Next-generation energy storage and self-dusting solar panels: The best green innovations of May 2024

As May comes to a close, edie and our innovation partner Springwise have rounded up six of the best breakthrough technologies for the green economy, including waste-busting compostable packaging and self-dusting solar panels. Read on to find out more.


Next-generation energy storage and self-dusting solar panels: The best green innovations of May 2024

Solar power is the fastest-growing energy source in history, accounting for three-quarters of global renewable energy capacity additions in 2023. As solar goes from strength to strength, innovators are increasingly working to squeeze as much efficiency out of solar panels as possible while considering their broader impacts. Our first innovation of the month can do just that by keeping dust from accumulating on panel surfaces.

Beyond efficiency, innovators are also exploring how land used for utility-scale solar power can be used to boost biodiversity. It is becoming increasingly common for solar farm operators to sow native flowers and grasses between their panels for the benefit of pollinators and other forms of wildlife. In our second innovation, a team of researchers is deploying the latest technology to dynamically track insect biodiversity on a solar site in the UK.

Like other variable renewable resources like wind power, solar power is intermittent in the sense that it does not produce power all of the time. This has prompted a global race to develop and scale energy storage technologies that use a diverse range of different chemistries. Our third and fourth innovations are part of this trend. Fourth Power is storing energy as heat before turning it back to electricity via specially tuned solar panels. Noon Energy, meanwhile, is using carbon and oxygen rather than critical metals to create its battery systems.

Our final two innovations address the environmental impact of everyday products. Rubies in the Rubble is making tasty condiments out of surplus produce. Bioform, meanwhile, has developed an alternative to plastic packaging out of waste pulp fibre.

Maximising solar efficiency with the power of wind

dustoss

Image: Hadar Sefi/Dustoss

Solar panels can lose around 22% of their energy output due to the accumulation of dust, with this problem posing a particular challenge in regions with extended dry seasons. Because many solar panels are placed on roofs, it’s often difficult and expensive to clean them. Startup Dustoss has developed a solution to this problem.

Dustoss’s cleaning system harnesses the power of the wind to remove dust from solar streetlights and other off-grid small solar surfaces. The system consists of transparent aerodynamic strips attached to the sides of the solar panel. The strips flutter in the wind, ‘tossing’ the dust off the surface of the panels.

Compatible with any solar installation, the company’s method of cleaning is more cost-effective than other solutions and also does not rely on electricity, detergents, or water, lowering its environmental impact. The system also includes a monitoring and control app for maintenance alerts.

Dustoss is currently available through distributors, but the company is also aiming to collaborate with solar manufacturers to integrate the cleaning strips into newly manufactured panels.

Biodiversity monitoring on solar farms

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Image: Westmill Solar Co-op

Renewables have a lower environmental and social impact than any other energy source, yet they do have an impact on biodiversity. Utility-scale solar power, in particular, takes up land that could otherwise be allocated to nature. Now, a team of researchers is turning to new technology to assess the extent to which biodiversity and solar farms can co-exist.

Renewable energy company Low Carbon and scientists at Lancaster University have combined novel acoustic monitoring techniques with artificial intelligence (AI) to assess the real-time dynamics and biodiversity of insect pollinators at Westmill Solar Park in Oxfordshire, in a world-first for renewable asset sites. The study is ongoing, and lead researcher Hollie Blaydes explains that “data we collect will also tell us more about how pollinators respond to solar farms, compared to similar land uses, which is key when trying to embed biodiversity benefits into solar developments.”

Traditional insect survey methods provide static snapshots of biodiversity in an environment at set points throughout the year. But this approach does not produce dynamic data to monitor, assess and better understand the complex relationship between microclimates introduced by solar farms and local pollinator populations. The Westmill Solar Park project is plugging this data gap by deploying monitoring devices that listen to insects to measure pollinator activity. These will work in tandem with Automated Monitoring of Insects (AMI) traps and traditional field surveys.

Similar data collection techniques have been used successfully in agriculture in the past, but this is the first time they have been used at a renewable asset site. Funding for the study is being provided by Low Carbon and the UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Impact Acceleration Account, and builds on previous research championing the use of solar farms to improve pollinator biodiversity.

Innovative heat storage

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Image: Fourth Power

In the US, energy demand from data centres and manufacturing is surging, threatening climate goals and straining power grids. Using fossil fuels to meet this demand would make these goals even harder to meet, but renewables are hampered by their intermittency and a lack of storage options.

Startup Fourth Power claims it has cracked this problem with a liquid metal-based energy storage solution. Its thermal battery stores energy in the form of heated graphite blocks. Molten tin, heated using electricity from solar panels or wind turbines, is piped around the blocks, which reach temperatures of around 2,400C.

To discharge the battery, heat from the blocks is absorbed by the tin and piped through graphite stacks until they become white hot. Special PV panels tuned to infrared light then absorb the thermal energy emitted. The modular system, which is wrapped in insulation and kept free of oxygen, is able to store energy for over five hours before sending it back to the grid as electricity, with an efficiency of around 40%.

The company, helmed by CEO Arvin Ganesan – who was previously the Global Head of Environmental and Energy Policy at Apple – raised $19m in a series A funding round at the end of 2023. The round was led by DCVC, with participation from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the Black Venture Capital Consortium.

Carbon-oxygen batteries for long-duration energy storage

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Image: Noon Energy

Overcoming the intermittent generating nature of renewables and meeting increased energy demands will require long-duration energy storage options, as well as shorter-duration technologies like Fourth Power’s.

Noon Energy is innovating in this field with a battery that stores energy in carbon and oxygen instead of metals. The batteries would almost eliminate the need for metals such as lithium and cobalt, whose mining creates serious environmental issues such as air and water pollution.

The batteries developed by Noon store energy by splitting CO2 into solid carbon and oxygen, in a process similar to photosynthesis. The resulting batteries have extremely high density, allowing them to provide over 100 hours of energy. They’re also three times smaller than existing lithium-ion cells and can be produced at one-tenth of the cost.

Noon components are already operating onboard NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover in its Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE. The device is part of the drive to extract oxygen from the CO2 on Mars so that it may be used for return trips back to Earth. On Earth, the batteries could allow scalable, low-cost energy storage with minimal impact on the environment.

Condiments that tackle food waste

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Image: Rubies in the Rubble

Farmers have long turned imperfect or overripe fruit and vegetables into foods like preserves and chutneys – a common-sense way of preserving excess or unsaleable produce. Now startup Rubies in the Rubble has commercialised the idea of rescuing unwanted produce and turning it into something delicious.

The company started with a stall at London’s Borough Market and then moved to a commercial kitchen at New Spitalfields Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market. The location gave Rubies easy access to some of the 10,000 to 11,000 tonnes of fruit and veg that go to waste in the market every year. Now however, Rubies works directly with farms and pack houses to get access to large volumes of surplus fruits and vegetables that can then be turned into ketchups, mayonnaises, relishes, and more.

The certified B Corp has products on the shelves of thousands of stores and restaurants across the UK. All of the products are made by hand and the company is working hard to reduce emissions and the use of plastic in its packaging. Rubies also runs education sessions in schools to educate children on the importance of reducing food waste, and organises farm days to harvest leftover produce for charities.

Some of Rubies’ existing customers include Tesco, Waitrose, and Gousto, as well as sites like the O2 Arena and the ExCel Centre. Moving forward, Rubies in the Rubble is working with Chartwells to deliver its produce to 2,600 independent schools, including Eton College.

Waste pulp packaging to cut plastic use

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Image: Bioform

 It’s estimated that around eight million tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans every year. Packaging is a key culprit and, with packaging production set to rise, innovators are developing a range of alternative materials.

Canadian startup Bioform has created a patented low-energy process to create packaging materials from waste pulp fibre. The resulting hydrogel film is resistant to water vapour and oxygen and reduces carbon emissions by 80% compared to traditional plastic produced at a commercial scale. Containing no fossil fuel inputs, the final products can be recycled or composted at home.

The versatile material can be used to create packaging films, pouches, bags, or turned into solid shapes like cups and containers. According to the company, its products can be made using existing manufacturing processes used in the pulp and paper industries.

Bioform has just received an investment of $5m from Suzano Ventures, which will help it scale production efficiencies and more quickly bring its costs down.

The Springwise Innovation Library contains nearly 14,000 inspiring solutions to the world’s biggest problems. To access five innovation case studies per month, register for free. Or become a Springwise member for unlimited access to innovation articles as well as insight from the Springwise team.

Comments (2)

  1. Hubert Aulich says:

    Can you please comment on the efficiency of the CO2-splitting process and what is the exact procee accomplishing the splitting.
    Thank you

  2. Richard Phillips says:

    In the heat storage article, I would question the temperature of 2,400 C.
    Steel melts before this, what are the pipes made from?
    The blocks in the image are pure imagination, nobody would stand around that lot!!!
    If only it were possible!!!!

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