Wild Cards

These three radical ideas could lessen negative impacts of industry society.

1. An Empowered Parasol

Earth is on its way to increasing in temperature by more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 due to rising greenhouse gas (gHg) emissions. Scientists want to solve the problem by blocking the amount of sunlight that hits the planet. To do that, they would use a giant space umbrella as a sun shield while it orbits the world.

Parasol solar

To cool a rapidly warming Earth, scientists are considering placing a giant sunshade into space to block solar radiation. Credit: Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Asher Space Research Institute

According to Dr. Yoram Rozen, director of the Asher Space Research Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the umbrella would have to block about 2 percent of the sun’s radiation to cool the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping Earth within manageable climate boundaries. Scientists consider a temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees C to be a point of no return environmentally, with all damage from that point becoming permanent.

But the umbrella’s size is a literally a huge problem. The shield would have to measure about 1 million square miles—nearly the size of Argentina—and it would weigh 2.5 million tons, making it too heavy to launch into space. One solution could be to use a series of smaller umbrellas to cast shadows on different parts of Earth. “We can show the world, ‘Look, there is a working solution. Take it and, increase it to the necessary size,’” Rozen told the New York Times.

Proponents say a sunshade would not eliminate the need to stop using fossil fuels. But it would buy the planet more time to continue gradually reducing their use. Many companies have set 2050 or sooner as a deadline for becoming net zero in terms of carbon emissions produced vs. reduced.

Critics say the plan would be too expensive, not technologically feasible at the moment, and could not be completed in time to do Earth any good. In addition, any damage to one of the shields due to space debris or solar storms could result in sudden rapid, disastrous planetary warming.

Rozen says he and his team will build a prototype of the umbrella as soon as they can raise the estimated $10 million to $20 million in funding needed. “This alone will not save the planet,” he says. “But it’s going to show that there are things we can do to prove it ultimately can be done.”

2. Methanol-Friendly Bacteria

The organic chemical compound methanol (CH3OH)—a.k.a. “wood alcohol”—is in an unusual position when it comes to sustainability. Nature’s simplest form of alcohol is a building block for hundreds of everyday materials, not all of which are earth-friendly (e.g., paints and plastics), and it’s hazardous to life and the environment if granted long-term exposure. But it’s also a clean energy alternative for fossil fuel-powered automobiles, trucks, fuel cells, boilers and stoves. 

Bacteria Alternate_Bioreactor sample_7

A newly developed bacteria is capable of converting environmentally hazardous methanol into a chemical that makes other climate-changing ones an Earth-friendlier carbon neutral.
Credit:  ETH Zurich/Gabriela D’Hondt

Now, researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland have developed a way to turn wood alcohol into a long-term environmental good guy. They have engineered a bacteria that feeds on CH3OH and then becomes a clean way to produce items that are currently made using fossil fuels.

Each year roughly 500 million tons of crude oil, coal and other carbon-emitters are used to create plastics, dyes, artificial flavors and other enviromentally hazardous products, according to Dr. Julia Vorholt, a professor at the Institute of Microbiology at ETH Zurich. 

If that production total sounds bad, cheer up: The reality is far worse. “Since these chemical conversions are energy-intensive, the true carbon (CO2) footprint of the chemical industry is even 6 to 10 times larger, amounting to about 5 percent of total emissions globally,” she notes.

Ironically, the chemical that can slow atmospheric damage begins as part of one that causes it. CH3OH is easily synthesized from CO2 and water. The bacteria, known as methylotrophs, metabolizes methanol for several years before becoming a chemical that can convert carbon and other greenhouse gas (gHg)-related compounds into climate-neutral ones. These can then be used toward the production of those previously mentioned plastics, dyes and artificial flavorings (as well as other not-so-green items), in place of fossil fuels.

The result “allows renewable chemicals to be produced that do not burden the environment,” says Michael Reiter, a postdoctoral researcher in Vorholt’s research group.

Although the microbes provide a highly versatile “plug-and-play” option where the methylotrophs can convert CH3OH into desired biochemical substances, research has only begun, according to Vorholt. The researchers still need to significantly increase the yield and productivity to enable economically viable use of the bacteria. A recently received innovation fund will help the team reach that goal, she notes.

A white paper on the team’s research is available at nature.com.

3. Extreme-Weather Water

University of California at Berkeley researchers have designed a hand-held device that can extract and convert water molecules from the air into drinkable water using only ambient sunlight as its energy source. The unit can go a long way toward helping one-third of Earth’s population survive in water-stressed regions, the university reports.

UC Berkeley drink

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have developed a compact device that can pull H2O molecules out of the atmosphere to create drinkable water. Credit: University of California at Berkeley

The atmospheric water harvester uses an ultra-porous material known as a metal-organic framework, MOF-303, to extract water repeatedly in even the hottest and driest places, such as Death Valley National Park. These tests showed the device could provide clean water anywhere, addressing an urgent problem as climate change exacerbates drought conditions, according to Omar Yaghi, the UC Berkeley chemistry professor who invented MOFs and is the project’s lead researcher. 

Almost 2.5 million people experience some type of water shortage during the year, according to the United Nations. That total may double by 2050, Yaghi notes. “This is quite relevant to harnessing a new source for water,” he says.

While water harvesting technology is not new—researchers at MIT developed a harvester four years ago—UC Berkeley’s model is smaller—it can fit in a handbag—and more portable. It functions efficiently in high humidity or in “dry” air. And it is powered entirely by ambient sunlight and doesn’t require additional energy sources to operate—which also means no planet-warming emissions.

It generates drinking water from 85 to 90 percent of the atmospheric vapor it captures, resulting in up to 285 grams of water in a day—enough to fill a coffee cup. There’s a lot for it to work with: The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Earth’s atmosphere contains nearly 4.7 million cubic feet of water—more than six times the volume of the world’s rivers.

The device should be able to operate for five or six years without being replenished or modified, Yaghi notes. And at the end of its lifetime, the unit can be disassembled and reassembled in water with zero discharge and in a sustainable manner.

Of course, as time goes on, there will be additional developments in efficiency, size and scale. But Yaghi expects an eventual widespread adoption of household-based, MOF-powered water harvesters and community-scale water harvesters.