Transparent solar cells and hydrogen bikes: the best green innovations of the week

In a week where the circular economy was front and centre of global discussions, edie rounds up the low-carbon and resource-efficient innovations that could shape the future.

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

Plastic waste is high on the agenda in Davos this week, with a host of corporate giants including L'Oréal, Mars and Unilever making commitments on their approach to packaging.

Eleven companies have reaffirmed or announced pledges for 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025, including Amcor, Coca-Cola, Ecover, Evian, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Walmart and Werner & Mertz – together representing more than six million tonnes of plastic packaging each year.

However, Coca-Cola’s global plan to address its plastics impact was condemned by Greenpeace for failing to reduce the number of single-use plastics bottles it produces.

Outside of the war on waste, sportswear giant Nike is now more than half way towards its pledge to source 100% renewable energy globally and is officially powered by 100% renewables in North America.

A little closer to home, businesses in Scotland can now access a £60m fund to scale projects that can help deliver the nation's low-carbon heat, energy and vehicle solutions.

Evidently the money and willingness to act is there, and there is a chance for new solutions to reach market. With that in mind, edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package.

Plastic yells timber

Plastic waste is a hot topic and global issue. But as brands pledge to move away from using plastic, one British firm is offering a solution that utilises the staggering 3.7 million tonnes of plastic waste that is currently produced in the UK annually.

Plastecowood, based in North Wales, manufactures timber substitutes from waste plastic. Known as Smartawood, the lumber is formed from pretty much any type of plastic – even those that are contaminated with food or metal after the sorting process. For every tonne of recycled plastic used by Plastecowood, 700kg of carbon is diverted from landfill.

The product can be used as infrastructure, for fencing, steps and walkways and requires no maintenance and no replacements. In fact, studies from WRAP found that the timber alternative required no replacement over a 23-timeframe, compared to traditional timber which needed replacing four times.

Covered in cells

With solar installations – especially roof-bound projects – becoming a common low-carbon attraction for business seeking to reduce emissions, Swedish construction firm Skanska has moved to pioneer a different approach to solar.

The company has teamed with Polish tech firm Saule Technologies to trial semi-transparent perovskite solar cells that can be used in commercial construction and placed directly into a building’s façade. Skanska will trial the cells at its office buildings in Poland.

Saule Technologies has been developing the cells, which can be placed on windows, since 2014 and uses ink jet technology to create and place the cells over the external cladding of a building. Skanska hopes the trials will create a step change in creating low-carbon office environments, although details on energy costs and carbon savings are yet to be detailed.

At the height of innovation

China’s Xian city relies heavily on coal for electricity. This ultimately means that local air quality is harmed as large amounts of smog fill the atmosphere. However, the Xian tower hopes to combat this, by using a limited electricity supply and a reliance on solar power to suck up harmful pollutants.

The tower has been dubbed the world’s largest air purifier by its operators, and at 100-metres tall has already reduced the amount of PM2.5, the most harmful particles in smog, by 15% in the surrounding area.

Greenhouses half the size of a football pitch surround the tower’s base and are used to store the smog sucked in by the tower. The smog is then heated using solar power and rises back through the tower and through air cleaning filters on the way. A special coating ensures the tower can rely on solar energy all year round. Researchers are hoping to build a full-size version, reaching 500 metres.

Cycling through solutions

As we are approaching the green hydrogen economy, it is only fitting that a start-up has started selling hydrogen-powered bikes to be incorporated into corporate and municipal transport fleets. French firm Pragma, based in Biarritz, has started factory production of the bikes this month.

Pragma Industries makes fuel cells for military use, but has sold around 60 hydrogen bikes to French municipalities Saint Lo, Cherbourg, Chambery and Bayonne. The company also offers refuelling stations, but at €7,500 per bike and €30,000 for the station, they are currently too expensive for the consumer market.

That hasn’t stopped Pragma from targeting corporates, and the company plans to manufacture 150 bikes this year. The Alpha bikes can cover 62 miles on a two-litre tank of hydrogen – similar to the range of an e-bike – but refills take a matter of minutes. In fact, one kilo of hydrogen is believed to hold around 600 times more energy than a one-kilo lithium battery.

Gardens guarding against risk

Sometimes, innovations are tailored for a specific use. In this case, NI Water, the Department for Infrastructure, Education Authority and the Department of Education teamed up to help a primary school in Northern Ireland reduce its risk of flooding.

£70,000 has been invested in a rainwater garden, which is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland. The system has been fitted at Clandeboye Primary School and works by collecting water run-off from the school roof and playground area. The water is then stored in an underground tank, before it is funnelled down channels to be used by children as a “duck run” play facility.

Finally, rainwater is split into two ponds in the garden area for further storage. NI Water previously invested £1.7m on a new Pumping Station within the grounds of Clandeboye Primary School. This was part of the overall ongoing £10m investment to improve the infrastructure and reduce the risk of flooding in the Bangor area.

Concrete fungal

Concrete is a carbon intensive product, but also serves a multitude of applications. However, the cost of infrastructure is never cheap and any solution that can reduce the amount of replacement concrete needed for repairs is economically and environmentally welcome.

Scientists at Binghamton University have done just that – at least in the early stage. The University recently published its findings in the journal Construction and Building Materials, outlining how fungi can help create self-healing concrete.

The study involved the use of Trichoderma reesei, which acted as a sealant when mixed with concrete. When water and oxygen formed cracks in the concrete, fungi spores germinate and expand, creating a calcium carbonate which fills in the cracks.

Matt Mace


technology | green innovation


Technology & innovation
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