RICHLAND, Wash. -- By the year 2008, drinking water will be safer, lighter weight cars will get 80 miles to a gallon and food crops will be engineered genetically to require less pesticide and fertilizer.
In its first environmental technology forecast, a team of researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has identified the 10 most important technological breakthroughs that will lead to a cleaner environment while providing major benefits to consumers over the next decade. Technologies that help prevent problems before they arise surfaced as a major theme.
"Our team members represent decades of experience on national and international environmental issues including global climate change, environmental technology development and remediation of major waste sites worldwide," says Gerry Stokes, associate laboratory director at Pacific Northwest. "Dreams and demos now, these technologies will have real impacts by 2008."
This is the first of an ongoing dialogue to forecast the direction environmental science and technology is heading in the 21st century, according to Stokes. "Our hope is to provide this look ahead on an annual basis to help enhance public understanding and government decision making," he says.
Pacific Northwest researchers ranked the top 10 environmental technological breakthroughs for 2008 as:
Agrogenetics--Genetic engineering and plant manipulation will reduce agricultural impacts on the environment. Growing crops will require less pesticide due to greater resistance to pests. Other crops will be engineered to use their nutrients efficiently, requiring less fertilizer or water while providing higher yields. And, crops with several new features -- such as soybeans that taste better, use less fertilizer and resist pests -- will be available.
Smart water treatment--Smart membranes, or filters, will improve water treatment at sewage plants and municipal water supplies by adjusting simply or even automatically to unclog themselves. Membranes and other techniques will remove organic compounds, which currently can result in undesired reactions with chlorine. Sponge-like grains of sand will attract and hold nitrates and heavy metals to further protect drinking water in large and small systems.
Renewable energy storage--In 10 years, improved power storage will increase the use of electricity from solar and wind power. For example, solar power collected during the day could be stored in rapidly spinning flywheels and used at night. The result will be power on demand instead of when the sun shines or wind blows. These renewable energy sources also will help slow increases in greenhouse gases by replacing carbon-based fuels.
Micro is beautiful--The silicon chip ushered in micromanufacturing. Now micro technology for producing and using everything from chemicals to energy will provide economic and environmental advantages. For example, room air will be heated and cooled more efficiently in tiny channels of micro heat pumps, saving energy. And, micro chemical plants will produce industrial chemicals as needed, thereby eliminating storage and transportation safety issues.
Paperless society--Innovative displays, wireless communications and customized web magazines will help reduce the mounds of paper in our lives as well as the environmental impacts from paper and ink manufacturing and use. Advanced display systems may imitate paper in their flexibility and portability. One approach will project images directly on the retina of the eye. This capability, coupled with a cellular phone, could provide everyone from couch potatoes to business travelers with faxes and customized news anywhere. For paper products that continue to be used, biodegradable inks will be more common.
Molecular design--An understanding of how materials behave at the molecular level will help in the development of advanced materials and more efficient solar cells. Molecular design of catalysts could make chemical reactions and processing so precise that little or no wastes are produced. And sensors designed at the molecular level will monitor manufacturing of materials and chemicals more precisely, halting or correcting processes sensitive to temperature changes and other parameters. The result will be higher quality products with fewer environmental impacts.
Bioprocessing grows more products--Microorganisms and plants will "grow" environmentally friendly chemical and biological products such as drugs, proteins and enzymes for many uses. Producing chemical feedstocks, fuels and pharmaceuticals in this manner will be cost effective and better for the environment. Microorganisms retrieved from extremely hot, cold or forbidding environments are renewing excitement in the bioprocessing industry for the production of "extremozymes." These enzymes expand the range of temperatures and conditions used in manufacturing biotech products, creating opportunity for new, environmentally friendly bioprocesses while saving time and energy.
Real-time environmental sensors--These innovative sensors will be a major boon to public health. Supermarkets will use sensors to detect E. coli and other dangerous pathogens in food. Workplace air quality will be monitored to prevent "sick building syndrome." Other benefits include monitoring the environment on airplanes, at hospitals to prevent infections and in municipal water supplies. The same technology will help guard against pathogens used in biological terrorism.
Enviromanufacturing and recycling--In 10 years, "green" companies will create products that are environmentally friendly from cradle to grave. Plastics, paper, beverage containers and inks, as well as cars and computers, will be more biodegradable or recyclable. Also, newer processes, such as dry cleaning with liquid carbon dioxide, will minimize or eliminate waste. Hazardous chemicals no longer will be used to clean clothes and the carbon dioxide will be captured and recycled so as not to add to atmospheric carbon.
Lightweight Cars--Squeezing every ounce possible out of cars will mean a family sedan that gets at least 80 miles per gallon of gas, generates less pollution and uses less gas. Lighter cars will be built with less steel and more lightweight aluminum, magnesium, titanium and composites. Advanced metal-forming techniques will provide precisely the strength needed at every point, eliminating all excess weight from today's designs. Creating a composite sandwich of glass and plastic will cut the 68 kilograms (150 pounds) of glass in today's cars a third or more. Composite glass also will begin playing a structural role so that metal can be reduced. Today's 45.4-kilogram (100-pound) air conditioners will weigh half as much once glass is specially coated to reflect or absorb heat radiation.
Pacific Northwest is one of DOE's nine multiprogram national laboratories that conducts basic and applied research to solve problems in environmental, energy, health and national security arenas. The Laboratory has been operated for DOE by Battelle since 1965.
Recent environmental work at Pacific Northwest includes developing a process that uses microbes to break down sulfur in waste tire rubber, making tires recyclable; working with other national laboratories and automakers to develop a cleaner, more efficient automobile; designing a 190-liter-per-second (3,000 gallon-per-minute) jet mixing pump to stabilize hazardous waste tanks containing ferrocyanide and other dangerous elements at DOE's Hanford site; and participating in a multilab effort to predict global and regional climate change.
For more information on Pacific Northwest's environmental research go to http://www.pnl.gov/news/back/envirbg.htm.
The above story is based on materials provided by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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