The climate crisis is upon us, and with it a gargantuan task to mitigate the effects of our warming planet. Last week’s European heatwave saw the temperature in France soar to 45.9C (114.6F) and an intense battle against wildfires in Spain. Both anomalies in a historically temperate continent, these extremes were a preview of what will become the New Normal if we don’t abide by the Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature below a 2C increase compared to pre-industrial levels.
When we think about the solutions to what feels like an impossible feat, the ideas being brought to the table really should be drawing on innovative technologies and creative thought: Cleantech. So how do we maintain the quality of life that we all know and love, but without doing so at the detriment of our children and grandchildren (if there’s even a semblance of Earth as we know it left by that point)?
Not only do we need to achieve net zero carbon emissions, we need to begin actively drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to reverse some of the damage that we have done over the last century. One such solution is tree planting, which I’m all for, but another is a little more out there and yet perfectly fitting for our world’s cities: the bionic leaf.
Verdant cities are a real sight to behold, with the beautiful urban farms that scatter the globe a tiny window into the enchanting way that we could be doing things the world over. However, buildings still need to be built and maintained to keep up with our growing global population and penchant for the urban sprawl. Technology aimed at improving this infrastructure is what I get most excited about and why I reckon Arborea’s BioSolar Leaf Technology is probably the coolest thing you’ll read about today.
Imagine a system that was capable of using solar energy to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, replacing it with fresh oxygen at 100x the rate of trees covering the same surface area. It sounds like a dream, right? Well, that’s exactly what the BioSolar Leaf is promising. Created in partnership between startup Arborea and powerhouse Imperial College London, this genius technology uses sunlight to cultivate microalgae on solar panels that can be fitted on any building, anywhere.
Unlike most other artificial systems that require a gas compressor to perform this conversion from CO2 to O2, this one can do so at the low atmospheric pressure found on the earth’s surface. That’s a big deal. Furthermore, as well as doing the dance of this important gas exchange, a by-product is nutrient-dense and protein-rich microalgae that can be used as a food source.
As well as contributing valuable antioxidants and other nutrients, algae are protein-rich and the BioSolar Leaf is a way of cultivating more protein per square inch than any other food source. In addition, the brightly-coloured microfood can be used as a natural food colouring.
In areas where soils have been depleted due to intensive agriculture, or where the land has been developed in some way (known as Brownfield land), tree planting isn’t always a viable solution, for plants can struggle to take root if the conditions aren’t right. In these instances, the BioSolar Leaf is the perfect solution. Imagine houses, schools and shopping malls fitted with these solar panels, leaving the buildings able to continue serving their function, while doubling up as a tool to counteract climate change. Furthermore, as a food source for the people using those very facilities.
Our cities are often the sites of the greatest disparity between the extremely wealthy and those fighting for survival. As the climate crisis worsens, we will only see greater numbers of refugees seeking asylum, or livelihoods rendered unviable as a result of things like crops that can no longer grow or droughts that threaten daily life . Perhaps one of the ways that we can best support these people is by investing our resources in multifunctional technologies like the BioSolar Leaf.
It can certainly feel at times like giving all of your soul still isn’t enough to help the cause, but there’s a lot of cool research that sits ever so promisingly in the pipeline, that I think big changes are now—finally—on the horizon. Watch this space.
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