Cocoa-free chocolate and data centres to heat swimming pools: March 2023’s best Green Innovations

As any good cook knows, ingredient substitution is an important skill. But now, as the world grapples with the carbon footprint of food production – which amounts to one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions – the term has taken on a new meaning. Innovators around the world are looking to scale alternatives to environmentally damaging ingredients. And one such ingredient is cocoa, the focus of the first of this month’s innovations.

But what happens if you need a substitute for a substitute? Our second innovation provides an alternative to plant-based proteins such as soy and peas, which are themselves used as a substitute for meat-derived protein.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, one ingredient that we need more of is saffron – which has useful applications in food, textiles, and medicines. As key production centres for the spice are impacted by climate change and land use change, our third innovation is turning to vertical farming to produce this ‘red gold’. And, in our fourth innovation, the humble potato may have a further use other than as a tasty food ingredient. A design studio is trialling the use of spuds as a material for packaging.

Elsewhere, our final two innovations are both finding ways to use energy more efficiently. Swimming pools are so costly to heat that many local authorities are reducing their opening hours. But now heat from a mini data centre could be used to keep your neighbourhood pool at a comfortable temperature.

And finally, the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) will need to be accompanied by more public charging stations. This could result in costly and time-consuming upgrades to the energy grid. But, as our final innovation demonstrates, this need not be the case.

Cocoa-free chocolates

Image: Nocoa

Cocoa farming can be seriously damaging the environment. Farmers often clear forests to make space for new cocoa trees – particularly in West Africa. Now, a German company has created a chocolate free from cocoa to help mitigate deforestation in sweet treat supply chains.

To avoid using cocoa, Nocoa uses locally sourced oats as its base ingredient. The oats are fermented in a process – similar to beer brewing – that releases a cocoa-like flavour. Crucially, the oats used by the company are mainly a by-product of current grain production. This means that more oats do not need to be grown to create Nocoa, reducing the pressure on land resources.

Producing one kilogramme of Nocoa creates 90% less CO2 than one kilogramme of its regular chocolate counterpart, the beand claims. The company aims to relieve the cocoa supply chain and hopes that, in future, cocoa will only be used for higher-value applications that enable fair payment for all parties involved.

Low-carbon cooking with cabbages

Image: Naylor Farms

While plant-based protein alternatives like those made from soy or pea have a smaller carbon footprint than many other protein sources on the market, climate-change-induced droughts and wet harvests can make crops unreliable. This is why UK-based Naylor Nutrition has instead placed bets on a different plant-based protein source: cabbage.

At the start of this year, the company began building a €38m smart eco-factory to carefully extract protein, fibre, and an umami syrup (a savoury taste often associated with meat) from cabbages. The result makes for a highly nutritious soy sauce substitute and plant-based ingredient that surpasses its less sustainable rivals.

Simon Naylor, the owner of Naylor Nutrition and Naylor Farms, explains: “Many of the current plant-based solutions to the problem of traditional mass agriculture claim to be sustainable, yet they travel thousands of miles before reaching their destination. We offer products with zero air miles, making Naylor Nutrition’s brassica protein ingredients truly sustainable.”

Naylor Nutrition started construction of its first factory in January 2023, just seven miles from Naylor Farms in Lincolnshire UK. The company now hopes to expand into broccoli, kale and cauliflower extracts.

Vertically farmed saffron

Stock image

Saffron is a spice with many useful applications in food, textiles, and medicine. But the severity of climate change coupled with the expansion of manufacturing and urban construction projects has crippled the strategically important Kashmiri saffron market. In the last 20 years, the amount of land available to cultivate the crop in Pampore, India – the saffron centre of Kashmir – has decreased by 60%.

The highest quality saffron is worth its weight in gold, literally, and is known as ‘red gold.’ And because of this high value, the market for fake saffron is flourishing. Now, Israeli company Saffron Tech is tackling these issues by building a new, verifiable commercial market for saffron that is based on vertically farming multiple harvests per year.

The company is putting the well-known benefits of reduced water, pesticide, and energy use that vertical farming provides growers to full use in the production of saffron. Its system is modular and designed to grow crops near end users to reduce the environmental costs of global transportation. That technology also opens up the market to new growers who may not have the land or climate to otherwise support a crop like saffron.

As well as its usual applications in dye, natural medicines, and cooking, Saffron Tech is exploring future uses for saffron in other medicines and cosmetics. Having recently announced a $1m investment, Saffron Tech plans to grow its first saffron crop in Korea, while also using the funding to complete the patenting process for its technologies.

Potato-based packaging

Image: Goneshells

By now, most of us are aware that most packaging raises environmental concerns – contributing in some way to either pollution or global warming, or both. Working to solve this issue is Swedish design studio Tomorrow Machine, whose latest project is a packaging solution that mimics the lifecycle of fresh foods.

The product, called GoneShells, is a bottle made from a potato-starch-based material. Designed to hold products like juice, the container can be peeled away once empty like an orange skin and eaten or home composted. Alternatively, it can be dissolved in water and sent harmlessly down the drain.

The packaging is currently at the prototype stage and is being developed in collaboration with juice company Eckes Granini for its Brämhults brand. According to GoneShells’ creators, as long as the degradation process is not activated, such as by peeling the bottle or immersing it in water, the potato material will retain its structure like a traditional plastic bottle. In addition, the product can be made using existing manufacturing equipment.

Recycling excess data centre heat

Image: Exmouth Leisure Centre

It is well-known that data centres consume vast amounts of energy. This is because banks of servers require a lot of cooling. Now, a startup has found a use for all the heat that data centres generate – a use that could also help public facilities such as swimming pools reduce their energy costs and their fossil fuel use.

Deep Green has developed small-scale edge data centres that can divert their excess heat to warm leisure centres and public swimming pools. The systems, called ‘digital boilers’, immerse central processing units (CPU) in special cooling tubs, which use oil to remove heat from the servers. This oil is then passed through a heat exchanger, which removes the heat and uses it to warm the buildings and pools.

The company says the heat donation from one of its digital boilers will cut a public swimming pool’s gas requirements by around 70%, saving leisure centres thousands of pounds each year while also drastically reducing carbon emissions. Deep Green pays for the electricity it uses and donates the heat for free. This is a huge benefit, as Britain’s public swimming pools are facing massive increases in heating bills, which is causing many to close or restrict their opening hours.

The company hopes to work with 20 leisure centres across the UK by the end of 2023, following an initial partnership with Exmouth Leisure Centre in Devon.

Extra-efficient EV charging

Image: VOOL

To get fossil-fuel-powered cars off the road, Europe needs more electric vehicles (EVs). But these EVs must be accompanied by the roll-out of chargers – and this is easier said than done. To meet rising demand, the number of public charging stations in Europe must increase rapidly. In 2021, there were 375,000 charging stations but McKinsey estimates that the EU-27 will need to be at least 3.4 million by 2030. As it stands, this would require a massive overhaul of the existing grid infrastructure. But costly and time-consuming upgrades could be avoided by using VOOL’s EV charging solutions that make the most out of our current power grid.

By switching automatically between three phases of electricity, VOOL can take advantage of the full capacity of the electricity grid, making its charging three times as efficient. Through its software, VOOL’s technology facilitates maximum cost-efficiency by tracking electricity prices to guarantee an EV is charged as cheaply as possible within the set time frame. This could save drivers up to 90% on charging costs, while also letting housing developers off the hook for extra expenses linked to infrastructure upgrades and new charging spots.

Former President of Estonia and angel investor of VOOL, Kersti Kaljulaid, explains: “We can build rougher power grids to satisfy the increasing demand, but that would be unsustainable. It is better to find a way to best use the already existing main fuse. That is what VOOL does.”

The startup has raised €1.7m in a seed funding round which it will use to increase the production of its chargers. It is currently on track to install 20,000 charging stations by the end of 2023.

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