Transformative technologies

This revolution will be powered by more than just the sun and wind.

Green technology is nothing new. Some 4,000 years ago, long before the first solar cell was constructed by Charles Fritts in the 1880s and well before our Prime Minister declared his would be the greenest government ever, the Babylonians and the Chinese were using wind power to pump water for irrigating crops. Knowledge of this technology spread with the Crusades and it did not take long before it was being used all
over the world. Indeed, travel around Britain today and you can find the remnants of windmills and water wheels used to power our fledgling manufacturing industry.

The UK government hasn't always kept up with advances in this technology - or even the environmental and social benefits of green policy. Environmental strategy has tended to be reactive and often based on voluntary negotiations between government and industry. For example, it wasn't until the 1990 Environmental Protection Act that the concept of "Integrated Pollution Control" was introduced, which aimed to ensure substances were managed in a way that minimised their detrimental effects, rather than waste being released into air, water and land separately.

Today it is a different story, and as the impact of mankind on our environment has become more apparent, the government is introducing more green policies and making subsequent investment in the skills, technologies and facilities that will assist in making our activities more eco-friendly.

Encompassing a continually evolving group of methods and materials, science is being applied in various forms, from developing techniques for monitoring the impact of human activity to producing pieces of equipment that help conserve the natural environment . Readers have already learned about planar transformers, heat conductors and hydrogen fuel cells, but there are many more technologies also helping minimise environmental degradation. Here is a selection:

Capturing carbon

Carbon Capture and Storage technology can trap up to 90 per cent of emissions produced from the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation and industrial processes. Once captured, CO2 is transported by pipeline or ship
for safe, permanent underground storage. It is billed by the Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA) as one of the cheapest of the low carbon technologies. The first plants are expected in the UK in 2016 and the CCSA estimate the cost per household will be less than £2 a month.

The crystal ball

By combining the physics of structures with meterology, it is possible to calculate, and therefore control, the heating a building requires. Since its development back in the 80s, forecasting has been introduced into around seven million metres of floorage of residential and commercial properties, and is estimated to reduce energy consumption by between ten and 15 kWh/m2 each year.

Cleaning up

Contaminated land can be transformed following a process of remediation, which removes pollution. This can either involve the excavation of soils and subsequent treatment at the surface, or methods which treat the affected area without removing any materials.

Making waves

Ocean thermal energy conversion, a system that uses the difference between cooler deep and warmer shallow waters to produce power, seems to have found a natural home in the tropics. The area records the greatest ocean temperature differences, helping produce ten to 100 times more energy than other ocean technologies such as wave power. And as an extra bonus, fresh water is produced as a by-product.

Good bacteria

Biofiltration sees living materials such as bacteria and fungi being used to biologically process pollutants. Trickling filters, for example, which clean water for drinking purposes, use micro-organisms to break down materials, reduce water-borne disease and generally improve the quality of the supply.

Double impact

In biospehere technology, solid waste is transformed into a combustible gas and then into electricity. It is possible to use all kinds of waste from household rubbish to agricultural surpluses to medical equipment, offering the added benefit of reducing landfill as well.

This article originally appeared in the New Statesman supplement, "The green tech revolution".