The World Economic Forum (WEF) has released its 11th annual list of top emerging sustainable technologies that are expected to have a positive impact on society in the next three to five years.
The report, which is based on the insights of more than 90 experts from 20 countries, considers sustainable technologies that have the potential to transform industries, create new jobs, and improve the lives of people around the world.
In total, 95 technology nominations were reviewed, debated and ranked, eventually whittling the list down to the final 10.
For more, also see our list of the four emerging technologies making sustainable waves.
Sustainable aviation fuel
The aviation industry is responsible for 2-3% of global CO2 emissions, and this is expected to increase in the coming decades. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is a potential solution to this problem as it can be produced from biological or non-biological sources and used with existing aviation infrastructure.
Today, SAF is expensive to produce, typically three to four times pricier than traditional fuels. To offset this, many carriers, such as Singapore Airlines, have introduced a SAF credit system, allowing value-driven travellers to pay extra to offset their carbon emissions and stimulate the sustainable fuel industry.
Wearable plant sensors
While it’s commonplace to see people wearing smartwatches on their wrists, wearable plant sensors are still a relatively recent development, but they offer significant benefits to our rapidly growing population.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that farmers will have to produce 70% more food by 2050 to meet the needs of the world’s expected 9-billion-strong population.
Wearable plant sensors could help to achieve this goal by providing real-time data on plant health. These sensors are small enough to be embedded in individual plants, and they monitor temperature, humidity, moisture, and nutrient levels. This information can be used to optimise crop yields, reduce water and fertiliser use, and detect early signs of disease.
The growth of AI, cloud computing, and other technologies is driving significant demand for data centres. Data centres consume 1% of global electricity production, and this is expected to increase.
However, there are a number of technologies that can help to make data centres more sustainable. These include water or dielectric liquid cooling, AI-enabled energy optimisation, and modular and demand-based data processing and storage infrastructure.
In a mutually beneficial partnership, a public swimming pool in Exmouth, UK, is using the heat from a nearby data centre to heat its pool water. The data centre, in turn, benefits from the cooling effect of the heat transference.
You’ve no doubt heard of generative AI already with the likes of ChatGBT. Trained on large datasets of existing content, they learn to identify patterns and relationships in the data.
Generative AI models are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and they have a wide range of potential applications. For example, they can help design efficient manufacturing processes, improve energy forecasting, or manage the micro-energy grids. Of course, there are also plenty of concerns around the technology too.
AI in healthcare
AI is also having a significant impact on the healthcare sector. AI-powered systems can be used to diagnose diseases, recommend treatments, and manage patient care. In the future, AI could be used to develop new drugs and treatments or to prevent pandemics and other health crises.
AI-powered virtual assistants can also reduce the burden on healthcare providers by helping patients with information and support, such as scheduling appointments, refilling prescriptions, and answering questions about their health.
Metaverse for mental health
The metaverse is a virtual world that is still in its early stages of development. However, there is potential for the metaverse to be used for mental health treatment. For example, virtual reality could be used to create immersive environments that help people to cope with anxiety or depression.
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, is currently the main driving force behind the metaverse. Meta has invested heavily in VR research and development, and it is clear that the company sees the metaverse as a potential new platform for mental health treatment.
Phages are viruses that can infect and kill specifically targetted bacteria, and phage therapy is a promising new approach to treating bacterial infections.
Phage therapy has been used for over a century, but it was largely abandoned in the West after the discovery of antibiotics. However, in recent years, there has been renewed interest in phage therapy as a potential treatment for antibiotic-resistant infections.
Scientists are now developing ways to engineer phages to target specific bacteria. This could lead to new treatments for a wide range of bacterial infections.
Spatial omics is a new technique that combines advanced imaging and DNA sequencing to map biological processes at the molecular level. This technology could be used to study the development of diseases, identify new drug targets, and develop personalised treatments.
Potential applications of spatial omics include developing new cancer treatments and improving the understanding of cancer progression, along with understanding how the brain works and developing new treatments for neurological disorders.
One of the most promising new developments in battery technology is the flexible battery. These batteries are made from lightweight, bendable materials that can be rolled up or folded without losing their power. This makes them ideal for use in wearable electronics, healthcare devices, and other applications where traditional batteries would be too bulky or fragile.
Flexible batteries have the potential to revolutionise a wide range of industries. In the healthcare sector, they could be used to create wearable devices that monitor patients’ vital signs or deliver medication. In the automotive industry, they could be used to power electric cars and buses. And in the fashion industry, they could be used to create smart clothing that can collect data or even generate heat.
Flexible neural electronics
Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) allow direct communication between the brain and external computers. Applications for BMIs include controlling external software or hardware such as a computer or robotic arm used to treat a variety of conditions, including paralysis and epilepsy. However, traditional BMIs are invasive and can cause tissue damage. Flexible neural electronics could make BMIs less invasive and more effective.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink, one of the most well-known companies working on BMIs, received regulatory approval in May 2023 to conduct the first clinical trial of its experimental device in humans.
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