Environmental technology forecast

The 10 top environmental technological breakthroughs in the next decade, as predicted by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory:

Agrogenetics - Genetic engineering and plant manipulation will reduce agricultural impacts on the environment. Growing crops will require fewer amounts of pesticides, due to greater pest resistance. Some crops will be engineered to require less fertilizer and water while providing higher yields.

Smart water treatment - Smart membranes, or filters, will improve water treatment at sewage plants and municipal water supplies by automatically adjusting to unclog themselves. Sponge-like grains of sand will attract and hold nitrates and heavy metals to protect drinking water.

Renewable energy storage - Improved power storage will increase the use of electricity generated from solar and wind power. Renewable energy sources will help slow increases in greenhouse gases by replacing carbon-based fuels.

Microtechnology - Room air will be heated and cooled more efficiently by tiny channels of micro heat pumps, saving energy. Microchemical plants will produce industrial chemicals as needed, eliminating storage and transportation safety issues.

Paperless society - Innovative displays, wireless communications and customized Web publications will help reduce the use of paper. 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 faxes and customized news anywhere. For paper products that continue to be used, biodegradable inks will be more common.

Molecular design - Molecular design of catalysts could make chemical reactions and processing so precise that little or no wastes are produced. Sensors designed at the molecular level will monitor material and chemical manufacturing more precisely, halting or correcting processes sensitive to temperature changes and other parameters.

Bioprocessing- 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. The production of "extremozymes" - microorganisms retrieved from extremely hot, cold or forbidding environments - will expand the range of temperatures and conditions used in manufacturing biotech products, creating opportunities for new, environmentally friendly bioprocesses while saving time and energy.

Real-time environmental sensors - 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, preventing infections at hospitals and in municipal water supplies, and guarding against pathogens used in biological terrorism.

Enviromanufacturing and recycling - Plastics, paper, cars and computers will be more recyclable or biodegradable. Dry cleaning with liquid carbon dioxide will minimize or eliminate waste. Hazardous chemicals will no longer 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. Creating a composite sandwich of glass and plastic will cut the 150 pounds of glass in today's cars by a third or more. Today's 100-pound air conditioners will weigh half as much, once glass is specially coated to reflect or absorb heat radiation.

For more information, contact Greg Koller at Pacific Northwest via e-mail at greg.koller@pnl.gov or at (509) 372-4864, or go to www.pnl.gov/news/back/envirbg.htm

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This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.

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