By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Climate change is a big problem requiring big solutions. It will take hard work from people all over the world to reduce carbon emissions to a livable amount. Wondrium’s new documentary “Solving for Zero” introduces us to the innovators behind the innovations making it happen.
What do building materials, transportation, power generation, and agriculture have in common? All are at the forefront of humanity’s need to reduce carbon emissions and solve climate change. Carbon-neutral concrete, sustainable shipping, fusion energy, and drought- and flood-resistant crops are all being developed in order to minimize our impact on Earth’s atmosphere.
Wondrium’s new documentary Solving for Zero profiles five innovators on the frontlines of keeping the world a livable place and explains their respective projects.
Tinkering with Tradition
The O’Riain family of Ireland heads Ecocem, a company devoted to reducing the incredibly high amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere with the production of concrete. Initially started by Donal O’Riain, Ecocem also employs his wife and their sons, Gavin and Conor.
“When I was in school—maybe 10 or 11 years old—they asked me what my dad did and I said he makes bricks and that was not entirely false,” Conor O’Riain said. “I joined the business in 2006, and initially, I worked in our Ecocem Ireland business. My younger brother, Gav, joined the business in 2018 and my mom works in the business as well; so, if you ever come over to my house, you’ll see us all talking about cement, among other things.”
O’Riain said that when his father started Ecocem in 2000, Donal immediately focused on reducing carbon emissions, which put him almost 20 years ahead of his time. Ecocem specializes in minimizing the carbon-emitting substances in cement, one of the principle ingredients in concrete.
The Oceanbird project, which implements modern technology and wind power into shipping, shares a similar goal. Maritime engineer and professor Jacob Kuttenkeuler spearheads the project.
“Ships typically use fossil fuel and contribute to climate change quite substantially,” Professor Kuttenkeuler said. “The Oceanbird project is aiming to solve the problem of transporting goods without destroying the planet. Its main means of propulsion is wind, cutting at least 90% of the dependency on fossil fuel.”
Ironically, Professor Kuttenkeuler said he doesn’t particularly enjoy being underwater himself, but sailing fascinates him from an engineering perspective. He knows his potential to fix shipping is finite, but he’s committed to doing his utmost, and he also brings his students to check out Oceanbird and hopefully become engaged in the same line of work.
Yoseph Beyene is a maize breeder working in Kenya. He and his team are developing drought-resistant, flood-resistant, and pest-resistant maize to help people living in affected areas to thrive, while future innovations wait to be implemented to reverse Earth’s climate trajectory.
“For me personally, what I’m doing is helping a little bit,” Beyene said. “For the last 15 years, I saw some of my variety grown by a small scale [of] farmers to harvest adequate yield. That gives me a lot of motivation to continue my work.”
Bucking the System
Sometimes, altering existing systems isn’t enough. Debate rages about the future of fossil fuels, but Joy Dunn, of Commonwealth Fusion Systems (and formerly of SpaceX), works to break out dependence on fossil fuels entirely and switch to fusion energy—by basically building a star on Earth.
“We’re 100 million degrees Celsius inside the plasma and then room temperature just inches away,” Dunn said.
Who does that?
“One thing that really drew me to fusion is that I had spent my life living by Sally Ride’s motto of ‘Reach for the Stars,’ and here I am building a star on Earth. Every kid, when they grow up, they want to be an astronaut or a firefighter. I think, for me, the love of space and being an astronaut has never changed. I’ve always been driven by this idea of wanting to change the world for the better and a lot of that love for space grew into, ‘How do we make life multi-planetary?'”
Speaking of innovations that are completely new, rather than altering existing systems, Grace Andrews of Project Vesta is working on a naturally occurring substance called olivine that can be spread on beaches to literally capture carbon in the atmosphere and transform it into water.
“I’ve always been interested in science,” Andrews said. “My dad is a chemist and when you grow up having the periodic table hanging over your head at every family meal, there is some chance you might end up a scientist. We think this has the potential to be big.”
Solving for Zero is now available to stream on Wondrium.