Printed solar panels and carbon capture breakthroughs: The best green innovations of the week

Each week, numerous eye-catching and potentially transformational innovations that could help businesses and nations deliver on resource efficiency, low-carbon transitions and combat climate change emerge. And each week edie rounds-up six of the best.

This week's best innovations could drive significant change across the fashion, renewables and plastics sectors

This week's best innovations could drive significant change across the fashion, renewables and plastics sectors

It’s been one of the busiest and most exciting weeks of the year for the edie team – and for all of our readers. On Tuesday (5 February), our two-day Sustainability Leaders Forum kicked off in central London, with thought leader Jonathon Porritt, Energy Minister Claire Perry, Marks & Spencer’s Mike Barry and a whole host of other experts taking to the stage and sharing their insight. The conference additionally saw delegates co-creating innovative solutions to sustainability challenges at a series of Leadership Labs and Thinkathons.

After the Forum, edie presented its Sustainability Leaders Awards to 21 deserving winners at a glittering ceremony on Wednesday night (6 February) with the help of Winterwatch presenter Michaela Strachan, comedienne Sara Pascoe and former Unilever chief executive Paul Polman.

Throughout the buzz and bustle of the events, speakers and delegates united under the theme “embracing the fierce urgency of now” – an action first encouraged by Martin Luther King, Jr in 1963. And while several sessions focused on the global policy and corporate picture, it is always worth looking at the innovations of today which could become commonplace tomorrow when tackling pressing challenges.

With this in mind, this round-up highlights six products, concepts and systems which could help businesses and nations accelerate their progress towards creating a sustainable future, today.  

‘Inkjet’ solar panels

As the renewables revolution continues across the globe, solar windows are now available to buy and sit on the cusp of a market breakthrough. But one scientist is striving to go further by creating photovoltaic (PV) technology that could be attached to not only windows but drones, laptops, spacecraft and walls as well.

Polish businesswoman and scientist Olga Malinkiewicz recently unveiled a market-ready version of what she describes as an ‘inkjet’ PV panel, which is printed using flexible foil and liquid conductors. The panels are created by applying liquid perovskite minerals to foil using a low-temperature 3D printer, reducing the cost and time associated with producing such technology.

Because the panels are thin and flexible, they can be applied to any surface and are lighter to transport than traditional solar cells. After unveiling a prototype panel in 2015, Malinkiewicz will this year produce 40,000 square meters of panels after scaling up her manufacturing business.

Avocado pip plastic

Amid a wave of criticism on plastics by policymakers, the general public and corporates alike, several big-name brands are turning to bio-based alternatives in a bid to reduce their environmental footprint and appease their customers. But with the equally pressing issues of land use and food waste to be accounted for as well, innovators have begun developing food waste polymers to avoid using valuable resources in low-value products and packaging.

One of the latest developments in this area comes from Mexican bio-technology firm Biofase, which is manufacturing polymer pellets made from the nation’s mountain of wasted avocado pits. After failing to find a way of converting mango waste into a viable plastic alternative, the company recently succeeded in extracting the fibrous aspect of the molecular structure of avocado seeds as a moldable biopolymer. The company claims that the material degrades within 240 days if left in nature.

After first using the material to make cutlery on a small-scale production line in 2015, Biofase will this year upscale its cutlery production and branch out into straws after opening a large-scale manufacturing plant. The facility is set to produce 700 tonnes of product per month, up from the firm’s current monthly output of 130 tonnes.

Carbon ‘absorbers’ for heavy industry

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark report on climate change recently concluded that the world would be “unlikely” to limit warming below 1.5C without the widespread use of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technologies – a claim which has spurred fresh action from policymakers and innovators alike.

After beginning its contribution to Europe’s first bioenergy CCUS project at Drax’s North Yorkshire power station last year, C-Capture this week secured £3.5m of funding from BP and Drax to fine-tune its research into re-utilising the flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) absorbers to capture and store carbon released by bioenergy generation.

This method uses new proprietary solvents to remove carbon dioxide, offering what C-Capture describes as “a safer and less expensive alternative to current technologies based on the use of amines”. The funding will be used to determine whether the method - currently being used by Drax at a demonstration unit to isolate the carbon dioxide produced by the biomass combustion – can be adapted and applied to the cement, steel and aluminium industries.

Bio-based tents

For many Brits, festival season is one of the most exciting times of the year. But for those left to pick up the waste left by revellers at these large-scale events, the picture is far bleaker. Instead of snaps of happy crowds and pop signers decked out in glittering outfits, tabloids during last year’s festival period were dominated by images of abandoned tents – around 90% of which were sent to landfill or for incineration.

Indeed, UK festivals are estimated to create around 23,500 tons of waste every year – of which 68% is not recycled or reused. In a bid to solve the issue – and cater for ever-more plastic-conscious consumers – consultancy Reelbrands has developed a plastic-free, recyclable tent.

Developed in partnership with NGO A Plastic Planet, the product consists of rigid cardboard panels coated with a waterproof and biodegradable cellulose layer. It comes flat-packed and is held together with plastic-free studs, ties and pegs once assembled. Reelbrands intends to launch the innovation to the market this summer, initially selling it to brand and events companies rather than the public.

Water-efficient dye

The global fashion industry has come under fire in recent times, with documentaries and politicians alike highlighting the huge water, carbon and waste impacts prevalent in its supply chains. This scrutiny has given way to an array of innovative solutions, including recycled garments, energy-efficient finishing processes and servitisation-based business models.

Regarding water use specifically, one of the most promising innovations for this sector comes from US-based startup ColorZen, which has developed a low-water dyeing method that can be used for cotton and cotton-based textile blends. The process involves soaking garments in a non-toxic chemical mixture which “reverses” the natural charge of cotton, making it more receptive to dye.

According to ColorZen, this method can reduce the amount of freshwater used in the dyeing process by up to 90% per garment and increase the amount of garment dry-houses can process by 300%. Translated into one pair of adult-sized trousers, this is equivalent to a five-litre saving per garment. The innovation was recently recognised by NGO Fashion For Good, which will now support ColorZen through its scaling programme.

Solar-to-water technology

Due to climate challenges, population growth and water-hungry business practices, the UN now estimates that 1.2 billion people – one-fifth of the world’s population – are affected by water stress. With the IPCC’s recent report on climate change revealing that a 2C temperature increase would result in twice as many people experiencing water scarcity than there are now, the pressure is on to develop innovative solutions.

A potential solution to the issue, in the form of a PV array which harvests water as well as solar power, comes from US-based startup Zero Mass Water. The system, called Source, uses solar power to harvest water vapour from the air. The harvested vapour is then sterilised and condensed to a liquid, which is stored in a reservoir that connects to existing pipes and taps. It can capture up to five litres of water per day.

The technology this year received $1bn in funding from Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, in a drive to bring the product’s cost down and provide it to vulnerable communities via local governments and non-profits. It has additionally undergone an update to include an app which allows customers to monitor the quality and safety of their drinking water – a feature intended for areas affected by sanitation crises, such as Flint.

Sarah George



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