It’s Earth Day, and with it, a time to reflect on humanity’s affect on the world and environment.  The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change reports that the current way of life risks the quality of life and ultimately the future of humanity with just a 1.5℃ increase in global temperatures.  Not all is lost, however.  Technological innovations might just save the world.  Here are four from Northwestern:

Better Fuels

In addition to creating sustainable energies via wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable sources, biofuels are also an important renewable technology.  Professor Michael Jewett, working with the Department of Energy, will collect waste gases from industrial processes such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and construct cellular factories that will lead to the development of biofuels.  In this process, Jewett and his team will evaluate thousands of possible cellular factories, which will lead to additional projects and studies.  This study will not only lead to the creation of better, inexpensive biofuels, which will reduce our dependence on petroleum-based fuels, but it will also reduce the amount of waste greenhouse gas emissions as a result of industrial practices.  

Better batteries

Batteries may seem trivial as a means to creating a more sustainable world, but consider the future of electronics and cars and their efficiency.  More efficient batteries require less energy generation from fossil fuels and the manufacturing of less materials such as silicon.  Tesla is hastily developing cheaper ways to develop batteries with their Gigafactory.  At the same time, battery technology is advancing through innovations and inventions at Northwestern.  

One study, led by Professor Christopher Wolverton, used a lithium-manganese-oxide cathode to create a battery that can last twice as long between charges as current technology.  This would be a huge advancement for electronics, from your cell phone and laptop to your electric vehicle.  Currently, Wolverton and his team are working to resolve the rapid degradation issues that have arisen with this innovation, but this is still potentially game-changing should the technology achieve stability.

Another study by Professor Jiaxing Huang and colleagues used Huang’s past discovery of crumpled graphene balls and applied it to battery technology.  Current batteries integrate lithium with silicon and other materials, but this has the consequence of “diluting” the lithium and thus the efficacy of the battery.  Huang’s battery uses the graphene balls as a form of scaffolding for the lithium, which allows the batteries to be more efficient since more lithium can be stored.  In addition, the batteries can be lighter.  

Better materials

Professor Huang is back, and this time he is advancing the production of carbon nanotubes to change the landscape of materials sciences as well as electrical engineering.  Using cresol, an inexpensive solvent, Huang has been able to make greater concentrations of carbon nanotubes, which are traditionally precarious to create.  The uses for carbon nanotubes, which are the more futuristic version of carbon fiber, are vast and exciting.  They include hydrogen fuel cells, nanometer-sized semiconductors and electronics, supercapacitors, and super strong building materials (space elevator anyone?).  With Huang’s research, not only might the world be saved, but it might flourish.