6 emerging technologies to watch
All are likely winners
Climeworks Orca plant, courtesy of Climeworks
I recently watched an Economist, digital event about new technologies to look out for this year. For any weekly readers, you’ll know I’m rather partial to a bit of Future Gazing and couldn’t resist reporting their considered best shots.
Direct Air Capture
….is a technology which sucks CO2 out of the air. The most famous installation so far, called Orca, built by Climeworks, is just outside Reykjavik in Iceland on a geothermally active plateau. The dystopian transistor radio look-a-like, with the uninhabited backdrop of Iceland would fit neatly into a sci-fi movie, the plant sucking valuable carbon out of a young planet’s atmosphere.
In our own race against time, we continue to generate 40 billion tons of CO2 every year. The modular fan system, powered entirely by renewable energy, collects air where the CO2 is captured on a filter material. Once the filter is full, the collector is closed and the temperature raised to 80-100 degrees centigrade to release the CO2.
They’ve partnered with Carbfix, an Icelandic company, which mixes the CO2 with water and pumps it deep underground where it reacts with the basalt rock and mineralises within a few years, captured for good.
This technology is not going to be the convenient life style preserver you might be expecting, so hold off on ordering your new Hummer, electric or otherwise. The demo facility currently removes 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. Even if the world meets the climate targets agreed, it’s estimated that 10 billion tons of CO2 will still need to be removed from the atmosphere every year from 2050. (Some industrial processes will continue generating CO2. Coal will still be burnt somewhere). The current cost to remove a ton of CO2 at Orca is $600-800 which is not economically viable. The aim is to reduce this closer to $100 in the future.
What’s interesting is the tech is already here. The ability to scale will be a matter of time as the processes are refined further. I also discovered that 24 Direct Air Capture projects have been selected for funding by the UK government.
One of the biggest issues with diets, is they don’t work. At least not for many of us over the longer term. The ability to measure, beyond what we see on the scales in the bathroom, has been catching up with food and its impact upon us individually. There is now plenty of evidence to support the view that we don’t all react equally to the same food. The adage that one person’s meat is another person’s poison has never been more true.
Start-ups, mostly in the US, are growing in the market. They assess your gut health, test your blood and some offer wearable sensors to measure blood sugar in real time. With lots of personal data from thousands of individuals, algorithms have been developed to provide analysis of what is good and bad for you.
We are already used to wearing smart watches, dedicated tracking devices for walking, running, golf, there are even rings which collect personal data. As mentioned, new sensors are now checking more, including hydration, sugar levels, alcohol and quality of sleep. The results for sleep tracking from such devices is now nearly as good as visiting a sleep lab, it’s that accurate.
This is because the sensors which use LED and infrared light have improved and the algorithms optimised from all the personal data which has been crunched.
Smart wearables have been an alternative watch for many years now. As richer functionality like personalised nutrition becomes available, I expect the market will continue to expand rapidly, provided it’s an app available in a store near you, because most of us will only ever wear one device.
….is Space X’s new rocket. It stands 10m taller than the Saturn V rockets which took astronauts to the moon. The huge difference is the rocket is fully reusable and with a payload in excess of 100 metric tonnes, it’s the future of space travel.
Regardless of Elon Musk’s ambitions, who owns Space X to colonise Mars, there will be a lot of spin-off technologies, which help mankind make life better here on earth.
One of them, Starlink, is already happening. This is the deployment of satellites in low earth orbits to provide global broadband internet connectivity. In the current Ukraine war, it has been impossible for Russia to turnoff the internet there, as Starlink terminals have been donated to the Ukrainian government.
The environmental impact of a methane fuelled rocket has not escaped Space X’s attention either, especially as there could be multiple flights a day in the future. Musk is investing in Direct Air Capture (and no doubt other promising tech), as carbon offsetting will be an essential part of the future to ensure that launches remain a carbon neutral exercise.
You might remember that Facebook at the back end of last year rebranded to Meta, in an attempt to distance itself from a number of awkward PR moments. It was also a bold statement about where they think the future of the mobile internet is going. The metaverse is not Facebook.
Similar to the PC based internet in the eighties, connecting computers into a global network, the metaverse connects virtual worlds. This has significant appeal to gamers and any applications which might benefit from the use of virtual and augmented reality.
We’ve all seen people punching fresh air looking like welders with their virtual reality headsets on, immersed in a 3-dimensional world. Hardware functionality continues to improve quickly and this year there is expectation that Apple will enter the fray with their own version of what a headset should look like and do.
If the metaverse does eventually become the user interface for all systems post smartphone, it has another big hurdle to overcome. Unlike the internet, there is currently no agreed standard for the metaverse, which will be vital if it’s to succeed.
We’ve all heard and many of us benefitted from the mRNA type of vaccine which became everyday news during the pandemic, when Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech used this new technology. It only took Moderna 7 weeks to develop their trial vaccine, which was unheard of prior to the pandemic. It belies the decades of research already spent by many scientists since the 1970s, to develop this technology.
mRNA, uses a small molecule called messenger, which delivers an encoded message for protein production. In the case of the Corona vaccine, this looks a lot like the spike protein on the virus. Once our cells finish making the protein, they quickly break down the mRNA avoiding any alteration to our DNA.
What is really exciting is this carrier technology could be used for a lot more than vaccines, although there are already discussions about a combined flu and corona vaccine, a super corona vaccine producing multiple proteins as well as HIV, Ebola and others. Think of the technology also being used to programme cells which are going wrong, like cancer ones.
It seems to be one of the best dividends created as a result of the pandemic, due to the urgency of the situation. It was enough to change the attitude too, whatever it takes, to get mRNA launched commercially.
Is this the technology which will have the biggest near term impact? The one that could make the most headlines and save more lives.
Carbon capture is a sticking plaster for a gaping wound. What we need to do is stop producing so much carbon dioxide in the first place.
Starlink I’m still not convinced. It’s expensive, causes issues for astronomers and there’s a risk of cascade collision.
I would rather live in the real world than the metaverse. That being said, how do we know we are not living in a metaverse already :-)
Is fixing the problem or preventing the problem the answer. If it’s prevention then Crispr has more of a future than MRNA.
Keep on writing, it’s interesting to hear your thoughts.