As we close out the 2021 autumn season, we are looking at an era with unparalleled investment in technological infrastructure, spurred by the climate crisis. MIT used this moment in time in its fall publication to examine how Tough Tech can change and shape the future of the planet.
The issue’s highlights begin with an acknowledgment that last November’s US elections introduced a new president and a Congressional mandate for more robust government investment. That was important due to private investment’s lags in tech — tech has an inherent greater time to maturation, and return expectations of private capital is a tech investment detriment. Regulatory constraints, designed for existing technologies, compound the dilemma by increasing hurdles for startups.
But confronting today’s global challenges requires complex systems analysis, and private capital is just one piece of the solution. Tech can change structures in society that move from public and private collaboration to breakthrough technology. Commercialization can have ethical, widespread impact on our economies and societies.
Delivering on the Polices to Forge Tough Tech
Economic growth this decade may lead to establishing entirely new industries. Author Rees Sweeney-Taylor proposes that:
- Next-generation semiconductors could provide the backbone for a broad range of industries like autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and telemedicine.
- Energy technologies such as fusion, geothermal, and energy storage could help mitigate the climate crisis.
- Quantum computing could exponentially expand computing power, potentially solving problems including encryption and cryptography, molecular modeling, and autonomous vehicle simulations.
- Synthetic biology could cure previously incurable diseases, radically expand the food supply to feed a planet of 10 billion people, and make previously scarce resources more available.
As example at the beginning of such forward momentum is the June 2021 Senate bipartisan US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which endorsed the CHIPS program. It contains $52 billion for semiconductor research, design, and manufacturing, and it authorized significant budget increases at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense for R&D in 10 key technology areas:
- artificial intelligence
- quantum computing
- disaster prevention
- data storage
How Tech Can Change the Great Build
If we examine the important of the materials that we choose to create our buildings, we can start to recognize how the atmosphere they create within and the affect they have without on the environment will be crucial to the way future generations live and thrive. Author Monique Guimond asks us to imagine driverless transit systems, sensor-packed buildings, augmented reality, and androids that cater to a city dweller’s every need. The lasting innovations will be defined by how buildings are constructed and assembled. To get to that place, it will be important to study the most ubiquitous construction materials — cement, steel, glass, and wood — and how they are made, transported, and assembled. That is essential to meet the world’s vast need for housing while preserving the stability of the climate for subsequent generations.
The embodied carbon of the built environment comprises everything that occurs before a building goes into operation. That means it’s necessary to look at the energy and carbon emitted in the earliest stages of a building’s life, from the extraction and manufacturing of materials to their transportation to sites and the construction of the structure itself. That stage alone makes up over 10% of global emissions within the half for which the building sector is responsible. A building with an average lifespan of 80-100 years will represent an average of 20% of total lifetime emissions, or a fifth of a typical building’s carbon footprint is already established before its doors even open, so the upfront embodied carbon of a building over those years constitutes a larger proportion of the overall sector emissions to be remediated.
Many companies are now working toward solutions to the dilemma of the built environment.
- Sublime Systems is applying industrial electrochemical concepts to convert limestone into lime at room temperature, making the CO2 produced during the conversion process easier to capture and reducing overall energy consumption. Sublime’s process can be powered by renewable electricity, in which case its operation is carbon-neutral.
- Carboncure, Solidia, Carbicrete, and LC3 are attempting to reduce the carbon output of the material, with industry incumbents like LafargeHolcim and CEMEX also providing low-carbon alternatives. Approaches include using recycled CO2 within the concrete mixture to store carbon and strengthen the solution or introducing low-cost and abundantly available clay, which emits very little carbon and reduces the amount of limestone that must be broken down.
- Boston Metals is working toward a future with no pollution from metals production. The company’s Molten Oxide Electrolysis process merges innovations developed at MIT and best practices from the aluminum and steel industries. It uses an electrolytic cell that has 3 components: an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte; the materials in these components allow ore to be separated into steel and oxygen with zero greenhouse gas emissions.
A CO2-Free Energy Ecosystem & How Tech Can Change the Way We Consume Energy
The fundamental source of carbon emissions is the carbon-heavy supply side of the current energy ecosystem. As a result, any CO2-free energy system must either rely on carbon-free primary sources or mitigate CO2 emissions from fossil-based primary sources.
Almost immediately, the size of the problem becomes clear: we need to find a way to replace the 80 quads of CO2-intense primary energy supply — approximately 80% of total US energy consumption in 2019 — that are currently coming from carbon-based sources with a combination of clean sources and mitigation measures. Author Amrit Jalan outlines the effort required for and implications of undertaking such a transition. Only through infrastructure shifts in transmission lines, electric vehicle charging stations, and land allotments for solar and wind farm, for example, can the scale and speed necessary to make effective change be achieved.
Three pathways will transform to create a truly CO2-free energy ecosystem.
- Electrify everything: An energy system with electricity as the sole carrier of energy will require quadrupling our existing electricity supply from 450 GW to 1800 GW. Supply sources like solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, will need to be developed and deployed on massive scales.
- Transport: A distribution infrastructure that can handle increased loads and inherent intermittency of several supply sources. The current grid has largely operated under the convenience of certainty guaranteed by fossil fuels. It will need to adapt to a future where supply sources are smaller, distributed, and more interactive.
- Use: Every machine requiring energy will need to be redesigned to work with electrons. It will be necessary to supplement electrification and synthetic fuels with direct geothermal heating to minimize conversion and distribution inefficiencies. (While this is possible for several end uses, electricity may not be the energy source of choice for applications like shipping and aviation due to technology, operations, costs, and complexity.)
Final Thoughts How Tech Can Change Our Lives
The Engine, built by MIT, is a venture firm that invests in early-stage companies solving the world’s biggest problems through the convergence of breakthrough science, engineering, and leadership. Their mission is to accelerate the path to market for Tough Tech companies by providing access to a unique combination of investment, infrastructure, and community.
The highlights contained in this article are truly only a starting point. If you’re interested in a deep dig into the innovative tech going on in labs right now that will spur our clean energy future, subscribe to MIT’s The Engine.
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