A Sustainable Future in Technological Advancement

Alice Shvartsberg, Grade 10

Technology and engineering have been behind our accomplishments since the beginning of mankind, and our world would not be as progressive as it is today without these advancements. Technology evolved as our needs and wants became more sophisticated, but the production of these improved technologies have drawbacks to them. Our Earth encounters environmental, health, and ethical issues from the mass production of new developments and the extraction of materials such as lithium and coal, which are needed to produce new technologies. Our overexploitation of natural resources results in various environmental problems, including “ecological disturbances, destruction of natural flora and fauna, pollution of air, water and land, instability of soil and rock masses, landscape degradation, desertification, and global warming” [1]. While lithium-ion batteries are crucial to many new technologies, these developments require the excavation of lithium, which has detrimental effects on the environment, such as “changes in freshwater availability and water pollution with severe consequences for human health and native biodiversity” [2].

In addition to environmental ramifications, health complications can also result from the use of natural resources. Particularly, “ozone depletion… [is] caused by the release of chemical compounds containing gaseous chlorine or bromine from industry and other human activities” [3]. As a result of ozone depletion, we increase “the amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that reaches Earth’s surface, which increases the rate of skin cancer, eye cataracts, and genetic and immune system damage” [3]. Simultaneously, human activity increases tropospheric ozone, which is “formed when sunlight strikes various human-created pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons. Ozone can irritate the throat and lungs and causes a burning sensation in eyes. Ozone also harms plants and damages some types of materials, especially objects made of rubber” [4].

There are also ethical ramifications to natural resource exploitation, such as creating economic disparities in countries where natural resource excavation takes place. A prime example of such countries is Bolivia, which “is rich in natural mineral and energy resources, but it is a country with poorly distributed wealth, and most of its indigenous and poor population is located in the Potosí region, where lithium is being extracted” [5]. Lithium batteries are vital in most new green technologies such as hybrid electric vehicles and about 80% of lithium is located in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile [6].

The mining of lithium for lithium-ion batteries has many complications on the environment, human health, and the economy. However, engineers can help prevent these issues by replacing lithium-based batteries with sodium-based batteries, since “sodium is one of the more abundant elements on Earth and exhibits similar chemical properties to Li, indicating that Na chemistry could be applied to a similar battery system” [7]. Likewise, the mining for sodium can involve minimal environmental risk, since “it has even been suggested that we can “mine” the sodium for these Na-ion batteries directly from seawater” [8]. Seawater covers 70% of the Earth’s surface and 97% of all the water on Earth is seawater [9], therefore it is easy to access and extract, which can make sodium a more economically-advantageous resource. Nevertheless, “Sodium-ion batteries do not perform as well or as long as their lithium-ion cousins” [10], but this could change with more research on the use of sodium. In fact, “Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology presented a new strategy for extending sodium-ion batteries’ cyclability using copper sulfide as the electrode material… Research confirmed that copper sulfide is a superior electrode material that is pulverization-tolerant and induces capacity recovery” [10]. Although sodium-based batteries are not ready for commercial use yet, they could be an exceptional alternative in the near future.

The use of coal in industrial processes is one of the main sources of atmospheric carbon monoxide [11], which is partly responsible for ozone layer depletion. Although coal is one of the most reliable energy sources and is crucial to the production of new technology, it causes major environmental and health problems. However, there are alternatives to coal that reduce these risks. For instance, “MSU researchers and students are collaborating to explore efficient ways of converting woody biomass into viable coal alternatives… Although it’s completely derived from biomass, it burns like coal” [12]. Researchers are developing plans to convert this biomass into a renewable energy source using torrefaction, a mild form of pyrolysis which changes the qualities of this woody biomass to make it a better fuel for burning and gasification applications. This process takes place “in an oxygen-free environment” and makes the biomass more compact, which allows for easier transportation [12]. Also, it has been measured that the use of torrefied wood over coal would reduce ozone layer depletion by 75% [13].

Technology brings people closer together through phones and social media, it saves lives with medical equipment, and it has made a huge impact on global education. In fact, there is a correlation between people having more access to technology and improved health among the population, as “[t]he life expectancy in the nations with the lowest technology usage rates is actually only half that of the most developed nations” [14]. Similarly, developed countries are likely to have a strong economy, as “[t]echnological change increases the productivity of land, labor, and capital, reducing the cost of production and improving the quality of output” [14]. Currently, there are certain environmental, health, and ethical risks involved with technological advancement. However, alternative technologies are being researched that are safer for our environment and help reduce the negative impact of mass production on human health and socioeconomic issues. Ultimately, technological development is important for society’s continuous goal to improve the quality of human life, but the way we obtain and use the natural resources necessary for technology production should not be as harmful to society as it is currently.

Citations:

[1] B. Gutti, et al., Environmental Impact Of Natural Resources Exploitations In
Nigeria And The Way Forward. Journal of Applied Technology In Environmental sanitation 2, 95 – 102 (2012)
[2] T. Wanger, The Lithium future—resources, recycling, and the environment. Conservation Letters 4, 202-206(2011). doi:10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00166.x
[3] D. Wuebbles, Ozone Depletion. Encyclopædia Britannica, (2020)
[4]  R. Russel, Ozone. Center for Science Education (2014)
[5] V.M Valle et al., Bolivia’s Energy and Mineral Resources Trade and Investments with China. Latin American Policy 4, 93-122(2013). doi:10.1111/lamp.12007
[6] P. Marchegiani, et al., Lithium mine fails to respect communities’ rights in Argentina. Dialogo Chino (2019)
[7] S.‐W. Kim, et al., Electrode Materials for Rechargeable Sodium‐Ion Batteries: Potential Alternatives to Current Lithium‐Ion Batteries. Adv. Energy Mater 2, 710-721(2012). doi:10.1002/aenm.201200026
[8] J. Warner, Next Generation and Beyond Lithium Chemistries. Lithium-Ion Battery Chemistries, 253-284(2019) doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-814778-8.00010-7
[9] National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, How Much Water Is In The Ocean?. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, (2020).
[10] Roshan, An Eco-Friendly Alternative To Lithium-Ion Batteries: Sodium-Ion Batteries. Clean Future (2019).
[11] National Pollutant Inventory, Carbon monoxide. National Pollutant Inventory, (2009).
[12] University Research Corridor, A Viable Alternative To Coal: Converting Woody Biomass Into Renewable Energy. University Research Corridor, (2014).
[13] L.E. Arteaga-Pérez et al., Life-Cycle Assessment of coal–biomass based electricity in Chile: Focus on using raw vs torrefied wood. Energy for Sustainable Development. 29. 91-90(2015). Doi: 10.1016/j.esd.2015.10.004
[14]  M. Miah et al., Technology Advancement in developing Countries During Digital Age.International Journal of Science and Applied Information Technology 1, 30-38. 

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