Five incredible sustainability predictions for the next five years

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The world is on the cusp of some huge breakthroughs which have the potential to help our environment for decades to come.

IBM Research announces its annual 5 in 5: five significant innovations in science and technology that could change the world within five years.

Each year the research arm of IBM publishes a list of five groundbreaking scientific innovations with the potential to change the way humans live, work and interact over the next five years. These aren’t just lofty predictions, but future altering challenges the company intends to achieve through an accelerated discovery cycle.

Last year, for example, the 5 in 5 imagined how tech could revolutionise the food supply chain from “seed to shelf,” and included a technology called twinning, which uses sensors and weather data to create simulations so accurate that they effectively become a “digital twin,” to help farmers massively increase yields while reducing environmental costs.

This year’s announcement was timed to coincide with the first ever United Nations General Assembly (the annual gathering of world leaders each year) to be held virtually and the predictions focused on the question, “How can we use technology to reinvent materials design and discovery to find more sustainable solutions to everyday problems?”

In line with the UN’s global call to action of Sustainable Development Goals, IBM’s 5 in 5 predictions all centre on researchers working to speed up the discovery of new materials to address our most significant global issues.

A statement released by the company said that IBM, “is committed to dedicating its technology, talent, and resources toward advancing research and the discovery of new materials, including five core areas in the next five years”.

Capturing and transforming CO2 to mitigate climate change

Prediction one: in the next five years, IBM predicts we will be able to capture CO2 from the air and transform it from the scourge of the environment into something useful. Until now, typical approaches to capture emitted CO2 have been, while efficient in terms of the amount of CO2 removed, too energy intensive and costly for widespread global use.

Using the accelerated discovery cycle, IBM will seek to understand what materials and methods exist today so scientists can identify areas ripe for discovery. The goal is to make CO2 capture and reuse efficient enough to scale globally so we can significantly reduce the level of the harmful CO2 in the atmosphere and, ultimately, slow climate change.

Modelling Mother Nature to feed a growing citizenry while reducing carbon emissions

Prediction two: we will replicate nature’s ability to convert nitrogen in the soil into nitrate-rich fertiliser, feeding the growing world while reducing the environmental impact of fertilisers.

The world’s ever-growing population could reach nearly ten billion people by 2050, up from nearly eight billion today and all those people will need to eat. This prediction sets the goal for IBM to come up with an innovative solution to enable nitrogen fixation at a sustainable scale and help feed the world’s rapidly growing population.

Rethinking batteries before we have to rethink our world

Prediction three: we will discover new materials for safer and more environmentally-preferable batteries capable of supporting a renewable-based energy grid and more sustainable transport. As the world population grows and developing nations continue to raise their living standards, world energy use is expected to soar fifty per cent by 2050, with much of that driven by the industrial and transportation sectors.

Only through fuller use of non-carbon renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydropower can we meet that demand without pumping more climate-damaging CO2 into the atmosphere. But most of these renewable energy sources are intermittent and require storage. The use of AI and quantum computing will result in batteries built with safer and more efficient materials for improved performance.

Sustainable materials, sustainable products, sustainable planet

Prediction four: in the next five years, we will advance materials manufacturing, enabling the manufacturers of semiconductors, used extensively in electronic circuits, to improve the sustainability of their coveted products.

Scientists will embrace a new approach to materials design that enables the tech industry to more quickly produce sustainable materials for the production of semiconductors and electronic devices.

Learning from our past for a healthier future

Prediction five: IBM also pledged to help facilitate the generation of treatments to aid physicians and frontline workers in combating novel, life-threatening viruses on a larger scale than is currently possible.

Obviously, the COVID-19 crisis caught the world largely unprepared and scientists estimate there could be over a million viruses in nature with potential to progress in a similar manner as SARS-CoV-21, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Therefore, epidemiologists assume the current viral threat won’t be our last. IBM predicts that a combination of AI, analytics and data can potentially help with the rapid analysis of real-world medical evidence to suggest new candidates for drug repurposing and speed clinical trials.

In the future, these tools may reach widespread adoption across industries, effectively becoming one of the means of rapidly responding to global, life-threatening viruses.

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