Tesla town and LED bridges: the best green innovations of the week

In a week that has seen green business initiatives rise above the ongoing political furore, edie rounds up the latest low-carbon, resource efficient technologies and innovations that are reinforcing the business case for sustainability.

Post-Brexit concerns have died-down somewhat over the past few days, and while there are still questions about the credentials of the new political order, the private sector is seemingly returning to a business-as-usual approach.

But this week has highlighted that ‘business as usual’ is fast-becoming strikingly more ‘unusual’. While Tesco’s pledge to only source 100% certified cocoa for its own brands may not seem that innovative, this week has highlighted how businesses are grabbing the innovation bull by its revolutionary horns.

Automotive giant Ford unveiled a new research partnership with the world’s biggest tequila producer Jose Cuervo to unlock the potential of using agave plants to make new biomaterials.

Meanwhile, tech giant Google revealed that it has trained artificial intelligence to lower energy consumption during cooling periods at its data centres, which are subsequently powered by renewable energy.

And, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan has urged the UK to make an opportunity out of a “green crap” crisis, Starbucks is also looking to create some green opportunities before an oncoming coffee cup storm. The company conveniently revealed it is trialling fully recyclable paper coffee cups, just a week before Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new War on Waste series.

Here, edie has pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package.

Biofuel planes: A new way to get high while smoking

Earlier this week, the first commercial planes in Africa using biofuels successfully carried 300 passengers between Johannesburg and Cape Town. South African Airways (SAA) has taken this leap of faith with biofuels in a sector plagued with emissions issues. But the real ‘innovation’ here appears in the fuel mix.

The planes are partly powered by high-energy and nicotine-free tobacco plants cultivated by local famers in the Limpopo Province. The plants were developed as part of the “Solaris” project – a merger of SAA, biochemists Sunchem SA, fuel specialists SkyNRG and Boeing – which aims to create large scale, sustainable and local jet fuel.

With SAA shooting for a 50% biofuel target for its fleet by 2023, Sky NRG has claimed that the biofuel could account for 500 million litres of fuel each year – offsetting 267 kilotonnes in emissions by 2020 as a result. The plants produced by the project are also certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.

The town that Tesla built

Tesla’s mission to build a “clean energy dynasty” is in full-swing. Fresh off the back of record sales for its Model 3 – while also forming part of the team to develop the world’s first hybrid-electric buildings – the automaker has just unveiled plans to build an entire town.

The YarraBend suburb development on the outskirts of Melbourne in Australia will see 16.46 hectares of land transformed into 2,500 houses fitted with Tesla Powerwalls and solar panels for the roof. So far, only 60 houses have been built and prices are ranging from $1.48m to $2.1m. Charging points for electric vehicles are also an optional add-on.

The project is expected to achieve a six-star ecologically sustainable development rating from the Australian Government, which would be a Melbourne first for a vacant area of land converted into a housing development.

Amazon drones navigating the concrete jungle

Drones have always appeared on the peripheries of sustainability talk. Usually visualised as part of a reconnaissance set-up, the concept is slowly being explored – by both Google and the Ministry of Defence – in an effort to boost low-carbon, connected communication developments.

Evidently, Amazon has been exploring this concept since December 2014, when the firm applied for the ‘Multi-use UAV Docking Station Systems and Methods’ patent. Details of the application have only just surfaced, and it depicts a scenario where drones would perch on street lamps, radio towers, electrical poles and even church steeples, to recharge batteries or shelter during bad weather.

The newly-awarded patent describes using these “docking stations” for its autonomous drone carriers, which would also be hooked up to a wireless central system to allow for communications to take place. The drones would be used to fly packages to consumer doorsteps within 30 minutes of ordering and perching and recharging techniques between deliveries would aid route optimisation and time spent in the air.

New furniture from the lost city of Atlantis

When it’s not making you squirm as it floats across your toes in shallow waters, seaweed is busy filtering out pollutants such as phosphates and converting CO2 into oxygen. Seaweed can also be farmed without taking up land and water resources.

Now, designer Nienke Hoogvliet has transformed seaweed into a readily available resource for construction. She developed the Sea Me collection of tables and chairs, while the by-products of making these were also used to create complimentary bowls.

Using seaweed as a yarn, Hoogvliet also incorporated dyes, paint and leather made of fish by-products as well as bioplastics to produce the dining room set with minimal waste. The concept has been in the research stage for two years up until now and products including rugs are also in development.

10,000 mirrors on a bed of molten salt

The Crescent Dunes solar plant in the Nevada desert hooked up to the grid in late 2015. Since then, it has been pumping enough solar energy to power 75,000 homes. Now, the 110MW plant has developed a way to store solar energy when the sun isn’t shining.

More than 10,000 giant mirrors concentrate heat towards a heap of sodium and potassium nitrates, which are then sent to the top of a 600ft tower. Once these molten salt rocks reach the top, heat is channelled towards boiling water to produce steam, which in turn, spins turbines to generate electricity when needed.

The plant is using the salt – which can reach more than 500C in temperature – as an energy store by holding the heat trapped in the rocks in insulated tanks on the ground. Researchers have already claimed that this method is cheaper than conventional heat exchange methods, and that molten salt is overall better for the environment than oil.

Morocco’s landmark LED attraction

Two weeks ago, the King of Morocco opened a bridge outside of the country’s capital of Rabat. The Mohammed VI bridge – named after the king – spans 3,116 feet and is the longest bridge of its kind on the African continent.

While it must be noted that the emissions from traffic on the bridge are likely to be high – it spans six traffic lanes – the lighting costs to keep it illuminated will be much lower, as the bridge is illuminated by a LED lighting system from Philips.

Around 160 cables have been used to strengthen the bridge, and also act as a resting place for the LED lights which are operating 75% more efficiently than conventional bulbs. While there is little detail on the actual figure of electricity use, the bulbs can illuminate the bridge in 16 million colours to create iconic lightshows, cementing the bridge as Morocco’s new landmark – and sustainable – attraction.

Matt Mace

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