In the future, here's how it's going to work: Sidewalks will power streetlights, buildings will eat smog, nuclear plants will run on nuclear waste, and endangered animals will be socially networked. For our 2012 green issue, we've rounded up cutting-edge fixes for some of the world's trickiest environmental problems, and brought them to you.
(And did we mention the eco-friendly $345,000 lab-grown hamburger? Because that's in here too.)
THE PROBLEM: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT TO DO WITH NUCLEAR WASTE.
THE SOLUTION: USE IT TO MAKE MORE NUCLEAR POWER.
Nuclear power is widely considered one of the cleanest energy sources available, but the specter of a meltdown and questions about how to deal with the unstable waste continue to unnerve the public, especially after Japan’s Fukushima disaster last year. As a result, the debate about nuclear power has long seemed intractable. That’s why General Electric’s PRISM reactor is so compelling. It’s a small, highly efficient, carbon-free “fast reactor” that can run on spent nuclear fuel, yields less radioactive waste than ordinary nuclear plants and has a cooling system that works even if there’s no one around to operate it. According to Eric Loewen, PRISM’s chief engineer, it harnesses clean power safely while also helping to address climate change, making it something that nuke advocates and their environmentalist adversaries can finally agree on. “I see this as a win,” he says. The technology hasn’t been licensed for sale yet, but governments in the U.S. and the U.K. are considering it. — JOE KEOHANE
THE PROBLEM: MACHINES DON’T JUST USE ENERGY. THEY LOSE IT, TOO.
THE SOLUTION: DON’T LET THAT GOOD STUFF GET AWAY — PUT IT TO WORK.
Richard James, a University of Minnesota aerospace engineering and mechanics professor, is among a number of scientists now working on electricity-generating processes that could help capture the heat given off by machines and turn it into electricity. The concept is surprisingly simple: James’ process, for instance, uses alloys of nickel, cobalt, manganese and tin that become magnetized with a slight fluctuation in temperature. The magnetic change, in turn, generates a current in a surrounding coil. Voilà! Electric power. “There are no moving parts,” says James. “In this sense, the material is the machine.”
The process could collect energy in installations as big as power plants or as small as handheld electronic devices, and boost fuel mileage in vehicles by converting their heat to energy. James’ next step is to find the best alloys for efficient energy conversion and power output, and develop a thin-film application of the alloys for use in computers and other electronics. — GREG BREINING
THE PROBLEM: SOLAR POWER IS A NO-BRAINER, BUT SOLAR PANELS ARE A MAJOR HASSLE.
THE SOLUTION: MAKE THE WHOLE PROCESS LEANER, MEANER AND MORE EFFICIENT.
1. Bring the heat. Though touted as a font of clean energy, solar cells actually take a lot of power to produce, particularly because the process requires that silicon, an essential ingredient, be heated to upward of 1,830 degrees F. That’s why researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed a light-based optical furnace that uses about half the energy of a conventional furnace while also being easier to control. As a bonus, it’s more effective at removing impurities from the silicon — increasing the energy efficiency of not only the manufacturing process, but the finished product as well.
2. Road testing. Apparently not content with cycling’s current level of eco-friendliness, Dutch company TNO is using bike paths in the town of Krommenie in northern Holland to test glass-covered, solar cell-embedded concrete panels — a.k.a. SolaRoad — which generate 50 kilowatt-hours of electricity per square meter. But that’s just the beginning: Ultimately, TNO has designs on all of Holland’s 85,000 miles of road.
3. Brush job. Forget Jackson Pollock — researchers at the University of Notre Dame have come up with a way to make paint really energetic. When mixed into a paste and spread onto a conductive material, semiconducting nanoparticles — dubbed “quantum dots” — produce electricity, which could be used to, say, power home appliances. While the resulting solar paint, called “Sun-Believable,” isn’t nearly as efficient as a solar panel, it’s not a bad start. (Besides, some artists don’t get discovered until later in their careers.)
4. Flower power. Researchers at MIT and Germany’s RWTH Aachen University have shown they can boost the efficiency of the field of mirrors that surrounds and directs heat to the 300-foot-plus central tower at concentrated solar plants, or CSPs, by arranging the mirrors in the same spiral pattern as the florets in the head of a sunflower. Compared with the standard concentric-circle arrangement, this pattern not only reduces the amount of real estate needed for each CSP, but also increases the plant’s heat-collecting efficiency — which is a beautiful thing indeed.
5. Straight to the top. If you’re going to cover your roof with solar panels, why bother with shingles and cumbersome arrays of photovoltaic cells? Dow Solar, a division of Dow Chemical, made its Powerhouse solar shingles available in very limited quantities in 2010, but recently expanded its Michigan plant to bring them to the mass market. What promises to make solar power significantly more accessible to homeowners — since a Powerhouse shingle can be installed about as easily as a regular one — began covering roofs in Colorado at the end of last year. — SAM POLCER