Using Ultra-White Paint to Combat Climate Change

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Image commercially licensed from:

According to the report of Trstdly, a groundbreaking new paint could hold the key to fighting climate change through its ability to reflect sunlight and cool the planet. Developed by researchers at Purdue University, this paint is being hailed as the whitest paint ever created, capable of reflecting over 98% of sunlight. With buildings and infrastructure across the world getting a fresh coat of this ‘ultra-white’ paint, it could significantly lower temperatures and energy consumption from air conditioning. However, one professor has an even more radical proposal for how to utilize this paint on a global scale.

Jeremy Munday, an expert in Clean Technology from the University of California, Davis, suggests that covering just 1-2% of the Earth’s surface with this ultra-white paint could bounce enough sunlight back into space to stabilize global temperatures and combat climate change. Given the Earth’s total surface area, 1-2% would equate to painting approximately 2-4 million square miles – an area larger than the entire continent of Australia.

It’s an incredibly ambitious idea that underscores both the promise and the challenges of using paint to cool the planet. While the potential temperature reduction from replacing dark roofs and pavement with reflective white surfaces could be significant, especially in urban areas, covering 1-2% of the global land and ocean surfaces would require a herculean effort.

The Science Behind Reflective Paint

The Purdue team’s ultra-white paint achieves its exceptional reflective properties through a combination of barium sulfate powders and additives. Barium sulfate is a white inorganic salt that reflects across the entire visible light spectrum, appearing visibly whiter than conventional white paints and plastics. The researchers optimized the particle sizes and shapes in the paint to maximize scattering of light. Even with a thin application, the paint absorbs almost no visible light energy from the sun.

Painting structures white is a well-known ‘cool roof’ strategy for reducing building energy costs in hot climates. White rooftops reflect sunlight and stay up to 50-60°F cooler than traditional dark roofs. This decreases heat transfer into the building, improving indoor comfort and cutting air conditioning demands. Studies have shown cool roofs can reduce a building’s annual cooling energy use by 10-30%.

Scaling up from rooftops to covering millions of square miles with reflective paint relies on the same principle. By increasing the Earth’s albedo – the proportion of sunlight reflected back into space – a whitened surface would absorb less solar radiation. In theory, this could offset some of the warming caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The Daunting Logistics of Painting the Planet

While the potential temperature impact from maximizing reflectivity across continents and oceans is significant, the logistics of actually accomplishing this are daunting, to say the least. Jeremy Munday estimates it would take over 139 billion gallons of ultra-white paint to cover 2% of the Earth’s surface. Manufacturing this quantity would be an immense challenge in itself.

Then there’s the actual application of the paint. It’s one thing to paint roofs, parking lots, and roads in urban areas. It’s quite another to ‘whitewash’ deserts, farmlands, forests, and especially the oceans. Many of these areas would be extremely difficult or impractical to coat with reflective paint.

Consider the Arctic and Antarctic regions, which account for 5-6% of the Earth’s surface. Blizzard conditions, sub-zero temperatures, and floating sea ice would make applying paint incredibly challenging. Even if logistically possible, the ecological impacts of covering vast natural areas in chemicals could be disastrous.

Research Into Climate-Friendly Paint Continues 

Despite the obstacles, research continues into maximizing the climate benefits of reflective surfaces. For example, a 2019 study by researchers at Yale University modeled the effects of painting all rooftops white in over 100 major urban areas across the globe. They estimated this could offset 44 gigatons of CO2 emissions over ten years – comparable to taking every car in the world off the roads for four years. While still hypothetical, it illustrates the significant potential climate impact of simple solutions like cool rooftops.

There are also advances in reflective ‘bio-paints’ that can self-clean and self-heal without releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. These bio-paint coatings incorporate microalgae, fungi, and limestone-producing bacteria to maintain their reflective properties over time. Such materials may one day make large-scale applications of reflective surfaces more feasible.

No single solution will be sufficient to address climate change. But boosting the reflectivity of our built environment, in combination with comprehensive efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, and remove carbon from the atmosphere, could help bend the global warming curve. The development of ultra-white paint and other highly reflective materials gives us one more tool in this critical fight.

Scientists at Purdue University have created the whitest paint ever known, reflecting more than 98% of light. This remarkable paint has the potential to tackle global warming by reducing the Earth’s temperature and cutting the need for air conditioning. If applied to buildings, it could lower indoor temperatures significantly.

But there’s an even grander idea. According to Jeremy Munday, an expert in Clean Technology from the University of California, Davis, if we covered 1-2% of the Earth’s surface with this special paint, it could bounce enough light back into space to stabilize global temperatures. This could be a major step in combating climate change. 

However, the challenge lies in the amount of paint required. To cover just 1-2% of the Earth’s surface, which is about 2-4 million square miles, we’d need an enormous quantity of paint – around 139 billion gallons! To put it into perspective, the total land area of the United States is only 3.5 million square miles.

While painting structures white is already being done in some places, the scale needed to combat global warming is very big. Not to mention, painting surfaces like oceans, deserts, and trees would be really hard to do.

Even though this new super white paint is a promising development, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go in finding solutions to the challenges of climate change. But with continued research and innovation, we can hope to make a positive impact on the future of our planet.


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