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Six ways to save the planet

Once the dust settles on next month's Copenhagen climate change summit, attention will turn to how new targets are going to be met. We asked E&T's editors to review some of the technologies that could provide the world's governments with an early Christmas present.

Green comms

How can the communications industry help tackle global warming? The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is currently lobbying hard to have the role of information and communications technology as a tool for reducing climate change recognised at the upcoming Copenhagen meeting.

ICT contributes an estimated 2 to 2.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that's likely to increase. The ITU recognises that the industry has to put its emissions house in order, for example by introducing more efficient next-generation networks. It also argues that ICT can play a wider role in mitigating climate change by enabling remote collaboration, intelligent transport systems, and sensor-based networks for machine and environmental monitoring.

Beyond these narrow initiatives, there's an argument that says communications technologies can help mitigate climate change by connecting more people to global information networks, be they the telephone system or the Internet, so they can benefit from the efficiencies that communications can bring. We've written about the mixed impact of introducing mobile phones into developing economies before (see 0910/ [new window]). It's not all good news, but being connected is now widely seen as a necessity, and in some quarters even as a right.

Manufacturers are responding by developing handsets that can be sold at unsubsidised prices of $10 to $20. Having learnt their lesson in developed markets, many of these handsets are being designed with recycling in mind. The ITU has also just endorsed a 'universal' charger standard, which should reduce the energy wasted by inefficient chargers and the environmental damage caused by discarded wall-warts.

Luke Collins, communications editor

Good omens for off-grid solar

Rural electrification in the developing world could bring big benefits to both people and the planet - but not if it depends on expensive diesel generators to replace the power grids that the developed world takes for granted. That's why its proponents are increasingly looking to photovoltaic (PV) panels to do the job.

The potential for off-grid PV to improve lives is immense, says analyst Markus Hoehner of EuPD Research. "Power is similar to education - it can speed up the creation of wealth," he explains. As well as street lights, industries and cellular base stations, opportunities exist in hospitals, schools and homes, where solar-powered lighting is replacing polluting kerosene lamps.

Off-grid solar is more complex than on-grid - it needs a backup supply such as batteries - and with no feed-in tariffs to take advantage of, initial purchase price is more important than a panel's efficiency. That should boost poly-crystalline and thin-film technologies over mono-crystalline, says Hartmut Heske, a business development specialist with PV panel maker Sharp Microelectronics.

Hoehner adds that as governments scale back on subsidies for on-grid solar, and cash-strapped customers look to save their pennies, PV manufacturers who have ramped up their production capacities in expectation of a continued sales bonanza now find themselves with excess supply - which should push more off-grid.

"Two hundred new suppliers entered the market in just two years, including a lot of Chinese," he says. "We saw a price drop of over 30 per cent in the last 12 months. That's bad for investors, but it is bringing the technology to cost parity [with conventional generation] much quicker."

Bryan Betts, manufacturing editor

Organisms engineered to clean up

More than two billion years ago, the quantity of nickel belched out by volcanoes dropped away. Early microbes that depended on this nickel exhaled the strong greenhouse gas methane but, starved of a key trace element, they gave way to oxygen-producing cyanobacteria. An atmosphere that was almost devoid of oxygen - and the ultraviolet protecting ozone layer - began to change and, as the cyanobacteria multiplied, they provided the environment other organisms could survive in.

Such micro-organisms could provide the template for other feats of global environmental engineering, reversing the effects of centuries of carbon-dioxide production and pollution. Bioremediation has already been practised on a small scale to desalinate land but more ambitious genetic engineering could be used to develop much more efficient consumers of carbon dioxide or of non-naturally degradable plastics. Transgenic plants could be bred to more efficiently extract toxic metals from contaminated land - plants such as tobacco are known to concentrate heavy metals in their leaves on a small scale.

Although it should be possible to create organisms that are better at digesting pollutants than naturally occurring species, there are problems. Control is a major issue and one that many in the general public recognise. Surveys carried out to gauge public acceptance of techniques such as synthetic biology have consistently shown that people worry about the possibility of engineered organisms causing more harm than good if they escape. Troubles with cane toads and Japanese knotweed have demonstrated only too well what happens when a non-indigenous species turns out to be too successful in its adopted home.

For this reason, scientists are, in parallel with developing more effective bioremediators, looking at ways to control their creations. One option is to remove key enzymes that make it difficult for micro-organisms to survive if a food additive is not present. Another is a self-destruct gene triggered by a chemical signal. For these techniques to be effective, and trusted, much more work is needed to understand how biological systems work.

Chris Edwards, electronics editor

Measuring energy usage accurately

IT likes to remind us of its potential to 'save' mankind from itself, but its response toward climate change has been a mixture of faux atonement tempered by the 'Green IT' mantra; an atonement that does not belie any significant cranking back on IT's voracious appetite for the world's energy and resources.

Ask most technologists what efficiency breakthroughs the computing and IT sector should aim at, and they'll cite things like longer-life batteries for laptops, smaller unit form factors that require less raw materials to manufacture, self-cooling server chips that reduce the heat generated inside data centres, and so forth. Few will propose that we use our computers less, upgrade our PCs and servers only every 10 years, and limit that amount of processor-pounding streamed video that we watch.

According to Professor Andy Hopper, head of the Cambridge Computer Laboratory, IT should be less overly concerned about its own environmental impact, and more concentrated on using its power to find solutions that meet the objectives of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month. IT can help design a more energy-efficient world, Hopper is sure, but we have to accept that it is also going to require energy and resources to get there.

He believes that a major stumbling block that faces us is the lack of a universally-applicable - and universally recognised - 'Environment Impact Calculator', that would join other international systems of measurement, such as metres and miles, litres and pints, amps and volts. Such a scale should also be able to inform extended calculations that would enable a range of decisions to be made (such as 'how much water will this project consume?'). "We need a system of energy-usage measurement that everyone agrees on," says Hopper, "so that we can decide which projects will repay ultimate benefits in terms of energy efficiency, and which will be self-defeating, using more energy than they save."

James Hayes, editor, IT section

Better building control

The impact buildings have on the environment might be more wide ranging than you think. In the US and EU, they consume more than 70 per cent of a nation's electricity and 40 per cent of raw materials while contributing to nearly 40 per cent of greenhouse gases.

Reducing the amount of natural resources buildings consume and the amount of pollution given off is seen as crucial for future sustainability and this is where intelligent building control systems can play their part. Automated building controls can dramatically reduce facility energy and operating costs. It is estimated that energy savings of 20-25 per cent could be made through intelligent controls and energy saving equipment and this could rise to as much as 50 per cent on very old or badly managed buildings.

This makes energy efficiency in building management even more important than ever, begging the question: "Can you afford not to implement this technology?"

An intelligent system acts as a building's central nervous system, constantly watching and monitoring local conditions, controlling ventilation and heating and it is ready to respond automatically to any changes in conditions.

While efficiencies can be gained from the installation of automation into older buildings the greatest gains are made when the system is incorporated into the original building design. Building automation systems have been likened to how information flows through the human body easily from nerves to brain, instinctively controlling the body's vital functions without distracting the conscious mind, in breathing and regulating temperature. In buildings designed without automation in mind, the flow is often blocked by incompatible networks and competing protocols. This requires careful design to ensure that systems are not already outdated by the time a building's lengthy construction process is complete.

Efficient buildings don't have to be boring either. A good example is the building everybody recognises as 'The Gherkin' in London. It supports a double-skinned façade that is cooled by extracted air from the offices reducing the overall heat load. It also boasts spiralling light wells that maximise natural ventilation and light further reducing its environmental impact.

This goes to show that you can help save the planet and design an iconic building at the same time.

Mark Langdon, control editor

Nuclear fusion

Despite a temporary slump caused by the global recession, the demand for energy continues to grow year by year as the world population expands and society becomes more and more dependent on energy supplies. The need to find new sources of energy becomes increasingly important as environmental concerns mount over the emission of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.

With zero CO2 emissions, nuclear power is seen as an ideal solution by many. There are two ways that reactions can be achieved either by the nuclear fission (splitting) of elements of high atomic number as in current nuclear reactors or by the nuclear fusion (joining) of elements with low atomic number.

The most efficient reaction to use fusion on earth is the DT fusion reaction in which nuclei of the two hydrogen isotopes deuterium (D) and tritium (T) are forced together to overcome the rejection due to their electric charge and to allow them to fuse due to the strong nuclear binding force between them. The product of this reaction is a helium nucleus and a neutron, both with very high kinetic energy.

Fusion is certainly not a new idea; in fact, the idea has been around so long that it is in danger of joining the 'whatever happened to' category. The Joint European Tokamak (JET) began operating at Culham Science Centre in 1983 and is at present the world's largest tokamak capable of delivering up to 30MW. The success of JET, in terms of optimising plasma stability and confinement, has led to the design of the next step device - International Tokamak Research and Engineering Project (ITER). This will be capable of producing 500MW of fusion power (ten times that needed to heat the plasma).

You can see the appeal of the technology as the energy gained from a fusion reaction is enormous. To illustrate, 10g of deuterium (which can be extracted from 500l of water) and 15g of tritium (produced from 30g of lithium) reacting in a fusion powerplant would produce enough energy for the lifetime electricity needs of an average person in an industrialised country.

But fusion will not power our homes in the foreseeable future. The ITER project being built at Cadarache in France will not be operating until 2016, and there will follow a 20-year development, and if that is successful we will be looking at a pilot plant sometime around 2035, with a full-scale facility probably 20 years after that. Until then, nuclear fission will remain king of the nuclear block.

Mark Venables, power editor

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