We currently find ourselves facing multiple crises, including war, the COVID-19 pandemic, recession, and climate change. In the face of all the bad news, it is sometimes hard to find a positive perspective on the future. But there are reasons for hope. Many new technologies are almost ready to deploy and hold the potential to change our society in fundamental ways.
The list of transformative innovations is virtually endless. But five technologies in particular could profoundly influence our society, our economy, and our fight against climate change in the coming years and decades. Autonomous vehicles will fundamentally change the way we get around. The blockchain will revolutionize business. Rapid charging stations will help electric vehicles achieve a breakthrough. New battery systems will enable a new type of energy supply and carbon capture is a potent new tool in the fight against climate change.
Today, driver-assist functions such as lane departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control, and park distance control provide more relaxing and safer driving experience. However, technological progress will not halt there. What for a long time seemed science fiction will soon be reality. Autonomous driving will form a core component of our mobility in the future.
Various car manufacturers including Mercedes, Tesla and BMW are making rapid progress towards autonomous driving and are reporting further breakthroughs along the way. Autonomous driving will not only transform how we get around, but it will also fundamentally change how we see cars. Today, most people use cars to get from point A to point B. In the future, you will be able to use your car as a workplace or as a place of relaxation. Even driving licenses could become a thing of the past. Our towns and cities will change considerably and rural areas could get a new lease on life as travelling times and distances will matter less.
But it is still going to take some time before cars can drive completely autonomously. Research company Prognose believes that about half of all registered cars will be equipped with automatic driving functionality by 2050. But currently, there is limited buy-in for autonomous driving in Germany, with surveys showing that about one in every two Germans is skeptical about the notion of self-driving cars. Many do not trust the unfamiliar technology.
Still, there are several reasons why Germans should warm to the concept. The benefits are simply too significant to ignore. Autonomous driving is considerably safer – after all, over 90% of all traffic accidents are caused by human error. Autonomous driving would improve traffic flows, so that less fuel would be consumed. Moreover, people with disabilities could more easily take part in road traffic and the annoying search for parking spots could become a thing of the past. A further positive side effect is that we would have far more free time which we could employ for other productive (or unproductive) uses – the choice will be ours.
Picture the scene: you are at a party. Suddenly, one of the guests starts talking about the blockchain and carries on ad nauseum about the infinite possibilities this technology offers. While some of the guests join in the conversation enthusiastically, many others move away. The story illustrates an obvious fact that the benefits of the blockchain are not immediately apparent. But watch out, because this technology has already started revolutionizing the world of business.
In essence, a blockchain is a large database to which new information can be added chronologically and saved. Every person participating in a blockchain system holds a copy of all of the information on their own device, which is similar to a chat log.
What makes it smart is that information saved to the blockchain cannot be changed subsequently without people noticing. Because many individuals have access to the entire track history, any manipulations are quickly made visible. This simple-sounding principle forms the foundation of Bitcoin and all other cryptocurrencies currently in circulation. In contrast to traditional currencies, cryptocurrencies are not controlled by financial institutions or the government. Instead, all transactions are recorded on the blockchain in a way that is tamper-proof.
But blockchain technology is not limited to cryptocurrencies. In the world of business, the blockchain is already helping create more efficient processes based on so-called smart contracts, through which agreements can be processed automatically and simply. In the world of art, the blockchain can elevate virtual mass-produced goods to the status of unique items that cannot be copied at a whim.
In the future, the blockchain will unlock even more possibilities, such as elections conducted in a way that is tamper-proof. In the health sector, sensitive information could be safely stored and released only to chosen individuals. In real estate, a blockchain-based land register could replace many of the expensive services of notaries and conveyancers, making property more affordable. So the next time blockchain comes up as a conversation topic at a party, you might want to consider listening in.
Rapid Charging Stations
The fight against climate change is becoming more pressing. EU member states and the European Parliament have therefore decided that from 2035, only zero-emission vehicles will be eligible to be registered in the EU. Car owners will still be able to drive their existing internal combustion vehicles, but no new petrol or diesel cars can be sold. Currently, about 1.6m electric vehicles are registered in Germany. By 2030, that number is expected to increase to seven or even ten million.
In addition to insufficient charging opportunities and limited range, long charging times are a further factor dissuading many people from buying an electric vehicle. While the tank of a regular car can be filled in five minutes, the charging time for an electric vehicle at a normal charging station ranges from two to four hours.
Such “normal” charging stations use alternating current and can produce an output of up to 22 kilowatts. But there are also charging stations that use direct current, which can achieve far higher output. So-called high power chargers or ultra-fast charging stations can produce an output of up to 350 kilowatts, cutting the charging time down to about 30 minutes.
There are reasons to believe that charging will become even faster in the coming years. Scientists are currently working on new batteries that can be charged more quickly and without any recognizable wear. Just recently, researchers developed a lithium battery prototype that can be fully charged in under ten minutes.
But there is also a need for more charging stations. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport has published its second masterplan for the country’s charging infrastructure. It provides for the construction of a million publicly accessible charging points by 2030. That is an ambitious target: today, there are only 35,000 public charging stations in Germany. This exponential planned growth suits not only the established energy utilities, but also provides opportunities for smaller German manufacturers of charging stations such as Mennekes, Walther-Werke or Webasto.
If faster charging becomes a reality and more and more charging stations become available, then charging an electric vehicle will soon be as easy as filling the tank of a regular car with diesel or petrol. This would enable climate-friendly mobility without the wait – one more reason to choose an electric vehicle.
The greatest problem in using renewable energy is that it is intermittent. While wind turbines and solar power plants generate a lot of electricity on windy and sunny days, they produce little on days that are windless or cloudy. At the same time, however, electricity consumption is much less affected by external conditions. This means that on some days, there is a considerable gap between electricity generation and consumption. Closing this gap requires technology that allows excess energy to be stored at short notice and accessed when required.
In residential environments, a new generation of intelligent battery storage could help address this problem and increase the consumption of self-generated electricity. Intelligent battery storage systems use artificial intelligence and machine learning to efficiently allocate rooftop-generated electricity to all home appliances, to an electric vehicle or to a heat pump. Such systems can also store excess electricity in an energy pool and later draw down the same amount of electricity from the pool.
But this concept is scalable. Larger battery storage systems could be deployed to a suburb, enabling locally produced electricity to be jointly used in the community. The expansion of stationary large-scale storage offers considerable potential in this regard. The world’s largest battery storage system is scheduled to start operating in Baden-Württemberg in two-and-a-half years’ time, occupying an area equivalent to four-and-a-half soccer fields.
According to the operators, the system should be able to make available reserve capacity at very short notice, for instance in cases where a transmission line transferring wind energy from the north of Germany to the south goes down. Battery storage systems are undergoing enormous changes. They are becoming more intelligent and larger. The trend is pointing towards a future where the natural fluctuations inherent in renewables will no longer pose a problem.
Rising CO2 emissions are the leading cause of global warming. Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere mean that the earth is radiating less and less heat into space. The consequences are dramatic. The earth is heating up; the polar ice caps and glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, floods and forest fires are increasing in number, and climate change is causing more and more conflicts and refugee flows.
Massive efforts are underway worldwide to reduce CO2 emissions and cap global warming at 1.5°C. The primary goal is to avoid CO2 emissions by using energy more efficiently and deploying renewable sources of energy. But our existing efforts will probably not be sufficient.
Carbon capture represents a way to reduce the effect of CO2 emissions at a large scale, particularly from industries responsible for a large share of those emissions. Carbon capture involves sequestering CO2 emitted during industrial production processes. This is most useful when applied to highly carbon intensive processes, for example in the iron, steel and chemical industries. Current technologies are already able to absorb up to 90% of resulting CO2 emissions.
The captured CO2 can be used in different ways. One option is to store it permanently and as safely as possible, e.g. in former natural gas and oil deposit sites. A further possibility is to use the CO2 as a raw material in other chemical processes, for example in the production of synthetic fuels or construction materials. Currently, carbon capture technology is still in its infancy.
On the one hand, this is bad because the planet faces a pressing need. On the other hand, there is justified reason to hope that carbon capture will become significantly more efficient in future. But one thing is clear: carbon capture is no substitute for greater efforts in improving energy efficiency and energy savings. If we want to be serious about achieving our climate protection goals, then carbon capture is going to be one of the indispensable technologies of the future.