Frontier Materials & Climate Action:

John Norris
7 min readJul 8, 2022

How a Materials Revolution Can Protect Against Climate Change

Accomplishing the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement and the further commitments made at the recent COP26 conference requires industrial sectors to rapidly ramp up their technological production, thereby generating considerable innovation in climate action. These innovations have been made achievable due to recent materials research development and increased funding in the energy, engineering, and transportation industries, vital targets for reaching a net-zero carbon civilization. Frontier technologies have been beneficial because they’ve enabled many poorer communities, particularly those in developing nations who are often the most susceptible to climate impacts, to become more resilient and adaptive to the coming challenges quicker than previously imagined. The recent advance in frontier materials, such as those observed in graphene, mass timber, and nanomaterials, has the potential to herald a new era for climate action across various industries as novel avenues for tackling extreme weather events or critical resource shortages become available.

Energy Materials Innovations & Climate Action

Reaching the pre-industrial 1.5°C targets outlined in 2015 won’t happen overnight and requires countless progressive steps across various industries. This step-wise process is most apparent in the energy industry, where a transformational revolution has been underway for the past decade or so and has positively changed both the hydrocarbon and renewable energy markets. The hydrocarbon industry remains one of the most significant greenhouse gas (GHG) contributors but is unlikely to be replaced soon. Therefore, the recent improvements to remote sensors, enabled by graphene, have been welcome news since these adaptive sensors reduce maintenance, personnel, exploration costs, and the total environmental impact of the oil or gas sectors by preventing leaks. On the renewable front, energy production from solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, etc., continues to become cheaper and more efficient as reduced material and modules costs have allowed not only for a greater industrial scaling of these technologies, powered by the likes of graphene and silicon but also higher societal uptake as more people demand green power. Transforming our energy sector to keep up with the ever-increasing demands from our electricity-hungry population will be one of the enormous challenges to tackling climate change, yet progress on other fronts can help.

Literally Building a Plan to Tackle the Climate

In the engineering sector, an emerging ‘deconstruction’ movement has called for new infrastructure to increasingly reuse existing materials stockpiles and reduce the amount of carbon embedded in future constructs. Recent housing developments have sought more sustainable quality materials for construction, which has driven growth in the use of mass timber. Engineered mass timber products are compressed layers of wood that are stronger and lighter than concrete or steel while remaining an environmentally friendly substitute for these more carbon-intensive materials. Furthermore, mass timber buildings, such as those hoisted up in Milwaukee and seen below, act as carbon sinks that can suck up global GHG emissions, providing even more climate action than simply replacing existing harmful materials. Unfortunately, mass timber still has the downside of requiring countries to maintain sustainable agroforestry practices and have laws that support these practices, which often is not the case.

Therefore, materials scientists who continue to find ways to replace cement and steel processing or development inputs directly have remained necessary. Versarian has innovated a new, more robust, greener form of concrete seen below, called CementeneTM, that utilizes graphene as the base material. Through the infusion of graphene into the processing, not only is Versarian’s final product more sustainable than current forms of concrete, but it is more durable. It could represent the revolutionary material that replaces one of the most environmentally harmful manufacturing products currently being produced at scale. Making engineering practices and construction materials more sustainable and less susceptible to damage from extreme weather events will be critical to preserving our continued socio-economic expansion, especially when considering how much new housing will be needed for our ever-burgeoning population.

Climate Action Requires us to Hit the Ground…Sustainably

Another important industry that has been a target of climate activists and scientists has been the transportation sector, which the EPA believes accounts for nearly 30% of just the total U.S. GHG emissions. Currently experiencing a technological renaissance, transportation has become a darling for many

entrepreneurs seeking to rapidly impact our net GHG emissions. This necessity is likely because predictions are that global society will possess as many as 2 billion cars on the road by 2035, representing an unsustainable amount of gas and oil continuously spewing into our atmosphere in the future.

One company taking action on taming vehicle emissions is NanoXplore, which has created graphene-enhanced electric vehicle (EV) batteries that improve existing battery performance and reduce the environmental impact of the vehicles that install them. While another business, Planet Airo, is pioneering a filtration product that attaches directly to consumers’ bikes and literally purifies the environment’s air as you ride it. Many governments are incentivizing societal uptake of EVs, particularly those for public transport, since they’ve become cheaper and more energy-efficient as their components, such as carbon-fiber composites, lithium anode batteries, and semiconductors, have become more abundant due to product industrialization. The observed frontier materials advancements within the transportation sector and all the other industries mentioned have enabled relevant stakeholders to take significant action on tackling climate change. In some cases, these aforementioned technologies may have accelerated current progress to mitigate the causes and impacts of global warming.

Taking Action Requires Sustained Progress

At the inaugural PUZZLE X conference, the ‘Climate Action x Frontier Materials’ panel observed how rapidly frontier materials technologies had been developed in response to the societal imperative to take significant action on preventing the worst outcomes from unfettered climate change. The past decade has been emblematic of how climate change has shifted from a cursory concern to being correctly identified as one of the most pressing global problems. Governments, industrial stakeholders, and entrepreneurs should increasingly prioritize scientific materials exploration that emphasizes sustainability, lower costs, efficiency, and carbon neutrality. We must begin immediately replacing many existing materials identified as environmentally harmful. Taking frontier materials from the bleeding edge of society into the mainstream will not be easy and requires transmutations at all levels of civilization and across all industrial sectors. Still, our inability to take action against climate change now may mean that we will face even more extraordinary, perhaps insurmountable, challenges in the future.

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John Norris

Graduate student from NYU's Center for Global Affairs interested in the intersection between climate change and security, with an emphasis in disaster relief.