How Climate Tech Will Revolutionize the Future

Many are finally waking up to the fact that our planet is heating up. What can we do about it?

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Superposition

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Solar panels near dusk
Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash

We often see battling climate change and embracing technology on opposite sides. Tech conglomerates like Apple and Google and new tech like cryptocurrency mining are either contributing to climate change or not doing much about it.

So how about using technology to combat climate change? Believe it or not, climate tech is a burgeoning field and one rife with innovation. In fact, in 2021, out of every dollar invested by a venture capitalist, 14 cents was going towards climate-related tech. Let’s take a look at a few of these advancements.

NASA & Its Climate Change Endeavours

What’s a space agency doing to help climate change? Great question, and one I had myself too. Their research into making space habitable has apparently come in handy when it comes to making the Earth more habitable as well.

Taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is one area NASA has been working on. With 95% of the gases in Mars’ atmosphere being carbon dioxide, it’s no surprise NASA is looking for ways to capture this carbon dioxide and use it for something useful. And find a way they did. One of their solutions involves breaking carbon dioxide down into carbon and oxygen in a way that they can both be used for more productive purposes than pollution.

Another interesting innovation coming out of the space agency is durable wind turbines. Since non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels simply don’t exist in a place like Mars, NASA created wind turbines that can withstand very harsh conditions—like the South Pole. Now, 800 of these wind turbines are currently operating here on Earth.

Carbon Capture, Sequestration & Reuse

Carbon capture and sequestration—the collective process of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it away in a different form—has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. With the world emitting 33.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, we have to face the reality that simply reducing emissions by a small amount isn’t going to be enough.

One great analogy for understanding this comes from Steve Oldham, the CEO of Carbon Engineering—a company I’ll discuss further below. Think of all of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a bathtub. Right now, the water is running at its max; lots and lots of CO2 is being emitted and the bathtub is overflowing.

Approaches that involve reducing our emissions—turning down the water—are important. If less water is being poured into the bathtub, it’ll take longer for it to overflow. But that’s just it: it’s a matter of time. So what’s the other, more effective solution? Pull the plug. Drain the bathtub. That’s what carbon capture aims to do.

There are two ways of capturing carbon dioxide. The first is the “natural” way that includes planting trees. The second, and the one I’ll be focusing on in this article, is the technological method.

Direct Air Capture

One of these artificial methods is direct air capture which is exactly what it sounds like: low-concentration carbon dioxide is captured directly from the air. Let’s focus on one company based in Canada named Carbon Engineering (sound familiar?) and how their specific direct air capture tech works.

After capturing the air using huge fans like the one you see below, the air reacts with a chemical that is able to contain 80% of the carbon dioxide, leaving them with a liquid solution full of carbon.

Carbon Engineering’s facilities, especially showing their fan
Photo by Carbon Engineering

This solution then goes through a step that ends with pellets of calcium carbonate. Finally, they heat up the pellets, leaving them with liquid CO2. That’s when we come to another fork in the road: the decision of what to do with this carbon dioxide.

One approach is to bury it somewhere permanently—that’s what sequestration is—which reduces the overall level of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is the definition of carbon negative. There are challenges with this method, however, such as choosing locations where the carbon dioxide will truly be safe to store for decades and centuries to come.

The other approach is to reuse the carbon dioxide through the creation of new products. One such product that Carbon Engineering is creating is a carbon-neutral fuel. They combine the carbon dioxide with hydrogen and then use it to power various things like cars. This way no extra carbon dioxide is produced since it’s in a cycle of burn → capture → create fuel → burn → capture and so on.

Currently, it costs Carbon Engineering $200 per ton of CO2 that they remove. Though this sounds great, they say the cost needs to come down to $50 or less before it becomes commercially viable. Many are hopeful though as costs tend to come down over time as more innovation comes about in the space.

Post-Combustion Carbon Capture

Another method for carbon capture, post-combustion capture, is done near power plants. I won’t be going into much detail but in essence, when carbon-based fuels such as coal or natural gas are burned, they produce something called a flue gas which contains carbon dioxide.

Post-combustion capture captures the CO2 from the flue gas. There are challenges, however, with this type of carbon capture. For instance, there is a low concentration of carbon dioxide in flue gases when compared to the amount of nitrogen, making it difficult to capture the CO2.

Alternative Foods

Carbon capture is a fascinating technology but that’s not all the climate tech field has to offer. Another is alternative foods such as plant-based meats. Though alternative foods don’t always come to mind when talking about climate tech, they’re sure to play a role in how we use technology to tackle climate change.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at a well-known plant-based meat company called Beyond Meat. Their products include plant-based burgers, ground meat, and sausage. But what’s so important about plant-based meat? It doesn’t necessitate the use of cattle that expel methane. Though methane’s the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, it’s 28 times more effective at heating the planet.

Someone holding up a Beyond Meat burger
Photo by Beyond Meat

Over all, grazing animals contribute 40% of annual methane emissions. So if we get our food from a source other than animals themselves and start requiring fewer animals to sustain our lifestyle as a planet, we could make a substantial difference.

Plant-based meats aren’t the only way of achieving this though. There’s also cultured or lab-grown meat. But that’s a topic for a future blog.

To sum things up, the future of climate tech is bright. Investors are excited. And you should be too. Even if you don’t find this as fascinating as I personally do, just know this: we won’t be able to tackle climate change without technology.

This blog post was written by Parmin Sedigh.

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