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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.
Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance
To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.
ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.
The blue economy is linked to green recovery
In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’
The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.
But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.
With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.
Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.
But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.
The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.
The world’s biggest ever survey of public opinion on climate change was published on 27th January, covering 50 countries with over half of the world’s population, by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Oxford. Of the respondents, 64% believe climate change is a global emergency, despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and sought broader action to combat it. Earlier in the month, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed the country's commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
It is possible that the momentum, combined with the difficulties many countries currently face, may make many look again to geoengineering as an approach. Is it likely that large scale engineering techniques could mitigate the damage of carbon emissions? And is it safe to do so or could we be exacerbating the problem?
The term has long been controversial, as have many of the suggested techniques. But it would seem that some approaches are gaining more mainstream interest, particularly Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), which the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for the UN suggested were worth further investigation (significantly, it did not use the term "geoengineering" and distinguished these two methods from others).
One of the most covered CDR techniques is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage (CCUS), the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide, usually from carbon intensive industries, and storing (or first re-using) it so it will not enter the atmosphere. Since 2017, after a period of declining investment, more than 30 new integrated CCUS facilities have been announced. However, there is concern among many that it will encourage further carbon emissions when the goal should be to reduce and use CCS to buy time to do so.
CDR techniques that utilise existing natural processes of natural repair, such as reforestation, agricultural practices that absorb carbon in soils, and ocean fertilisation are areas that many feel could and should be pursued on a large scale and would come with ecological and biodiversity benefits, as well as fostering a different, more beneficial relationship with local environments.
A controversial iron compound deposition approach has been trialled to boost salmon numbers and biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean.
The ocean is a mostly untapped area with huge potential and iron fertilisation is one very promising area. The controversial Haida Salmon Corporation trial in 2012 is perhaps the most well-known example and brings together a lot of the pros and cons frequently discussed in geoengineering — in many ways, we can see it as a microcosm of the bigger issue.
The trial deposited 120 tonnes of iron compound in the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean 300k west of Haida Gwaii over a period of 30 days, which resulted in a 35,000km2, several month long phytoplankton bloom that was confirmed by NASA satellite imagery. That phytoplankton bloom fed the local salmon population, revitalising it — the following year, the number of salmon caught in the northeast Pacific went from 50 million to 226 million. The local economy benefited, as did the biodiversity of the area, and the increased iron in the sea captured carbon (as did the biomass of fish, for their lifetimes).
Small but mighty, phytoplankton are the laborers of the ocean. They serve as the base of the food web.
But Environment Canada believes the corporation violated national environmental laws by depositing iron without a permit. Much of the fear around geoengineering is how much might be possible by rogue states or even rogue individuals, taking large scale action with global consequences without global consent.
The conversation around SRM has many similarities — who decides that the pros are worth the cons, when the people most likely to suffer the negative effects, with or without action, are already the most vulnerable? This is a concern of some of the leading experts in the field. Professor David Keith, an expert in the field, has publicly spoken about his concern around climate change and inequality, adding after the latest study that, "the poorest people tend to suffer most from climate change because they’re the most vulnerable. Reducing extreme weather benefits the most vulnerable the most. The only reason I’m interested in this is because of that."
But he doesn't believe anywhere near sufficient research has been done into the viability of the approach or the possible consequences and cautions that there is a need for "an adequate governance system in place".
There is no doubt that the research in this field is exciting but there are serious ethical and governance problems to be dealt with before it can be considered a serious component of an emissions reduction strategy.
The theme of the 2021 World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda was ‘The Great Reset’ and how the world might recover from the effects of Covid-19. Because of the current circumstances, the forum was split into two parts, with a virtual meeting held January 25-29 and an in-person gathering planned for May 13-16, in Singapore.
Each day of the January summit was dedicated to discussing a key area for recovery. On Monday, January 25, the focus was on designing cohesive, sustainable and resilient economic systems. On Tuesday, delegates discussed how to drive responsible industry transformation and growth, while on Wednesday they spoke about enhancing the stewardship of our global commons. Thursday's talks centred on harnessing the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and on Friday attendees discussed ways to advance global and regional cooperation.
With the International Labor Organization jobs report, published at the start of the week, stating that at least 225 million jobs vanished worldwide over the past year (four times more than the 2008 global financial crisis) and concerns that vaccine nationalism will see the pandemic continue to ravage many less wealthy nations, much of the talk was around equality and unity.
Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, spoke in Monday's meeting. ‘Once we’re through to the "second phase" of the 2021 Covid-19 recovery,’ Lagarde said, ‘it is most likely going to be a new economy, which will be associated with positive developments and also with challenges.’ Many advanced economies, she noted, particularly in Europe, have jumped forward in terms of digitalisation, some by up to seven years.
Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, has called for continued support for the digital-centred, post-pandemic economy. | Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
She added that it is likely that there will be a 20% increase in the amount of people working from home post-pandemic, which will have an impact on many economies, and claimed that technological changes are already having positive effects. She said that it is critical to continue ‘favouring and supporting investment into this new economy’ and that on the fiscal and monetary policy front, authorities will have to stay the course and continue to support. At the same time, investment will have to be focused on laying the ground for a new economy.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (EC), agreed about the increase in digitalisation, and reported that the EU hopes ‘the 2020s can finally be Europe’s Digital Decade’, highlighting a number of investments to boost this process, including the startup scenes in cities such as Sofia and Lisbon.
However, she warned that there is a ‘darker side of the digital world,’ noting the assault on Capitol Hill in the US and making clear that ‘The immense power of the big digital companies must be contained. She spoke of the EC's plans ‘to make internet companies take responsibility for content, from dissemination to promotion and removal, and highlighted the Commission’s new rulebooks, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, believes the 2020s can be Europe’s ‘Digital Decade’. | Credit: John Smith Williams / Shutterstock.com
She invited the US to work together to: ‘Create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: it goes from data protection and privacy to the security of critical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: Human rights and pluralism, inclusion and the protection of privacy.’
Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO, made a noteworthy intervention in his panel discussion, claiming, ‘There has been a mantra for too long that the business of business is business, but today the business of business is improving the state of the world.’ He added that, while there were many CEOs who had been ‘bad actors,’ others had used their considerable resources to help fight the pandemic.
Many speakers noted a shift towards sustainability in investments, with others demanding more change and faster. Of the latter, Mark Carney, Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance to the UN, said bluntly, ‘if you are part of the private financial sector and you are not part of the solution […] you will have made the conscious decision not to be aligned to net zero […] if you’re not in, you’re out because you chose to be out.’
It could be concluded that there was a great deal to feel positive about, but the circumstances are difficult. Now we will see whether the attendees of the World Economic Forum can deliver on their inspiring rhetoric.
The conference ‘Feeding the future: can we protect crops sustainably?’ was a tremendous success from the point of view of the technical content. The outcomes have been summarised in a series of articles here. How did such an event come about and what can we learn about putting on an event like this in a world of Covid?
This event was born from two parents. The first was a vision and the second was collaboration.
The vision began in the SCI Agrisciences committee. We had organised a series of events in the previous few years, all linking to the general theme of challenges to overcome in food sustainability. Our events had dealt with the use of data, the challenge of climate change and the future of livestock production. Our intention was to build on this legacy using the International Year of Plant Health as inspiration and provide a comprehensive event, at the SCI headquarters in London, covering every element of crop protection and what it will look like in the future. We wanted to make a networking hub, a place to share ideas and make connections, where new lines of research and development would be sparked into life. Well, then came Covid…
2020 is the International Year of Plant Health.
From the start, we knew in the Agrisciences group that this was going to be too much for us alone. Our first collaboration was within the SCI, the Horticulture Group and the Food Group. Outside of the SCI, we wanted collaborators who are research-active, with wide capabilities and people who really care about the future of crop protection. Having discussed a few options, we approached the Institute of Agriculture and Food Research and Innovation, IAFRI and later Crop Health and Protection, CHAP.
By February 2020, we had our full team of organisers and about half of our agenda all arranged. By March we didn’t know what to do, delay or virtualise? The debate went back and forth for several weeks as we all got to grips with the true meaning of lockdown. When we chose to virtualise, suddenly we had to relearn all we knew about organising events. Both CHAP and SCI started running other events and building up their experience. With this experience came sound advice on what makes a good event: Don’t let it drag; Keep everything snappy; Make sure that your speakers are the very best; Firm and direct chairing. We created a whole new agenda, based around these ideas.
How do you replicate those chance meetings facilitated by face-to-face events?
That still left one problem: how do you reproduce those extra bits that you get in a real conference? Those times in the coffee queue when you happen across your future collaborator? Maybe your future business partner is looking at the same poster as you are? It is a bit like luck, but facilitated.
We resolved this conundrum with four informal parallel sessions. So we still had student posters but in the form of micro-presentations. We engineered discussions between students and senior members of our industry. We tried to recreate a commercial exhibition where you watched as top companies showed off their latest inventions. For those who would love to go on a field trip, we offered virtual guided tours of some of the research facilities operated by CHAP.
Can virtual conferences take the place of real ones? They are clearly not the same, as nothing beats looking directly into someone’s eyes. But on the plus side, they are cheaper to put on and present a lower barrier for delegates to get involved. I am looking forward to a post-Covid world when we can all meet again, but in the meantime we can put on engaging and exciting events that deliver a lot of learning and opportunity in a virtual space.Feeding the Future was organised by:
In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, an international group of researchers are urging countries to reconsider their strategy to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While countries signed up to the Paris Agreement have individual quotas to meet in terms of emissions reduction, they argue this cannot be achieved without global cooperation to ensure enough CO2 is removed in a fair and equitable way.
The team of international researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Girona, ETH Zürich and the University of Cambridge, have stated that countries with greater capacity to remove CO2 should be more proactive in helping those that cannot meet their quotas.
Co-author Dr Niall Mac Dowell, from the Centre for Environmental Policy and the Centre for Process Systems Engineering at Imperial, said, ‘It is imperative that nations have these conversations now, to determine how quotas could be allocated fairly and how countries could meet those quotas via cross-border cooperation.’
The team’s modelling and research has shown that while the removal quotas vary significantly, only a handful of countries will have the capacity to meet them using their own resources.
A few ways to achieve carbon dioxide removal:
(3) CCS coupled to bioenergy – growing crops to burn for fuel. The crops remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and the CCS captures any CO2 from the power station before its release.
However, deploying these removal strategies will vary depending on the capabilities of different countries. The team have therefore suggested a system of trading quotas. For example, due to the favourable geological formations in the UK’s North Sea, the UK has space for CCS, and therefore, they could sell some of its capacity to other countries.
Co-lead author Dr Carlos Pozo from the University of Girona, concluded; ‘By 2050, the world needs to be carbon neutral - taking out of the atmosphere as much CO2 as it puts in. To this end, a CO2 removal industry needs to be rapidly scaled up, and that begins now, with countries looking at their responsibilities and their capacity to meet any quotas.’
In this round-up we will be looking at some of the developments and challenges surrounding artificial intelligence.
Development and Collaborations
The Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) has launched its Artificial Intelligence (AI) Observatory, which aims to help countries encourage, nurture and monitor the responsible development of trustworthy AI systems for the benefit of society.
The Observatory works with policy communities across and beyond the OECD - from the digital economy and science and technology policy, to employment, health, consumer protection, education and transport policy – considering the opportunities and challenges posed by current and future AI developments in a coherent, holistic manner.
The AI Observatory is being built on evidence-based analysis and provides a centre for the collection and sharing of information on AI, leveraging the OECD’s reputation for measurement methodologies. The Observatory will also engage a wide spectrum of stakeholders from the technical community, the private sector, academia, civil society and other international organisations, providing a hub for dialogue and collaboration.
According to a report produced by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Health and The McKinsey Centre for Government (MCG), AI can increase productivity and the efficiency of care delivery, allowing healthcare systems to provide better outcomes for patients.
The WHO estimates that by 2030 the world will be short of 9.9 million doctors, nurses and midwives, which adds to the challenges faced by an already overburdened healthcare system. Supporting the widespread adoption and scaling of AI could help alleviate this shortfall, the report says, by streamlining or even eliminating administrative tasks, which can occupy up to 70% of a healthcare professional’s time.
The issues highlighted, among others, means that ‘AI is now ‘top-of-mind’ for healthcare decision makers, governments, investors and innovators and the EU itself,’ the report states.₁
To fully unlock the potential and capabilities of AI, there is an urgent need to attract and up-skill a generation of data-literate healthcare professionals.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is influencing larger trends in global sustainability. Many communities in developing nations do not have access to clean water, which impacts health and has economic and environmental implications.
AI has the capacity and ability to adapt and process large amounts of data in real time. This makes it an ideal tool for managing water resource, whereby utility managers can maximise current revenue, effectively forecasting and planning for the years ahead.
Currently, the development of AI is accelerating, but legal and ethical guidelines are yet to be implemented. In order to prepare the future generations of business leaders and national and international policy makers, the academic community will be playing a large role in this.
For more information, click here.
Batteries have an important role as energy sources with environmental advantages. They offset the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels or nuclear-based power; they are also recyclable. These attributes have led to increasing research with the aim of improving battery design and environmental impact, particularly regarding their end of life. In addition, there is a desire to improve battery safety as well as design batteries from more sustainable and less toxic materials.
New research shows that aluminium battery could offer several advantages:
Aluminium metal anode batteries could hold promise as an environmentally friendly and sustainable replacement for the current lithium battery technology. Among aluminium’s benefits are its abundance, it is the third most plentiful element the Earth’s crust.
To date aluminium anode batteries have not moved into commercial use, mainly because using graphite as a cathode leads to a battery with an energy content which is too low to be useful.
This is promising for future research and development of aluminium as well as other metal-organic batteries.
New UK battery project is said to be vital for balancing the country’s electricity demand
Work has begun on what is said to be Europe’s biggest battery. The 100MW Minety power storage project, which is being built in southwest England, UK, will comprise two 50MW battery storage systems. The project is backed by China Huaneng Group and Chinese sovereign wealth fund CNIC.
Shell Energy Europe Limited (SEEL) has agreed a multi-year power offtake agreement which will enable the oil and gas major, along with its recently acquired subsidiary Limejump, to optimise the use of renewable power in the area.
In a statement David Wells, Vice President of SEEL said ‘Projects like this will be vital for balancing the UK’s electricity demand and supply as wind and solar power play bigger roles in powering our lives.
The major hurdles for battery design, states the EU’s document, include finding suitable materials for electrodes and electrolytes that will work well together, not compromise battery design, and meet the sustainability criteria now required. The process is trial and error, but progress is being made.
For more information, click here.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on Nickel.
Nickel, a silvery-white lustrous metal with a slight golden tinge may be commonly known as a US five cent coin, however, today nickel is one of the most widely used metals. According to the Nickel Institute, the metal is used in over 300,000 various products. It is also commonly used as a catalyst for hydrogeneration, cathodes for batteries and metal surface treatments.
Nickel in batteries:
Historically, nickel has been widely used in batteries; nickel cadmium (NiCd) and in nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries. These batteries were used in power tools and early digital cameras. Their success as batteries in portable devices became a stepping stone that led to the significant use of NiMH batteries in car vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius.
The demand for nickel will increase even further as we move away from fossil fuel energy. More energy wll need to be stored in the cathode part of lithium-ion batteries as a result.
Socio-economic data on nickel demonstrates the importance the nickel value chain has on industries, which includes mining through end use to recycling.
The data reflects that globally, the nickel value chain supports a large number of jobs, primarily ones in manufacturing and chemical engineering. The output generated by nickel related industries is approximately €130bn, providing around 750,000 jobs.
Nickel is fully recyclable without its qualities being downgraded, making it very sustainable. It is difficult to destroy and its qualities – corrosion resistance, high-temperature stability, strength, recyclability, and catalytic and electromagnetic properties are enabling qualities required for sustainability.
Congratulations to Hallam Wheatley, voted Young Ambassador of 2019/2020!
Can you tell us about your early involvement in the chemical industry?
My career in the chemical industry began at the age of 18 as an advanced apprentice. I spent two years completing my laboratory-based apprenticeship with Lotte Chemical on Teesside, where my passion for chemistry really materialised. Applying chemical principles into the world of work gave me a great appreciation for just how big a role chemistry plays in our everyday lives. After finishing my apprenticeship, I began studying part-time, for my degree in Chemistry.
Can you tell about your work as a research chemist?
In 2017, I began working in SABIC’s research department, this really put me on the front line of the innovative technology that is being developed in the world today. As a research chemist, my main responsibilities revolve around supporting SABIC’s assets, and any chemistry related issues they may have. During my time, that’s mainly revolved around catalyst research. When I’m not helping with plant support, I work on sustainability issues, that will help answer some of the world’s toughest questions, relating to the chemical recycling of plastic waste, or helping to implement a hydrogen economy, to help reduce carbon emissions.
How do you feel to be named Young Ambassador of the year?
I was in shock when my name was called! The standard of applicants was really high, so to be named the Young Ambassador this year was a real honour.
I do feel that the award won’t mean a thing if I don’t make the most of my time as the Young Ambassador. It’s important to carry on the great work from last year and try and help the Future Forum continue to grow.
I know that task won’t be easy, but it’s really great that a lot of the short-listed finalists, have agreed to join the Leadership team this year, so I’m really excited to work with them, and I’m excited for the year ahead!
What are your plans for the year ahead as Young Ambassador and with the Future Forum?
As Young Ambassador, I’m really hoping to continue the great work that Jennifer did last year. I want to build up a resource to help Future Forum members old and new alike.
I think it’s important that as a network we communicate effectively with each other to not only get an understanding of how young people are feeling in the industry, but also to identify some of the challenges their facing, as well as offering support from within the network.
I want to make the Future Forum something that people want to join, not because it looks good on a CV, but because it will offer people real opportunities to develop and network. This won’t be easy, but through help from Jennifer and this year’s Leadership Team, I think we’ll be able to lay strong foundations, so that moving forward, to Future Forum can be more than just a young professional networking platform.
What advice would you give someone starting out their career as a research chemist?
Look around!! Whilst I knew that I had a passion for Chemistry, I wasn’t so sold on the idea of university at 18 and after college. I decided to see what my best route into the industry that was on my doorstep was, and I was fortunate enough to find an apprenticeship that suited me. The apprenticeship gave me the grounding knowledge and understanding to progress, and two years later, I felt ready to tackle the challenge of a degree.
I do know, that whilst the apprenticeship route worked for me, it won’t work for everyone, but I think it’s important that students of all ages understand that there’s multiple choices that they may not have heard. Over the coming year, I’m hoping to use the Future Forum as a tool to best showcase some of the options to get a career within the Chemical Industry.
One thing I would recommend for all students though, is email local chemical companies, ask HR departments for advice about careers, and ask about the opportunities to come in and shadow, even if it’s only for a day! You’ll learn a lot, but you never know what it might lead to!
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on sodium and its role in the next series of innovative nuclear energy systems.
Sodium; the sixth most abundant element on the planet is being considered as a crucial part of nuclear reactors. Implementing new safety levels in reactors is crucial as governments are looking for environmentally friendly, risk-free and financially viable reactors. Therefore, ensuring new safety levels is a main challenge that is being tackled by many industries and projects.
In the wake of Fukushima, several European nations and a number of U.S plants have shut down and switched off their ageing reactors in order to eliminate risk and safety hazards.
The sodium- cooled fast reactor (SFR), a concept pioneered in the 1950s in the U.S, is one of the nuclear reactors developed to operate at higher temperatures than today’s reactors and seems to be the viable nuclear reactor model. The SFR’s main advantage is that it can burn unwanted byproducts including uranium, reducing the need for storage. In the long run, this is deemed cost-competitive as it can produce power without having to use new natural uranium.
Nuclear reactor. Source: Hallowhalls
However, using sodium also presents challenges. When sodium comes into contact with air, it burns and when it is mixed with water, it is explosive. To prevent sodium from mixing with water, nitrogen - driven turbines are in the process of being designed as a solution to this problem.
A European Horizon 2020 Project, ESFR-SMART project (European Sodium Fast Reactor Safety Measures Assessment and Research Tools), launched in September 2017, aims to improve the safety of Generation-IV Sodium Fast Reactors (SFR). This project hopes to prove the safety of new reactors and secure its future role in Europe. The new reactor is designed to be able to reprocess its own waste, act more reliably in operation, more environmentally friendly and more affordable. It is hoped that this reactor will be considered as one of the SFR options by Generation IV International Forum (GIF), who are focused on finding new reactors with safety, reliability and sustainability as just some of their main priorities.
European Horizon. Source: artjazz
Globally, the SFR is deemed an attractive energy source, and developments are ongoing, endeavouring to meet the future energy demands in a cost-competitive way.
In an era of glass and steel construction, wood may seem old-school. But researchers are currently saying its time to give timber a makeover and bring to use a material that is able to store and release heat.
Transparent wood could be the construction material of choice for eco-friendly houses of the future, after researchers have now created an even more energy efficient version that not only transmits light but also absorbs and releases heat, potentially saving on energy bills.
Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reported in 2019 that they would add polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to the formulation to stabilise the wood.
PEG can go really deep into the wood cells and store and release heat. Known as a phase change material, PEG is a solid that melts at 80°F – storing energy in the process. This process reverses at night when the PEG re-solidifies, turning the window glass opaque and releasing heat to maintain a constant temperature in the house.
Transparent wood for windows and green architecture. Video: Wise Wanderer
In principle, a whole house could be made from the wooden window glass, which is due to the property of PEG. The windows could be adapted for different climates by simply tailoring the molecular weight of the PEG, to raise or lower its melting temperature depending on the location.
Engineers say they have demonstrated a cost-effective way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The extracted CO2 could be used to make new fuels or go to storage.
The process of direct air capture (DAC) involves giant fans drawing ambient air into contact with an aqueous solution that traps CO2 . Through heating and several chemical reactions, CO2 is re-extracted and ready for further use.
‘The carbon dioxide generated via DAC can be combined with sequestration for carbon removal, or it can enable the production of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons, which is a way to take low-cost carbon-free power sources like solar or wind and channel them into fuels to decarbonise the transportation sector,’ said David Keith, founder of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian clean fuels enterprise, and a Professor of Physics at Harvard University, US.
Fuel from the Air – Sossina Haile. Video: TEDx Talks
DAC is not new, but its feasibility has been disputed. Now, Carbon Engineering reports how its pilot plant in British Columbia has been using standard industrial equipment since 2015. Keith’s team claims that a 1 Mt- CO2 /year DAC plant will cost $94-$232/ton of CO2 captured. Previous theoretical estimates have ranged up to $1000/ton.
In May 2018, the EU proposed a single-use plastics ban intended to protect the environment, save consumers money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the new laws, the EU aims for all plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025, and non-recyclable single-use items such as straws, cutlery, and cotton buds to be banned.
An ambitious step – and arguably necessary – but there is no denying that plastics are extremely useful, versatile and important materials, playing a role in countless applications.
The World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep: How To Reduce Our Impact. Video: TIME
The challenge to science, industry and society is to keep developing, producing and using materials with the essential properties offered by the ubiquitous oil-based plastics of today – but improving the feedstocks and end-of-life solutions, and ensuring that consumers use and dispose of products responsibly.
A number of innovative solutions have been proposed to help plastics move towards a more sustainable future.
A sweet solution
Deothymidine is one of four nucleosides that make up the structure of DNA. Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr
‘Chemists have 100 years’ experience with using petrochemicals as a raw material, so we need to start again using renewable feedstocks like sugars as a base for synthetic but sustainable materials,’ said Dr Antoine Buchard, a Whorrod Research Fellow at the University of Bath, UK.
Dr Buchard leads a group at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the University of Bath that are searching for a sustainable solution for single-use plastics. Using nature as their inspiration, the team have developed a plastic derived from thymidine – the sugar found in DNA – and CO2.
Blue dye, in this cross-section of a maize cob, highlights the rice gene that controls T6P in the kernels’ phloem. Image: Rothamsted Research
Through the introduction of a rice gene, scientists have produced a maize plant that harvests more kernels per plant – even in periods of drought.
The rice gene expressed depresses levels of a natural chemical, trehalose 6 -phosphate (T6P), in the phloem of the transgenic maize plant. T6P is responsible for the distribution of sucrose in the plant.
Lowering levels of T6P in the phloem, an essential track in the plant’s transportation system, allows more sucrose to be channelled to the developing kernels of the plant. As a result of increased levels of sucrose in this area of the maize plant, more kernels are produced.
Drought is an increasing problem in countries such as Uganda. Image: Hannah Longhole
‘These structures are particularly sensitive to drought – female kernels will abort,’ said Matthew Paul, team leader and plant biochemist at Rothamsted Research, UK. ‘Keeping sucrose flowing within the structures prevents this abortion.’
The transatlantic team, from Rothamsted and biotechnology company Syngenta in the US, built on field tests published three years ago that demonstrated increased productivity of the same genetically-modified maize.
‘This is a first-in-its-kind study that shows the technology operating effectively both in the field and in the laboratory,’ said Paul.
Maize growing on world’s oldest experiment, Broadbalk field at Rothamsted Research. Image: Rothamsted Research
Drought is becoming an increasing problem for developing countries, where the economic and social impacts are most evident.
Maize, also known as corn, and other cereals are relied on heavily across these nations due to their low cost and high nutritional value, with rice, maize, and wheat used for 60% of the global food energy intake.
The results of these trials are promising, and the team believe this work could be transferred to wheat and rice plants, as well as other cereals, said Paul.
As another phenomenal Sir David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary draws to a close, many in the UK will be wondering what to do with themselves. The long-awaited Blue Planet II brought viewers on an enchanting journey through the oceans, with jaw-dropping photography capturing this hidden world, from the darkest depths to coral reefs and coasts.
In the final episode, we met Dr Jon Copley, who is Associate Professor in Ocean Exploration & Public Engagement at the University of Southampton. Jon was scientific advisor for Episode 2 (The Deep), which included providing some of the footage shown of deep-sea vent animals, from NERC research projects he was involved with.
Dr Jon Copley pictured during the Blue Planet II expedition to the Antarctic. Image: Jon Copley
Jon also took part in a month-long shoot in the Antarctic, which was shown in the incredible opening of The Deep episode, where Jon and his fellow researchers travelled in a minisub 1km deep into the Antarctic ocean.
We caught up with Jon to find out about the real-world benefits of exploring our oceans, why communicating science matters, and more.
SCI: Some 16 years after the first Blue Planet series was broadcast, viewers were given the opportunity to visit the deep Antarctic ocean in Blue Planet II. What are the challenges in sending a manned craft to the deep Antarctic?
JC: We’ve actually had the technology to explore the Antarctic deep sea with human-occupied vehicles for several decades – Cousteau went there in the early 1970s with his ‘flying saucer’ minisub, which had a depth limit of 400 metres.
But dives by human-occupied vehicles depend on a fairly narrow window of wind, sea, and ice conditions. So the cost of sending such technology to the Antarctic can be a gamble – there’s a risk of not getting many suitable days for sub dives.
Fortunately, better information from satellites monitoring wind, sea, and ice conditions throughout the area allows more careful and adaptive planning of operations – and we depended on that during the Blue Planet II expedition. By being able to choose dive targets in more protected areas, there were only a couple of days when conditions prevented us from launching the subs. And of course the experience and professionalism of the ship’s crew and sub team were key to that success.
SCI: What are the real-world benefits of exploring the deep oceans?
JC: We can learn from the ingenuity of nature in the deep ocean – for example, an antifreeze protein now synthesised to improve storage of ice cream products comes from a deep-sea eelpout fish; materials scientists are investigating the damage-resisting properties of the shell of the ‘scaly-foot snail’ (a new species that I was co-author in describing) to design better crash-helmets, body armour and pipeline protection; there’s a new treatment for early-stage prostate cancer based on the light-sensitive behaviour of bacteria from the ocean floor; and possibly even eye drops in development to treat night blindness, from studying how dragonfish hunt in the inky depths.
Eye drops inspired by the night-hunting dragonfish are under development to prevent night blindness. Image: Marcus Karlsson
SCI: What can we do in our daily lives to protect our oceans, and what role does industry have to play in this?
JC: We don’t each have to become paragons of virtue – just a simple change or two that we can easily make into new habits will help to make a difference for the future of our blue planet. Those changes can be things like carrying your own drinks mug with you instead of needing single-use cups, or getting the ‘sustainable fish app’ from the Marine Conservation Society to help to decide which fish to eat.
But it’s more challenging where our everyday lives are more connected to the oceans than we realise. For example, an average family car produces around 40 milligrams of microplastics per kilometre from tyre wear, and some of those microplastics inevitably end up in waterways and the ocean. So a public transport policy that gives people real alternatives to personal car use, in terms of cost and convenience, is also a policy for a healthy ocean. And employers who support teleworking where possible or appropriate are also actually supporting a healthier ocean.
Industry can play a vital role for ensuring healthy oceans by innovating products and processes that give us real choices and alternatives to old ways of doing things that we now know have an impact on the oceans. And I think we’re starting to see that there is real consumer demand for those choices and alternatives.
SCI: You co-founded SciConnect, a company to train scientists to share their research with the wider public. Do you think that scientists are more conscious today of the importance of communicating their science to a broad audience – and is the public more engaged with science?
JC: Being able to share specialist knowledge with people outside your specialism is essential for scientists to work with colleagues in different disciplines, interact with people in other roles across organisations, report to stakeholders and clients, inform policymakers and practitioners, engage with the media, inspire the next generation – if anything, it’s a more common activity in most scientific careers than just sharing research with peers in your own field. So I think that scientists today are very aware of the value of developing the underlying skills for all those applications.
But it’s a set of skills that are not routinely taught by experienced practitioners as part of scientific training, which is why I co-founded a company to do that, with colleagues who work day-to-day in science communication as writers, broadcasters, and presenters, and who have backgrounds in science so that they appreciate the needs and perspective of those they are training.
Fundamentally, engaging people with your research involves understanding your target audience – for example, the approach that you would take to inform policymakers about the consequences of a research finding is different to how you might try to inspire young people’s interest in science through your work, which makes us realise that there isn’t really a homogeneous ‘public’; outside our own area of specialism, we’re all members of ‘the public’ when it comes to finding out about research in another field.
SCI: Now that the Blue Planet II is over, how would you recommend bereft viewers fill the void?
JC: There are some great ways for anyone to continue pursuing their interest in marine life – for example, there’s the Capturing Our Coast project, which is building a nationwide community of volunteers who get together to survey shores, which helps to monitor changes in distributions of species around the UK.
The University of Southampton also runs a free ‘Massive Open Online Course’ about Exploring Our Oceans, which covers the history, science, and relevance of the oceans to our everyday lives. It’s not a formal course, so there aren’t any exams, and no science background is required – just an interest in finding out more about our ocean world.
So, there you have it – from crash helmets to cancer treatments, exploring the deep allows us not only to learn more about the blue planet, but to improve life for us landlubbers, too!
If you’re interested in learning about how our water and waste is analysed and treated, SCI’s Environment, Health and Safety group is running this event at our London headquarters in March 2018. Early bird fees available until 30 January.
In the developed world, we have seen huge steps in prioritising our environment. The UK are just one of the many nations setting an example for a greener lifestyle, after they announced a diesel and petrol car ban on all UK roads by 2040. Worldwide, countries are introducing hefty fines to companies for irresponsible and harmful acts against the environment, which include deforestation and pollution.
It is hard to forget the BP Deepwater Horizon spill that devastated the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which killed 11 people and harmed or killed 82,000 birds, 6,165 sea turtles, and 25,900 marine animals. At the time BP’s CEO Tony Hayward said the spill was ‘relatively tiny’ compared to the ‘very big ocean’; 205.8m gallons of oil was spilled.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster was the worst marine oil spill in history. Image: US Department of Defense
In 2015, BP were told to pay a record $18.7bn fine to the US justice department and the five effected US states – Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – that sued the company for damages after the spill. The settlement is being used to fund clean-up projects. However, fines cannot be the only way to enforce environmental measures on companies, as the system does not always succeed.
One of the biggest hurdles in promoting sustainability and environmentalism is teaching industry how they can remain working productively, but in an environmentally-conscious and responsible way, as too often compromises to become greener are easily ignored. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect companies to completely reinvent their daily operations, so experts need to provide realistic steps that industry can take to become greener.
Encouraging corporate sustainably is no purely a question of morality but a sensible business move. Evidence shows that 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for goods made sustainably and companies who show a commitment to the environment have also seen a global growth of 4% in sales compared to 1% of organisations who do not identify as environmentally-friendly.
Setting the standard
Unilever, whose brands include Dove and Magnum, are at the forefront of this movement. An industry giant in food and beverages, cleaning products, and toiletries, Unilever have made sustainability a part of its corporate identity.
Unilever are leading industry into a greener future. Video: Unilever
The company’s Sustainable Living Plan has surpassed industry standards. They have developed a sustainable agriculture programme that helps farmers and suppliers worldwide increase their productivity while respecting the environment they work in, as well as aiming towards a ‘circular economy’ within Unilever that will reduce waste by recycling materials to be used in other parts of the supply chain.
The company’s efforts were recognised in 2015 by the United Nations, who presented Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, with its Champion of the Earth Award for ‘his ambitious vision and personal commitment to sustainability.’
Plastic collects at the mouth of the Los Angeles River, California, US. Image: Plastic Pollution Coalition@Flickr
One of the core aims of Unilever’s circular economy is to use 100% recyclable plastic packaging by 2025, a step that has pleased researchers. ‘At the current rate, we are really heading towards a plastic planet,’ says Rolan Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California, US, whose paper on the fate of all plastics over time hit headlines this year.
Of the 9.1bn tons made so much by industry, nearly 7bn is no longer used and only 9% has been recycled, the study reports. ‘The growth is astonishing and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down soon,’ says Geyer.
As the old adage goes, one man’s trash is another’s treasure – but the saying extends much further than neighbourly recycling of unwanted furniture or a misjudged gift passed on to a friend. A process known as industrial symbiosis takes the idea of repurposing waste – as the name suggests – to an industrial scale.
The basic principle is satisfyingly simple. Two (or more) factories or process plants located nearby – for example, in an industrial park – use each other’s waste streams as fuel, thus reducing waste and cost for both. In an age where industries measure their success in both economic and environmental performance, it’s easy to see how that appeals to business.
Putting it into practice, though, is not quite so easy.
For a start, there’s the issue of corporate sensitivity. How can one company trust another with specific details of its energy, material and heat needs and, even more so, the makeup of its waste?
Kalundborg in Denmark is one of several locations where industrial symbiosis is bringing different industries together to share resources.
Project EPOS – a four-year EU Horizon 2020-funded project – has come up with a workaround. The project’s PhD researchers have developed blueprints for each energy-intensive sector within the project’s scope – chemicals, cement, steel, minerals, and engineering – allowing companies to share a generic view of their sector’s heat, electricity, and material stream profiles with other companies, scaled to their size, without divulging their site-specific secrets.
Professor Greet Van Eetvelde and PhD researcher Helene Cervo explain the EPOS Project.
‘It started with INEOS, where we had a willingness to share our results, to share what we are doing, but not to share our data […] these blueprints are the heart of the toolbox,’ EPOS Project Coordinator, Professor Greet Van Eetvelde explained at a recent briefing on EPOS in Hull, UK. Through access to these blueprints, chief engineers and plant managers can identify opportunities to make best use of their industrial neighbours’ waste streams.
Three companies operating in northeast-England’s Humber Estuary – INEOS, CEMEX and Omya – in the petrochemical, cement, and minerals sectors, respectively – are the first in the UK set to implement the initiative, following research by PhD students based in the UK, Switzerland, Belgium, and France. The wider EPOS project includes clusters in France, Switzerland, and Poland, with ArcelorMittal and Veolia, five SMEs, and two research institutes – École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, and Ghent University, Belgium – completing the partnership.
Overview of the EPOS project.
Currently, INEOS sends waste liquid fuel to its utility provider to produce steam to be fed back into INEOS, while CEMEX derives 20% of its fuel from primary sources – presenting an opportunity for CEMEX to increase its secondary fuel proportion by re-using the waste from INEOS.
In this example, waste liquid fuel from INEOS is separated into acid and high-calorific organic components. The latter can then be delivered directly to CEMEX for use as a fuel, while the former can be fed back into INEOS’ process.
The researchers estimate that this will deliver equivalent savings of 1,200–1,400 tonnes of CO2 per year. It requires initial investment from both companies, but a payback timeline estimates that the process will break even and then continue to deliver savings in just two years for INEOS and three for CEMEX.
It requires initial investment from both companies, but a payback timeline estimates that the process will break even and then continue to deliver savings in just two years for INEOS and three for CEMEX.
The WISP programme in South Africa is another example of industrial symbiosis in action.
Before INEOS and CEMEX can begin their industrial symbiosis, however, new permits will be required – some materials currently classified as hazardous waste will require reclassification to be transported and re-used. Professor Van Eetvelde told SCI that it is not investments that will hamper the implementation of EPOS, but waste legislation, which presents different challenges regionally. ‘We need policymakers to come with us,’ she said.
Cellular agriculture involves making food from cell cultures in bioreactors. The products are chemically identical to meat and dairy products, and it’s claimed they have the same taste and texture.
The technology is an attractive option because it would reduce the world’s reliance on livestock, which is unsustainable, and would have potential knock-on benefits of lower greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced water, land, and energy usage than traditional farming.
IndieBio helps biotechnology start-ups. Since 2014, it has funded several new US-based businesses in cellular agriculture: Perfect Day, formerly Muufri, makes milk from cell culture; Clara Foods is developing a way to make egg whites from cell culture; and Memphis Meats is focusing on animal-free meat using tissue engineering.
Growth is driven by the clear benefits this technology can offer, says Ron Sigeta, IndieBio’s Chief Scientific Officer. ‘It takes 144 gallons of water to make a gallon of milk or 53 gallons of water to make an egg. Cellular agriculture products don’t require such large water supplies, or large tracts of land, or produce the same level of greenhouse gas emissions.’
Salmonella bacteria are not present in cell-cultured milk so there is no risk of infection. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Food safety is also a significant issue. ‘Cellular agriculture makes products in an entirely controlled environment so it’s a source of food we can understand with a transparency that is simply not possible now,’ says Sigeta. For example, raw, unpasteurised milk can carry bacteria, such as salmonella, which is not a problem for Perfect Day’s milk as there are no bacteria-carrying animals are involved.
So how does it work?
Cellular agriculture products can be acellular – made of organic molecules like proteins and fats – or cellular – made of living or once-living cells.
Meat industry critics argue that it is not sustainable and lab-grown meat is the future. Video: Eater
Acellular products are made without using microbes like yeast or similar bacteria. Scientists alter the yeast by inserting the gene responsible for making the desired protein. Since all cells read the same genetic code, the yeast, now carrying recombinant DNA, makes the protein molecularly identical to the protein an animal makes.
Other products like meat and leather are produced by a cellular approach. Using tissue engineering techniques muscle, fat or skin cells can be assembled on a scaffold with nutrients. The cells can be grown in large quantities and then combined to make the product.
The first cultured beef patty was made in 2013. Image: Public Domain Pictures
Mark Post at Maastricht University, the Netherlands, made the first cultured beef hamburger in 2013 using established tissue engineering methods to grow cow muscle cells. The process, however, was expensive and time-consuming, but his team has been working on improvements.
‘We are focusing on hamburgers because our process results in small tissues that are large enough for minced meat applications, which accounts for half of the meat market. To make a steak, one would need to impose a larger 3D structure to the cells to grow in.
‘It is very important that such a structure contains a channel system to perfuse the nutrients and oxygen through to the developing tissue and to remove waste as a result of metabolic activity. This technology is being developed, but is not yet ready for large scale production.’
Surveys have shown that the public are behind genetically engineered meat alternatives. Image: Ben Amstutz@Flickr
Commercial challenges include finding a cost-effective medium for cell nutrition developing a bioreactor for industrial scale production. Public perception may also be a challenge: Will people buy synthetically engineered food?
A recent crowdfunding campaign shows the global massive support for the idea of clean meat, says Koby Barak, SuperMeat’s chief operating officer and co-founder. However, he believes these will be overcome shortly, and it will not be long before companies see ‘massive funding’ in this field and the creation of clean meat factories worldwide.