Bacteria windfarms and 3D coral reefs: the best green innovations of the week

In a week that has settled on a new Prime Minister and Cabinet for the UK, edie rounds up the latest low-carbon innovations that could help mitigate the "inevitable changes" that climate change will bring to the nation.

The Brexit fallout is still in full-swing, and as new Prime Minister Theresa May looks to build on David Cameron’s rather “lukewarm” green legacy, the UK Government has already been warned that it is ill-equipped to tackle climate change, even if a global 2C pathway is achieved. May has decided to act on these warnings, but only by abolishing the department committed to implementing climate action.

But in the midst of uncertainty, the cities of London and Leeds provide rays of hope on an otherwise smog-strangled horizon. London was heralded as a leader in climate finance, while Leeds could be set to reinvent the grid as the UK’s “hydrogen city”.

Scotland was also heralded for its innovative nature, which could see the grid revolutionised to account for energy storage systems. Elsewhere on the innovation front, Jaguar Land Rover announced it will introduce real-world tests of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) in the UK over the next four years in a bid to reduce congestion.

This week, edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories that could drive the low-carbon, resource efficient transition into this neat and tidy little green package.

The bacteria ballet that powers your smartphone

With the new phone-draining craze of Pokemon Go establishing itself as one of the most used apps around, it would be interesting to see the extra energy consumption used to recharge smartphones globally.

Solar-powered phones have been featured in this round-up before, but now researchers from the University of Oxford have created miniscule bacteria “wind farms”, which could be used to charge and power small electrical components.

By injecting a “lattice of 64 symmetric microrotors” into bacteria-filled fluid, the researchers saw that the bacteria developed organised rotational movements – similar to turbine blades on a wind farm – in order to generate power. While the amount of energy produced isn’t enough to power homes, it can be used for smaller machines around the house.

The holy grail of the Bay of Fundy

Off of North America’s Atlantic coast lies the “holy grail” for renewable tidal energy, at least that is the belief of Halifax-based Minas Energy, which is partnering with firms from the Netherlands and Ontario to harness tidal energy.

The new tidal technology will look to harness the bay’s powerful waves by 2017 to generate commercial quantities of electricity through the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy’s test sites.

The underwater technology uses four 250Kw bi-directional open rotor turbine generators attached to a floating platform to generate electricity. A mooring system is used to partially submerge the platform, allowing water to flow beneath the turbines. While concerns have been raised about disruptions to fishing habitats, the turbines will occupy less than 0.1% of the Minas Basin’s surface area.

Urine the fast-lane now

The concept of urine as an energy source is flush with potential, having previously caught the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Researchers from University of the West of England have already explored the potential of urine by powering LED lights at this year’s Glastonbury festival.

Using a Microbial Fuel Cell system, the researchers are harnessing urine to create energy that can intermittently charge electronic devices such as DC pumps, motors and micro-controllers for computers.

But the lead researcher professor Ioannis Ieropoulos has even bigger plans for the concept, envisioning a future that sees urine in the vehicle fuel mix. “We envisage a future with advanced materials, highly energy efficient actuators, and storage devices where urine and other organic waste matter could be used as the fuel for charging the batteries of a vehicle,” the professor recently told BBC.

Bleached-blondes don’t have more fun under the sea

Coral bleaching is one of the more visible effects of climate change. As corals turn white, the delicate ecosystems and species that reside in it have begun to disappear altogether. In order to stop the corals from dying outright, an Australian organisation and architect have teamed together to trial 3D printed corals in Bahrain and Monaco.

The Reef Design Lab (RDL) and architect James Gardiner are using colour-coded 3D replicas of corals to enhance the eco-system of the two areas. According to RDL, young polyps and marine species are attracted to vibrantly coloured reefs, which the printer can recreate.

The 3D printed structures have been printed using a sandstone-like material that has a low-carbon footprint, meaning that as well are re-establishing diverse wildlife and eco-systems under the waves, the researchers are doing so without adding much of a carbon footprint.

Turning the plastic soup into a soup-like liquid

Plastic dumped into the seas around the UK is carried to the Arctic within two years, which isn’t the most proactive way to reduce the global “plastic soup”. However, one potential solution is to actually turn plastic into a soup, well a liquid, that can be used as fuel.

Chemists at UC Irvine have created a new method to breakdown polyethylene plastic into its basic elements, which includes diesel. While this can be done through heating the plastic to 700 degrees Fahrenheit or using corrosive chemicals, UC Irvine uses hydrocarbon and metal catalysts to return the molecules into fuel compounds. The researchers claim that this method is twice as energy efficient and less toxic.

However, the tests aren’t ready to revolutionise the plastic waste pandemic yet. New research is required to make the process much more efficient, not to mention the amount of resources, time and emissions it would take to scoop up the plastic soup.

Highway to the low-carbon future

The Arroyo Seco Bridge on the 134 Freeway in Los Angeles has 10 traffic lanes, which when you think about the number of vehicles that cross it, creates a real carbon pool. In order to push the bridge into a low-carbon 21st century, Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA) and Arup have drawn up plans to dress-up the bridge, using solar panels and carbon-absorbing concrete.

By utilising see-through walls and porous concrete ‘lungs’, Arup anticipates carbon savings to the tune of 516,000 tonnes annually. Solar panels on top of the new tunnel-like infrastructure would provide enough clean energy to power 600 homes and a natural rainwater collection system would water plants on the bridge and add to the surrounding area’s water supply.

While it sounds like a win-win scenario, MMA and Arup are yet to give an estimate on the cost, meaning that for the present the futuristic bridge will remain as a vision.

Matt Mace

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