Sugarcane shoes and silicon energy storage: The best green innovations of the week

A number of eye-catching and potentially transformational innovations have emerged that could help businesses and nations deliver on resource efficiency, low-carbon transitions and combat climate change. Here, edie rounds-up six of the best.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this week was a quiet time for sustainable business action. Amid political uncertainty in the UK, with Prime Minister Theresa May having faced a vote of no confidence on Wednesday (12 December) and slow progress from the US, with the nation having hosted a session at COP24 promoting fossil fuel use, there was seemingly little time left for positive business announcements.

Nonetheless, corporates have continued to move at a pace to raise sustainability ambitions before the end of 2018. A coalition of 31 fashion brands have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, for example, while the world’s biggest palm oil supplier has bolstered its deforestation commitments.

When striving to decarbonise businesses, cities and nations while reducing their waste, water and energy footprints, 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 six products and systems that could help nations and businesses accelerate sustainability commitments and achieve a sustainable future, today.

Low-carbon motors


As the electric vehicle (EV) shift begins to grip the car industry, with brands such as Volkswagen, Daimler and Volvo all moving to electrify their models and invest in battery technologies, progress in the truck sector has been somewhat slower.

In a bid to spur the creation of greener truck fleets, US-based food firm Tyson has this week moved to install an innovative, low-carbon engine across its fleet of 7,300 trailers and 2,800 tractors. Developed by engineering firm Achates Power, the engine is designed to use 20% less fuel than a traditional model, emitting 15% less CO2 per journey in the process.

Achates Power also claims that the engine generates just one-tenth of the amount of nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions as the average truck motor. Tyson will retrofit trucks at nine of its distribution centres with the technology by the end of 2019.

Film that tackles food waste


Around one-third of all food produced globally is wasted, and in the UK, this translates to around £700 of wasted food per family annually. Various supermarkets have signed voluntary commitments to tackle the issue, but the thick end of the food waste mountain comes from homes and does not occur at a shop or supply-chain level.

A stand-out innovative solution to the challenge comes from food tech company It’s Fresh!, which has developed a range of flexible packaging that absorbs ethylene – the natural hormone which causes fruit, vegetables and flowers to ripen. During trials using blueberries and strawberries, the packaging technology was found to improve product lifespan by up to 50%, resulting in a 40% reduction in food waste. Other trials have proved that the technology can improve the lifespan of cherries and flowers by around three days.

After three years of development, production of the packaging, called Infinite, was scaled up earlier this year. In 2019, Morrisons will begin trialling the solution for its berry packaging, with a view to a wider rollout among its own-brand produce line of the pilot proves successful.

Silicone as storage


In the wake of a landmark Bloomberg NEF report predicting that the energy storage market will double six times by 2030, a string of innovative solutions including ultra-light EV battery packsliquid air facilities and ammonia-based storage have hit the headlines recently.

Another fresh development in the field comes from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who have developed an energy storage system that can capture and store power generated from renewable arrays using molten silicon.

The system involves using surplus energy to power to heat large tanks of molten silicon, which becomes white and begins to glow as it reaches high temperatures. Solar panels are then positioned above the tanks, capturing the light generated by the silicone and using it to produce more clean power.

The concept is currently in the prototype stage, but the researchers estimate that the system could be used to “power a small city” if produced at scale. The solution additionally mitigates the environmental impact of sourcing metals and other natural materials for the development of batteries, according to the research team.

AI-powered ‘farmbots’


As the WWF claims that the agricultural sector can provide up to 30% of the solutions needed by 2030 to tackle the global climate crisis, an innovative solution to green the industry has emerged in the form of a robot powered by an artificial intelligence (AI) platform.

Called Tom robots and designed by the Small Robot Company, the device is fitted with cameras and will get the lay of the land by gathering topographical data. This data is then used to help farmers optimise their harvesting technique to reduce costs, fuel and food waste, with the robot itself capable of cutting crops. 

The Small Robot Company has also designed a similar robot programmed to pick weeds with minimal use of weed-killer and pesticides, and a further device designed to plant crops efficiently. The three kinds of robots are currently being trialled by John Lewis & Partners at the company’s wheat fields in Leckford, Hertfordshire, with the retailer set to use them at scale if the pilot proves successful.

Sugarcane shoes


In response to the fashion industry’s resource challenge – which has reached such a scale that 100 billion garments and 20 billion pairs of shoes are now believed to be made each year – the likes of adidas, Reebok and Marks & Spencer have unveiled footwear made from innovative materials in recent months.

Following this trend, US-based sportswear brand Allbirds has launched a line of plant-based, biodegradable trainers called the Tree Toppers. The shoe has soles made from sugarcane-based cellulose and an upper manufactured using a blend of sustainably-sourced Merino wool and eucalyptus fibres.

The shoes went on sale in the US for the first time this week, priced at $115 (£91) per pair. Allbirds will now begin redesigning the rest of its footwear lines to include plant-based soles.

Off-grid solar tents


The UN estimates that 1.2 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, either due to a lack of a connection in their home, or due to homelessness. This leaves them reliant on diesel generation or kerosene gas for cooking and lighting unless they can access a local microgrid.

In a bid to drive progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 7: Clean energy for all among the homeless community, a group of teenage researchers in Los Angeles have developed an off-grid tent with solar-powered lighting and heating systems. The prototype tent, developed by a group of 12 high school students, is capable of sleeping two people and rolling up to be stored in a backpack, making it ideal for those sleeping rough or wishing to travel without using kerosene gas. The fabric shell of the tent is 3D-pinted, minimising waste during manufacture.

The innovation was this week recognised by MIT and the Lemelson Foundation, with the two organisations jointly investing $10,000 to help the team scale up production.

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    Any material will begin to glow as it reaches a high temperature, silicon is not miraculous in this respect. At elevated temperatures, certainly above 1,000 C, everything acts as a black body radiator.

    Indeed the radiation is proportional to the forth power of the absolute temperature.

    Rather more information is needed before any judgement can be made, but I am very sceptical

    Richard Phillips

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie