Bug-wing turbines and solar city trees: the best green innovations of the week

In a week that will define the next five years of green policy in the UK, edie rounds up the low-carbon and resource-efficient innovations that could emerge in that timeframe.

edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package

edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package

Voters have flocked to the polling stations, and at the time of writing the General Election hangs in the balance. Many are predicting a Torie majority, but if Donald Trump has taught us anything, which is unlikely given his stance on climate science, it’s that the polls don’t tell the whole story.

The environment has again played second fiddle to wider, national interests this election but as the US has proved, national decisions won’t always be replicated. In the wake of the announcement that the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, cities, mayors and businesses have vowed to submit a societal contribution to the Paris Agreement.

As part of Mike Bloomberg’s “We Are Still In” declaration, companies such as Adidas, eBay, Mars, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Ikea, Twitter and Unilever have joined with more than 120 towns and cities including Washington, New York and Chicago to formally examine non-state and sector climate actions.

In fact, the mood since the decision has been one of defiance. As summarised during a panel debate at a Castle Debates event in London earlier this week, “if he’s out then he’s not in the system making things worse”.

The business response has been strong, but as Unilever’s chief executive Paul Polman pointed out, it is becoming extremely important that businesses deliver on sustainability during a “fragile political environment”.

Business as usual just won’t cut it anymore and a change in systems and products will have to be catalysed by new innovations. As companies march on, edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package.

Wave goodbye to your old bike

With the amount of rubbish seeping into the oceans, it wouldn’t be too surprising to find old bike parts and a pressure cooker bobbing on the waves. What might be more surprising, is that you can used those items to create a wave energy harvester powerful enough to charge a mobile phone.

A BSc Product Design undergraduate, Owen Griffiths, and a professor of intelligent engineering systems, Amin Al-Habaibeh, at Nottingham Trent University have developed such a system in the hope that it will help people in developing countries with little or no access to electricity.

Designed for near-shore use, the device can generate 5.6 watts from waves. The pressure cooker is used as a buoy on the waves, while an aluminium rack is fixed to create linear energy as waves pass underneath. Bike chains and sprockets are interlocked to convert the linear movement into rotational energy which powers the generator at 151 rotations per minute to create electricity.

The drones that rise in the East, and keep on rising

China is surging into a leadership role as part of the renewables revolution, aided somewhat by the US’s ‘taking my ball and going home’ approach to the Paris Agreement. But the country is keeping one eye on innovation, with a specific focus on drones.

The environmental benefits of drones has so far been linked to deliveries, and while China is focusing on surveillance and telecommunications, a new solar-powered drone has set a domestic record for the maximum altitude and time aloft for an unmanned aerial vehicle.

The Caihong, created by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), reached an altitude of 20,000m and stayed inflight for one day. The CAAA is reportedly aiming to achieve a month-long flight with the drone, and is envisioning year-long flights in the future. The solar power is key to this vision as it keeps the drone in the air for as long as possible without the need for maintenance and recharge landings.

10,000 days of summer

On the subject of solar panels, a new solar cell has been developed that can work for up to 10,000 hours without its performance falling. A new study in the Nature journal detailed how researchers engineered a multi-dimensional junction of 2D and 3D perovskites to produce a low-cost solar module capable of lasting more than 400 days without a loss in efficiency.

Researchers produced 100cm2 of the perovskite module, which cost less the silicon-based solar cells. One issue with perovskite is that it degrades quickly when exposed to water and UV light.

The new module could remedy this concern, although the efficiency rating was low, only up to 12.7%. So, despite the impressive durability, the efficiency will need to be bumped to upwards of 22% to match silicon cells. But if it does, the cost of solar will continue to tumble.

Winging it in windy weather

Windy weather brought with it a new renewable record on Wednesday lunchtime but wind energy is still an intermittent form of electricity generation. If the isn’t blowing enough, turbines won’t turn, and if the force of the wind is too high the turbines are susceptible to damage.

Fortunately, researchers from Sorbonne University and École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers-ParisTech have trialled ways to overcome these issues, by mimicking the wings of bugs. Using creatures like dragonflies as examples, the researchers have generated flexible wind turbines.

Turbine prototypes with normal, slightly-flexible and extremely-flexible blades were all trialled. While the latter couldn’t generate enough power, researchers found that the slightly-flexible blades offer as much as 35% more power than traditional turbines. These blades could also work in high and low winds.

Salix in the City

Concerns over air pollution are well-documented. More than 80% of residents living in urban areas where pollution is monitored are breathing in air that exceeds WHO limits. With urban populations set to grow, the need to alleviate air pollution becomes more prominent daily.  

Dotted around the cities of Paris, Brussels, Oslo and Hong Kong are potential solutions to the problem. German-based Green City Solutions claim that its design, the CityTree, can capture and filter air pollutants at the same rate of up to 275 normal city-based trees. Green City Solutions are a finalist in this year's Chivas Venture competition, a global search to find and support the next generation of startups that want to succeed while creating a better future for society.

CityTrees are around 4m in height, 3m wide and can come fitted with a bench, advertisement boards and Wi-Fi. They are already located in the aforementioned cities and can remove dust, nitrogen dioxide and other gases from the air. Solar panels are used to power the “Tree” and rainwater is collected and pumped into the soil to keep the moss fresh.

Singing to the sun

The city of Paris will forever be linked with the desire to combat climate change and kickstart the low-carbon economy. The Eiffel tower acts as an emotive monument to the Paris Agreement, but a new building has arrived that also captures that spirit.

The final innovation this week comes courtesy of ArchDaily, which released stunning new imagery of the newly-opened Seine Musicale on Seguin Island in Paris. Designed by famous architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, the timber-framed building has been fitted with a rotating “solar sail” that tracks the movements of the sun to deliver optimal energy.

Acting as a concert hall for 4,000, the building is surrounded by green space for visitors and musicians to soak in the Paris weather. However, the real benefits of the project is the triangular sail covered in solar panels. It rotates to follow the path of the sun to generate more energy, which is used to power the building.

Matt Mace


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