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Technology — the cause (and solution) to problems on planet earth

Powerful ideas, whether they are of a political, religious or technological persuasion, have the capacity to improve our lives. But such ideas can also be misused — either intentionally or unintentionally — which can lead to unforeseen consequences, and cause significant harm to both people and the natural environment here on planet earth.

Putting clean technology in the driving seat

In the sphere of technology, there are many examples of developments that have had an adverse impact on the environment. Generally, these then require new technologies to alleviate or eliminate the negative effects.

Take petrol and diesel powered cars — catalytic converters, particulate filters and other more efficient, cleaner engine technologies have been developed to reduce harmful emissions. Further developments in electric vehicle technologies, powered by fuel cells or batteries, seek to provide an even cleaner means of transportation.

In the field of power generation, nuclear technologies are capable of providing cleaner energy supplies when compared to traditional fossil fuels. Yet, fission technology also produces harmful radioactive waste, and when things go wrong, radioactive leaks have devastating effects. Current research into nuclear fusion technologies, such as the work at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, seeks to provide a solution to this problem.

The plastic pollution problem

A topic of current concern is that of plastic pollution in our oceans — a major environmental problem highlighted in the recent BBC series, Blue Planet 2. For many years, materials companies have been developing plastics for a range of applications. From one perspective, it could be argued that the use of such man-made materials to reduce the demand for natural alternatives such as wood, has a positive environmental impact.

However, many materials have been engineered to improve the performance, robustness and lifetime of plastics. While useful for practical applications in products, these clearly lead to problems when such materials find their way into the natural environment. Research is ongoing to better understand the environmental impact of man-made materials and produce alternatives which do not have such an adverse impact.

A recent BBC article tells the story behind developments in a new frontier of mining — one that would see valuable metals extracted from the rocks of the seabed. The article highlights our increasing demand for raw materials such as cobalt, lithium and copper. It also explores the conundrum that, while such materials are being used to develop cleaner and more environmentally friendly technologies such as electric vehicles, the increased demand for and mining of the required raw materials has an adverse environmental impact. While the ocean floor may provide a valuable source of such materials, there is a need to tread carefully and develop technologies that do not exacerbate the adverse impacts of previously developed technologies.

Can patents save the planet?

Balancing the demands of modern human society with the environmental impact of such demands is clearly an emotive issue. While technological advances have had an adverse environmental impact on planet earth in a variety of ways, given the current state of play, technological advances are required to solve these issues.

These include (but are not limited to):

· Systems and methods of extracting raw materials with reduced environmental impacts.

· Systems and methods of recycling materials to reduce the requirement for further raw materials.

· Alternative product designs which have a reduced requirement for further raw materials.

· More efficient manufacturing methods with reduced energy requirements.

· More energy efficient products.

· Biodegradable materials (or recyclable materials) which have a lower impact on the environment.

· Better filters and waste management systems.

Improvements in all these areas require technological advances. So, while it is clear that technology has many things to answer for in terms of problems caused on planet earth, it would seem that many of the answers to these problems must inevitably lie in technological developments.

In this regard, it’s been recognised that the patent system can be used to encourage innovation in green technologies, with the aim of making it commercially beneficial for companies to seek environmentally friendly solutions to the technological problems of today. For example, in the UK, a special ‘Green Channel’ has been introduced to allow patent applications to be fast-tracked if the invention relates to green or environmentally-friendly technology.

While legislation and ethical arguments seek to encourage green technologies, there is little doubt that given current global market economic systems, providing a commercial driver for companies to develop environmentally-friendly technologies is a key factor to achieve rapid progress. Patents can play a key part in the provision of such a commercial driver — and will hopefully help to save planet earth.

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