BMW's closed-loop batteries and AI-powered beehives: The best innovations for Green GB Week

A number of eye-catching and potentially transformational innovations have emerged that could help businesses and nations accelerate the transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy. Here, edie rounds-up six of the best.

This week's best innovations could drive significant change across the food, shipping and automotive sectors

This week's best innovations could drive significant change across the food, shipping and automotive sectors

It doesn’t take an eagle-eyed observer to realise that this week has been a hugely busy one for UK-based sustainability professionals, with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launching the nation’s first-ever Green GB Week – with edie acting as an official media partner.

Throughout the week, dozens of events have been held to help BEIS tell the story of clean growth and empower organisations of all industry types and sizes to accelerate progress towards a low-carbon economy.

When striving to spur the transition to a low-carbon world and to create a sustainable future, it is always worth looking at the green innovations of today that could become mainstream in the coming months and years. 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.

Food-saving stickers

Around one-third of all food produced globally is wasted, and in the UK, this translates to around £700 of wasted food per family annually. Various supermarkets have signed voluntary commitments to tackle the issue, but the thick end of the food waste mountain comes from homes and does not occur at a shop or supply-chain level. Indeed, the latest data from WRAP reveals that consumer waste accounts for 7.1 million tonnes of Britain’s annual 10.2-million-tonne output.

A stand-out innovative solution to the challenge comes from Malaysian start-up Stixfresh, which has developed an edible sticker that can extend the life of fresh fruit by up to 14 days. The stickers are coated with a mixture of sodium chloride and beeswax, which slows down the fruit ripening process by removing ethylene - the ripening hormone in fresh produce – from the air around the product.

The stickers were first launched in 2016, following four years of product testing and development. According to the company, collaborative studies with industry experts have shown that Stixfresh can “extend the freshness of certain fruits by up to 50%”.

Coffee-powered fuel cells

Batteries are generating a lot of buzz in the world of energy, but for all the benefits they have on improving energy use and resiliency, the production cycles for batteries of all shapes and sizes are still energy intensive, and for some, potentially toxic.

In a bid to create a more sustainable alternative to traditional lithium-ion fuel cells, a research team led by scientists at the University of Surrey has this week unveiled a small fuel cell that uses waste microbes from turning coffee cherries into instant coffee granules as a source of power.

The microbes generate power in a similar way to the chemicals in a hydrogen-powered vehicle – as they decompose the waste matter, they release a small amount of energy which can be harnessed within the Perspex and stainless-steel-based device. The University is now waiting on responses from funding agencies for money to build and field-test a larger prototype in Colombia.

Plant-based netting

As the war on plastics continues to gather pace, numerous potential solutions have caught the eye in recent times, from sugarcane-based mailing bags to pulp-based ready meal trays. But progress has been slower in finding a sustainable alternative to the packaging which campaign groups often use to symbolise the eight million tonnes of plastic finding its way into oceans annually – plastic netting.

One potential solution comes from Austrian biogenic packaging company VPZ, which has developed a bio-based, biodegradable netting made from waste wood from the forestry industry. To create the netting, trees that are cut to allow larger forestry to grow are chipped and then broken down into pulp. The pulp is then spun into a string-like material and knitted together into a net tube, ready for use.

Organic produce box distributor Riverford this week became the first UK-based business to use the innovative netting after switching from plastic across its range of onions and citrus fruits. The move comes as the company, which delivers around 47,000 boxes each week, reviews its packaging strategy to bolster its sustainability efforts.

AI-powered beehives

Bees don’t often get featured in this weekly round-up, but the role they have to play in ensuring a sustainable food supply for the future is not to be underestimated. Bees are estimated to be responsible for pollinating one-third of the global food supply, pollinating 70 of the 100 crop species that feed 90% of the global population on a daily basis.

In a bid to safeguard the UK’s bee population, non-profit The World Bee Project has this week launched a programme that will see an artificial intelligence (AI) platform used to connect its network of beehives, collecting and analysing data on temperature, humidity and honey yield.

Developed by cloud computing firm Oracle, the AI platform will also measure the movement of bees’ wings and feet to help researchers analyse and predict behaviour patterns. The data and insights gained by using Oracle Cloud will be made available to research and conservation projects around the world.

Closed-loop EV batteries

With carmakers including MazdaNissan and VW and all moving to electrify their portfolios, ramp up investment into electric vehicle (EV) production and spur battery research and innovation, concerns are starting to be raised about how corporates can minimise the environmental impact of sourcing the metals they will need to produce new motors and batteries.

To accelerate the uptake of circular economy principles in the automotive industry, BMW this week launched a partnership with energy start-up Northvolt and raw materials firm Umicore to develop a circular value chain for EV batteries. The partnership’s first objective is to co-create a recyclable cell design that can be manufactured using 100% renewable power.

The next step is designing cells for a long period of primary use as a drive battery, possibly followed by a secondary phase as a flexible energy storage device. Finally, the companies will seek to develop a recycling method allowing the cell to be broken down into raw materials ready for reuse. The move comes ahead of the opening of BMW’s battery cell centre of excellence in 2019, which will see battery prototypes developed over the coming years.

Chip fat shipping fuel

According to a report by the European Parliament, the international shipping industry is currently responsible for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions – but this proportion could rise to 17% by 2050 if the sector is left unregulated and without innovative solutions. The sector arguably needs to spur itself towards the International Maritime Organisation's (IMO) 2050 target of halving CO2 emissions from 2008 levels.

Innovations can emerge through cross-sector partnerships and non-profit The GoodShipping Programme has developed an innovative shipping fuel made from waste vegetable fat collected from restaurants, cafes and catering firms. The fuel is developed by hydrogenating vegetable oil – a process which converts the substance into a form of diesel.

When burned, the fuel produces much less carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particulates than comparable fossil fuels. In September, the 22,000 litres of the biofuel was used to power a small shipping vessel on its journey to feed a larger cargo ship. The challenge now will be scaling up production and enabling larger vessels to make the switch.

Sarah George  


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