TechMatters is a semi-regular column exploring the intersection between tech and our lives, why it matters, and how it’s helping to improve our quality and vitality of life.
Here, we will profile new startups and products that have a vested interest in the betterment of life on a physical, emotional, and humanitarian level.
Throughout history, technological advancements have enabled people to thrive and survive.
For instance, in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell revolutionized communication when he made the first phone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson. Four years later, Thomas Edison lit up people’s lives when he founded the Edison Electric Light Company and began to commercially manufacture light bulbs.
In the early 20th century, polio paralyzed and killed thousands of people. Thankfully, in 1952 Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine and thousands of recipients avoided contracting the debilitating disease.
Furthermore, Information of Things (IoT) technology is being used to combat malnutrition, artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming manufacturing, and scientists are using gene editing to find a cure for HIV.
Despite groundbreaking discoveries like these, huge global concerns continue to plague this planet and its people.
Here are three that are not only pressing but which technology should tackle now for the sake of the future.
Power Grid Energy Storage
Energy storage plays an important part in balancing supply and demand on the electric power grid. However, finding a cost-effective way to manage this storage can be challenging.
The output from renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy is variable. The wind isn’t always blowing and the sun isn’t always shining. Therefore, harnessing stored energy from various sources helps fill in the gap.
According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, energy storage helps “create a more flexible and reliable electricity system.”
Additionally, storage technologies can spread power across the grid very quickly, whereas fossil fuels like oil and gas disperse energy more slowly. Fast distribution of power is good when surprising spikes in demand occur.
Pumped hydroelectric storage reportedly accounts for around 96 percent of the total energy storage capacity in the United States. With this method, water is pumped and stored in a reservoir and then released to create energy when demand increases.
Other current storage technologies include thermal storage, compressed air, hydrogen, flywheels, and batteries (which are expensive).
The United States Department of Energy reports that small power grid fluctuations can cause major disruptions costing billions of dollars. Therefore, developing cost-effective, efficient ways to maximize energy storage is critical, yet challenging.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is behind in storage technology. In fact, only 2.5 percent of delivered electric power in the U.S. is from a storage facility, as opposed to 10 percent in Europe and 15 percent in Japan being cycled through an energy storage center.
Overall, technology leaders need to find a way to store a massive amount of energy at a low cost to meet peak power demands. This will help to effectively manage daily electricity generation across the grid.
About 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the earth’s oceans each year. Sadly, this massive amount of aquatic garbage is harming and killing marine wildlife. Turtles are ingesting straws and other creatures can’t eat because they are cramming their stomachs full of micro-plastic particles.
According to a case study from Montana State University, there are three “plastic islands” which make up the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (aka the Pacific Trash Vortex). This vast water wasteland is in the central North Pacific Ocean. Other patches exist in the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
Because pollutant plastics are non-biodegradable, over 100,000 birds and sea turtles are dying each year from consuming them. Furthermore, inherent plastic chemicals seep into the ocean and contaminate fish.
Additionally, large amounts of carbon dioxide being expelled by burning fossil fuels are making the ocean acidic. It’s even more frightening to note that humans who eat contaminated fish and other creatures face serious health risks.
For example, Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) contained in some plastics is a carcinogen, so ingesting it is toxic. Scientists have linked other plastic toxins to cancer, birth defects, and immune system issues.
What can we do about this terrible problem when plastics take thousands of years to decay?
First, active steps must be taken to reduce the staggering amount of plastic waste produced each year. This can be done by swapping out disposable plastic water bottles for reusable tumblers.
Second, increased government funding for this specific cause is necessary. Researchers face a seemingly impossible task in devising a way to clean up the ocean. However, advancing technology may someday hold the key to solving this devastating global problem. Therefore, government agencies, scientists, and researchers around the world must pull together to find a solution.
According to the World Health Organization, over 1.25 million global traffic deaths occurred in 2013. One important goal of self-driving technology is eliminating these tragic fatalities. Other benefits include reducing traffic jams and opening congested highways.
Currently, Waymo seems to be leading this charge. Google’s pioneering autonomous car company has logged millions of self-driving test miles over the past decade. They also launched the nation’s first autonomous commercial rideshare service, Waymo One, last year.
Other car companies are committed to releasing their own self-driving fleet, including Elon Musk’s Tesla, Hyundai (which unveiled a “walking car” at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show), and Ford, who has already tested self-driving pizza delivery. Bell Nexus even previewed an air taxi at the renowned Las Vegas-based tech show.
Overall, many automakers have increased focus on self-driving technology, and scientists and teachers have even developed tools to teach kids about it.
While multiple automakers want to release autonomous fleets as soon as possible, safety must come first. Therefore, before self-driving cars flood our highways, additional testing must be done.
Overall, these are just three of the many global challenges technology can help with today.