Allow me to begin with an admission: I’m not a scientist and I don’t play one on TV.
That said, the various newsletters and publications I receive increasingly feature reports of scientific breakthroughs (one of which is described below), reminding me that a constant focus on humanity’s seeming inability to escape tribalism and social discord gives one a distorted picture of where we are as a species.
There is a substantial mis-match between humankind’s social/political progress and our very impressive advancements in science and technology. I am definitely not advocating that we sit back and ignore climate on the theory that science will save the day. We still need policies to address the reality of a warming planet. But in addition to other measures aimed at reducing harmful emissions, those public policies need to incorporate and encourage insights produced by the scientific community.
Some of the emerging technologies that promise to have a significant effect on climate change:
- Carbon capture and storage that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants and industrial facilities, preventing them from entering the atmosphere. Evidently, the captured emissions can then be stored underground or used in various industries.
- Breakthroughs in renewable energy promise significant reductions in the cost of energy. The last few years have seen increases in solar and wind power generation, advancements in batteries that store energy, and improvements in the efficiency of renewable energy systems.
- Consumers have warmed to electric vehicles, and we are on the cusp of widespread adoption of electric automobiles as driving range has increased and charging infrastructure improves.
- Green hydrogen is hydrogen produced through renewable energy sources (such as electrolysis of water using electricity from wind or solar power.) Carbon-free hydrogen (with which I was–and am– unfamiliar) has a wide variety of applications.
- The movement toward sustainable agriculture doesn’t just reflect health concerns; innovative agricultural practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration.
There’s much more. I lack the background to fully understand these advances, but from what I read, it appears that advanced materials being developed for use in construction and manufacturing can also significantly reduce emissions and our carbon footprint.
And that brings me to the “wow” of today’s title. The Washington Post recently reported that scientists have found a way to create energy out of virtually any material.
Nearly any material can be used to turn the energy in air humidity into electricity, scientists found in a discovery that could lead to continuously producing clean energy with little pollution.
The research, published in a paper in Advanced Materials, builds on 2020 work that first showed energy could be pulled from the moisture in the air using material harvested from bacteria. The new study shows nearly any material, such as wood or silicon, can be used, as long as it can be smashed into small particles and remade with microscopic pores…
“What we have invented, you can imagine it’s like a small-scale, man-made cloud,” said Jun Yao, a professor of engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the senior author of the study. “This is really a very easily accessible, enormous source of continuous clean electricity. Imagine having clean electricity available wherever you go.”
It’s worth emphasizing–as the article does–that this discovery is just the beginning. It will take much more work and experimentation to bring the energy generation to scale and make the invention commercially usable.
The scientists first must work out which material would be most efficient to use in different climates. Eventually, Yao said he hopes to develop a strategy to make the device bigger without blocking the humidity that can be captured. He also wants to figure out how to stack the devices on top of each other effectively and how to engineer the Air-gen so the same size device captures more energy.
It’s not clear how long that will take.
“Once we optimize this, you can put it anywhere,” Yao said.
It could be embedded in wall paint in a home, made at a larger scale in unused space in a city or littered throughout an office’s hard-to-get-to spaces. And because it can use nearly any material, it could extract less from the environment than other renewable forms of energy.
“The entire earth is covered with a thick layer of humidity,” Yao said. “It’s an enormous source of clean energy. This is just the beginning in making use of that.”
Good news, but it’s all about timing. Once again, humankind finds itself needing to avoid calamity in the interim between now and a promising future. At a bare minimum, avoiding the unthinkable will require a Congress composed of rational adults, and that will require the defeat of the GOP’s current clown show.