By Craig and Marc Kielburger
Our world doesn't look much like the ones envisioned in sci-fi flicks like Star Trek or Back to the Future, let alone the latest installment of Star Wars. Kids aren't buzzing around on flying skateboards, and we aren't dueling with light sabers.
But who needs movies when real-world innovations are way cooler -- especially the ones poised to radically transform humanity's eco footprint.
Here are six recent game-changers that have grabbed our interest, and promise to transform the globe.
1. The radical rooftop
At age 12, lying in bed listening to rain on the roof, young inventor Raymond Wang thought about a magazine article he'd read for interest on "piezoelectric" materials. When compressed, these ceramic or crystalline substances convert motion into electrical current. Using that knowledge, the junior genius from Vancouver invented a roof tile that turns the impact of raindrops, even wind, into useable electricity.
Now 18, Raymond wants to create a rooftop that can provide up to 50 per cent of an average household's electricity needs.
2. The power tile
Over the pond, Laurence Kemball-Cook, a 29-year-old British inventor, has created an indoor-outdoor floor tile that generates electricity when people walk on it.
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a soccer field now features 200 of Kemball-Cook's tiles, topped with artificial turf. The pounding feet of players generates enough power, stored in batteries, to run the stadium's floodlights for night games.
3. The new window of opportunity
The field of solar energy is advancing so fast it's hard to keep up with new innovations. Michigan State University researchers have created transparent solar panels, raising the possibility that every window in your house could someday become a power station.
Scott and Julie Brusaw, both engineers in Idaho, devised an impact-resistant glass solar tile that's strong enough to pave roadways. Self-powered streets and parking lots could light up at night with built-in LEDs, warm up to clear snow and ice, and even power recharging stations for electric cars.
The Brusaws are fundraising to begin large-scale production. Meanwhile, the city of Amsterdam is test-driving a similar technology produced by Dutch company SolaRoad, on a 70-metre stretch of bicycle path.
4. The world's biggest air-freshener
Climate change has reached a point where it's no longer just about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but scrubbing away the emissions already in our atmosphere.
A Calgary company, Carbon Engineering, studied how trees capture carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen. It then invented a device that sucks in air and runs it through carbon-absorbing liquid. A single prototype unit captures about 14 cars' worth of carbon in our air every day.
Carbon Engineering envisions hundreds of these units mounted together in massive "wind walls" that could be installed in areas like deserts. Each wall would remove a whopping 300,000 cars' worth of carbon emissions each year.
As a side benefit, the pure carbon captured can then be converted back into low-emissions fuel.
5. The high-tech home eco-nomist
We'd love to have the "learning thermostats" from Google's Nest Labs installed in our homes. Their ability to sense when the house is occupied and adapt to our changing schedules would help us reduce our energy use, not to mention save us money on heating bills.
6. The bling that gives feedback
Try on the WorldBeing wristband, from UK designer Benjamin Hubert and the environmental non-profit, Carbon Trust. The latest in wearable tech, the wristband works with a smart phone app to track your carbon footprint: what you had for breakfast, how far you drove the car, even what you bought in a store.
The app gives daily challenges and targets to reduce your eco-impact, and a display screen shows you minute by minute how much of an impact you're having in saving planet Earth.
Hollywood can keep its spherical droids and robot-manned gas stations. We'll check our eco progress on smart apps, while listening to the gentle sound of rain generating electricity on the rooftop.
Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.
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Most sustainable buildings use solar energy in some way, though it’s no longer restricted to rooftops. For the CIS Tower in Manchester, England, the existing skyscraper was retrofitted with a façade of over 7,000 solar panels. In Chicago, the city’s iconic Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) installed photovoltaic glass panels in select windows as part of a pilot project to reduce the building’s energy consumption. Closer to home, the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon is proving that green technology doesn’t need to be strictly utilitarian, with an installation of stained glass windows embedded with solar cells.
Collecting and recycling precipitation helps eco-friendly buildings slash their water consumption. Rooftop tanks at the Bank of America Tower in New York capture almost 70,000 gallons of rain, which is then filtered and used to cool the building and flush the toilets. The Vancouver Convention Centre boasts a similar roof feature that harvests water for irrigation purposes, and returns any overflow to the ocean. The inverted v-shaped roof at software company SAS Canada’s Toronto headquarters likewise helps reduce the building’s reliance on city water. And if that wasn’t enough, even the tower’s sidewalks slope inward to capture every last drop.
Boosting green space is another great way to combat the effects of the concrete jungle. Edmonton International Airport features a 1,420-square-foot “Living Wall,” home to 8,000 plants that provide a breath of fresh air for weary travelers. In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences building’s 2.5 acres of rooftop vegetation keep the building several degrees cooler than standard asphalt. And Calgary’s tallest building is also one of its greenest thanks in part to The Bow’s “Sky Gardens,” where three floors of elevated green space offer abundant oxygen to counter their breathtaking views.
It’s not just what’s on the outside, but also what’s on the inside that makes a building eco-friendly. Today’s skyscrapers are increasingly turning to sustainable building materials during construction, like the Bay Adelaide Centre in downtown Toronto, which not only re-used recycled concrete, carpet and steel, but also the original building’s heritage façade. And at the Hearst Tower in New York City, 90 per cent of the steel used to construct the 46-story skyscraper contained recycled material. Same goes for the floor and ceiling tiles.
Wind is a clean and plentiful source of renewable energy for buildings looking to go green. Among other eco-friendly initiatives at Toronto’s Direct Energy Centre, the 30-story wind turbine is the most visible -- and the most productive, generating electricity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Winnipeg’s Manitoba Hydro Place uses natural ventilation to fill the building with 100 per cent fresh air, drawn in through its atria. The innovative Pearl River Tower in China, meanwhile, is designed with a pair of openings that push air through wind turbines to help power the building, while also reducing the toll the wind takes on the 71-story skyscraper.
Follow Craig and Marc Kielburger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/craigkielburger