Hydrogen dustcarts and light-up trees: The best green innovations of the week

A number of eye-catching and potentially transformational innovations have emerged that could help businesses and nations deliver on resource efficiency, low-carbon transitions and combat climate change. Here, edie rounds-up six of the best.

With the European Commission presenting its long-awaited marine-litter-busting proposal on banning single-use plastics on Monday (28 May), sustainability has once again been pushed to the forefront of media attention.

With this in mind, this week’s round-up covers a variety of ideas, concepts, products and systems that could help nations and businesses accelerate sustainability commitments.

Turning trees into street lights

Cities across the globe have looked at ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their streetlight network through smart solutions this year, with The City of London Corporation confirming in February that “state-of-the-art” technology will coat urban spaces in various lighting types and colours at different times of the night.

But Copenhagen-based startup Allumen is studying a way to go one step further than LED lighting and turn trees into natural lamps. Researchers at its labs are trying to isolate the genes that make bioluminescent microalgae glow, so they can tweak them and add them to trees, genetically engineering the plants to emit light. This could, in theory, eliminate the need for electricity and cut the carbon emissions usually related to building street lamps.

Scientists believe the relevant genes can be located fairly quickly but could face challenges with getting the gene to perform in a tree – or with ensuring the plants shine brightly enough to replace LEDs. However, it cannot be denied that the prospect of street lights which actually absorb CO2 rather than contributing to emissions is an attractive one.

Self-healing cables

Fluid-filled cables were deployed across 8,000km of the UK’s electricity network in the 1960s and 70s in a move to ensure electric cables were better insulated and had fewer voids– but over time, they have started to leak and impact the surrounding environment.

Northern Powergrid, alongside the Energy Innovation Centre and system developer Gnosys, has this week announced it has been successful in creating a self-healing alternative to tackle the leaking problems. The new liquid, called self-healing fluid, contains a mixture of tung oil and metal soaps which cause it to react and form a strong cohesive mass when it is exposed to air. This will seal the leaks in a similar way to blood concealing into a scab on a wound.

The electricity network will start incorporating the new fluid in its network of 930km of cables before the end of 2018 and anticipates the switch will save the firm up to £20m over the next five years. This summer, up to 20,000 litres of the self-healing fluid will be deployed throughout its cable network.

Heavy on the hydrogen

As carmakers push to electrify their models and businesses strive to cut fleet emissions, the EV revolution has just begun within the heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) sector, with Volvo last month unveiling its first electric truck designed for heavy-duty roles.

This week saw UK waste management firm Grundon launch a low-emission hydrogen and diesel dual-fuel waste collection vehicle, which it claims is the first to be used in Britain’s commercial waste industry. The DAF HGV was retrofitted with a 10kg hydrogen unit in a move which cost £177,000 and was described by Grundon group logistics manager John Stephens as “a significant investment”, but one the firm has been keen to make.

The truck is fully operational and is collecting waste from homes in London as part of a trial of the dual-fuel technology. If the trial produces adequate carbon reductions, Grundon will look to invest further and retrofit more of its fleet.

Rocking the boat

Self-driving cars continue to be a hot topic after the Government launched the first phase of a £100m investment in the development of driverless vehicles earlier this year, but researchers are now turning to boats in a bid to cut congestion and pollution on city canals.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have this week unveiled 3D-printed autonomous boats which are fitted with environmental sensors to monitor water pollution and pH levels.

Researchers hope the small vessels, which are also equipped with microcontrollers and GPS modules, can be scaled up and used to transport goods and passengers in cities such as Amsterdam, Bangkok and Venice. They have been tested along pre-planned paths in a swimming pool and in the Charles River in Massachusetts, with the inventors now attempting to adapt the model to account for wave disturbances and stronger currents before scaling it up.

Coffee cup shake-up

In the current market, takeaway paper coffee cups can only be recycled in select infrastructure. They are commonly sealed with a plastic lining to make them waterproof and, although plastic and paper are recyclable, the lining cannot be handled by most recycling facilities.

As public awareness around single-use plastics and disposable cups grows, packaging engineering firm Smart Planet Technologies has created a new coating to replace the plastic inside your venti triple-shot latte. Cups lined with the resin-based substance, called EarthCoating, can be widely recycled within existing infrastructure, alongside uncoated paper.  

Smart Planet Technologies estimates that incorporating the EarthCoating cup results in a cup that contains 43% less plastic than one with standard polyethylene liners, and claims that cups with the substance built in can be recycled up to seven times. The firm has supplied more than seven million of the cups to European clients since launching them last October, and is now looking to expand into the US market.

No porky pies

With the alternative protein sector set to be worth $5.2bn by 2020, several companies are investing in creating non-meat alternatives to popular dishes. For example, Impossible Foods unveiled a meat-free burger which cost $80m to produce, that uses 95% less land and around 75% less water than traditional burgers.

Plant-based food tech startup Beyond Meat has followed suit and turned to breakfast, launching a breakfast sausage patty which is made from pea, mung bean, rice and sunflower protein and designed to look and taste the same as pork. The firm hopes that by mimicking the taste and texture of meat, it can encourage the switch to alternative protein sources and help to slash the estimated 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions currently accounted for by meat and fish supply chains.

The patty is currently available to US-based restaurants only, but the Californian firm is planning to launch its product range in Europe, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Chile, Israel, Korea, Taiwan and South Africa this year after finding success in Hong Kong and Germany as well as at home. 

Sarah George 

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