Are we about to see a new current in the fight against climate change? Image: Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash
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- The production of different materials has a significant carbon footprint.
- But we can do something about the way we produce materials to significantly reduce their environmental impact.
- There are a multitude of applications where materials AI can help us invent materials that can speed up the transition of the global economy to a more sustainable future.
When we look at sectors that are the largest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, we see the usual suspects: energy, transportation, agriculture and construction. What is not immediately noticeable is how much impact on global greenhouse gas emissions the production of different materials has. Yet, production of materials is arguably the biggest contributor. The big question is whether we can do something about the way we produce materials to significantly reduce their environmental impact.
The environmental impact of materials is no longer an after-thought
From the beginning of the industrial revolution, we produced all the materials that we needed. The environmental impact of such production was only an afterthought. Now that we understand how damaging such an approach is for our planet, we are finally rethinking our ways.
Luckily, technology has now caught up and we are on the brink of starting to benefit massively from an unlikely technological innovation of materials: software. These ongoing rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) have also had an impact on the way that we invent, test and improve materials.
This radical change affects two key areas. We can now test new materials virtually (by computers simulating physical properties or materials) without the need to test thousands of physical versions of each material in the lab. This approach alone can speed up the process by several orders of magnitude. The second area is also the most promising when it comes to the environmental impact of materials. We can model the environmental impact of new or improved materials computationally before we start producing them.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?
How can materials reduce the global carbon footprint?
There are several promising areas where advancements in AI are expected to bring significant benefits to the materials of tomorrow. Let’s look at the big picture first. Most experts agree that the fastest way for the global economy to decarbonize is electrification.
Permanent magnets can do a lot of heavy lifting
Most electric motors (e.g. electric vehicles, wind turbines, etc.) use magnets, since they are electro-magnetic. The additional layer of efficiency and increased performance of such electric motors is provided by permanent magnets. This is the reason why we have seen increased interest in rare earth magnets, such as Neodymium magnets. We have seen increased demand and not enough supply of permanent magnets, which has led to price increases of around 100% in the last three years.
You might be asking yourself, how can materials AI help? Well, imagine if AI was able to invent materials with properties very similar to permanent magnets. What if these materials didn’t need to be mined, but we could make as much of them as we needed, as quickly as we needed them? How much faster could we achieve global net zero?
Magnets are important, but how about low-energy lights?
There are many materials that can be improved and their environmental impact reduced beyond the obvious candidates such as Aluminium, with its market size estimated at just below $170 billion and growing.
One such material is Terbium. Not only is the price of this material growing fast (at over 200% since 2020), its market size is over $70 billion. When it comes to its climate impact, it is a very climate-polluting material. Each kilogram of Terbium produced generates around 300 kilograms of CO2. Terbium is used in multiple areas, especially in low-energy light bulbs and fibre optics, etc.
Is there any downside to using sustainable materials?
We are at a crossroads when it comes to humanity affecting its future in a dramatic way if we don’t change our ways. Climate change is undeniably affecting multiple areas of our daily lives and these climate-related changes are accelerating. Not only is global warming getting worse every year, but we also see noticeable worsening of natural disasters. Forest fires are intensifying (around 30% of all forests that the planet lost in the last 20 years, were lost due to forest fires), hurricanes are getting stronger and we are running the risk of getting to a stage where these climate changes become irreversible if we don’t act fast.
There is one risk we are facing in this aspect and that is not acting fast enough.
What is next?
There are a multitude of applications where materials AI can help us invent materials that can speed up the transition of the global economy to a more sustainable future, using materials that are more effective and by design, environmentally friendly. Thanks to these AI advancements, we can check for the environmental impact of such materials even before we start producing them. Such is the gravity of the impact we can achieve what we could not dream of without AI.
Are there really companies with technology that are able to invent such advanced materials today? The short answer is yes. There are companies, such as Materials Nexus, that have achieved promising results in the advanced materials improvement and discovery space. We are also seeing incumbent technology giants such as Microsoft (with its Azure Quantum Elements) move fast into this space. What we now need to do is accelerate the usage of these technologies before climate change becomes irreversible.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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