Golden solar 'sandwiches' and flying electric taxis: The best green innovations of the 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 transport, renewable power and recycling sectors

This week's best innovations could drive significant change across the transport, renewable power and recycling sectors

With thousands of politicians, sustainability professionals and practitioners gathering in Birmingham this week for the UK’s first international Zero-Emission Vehicle Summit, the need for a rapid shift towards a low-carbon economy has been highlighted once again. And with a new report released this week revealing that action on climate change could deliver economic growth worth at least $26trn by 2030, the business case for going green is becoming ever-clearer.

When striving to create a better 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.

Flying electric taxis

As top carmakers move to electrify their on-road portfolios, innovative electric vehicles (EVs) that could take sustainable transport to new heights have emerged in recent months. Ride-hailing giant Uber has started working with NASA to create autonomous flying taxis by the 2020s, for example, while Volocopter is developing an electric drone large enough to transport four people.

Following this trend, Bristol-based start-up Vertical Aerospace has this week unveiled a full-scale fully-electric air taxi. Following the successful test flight of the 750kg demonstrator aircraft, the firm said it had proven the viability of the technology and now plans to work with regulators to operate piloted short-range routes for the electric aircraft by 2022.

The company said it has been working on the technology since early 2016 and has recruited 28 engineers and technical experts from a range of major aerospace and Formula 1 firms to help scale-up production.

The concept would help ease congestion in busy urban areas by reducing the number of cars on the road and could also help to decarbonise the notoriously carbon-intense air travel industry. With global passenger journeys by air set to double to 7.2 billion by 2035, Vertical Aerospace has said the new technology could help to make short-haul flights more sustainable.

Golden solar ‘sandwiches’

As an ever-greater proportion of the world’s energy mix is generated from renewable sources, a number of innovative solar technologies have come to the market this year, including roads which charge EVs with solar-generated power and solar panels which double as televisions.

One of the latest developments in the field comes from Hokkaido University in Japan, where researchers this week developed an ultra-slim photoelectrode that can harvest 85% of visible light. Developed by scientists at the university’s Research Institute for Electronic Science, the device consists of a semiconductor sandwiched between layers of gold film and gold nanoparticles, which enhance light absorption.

The team behind the innovation claim its light-to-energy trapping function is 11 times more effective than photovoltaic (PV) films without the gold, giving it the potential to vastly increase power generation at large-scale solar farms. The University is yet to disclose what it plans to do next with the technology.

AI-assisted ferries

After the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) set a 2050 target of halving CO2 emissions from marine transport and shipping against 2008 levels, the urgency for low-carbon innovations to help boats travel more sustainably is becoming clear.

Using an innovative approach to the target, ferry firm Stena Line has unveiled what it claims is the world's first passenger boat that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to determine the most fuel-efficient route. The AI platform, developed as part of a partnership with technology firm Hitachi, simulates different route scenarios before suggesting the optimal route and performance setup for fuel efficiency and emissions reduction. Factors which the platform considers include currents, weather conditions, water depth and boat speed.

The model is set to be trailed on Stena’s Scandinavica boat by the end of the year, during trips between Gothenburg and Kiel, with a view to a wider roll-out if significant fuel consumption reductions are achieved. The aim of the platform is not to replace the boat crew, but to provide a “decision support system” that can calculate travel factors more efficiently than any human.

Cityproof wind turbines

Traditional wind turbines can only capture wind travelling in one direction unless they are steered and are notoriously inefficient in cities where wind routinely gets trapped between buildings. Fortunately, a solution has been developed by two MSc students at Lancaster University, who have developed a ‘cityproof’ turbine that can capture wind from all directions.

Called the O-Wind Turbine, the 25cm plastic device spins when the wind hits it from any direction. When wind energy turns the device, gears drive a generator which converts the power of the wind into electricity.

Nicolas Orellana and Yaseen Noorani, who created the device, were this week presented with a James Dyson award for their innovation. They estimate that the turbine could be scaled up and mass-marketed by 2023.

Innovative advertising platforms

The market for takeaway and on-the-go products is growing rapidly; the industry was worth a record £17.4bn for the UK last year, with several sustainability professionals claiming that this figure will only rise. Indeed, Recoup’s projections suggest that the market will be worth more than £23bn by 2022.

In a bid to capture and recycle as much of the packaging set to be generated by this trend, waste and resource management firm Advanced Sustainable Developments is building a Digital Advertising Recycling Platform (DARP) to drive behaviour change among consumers while giving companies a new advertising channel to promote their green credentials.

The DARP machines, which consist of screens and bins, will be placed in high-footfall public locations across London, Manchester and Birmingham from October 2019. Waste collected in the machines will be sent to Advanced Sustainable Development’s recycling plants, where it will be converted into food-grade material for new packaging products. In order to fund recycling plant upgrades to process the waste, the company is currently seeking to raise £700,000 through crowdfunding platform SeedTribe.

Sustainable steel technology

The steel industry accounts for around 7% of global emissions, and companies within the sector have been seeking ways to lower their environmental impact for some years now.

One innovative solution to the emissions challenge comes from Tata Steel, which has unveiled new technology that is able to reduce the carbon emissions from iron and steel production by more than 50%. Called HIsarna, the technology injects iron ore at the top of a reactor. The ore is then liquefied in a high-temperature cyclone and drips to the bottom where powder coal is injected.

According to Tata Steel, the technology removes numerous energy-intensive steps – including having to pre-process the ore and coal in separate coke, sinter or pellet factories. After campaigns using steel scrap and biomass created carbon reductions of more than 50%, the firm has implemented the new technology at its Ijmuiden site in the Netherlands.

Sarah George


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