5 breakthrough technologies in the fight against climate change

From sequestering carbon to developing fast-charging, long-lasting EV batteries, the next wave of innovations may hold the key to saving the planet

By Ganesh Kaveeshwar

As several countries make concerted efforts to achieve emission cuts and restrict the global average temperature rise to 1.5C from pre-industrial levels, new technologies would play a vital role in meeting the targets set by the Paris Agreement. We look at a few nascent innovations that can have tremendous potential if commercialized to address climate challenge and disrupt the way we live.

Fast charging solid-state batteries

Popularly considered the holy grail of battery technologies, solid-state batteries are safer, have a much higher energy density, and charge at significantly higher rates. Over the last decade, several attempts were made to develop a working prototype, but none could create considerable impact. However, on a promising note, Nobel Laureate Prof Goodenough claimed a breakthrough in 2018, which has gained remarkable traction from firms like Toyota and Mercedez Benz. Apart from being much safer than existing alternatives, once commercialized, these batteries can provide a 1000 km range on a single charge for cars and a charging time of mere 15 minutes. Apart from the automobile industry, it has far-reaching applications in the utility, aerospace, and semiconductor sectors.

High-temperature/Ambient temperature superconductors

This phenomenon of zero resistance to a DC at ultra-low temperatures was first observed in the early 1900s. Yet, it was not until another six decades when researchers at IBM developed the first high-temperature superconductors — unleashing an enormous interest ever since to create one at ambient and practical conditions. These materials, if commercialized, can help make hyper-efficient motors and generators, low power quantum computing, replace all long-distance power transmission lines, and even possibly make nuclear fusion realizable. In 2018, a team of scientists from IISc claimed to observe this phenomenon at room temperatures. With several exciting developments worldwide, we hope for a breakthrough soon.

Carbon capture and storage

Simply put, CCS technologies take out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or point source emissions to sequester it under the ground or convert it to solids. Several processes — artificial, biological, and bio-mimicking techniques — have been developed over the years, but operational profitability has been the challenge for most of them. They either have to be funded by carbon contracts or public funds or by using regulatory restrictions. While reforestation remains one of the most affordable ways to achieve this right now, it is estimated that more than 3 billion trees need to be planted every year to offset our emissions. There are, however, a few innovations that can be profitable as well, like azolla/algae farming and artificial photosynthesis. We believe the more significant challenges for the proliferation of CCS technologies would be creating a suitable regulatory framework, business environment, and community participation.

Soil microbiome research and low resource agriculture

A handful of fertile soil is likely to contain more microbes than our population on earth. With billions of microbial species and potentially trillions of complex interactions in the soil, we have been unable to identify most of them till now. These microbiomes are critical to the survival of plants and very sensitive to changes in ambient conditions. Understanding these systems has been at the forefront of research for the past decade, mainly in anticipation of derisking agriculture from the effects of climate change. Several deep tech ventures like IndigoAg, Trace Genomics, AgBiome, and Phytelligence have generated significant interest over the last couple of years, with most of them sampling microbiomes along with providing advisory and supplements to improve crop yield and resilience.

Magnetic cooling technology

Based on magneto calorific effect discovered almost a century ago, this technology relies on the cooling phenomenon observed in few materials when subjected to changing magnetic field. More reliable, efficient, climate-friendly, compact, and noiseless, it has tremendous potential to replace traditional vapour compressor-based refrigeration once the cost of magneto-caloric materials decrease. The cooling industry accounts for about a tenth of GHG emissions worldwide and the requirement for refrigeration and air conditioning is set to increase by more than 2 times in the next 20 years. Innovations like magnetic cooling technology will improve efficiency and create a long-lasting impact. Several ventures like Cooltech, Magnotherm, and Ubiblue have commercialised this technology and are innovating to reduce its capital cost.

Deep-tech products in the energy and climate space typically have a long gestation period and often take efforts spanning several decades. One interesting example is nuclear fusion with several trillion dollars in funding since the 1960s. It has been referred to as the next decade’s technology for the last 40 years! Yet, we have been successful in reducing our dependence on coal to a large extent through the strides in exploring other alternative techniques of harnessing energy and mitigating climate change.

The author is deeply involved with Social Alpha’s ClimateTech initiatives