The pollution caused by human activities is now seen as the biggest threat to human health worldwide. Its impact — climate change — is driving us to be ever more creative in search of a solution. IP can encourage the innovative endeavours we need to save our planet. While big ideas make the headlines regularly, there’s a lack of consensus as to the best way to reduce or reverse human damage to the environment. However, we can get some key insights by looking at recent patent data.
Here’s a look at some of the most exciting and creative inventions which hope to mitigate the effects of climate change.
1. Atmospheric CO2 removal
Pilot plants around the world are already starting to achieve CO2 reduction by this method. The CO2 is absorbed directly from the atmosphere by a chemical process. The air is moved over substances that bind specifically with CO2 and the resultant compounds can then be treated to release the CO2 for further processing (for example, into carbon-neutral fuels) or sequestering.
There are many patents for atmospheric CO2 removal technologies worldwide, indicating the perceived value of this technology. This process — if coupled with effective processing of the captured CO2 — is a realistic and relatively risk-free approach to limiting global warming. Research seems to be geared towards finding the most effective implementation.
2. Carbon capture and storage underground
This involves capturing CO2 from the air, as with atmospheric CO2 removal, and pumping it into porous rock formations where it’s posited to remain safely for thousands of years. Reportedly, up to 90% of emissions could be captured, spurring large-scale projects around the world. There are some drawbacks — the potential contamination of neighbouring water supplies, pressure-induced seismicity and leakage. However, the CO2 could first be dissolved in water to mitigate the propensity for leakage.
There appears to be a relatively small number of patent filings in this technology, perhaps due to the difficulty of testing sequestering methods. Unlike carbon-neutral technology, which simply doesn’t add to the net carbon in the atmosphere, this method of storing CO2 could actually remove CO2 from the net carbon in the atmosphere.
3. Giant water cannons
One of the more ‘fun’-sounding solutions, giant water cannons at the poles have been proposed by a physicist in the US. This would involve installing millions of water cannons to shoot seawater onto the surface of the ice sheets where it would refreeze and thereby thicken the ice. The thicker the ice, the longer it lasts. Ice serves the valuable purposes of reflecting sunlight (thereby reducing global warming) and freezing water that would otherwise cause sea levels to rise. While the idea seems promising, its projected price tag is the hefty sum of $500 billion.
With this in mind, it may not be surprising that my brief search didn’t reveal any proprietary cannons earmarked for this use just yet. This idea would combat both temperature and sea-level rises but it’s unclear how long the refrozen ice would remain frozen. Rising sea-levels are a threat to many inhabited areas, with associated potential costs due to flood damage or new builds for mass relocation potentially more than $500 billion.
4. Artificially mimicking a volcanic eruption
Extreme conditions call for extreme solutions and spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere is set to be tested. The idea is based on the observed temporary global cooling caused by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. Sunlight is (in theory) reflected by sulphate particles, which would remain suspended in the stratosphere for 18 months. Potential drawbacks include shifting rain patterns or adverse effects on agriculture. A similar technological intervention of spraying water into the atmosphere was denied patent protection in 2012. This was due to its potential to affect every human on the planet, as winds in the atmosphere would disperse any particles introduced all over the world — meaning that any unanticipated adverse effects would be global. On the basis that dust particles in the air wiped out the dinosaurs, I suspect that mimicking this phenomenon could reduce our already shrinking biodiversity. The possible repercussions are difficult to predict.
5. Using drones to plant trees
A recent study has suggested that the most effective method to combat climate change is simply to plant trees — at least a trillion of them, in fact, all around the world. Apparently, we have the space to do this but to achieve the necessary scale, we may need a robotic hand. Reviving deforested areas can accelerate the regeneration of carbon-capturing forests. The idea is simple but effective and several patents have been filed in this area.
6. Lab-grown meat
While this technology has only recently entered public discourse, its first patent was filed back in 1997. Many patents have subsequently been filed for variations in the process. The idea behind it is that producing ‘traditional’ meat for the entire world requires a huge volume of resources in terms of water, land and feed — to such an extent that the UN is encouraging plant-based diets as a means to combat climate change. Producing ‘lab-grown’ (or ‘cultured’) meat involves cultivating animal cells in-vitro. More recent developments take the starter cells from animal umbilical cords so that no animals need to be killed in the entire process. Muscle, fat or stem cells can divide in a culture environment, often supported by an edible scaffold, until a sufficiently large piece of ‘meat’ is produced.
The number of patents filed for this technology is in the low hundreds, but quick keyword searches are likely to be inaccurate due to lack of a standardised terminology. This technology has great potential to ease the move away from the carbon-heavy farmed meats we require to feed our projected population in the coming decades.
7. Plastic-eating enzymes
These were engineered in 2018 and can degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, which would otherwise persist for hundreds of years before breaking down naturally. Nature provided us with a bacterium capable of digesting PET by way of the enzyme PETase. The engineered enzymes are an improvement on PETase, which is thought to have evolved in a plastic recycling centre.
Several patents have been filed on this basis relating to different methods for treating a plastic by an enzyme. This technology may save us from the plastic crisis seen in our seas. With recent indications that micro-plastics are infiltrating the food-chain, this technology is desperately needed.
Renewables and fast-track patents
There’s often a push-back against ideas which are perceived as short-term solutions that discourage energy providers from switching to renewables. Yet these seven ideas could at least provide us with more time to make that switch. It will be interesting to see which technologies really take-off and which can be truly effective in the fight to reduce our impact on climate change.