We spoke recently about the six design elements found in the humble tree. Today I want to take this a step further, and begin to see how we can improve one current technology, namely Solar PV, to model such great design.
Consider our current rooftop Solar Photovoltaic (PV) technology. It has only one design element- to capture solar energy and convert it to electrical energy. The process is linear. We manufacture the panels and other components, which is carbon intensive, we use the product for about ten years, we service and repair it, and then we discard the components often in land fill, which is usually toxic to us, other organisms and the environment.
This linear system can be summarised as:
Make → Use → Service / Repair → Discard → Pollute → Repeat.
Each step of this linear system is carbon intensive and creates other pollution. It is also highly inefficient. The Repeat step creates a negative multiplier effect. The negative impacts on us, other living organisms, and the environment, particularly in terms of carbon emissions, are multiplied over the long term. Currently, we do not account, in monetary or other terms, for any of these environmental or adverse impacts. This is a considerable ‘market failure’ as economists would say. Linear systems and market failures have facilitated such negative multiplier effects. Needlessly.
Now compare this system to trees and the genius of photosynthesis. In my article, If Buildings Were Trees, (http://creatness.com/mindset/if-buildings-were-trees), I identified six design elements found in trees and all plants-
- Carbon Sink. Drawing in carbon dioxide.
- Oxygen Provider. Providing oxygen needed for other living organisms.
- Energy. Creating clean, renewable energy through the magic of photosynthesis.
- Water and Pollution Mechanism. Acting as a sponge when there are heavy rains, and minimising run-off and pollutants into the oceans.
- Habitat. Providing habitat for other living organisms.
- Circular System. At the end of its lifespan, returning to the earth and providing food and resources for other living organisms. There is zero waste.
These elements are not carbon intensive, in terms of emitting significant carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. All of the elements are highly efficient. All of the elements benefit the tree, other living organisms, including us, and the broader environment. All of these elements work together synergistically. The system is closed. It is circular, and this allows it to be, not only highly efficient, but perpetual.
Let’s return to Solar PV. Such linear systems are typical of our current production processes. We can now clearly see how our design, our thinking, our systems are primitive when compared to nature. But what if? What if we could begin to change the fundamental design of Solar PV by adding one or more of the other six design elements found in trees?
What if we could add just one to begin with? Can we add a carbon sink to Solar PV’s ability to create renewable, clean energy? Imagine this for a minute. We can move to renewable, clean energy and we can create an efficient, non-polluting carbon sink at the same time? This could accelerate our efforts to minimise global warming quite quickly. This new system could be more efficient, circular, and could create a positive multiplier effect.
How? There are a couple of pathways that come to mind quickly. I can only sketch them in this short article However, if you are an engineer, scientist or other expert, perhaps we can discuss things further through the Creatness International Community, or drop me a line via www.creatness.com .
First, by adding a chemical layer or process to the Solar PV technology. We know the simple photosynthesis formula to be:
6CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) + 6H20 (Water) → C6H1202 (Sugar) + 6O2 (Oxygen)
Could we mimic photosynthesis by creating this chemical process in or around the Solar PV cell?
Second, if we cannot mimic photosynthesis quickly or efficiently, perhaps we can borrow it? During the last global warming event on the Earth during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) period, about 65 million years ago, it is believed (PBS Digital Studios – Eons 2017, see References below for an excellent video), a fern called Azolla is thought to have contributed to the eventual cooling of the Earth. During the warming Azolla grew in great numbers on the land, and particularly in the oceans, where it eventually fell to the ocean floor. Azolla was a highly efficient carbon sink. Azolla is still found today. What if we could use Azolla alongside Solar PV on rooftops, or around the building structure? Or better yet, perhaps we could model its special photosynthetic chemical process, and design this into or alongside the solar panels.
Generation 2 and 3 versions of Solar PV technology are currently in the R&D phases, and will likely produce much thinner, smaller, more efficient panels or perhaps new forms. These may be capable of being integrated with other electrical or chemical processes. Such nature + manufactured technologies – hybrid technologies may be an exciting leap.
The idea of Solar PV + Carbon Sink is simple and has the potential to open many doors. It can help us move from primitive, linear systems to circular systems. It can help us realise much of what we currently produce has needless design faults and limitations. By adding one or more great design elements from nature, we embrace the creative power and potential of Biomimicry. Next generation technologies or hybrid technologies are just beginning. If perfected, they can have immense benefits for us, and the entire environment. Importantly, they give us a pathway to return home- return to the simplicity and efficiency of nature.
“After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”- Janine M. Benyus.
By Lee Spano, Creatness International www.creatness.com
PBS Digital Studios – Eons 2017, The Last Time the Globe Warmed, online video, Youtube, viewed 23 April 2020, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldLBoErAhz4 >.
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