Space for the future: green steel, sweet air, happy plants

space, universe, space for the future: green steel, sweet air, happy plants

For decades, satellites have been instrumental in monitoring our changing climate and improving our understanding of the processes that drive it. But to achieve our climate goals and make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, we need ideas that take the next step and begin to use space technologies to actively prevent, slow, reverse or otherwise address these changes.

Through the Open Space Innovation Platform (OSIP), ESA’s Discovery element issued a call last year for ‘New ideas for how space can boost Europe’s green future’, in collaboration with ESA’s new commercialisation department.

Three ideas were selected to help ensure that the technologies humankind has developed to reach out into the Universe return their benefits to Earth and play an essential role in our transition towards a sustainable future.

“These ideas demonstrate the diverse potential of technologies originally developed for space applications in addressing climate change back on our home planet,” says Leopold Summerer, head of ESA’s Advanced Concepts and Studies Office.

“There may be many fascinating planets across the Solar System and beyond, but there is only one Earth, and it is our responsibility to protect it. ESA’s commitment to funding these ideas shows the Agency’s and Europe’s continued leadership in climate action and technology development.”

Green steel for the green deal
The steel industry currently accounts for 5.7 % of total greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union. The European Commission has identified a reduction in these emissions as crucial for meeting the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change, but modern technology is not enough to make ‘green steel’ economically viable.

A major hurdle is that steel production traditionally relies on material with a high iron content (high-grade). Supplies of this high-grade ore are rapidly depleting worldwide and have to be transported over long distances for processing.

An entirely new approach, inspired by the challenges of long-term space missions, could be the answer. In-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) is the practice of collecting, processing, storing and using materials found or manufactured on other planets or moons to replace material that would otherwise have to be transported from Earth.

With funding from ESA, Luxembourg-based ISRU experts, Maana Electric, are investigating the possibility of a European prototype system able to use material with relatively low iron content (low-grade) and electricity to produce carbon-neutral steel.

This system would potentially allow for the production of steel from low-grade material extracted close to construction sites. It would reduce supply chain costs, allow for less environmentally damaging mining sites, address the rapid depletion of high-grade iron ore and promote Europe as leader in green technologies.

A sweet solution to carbon dioxide
The way we grow and consume food currently accounts for a quarter of global carbon emissions and is a major driver of biodiversity loss.

Microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast and microalgae can be used as an alternative way to produce food ingredients for humans. But the substances required to grow these microorganisms – sugars, organic acids and proteins – are also currently produced in ways that contribute to biodiversity loss.

The SweetAir project, led by a team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is building on technologies and lessons learned from human spaceflight to directly convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into food ingredients for humans.

The team is repurposing technology originally developed to recycle air on the International Space Station to capture and concentrate carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. They will then feed this carbon dioxide to systems containing the enzymes that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into glucose during photosynthesis.

Inside cells, these enzymes are limited by the shape and size of the cell. They also have to co-exist with other processes that are necessary to keep the cell alive. Freed from the confines of a cell, the enzymes have access to a larger surface area and can much more efficiently convert carbon dioxide into sugars for human use.

SweetAir aims to develop a scalable and more sustainable source of food ingredients that will help humankind address climate change and support Earth’s ecological balance. This new approach could even circle back into spaceflight, providing a more efficient way to produce fresh food ingredients for human crews over longer missions by recovering and reusing water, carbon and nitrogen resources.

A close eye on biodiversity
Agricultural expansion has supported the rapid growth of global supply chains, but the change in land use driven by this expansion is one of the main causes of declining biodiversity.

While we are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of different types of land use, and have been increasingly committed to addressing them in recent years, monitoring their impact on biodiversity remains challenging.

Data on biodiversity change for the entire globe are generally lacking and often sensitive, especially at the high resolution needed to record different plant species. The diversity of environments and of land use also makes it difficult to link them to local biodiversity.

To address this, a team from Biodiv Watch in the Netherlands is using recent advances in sensor technology, Earth observation data quality and digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing to map patterns in plant biodiversity at regional scales at different locations around the globe.

Using satellite observations of regions with different land uses and comparing these with close by natural environments will help link changes in these local plant biodiversity patterns to different land uses, improving our understanding of how changing land use impacts biodiversity.

This information will help inform, guide, and reshape the way that land is used, providing a data-driven reference on the impact of agricultural commodities on plant biodiversity as production expands.

Leopold concludes: “The climate crisis is the most urgent challenge faced by humankind – affecting every region, continent, and ocean on Earth. These three projects demonstrate the untapped potential of space to make a difference in tackling the threats and challenges faced by humanity.”

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