Green Business

Global warming: Can tech help?

On November 30th this year world leaders will meet in Paris for the United Nations climate change conference COP 21/CMP11. The aim is to agree on a new environmental plan and to set emissions targets so that global warming stays below two degrees. Previous climate change meetings have flattered to deceive.

Earlier this year Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government and now the special representative for climate change, told a climate conference that there should be a greater focus on green technologies in Paris to tackle climate change.

So what role can technology play? There is plenty of innovation out there but where will technology make a real difference? We’ve looked at some key developments and inventions that could help to either reduce carbon or solve some issues we have with toxic waste and energy consumption.


The green datacentre debate

As worldwide cloud computing investment soars, at least according to analyst IDC, more major technology firms such as Alibaba, Facebook, Amazon, HP, Microsoft, BT, Apple and Vodafone face huge challenges when it comes to managing datacentres.

A recent Greenpeace report revealed the current state of the major datacentre users in terms of sustainability credentials. Not all companies are coming clean, so to speak, at least according to Truth Out. Apple’s claim of 100% renewable-powered datacentres has been challenged and dismissed as marketing spin.

So are the major tech players actually making a dent in their emissions? According to Greenpeace they are starting to but there is still a long way to go. There are however some significant developments. Facebook announced in July that it is building a new datacentre in Texas that will be powered by 100% renewable energy while Amazon Web Services recently announced it is developing a huge wind farm to help power its cloud datacentres.

Independent datacentre development has also been moving forward, especially in Europe. Green Mountain and Fjord IT are just two centres using hydropower, while more established competitors such as Rackspace are shifting from a model of buying carbon credits to sourcing renewable energy directly for their datacentres.

While this pursuit of renewable power is a step in the right direction, it is the development of liquid cooling in servers that will surely make a greater impression on datacentres. It’s not a new idea. Modern liquid cooling has been in development since the noughties and has to some extent struggled to establish itself as a viable alternative to air cooling. Liquid is certainly more efficient and companies such as Green Revolution Cooling are making strides. Definitely one to watch.


Transparent solar cells

The idea that you could power buildings, mobile phones and even datacentres using their window and glass screens is an intriguing one. A California-based start-up that was born out of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts has developed a transparent film which can capture and convert ultraviolet and near-infrared light into electricity.

Called Clearview, the solar cell has been developed by Ubiquitous Energy. According to co-founder and CEO Miles Barr, it has a number of potential applications including mobile devices, the Internet of Things and smart windows in buildings and vehicles.

“With the world’s first truly transparent solar technology we are able to use the full surface of these products for energy harvesting without impacting aesthetics or function,” says Barr. “We are particularly excited about our first applications in wearable devices and digital signage where we can significantly extend battery life or eliminate batteries altogether.”

Reducing drag, saving fuel

There are over a billion trucks on the road across the world, at least according to WardsAuto. How do you reduce the impact both in terms of fuel consumption and carbon?

US-based Plasma Stream Technologies has developed a purple glowing plasma technology that can help to significantly reduce drag, cutting fuel consumption and of course emissions and costs at the same time.

It uses what it refers to as an ‘active flow system’ that utilises two plasma actuators developed at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The plasma actuators ionize the airflow, delaying flow separation and therefore reducing drag. While devices such as spoilers and flow plates are designed to also reduce drag, they are heavy and add weight to a vehicle.

The company believes that the technology could also help with trains, buses, cars, aircraft and even tall buildings.


Biodegradable batteries

According to Recycle More, approximately 22,000 tonnes of household batteries end up in landfill every year. Batteries are toxic, so any suggestion they could be made to be biodegradable would of course be welcome.

In June, researchers in Sweden and the US revealed a battery made of a wood-based foam substance called aerogel. The battery is lightweight, elastic and high powered.

Max Hamedi, researcher at KTH in Sweden and at Harvard, says that while in-car electronics, mobile and wearable computing are target markets, the batteries will not be quite ready for some while.

“It is realistic that both the charge storage molecules and the nano cellulose will be mass-produced and available within 5-10 years from now,” he says.

Another battery technology that claims it could be running mobile phones, tablets and video games consuls within three years is a battery run on sugar. Researchers at Virginia Tech have developed a working prototype battery that uses sugar to store energy, which Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering claims is “a perfect energy storage compound.”

“So it’s only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery,” says Zhang.


The internet of things

The internet of things (IoT) will connect 28 billion devices within the next decade, at least according to a Goldman Sachs report. It is not so much the devices themselves that are important here but the data they produce.

Speaking to IDG Connect earlier this year, Bill Ruh, GE’s vice president of software said that IoT, at least from an industrial sense has the power to make significant energy and CO2 savings.

He was referring to how analysing big data from wind turbines, for example, has already enabled GE to make improvements leading to a 5% energy generation increase. Also, attaching sensors to gas turbines and analysing that data resulted in a 1% decrease in fuel used to generate the same amount of electricity.

By analysing machine data manufacturers have the ability to make, not only significant efficiency improvements but also informed changes to supply chains and material sourcing. The key of course is interpreting the data and acting upon it. According to research by the Carbon War Room machine to machine technologies can “transform key sectors and reduce greenhouse emissions by nine billion tons.”

This is the sort of impact that Sir David King was referring to. If technology doesn’t have the answer to global warming, it is certainly trying to find one.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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