By Bradley Stockwell
1878 World’s Fair: Augustin Mouchot’s solar-powered motor is a gold medal winner and initially receives generous government funding for development. However the funding is soon cut due to a dramatic decrease in the cost of coal production.
1900 World’s Fair: Commissioned by the French government, the Otto company displays the recently invented diesel engine running on peanut oil without any modification to the original design. The inventor of the engine, Rudolf Diesel, learns of this and becomes a leading proponent for the development of biodiesel fuels to spur agricultural development. However after his death in 1913 and with the emerging petroleum market on the rise, the motor is redesigned to run solely on petroleum diesel fuel.
The Egyptian desert 1913: Frank Shuman, the inventor of safety glass, presents a solar power plant which promises to make solar energy—a limitless, renewable energy source—more cost-efficient than coal. He too receives generous accolades and funding from the German and British governments, but ultimately with the outbreak of World War I shortly thereafter, funding is cut and put into the exploding petroleum market, leaving Shuman’s solar collectors to be recycled into weapons.
Detroit, Michigan 1908: Henry Ford’s first Model T rolls off the assembly line and it runs on gasoline and/or corn ethanol. Ford envisions one day however that all vehicles will run solely on agricultural fuel sources. One of particular interest to him is hemp. In 1941 he even constructs a lightweight car that runs on hemp biofuel and is constructed with plastic panels made partially of hemp. Nevertheless the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937—backed by the petrochemical company DuPont—would eventually kill the domestic hemp industry and with the onset of World War II, gasoline engine technology would only see further dominance.
Now that we’re facing down the barrel of a global climate crisis, it’s easy to look back and see where it might have been averted. It’s not like we weren’t warned; as far back as 1896 (read here) the scientific community has cautioned us about the consequences of a fossil-fueled civilization. But humanity’s myopic view of the future has not only undercut our ingenuity, but it now endangers the survival of our species—and many others I may add. However there’s hope and I’d like to pay tribute to this hope by highlighting today and tomorrow’s most innovative and coolest technologies on the frontline in the fight against climate change. But first…
Believe it or not, our planet breathes. In the spring, the forests of the Northern Hemisphere inhale carbon dioxide to grow and the amount of CO2 in the air decreases while the amount of oxygen (O2) increases. Then in the fall, when leaves fall and decay, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This same respiratory cycle happens in the Southern Hemisphere, but there is far more ocean than forest in the South. This has been happening for tens of millions of years, but wasn’t noticed until 1958 when the oceanographer Charles David Keeling devised a way to accurately measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. However this discovery also unearthed quite a big elephant in the room for humanity: climate change.
You see, CO2 in our atmosphere acts as an insulator for heat sent here from the sun. Without it, our planet would be a frozen wasteland and with too much of it, it’d be hell on earth and the difference between the two is not much—six molecules of CO2 per ten thousand to be exact. Since the formation of the earth, volcanoes have been spewing CO2 into the air. Then water and life came along and the CO2 was absorbed into the oceans and harvested into more organic matter. Over the course of millions of years, this bled our atmosphere of CO2 (which is a good thing when you’re cultivating life) until CO2 comprised just three-hundredths of a percent of our atmosphere—three molecules per ten thousand. And for at least the last 800,000 years this percentage has stayed relatively the same until the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Hmm… anybody see a strange correlation? We know this because we’ve drilled into glaciers and extracted and measured trapped air from that long ago. Since about the turn of the century, CO2 levels have risen a staggering 40%. And as of January 2015, we’ve officially added another molecule of CO2 per ten thousand—four per ten thousand in total—in the span of about 100 years. Earth hasn’t seen CO2 levels this high in over three million years, when horses and camels roamed the high arctic and sea levels were at least 30 feet higher; a level that would drown many major cities today.
While one more molecule per ten thousand may not sound like much, remember the difference between frozen wasteland and hell on earth is only six molecules per ten thousand and life providing oasis sits delicately in the middle at three. And it’s not like the earth is just naturally dumping all this additional CO2 into the air. We know it’s man-made because CO2 created from the burning of fossil fuels is slightly lighter than that of say volcanic CO2.
The strongest force driving climate change is us. It’s undeniable and those who deny it in my opinion are just too scared to admit it. And it is scary. It’s not like we can keep going along like this and still have another 200 years before we add two more CO2 molecules per ten thousand to the atmosphere. We’ve already set off a chain reaction of sorts. Because temperatures are rising, ground that’s been frozen for a millennia is now beginning to thaw. That ground is densely packed with organic matter and the thawing of that organic matter is releasing more CO2 into the air, causing the temperature to rise even higher and thaw ground even quicker. This positive feedback loop is also happening with the melting of sea ice. As ocean temperatures rise, more sea ice melts and more heat is absorbed into the oceans instead of being reflected back into space, which causes ocean temperatures to rise faster which in turn melts the ice faster. Not only are we contributing heavily to climate change, but now we’ve triggered Mother Earth to follow suit.
But as I stated previously there is hope. We haven’t reached the “point of no return”—the point at which no amount of effort will save us from catastrophic global warming—yet. That point is at 4.5 molecules per ten thousand, so we are damn close. If we continue at our current rate, which is adding two more CO2 molecules per million per year, we’ll reach the “point of no return” somewhere around 2042. But I have faith in humans; faith that we’re too smart and too adaptive to let that happen. After all, we come from a long pedigree of very successful survivors, so let’s put it to use. If not for the sake of saving the world, at least for the sake of technological progression. We know fossil fuels won’t last forever so why not start solving that problem now? Also wouldn’t it be cool if we had concrete that healed itself and roads that talked to us while collecting solar energy? This is just a preview of some of the green technologies and innovations on the horizon that I’ll cover in part two of this series. Until then, stay curious my friends.