February 22, 2020
Jacob Malcom

We’re all aware of the grave threats that face biodiversity around the world and, in turn, threaten human society. Habitat destruction and overexploitation are leading challenges and are ubiquitous in every town and county, affecting wildlife and habitats all around us. These are followed closely by the ever-growing threat of climate change, a global process that can be addressed if we take action. 

New technology may be among the solutions! Yesterday while scoping out some new reports in scientific journals, I saw a new and very intriguing development: a material that produces energy from thin air! No fossil fuels, (perhaps) fewer deployment restrictions, and continuous energy generation.

Desert NWR Alamo Deadhorse
J. Witt

We track emerging technology from the Center for Conservation Innovation and across Defenders, like on our Renewable Energy team, we use these solutions to advance conservation. A few months ago, I wrote a post about extracting water from air—even in arid environments—using a new material that only required energy from the sun and natural cooling at night. This is pretty amazing and could have big implications for wildlife like desert fishes—think if we didn’t extract water from their streams! A few months later I wrote about a new technology for cooling air without using any power and what that could mean for wildlife: reducing catastrophic feed-forward loops when we warm the planet by burning fossil fuels for energy and then turn up our air conditioners to offset the warming, which uses more energy.

Wind Farm
Tom Brewster Photography

This new technology written up yesterday isn’t wind power, but it’s able to pull energy from the air…so what magic is this?

In the journal Nature—one of the top journals in the world—a group of authors from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, reported on a thin membrane created from bacteria (Geobacter sulfurreducens). The membrane is developed from protein wires and when there’s a moisture gradient across the membrane, electricity is generated. It doesn’t work through decomposition or any kind of chemical reaction, but it’s able to work in the dark. The film generated steady energy for two months during testing, speaking to its longevity. The simple elegance of the experiments stood out and while there are many other results throughout the paper, this new technology is be exciting!  

Atlantic Puffins
Megan Lorenz

“But Jacob,” you may be asking, “What does this mean for wildlife?” Like the technologies I’ve blogged about before, this could dramatically change how we power society. Currently, the way we get power is more often than not destructive to wildlife and their habitats. What if we had power substations that used a bacteria-generated film to pull energy from the air, distributed around our towns and cities to complement solar arrays and wind farms? We could be moving to a time when we don’t have to burn another drop of oil or gas… polar bears losing sea ice would certainly like that! What if that air-cooling metamaterial that uses no extra energy replaced our current air conditioners? We’d have happy penguins and puffins and plants that wouldn’t need to shift their ranges due to uninhabitable climates! What if these technologies—and other innovative solutions—were deployed in our aridlands alongside water generators that reduced or even eliminated our need to extract groundwater? There would be fish, freshwater mussels and other aquatic critters surviving in riparian areas and vernal pools! And there could be a cool, new green job as a Geobacter sulfurreducens rancher, raising the bacteria that create energy for America and the world without massive damage to ecosystems and the global climate? There are so many possibilities!

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Polar Bears
Image Credit
Richard Rothstein
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Mtn yellow-legged frog Rana sierrae
Image Credit
CDFW
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Western glacier stonefly
Image Credit
USFWS

We hear a lot in the news about the dangers of technology with privacy and our society’s dependence on screens. But emerging technologies can be a force for good in the world when they’re put towards solving an existential problem like the climate crisis or the looming sixth mass extinction. 

Author(s)

Jacob Malcom

Jacob Malcom

Director, Center for Conservation Innovation
Jacob Malcom leads the Center for Conservation Innovation, which focuses on improving endangered species conservation in the U.S., especially under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
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