Carbon protein powder and toilet roll bike lanes: the best green innovations of the week

In a week where humanity used up its entire annual budget of planetary resources, edie rounds up the latest low-carbon technologies and innovations that could accelerate the global shift towards a prosperous low-carbon future.

Wednesday 2 August marked Earth Overshoot Day, the unceremonious occasion where the planet can no longer regenerate resources to meet mankind’s demands.

The announcement was accompanied by advice on how people can reduce their own environmental impacts, with an emphasis on research from coalition Project Drawdown – which has devised the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. While Overshoot Day highlights the warnings that there is only a 5% chance of reaching the Paris Agreement, Project Drawdown captures the imagination of innovation.

When it comes to low-carbon innovation, it does appear that businesses are stepping up. Earlier in the week, for instance, furniture retailer Ikea announced a new domestic battery storage solution that could help homeowners reduce electricity costs by 70%.

However, businesses pursuing innovation should be wary about purchasing “green bling” focusing instead on projects that deliver impact rather than stories, as Interserve’s head of sustainability told edie.

With all of that in mind, edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package.

Washing machines live longer without concrete

Those who are wary of “green bling” when searching for new innovations may find comfort in searching for improvements to product efficiency. Around 3.5 million washing machines are sold in the UK annually, and researchers from Nottingham Trent University have developed an inner counterweight which could save the UK almost 45,000 tonnes in transport emissions.

By using a hollow plastic counterweight filled with water, washing machines will no longer vibrate during spin cycles. Currently, manufacturers use concrete blocks weighing more than 25kg to prevent vibrating, but this increases weight, and therefore the emissions from transporting the machines.

The plastic design cuts the weight of the machines by 30%, lowering fuel use as a result. Research found that reducing the weight of a truck carrying washing machines by 100kg could save around 8.5g of carbon and 0.35 litres of fuel per 100km in transportation distance. If only new devices were transported, carbon savings would equate to around 44,625 tonnes of CO2 annually.

Two wheels and number twos

The Dutch are experts when it comes to the circular economy and their latest two-year pilot project is certainly no exception. At the Geestmerambacht wastewater treatment plant near Alkmaar, sludge and sewage is put through a process that captures around 400kg of soiled toilet paper daily.

The paper is captured when the water is passed through a sieve, and in the past, would be incinerated. However, the new project is turning this soiled paper into a variety of uses.

The cellulose captured from the recovered paper is sterilized and turned into pellets and materials. These materials are used as insulation, in bottles, and have now been used as asphalt for bike lanes in the Netherlands.

Energy storage: easy as A, B, C

Electric carmaker Tesla’s evolution in the energy storage market has seen it ink lucrative deals with the Australian Government. Now, it seems that Google’s parent company Alphabet is looking to get in on the action. But rather than jump on the energy storage bandwagon, Alphabet could be about to change it.

Alphabet’s advanced technology research lab X, home to the company’s “captain of moonshots”, is developing new ways to store renewable energy by using salt and antifreeze. Code named Malta, the system could potentially outperform lithium-ion batteries.

Separate tanks are filled with salt and antifreeze, before the system takes in electricity to create streams of hot and cold air, which heat the salt and cool the antifreeze. A switch then pushes the hot and cold air together, creating a gust to spin a turbine and generate electricity. Bloomberg reports that Malta isn’t an official project yet, but that the team is looking to connect a commercial system to the grid.

Driving on sunshine

Electric vehicles have helped to establish a vital connection between solar power and transport, by acting as the middle man between storage and use. Some carmakers are trying to go one step beyond that and generate solar energy through the car itself.

German startup Sono Motors could be close to realising this vision. It has unveiled the Sion, a solar-powered electric car backed by a successful $650,000 crowdfunding campaign.

The vehicle is fitted with 330 shatterproof, weather resistant solar panels on its roof and sides. The Sion is capable of self-generating 18 miles worth of electricity in the right condition, but Sono plans to sell 155-mile range batteries alongside the vehicle, with a rented option available.

Pre-orders are available for the Sion at €16,000, but deliveries won’t take place until 2019.

A spoon full of CO2

In the quest to stop world hunger and increase access to sustainable food supplies, the ‘Food From Electricity’ study, funded by the Academy of Finland, may have made a revolutionary breakthrough.

Researchers from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) have created a protein powder that could be used to feed animal and humans, using only carbon dioxide and electricity.

Currently, the “reactor” takes two-weeks to produce one gram of protein powder, so improvements are needed. But, the process can be almost 10 times as energy efficient as photosynthesis and has a mix of 50% protein, 25% carbs mixed with fats and acids.

The researchers claim the process could one day produce food without emitting any emissions if the electricity is sourced from renewables.

Heavy metal, light costs

As far as green innovations go, 3D printing has the potential to be one of the most transformative. It can speed up production, reduce reliance on over-harvested natural resources and potentially lower emissions.

But, as the technology is still in its infancy, it is still relatively pricey – even with the technological barriers it is yet to overcome. However, engineering start-up Desktop Metal – founded by MIT professors – has unveiled a new metral 3D printer that is up to 100 times faster than traditional manufacturing methods.

It is believed to cost one tenth of the price of current metal 3D printers, which can reach upwards of a million dollars, and uses materials that cost 20 times less than existing laser technologies on the market. Capable of using the majority of metal options, the system also produces no metal powders and limits laser use, meaning it could be installed at home or in the office. The system has already attracted the interest of Google Ventures.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie