Plastic-eating worms and printed solar: The best green innovations of the week

In a week where the UK's major political parties outlined their visions for future Britain, edie rounds up the low-carbon innovations that could play a prominent role to assist the decarbonisation transition globally.

Whether you’re a firm believer in a “strong and stable” government or not, one thing that will remain strong in the future is the Paris Agreement; with or without the help from the US.

As nations strive to lower carbon emissions, the business community is embracing sustainability on all fronts. A new initiative was launched, with the backing of M&S and Target, aimed at establishing the business case for sustainable cotton. Elsewhere, the Ellen MacArthur foundation and beer brand Corona waged separate wars on marine plastic waste.

Despite the business push, which includes Lego hitting its 100% renewables target three years early, the planet is still plagued with issues ranging from alarming to idiotic. Diesel emissions have this week been attributed as a factoring cause to 38,000 deaths across the globe each year. Closer to home, us Brits are somehow conspiring to waste 1.4m edible bananas each day.

While none of this week’s listed innovations can teach us how to preserve bananas, they do provide potential breakthroughs in the war on waste, and ways to decarbonise the energy systems. Here they are in one neat and tidy green package.

The Sunnyside up egg

Sweden’s northern town of Kiruna has historic ties to the mining industry, essentially relying on mining operations to stabilise the local economy. But, the world is changing its views on finite resources and Kiruna may soon need to turn its back on the industry.

In fact, Swedish art Studio Bigert & Bergstrom have designed a new solar sauna that links a favourite past-time of the Swedes to a low-carbon lifestyle as a subtle hint of the changes occurring on a global scale. The studio created the Solar Egg sauna out of wood, clad with gold-coloured stainless steel and solar panels.

The structure is made from 69 pieces which can be dismantled, transported and used elsewhere. Fitted with LEDs, batteries and solar arrays, the sauna also features a wood-burning stove and was commissioned by a local housing cooperative.

Solar fit for a prints

Solar is mainstream commodity in the business sphere, and is steadily making in-roads in domestic applications. In fact, 2016 marked the first time since 2013 that solar growth outpaced that of wind energy.

As prices fall, avenues are opening for developing countries to access solar energy. But what about countries suffering at the hands of a recent natural disaster? Professor Paul Dastoor from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales has developed a printed solar panel that can be shipped out in bulk to populations in need of immediate clean energy.

Dastoor’s innovation prints electronic ink onto clear plastic sheets, which are then fitted to panels made from glass to maintain the lightweight aspect. Research has suggested that the prints can be produced for less than $10 per square metre and could go on sale in the next three years.

Pollution into profits

The UK Government’s High Court defeat in relation to woeful air quality levels shines a light on the rising concerns surrounding air pollution in urban areas. Air pollution is linked as a contributor to 38,000 deaths annually.

However, Belgian researchers have developed a product that cleans the surround air, creating hydrogen to be used in fuel cells as a by-product. The device is solar-powered and produces the hydrogen while sucking in the pollutants from the atmosphere.

A membrane of nanomaterials acts as a catalyst to break down the particles and produce the hydrogen. With China and India both set to overachieve on their Paris Agreement pledges, this innovation could allow them to stimulate the low-carbon market while improving air quality measures.

The hungry, hungry waxworm

Earlier today, the Ellen MacArthur foundation launched an innovation prize fund, calling on start-ups to help reverse trends that could place more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050. Well it turns out that a solution may already exist, in the form a waxworm.

The Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria published a new paper outlining how a researcher used 100 worms to chew through a polyethylene single-use bag in 40 minutes. However, the researchers found that it was the worm’s digestive system that could actually dissolve the plastic.

Researchers also pureed the worms, essentially turning them into a paste, that was then rubbed onto the bags. The paste was able to dissolve around 13% of the plastic, degrading it into ethylene glycol, which is commonly found in anti-freeze.

Smog eating city

As mentioned earlier, China is one of many cities suffering from damaging smog and pollution levels. The eastern city of Nanjing is no exception. That’s why Italian architects Stefano Boeri are hoping to demonstrate the potential of green buildings in the city.

The firm is set to build two skyscrapers in the city that will play home to 1,100 trees and 2,500 shrubs across rooftops and balconies. Construction is already underway and the buildings are expected to be completed next year.

What is especially innovative about these designs is that the firm’s goal is to create an entire city of forests in Nanjing, and potentially roll it out to other cities. These two buildings, which feature museums, schools and hotels, will act as the blueprint for the company’s vision, which it hopes to create in Nanjing, Liuzhou and Shijiazhuang.

Do you want ice in your desert?

The icecaps are melting. It’s a well-versed rhetoric when it comes to talking about climate change, and many are discussing the urgent need to reverse this trend. But one company in Abu Dhabi is actually exploring uses for the ice caps under the premise that they will melt.

Masdar-based National Advisor Bureau founder Abdulla Alshehi has been picked-up by numerous media outlets for his plans to haul icebergs from Antarctica over to the Middle East. The reason behind this vision, is that the UAE could suffer from severe water scarcity in 15 years and new ways of providing clean water are needed.

Alshehi told Fast Company that global warming is causing icebergs to disintegrate and melt into the oceans, wasting billions of gallons of drinkable, clean water in the process. Not only would this provide new water sources to the UAE, but Alshehi suggests that the project could mitigate rising sea levels and could even be partnered with desalination plants, which are still subjected to pricey installation costs.

Matt Mace

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