strongest out at sea but if it’s blowing in the wrong direction then no matter how many turbines you have not one blade will turn. A solution to this appears to be the development of the vertical wind turbine. Transforming the traditional model the turbine turns its blades around a vertical axis. This makes it more stable and less sensitive to wind direction.  Plus it can be made much

If traditional is still your thing then to harness the strongest winds the turbines must be transported far out to sea. In Norway they are chaining turbines to the seabed rather than securing them with a mast. This allows the turbines to float out like a ship into the deep seas and collect all that lovely strong wind.

Some see wind as being a big contributor to the world's future energy needs but as with all renewables it is probably not the sole solution, rather part of a package including solar and wave. But there is one great uncertainty surrounding wind power. If the environment is changing then wind patterns will change. Turbines are planted where the wind blows. So when the wind changes what will happen to all the expensive turbines that have been stuck in the ground and sea? Saving the environment is just one problem after another.

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