Story | 05/29/2023 09:21:05 | 7 min Read time

Materialising a future

Ndèla Faye


The global population may reach 9.7 billion by 2050, meaning the natural resources of three Planet Earths will be needed to sustain our current lifestyles. What is being done to reduce this impact – and what effect will this have on our behaviour as consumers?

Historical periods have been named after the materials that shaped the advancement of humanity. Their significance is immeasurable, and it could be argued that advances in materials science and the advancement of human civilization are correlated. The discovery and utilisation of bronze, iron – and, more recently, oil and aluminium, have been pivotal in human evolution. But where has the incessant pursuit of the next big material led us?

We are at a point where our over-dependence on fossil-based resources is no longer viable. Luckily for us and our planet, materials science is a field in which constant advances are being made to troubleshoot the imminent problems we are facing across the globe. Scientists, engineers and researchers are among those tirelessly looking for solutions to ensure a better future for us all, while trying to beat the relentlessly ticking time bomb of climate change, population growth, scarce raw materials and much more.

We create a future beyond fossils

A circular economy is the future

Someone who has spent decades tirelessly working to defuse that bomb is Emily A. Carter, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, whose current research is being backed by the US Department of Energy and US Department of Defence. 

Carter believes that we must be moving towards operating in a fully circular economy: “For centuries, we have been extracting carbon out of the ground. It’s important not to demonise those who have made innovations in that space because ultimately, it’s what has enabled our way of life. None of the early innovators could have known the extent to which it would jeopardise the future of our planet until much more recently. Now that we know better, we must do better.”

Recycling, reusing and upcycling are likely to become the norm in the future. “We also need to rethink recycling and find new ways to recycle plastics and batteries more effectively, for example,” Carter notes.

Circular bioeconomy at UPM

New materials underway 

According to the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra, circular economy interventions in four key sectors – food and agriculture, construction, textiles and forestry – can halt global biodiversity loss and help the world recover. However, Sitra’s Project Director Kari Herlevi highlights that this will require significant changes in the way we produce, consume and manage products and materials.

Rethinking our current approach must include reassessing the types of fuels we use. Hydrogen is often presented as a “great green fuel” but, as Carter points out, 95% of the hydrogen in use, especially when driving, emitted CO2 when it was produced in the first place. The use of a completely green fuel would be monumental when utilised in industry, storage, transportation and electricity.

UPM’s sustainable and advanced biofuels

Carter's current research focuses on the understanding and design of materials for sustainable energy. She’s been working for several years with collaborators at Arizona State University on solar energy conversion to produce ‘green’ hydrogen using solar thermochemical water splitting.

Having a way to generate hydrogen from sunlight has huge implications because, in principle, you end up with a fuel, which, when it burns, produces water and zero greenhouse gases.
Emily A. Carter

“We have had some very recent exciting results and are submitting a paper on it. We’ve designed a new material based on our quantum modelling, and experiments conducted by other collaborators at US Department of Energy National Laboratories have verified its efficacy – although I can’t say much more than that right now,” she confides.

In addition, Carter is working jointly with experimentalists at Houston’s Rice University on nanotechnology, which would displace the need to use fossil carbon and could revolutionise the chemical industry by reusing greenhouse gases to form chemicals and fuels.

She believes incentives need to be put in place to drive change and innovation. “I wish people could see that our planet is burning and recognise that we need to step beyond our self-interest and fight climate change,” she adds.

Incentives drive innovation

Incentivising innovation is at the core of what the XPRIZE Foundation does. The non-profit organisation designs and hosts large-scale global incentive competitions to crowdsource solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. The construction sector is increasingly using engineered wood such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) which are sourced from sustainably managed forests.

“Our vision is to co-architect an abundant, hopeful and equitable future for humanity. We do this by identifying barriers and grand challenges that humanity faces, and then we incentivise radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity,” summarises Anousheh Ansari, XPRIZE Foundation CEO.

Its model has proven to be successful outside of global economics and political systems, and its focus is on impact. Fundamentally, Ansari believes that there are more people in the world that want to do good and help others, and this hopeful energy is what XPRIZE is all about. “Our audacious missions start by identifying clear targets and inspiring the global community of problem solvers to build the solutions. By identifying the outcomes without specifying the approach, we maximise innovative approaches to find the best, most efficient solutions,” she explains.

“As an entrepreneur, the incentive prize model was a no-brainer for me. Competition inspires crowdsourced solutions without a payout until the solution is built and tested, minimising risk. Since the first XPRIZE proved successful, we’ve used this model to inspire innovation for humanity’s pressing challenges across other sectors and have seen similar and better results,” Ansari states.

Future of material innovation

When it comes to materials of the future, the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE challenged teams to turn waste carbon dioxide into valuable products. One winning team is focusing on injecting the CO2 emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities into concrete that can be used for construction, and in the process, help the sector reduce its footprint.

Ansari is excited and hopeful about the possibilities that some of the research is producing: “We believe this technology holds the potential to make immense changes to our society.”

Who knows what the next era in our civilisation will hold – and what material it might be named after? By working together to find these urgent solutions, we won’t be overstretching our planet threefold for natural resources, but rather sustainably utilising the one Earth that we all inhabit.

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