All Is Not Lost: 5 Incredible Planet-Protecting Research Projects to Give You Hope 

By Natalie Squance

“How Would a Star Trek Episode Address Climate Change?” read a title of a subreddit we came across recently while on our daily search for Internet goodness. From probes and beams to other technobabble, the answers ranged from the ordinary to the fantastical. 

Being bombarded with climate crisis news and reports of environmental decay can leave us all feeling overwhelmed, and a little lost at times. With the doomsday predictions of devastating species extinctions and catastrophic global declines, it’s easy to think that the mammoth task of healing our planet is best left to science fiction. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom, and all is not lost – those of you in search of positive developments need not despair. From plastic-eating enzymes to recycling chemical waste, here are the research projects that go beyond fantasy and are well on their way to creating positive, tangible impacts on our planet. 

30×30: Better Ocean Protection for All

Without a healthy ocean, there would be no life as we know it. The “30×30” target is revolutionary, setting a new goal for the world to protect biodiversity. Launched by the High Ambition Coalition, this plan will commit nations to setting aside at least 30% of our planet’s land and oceans for nature. “We know that protected areas, when they’re done right, are really important for preserving biodiversity,” says Paul Leadley at Paris-Saclay University in France. 

The ocean is a vital life support system for the planet, and scientific evidence indicates that effective protection of at least 30% of the global ocean will help to produce some amazing results:

  • reverse adverse ecological impacts
  • preserve fish populations
  • increase resilience to climate change
  • sustain long-term ocean health

Breaking Down Plastic in Days, Not Centuries

Cheap and disposable, plastic has been a symbol of our throwaway culture. As a result, plastic pollution has become a global concern, as our planet is drowning in plastic litter and microplastics. But, could this discovery from the University of Texas at Austin be the light at the end of the tunnel for plastic pollution? 

Earlier this year, scientists and researchers at the University announced that they had successfully engineered a type of enzyme that can break down PET plastic. This enzyme, called Hydrolase, can completely break down waste plastic to its component molecules in under 24 hours, allowing the material to be reformed into new products. 

“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” said Hal Alper, one of the lead researchers and a professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. “Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products. Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.”

Solar Panels that Harness the Night Sky

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Solar panels that work at night? Yes, you heard us right! Through modifying commercially available solar panels, researchers at Stanford University were able to exploit radiative cooling to create panels that generate a significant amount of power during the day as well as a small amount at night – enough to charge a phone, to be exact.

As the approach doesn’t require any battery storage, it’s a development that has the potential to make a huge difference for people in remote areas without a traditional power grid. According to the study, “Our approach can provide nighttime standby lighting and power in off-grid and mini-grid applications, where [solar] cell installations are gaining popularity.”

This may just be the beginning for panels that generate energy from the night sky, but who knows what the future holds for this groundbreaking new technology? 

Restoring Europe’s Most Important Carbon-Rich Ecosystems

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A consortium effort led by the James Hutton Institute will combine expertise from the UK Centre for Hydrology & Ecology and the Universities of Nottingham, Leeds, Exeter and the Highlands and Islands (UHI), have undertaken a five-year, £3.7m research project to analyse the risk that climate change poses to these ecosystems and to create management scenarios that stop them being pushed beyond the point of recovery. 

Dr Rebekka Artz, senior scientist at the James Hutton Institute and project coordinator, said: “Undisturbed and rewetted peatlands have enormous potential to reduce global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over long time scales.

“This project will create the densest network of ground observations of greenhouse gas emissions and their drivers on peatlands, while simultaneously developing models that will enable us to simulate the future state of peatlands under potential climate change and management scenarios to 2100.”

From Chemical Waste to Life-Saving Medicine

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It’s no secret that the chemical industry generates a significant amount of waste, but thanks to software and chemistry company, Allchemy, a computer model has been developed to identify more than 300 ways in which this waste can be recycled into more useful products such as medication. 

The algorithm looked at 189 small molecules that are created as a result of industrial processes and 56 created from chemical waste during recycling processes and collated them into an enormous database of all the possible chemical combinations. 

Among the discovered molecules were drugs to treat leprosy, heart disease, as well as an antibiotic than can be produced from plastic bottle waste and a byproduct of coal mining. 

Bartosz Grzybowski, co-founder of Allchemy, stated that “There are so many productive ways in which we could convert industrial chemical wastes into useful products, it’s incredible how much less wasteful the chemical industry could become if they started using more rational planning tools.”

Hope in the Face of the Seemingly Impossible

Yes, fighting climate change is a monumental challenge, but there are clear signs that momentum is beginning to build. Every day, incredible new technology and  approaches are being developed to heal our planet – with remarkable effects. And so, in the words of Spock, “We will do what we’ve always done, Jim. We will find hope in the impossible”. 

Are you working on some planet-saving research that you think the world needs to hear about? Get in touch for a feature in our blog, or even for support in disseminating your research. Whether you need an animated white paper explainer or a comprehensive communications strategy, we’re always excited to be a part of planet-protecting projects.

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Written in collaboration with Naomi Couper

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