The War on Plastic is a grand title. To most of us, it doesn’t seem like much of a war at all – more like a series of skirmishes. Nevertheless, if you look closely, you’ll see that a lot of companies are tackling the issue.
GSK Consumer Healthcare (GSKCH) is one such organisation. The healthcare brand that gave us Sensodyne and Advil has launched a carbon neutral toothbrush to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels (which create virgin plastic).
The composition of its Dr. Best tooth scrubber is interesting. The handle comprises a mixture of a cellulose derived from pine, spruce, and birch trees and tall oil, which comes from the wood pulping industry. The bristles are made from castor oil and the plastic-free packaging includes a cellulose window.
According to GSKCH, Dr. Best is Germany’s favourite toothbrush brand and there are plans to apply the technology to toothbrushes across its portfolio, including its Sensodyne brand. At the moment, GSK needs to apply carbon offsetting initiatives to make the toothbrush carbon neutral, but it says it is working on future solutions that do not require this approach.
GSK isn’t the only company that is actively reducing the use of plastics and minimising waste. Supermarket chain Morrisons has made aggressive moves in recent years to cut waste, and has just launched six ‘net zero waste’ stores in Edinburgh that will operate with zero waste by 2025.
Customers at these stores will be able to bring back hard-to-recycle plastics such as food wrappers, foils, yoghurt tubs, mixed material crisp tubes, coffee tubs, batteries, and plant pots. At the same time, all store waste will be collected by a range of specialist waste partners for recycling within the UK, and unsold food will be offered to customers at a cheaper price on the Too Good to Go app.
Morrisons’ proactive approach will help find a new life for hard-to-recycle packaging.
‘We’re not going to reach our ambitious targets through incremental improvements alone,’ said Jamie Winter, Sustainability Procurement Director at Morrisons. ‘Sometimes you need to take giant steps and we believe that waste is one of those areas. We believe that we can, at a stroke, enable these trial stores to move from recycling around 27% of their general waste to over 84% and with a clear line of sight to 100%.
‘We all need to see waste as a resource to be repurposed and reused. The technology, creativity and will exists – it’s a question of harnessing the right process for the right type of waste and executing it well.’
If this approach is successful, Morrisons plans to roll out the zero waste store format in all of its 498 stores across the UK next year.
>> Interested in reading more about sustainability and the environment? Check out our blog archive.
The government has also issued its latest battle cry in the war on plastics. Having defeated plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, it has turned its attention to other single-use plastics.
Single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups are among the items that could be banned in England following public consultation.
The humble cotton bud has now been retired from active service.
Somewhat surprisingly, it estimates that each person in England uses 18 single-use plastic plates and 37 single-use plastic items of cutlery each year; so, it has begun moves to cut out this waste stream.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We have made progress to turn the tide on plastic, banning the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, while our carrier bag charge has cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets. Now we are looking to go a step further as we build back greener.”
All in all, it’s encouraging to see that companies and the government are brushing up on their sustainable practices.
>> Curious to find out what the future looks like for lab-processed food and meat alternatives? Read what the experts say here.
If you’re a vegan, do you really want to eat a ruby-red slab of plant protein that looks like lamb? If you are a health obsessive, would you opt for an ultra-processed, plant-based product if you knew it didn’t contain many vitamins and micro-nutrients? And why, oh why, are we so obsessed with recreating the taste and appearance of the humble hamburger?
These questions and more were posed by Dr David Baines in the recent ‘No meat and two veg – the chemistry challenges facing the flavouring of vegan foods’ webinar organised by SCI’s Food Group. The flavourist, who owns his own food consultancy and is visiting Professor at the University of Reading, painted a vivid picture of our changing culinary landscape – one in which 79% of Millennials regularly eat meat alternatives.
And this shift in diet isn’t just the preserve of the young. According to Dr Baines, 54% of Americans and 39% of Chinese people have included more plant-based foods and less meat in their diets. Furthermore, 75% of Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are open to trying cultivated meat.
There are many reasons for this gradual shift. The woman biting into Greggs’ famous vegan sausage roll and the woman who carefully crafts her bean burger may have different reasons for choosing meat alternatives. For some, it’s an ethical choice. For others, it’s environmental or health-related. And then there are those of us who are simply curious.
Pea protein powder is used in plant-based meat alternatives.
Either way it’s an industry that, if you’ll excuse the pun, is set to mushroom. According to Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon research, the global meat-free sector will be worth US$290 billion by 2035. They also claim Europe will reach peak meat consumption by 2025, and Unilever is aiming to sell US$1 billion-worth of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025-27.
In his entertaining talk, Dr Baines outlined the extrusion processes that turn wheat and pea proteins into large ropes of fibrous material and how soy isolates are spun into textured proteins using looms like those used in the cotton industry. He explained how calcium is used to imitate the chewable texture of chicken and how Impossible Foods is using the root nodules of bean plants to produce the red colour we recognise so readily in meat.
>> For more interesting SCI webinars on battery developments, medicinal chemistry and more, check out our events page.
So, how close are we to products with the appearance, taste and texture of, let’s say, beef? ‘I think that will come from cultured meat to start with,’ he said. ‘Where the protein is produced, it will still need to be flavoured, but the fibres will have formed and the texture is already present in some of those products.
‘It’s a big ask and it’s been asked for a long time. It’s going to be a long time before you put a piece of steak on one plate and a plant-based [product] on another and they will be visually, texturally and taste(-wise] identical.’
And what appetite do people even have for these plant-based facsimiles? ‘There are people who want plant proteins not to look like meat, and there are people who want them to look like meat,’ he added. ‘The driver at the moment is to make them look like meat, and the driver is to make it taste like meat too.’
Baines wondered aloud about the bizarre fixation some have with recreating and eating foods that look and taste like beef burgers. In contrast, he pointed to the examples of tofu and soy-based products that have been developed in South East Asia – distinct foods that do not serve as meat substitutes.
Plant-based proteins are undoubtedly part of our culinary future, but these products have other barriers to surmount beyond taste and texture. There is no getting around the fact that plant-based proteins are ultra-processed in a time when many are side-stepping processed foods. Baines also explained that these protein- and fibre-rich foods tend to have lower calorific content, but lack vitamins and micronutrients. ‘Will they be supplemented?’ Baines asked. ‘How much will the manufacturers of these new products start to improve the nutritional delivery of these products?’
We have now entered the age of the gluten-free, vegan sausage roll.
But it’s easy to forget that the leaps made in recent years have been extraordinary. Who would have predicted back in 1997 – when Linda McCartney was at the vanguard of the niche, plant-based meat alternative – that a vegan sausage roll would capture the imaginations of a meat-hungry nation? Who would have foreseen fast-food manufacturers falling over each other to launch plant-based burgers and invest in lab-grown meat?
As Dr Baines said: “This is a movement that is not going away.”
>> Our soils provide 97% of our food. Read more about how they are undervalued and overused here.
We always hear about athletes eking out that competitive edge through subtle changes in diet or equipment. Well, when it comes to making our buildings more energy-efficient, dozens of different technologies could make a difference. Every one may not be earth juddering on its own, but each could help decarbonise our homes by degrees.
Phase-changing materials (PCMs) may have a role to play in reducing our reliance on power-hungry cooling and heating systems in the home. At Texas A&M University, researchers have developed PCMs to passively regulate temperatures inside buildings.
They believe their 3D-printed phase-change materials - compounds that can change from a solid to liquid when absorbing heat, or from liquid to solid when releasing heat - could be incorporated into our homes in paint or other interior effects to regulate interior temperatures.
New phase-change material composites can regulate ambient temperatures inside buildings | Image credit: Texas A&M University College of Engineering
Their partial substitute to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that predominate in many of our buildings is a light-sensitive liquid resin with a phase-changing paraffin wax powder.
According to the researchers, their 3D printable ink composite improves upon existing PCMs in that it doesn’t require a separate shell around each PCM particle. When the PCM is mixed with liquid resin, the resin acts as both the shell and building material, enabling thermal energy management without any leakage. They use an ultraviolet light to solidify their 3D printable paste and make it suitable for use in our buildings.
“The ability to integrate phase-change materials into building materials using a scalable method opens opportunities to produce more passive temperature regulation in both new builds and already existing structures,” said Dr. Emily Pentzer, associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Chemistry.
To date, the researchers have only tested their materials on a small scale in a house-shaped model. Nevertheless, after placing their 3D printed model inside an oven, the results were encouraging. The model’s temperature was 40% different to outside temperatures compared to models made using traditional materials.
From solar panels and insulation to heat pumps and phase change materials, much has been done to make our homes more energy-efficient
“We’re excited about the potential of our material to keep buildings comfortable while reducing energy consumption,” said Dr. Peiran Wei, research scientist in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Soft Matter Facility. “We can combine multiple PCMs with different melting temperatures and precisely distribute them into various areas of a single printed object to function throughout all four seasons and across the globe.”
Perhaps we won’t see PCMs in widespread use in our buildings any time soon, but it’s always heartening to see the use of passive heating and cooling systems in our buildings. Anything that contributes to the decarbonisation mix is certainly worth investigating further.
Think of Earth as an apple and the soil as the peel. Now, imagine that more than 70% of this apple’s surface is covered in water. That veneer of peel suddenly seems very small indeed.
Dig beneath the surface and you realise that the world’s soil resources aren’t as plentiful as you first thought. When you take into account all of the uninhabitable, non-arable land on our planet, including the snow-bound poles and deserts, you’re left with just 3% of total landmass to grow all the fruit and vegetables we eat.
After reminding her listeners of some stark facts at the Soil resources in the UK: overlooked and undervalued? webinar, Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University, reminded us that soil is a precious, finite resource. “We’re dealing with a very thin resource that has to deliver all of these goods and services.”
You just need to think of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner to realise just how important soil is. Of all the food we eat, 97% comes from terrestrial sources. However, in recent decades, the many benefits brought by soil have been taken lightly. Apart from providing food, animal fodder, and a surface for football, it plays a vital role in climate change mitigation.
‘Soil is excellent for climate change mitigation,’ said Professor Rickson, recipient of the prestigious Dr Sydney Andrew Medal for 2021. ‘We know that healthy soils can support vegetation and crops and plants in taking out atmospheric CO2.’
A cross section of soil layers. Unless you live on fish and seaweed, it’s likely that almost all of your food sources will come from terrestrial sources.
However, she and her colleagues at Cranfield University have unearthed some unsettling facts about the state of our soils. She mentioned that 12 million hectares of agricultural land worldwide is lost each year due to soil degradation. In the UK, soil erosion rates can be as high as 15 tonnes per hectare per year, with soil formation rates only compiling at a rate of 1 tonne per hectare per year; and, based on current rates of erosion, some soils could disappear completely by 2050.
So, what is being done to arrest this problem? The obvious mammoth in the room is climate change, with extreme weather events such as flash floods precipitating a huge amount of soil erosion. Obviously, climate change mitigation measures on a national scale would help, but adjustments to farming practices could also improve soil resilience on a more local level.
A lot of work is also being done to reduce the intensity of farming to improve soil health. The aim, according to Rickson, is to maintain a fertile seedbed while retaining maximum resistance to soil degradation. There are lots of different ways to do this.
One approach being taken is cover cropping, whereby a crop is grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil rather than for immediate sale. This enriches the soil and helps prevent soil erosion. Another approach is strip-tillage – a minimum tillage system that disturbs only the portion of the soil that contains the seed row, with the soil between rows left untilled. She also mentioned the benefits of soil improvement, with poultry manure and mushroom compost used to improve soil health by Benedict Unagwu among others.
Cover crops such as vetch and oats improve the structure and fertility of the soil.
It is difficult not to have sympathy for farmers at the moment. Climate change falls heavily upon their lands, and they must battle flooding and drought to keep their farms financially viable. Professor Rickson often speaks to the farming community about soil health, with the focus placed on realistic solutions. As one farmer told her: ‘It's hard to be green when you’re in the red.’
Perhaps soil doesn’t capture the imagination the same way as an oak forest or a field ablaze with wildflowers, but its mismanagement is costing us a fortune. She estimated that the combined annual economic cost of soil degradation in England, Scotland, and Wales is £1.5 billion.
According to Professor Rickson, the US is probably the home of soil conservation following the harsh ecological lessons learnt from the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. However, she believes the UK has plenty of knowhow in the area.
‘The UK has an opportunity to be world-leading in this,’ she said. ‘I think we are as good as anyone. Our scientific community understands soil and is really pushing the boundaries in terms of soil science.’
From genome mining and green synthesis, to tackling tuberculosis and computational methods to help cure malaria, the chemists of tomorrow have been busy showcasing their talents as part of the Society of Chemical Industry Young Chemists Panel’s National Undergraduate Online Poster Competition 2021.
A snapshot of these students’ talents is bottled below in their own words. So, which one of these 15 entries do you think contains the most potential?
Emmanuelle Acs et al., University of Glasgow
Natural products have always had a privileged place in drug development programmes, but their discovery is long and tedious. Genome mining arises as a solution allowing the finding of compounds never seen before. Using an array of bioinformatic softwares, the myxobacterial genome was explored for new Ribosomally and Post-Translationally modified Peptides (RIPPs). Myxobacteria are soil-dwelling bacteria known for the number of secondary metabolites they produce, and they have proven to hide many more within their genome. Indeed, our analyses have led to the potential discovery of nine new myxobacterial natural products. The nature and class of these products is to be confirmed by biosynthesis in the laboratory.
Olivia Baldwin et al., University of Birmingham
Lanthanides were thought to be biologically irrelevant until the discovery of bacteria containing the lanthanide-dependent methanol dehydrogenase (Ln-MDH) enzyme. There has been interest in exploiting the attractive properties of the lanthanides by the de novo design of artificial proteins, aiming to explore protein structures and functions not observed in biology. Here, a lanthanide-binding peptide, CS1-0, has been designed de novo and shown to bind to europium and pyrroloquinoline-quinone (PQQ), a key component of the Ln-MDH active site. This partial recreation of a biologically relevant lanthanide binding site is a step towards the ultimate goal of de novo design, to create functional artificial metalloproteins with simplified structures.
Janko Hergenhahn et al., University of Oxford
Template-directed synthesis provides a route to achieve porphyrin nanorings by favouring ring-closure reaction over oligomerisation. A structurally new template with 12 binding sites has been proposed for the synthesis of novel porphyrin rings; however, initial unsuccessful reactions have raised questions about the binding efficiency of this template to the linear substrate. We have employed classical and quantum modelling together with experimental techniques to explore template-substrate binding in solution and shed light on this process. Titration experiments and modelling have enabled us to study the occupancy of different binding sites and quantify the influence of strain on binding, further guiding novel designs.
Kieran Benn et al., University of Edinburgh
Hydrocyanation offers an orthogonal route to synthetically ubiquitous amines. Current hydrocyanation methodologies are dominated by the use of acutely toxic hydrogen cyanide gas and transition metal catalysts. Here the application of main-group catalysis and transborylation is reported for the formal hydrocyanation of functionalised alkenes. The catalytic protocol was optimised and applied to a broad range of substrates (20 examples), including examples where chemoselectivity was demonstrated in the presence of reducible functionalities and Lewis basic groups. Mechanistic studies support a proposed catalytic cycle in which B–N/B–H transborylation was a key to catalyst turnover.
Students at the University of Glasgow have used computational analysis to help tackle malaria.
Xiyue Leng et al., University of Birmingham
Antimicrobial peptides are increasingly employed as new-generation antibiotics, with their amphiphilic nature (contain both hydrophobic and cationic components) mimicked by polymers to enable a more cost-effective approach. However, there is a lack of a quantitative pre-experiment indicator to provide a prospect on their potency. The overall hydrophobicity represented by LogP/SA was proposed to rapidly identify candidates in future designing to reduce synthetic efforts. We show a comparison study between two computational tools used to calculate LogP/SA: ChemBio3D and Materials Studio, in terms of the predictive power and sensitivity, followed by the synthesis of copolymers with a different cationic side chain based on the calculation results.
Mirjam-Kim Rääbis et al., University of Glasgow
Traditional small molecule therapeutics in medicinal chemistry often require high doses to inhibit the target protein, leading to issues with safety and drug resistance. Proteolysis targeting chimeras (PROTACs) are a new class of molecule that combat these issues, as they can use the body’s own protein degradation systems to degrade targets even at low drug doses. Virus-targeting chimeras (VIRTACs) can use a similar mechanism to target viral proteins. This project uses molecular docking studies to explore potential VIRTAC warheads that target the papain-like protease of SARS-CoV-2, in an attempt to find a potential treatment to COVID-19 that would, among other benefits, offer a lower risk of antiviral resistance.
Miriam Turner et al., Newcastle University
Tuberculosis remains one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, therefore there exists an unmet clinical need for new and improved therapeutics that tackle increasing bacterial resistance and affordability issues. Previous studies indicate N-substituted amino acid hydrazides exhibit good activity against several strains of Mtb. Ongoing structure-activity relationship studies utilising isoniazid, a variety of amino acids, and the active imidazo[1,2-a]pyridine-3-carboxy moiety of clinical candidate Q203 have also demonstrated excellent activities. Herein we report the results of our continued evaluation of this architecture, using a scaffold hopping approach to explore the potential of this pharmacophore as a new anti-tubercular drug.
Skye Brettell et al., University of Glasgow
Malaria continues to pose a significant challenge to humanity. Resistance to several frontline antimalarials represents a considerable threat, marking the need for new drugs with novel mechanisms of action. Kinase inhibitors represent a potential new class of antimalarials. TCMDC-135051 is a hit compound with activity against malarial kinase PfCLK3 as well as potency in liver, blood and sexual stage parasites. During this project, sequential analysis of the PfCLK3 catalytic domain identified key structural differences between the target and its human orthologs. Molecular docking studies of TCMDC-135051 analogues using GOLD then yielded potential lead compounds with predicted high affinity for the target kinase.
Matteo Albino et al., University of York
The strain-induced contortion of non-planar, chiroptically-active helicenes caused by fjord steric repulsive interactions is well known. Fjord-mediated planarisation, on the other hand, is far less common and has typically only been achieved via inherently strong covalent bond formation. Herein, I present the properties and density functional theory (DFT) analysis of electroactive azahelicenes exhibiting unexpected through-space π-electronic stabilisation in the reduced states as a result of non-covalent fjord bonding effects. Computational modelling of optical spectra and aromatic-induced current densities reveal that lone pair-repulsive nitrogens in the fjord promote favourable ring currents and reversible helicene planarisation.
Sam Andrew Young et al., Northumbria University
The synthesis of metal chelating molecules, specifically hydroxypyridones (HOPOs), have been identified as potential therapeutic agents for treating Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as bidentate ligands at the two oxygen donor atoms. These ligands are selective for ferric iron in the body, which is expected to stop the reduction of this iron accumulated in the brains of PD sufferers, hindering the Haber-Weiss mechanism from taking place in the mitochondria of the cell and preventing the associated degeneration of the cells. The lipophilicity of these HOPOs is vital to the process, allowing the molecule to transverse the blood-brain barrier, the addition of a triphenylphosphonium group on the HOPO is thought to increase therapeutic effect.
At Heriot Watt University, students have investigated the skin irritation potential of nanoclays using an IATA
Adelaide Lunga et al., Loughborough University
The aim of this project is to develop a short synthesis of N-acetylcolchinol using a greener and step-economical pathway. First, aldol condensation of 3-hydroxyacetophenone and 3,4,5-trimethoxybenzaldehye using ethanolic NaOH produced the respective chalcone. The product was reduced electrochemically in DMSO:MeOH (4:1) employing carbon electrodes and NEt4Cl to the saturated benzylic alcohol, which was converted to an acetamide via Ritter reaction using H2SO4 in MeCN. In the final step, the conditions were optimised to enable electrochemical oxidative coupling of the aromatic groups to give the desired N-acetylcolchinol. This novel four-steps reaction sequence avoids use of transition metal catalysts or toxic reagents.
Yi Xiao et al., University of Oxford
Human endosulfatases (SULFs) are enzymes on the cell surface and in the extracellular matrix that hydrolyse 6-O-sulfate on glucosamine units within heparan sulfate proteoglycans. SULFs are involved in growth and development, muscle regeneration and tumour growth via various signaling pathways, with untapped therapeutic and diagnostic potentials. However, profiling SULFs remains a challenge. Antibodies detect their presence, but do not indicate their activity state. The current activity assay is a global sulfatase assay and is not selective in a biological sample. We propose a novel small-molecule probe to profile SULF activity by exploiting the formation of 1,6-anhydrosugar, which can be potentially used in isolated proteins and in vitro.
Alexander Pine et al., University of Greenwich
Solubility parameters are important for pharmaceutical formulations, paint formulations and new material development. There is a need to improve the accuracy of solubility calculations, and to be able to make rapid predictions of the solubility of new molecular structures. In this project, a range of Python plugins, and open-source codes have been used to develop a Lasso linear regression machine learning model to predict the Hansen solubility parameters (HSP) - δd, δp and δh, which represents dispersion forces, dipole-permanent dipole forces and hydrogen bonding respectively with the intention of making faster and more accurate prediction in solubility.
Alexander David Robertson et al., The University of Glasgow
This research considers computational modelling of a SPAAC reaction involving cyclononyne. DFT calculations were performed on the strain promoted reaction between cyclononyne and mesyl azide. Three low energy conformers of cyclononyne with Cs, C2 and C1 symmetry were found with similar energy. The transition structures for the corresponding cycloaddition with mesyl azide were found and the C2 conformer was the lowest in energy. Product structures were found leading to the identification of the thermodynamic product of the reaction. Distortion/interaction analysis showed that the cycloalkyne was already significantly pre-constrained to its reacting geometry.
Holly King et al., Heriot Watt university
Clays are natural nanomaterials consisting of mineral silicate layers. They have several functional uses in everyday life. An example of nanoclays that carry out a wide range of roles is smectites which include montmorillonite (MMT), bentonite and hectorite. These nanoclays can be used in cosmetics, altering their appearance and in pharmaceuticals as drug carriers and wound dressings. Integrated approach to testing and assessment (IATA) aim to collect all relevant data into one easy to understand format that can be used to group materials. Using an IATA dedicated to skin irritation/corrosion it was found that MMT was safe for use. However, hectorite was found to be toxic at high doses indicating that it is a possible irritant to the skin.
If you’d like to see these students’ full posters, go to: https://istry.co.uk/postercompetition/5/?date_example=2021-06-28
Which technologies will propel industry forward and give companies that competitive advantage? According to digital consultancy McKinsey Digital’s Tech Trends Index, several technologies will have a profound and disruptive impact on industries including the chemical sector. So, which ones will have the biggest effect on the way you work in the coming decade?
By 2025, more than 50 billion devices around the world will be connected to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and about 600,000 industrial robots a year will be in place from 2022. The combination of these, along with industrial processes such as 3D and 4D printing, will speed up processing and improve operational efficiency.
According to McKinsey, 50% of today’s work practices could be automated by 2022 as ever more intelligent robots (in physical and software form) increase production and reduce lead times. So, how does this change look in the real world?
According to the McKinsey Tech Trends Index, 10% of today’s manufacturing processes will be replaced by additive manufacturing by 2030.
According to the Tech Trends Index, one large manufacturer has used collaborative robots mounted on automatic guided vehicles to load pallets without human involvement, while an automotive manufacturer has used IIOT to connect 122 factories and 500 warehouses around the world to optimise manufacturing and logistics, consolidate real-time data, and boost machine learning throughput.
An almost incredible 368,000 patents were granted in next generation computing in 2020. Advanced computing will speed up the processing of reams of data to optimise research and cut development times for those in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, accelerate the use of autonomous vehicles, and reduce the barriers to industry for many eager entrants.
‘Next-generation computing enables further democratisation of AI-driven services, radically fast development cycles, and lower barriers of entry across industries,’ the index notes. ‘It promises to disrupt parts of the value chain and reshape the skills needed (such as automated trading replacing traders and chemical simulations, reducing the need for experiments).’
According to McKinsey, AI will also be applied to molecule-level simulation to reduce the empirical expertise and testing needed. This could disrupt the materials, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals industries and lead to highly personalised products, especially in medicine.
It doesn’t take much investigation before you realise that the bio-revolution has already begun. Targeted drug delivery and smart watches that analyse your sweat are just two ways we’re seeing significant change.
The Tech Trends Index claims the confluence of biological science and the rapid development of AI and automation are giving rise to a revolution that will lead to significant change in agriculture, health, energy and other industries.
In the health industry, it seems we are entering the age of hyper-personalisation. The Index notes that: ‘New markets may emerge, such as genetics-based recommendations for nutrition, even as rapid innovation in DNA sequencing leads ever further into hyper personalised medicine.’ One example of this at work in the agri-food industry is Trace Genomics’ profiling of soil microbiomes to interpret health and disease-risk indicators in farming.
It’s no secret that we will need to develop lighter materials for transport, and others that have a lighter footprint on our planet. According to McKinsey, next generation materials will enhance the performance of products in pharma, energy, transportation, health, and manufacturing.
For example, molybdenum disulfide nanoparticles are being used in flexible electronics, and graphene is driving the development of 2D semiconductors. Computational materials science is another area of extraordinary potential. McKinsey explains: ‘More new materials are on the way as computational-materials science combines computing power and associated machine-learning methods and applies them to materials-related problems and opportunities.’
5G networks will help take autonomous vehicles from tentative - to widespread use.
So, which sorts of advanced materials are we talking about? These include nanomaterials that enable more efficient energy storage, lighter materials for the aerospace industry, and biodegradable nanoparticles as drug carriers within the human body.
These are just four of the 10 areas explored in the fascinating McKinsey Digital’s Tech Trends report. To read more about the rest, visit: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/the-top-trends-in-tech
Watching plants grow in a hydroponic contraption is an education. The plants sit in foam under UV light while their roots feed on water fortified by plant feed. There is no soil. No thirst. No room for death by lazy gardener. The results, as any hydroponic enthusiast will tell you, are startling.
So, what if we were to adopt this targeted, optimised approach to our own nutrition? What would happen if he were to ditch that delicious Sunday roast in favour of a shake that contains all the vitamins and minerals your body needs? Admittedly, it sounds terrible, but people do something similar already. Many gym obsessives take protein shakes religiously to feed their bodies’ impressive musculature, while others skip meals entirely in favour of such drinks and supplements.
An organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm
A recent study conducted by the Cherab Foundation, which featured in the Alternative Therapies journal, concludes that nutritional supplements may also help boost our brain function. After giving 77 people a vitamin and meal replacement product called IQed Smart Nutrition, the researchers from the non-profit organisation found that the supplement boosted brain function in a range of areas and could help people with autism, apraxia, and ADHD.
Almost 84% of participants reported deficits in speech and communication prior to taking the nutritional supplements. After taking the product, more than 85% said their expressive speech had improved while 67% of respondents reported improvements in other areas including focus, language understanding, oral motor skills, and physical and behavioural health.
Overall, 64% of participants reported positive changes within two weeks. According to the Cherab Foundation, the research aims “to guide future research into the dietary interventions and potential management of neurological conditions using natural food products, vitamin and mineral supplements”.
So, what ingredients are in the supplement-infused chocolate shake that will replace the wood-fired pizza you’re due to have next Friday evening? According to IQed, its powdered chocolate offering contains everything from brown rice, apple fibres, turmeric, and green tea, to copper gluconate, amalaki, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds.
Turmeric, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds have hopped onto the superfood bandwagon in recent years.
Some will dismiss these supplements as hocus-pocus, but the potential benefits of optimised nutrition are exciting nonetheless. If some wince-inducing elixir makes us healthier, stronger and live longer, perhaps it’s worth investigating further?
The Cherub Foundation works to improve the communication skills, education, and advocacy of children on the neurological spectrum. To read more about its study, visit: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32088673/
As silicon reaches its solar ceiling, perovskite has emerged as one of the main materials of choice in the next generation of solar panels. Indeed, Oxford PV’s much anticipated perovskite-silicon solar cell could take conversion efficiency well beyond what is currently achieved on the roofs of our homes.
The benefits of perovskite are well known at this stage. It could increase the energy we harvest from the sun and improve solar cell efficiency, and its printability could make fabrication cheaper. However, as with almost everything, there are drawbacks.
According to researchers at the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre at Swansea University, the solvents used to control the crystallisation of the perovskite during fabrication hinder the large-scale manufacture of printed carbon perovskite cells. This is due to the toxicity and potentially psychoactive effects of these materials.
The SPECIFIC team claims to have found a way around this after discovering a non-toxic biodegradable solvent called γ-Valerolactone. They say this replacement solvent could be used without affecting solar cell performance. Furthermore, they say it is non-toxic, sustainable, and suitable for large-scale manufacturing.
Left - solvent normally used to make solar cells, which is toxic.
Right - new green solvent developed by Swansea University researchers from the SPECIFIC project
| Image Credit: Swansea University
‘This solvent problem was a major barrier, not only restricting large-scale manufacture but holding back research in countries where the solvents are banned,’ said research group leader Professor Trystan Watson. ‘We hope our discovery will enable countries that have previously been unable to participate in this research to become part of the community and accelerate the development of cleaner, greener energy.’
As the conversion efficiency of solar panels improves, cost is also key. What if you could create the same solar panels in a more cost-efficient way? That was part of the thinking behind another recent innovation in Singapore, where Maxeon Solar Technologies has created frameless, lightweight rooftop solar panels. These solar panels can be adhered directly to a roof without racking or mounting systems and allegedly perform just as well as standard solar panels.
The new Maxeon Air technology platform from Maxeon Solar Technologies
‘For close to 50 years, the solar power industry has almost exclusively used glass superstrate panel construction,’ said Jeff Waters, CEO of Maxeon Solar Technologies. ‘As solar panels have increased in size, and the cost of solar cells has been dramatically reduced, the cost of transporting, installing and mounting large glass panels has become a relatively larger portion of total system cost. With Maxeon Air technology, we can now develop products that reduce these costs while opening up completely new market opportunities such as low-load commercial rooftops.’
The idea is to use these peel-and-stick designs on low-load roofs that cannot support the weight of conventional solar systems; and they will be rolled out in 2022. Time will tell whether the innovations in Swansea and Singapore have a bearing on companies’ solar systems, but they provide more evidence of the ingenuity that is making solar power cheaper and more efficient.
We’re starting to see those silent cars everywhere. The electric vehicle evolution is gradually seeping onto our roads. Every month or two, we also seem to read about another wind power generation record in the UK, or some super solar cell. Pension funds and big corporations are coming under great pressure to divest from fossil fuels. The clean power revolution is well underway.
And yet the third biggest polluter of the planet - after power and transport - awaits the seismic shift that will shake it to its foundations. Indeed, cement production still accounts for roughly 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The problem is that creating cement is an energy-intense, polluting process with firing temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit needed to create it, and plenty of CO2 released during processing.
Green cement and concrete are needed to reduce emissions in construction and other industries.
But there are signs that the processing could become cleaner. A recent report released by Market Research Future (MRFR) predicts that concrete (of which cement is a key ingredient) use could get appreciably greener over the next six years. It estimates that the global green concrete market size will grow at a 9.45% compound annual growth rate from 2020-27.
MRFR attributes this rise to several factors. First, there is a growing demand for green or recycled concrete (that incorporates waste components) within the construction industry. For builders, it enhances their environmental credentials and will increasingly become a business-savvy investment as governments seek to reduce carbon emissions.
Green building codes and the creation of energy-efficient infrastructure will also help propel this growth, and changing building regulations in massive markets including China, India, and the Middle East will result in many manufacturers looking to develop different material combinations. Increasingly, we’re seeing manufacturers turning to less energy-intensive manufacturing methods and investigating which waste materials could be used to create a greener cement or concrete that doesn’t compromise on performance.
Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, have even been developing a rechargeable cement-based battery. If it ever comes to pass, this could be used to create buildings that store energy like giant batteries. Some manufacturers are also looking into the electrification of kilns, which isn’t feasible yet, and carbon capture and storage has long been mooted as a means to reduce industrial emissions.
Imagine an entire twenty storey concrete building that can store energy like a giant battery. This could be possible if Chalmers University’s cement-based rechargeable batteries come to fruition. | Image Credit: Yen Strandqvist/Chalmers University of Technology
The good news is that we don’t just have people all over the world working on low-carbon materials and manufacturing methods; experts in the UK are tackling the issue right now. On 2 June, speakers at the SCI’s free webinar, Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future, will examine some of the exciting initiatives underway.
These include an award winning, industry accepted ultra-low carbon alternative to traditional cement, which could result in CO2 savings of up to 78%, and the potential of using offsite manufacturing to provide commercial projects with a sustainable structural frame solution.
As with transport and power, cement is getting greener increment by increment. But with drastic climate change consequences dangling above us like the Sword of Damocles, now is the time for concrete action.
Register for Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future today at: https://bit.ly/33WfjkN.
Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.
In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.
After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.
Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University
Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.
‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.
The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.
‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’
The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.
‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’
Every tin can dropped into our recycling bins is a small act of faith. We hope each one is recycled, yet the figures take some of that fervour from our faith. According to UK government statistics from 2015-2018, only about 45% of our household waste is recycled. Similarly, the UN has noted that only 20% of the 50 million tonnes of electronics waste produced globally each year is formally recycled. So, it’s fair to say we could do better.
Thankfully, thousands of people around the globe are working on these problems and two recent developments give us grounds for optimism. The first involves upcycling metal waste into multi-purpose aerogels, and the second involves fully recyclable printed electronics that include a wood-derived ink.
Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) claim to have turned one person’s trash into treasure with a low-energy way to convert aluminium and magnesium waste into high value aerogels for the construction industry.
To do this, they ground the metal waste into a powder and mixed it with chemical cross-linkers. They heated this mixture in an oven before freeze-drying it and turning it into an aerogel. The team says this simple process makes their aerogels 50% cheaper than commercially available silica aerogels.
Aerogels have many useful properties. They are absorbent, extremely light (hence the frozen smoke nickname), and have impressive thermal and sound insulation capabilities. This makes them useful as thermal insulation materials in buildings, in piping systems, or for cleaning up oil spills. However, the NUS team has loftier goals than that.
There is a great need for less energy intensive ways to recycle metals
“Our aluminium aerogel is 30 times lighter and insulates heat 21 times better than conventional concrete,” research team leader Associate Professor Duong Hai-Minh whose research has been published in the Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management. “When optical fibres are added during the mixing stage, we can create translucent aluminium aerogels which, as building materials, can improve natural lighting, reduce energy consumption for lighting and illuminate dark or windowless areas. Translucent concrete can also be used to construct sidewalks and speed bumps that light up at night to improve safety for pedestrians and road traffic.”
The aerogels could even be used for cell cultivation. Professor Duong explains: “Microcarriers are micro-size beads for cells to anchor and grow. Our first trials were performed on stem cells, using a cell line commonly used for testing of drugs as well as cosmetics, and the results are very encouraging.”
Whatever about these speculative applications, this upcycling method will hopefully help us find new homes for all types of metal waste including metal chips and discarded electronics.
A team at Duke University has also made interesting progress in reducing electronic waste. The researchers claim to have developed fully recyclable printed electronics that could be used and reused in a wide range of sensors.
The researchers’ transistor is made from three carbon-based inks that can be printed onto paper, and their use of a wood-derived insulating dielectric ink called nanocellulose helps make them recyclable. Carbon nanotubes and graphene inks are also used for the semiconductors and conductors, respectively.
A 3D rendering of the first fully recyclable, printed transistor. CREDIT: Duke University
“Nanocellulose is biodegradable and has been used in applications like packaging for years,” said Aaron Franklin, the Addy Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke, whose research has been published in Nature Electronics. “And while people have long known about its potential applications as an insulator in electronics, nobody has figured out how to use it in a printable ink before. That’s one of the keys to making these fully recyclable devices functional.”
The team has developed a way to suspend these nanocellulose crystals (extracted from wood fibres) with a sprinkling of table salt to create an ink that performs well in its printed transistors. At the end of their working life, these devices can be submerged in baths with gently vibrating sound waves to recover the carbon nanotubes and graphene components. These materials can be reused and the nanocellulose can be recycled just like ordinary paper.
The team conceded that these devices won’t ruffle the trillion dollar silicon-based computer component market, but they do think these devices could be useful in simple environmental sensors to monitor building energy use or in biosensing patches to track medical conditions.
Read about the Duke University research here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41928-021-00574-0
Take a look at the NUS study here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10163-020-01169-1
To some, the almond is a villain. This admittedly tasty nut takes an extraordinary amount of water to grow (1.1 gallons per nut) and some in California say almond cultivation has contributed to drought.
And so it is no surprise to see the almond lined up in the rogue’s gallery of the thirstiest foods. In a study in the journal Nature Food, University of Michigan (U-M) and Tulane University researchers assessed how the food we eat affects water scarcity.
Meat consumption was found to be the biggest culprit in the US, with the hooves and feet of livestock accounting for 31% of the water scarcity footprint. Within the meat category, beef is the thirstiest, with almost six times more water consumption than chicken.
Almond crops in California have come under heavy criticism due to their heavy water consumption
However, the picture is a little more nuanced. Lead author Martin Heller, of U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability, explains: “Beef is the largest dietary contributor to the water scarcity footprint, as it is for the carbon footprint. But the dominance of animal-based food is diminished somewhat in the water scarcity footprint, in part because the production of feed grains for animals is distributed throughout less water-scarce regions, whereas the production of vegetables, fruits and nuts is concentrated in water-scarce regions of the United States, namely the West Coast states and the arid Southwest.”
Certain types of diets drain the water supply. People who eat large quantities of beef, nuts such as the infamous almond, walnut, and cashew, and a high proportion of water-intense fruits and vegetables including lemon, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower take a heavy toll on the water footprint.
The Brussels sprout is not just for Christmas… it is a less water intense option for your dinner table.
“The water-use impacts of food production should be a key consideration of sustainable diets,” adds study co-author Diego Rose of Tulane University. “There is a lot of variation in the way people eat, so having a picture with this sort of granularity – at the individual level – enables a more nuanced understanding of potential policies and educational campaigns to promote sustainable diets.”
So, what do you do the next time you feel a pang of water guilt? According to the researchers, you could swear off asparagus and that crushed avocado on your toast and replace them with less water intense foods such as fresh peas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale (but maybe not on your toast). Those beef steaks and hamburgers could make way for other protein sources, such as chicken, pork, and soybeans, and you could graze on peanuts and seeds instead of those honey roasted almonds you love so dearly. Just think of all those gallons of water you’ll save.
For more on this study, visit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00256-2
Bit by bit, the green hydrogen revolution is coming to our shores. The news that a planning application has been filed for the UK’s largest electrolyser in Glasgow could be a boon for hydrogen evangelists, the local communities, and the political class.
The 20MW electrolyser will form part of the green hydrogen facility on the outskirts of Glasgow near Whitelee, the UK’s largest wind farm. The proposed project would produce up to 8 tonnes of green hydrogen each day – the equivalent of 550 return bus trips from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
If approved, the scheme would be delivered by ScottishPower, BOC, and ITM Power as part of the Green Hydrogen for Scotland Partnership. BOC would operate the facility using solar and wind power produced by Scottish Power and ITM Power would provide the all-important 20 MW electrolyser. Renewable energy would power the electrolyser, which would split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen produced by this process could then be used in various applications including transport.
Fundamentally, the people who will benefit most are the people of Glasgow, with the project aiming to provide carbon-free transport and clean air for people across the city area, while satisfying some industrial hydrogen demand. And we can all rest easy now that we know politicians will be pleased about it too, for the project coincides nicely with the United Nations 26th Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Glasgow later this year.
The new facility will be based beside a plentiful renewable energy source, Whiteless wind farm in Eaglesham Moor. | Editorial credit: Maritxu / Shutterstock.com
If all goes swimmingly, the facility will supply hydrogen for the commercial market by 2023. “Whitelee keeps breaking barriers, first the UK’s largest onshore wind farm, and soon to be home to the UK’s largest electrolyser,” says Barry Carruthers, ScottishPower’s Hydrogen Director. “The site has played a vital role in helping the UK to decarbonise and we look forward to delivering another vital form of zero carbon energy generation at the site to help Glasgow and Scotland achieve their net zero goals.”
Tumbling renewable prices
This exciting news follows on the back of some bold green hydrogen claims made in a recent Bloomberg New Energy Foundation (NEF) report: the 1H 2021 Hydrogen Levelised Cost Update. According to Martin Tengler, BloombergNEF’s Lead Hydrogen Analyst, the report authors believe the cost of renewable hydrogen could fall 85% by 2050, 17% lower than they had previously predicted. This, he says, is due to falling renewables prices.
It is becoming cheaper all the time to produce solar and wind power, which is good news for those producing green hydrogen.
Tengler also says that renewable hydrogen should be cheaper than blue hydrogen (when natural gas is split into hydrogen and CO2 via processes such as steam methane reforming) in many countries by 2030. Furthermore, Bloomberg NEF predicts that green hydrogen will be cheaper to process than natural gas in many countries by 2050.
With the prices of solar and wind power constantly tumbling, it would be no surprise to see the authors of these reports revising their projections even further in the coming years. In the mean-time, we welcome the green shoots peeking through outside Glasgow.
Many of us have contemplated buying a reconditioned phone. It might be that bit older but it has a new screen and works as well as those in the shop-front. I’m not sure, however, that any of us have thought of investing in a reconditioned liver – but it could be coming to a body near you.
Researchers based in São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences have been developing a technique to create and repair transplantable livers. The proof-of-concept study published in Materials Science and Engineering by the Human Genome and Stem Cell Research Centre (HUG-CELL) is based on tissue bioengineering techniques known as decellularisation and recellularisation.
The organs of some donors are sometimes damaged in traffic accidents, but these may soon be transplantable if the HUG-CELL team realises its goal.
The decellularisation and recellularisation approach involves taking an organ from a deceased donor and treating it with detergents and enzymes to remove all the cells from the tissue. What remains is the organ’s extracellular matrix, containing its original structure and shape.
This extracellular matrix is then seeded with cells from the transplant patient. The theoretical advantage of this method is that the body’s immune system won’t rile against the new organ as it already contains cells from the patient’s own body, thereby boosting the chance of long-term acceptance.
However, the problem with the decellularisation process is that it removes the very molecules that tell cells to form new blood vessels. This weakens cell adhesion to the extracellular matrix. To get around this, the researchers have introduced a stage between decellularisation and recellularisation. After decellularising rat livers, the scientists injected a solution that was rich in the proteins produced by lab-grown liver cells back into the extracellular matrix. These proteins then told the liver cells to multiply and form blood vessels.
These cells then grew for five weeks in an incubator that mimicked the conditions inside the human body. According to the researchers, the results showed significantly improved recellularisation.
“It’s comparable to transplanting a ‘reconditioned’ liver, said Mayana Zatz, HUG-CELL’s principal investigator and co-author of the article. “It won't be rejected because it uses the patient’s own cells, and there’s no need to administer immunosuppressants.”
Extracellular matrix of a decellularised liver | Image Credit: HUG-CELL/USP
Obviously, there is a yawning gap between proof of concept and the operating theatre, but the goal is to scale up the process to create human-sized livers, lungs, hearts, and skin for transplant patients.
“The plan is to produce human livers in the laboratory to scale,” said lead author Luiz Carlos de Caires-Júnior to Agência FAPESP. “This will avoid having to wait a long time for a compatible donor and reduce the risk of rejection of the transplanted organ."
This technique could also be used to repair livers given by organ donors that are considered borderline or non-transplantable. “Many organs available for transplantation can’t actually be used because the donor has died in a traffic accident,” Caires-Júnior added. “The technique can be used to repair them, depending on their status.”
Even if we are at the early stages of this approach, it bodes well for future research. And for those on the organ transplant list, a reconditioned liver would be as good as a new one – complete with their very own factory settings.
Read the paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0928493120337814
When you live in a cold country, you think of hot days as a blessing. Air conditioning units are for those in far-away places – humid countries where the baked earth smell rises to meet you when you step off the plane.
But cooling comes at a cost. According to the UN Environment Programme, it accounts for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some of us are visual learners; so, the sheer cost of cooling really hit me when I stared up at an apartment building in Hong Kong with hundreds of air conditioning units perched above the windows like birds.
And it isn’t just the Hong Kongers feeling the heat. The cooling industry as a whole is under pressure to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency expects emissions from cooling to double by 2030 due to heat waves, population growth, urbanisation, and the growing middle class. By 2050, it forecasts that space cooling will consume as much electricity as China and India do today.
Air conditioning units cling to a building
All of this was captured by the Cooling Suppliers: Who's Winning the Race to Net Zero report released by the Race to Zero campaign, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), Carbon Trust and other partners in the UN Environment Programme-hosted Cool Coalition.
This report's authors found that only five of the 54 cooling companies they assessed have committed to net-zero targets. The document outlines three areas that must be addressed on the Cooling Climate Pathway: super-efficient appliances, ultra-low global warming refrigerants, and the widespread adoption of passive cooling measures such as clever home design and urban planning.
So, while builders adjust window sizes, introduce trees for shading, and choose materials (such as terracotta cooling systems) thoughtfully to temper the sun’s gaze, others are availing of different methods.
For example, the COP26 (the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference) Champions Team has just released its Net Zero Cooling Action Plan that includes a Cool Calculator tool to help companies and governments run simple calculations to see where they could decarbonise their cooling systems. Similarly, the UK's Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has launched a net-zero cooling product guide that showcases energy-efficient products run on natural refrigerants.
Green walls are one of many passive cooling approaches used to reduce our reliance on mechanical systems.
However, it’s clear that the softly-softly approach won’t suffice. The EIA has called on governments to do more to encourage organisations to adopt sustainable cooling, to make concrete policy commitments, and speed-up the phase-out of climate-warming refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons.
“The development and expansion of net-zero cooling is a critical part of our Race to Zero emissions,” said Nigel Topping, UK High Level Champion for COP26. “In addition to technological breakthroughs and ambitious legislation, we also need sustainable consumer purchasing to help deliver wholesale systems change.”
We all love the technological panacea – innovations that will cure all the climate ills we have inflicted on the world. But the solution will also involve stodgy government regulations and changing consumer habits, and a reliance on the continued fall in renewable power generation.
For those in traditionally cooler climes, it’s no longer someone else’s problem. It was a balmy 22°C in London this week and we’re not even in April yet. So, it’s certainly time to turn up the heat on the cooling industry.
Every day, there are subtle signs that machine learning is making our lives easier. It could be as simple as a Netflix series recommendation or your phone camera automatically adjusting to the light – or it could be something even more profound. In the case of two recent machine-learning developments, these advances could make a tangible difference to both microscopy, cancer treatment, and our health.
The first is an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that improves the information gleaned from microscopic images. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have used this deep machine learning to enhance the accuracy and speed of analysis.
The tool uses deep learning to extract as much information as possible from data-packed images. The neural networks retrieve exactly what a scientist wants by looking through a huge trove of images (known as training data). These networks can process tens of thousands of images an hour whereas some manual methods deliver about a hundred a month.
Machine learning can be used to follow infections in a cell.
In practice, this algorithm makes it easier for researchers to count and classify cells and focus on specific material characteristics. For example, it can be used by companies to reduce emissions by showing workers in real time whether unwanted particles have been filtered out.
“This makes it possible to quickly extract more details from microscope images without needing to create a complicated analysis with traditional methods,” says Benjamin Midtvedt, a doctoral student in physics and the main author of the study. “In addition, the results are reproducible, and customised. Specific information can be retrieved for a specific purpose."
The University of Gothenburg tool could also be used in health care applications. The researchers believe it could be used to follow infections in a cell and map cellular defense mechanisms to aid the development of new medicines and treatments.
Machine learning by colour
On a similar thread, machine learning has been used to detect cancer by researchers from the National University of Singapore. The researchers have used a special dye to colour cells by pH and a machine learning algorithm to detect the changes in colour caused by cancer.
The researchers explain in their APL Bioengineering study that the pH (acidity level) of a cancerous cell is not the same as that of a healthy cell. So, you can tell if a cell is cancerous if you know its pH.
With this in mind, the researchers have treated cells with a pH-sensitive dye called bromothymol blue that changes colour depending on how acidic the solution is. Once dyed, each cell exudes its unique red, green, and blue fingerprint.
By isolating a cell’s pH, researchers can detect the presence of cancer.
The authors have also trained a machine learning algorithm to map combinations of colours to assess the state of cells and detect any worrying shifts. Once a sample of the cells is taken, medical professionals can use this non-invasive method to get a clearer picture of what is going on inside the body. And all they need to do all of this is an inverted microscope and a colour camera.
“Our method allowed us to classify single cells of various human tissues, both normal and cancerous, by focusing solely on the inherent acidity levels that each cell type tends to exhibit, and using simple and inexpensive equipment,” said Chwee Teck Lim, one of the study’s authors.
“One potential application of this technique would be in liquid biopsy, where tumour cells that escaped from the primary tumour can be isolated in a minimally invasive fashion from bodily fluids.”
The encouraging sign for all of us is that these two technologies are but two dots on a broad canvas, and machine learning will enhance analysis. There are certainly troubling elements to machine learning but anything that helps hinder disease is to be welcomed.
Machine Learning-Based Approach to pH Imaging and Classification of Single Cancer Cells:
Quantitative Digital Microscopy with Deep Learning:
What do grape stalks, pineapple leaves, corn cobs, rice husks, sheep’s wool, and straw have in common? Apart from being natural materials, they have all been used to insulate homes. Increasingly, people are turning towards natural, sustainable materials as climate change and waste have become bigger problems.
Existing building insulation materials such as synthetic rock wool are excellent at keeping our homes warm in winter, but the conversation has moved beyond thermal performance. Energy use, re-usability, toxicity, and material disposal are all live considerations now, especially with regulations and emissions targets tightening. So, rock wool might perform better than straw bale insulation but straw is biodegradable, reusable, easy to disassemble, and doesn’t require large amounts of energy to process.
Sheep’s wool and hemp insulation have also become attractive to homeowners and housebuilders alike, but an even more encouraging prospect is the use of waste materials to create next generation insulation. In this spirit, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, have taken waste cooking oil, wool offcuts, and sulphur to process a novel housing insulation material.
Recycled paper is one of many waste materials that has found its way into domestic insulation.
To make this composite, they followed several stages. In the first stage of the synthesis, the researchers used inverse vulcanisation to create a polysulphide polymer from canola oil triglyceride and sulphur. They then mixed this powdered polymer with wool and coated the fibres through electrostatic attraction. This mixture was compressed through mild heating to provoke S−S metathesis in the polymer and bind the wool. The wool bolsters the tensile strength of the material, makes it less flammable, and provides excellent insulation. The result is a sustainable building material that fulfils its function without damaging the environment.
For Associate Professor Justin Chalker, the lead author of this study, this work provides an ideal jumping-off point. “The promising mechanical and insulation properties of this composite bodes well for further exploration in energy saving insulation in our built environment,” he said.
It is clear that ventures like the one in Adelaide will continue to sprout all over the world. After all, necessity dictates that we change the way we build our homes and treat materials.
A recent report from Emergen Research predicts that the global insulation materials market will be worth US $82.96 billion (£59.78 billion) by 2027. The same report was also at pains to mention that the increasing demand for reduced energy consumption in buildings will be a significant factor in influencing industry growth.
“Market revenue growth is high and expected to incline rapidly going ahead due to rising demand for insulation materials... to reduce energy consumption in buildings,” it said. One of the main reasons given for this increased green building demand was stricter environmental regulations.
And Emergen isn’t the only organisation feeling the ground moving. Online roofing merchant Roofing Megastore, which sells more than 30,000 roofing materials, has detected a shift towards environmentally friendly materials, with many homeowners sourcing these products themselves.
Rock wool insulation panels have come under greater scrutiny in recent times.
Having analysed two years of Google search data on sustainable building materials, the company found that synthetic roof tiles are generating the most interest from the public. Like the Flinders insulation, these roof tiles make use of waste materials, in this case recycled limestone and plastic. And you don’t need to look far down the list to find sustainable insulation materials, with sheep’s wool insulation in 9th place, wood fibre insulation in 10th, and hemp insulation in 12th.
Over time, the logic of the progression towards natural, less energy-intensive building materials will become harder to ignore. “Traditional materials such as synthetic glass mineral wool offer high levels of performance but require large amounts of energy to produce and must be handled with care while wearing PPE,” the company noted. “Natural materials such as hemp or sheep’s wool, however, require very little energy to create and can be installed easily without equipment.”
So, the next time you look down at your nutshells, spent cooking oil, or tattered woollen sweater, think of their potential. In a few years, these materials could be sandwiched between your walls, keeping you warm all winter.
Insulating composites made from sulphur, canola oil, and wool (2021): https://chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cssc.202100187?af=R