How digital twins can shape green policy

By Sean Nolan

Experts discuss the innovations that are shaping Asia’s response to climate change.

The holodeck device from the Star Trek franchise tops every sci-fi fan’s wishlist. It uses holograms to allow users to interact with fictional worlds without them suffering any real-life consequences.

While digital twins are not quite that advanced, their impact could have a wide-ranging effect. Being able to run a digital simulation of green technology gives scientists a way to test out the tools that are tackling climate change.

Panellists at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation panel, ‘Innovation for sustainability’, shared how new technologies from around the region have the potential to make nations more sustainable.

Testing innovation with digital twins

One use for digital twins technology is analysing energy flow in vehicles as they shift from being petrol-powered to electric battery powered. This will help governments to assess and experiment with electric vehicles’ use of energy.

Digital twins allow engineers to test new innovations in green technology. It allows a physical process to have a digital counterpart, so researchers can see a simulation of what will happen when a new technology is used.

Even for complex processes, supercomputers can run these different simulations, said Tan Tin Wee, Chief Executive of the National Supercomputing Centre (NSCC).

Digital twins technology is a “tremendous tool for policymakers to try out their policies before they implement” them, Tan highlighted. The technology should be involved in the government decision making process, “which we are not seeing at the moment”.

The technology is being used in the NSCC already, Tan said. The organisation developed a virtual 3D model of their own supercomputer in order to study the effectiveness of cold air provided by the computer’s cooling system.

This testing allowed the organisation to make the cooling systems more effective with less energy required. Reducing the energy consumption of cooling systems is key, as they can consume just as much energy as the supercomputers themselves, he highlighted.

Innovations from abroad

More than 50 per cent of data centres in Southeast Asia are based in Singapore, says Tan. Singapore has placed a temporary pause on building new centres, as it evaluates how to make them more energy efficient, CNA reported.

Nations can explore “novel sources of energy to power our ever growing energy requirements”, Tan emphasised. Indonesia is using power created by running water to provide energy for computers and data centres, Tan highlighted.

Indonesia and other countries sitting near the edge of the earth’s tectonic plates could also borrow the earth’s heat for energy, he suggested. Some nations in Southeast Asia may also be suitable for gathering wind power.

Another source of environmentally-friendly energy is hydrogen, said Professor Loh Xian Jun, Executive Director, Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, A*STAR. The chemical is being treated as a “next gen fuel”, he explained.

However, transporting hydrogen in liquid form requires it to be kept at -250 degrees, a significant drain of energy. Japan is currently developing a way for hydrogen to be combined with another molecule to keep it in liquid form at a higher temperature, he highlighted.

Managing waste 

Panellists also discussed innovative ways to reduce waste. The pandemic has accelerated the use of plastic, especially with face masks and takeaway food containers. Plastic objects like disposable face masks are being disposed of in tonnes per day globally, Loh shared.

While the pandemic will come to an end, the plastic waste is not going to disappear tomorrow, he emphasised. One way to reduce waste is coordinating waste disposal between different industries.

The waste material of one sector could become the raw materials needed by a different industry. Coordinating this process “will help create a circular economy where waste is minimised”, Tan shared.

One example of this cycle is with heat waste generated by supercomputers. Intense digital tasks can be sent to computers in cold countries, where warmth is needed, rather than treated as a waste product, he explained.

Energy production, transport and waste are just some of the many fronts where the climate crisis is being fought. Digital twins and other innovative technologies can help even the odds in humanity’s mission to create a more sustainable world.