Welcome to the first in this series from the SCI Energy Group – we’ll be blogging regularly on topics of broad interest across the energy spectrum.
Andy Walker, Chair of the SCI Energy Group.
I’m Andy Walker, and I have the privilege of chairing the Energy Group, which comprises members drawn from industry, research institutes, universities, energy policy bodies, R&D organisations and scientific publishers. We meet regularly to discuss and organise events around the changing energy landscape, exploring challenges and opportunities associated with the clean energy transition.
We inform and influence climate change dialogue and policy in the UK and further afield, by taking a fact-based approach to the challenges and potential solutions, with the ultimate aim of making the global energy system sustainable. We do this by bringing together experts, influencers and other interested parties from across the technology, social science and policy landscape within industry, academia and government. In this way, the SCI Energy Group offers thought leadership, insight and debate around the clean energy transition.
Recently, the Energy Group Committee visited Imperial College London and were given a fascinating tour of the carbon capture and storage pilot plant, which Committee member Alex Bowles had very kindly organised. This was a really interesting visit, hosted by Dr Colin Hale and several enthusiastic and knowledgeable chemical engineering students, focused on the critical role that the capture and long-term storage (and utilisation) of CO2 will play within the clean energy transition. We learned that carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) can play four critical roles in the transition to net zero:
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the amount of CO2 captured and stored annually in their Sustainable Development Scenario rises to around 9.5 Gt per year by 2070, with another 0.9 Gt CO2 captured and used to make, for example, fuels and chemicals. (Note that a Gigatonne (Gt) is one billion metric tonnes).
IEA, Growth in world CO2 capture by source and period in the Sustainable Development Scenario, 2020-2070, IEA, Paris. Licence: CC BY 4.0
The Energy Group plans to visit several other sites of interest in the coming months, including Drax and the Energy Innovation Centre in Birmingham, so look out for updates from these future visits.
Our next blog will relate to a recent workshop on Energy Storage, which we organised with strong support from Innovate UK/Knowledge Transfer Network. We brought in representatives from industry, academia, government and the finance sector to discuss this broad topic and to identify the key challenges, as well as outline some key policy questions for the government.
We chose this topic because energy storage is a critical part of the clean energy transition, as the world moves towards an increasing dependency on renewable sources of energy, which are inherently intermittent, yet it doesn’t receive enough attention and support from governments around the world. We’re sure you’ll find the outputs from this workshop very interesting!
Vikki Callaghan, Packaging Project Manager, BASF plc
Tony Heslop, Senior Sustainability Manager, BASF plc
Scott Winston, CEO Pulpex Ltd
Could you start by explaining how the collaboration and the idea for the product came about?
Vikki: We had an existing relationship with Diageo. BASF and The Innovation Team at Diageo had worked on other projects addressing packaging needs. When the team had this idea for an innovative packaging solution they came to us. The challenge put to us was ‘Do you have the chemistry that will hold many different liquids in a paper pulp bottle?’ I love a challenge and was excited to get talking.
Scott: Having worked with BASF before, they were our natural choice to explore this conundrum. Diageo had the idea and an early proof-of-concept of a paper bottle, but it wasn’t utilising sustainable chemistry. The intellectual property was in place but the transformation of scientific proof-of-principle to scaled commercialised technology wasn’t something that could be done alone. The partnership with BASF naturally continued into Pulpex as it formed and continued to grow, remarkably, throughout the Covid-19 lockdown. BASF’s corporate purpose to create chemistry for a sustainable future was intrinsically aligned to meet our need to deliver a commercialisable product that could be produced at scale.
Tony: Following that first call in November 2019, we got together a couple of weeks later and enjoyed an intense deep dive workshop. This was going to take some time but if successful we knew this could be an impactful innovation. We set to work!
Testing out their bottle in the lab. Image courtesy of Pulpex Ltd.
What hurdles did you overcome in the development of the material?
Tony: The obvious hurdle was the pandemic. There were two years between our first and second face-to-face meeting. My initial thought was how do you drive an innovation process when you can’t get together. Surely constructive and productive collaboration isn’t possible? In fact, the inability to travel meant that we could talk more frequently despite our different geographical locations. Once we’d set up weekly online meetings, which evolved into smaller specialist break out groups, the process actually had many positives and the relationships, as well as the innovation, flourished.
Vikki: Of course, as with any innovation, we experienced technical challenges, too. There was no overall solution because we were looking at very diverse requirements and specifications. Different brand owners with different liquids meant there were many considerations and customised solutions required.
Sustainable packaging is a growing market with new products being launched. Can you explain where your product fits in and how is it different from similar materials?
Scott: Pulpex recognises the need to balance three critical aspects. Firstly, new packaging must continue to deliver established brand equity and meet consumer expectations on quality; secondly, any new packaging must technically deliver on performance through the supply chain starting with filling infrastructure compatibility and through distribution and critically, at end-of-life the packaging must be recyclable in existing infrastructure from collection to enable circularity, or where it does unfortunately escape to the environment, it must degrade and not leave an unintended legacy.
Vikki: The resulting fibre bottle is lightweight and offers brand owners a sustainable, environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic and glass bottles.
The final product. Image courtesy of Pulpex Ltd.
What are the main markets for the packaging? Are you able to comment on customers already using your product?
Tony: The innovation will be aimed at brand owners who want to have an alternative sustainable type of packaging, a product that is suitable for ‘on the go’ and that is easily recyclable through existing waste streams. The technology will hold a range of liquids from alcohol and detergent to shower gel, ketchup and engine oil.
Scott: Trials of the finished product have already started to take place with the most recent being at a corporate five-a-side football tournament at Wrexham AFC in May, where several hundred bottles were put to the test working with Severn Dee Water. Branded especially for the event and designed as a keepsake, the feedback from the public was resoundingly positive and it was great to see our bottles in action supporting those on the pitch.
What are the next steps for the BASF/Pulpex collaboration?
Scott: Having developed such a sustainable alternative packaging, our continuing sprint is scaling up! The technology has been developed and we are expecting to have bottles on shelves soon.
Vikki: We will have our ongoing quest of looking to hold a vast range of liquids and for different brand owners. We will have customised solutions, in different sizes, different shapes… the innovation and collaboration continues.
BASF and Pulpex won the SCI Innovation Enabled by Partnership Award 2023. Image credit: Andrew Lunn Photography
Links to previously published articles and videos (BASF/Pulpex/SCI)
CCU International will supply its carbon capture and refinement system to Flue2Chem – a project led by SCI and Unilever which aims to convert industrial waste gases to create more sustainable consumer products. We caught up with CCU International CEO, Beena Sharma, to talk about her career path, motivations and challenges.
Tell us about your career path to date
I joined the Oil & Gas industry after university and began my career as a behavioural safety specialist, specifically for the construction phase of oil and gas projects. Soon after I joined the industry, I was assigned to an LNG plant in Nigeria for training and experience and eventually ended up at a gas plant in Norway before I returned to the UK. With both a psychology and training background I found myself working within a health, safety and environmental remit for various industries including healthcare, construction, manufacturing, and even the tobacco industry.
Beena and colleague at a gas plant in Norway, 2004. Image credit: Beena Sharma
What made you want to work in science and the environmental technology sector in particular?
When I moved to Scotland six years ago it gave me the opportunity to explore the ‘E’ in Health, Safety and Environment further, which was an area that I was always interested in but rarely got the attention it deserved in the industries I worked in. I volunteered on a Scottish climate change project, and this led me to think more deeply about the scientific and technological advances that were needed to achieve net zero by 2045 in Scotland. I knew this was a huge challenge with education, and changes in habit alone could not solve it.
I began to research solutions for hard-to-abate industries and areas that were a challenge to decarbonise, and set up my first business focused on a novel approach to insulating legacy buildings. I then worked on setting up a group of companies that included a solar PV installation company as well as a cleantech business that utilised an electrolysis technology to ozonate tap water for disinfection.
I was invited by my now business partner to help launch a biotechnical business that could create a circular food economy, taking food waste and creating microalgae for use in industries such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and animal feed. This business incorporated 4 technologies, one of which was carbon capture. After some discussion with potential investors, it became clear that there was a huge interest and demand for carbon capture solutions. This led the team to decide to spin out CCU International as a separate entity and speed up the commercialisation of the technology which had been in development at the University of Sheffield under the lead of Peter Styring, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry.
Which aspects of your work motivate you the most?
The aspects of what I do that motivates me the most is the educational role that I play as the CEO of the business. I am regularly invited to speak on panels, podcasts, webinars and at conferences to share my knowledge with an industry that is transitioning and eager to learn, grow and incorporate new ways of thinking and doing things. It is extremely rewarding to see that people have come away from listening to me with a new perspective and being inspired to go away, take that learning, incorporate it in their ways of working and become innovators themselves.
According to the UN, carbon capture will be a key technology in achieving net zero. It is extremely rewarding to know that the CCU International technology will be a major contributor to this goal and that we can enable decarbonisation with the technology usage across multiple industries, both large and small, which otherwise would not have been possible.
What have been the biggest challenges for you as an entrepreneur?
As an entrepreneur my biggest challenge has been establishing myself in an industry and environment that is not well represented by women, and in particular women of colour. Often, it comes as a surprise to many that I would be heading up such a business and unfortunately many biases still exist within all genders and backgrounds. It makes it that extra bit harder and there can be a requirement to prove oneself as credible through knowledge or capability before the respect is given.
Image credit: Beena Sharma
The other big challenge has been around the education we provide for all our stakeholders. Innovation is not always welcome, especially in an industry or area where it may seem innovation is not needed. As the saying goes, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’, so stakeholders tend not to realise there is a problem until we educate them on the solution! And not many can accept there may be a better way of doing things than what they themselves have been doing for years!
What would be your top piece of advice for anyone thinking of starting up their own SME?
Starting up in business is a step that many think about doing but very few actually do. Most would be led to believe that you would need to work for months, maybe years on market research, business planning, strategy etc. before starting a business. My one piece of advice would be to start. Most of what you learn will come from doing. It is essential for entrepreneurs to fail, make the mistakes and learn what not to do next time so you have a better chance of success going forward. Many successful businesses emerge from failure.
What is it about the Flue2Chem project that is unique, what made you want to get involved, and what is the potential difference this project could make?
The Flue2Chem project is aimed at converting industrial waste gases into sustainable materials for use in consumer products. What is unique about the Flue2Chem project is that organisations that would normally be competitors have come together to find a solution for a problem that affects us all – as people, as businesses and as a planet. It is rare to see such cross-industry collaboration on this level and this allows both cross-learning and inspires others to come together, collaborate and innovate to solve problems that affect us all, much like the Flue2Chem project. It is a privilege to be part of the project by contributing our technology to the capture component.
CCU International, carbon capture technology. Image credit: Beena Sharma
The project will play a key role in supporting the UK’s 2050 net zero ambitions by providing a more sustainable feedstock for products such as household cleaning materials. The project could demonstrate how the UK could cut 15-20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emission each year. The UK imports large quantities of carbon containing feedstocks that we use in the consumer goods industry. The project will demonstrate how we can secure an alternative domestic source of carbon for these goods and also demonstrate how industry can contribute towards achieving net zero.
Why do you think collaboration of this scale is so important?
Industry coming together to solve climate change issues is essential if we are ever to achieve net zero. Collaboration of this scale sends a strong message and emphasises that change in approach is needed and that innovation is key. This inspires others to do the same. Solutions are needed now and by bringing expertise and experience together we learn and adapt quicker. Solutions are needed now – not in years to come.
The impact this project will have has the potential to be huge, across multiple industries and certainly with how we look at not only capturing carbon emissions but also what we can do with the captured carbon dioxide, promoting a circular carbon economy where in time we learn to value carbon dioxide in a way that has never been done before.
Certainly, for the carbon capture storage community, this project will show that there is a use for captured carbon dioxide other than treating it as a waste and sequestering in underground oil reservoirs. Utilising captured carbon dioxide can create revenue streams for any business or process that emits carbon dioxide.
The collaboration demonstrates the commitment from industries to support decarbonisation, of those industries that are hard to abate whilst at the same time building a new UK value chain.
In ‘The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring’ from The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan were interpreting the seasons according to their 19th Century climate – but do these flowers still, indeed, bloom in spring? The Meteorological Office’s traditional definitions of the seasons in the UK are:
Increasingly, climate change is blurring these distinctions, and gardeners are seeing autumn stretching well towards January. Winters in maritime Great Britain are now most severe in February and March, and summer extends into September. The effects of prolonged warm autumns include accelerated growth emergence and flowering of plants which have been thought of as the harbingers of spring.
Phenological studies in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries established that the then-termed ‘early-spring flowering plants’ had accelerated blossoming by as much as four weeks. Now, in the second decade of the 21st Century, it seems this is an underestimate.
Pictured above: Iris unguicularis (styllosa); the Algerian iris
Iris unguicularis (styllosa), the Algerian iris, is renowned as an early flower of spring. It now comes into bloom in late November and very early December, making it an autumn and winter flowering plant. It originates from Algeria, Greece, Turkey, Western Syria, and Tunisia and requires freely draining, light soils with minimal nutrient value. Planted in a south facing border, Iris unguicularis is an undemanding and very colourful addition to the garden. Many early-flowering plants have highly coloured flowers which attract the widest spectrum of insect pollinators.
Pictured above: Cyclamen hederifolium
Similarly, Cyclamen hederifolium (hera meaning “ivy”, folium meaning “leaf”), now flowers vigorously from mid-December, providing colour in the garden in those darkest days prior to the winter solstice. It originates from woodland, shrubland, and rocky areas in the Mediterranean region from southern France to western Turkey and on Mediterranean islands. Once the corms are established it naturalises freely, spreading by self-seeding from explosive seed capsules which cast progeny widely in borders of light, sandy nutrient-free soil.
Pictured above: alyssum (A. saxatile)
The common rockery plant alyssum (A. saxatile), is a perennial herbaceous plant, which rapidly colonises borders and will spread down onto walls providing colour from early January. It is one of the ornamental members of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) with bright cruciform flowers.
Each of these plants is responding to climatic warming, indicating the loss of traditional seasonality. This impairs relationships between flowering plants and animal pollinators that have carefully evolved for mutual benefit over millennia. The full consequences of these losses will be apparent in years and decades to come.
Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
What effect do vaping and air pollution have on your heart, and how could a light-powered pacemaker improve cardiovascular health?
It seems that every day, scientists are learning more about the factors affecting cardiovascular health and are coming up with novel ways to keep our hearts ticking for longer. Here are three interesting recent developments.
One of the problems with existing pacemakers is that they are implanted into the heart with one or two points of connection (using screws or hooks). According to University of Arizona researchers, when these devices detect a dangerous irregularity they send an electrical shock through the whole heart to regulate its beat.
These researchers believe their battery-free, light-powered pacemaker could improve the quality of life of heart disease patients through the increased precision of their device.
The way existing pacemakers work can be quite painful for heart disease patients.
Their pacemaker comprises a petal-like structure made from a thin flexible film (that contains light sources) and a recording electrode. Like the petals of a flower closing up at night, this mesh pacemaker envelops the heart to provide many points of contact.
The device also uses optogenetics – a biological technique to control the activity of cells using light. The researchers say this helps to control the heart far more precisely and bypass pain receptors.
‘Right now, we have to shock the whole heart to do this, [but] these new devices can do much more precise targeting, making defibrillation both more effective and less painful,’ said Igor Efimov, professor of biomedical engineering and medicine at Northwestern University.
‘Current pacemakers record basically a simple threshold, and they will tell you,’ added Philipp Gutruf, lead researcher and biomedical engineering assistant professor. ‘This is going into arrhythmia, now shock, but this device has a computer on board where you can input different algorithms that allow you to pace in a more sophisticated way.’
Another potential benefit is that the light-powered device could negate the need for battery replacement, which is done every five to seven years. That use of light to affect the heart rather than electrical signals could also mean less interference with the device’s recording capabilities and a more complete picture of cardiac episodes.
The device uses light and a technique called optogenetics, which modifies cells that are sensitive to light, then uses light to affect the behavior of those cells. Image by Philipp Gutruff.
>> See how Bright SCIdea winner Cardiatec uses AI to improve heart disease treatment.
We don’t know a lot about the long-term effects of vaping because people simply haven’t been doing it long enough, but a recent study from the University of Wisconsin (UW) suggests that it could be bad for the heart.
Researchers selected a group of people who had used nicotine delivery devices for 4.1 years on average, those who smoked cigarettes for 23 years on average, and non-smokers and compared how their hearts behaved after smoking (the first two groups) and after exercise.
The researchers noticed differences minutes after the first two groups smoked or vaped. ‘Immediately after vaping or smoking, there were worrisome changes in blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability and blood vessel tone (constriction),’ said lead study author Matthew Tattersall, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
The lack of long-term data means we still don’t know the effect of vaping.
Those who vaped also performed worse on the four exercise parameters compared to those who hadn’t used nicotine. Perhaps the most startling finding was the post-exercise response of those who had vaped for just four years compared to those who had smoked tobacco for 23 years.
‘The exercise performance of those who vaped was not significantly different from people who used combustible cigarettes, even though they had vaped for fewer years than the people who smoked and were much younger,’ said Christina Hughey, fellow in cardiovascular medicine at UW Health, the integrated health systems of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
We know that smoking and passive-smoking are bad for our hearts, but some overlook the effect of other environmental toxins, especially those common to specific geographical regions.
A collaborative study including US and UK researchers has found a divergence in the types of environmental contaminants that contribute to cardiovascular ailments in both countries, aside from the prevalent smoking-related heart disease.
Hopefully, the growth in electric vehicle use will reduce air pollution
The study found that lead-related poisoning is more common in the US, whereas air pollution has a more damaging effect in the UK due mainly to increased population density. The researchers found that 6.5% of cardiovascular deaths were associated with exposure to particulate matter over the past 30 years compared to 5% in the US.
The one plus is that research has found that there has been a steady decline in cardiovascular deaths stemming from lead, smoking, secondhand smoke and air pollution over the past 30 years. Nevertheless, it will be of little comfort to those walking in the trail of exhaust fumes in cities.
‘More research on how environmental risk factors impact our daily lives is needed to help policymakers, public health experts, and communities see the big picture,’ said lead author Anoop Titus, a third-year internal medicine resident at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Composts are artificial mixtures in which seeds germinate, cuttings root and whole plants grow. Their key feature is reliability of composition. The first such composts were formulated by the John Innes Centre in the 1900s. Researchers needed preparations which allowed reliable growth of plants for experiments. The main ingredients were loamy soil, sand and lime plus nutrients. John Innes composts subsequently became the mainstay of horticulturists and gardeners.
Colourful flowering in artificial composts.
Variability in the loam and its weight were major disadvantages. Scientists at the University of California solved these problems by preparing mixtures of peat, sand and nutrients. Air fill porosity characteristics of ‘UC mixes’, as they became known, allow healthy seed germination, root production, growth and flowering. Lighter weight is of major significance, allowing the easy movement of plants. Arguably, simplified transport also resulted in the advent of garden centres and freer international plant trading. As a result, the garden centre industry has become a regular social feature.
A peat extraction site.
Peat, while of major importance, is now seen as the ‘achilles heel’ of these composts. Peat bogs are very significant reservoirs for carbon dioxide and major participants in the drive for reducing the impact of climate change. The compost industry strips peat from the bogs and then mixes it into specialised formulations for seed germination or plant growth. The bogs can be reclaimed and will restart the processes of CO2 absorption, but there is still a significant environmental penalty. Social and political pressures are driving peat reduction and its elimination from garden and commercially used composts. Peat substitutes must have the key properties of adequate air fill porosity, light weight and minimal or net zero carbon demand.
A renovated peat extraction site.
One suggestion is using coir – waste arising from coconut harvesting. Like peat, this is a natural, biodegradable product. When shredded it forms a useful peat substitute, an alternative is well composted bark and fine wood chippings, which are mixed with sand. Both are valuable composts for growing ornamental plants and germinating their seedlings. Some manufacturers are also adding loamy soil into these formulae. Problems continue, however, with finding peat-free formulae for use in commercial transplant propagation. Germinating vegetable seedlings for large scale crops requires absolute regularity and reliability. Uniform, vigorous seedlings result in mature high-quality crops suitable for once over harvesting and scheduling which meets supermarkets’ specifications.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
In the second part of our chat with Bright SCIdea finalist Team Eolic Wall, we found out how they prepared for their presentation and judges’ questions, and what’s next for their innovative wind turbine technology.
The road from Eureka moment to finished product is paved with peril. Team Eolic Wall’s idea for small, modular wind turbines that use magnetic levitation to harness more power than existing turbines could bring wind power generation into our very homes. But bringing a groundbreaking product to market is not just about mastering the science. It must make business sense too.
As with the other Bright SCIdea hopefuls, Team Eolic Wall received free training from SCI in the form of online tutorials from experienced professionals including modules on structuring a business, financial modelling, branding, and marketing.
After completing the training, Eolic Wall rose to meet the challenge. The team qualified for the Bright SCIdea final and, with it, the pivotal presentation in front of a live audience and panel of expert judges.
Many of us take it as a given that we speak to people at work in our native tongue. The nuances of communication – the cultural subtleties and oddities of the English language – aren’t a concern. But Team Eolic Wall had to present in their second language.
‘This was not our first international presentation, but it was the first one in a foreign language,’ said Alfredo Calle, Eolic Wall founder, ‘so that's always a little bit intimidating until one gets used to it.’
The key to them nailing the pitch was in the spade-work. Calle and his colleagues rehearsed the speech until they knew it by heart. ‘It’s all about training and preparation,’ he said. ‘The more you rehearse, the more confident you feel when the presentation moment comes.’
Of course, the presentation is predictable but the judges’ questions are less so. Having undergone the rigours of competition, Calle recommends that this year’s entrants prepare by trying to predict the types of questions they will be asked. A cold rehearsal could help with the potentially stunning situation of someone throwing questions at you from strange angles.
That team Eolic Wall presented its technology online made theirs even trickier still, especially given a technical hitch at the beginning. But they had polished the presentation to a smoothness that offset such difficulties and came away as joint winners of the Audience Award.
The only lingering regret for them was that Covid prevented them from coming to London. ‘We wish we could have made it to the final,’ he said. ‘Facing the judges and audience live would have been a tremendously valuable and enriching experience.’
Since the Bright SCIdea final, the Eolic Wall is being built brick by brick. The team has received three grants in recent months including one from ProCiencia, the largest innovation agency of the Peruvian government.
Eolic Wall's wall-mounted wind turbine is designed to power homes and offices in situ.
However, perhaps the most exciting development is the technology itself. ‘We have accomplished a peripherally supported wind turbine that works with magnetic levitation,’ Calle said. ‘That's a huge milestone that makes us believe we are building something big.’
Calle hopes for more investment to develop the technology further. At heart, he believes the Eolic Wall will give regular people the chance to generate affordable wind energy from home.
‘We are working out a solution to democratise wind energy for the sake of this blue rock we call home.’
>> Find out how Team Eolic Wall’s innovative technology in part 1 of this blog.
Imagine owning a small wind turbine that generates all of your home’s energy needs. As the clock counts down on entries for for the 2023 Bright SCIdea Challenge, we caught up with Team Eolic Wall, the Audience Winner for the 2022 competition.
Eolic Wall was always a nice fit for Bright SCIdea. The team spotted a problem in our renewable energy mix and came up with a scientific business idea to solve it. They saw that wind energy is generated for the public, but it isn’t generated by the public. This stands in bright contrast to solar power generation.
‘Today, 40% of all installed capacity in solar energy is based on solar panels installed on the rooftops of home and corporate buildings,’ said Alfredo Calle, founder of Eolic Wall. ‘The remaining 60% correspond to solar farms.’
Eolic Wall's wall-mounted wind turbine is designed to power homes and offices in situ.
The wind industry is different. ‘Only 1% of the installed capacity comes from households and businesses,’ he added. ‘That is, 99% of all installed capacity in the world comes from wind farms. That sort of concentration is a problem that hampers the energy transition.’
Calle believes this disparity hampers the move from fossil fuel dependency to clean, renewable energy. For many, micro-generation is key. We need to put power – renewable power – in the hands of the people. His idea is to make wind energy available in the home, just as solar exists on roofs everywhere.
The scale of this task is daunting. It turns out there’s a reason why we don’t all have wind turbines bolted onto our homes. The problem, Calle argues, is that a windmill must be large to be efficient.
He believes the Eolic Wall could change that – that this wall-mounted wind turbine is efficient enough to power our homes and offices.
‘We have created a technology that not only doubles wind speed to harvest more power from the same wind resources, but also has a wind turbine that works with magnetic levitation to almost eliminate any friction.’
So, how did a team based out of the National University of Engineering in Peru and Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil end up competing for the £5,000 first prize in the Bright SCIdea final?
Chance. Fortune. Happenstance. Calle and his colleagues came upon Bright SCIdea through a social media post that immediately captured their attention.
‘We thought that the Eolic Wall was ideal for Bright SCIdea because of the huge positive impact that this technology could have,’ he said, ‘and also because it perfectly fit into Bright SCIdea’s thesis of supporting ideas in the intersection of business, innovation and science.’
Applying was simple, although the business plan submission was intimidating at first. However, like all BrightSCIdea applicants they received coaching, and their brainchild found form.
‘The key driver to overcome that challenge was not to miss any training sessions and tutorials,’ Calle said. ‘The good news is that after going through the whole process you feel that everything was worthwhile. No pain, no gain.’
Check out fellow 2022 finalist Klara Hatinova from Team Happy BioPatch in conversation with the Periodic Fable podcast.
From government grants to analysing your own carbon footprint, energy-efficient measures could reduce the environmental impact of your SME and save you money. Retail Merchant Services explained some of the changes you could make.
The Smart Export Guarantee Scheme pays some SMEs for producing their own renewable heat and power. Not only will this allow you to generate your own electricity, which can be useful in the current climate of fluctuating costs, but you can earn money from this too.
The Clean Heat Grant is a government-backed grant that rewards companies who use green heating technologies like heat pumps, and the Green Gas Support Scheme is intended to increase the amount of green gas in the National Grid.
The amount that SMEs can benefit from these schemes may depend on the amount of money that they have available to buy renewable technology, or the space to put items like heat pumps. If this is likely to be a barrier, then they may find smaller local schemes more useful.
Do you have any tips for companies calculating their carbon footprints? What are the potential benefits of this?
Take your time – understanding your carbon footprint isn’t an overnight process. You may find it beneficial to use an online carbon footprint calculator, or contact a sustainability expert to help.
You’ll need to consider three types of emissions:
Understanding your carbon footprint is important to help you know where you can improve and cut down on your emissions. Not only does this help the planet, but it’s also a tangible demonstration that you care about the environment, which can be attractive to sustainably-minded customers.
The initial outlay for heat pumps and other technologies are steep, but this investment may pay off in the longer term.
What are the benefits of aggressively pursuing net zero and what are the drawbacks?
Of course, the primary benefit of pursuing net zero is that it helps the planet. Business waste has a huge impact on the environment and, as a result, any changes that can be made in this sector will have a big impact too. However, going net zero can also potentially make your business more profitable too.
Your profits may go up for several reasons. First, it’s more appealing to customers. As part of going net zero, you’re likely to adjust your products to be more eco-friendly. And with reports showing that 63% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products, this could make your business more appealing.
Second, it could save you money. You may find that examining your processes and policies to make them greener will allow you to benefit from specific tax cuts, or simply improve the efficiency of your company. In time, this could save you from wasting money as well as energy.
Third, it could boost your competitiveness. Small companies often find they just can’t match big businesses for price, so it’s important to find a selling point that allows you to remain competitive. As mentioned before, customers are increasingly looking for more ethical products, so being able to say that you’re net zero could help you beat the competition.
Finally, it could prepare you for new policies. Governments around the world are under pressure to go greener, and so they’ll likely transfer this pressure to businesses. Going green now means you’ll be ahead of the curve and able to make these changes at your own pace, rather than having to rush and pay to make them all at once.
While these are all amazing benefits, one of the biggest challenges that SMEs face is the cost of going net zero. It’s not cheap in the current economic climate, especially if you’ve got big changes to make. According to research, 40% of SMEs said that high cost and lack of budget were the biggest net zero blockers.
Electric vehicles require less maintenance – and you don’t have to pay road tax.
What are the benefits of moving your vehicles to electric right now, and what are the drawbacks?
There’s no denying that electric vehicles are significantly better for the environment than conventional cars. For companies looking for a relatively straightforward way to go greener, electric cars can be a great choice.
As well as swerving rising fuel prices, EV owners don’t currently pay vehicle tax in the UK. Additionally, they have fewer moving parts, and so require less maintenance. All of these factors mean that while EVs can be an expensive initial investment, they generally cost less to run in the long term.
With the UK government banning new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, investing in electric vehicles now means that SMEs can get ahead of the rush that is likely to come as we get close to the deadline. There is already a year’s wait time for some vehicles, so ordering your fleet now could mean that you avoid an even longer queue further down the line.
Of course, many SMEs feel unable to commit to electric vehicles right now due to the cost of living – they’re an expensive purchase. If this is the case, you could consider changing one vehicle at a time, and looking to see if you’re eligible for any local grants that can support you with the cost of this.
>> Want to turn your science into a business? This event will help.
How much have inflated energy costs undermined the push for net zero?
Unfortunately, rising energy costs have meant that small businesses are feeling the pinch, and might struggle to make new eco-friendly changes, as they are often costly. For many, their focus is simply remaining profitable.
However, what is also clear is that for those that can afford it, examining your business for changes that will allow you to move towards net zero can also be a way of saving money in the long run.
If you’re able to produce your own renewable energy (for example, getting solar panels on the offices), you may be able to mitigate some of the effects of rising energy costs, as you won’t be reliant on the National Grid.
Finally, apart from energy efficiency schemes, how could the government help reduce the carbon footprint of SMEs?
As well as energy schemes, the government can help by providing information and resources on sustainable practices. By sharing best practices widely with businesses, and offering them a place to go to get support, the government can help them develop more environmentally friendly operations.
Additionally, they can help by creating incentives for businesses to go green. By offering tax breaks or other financial incentives, the government can encourage businesses to adopt sustainable practices.
Written by Retail Merchant Services. The SME Environmental Impact Guide can be read in full.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.
As we speak, apples and pears are ripening on the trees. But how do you grow apple and pear trees from scratch and keep them alive? Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, investigates.
Autumn is the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, as John Keats said in his Ode to Autumn. It is a time for harvesting temperate tree fruits, especially apples and pears in gardens and orchards.
This fruit is distinctive and delicious. The ‘Sunset’ apple cultivar, derived from the Cox’s Orange Pippin, produces red and gold striped fruit and sweet tasting flesh, while the French pear cultivar doyenne du comice has the most superb taste if caught at peak ripeness.<
The sunset apple.
Both apples and pears ripen after harvesting, emitting ethylene and passing through a climacteric, or critical biological stage. When respiration reaches a peak, the fruits’ flavour is most satisfying.
Both apples and pears are best planted in late autumn or during winter when the trees are dormant, either as container-grown or preferably bare root trees. Place each tree in a hole that is large enough for the entire root system, ensuring that the graft union sits well above the soil level.
Each tree consists of two parts: the rootstock, selected originally from wild species, and the scion, which is the fruiting cultivar. Apple cultivars mostly dwarf Malling no. 9, and pear scions are grafted onto quince rootstocks. A stake should be driven into the hole before putting the tree in place.
Pour ample water into the hole, keeping the roots wet. Do so again once soil is replaced and firmed round the tree. As the tree establishes and produces leaves and flowers, water well and regularly, especially during dry periods.
French pear cultivar doyenne du comice
Feed with fertilisers that contain large amounts of potash and phosphate but minimal nitrogen. This encourages vigorous root growth. Sprinkling compost or farmyard manure around the tree helps retain soil moisture.
Climate change is having significant deleterious impacts on all members of the Rosaceae family, including apples and pears. Australian studies indicate that temperatures are reaching higher than the evolutionary maximum for these species.
This stresses the plants. It adversely affects their health and performance and reduces their ability to store carbon and produce fruit crops.
The pear scab Venturia pirina
Levels of pest and disease infections are increasing. In particular, sap-sucking woolly aphids (Eriosoma lanigerum) have increased from minor to major apple pests in the last decade. Pear scab Venturia pirina has become a major cause of defoliation.
Chemical control options for both are limited, but regular drenching sprays with seaweed extracts may reduce their impact. Seaweed extracts additionally provide some foliar absorbed nutrients and increase the visual quality of fruit.
Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
In his winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Alexander Triccas, postgraduate chemistry researcher at the University of Edinburgh, explains how the tiny shells produced by marine algae protect our natural environment.
Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.
This year, four students produced outstanding essays. In the fourth of this year’s winning essays, Alexander Triccas explained how coccoliths provide a valuable carbon store and could play a key role in keeping our bones healthy.
Although humans can engineer complex and eye-catching structures that help us navigate through our daily lives, they are nowhere close to the design and functionality of natural materials.
These mineral structures are specifically grown to provide support, protection, or food for many organisms. Humans would not exist without them. Indeed, our bones and teeth are made of calcium phosphate. But when grown in a lab, calcium phosphate forms as simple rectangular crystals, which is vastly different to how our bones and teeth look.
This is because our bodies use organic molecules to precisely control how minerals grow, producing materials that can fulfil very specific tasks. Biominerals can even be produced inside single cells. Coral reefs are held together by calcium carbonate minerals made by marine invertebrates. Elsewhere in the ocean, carbonate shells produced by small algae cells are buried on the ocean floor, over time forming the chalk rocks that make up coastal landmarks such as the White Cliffs of Dover.
Advances in microscopy are shedding new light on the composition of coccoliths.
This process is incredibly important to the environment. It takes carbon dissolved in seawater, turns it into solid material, then stores it at the bottom of the ocean. It is concerning then that we don’t know how ocean acidification and rising CO2 levels will affect coccoliths, the name given to these carbonate shells.
>> SCI’s Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland. Join today!
We’re still unsure how coccoliths are produced, particularly how organic molecules are used to give them their unique shape. Proteins and sugars decide where and when the first carbonate mineral forms; then the growth of the coccolith is controlled by sugar molecules.
But how exactly do these organic molecules control the mineral that is produced? We struggle to answer this question because we don’t know how the composition of the coccolith changes as the structure grows.
Our research focuses on imaging coccoliths in an attempt to observe these changes. We used a technique called X-ray ptychography to map coccolith composition over the course of its formation. This revealed that coccoliths are not entirely made of calcium carbonate, instead having a hybrid structure containing mineral and organic molecules. But this isn’t all.
We revealed that the composition of the coccolith changes during its growth. We think this could represent a transition from a disordered liquid-like state to an ordered crystalline state. While this is common in other biomineral-produced organisms like corals, no evidence of this transition has been reported in coccolith formation before.
>> Read Rebecca Stevens’ winning essay on PROTAC synthesis.
This is incredibly important because it tells us how the cell is controlling the first calcium carbonate mineral that forms. The transition enables the cell to control exactly how it wants the mineral to form, meaning coccoliths can be made faster.
It might also lessen the impact that more acidic seawater has on mineral formation. This could mean coccoliths will not be affected by ocean acidification as much as expected, which is good for the planet’s long-term carbon stores.
However, this is only a prediction. Improvements to the microscopes used to analyse coccoliths will help us know if the transition occurs. Electron and X-ray microscopes are extremely useful in industry – from drug research and medical imaging, to data storage and materials analysis – but their use in these fields is still relatively novel.
Coccolith analysis could give us a better idea of how bones are produced.
Most advancements in instrumental procedures are done in academic research. Our work, therefore, helps us understand the benefits and limits microscopes may have, making them more suitable for industrial use.
Bone research also relies heavily on these microscopes. Our findings could be important in understanding how bones are produced, benefiting not only pharmaceutical and medical industries, but also improving human healthcare by providing better treatments to patients.
Have we underestimated the eco-anxiety middle-aged and older people feel? According to a recent survey, younger folks aren’t the only ones frowning at the horizon. Eoin Redahan writes.
When you think of a middle-aged person suffering from exo-anxiety, what do you imagine? Is it a grey-haired woman gazing from a mountain peak with a single, heroic tear staining her cheek? Is it an auld fella rending his garments and shaking his fist at the sun?
I mean, possibly, but the reality is probably less dramatic. It could be the Pakistani householder who wonders if her family home will be swept away in the next flood. It might be the 39-year-old Australian who wonders if his country will be habitable when his young child grows up.
It might be the Maldivian who wonders if his homeland will go the way of Atlantis within 20 years. It was me when someone decided it would be a good idea to have a barbecue in the fields beside my house in the middle of the heatwave – when the grass was as dry as straw and wildfires scorched in south London.
Athanasius Kircher's map of Atlantis, placing it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus, 1669. Will people pore over maps of the Maldives in the same way?
The presumption by many is that it’s only the young who feel anxious about climate change, for it is they who will inherit the mess. However, according to recent ONS statistics, the middle-aged and the old are almost as worry-weary as young people.
Having analysed a recent ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, straw specialist firm Drinking Straw filtered some of the stats. They reveal that 62% of UK people over the age of 16 worry that rising temperatures will directly affect them by 2030. Of these, 70% of 16-29 year olds were worried about the heat, but 59% of 50-69 year olds were also worried, as were 57% of those aged 70 and over.
In other areas, the differences were even less stark. When it came to anxiety over extreme weather events, 48% of all adults were worried – only slightly less than the 49% of 16 to 29 year olds who did so.
Similarly, regarding water supply shortages, 40% of all adults are concerned about them overall, compared to 43% of those aged 16 to 29. Admittedly, young people are more worried than older adults about rising sea levels (45% vs. 31%), but the differences are noticeably narrow in most metrics.
Surprisingly, it turns out the percentage of those who don’t care at all about the merciless heat, parched land, rising sea levels, and freak weather events is fairly consistent across all segments, with the 12% of 16-29 year olds not giving a fig similar to the 14% of indifferent adults.
ONS figures reveal that most people have made climate-friendly changes to their day-to-day lives, whether they grew up in the age of renewables or the age of coal.
Broadly speaking, UK adults are becoming more eco-conscious, if data from the ONS’ Climate change insights, families and households, UK: August 2022 survey are to be believed. The survey has found that 77% of adults have made some, or a lot of changes, to their lifestyles to tackle climate change.
When the remaining 23% were asked why they made no change to their lifestyles, the most common reason given was: the belief that large polluters should make changes before individuals, followed closely by those who felt that individual change wouldn’t make much of a difference.
It’s clear to most of us that the government must help drive change, including on our roads. Despite the UK’s lagging electric vehicle infrastructure, the study revealed that the number of licensed zero emission vehicles, ultra-low emission vehicles, and plug-in vehicles increased by 71% or more last year.
If people knew there were sufficient charging points dotted around their areas – and if they were further incentivised to give up their gas-guzzling vehicles – those numbers would surely increase.
As bleak as the situation is, it is heartening to see our attitudes changing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just read a climate-related story that brought a tear to my eye. If anyone wants me, I’ll be weeping in a dark room (passive-cooled, mercifully).
In the latest of our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series, Dr Chris Unsworth, Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Hydrogen at Ofgem, talks about rising to the net zero challenge, creating a productive, inclusive working environment, and transferable PhD skills.
Tell us about your career path to date.
Currently, I’m the Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Hydrogen at Ofgem. Prior to that, I was Private Secretary to the Co-Directors of the Energy Systems Management and Security (ESMS) Directorate at the energy regulator Ofgem. I’ve also worked as Senior Manager in the GB Wholesale Markets team and as a Research & Insight Manager within Ofgem’s Consumer and Behavioural Insights team.
Pictured above: Dr Chris Unsworth
What is a typical day like for you at Ofgem?
I’d say there isn’t a typical day in my job, especially given recent events. Our work needed to shift dramatically to make sure gas and electricity kept flowing at the start of the pandemic and during the sharp increase in wholesale prices for gas.
I wore many hats in my role as Private Secretary. I often acted in a Chief of Staff role for the directorate, getting a sense of the mood within our part of the organisation and advising on how to overcome internal issues as they arise. I also often acted as advisor to the Co-Directors of ESMS as they explored which tools can be used to deliver net zero.
Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy being able to work on the net zero challenge in a really meaningful way. I also enjoy being surrounded by colleagues who feel the purpose and weight of responsibility in making progress towards a net zero future. It keeps you accountable, but it’s also really inspiring.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The reasons I gave above for really enjoying my job can also be described as the most challenging! Delivering a net zero future represents the largest transformation that has ever needed to happen at an industrial level.
Also, because folks are so passionate about their work, it’s really important to make spaces where staff can be transparent and open on their views of the way forward. It’s more important, however, for me to act in a diplomatic manner to make sure we get aligned on a clear and singular route to solving problems.
>> Get involved in the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel.
How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?
I don’t use the skills I practised in the lab directly in my role. However, there are lots of transferable skills that I picked up from my MChem and PhD in Chemistry. Being able to interrogate evidence and critically assess it is really important in knowing which trends are valid and, therefore, which policy options are the best to investigate further.
Being able to bring data and information from lots of disparate sources and use them to create a clear view of what’s going on is another skill that I practise often. I also do a lot of thinking around systems and flows and the various interactions that go on underneath the surface. Visualising systems and interactions is definitely a helpful skill that I first practised in my degrees.
>> How do you go from a Chemistry degree to a business development specialism? Mark Dodsworth told us his story.
Which other skills are required in the work you do?
My current role is very people oriented and so I need to practise a high level of emotional intelligence. I came out as a gay man while doing my degrees at the University of York and I had specific role models there who helped me explore who I was.
I think my experiences during my degrees really helped grow my capacity for empathy and understanding in others. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work on a huge number of Diversity & Inclusion initiatives as a result of being open and out at work. I’m also very lucky to work in a space where I feel comfortable to do so.
Pictured above: Dr Chris Unsworth
Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?
If you feel a sense of purpose in something you’re doing, then go in that direction. You will always enjoy your work if you understand why you are doing that work.
This may involve you taking a few left turns as you move between different things, but there’s no need to worry about that so much if there’s a clear and consistent theme and purpose that ties it all together.
Which species can you plant to increase the nutrients in your soil and boost biodiversity, and which pathogen tackles some of those pesky weeds? Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, tells us more.
The term ‘sustainability’ for gardening means replacing what you take out of the soil and supporting localised biodiversity. Harvested crops, for example, take out nutrients and water from the soil. Replacements should be supplied that aid biodiversity and have minimal impact, or zero impact, on climate change.
Seaweed (Ascophyllum) has been recognised as a valuable fertiliser source in British coastal areas for centuries. Now, proprietary seaweed extracts are gaining popularity either when applied directly as liquid feeds or sprays, or when added into composts.
Classed as biostimulants, seaweed extracts contain several micro-nutrients and a range of valuable plant stimulatory growth regulators. They encourage pest and disease tolerance, increase frost tolerance, stimulate germination, increase robust growth, and add polish to fruit such as apples and pears.
Seaweed bolsters some of the nutrients lost through gardening. Image from Geoff Dixon.
Benefits of borage
Some plants are very effective supporters of biodiversity. Borage (Borago officinalis), known also as starflower or bugloss, is a robust annual plant of Mediterranean origin with pollinator-attractive blue flowers.
It is very drought resistant and suitable for dry gardens. Although an annual, it is self-seeding and could spread widely. It is very attractive to bees as it produces copious light – and delicately flavoured honey.
Its flowers and foliage are edible with a cucumber-like flavour, making it suitable in salads and as garnishes, while in Germany it is served as grűne soße (green sauce). When used as a companion plant for crops such as legumes or brassicas, it will also help to suppress weeds.
Borage is good for bee and belly. Image from Geoff Dixon.
Weeding out the problem
Weeds are a continuous problem for gardeners and their prevalence varies with the seasons. Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), also known as ‘old man in the spring’, persists whatever the weather.
It is ephemeral but can seed and regrow several times per year. As a result, once established, it is difficult to control without very diligent hand weeding and hoeing out young seedlings before the flowers form.
There is, however, a form of biological control that can aid the gardener. Groundsel is susceptible to the fungal rust pathogen (Puccinia lagenophorae). This pathogen arrived in Great Britain from Australia in the early 1960s. Since then, it has become well established and outbreaks on groundsel start to become obvious in mid- to late-summer, especially in warm dry periods.
A fungal pathogen can kill groundsel, a weed that comes through several times a year. Image from Geoff Dixon.
Severe infections weaken, and eventually kill, groundsel plants. Gardeners should take advantage of the infection and remove the diseased weeds before any seeds are produced.
>> How else has climate change changed the way our gardens grow, and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Geoff Dixon investigates.
Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon. You can find more of his work here.
A range of greenhouse gas removal technologies may be necessary if we’re to reach Net Zero by 2050. In the second of our two-part geoengineering feature, Eoin Redahan looks to the sea, the sun, and mineral weathering, and at the ethical concerns such technologies raise. Missed Part One? Find it here.
‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’
These famous words from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner aren’t the only famous part of his epic poem. The term albatross around one’s neck comes from it too.
After shooting a friendly albatross at sea, the poem’s narrator was forced by the ship’s crew to wear the dead creature around his neck – and grievous luck was to follow. Well, our blue planet has an albatross around its neck in the form of climate change.
Perhaps the solution to it lies all around us – water, water, everywhere…
In theory, we can use our oceans to pull CO2 from the air on an enormous scale. All it may take is clever intervention – potentially ruinous, albatross-shooting intervention.
Nevertheless, the World Economic Forum lays out the tantalising potential. ‘Ocean-based CO2 removal can help us achieve “net negative emissions” as the seas hold 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere,’ it says.
‘The ocean [is] a sink for nearly one third of anthropogenic carbon emissions and more than 90% of the resulting heat… If we are going to manage atmospheric CO2 levels to our advantage, we will need to leverage the ocean’s existing ability to govern the global carbon cycle.’
Frontier has targeted the development of scalable sources of alkalinity. The reasoning behind it is that with CO2 being an acidic molecule, rising CO2 concentrations could be neutralised through alkalinity. It has mentioned using mine tailings to remove up to 0.5 gigatonnes of CO2 from the air each year; but the major caveat here is that it needs to be done safely.
Planetary Technologies has ventured into this space armed, essentially, with a bicarbonate of baking soda that could draw in CO2 and sequester it for millenia.
The company explains its process: ‘We start by carefully extracting key parts of the mine tailings including recovering battery metals (like nickel and cobalt) and silica (sand) and then take the remaining purified metal salt solution into a special electrolyser. There, using clean, renewable electricity, the salt and water are split to make hydrogen (a clean, emissions-free fuel), and a pure alkaline hydroxide.
‘It’s from this point that we transport the bulk alkaline materials to our ocean outfalls site where the alkalinity is introduced to the surface ocean that then draws in CO2, sequestering it as already abundant bicarbonate and carbonate ions in seawater.’
So, by decreasing the acidity of the ocean, it would have a greater capacity to absorb CO2 from the air. The key, however, is to reduce this to a viable price point.
Mineral weathering is another contender in the CO2 removal mix. One technology that recently received $2.4m in funding is Seattle-based Lithos’ enhanced weathering process – a mineral weathering process that could capture CO2 at a gigatonne scale. According to Frontier, Lithos spreads basalt on croplands to increase dissolved organic carbon, before eventually being stored as ocean bicarbonate. The idea is to maximise CO2 removal while bolstering crop growth.
Closer to home, SAC Consulting in Edinburgh will receive £2.9m to capture the methane produced by cattle and cut emissions from the livestock farming sector; Synthetic Biology in San Francisco has received an R&D grant to synthesise a polymer within algae that is capable of sequestering atmospheric CO2 at a large scale; and Charm Industrial is converting plants into a carbon-rich liquid that is pumped underground.
To do the latter, Charm grows cellulosic biomass that captures CO2 from the atmosphere. It is then harvested, ground, and heated, before being turned into a bio-oil that is pumped underground.
Even the concrete beneath our feet could be used as a carbon sink. CarbonCure is injecting CO2 into its concrete mixes, which it says is not only comparable in cost to traditional concrete, but stronger.
And then, we have solar engineering – arguably the first technology that comes into many of our minds when we think of carbon removal. All sorts of geoengineering technologies exist in this sphere including cirrus cloud thinning, stratospheric aerosol scattering, and marine cloud brightening.
Interestingly, Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Programme referred to geoengineering as ‘a set of emerging technologies that could manipulate the environment and partially offset some of the impacts of climate change’.
Therein lies the problem for many. What are the consequences of ‘manipulating the environment’, especially if these technologies fall into unscrupulous hands?
In her excellent blog for SCI on geoengineering, Rhiannon Garth-Jones referred to the Haida Corporation Salmon trial. In this trial, 120 tonnes of iron compound were deposited in the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean, which resulted in a several-month-long phytoplankton bloom.
It was seen by many as a success. The phytoplankton fed fish and increased biodiversity and the iron sequestered carbon; but Environment Canada believed the corporation violated national environmental laws by depositing iron without a permit.
History teaches us that profit vs. planet tussles don’t always go the way we would like, and the consequences of these technologies going into the wrong hands could be catastrophic.
On 29 June, The World Economic Forum called for a code of conduct for ocean-based CO2 removal; and the American Geophysical Union, a group of climate and planetary scientists, is leading the way in developing an ethical framework for climate intervention engagement.
We’re all feeling the effects of climate change. As I write this piece on 19 July, it is 39°C here in Greenford, London. 39°C in London! The earth is cracking, planes are circling (because the runways are melting), and grass fires are blazing in Croydon.
On days like today, it feels like we need all the innovation we can get.
Many believe that greenhouse gas removal technologies will be necessary if we’re to reach net zero by 2050. In the first of our two-part geoengineering feature, we look at some of the difference-makers.
This week, a friend of mine played a tennis match just north of London. The game was due to take place at 18:00 but was deferred for an hour because it was 39°C. This came a day after Rishi Sunak, who may become the UK’s next Prime Minister, warned about going ‘too hard and too fast’ on net zero measures.
It’s looking increasingly likely that the implementation of environmental policies isn’t happening quickly enough; so, if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we will need to develop technologies that pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Mercury rising: the UK recorded record high temperatures this week.
Certainly, that’s the UK government’s perspective. ‘Greenhouse Gas Removal technology will be essential to meeting the UK’s climate change target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050,’ it said. ‘These technologies will be necessary to offset emissions from hard to decarbonise areas, such as parts of the agriculture and aviation sectors.’
Thankfully, work is underway to make this happen. And it is more than just the pang of the environmental conscience that has stirred the private sector into action. There is much money to be made from geoengineering. Indeed, a CNBC story has estimated that it could be a trillion dollar market by 2050.
The public investment has been relatively modest by some. The UK government recently pledged £54m in funding towards 15 different carbon removal technologies. But some in the private sector have dollar signs in their eyes.
A collaborative called Frontier – funded by Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, McKinsey, and tens of thousands of businesses using Stripe Climate – has made an advance market commitment to spend an initial $925m on permanent carbon removal technologies between 2022 and 2030.
‘Models project that by 2050 we will need to permanently remove billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year,’ it states. ‘To date, fewer than 10,000 tons have been removed in total.’ The capital it has committed is designed to help companies developing carbon removal solutions to scale up.
The UK government has mentioned the need for a portfolio of carbon removal technologies to reach net zero. A cursory look reveals that there are many from which to choose, including direct air capture, the manipulation of the sea, advanced weathering, and solar engineering.
These methods are audacious, exciting, and controversial.
The key, as ever, is to come up with low-carbon technologies that are both effective and economically viable. In that respect, direct air capture has emerged as a front runner. This technology often uses giant fans with filters, or chemical processes, to take CO2 from the air.
The difficulty is the amount of energy needed to power these processes and the source of this energy. The cost of removing each tonne of CO2 is also an impediment to growth – something that will need to fall for it to be implemented on a large scale.
Climeworks co-founders Jan Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald at the Orca plant in Iceland. Image courtesy of Climeworks.
Nevertheless, significant strides have been made in recent times. Swiss company Climeworks raised US$650m in equity for its largest direct air capture plant, and last week it inked a 10-year deal with Microsoft to permanently remove 10,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere on its behalf.
The company’s machines capture CO2 from ambient air by drawing air into the collector with a fan. The CO2 is captured on the surface through a selected filter material that sits inside the collectors. Once the filter is filled with CO2, the collector is closed, and the temperature is increased to 80–100°C, whereupon the CO2 is released.
And what becomes of the CO2 after that? The CO2 at its Orca facility (50km outside Reykjavík, Iceland) will be mixed with water and pumped deep underground. The carbon dioxide will then react with the basalt rock through natural mineralisation and turn into stone.
Climeworks CO2 turned into stone via Carbfix technology. Image courtesy of Climeworks.
And Climeworks isn’t the only one operating in this space. As part of the UK Government’s aforementioned £54m funding, London-based Mission Zero Technologies will receive £2.9 million to build a low-energy, heat-free way to pull CO2 from the air.
Sydney-based AspiraDAC has been backed by the Stripe Climate Fund to remove 500 tonnes of CO2 using its modular, solar-powered system. According to Frontier: ‘Its MOF (metal-organic framework) sorbent has low-temperature heat requirements and cheap material inputs, increasing the likelihood that AspiraDAC can help accelerate the production of lower-cost metal-organic frameworks which, historically, have been expensive and difficult to synthesise.’
The Stripe Climate Fund has also backed 8 Rivers Capital, LLC, and Origen Carbon Solutions, Inc to remove CO2 from the air using its direct air capture (DAC) technology. Frontier said: ‘The DAC technology accelerates the natural process of carbon mineralisation by contacting highly reactive slaked lime with ambient air to capture CO2. The resulting carbonate minerals are calcined to create a concentrated CO2 stream for geologic storage.’
Of course, direct air capture is just one of many CO2 removal solutions. In part two, next week, we’ll look at other promising technologies.
In his winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Angus McLuskie, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of St Andrews, explains his work in replacing non-renewable and toxic feedstocks with novel sustainable catalytic processes to produce useful chemicals.
Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.
This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the first of this year’s winning essays, Angus McLuskie outlines his work in improving the production of urea derivatives and polyureas.
Urea derivatives hold a substantial global market, which is dominated by their use as fertilisers in the agrochemical sector, in addition to smaller-scale technical applications as glues, resin precursors, dyes and pharmaceutical drugs. Furthermore, polyureas are important protective coatings, with a global market exceeding £800 million a year.
Currently, urea derivatives and polyureas are produced on an industrial scale using highly toxic chemicals such as phosgene, (di)isocyanates and carbon monoxide. These reagents are detrimental to human health, as evidenced by the release of methyl isocyanate gas from the Bhopal Union Carbide factory in 1984, which led to thousands of deaths and a global outcry.
Phosgene was itself used as a battlefield chemical weapon in World War I, and is sourced from fossil-fuel-derived carbon monoxide. The result is a process with significant health and environmental impacts.
As part of a global drive to tackle climate change and move towards a circular economy, the objective of our research is to replace non-renewable and toxic feedstocks with novel sustainable catalytic processes to produce useful chemicals and materials.
In pursuit of greener methods, we have recently discovered synthetic methodologies, using a catalyst of manganese, to couple dehydrogenatively (1) methanol and (di)amines and (2) formamides and amines to make symmetrical (poly)ureas and unsymmetrical urea derivatives respectively (ACS Catal., DOI:10.1021/acscatal.2c00850).
Angus with his poster on Mn-Catalysed Dehydrogenative Synthesis of Urea Derivatives and Polyureas.
The only process byproduct, molecular hydrogen, is valuable in itself, and the non-toxic reagents of methanol or formamide can be sourced from renewable feedstocks. For example, Carbon Recycling International, an Iceland-based company, has developed methods to generate methanol industrially through the direct hydrogenation of CO2 (ATZextra Worldw., DOI:10.1007/S40111-015-0517-0). Formamides can be made from formic acid, which may be produced from biomass or CO2.
The synthesis of urea derivatives using this approach has been reported previously using iron and ruthenium catalysts, but these present individual limitations. Iron catalysts result in poor yields and substrate scope, while ruthenium catalysts are expensive and raise sustainability concerns due to ruthenium’s low abundance in Earth’s crust (Chem. Sci. J., doi.org/10.1039/C8SC00775F and Org. Lett., doi.org/10.1021/acs.orglett.5b03328).
The synthesis of polyureas via this approach has only been achieved before using a ruthenium catalyst. With a manganese-based pincer catalyst, we succeeded in making a broad variety of symmetrical and unsymmetrical urea derivatives as well as polyureas at high yields and under a low catalytic loading of 0.5-1 mol%. As the third most abundant transition metal in Earth’s crust, manganese is much cheaper than ruthenium, which improves the economic viability of the process for industrial applications.
Breaking new ground?
This is the first example of the synthesis of polyureas from diamines and methanol using a catalyst of an Earth-abundant metal. We have demonstrated for the first time the synthesis of a potentially 100% renewable polyurea from methanol and a renewable diamine Priamine, which is commercialised by Croda. This could be of interest to emerging businesses for making bio/renewable plastics.
Angus hopes his research will help us develop urea-functionalised agrochemicals and pharmaceutical drugs in a more efficient, greener way.
This initial proof of concept is exciting, but there are challenges to overcome for commercialisation. Evidently, the cost is important, and since the catalyst is much more expensive than reactants, such as amines and methanol, the cost is directly linked to the catalyst’s activity; a homogeneous catalyst that is non-recyclable and offers a turnover number of 100-200 makes the process expensive.
We are now focusing our efforts on enhancing the efficiency of the catalyst to increase cost-effectiveness, which will also allow us to make commercially important urea-functionalised pharmaceutical drugs and agrochemicals with greater efficiency and reduced impact on the environment, human health, and economy.
What is the verdict on the 100% sustainable fuel Formula 1 plans to use in its cars, and is the new E10 fuel this season doing any good? We asked David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. This phrase comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, and it refers to the Greeks’ gift of a giant wooden horse to their enemies during the Trojan War. But this was no gift at all.
This warrior-filled, hollow wooden horse that the Trojans wheeled inside the gates of Troy was a ploy from the Greeks to get inside the city’s impenetrable city walls and ambush their enemy. It turned out things weren’t quite what they seemed.
Just as Trojans became wary of giant wooden horses, we should be wary of Net-Zero pledges. These promises seem impressive but, if you look inside, they might not be quite as beneficial to the environment as advertised – at worst, they could be hollow.
Whenever an organisation talks of carbon credits, makes a vague reference to biomass or a grand pledge with little detail, it is worth closer investigation.
Formula 1 recently made a sustainability pledge of its own. Following its decision to use E10 fuel in the cars this season (a mixture of 90% fossil fuel and 10% ethanol), it has announced plans to use a 100% sustainable drop-in fuel in its vehicles as part of its plans to reach Net-Zero by 2030.
On first reading, the terms Net-Zero and Formula 1 don’t sit easily together. Isn’t this the sport where 20 cars can burn more than 100kg of fuel each per race? The same travelling circus in which cars, teams, and drivers are flown and ferried all over the world for more than eight months of racing?
By its own calculation, in a November 2019 report, Formula 1 is responsible for 256,551 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. To put that figure into perspective, you would need to drive for 6,000km in a diesel car to generate a single tonne of carbon emissions – multiply that by 256,000, and Net-Zero feels some distance away.
Both Formula 1’s new fuel and pledges merit closer inspection. Regarding the move to the E10 fuel in Formula 1 cars, David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation, wasn’t exactly gushing.
‘E10 is an evolutionary backwater – adding just 10% ethanol does nothing for emissions,’ he said. ‘A quick enthalpy calculation shows the energy in the fuel has decreased, so you need more.’
The proposed move to a ‘100% sustainable drop-in fuel’ used in standard internal combustion engines is seen by many as a positive move. Formula 1 says the fuel will be made using components from either carbon capture, municipal waste, or non-food biomass.
Each of these ‘components’ on its own is worth exploration. For example, what types of municipal waste do they mean, which types of non-food biomass are they talking about, and what about the manufacturing process?
Biomass fuel is controversial due to concerns over carbon sequestration and land use.
The passage of time will reveal more but, again, David has questioned the green credentials of the proposed fuel. He said: ‘What Formula 1 is proposing to do is analogous to sustainable aviation fuel – to make octane from a non-fossil source of carbon.’
‘[To do this], you can use biomass or “synthetic”, which basically means distillate plastic waste. It is effectively using fossil carbon that was used for something else; so, it doesn't make the situation any worse, but neither does it really contribute to lowering emissions. It’s just short-cycle carbon.’
The mention of aviation is pertinent when it comes to Formula 1. The emissions generated by the 10 teams’ vehicles across 21 Grands Prix, including races and testing, account for just 0.7% of Formula 1’s total emissions. But by far the biggest contributor to its CO2 emissions are logistics – the movement of equipment from venue to venue by land, sea, and air.
The equipment used in Formula One must be transported from continent to continent by sea, land, or air.
After that comes business travel at 27.7%, which includes the air and ground transportation of all individuals, as well as the hotel footprint from all Formula 1 teams’ employees and major event staff. So, it’s clear that the main environmental problem isn’t the fuel used during the races; it is all of the other transport emissions.
To be fair to Formula 1, the sport has made an effort to make operations greener, including powering its offices using 100% renewable energy and taking measures to make freight more efficient.
However, any claims that it is motoring to Net-Zero by 2030 need to be chased with a liberal swig of scepticism. A Net-Zero 2030 goal provides a nice headline, but how you get there is the story.
The wild weather fluctuations wrought by climate change are stressing out our plants. Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, explains how.
Pests and diseases are familiar causes of plant damage and loss. Less familiar, but becoming more frequent, are stresses resulting from environmental causes.
These are termed abiotic stresses because no living organism is involved. This means there are no visible signs of pests or pathogens. Diagnosis and treatment are, therefore, less straightforward. These causes are a result of interactions between the plant genotype and the prevailing or changing environment.
Damage may only become apparent after harvesting and at the point of consumer use. A typical example of this is internal browning or breakdown of Brussels sprouts. Larger sprouts are more susceptible to stress, with dense leaf packing in the bud, particularly in early and midseason cultivars.
The internal browning of Brussels sprouts is a consequence of plant stress.
A suggested cause is water condensing within the bud, which restricts calcium transport and leads to marginal leaf necrosis (death). This resembles the exudation, or perspiration, of water from leaf edges when growing plants absorb excessive water, flooding the vascular systems following very heavy rainfall and hot weather.
Oedema is another moisture-induced disorder. Symptoms include unattractive wart-like swellings coalescing on leaves and stems, particularly on Brussels sprouts, cabbages, and cauliflowers. These may rupture, becoming corky with a yellowish or brownish appearance.
Moisture-induced damage to cabbage leaves.
These symptoms result from high soil moisture content and high relative humidity associated with hot days and cool nights. Both internal browning and oedema can be minimised by improving soil structure, encouraging rapid drainage by deep cultivation or growing plants on raised beds.
Improving soil structure is becoming an important way to control salt accumulation. Soil structure can be badly damaged by flooding that brings in polluted water. In subsequent vegetable and fruit crops, plant water uptake, nutrient use efficiency, and photosynthesis are all impaired. The effects are seen in poor germination, burnt leaf margin, stunting, and wilting. This damage will be particularly severe with highly organic soils.
Salt accumulation in onion crops. Improving soil structure is one way of addressing this problem.
Abiotic disorders are becoming more common in commercial crops and this is likely to be reflected in gardens and allotments. That is an effect of climatic change, with generally hotter and wetter conditions interspersed by droughts and freezing events.
As a result, plant growth is erratic and exhibits abiotic disorders. Plant breeders, especially in Asia, are actively seeking genetic solutions that will create crops capable of withstanding erratic environments. In parallel,the agro-chemical industry is producing environmentally sustainable compounds and biostimulants to help combat these problems.
>> How else has climate change changed the way our gardens grow, and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Geoff Dixon explored this issue further.
Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
Fossil fuels don’t just keep our motors running. They don’t just heat our homes. They form the basis of many of our everyday products.
Problem is, fossil carbon is cheap and reliable. Nevertheless, bit by bit, many companies are weaning themselves off petrochemical feedstocks.
For Unilever, that means dishwasher liquids with cleaning agents made from fermented sugar. For Croda, it means using corn to create a bio-ethylene oxide that can replace some surfactants in its personal care products.
So, what other moves have organisations made lately to create greener feedstocks?
1. Castor seed building blocks
Arkema is using castor seed in a huge range of products.
Arkema has received certification for its castor seed-based materials in products that include cosmetics, fragrances, lubricants, and pharmaceuticals.
The Paris-based speciality materials company says it will use castor seed for 100% of its monomer, polymer, and oleochemical production in its plant in Singapore.
Part of the problem with developing green feedstocks is making them financially viable and resilient. Growing these feedstocks sustainably is also important. For example, palm oil contains many products that make it a useful feedstock for those in the chemicals industry, but the way it is farmed, and its effect on the soil, are routinely criticised.
To that end, Arkema says that 13,300 hectares used to grow its crops (primarily in Western India) are sustainably farmed under the Sustainable Castor Caring for Environmental and Social Standards code.
2. Nutrient recovery
Unused nutrients from agriculture could be turned into biofertiliser.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) is taking part in a project with Northwest Florida Water Management District and May Nursery that will demonstrate nutrient recovery technology.
According to the US EPA, the aforementioned parties will demonstrate how unused nutrients from agriculture can be captured and turned into a biofertiliser that will help farmers along the way to more circular agricultural processes.
>> How do we make a large-scale move to greener feedstocks? Several of SCI’s Corporate Partners weighed in on the issue.
3. An alternative to plastic wrapping
Thyme oil’s antimicrobial properties could help extend the shelf life of fresh food.
Researchers at Rutgers and Harvard have created a plant-based spray coating for fresh food packaging, which they believe could reduce our reliance on petroleum-based packaging.
The researchers liken their technology to the webs that shoot from Spider-Man’s wrist. Their stringy material is spun from a hair-dryer-like heating device that is shrink-wrapped over foods as diverse as avocado and sirloin steak.
Their biopolymer contains natural antimicrobial agents – thyme oil, citric acid and nisin – to fight spoilage. The wrapping can also be easily rinsed off and degrades in the soil within three days.
4. Degraded by the light
North Dakota researchers have developed a plastic that degrades in a wavelength of light not contained in the spectrum of sunlight on earth.
Biodegradation is a prickly issue. Many are sceptical about the way biodegradable plastic bags interact with the natural environment, and others argue that we should focus on upcycling products rather than downcycling them.
That’s partly what makes a new bio-based vanillin plastic so interesting. A team of US researchers from the Center for Photochemical Sciences, Bowling Green State University, and North Dakota State University has created lignin-based polymers that degrade when exposed to light of a specific wavelength – a wavelength not contained in the spectrum of sunlight that reaches the earth.
The result of this, they claim, is that up to 60% of the monomers could be polymerised again with no loss of quality. So, in theory light-triggered degradation could make it much easier to re-use these materials.
>> Natural materials, such as hemp, are becoming ever more important. So, what makes it so special?
Dr Yalinu Poya Gow’s eventful career has taken her from Papua New Guinea and China to Glasgow, with an impressive array of awards collected along the way. She spoke to us about her successes, overcoming challenges, and feeding the world’s growing population through ammonia synthesis.
Dr Yalinu Poya Gow
Tell us about your career path to date.
I was born and raised in Lae, Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea. I did all my schooling there, then moved to Port Moresby, the capital, to do my university studies. I attended the University of Papua New Guinea and graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science, majoring in Chemistry. After graduation, I worked at the Porgera Gold Mine in the pressure oxidation circuit as a Process Technician.
In 2014, I moved to China and did a Master’s in Inorganic Chemistry, majoring in Heterogeneous Catalysis, and received the Outstanding International Student award. In Autumn 2016, I was accepted into the University of Glasgow and began my PhD in Chemistry, majoring in Heterogeneous Catalysis.
I completed my PhD studies December 2019 and graduated in June 2020. My PhD research was on making catalysts suitable for small-scale ammonia production, such as on a farm. Ammonia is a simple compound that is primarily used to make synthetic fertilisers to grow food to feed 40% of the world population; as a result, there is great interest in sustainable ammonia production on a small-scale.
I have received a total of 18 awards and honours in relation to my PhD work, including: the 2020 Commonwealth Chemistry award winner in Green Chemistry; the 2019 Green Talent Award from the German Ministry of Education and Research; and the Plutonium Element Award by International Union of Pure Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) as one of the top 118 chemists in the world under the age of 40; and first place in a Society of Chemical Industry PhD Student Competition.
My research has been highlighted and featured by the American Chemical Society, Scottish Funding Council, Society of Chemical Industry and QS Top Universities. In addition, I have been honoured by the University of Glasgow for my ammonia synthesis research and named 2020 University of Glasgow Future World Changer.
Which aspects of your work motivate you most?
The aspect of my job and research that motivates me the most is contributing to a greater cause. I play a role in contributing towards improving the livelihoods of billions across the world. I am also an educator, teaching students across the world, so in a sense I am developing the world’s human resource: equipping scientists and engineers into bettering themselves and the world. This is my motivation.
Ammonia synthesis research is key in helping us feed the world’s rapidly growing population.
What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
The personal challenge that I face is being undervalued. I, as a scientist, am usually overlooked. You see, everyone talks about sustainability, climate change, and what we should do to overcome these challenges, but when it comes to getting the job done, young scientists like me who have a lot to offer are being overlooked by institutions and organisations despite meeting criteria.
The thing with me is that I came the hard way, I worked extremely hard to get where I am and do not sway from paths nor give up easily. I continue to grow in my passion in science and research despite the limited opportunities. I believe all good things come to those who work hard and are patient.
>> We have spoken to many amazing women chemists. Read more about Dr Anita Shukla and the drug delivery systems she is developing.
What is the greatest future challenge for those in your industry and at home, and how could these be addressed through your work?
The greatest challenge is the lack of opportunities. Catalysis is somewhat a niche field when it comes to research fellowships, industrial jobs, or anything in between. Catalysis can help solve some of our problems, but it is often overlooked. Ammonia synthesis is a testament to how catalysis feeds 40% of the world population. When you take into account the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the world’s growing population, ammonia synthesis should be highly worthy of consideration.
It is the same in where I come from. Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands have brilliant and naturally gifted people. The only challenge is the lack of opportunities and services.
Which mentors have helped you along the way and how did they make a difference?
Mentors that have helped me along the way were my parents, who always believed in my potential, instilled in me hard work and discipline, and always reminded me that I have a purpose. I also have had the support of my science teachers at school, undergraduate lecturers and postgraduate supervisors. They are all heroes and heroines of science and have shaped my life greatly!
What is the current state of play within your sector with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion – and is enough being done to attract and retain diverse talent?
I am a Pacific Islander woman in Chemistry. I am a minority in the world and more so in my field. Opportunities should be given to us as we do not just represent ourselves, we represent an entire people of the Pacific.
That is the whole reason why I wanted to do a PhD in Chemistry with an underlying theme of sustainability, so I can give something back and help my people because they are the ones who face the drastic effects of climate firsthand.
Many people speak of inclusivity on paper, but it needs to come into fruition. Inclusivity is not just a box to tick. There is so much diverse talent out there – brilliant, and qualified people from minority ethnicities.
Is there any advice you would give to young professionals and young people from Papua New Guinea?
Never give up – that is all. Where you come from, your past or present, status in life, background, gender, age, what you look like, these should not hold you back from achieving your goals. Yes, life is hard, but you have a purpose.
Some have it easy, most of us have it hard, but we are tough and resilient people. Eventually, you will reach your goals one day, look back and see that all the hardship faced along the way was totally worth it.
>> Interested in a career in science communication? Then read Suze Kundu’s story.
Re-using waste materials and converting them into chemicals will help us create a closed-loop system. Ahead of the SCI Engineering Biology symposium on 23 May, Martin Hayes, Biotechnology Lead at Johnson Matthey, spoke about some exciting approaches and the challenges involved in making the low-carbon transition.
The journey to Net Zero is well underway, with a number of countries already committed to Net Zero by 2050. To achieve this ambitious goal, companies and governments must take a new approach to waste, shifting from linear processing to a circular model.
This involves recycling and reusing products to create a closed-loop system that uses fewer resources and reduces waste, pollution and carbon emissions. As we journey towards Net Zero, these ‘circularity’ principles are increasingly embedded in the research and design of products.
As a leader in sustainable technologies, Johnson Matthey (JM) is striving to help the chemical industry transition. Martin Hayes, Biotechnology Lead, explains: ‘More and more companies are starting to move away from linear chemical processes to circular ones, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
‘They’re looking at how the waste from chemical processes may be the source for biological processes. Biological entities such as enzymes or organisms can even recover precious metals from waste streams, maximising value while reducing waste.’
>> How are young chemists tackling climate change? Read more in our COP26 review.
In other cases, gas fermentation can upgrade waste products, particularly carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and convert them into chemicals. Hayes explains: ‘In this instance JM joins biology and chemistry to get the desired end product without affecting the customer experience, but making the process much cleaner.’
Fermented food waste could be converted into chemical building blocks.
Food waste is another contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A circular approach may consider fermenting food waste to convert it into useful chemical building blocks. ‘What is valuable about this is that these chemicals are not produced from virgin fossil material,’ he adds.
To realise the potential in these technologies and new businesses, it’s important to take a collaborative approach and for multi-disciplinary teams to work together. Hayes continues: ‘We know that getting the biology to the end product requires engineers, chemists, microbiologists, and biochemists – different scientists working together with commercial expertise to make a product that is sustainable, has a low environmental footprint, and is still profitable.
‘We work collaboratively in partnership because we recognise we need to develop these solutions in ways that reflect the needs of each client and the broader society.’
But the scale of the issue shouldn’t be underestimated. On the one hand, those biological entities will require engineering to become efficient catalysts, working selectively with less-than-ideal feedstocks under demanding reaction conditions. On the other hand, scaling up and optimising processes such as fermentation can be resource intensive and involve large volumes.#
Johnson Matthey will be Platinum sponsors for the upcoming Engineering Biology symposium | Editorial image credit: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock
This type of catalyst customisation and process intensification calls for a multi-disciplinary team: bioinformaticians, molecular biologists, chemists and chemical engineers working together.
While the UK leads in renewable technologies, it is also important to think in terms of connected systems rather than isolated applications of technology. That broader perspective in a circular system will get us towards Net Zero and is embodied by the SCI’s symposium on Engineering Biology with which JM is proud to be associated as a (fittingly) Platinum sponsor. This is a topic which is entirely consistent with, and supportive of, JM’s vision of a cleaner, healthier world.
>> Sign up here for SCI's Engineering Biology – applications for chemistry-using business on 23 May.
>> How do we move to non-fossil fuel feedstocks? Here’s our report on the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee Discussion Meeting on 28 March.
By rethinking the way our products are designed and changing the way we use plastics, we can tackle the blight of marine litter and the general accumulation of plastic waste. But, as Professor Richard Thompson said in our latest SCItalk, systemic issues and historical excesses have made this no easy task.
Contrary to popular perception, plastic is not the villain. When it comes to marine littering, we are the ogres, with our single-use bottles bobbing in the oceans and the detritus of our everyday lives littering the coastline.
We are the reason why 700 species are known to encounter plastic debris in the environment. It is because of us that plastics have beaten us to the bottom of the deepest oceans and glint in the sun near the summit of Mt. Everest.
According to Richard Thompson, of the Marine Institute School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth: ‘Plastic debris is everywhere. Its quantity in the ocean is likely to triple between 2015 and 2025.’
As Professor Thompson pointed out all of these facts to his audience in our latest SCItalk on 23 March, he outlined potential solutions. However, there is no ignoring the depth of the issues at hand when it comes to the litter in our seas.
Society has gradually woken up to the menace of discarded plastics and, laterally, to the threat of microplastics and nanoplastics. The problem is that we left the barn door open decades ago. So, all of those plastic microbeads from shower gels, fibres from clothing, and tyre wear particles polluted our seas for many years before it came to public and scientific attention.
Professor Thompson said that 300 papers were published globally on microplastics in the last academic year alone, but research in the area was relatively thin on the ground before Thompson and his colleagues released their pioneering study on microplastics in Science in 2004.
‘The business model for the use of plastics hasn’t really changed since the 1950s,’ Professor Thompson said. According to him, we have had 60 years of behavioural training to just throw products away, and our waterways reflect this attitude.
According to Professor Thompson, 50% of shoreline litter items recorded during the 2010s originated from single-use applications. Without a sea change in our attitude towards single-use items, this problem will persist.
Microplastics have been subject to great scrutiny, but much of the research is quite recent.
The problems with larger plastics and even microplastics are now well documented. The worrying thing, according to Thompson, is that there are knowledge gaps when it comes to nanoplastics in the natural environment. What are the effects of nanoplastic ingestion? What are the effects of human health? Time will tell, but Thompson was keen to ask if we really need that information before we take action.
He was more sanguine about the effects of microplastics. ‘The concentration of microplastics is probably not yet causing widespread ecological harm,’ he said, ‘but if we don’t take measures, we’ll pass into widespread ecological harm within the next 50-100 years.’
It seems counterintuitive to think of petrochemical plastics as a sustainable solution; and yet, despite the environmental problems posed by their durability, they do have a role to play in a greener approach.
‘If used responsibly, plastics can reduce our footprint on the planet,’ Thompson noted. Indeed, the lightweight plastic parts in our cars and in aviation can actually help reduce carbon emissions. But despite their merits, how do we keep plastic litter from our seas?
To illustrate a flaw in the way we design plastic products, Professor Thompson gave the example of an orange coloured drinks bottle. While the bright colour may help sell juice drinks, there is an issue with recycling these coloured plastics because their value as a recyclate is lower. Clear plastics, on the other hand, are much more viable to recycle.
He argues that many products aren’t being designed with the whole lifecycle in mind. ‘We’re still failing to get to grips with linking design to end of life,’ he said, before highlighting the importance of communicating how products should be disposed of right from the design stage.
Basically, our products should be designed with end of life in mind. ‘If we haven’t even designed a plastic bottle properly,’ he lamented, ‘what hope do we have with something that’s more complicated?’
Those brightly coloured plastic bottles look nice and fancy, but they can be challenging to recycle in a circular economy.
Professor Thompson argued that better practices are needed to help divert materials away from our seas (and it should be noted that there are other types of discarded materials to be found there). If we recycle greater quantities of end of life plastic products and bring them into a circular economy, he said, ‘we’d decouple ourselves from oil and gas as the carbon source for new production because the carbon source we use would be the plastic waste’.
He said more could also be done with labelling so that customers know whether, for example, a product is compostable and which waste stream it needs to be placed in to achieve that. He also noted that addressing our single-use culture would be a good place to start if we want to change the business model of linear use.
The good news is that there is an appetite for change. ‘Ten years or so ago there was no consensus that there was a problem,’ Thompson noted. ‘I would argue that this has changed.’ However, he also feels that it is essential to gather reliable, independent evidence to inform interventions, rather than espousing solutions that could make things worse.
‘We need to gather that evidence from different disciplines,’ he said. ‘We need to have at the table product designers and couple them with the waste managers. We need to have economists at the table. We also need to bring in social scientists to look at behaviour. We’ve got to think about this in the round.’
He also felt that policy measures – such as mandating recycled content – could be a good option, along with better design and disposal.
The tools we need to tackle plastic pollution are already at our disposal. We just need to act more responsibly – which, unfortunately, has been part of the problem all along.
As Professor Thompson said: ‘It’s not the plastics per se that are the problem – it’s the way we’ve chosen to use them.’
>> For more interesting SCI talks like Professor Thompson’s, check out our YouTube channel.
>> Find out more about the work of Professor Thompson and his colleagues here: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/marine-litter.
There was a happening in York recently – a Hemp Happening – organised by SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Biovale. It took place at York’s STEM Centre and explored the issues around growing and using industrial hemp. Despite these issues, there is a growing demand for hemp fibre and shiv as we look to use sustainable natural fibres and move to a low-carbon economy.
In 10 years’ time, you’ll walk out of your hemp-insulated home, wearing your hemp fibre t-shirt, polishing off the last of your hemp and beet burger, before heading to work in your hemp seed oil-powered car.
Is this scenario fantastical? Yes, obviously, but as delegates attending Hemp Happening explained on 6 April, all of these products exist right now. The sheer breadth of them underlines what a useful and versatile material hemp is. If enabled through policy, hemp could play a big part in our low-carbon future. Here are five ways it could make a significant difference.
Hemp has much-vaunted carbon-sequestering potential which, given our climate change travails, could prove extremely useful. Some experts say it is even better at capturing atmospheric carbon than trees. According to SAC Consulting, industrial hemp absorbs nine to 13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. To put hemp’s absorption capacity into context, hemp market specialists Unyte Hemp said it absorbs 25 times more CO2 than a forest of the same size.
Of course, that’s all very well, but how do you make sure this carbon remains sequestered?
One fitting home for hemp (and the carbon it has captured) is in construction, especially given the carbon-intensive nature of the industry. So, with the pressure intensifying to replace and retrofit the UK’s inefficient building stock, hemp is well placed to reduce emissions and improve building performance.
Hemp is not just used in insulation materials due to its excellent thermal performance characteristics. It is also used in rendering buildings and for non-load bearing blocks in construction. Indeed, hempcrete blocks, which are made from hemp shiv, lime, and sand or pozzolans, have a net carbon negative footprint.
Hemp is used in everything from food supplements to medicines, cosmetics, and construction products.
Hemp also helps the earth. As flash flooding strips our soils, the plant’s root density and deep structure protects against soil erosion and mitigates compaction. Hemp also provides nutrients to help maintain soil health, making it useful in crop rotation.
As insect populations dwindle, the role of pesticides and herbicides are coming into sharper relief. In that respect, hemp has a natural advantage over other crops as it doesn’t require pesticides and fertilisers.
We have long heard of the health benefits of hemp-derived products such as cannabidiol oil (or CBD oil), but pretty much the whole plant can be used. Its seeds are rich in omega-3, omega-6, and fatty acids, and help fend heart problems.
As mentioned above, the fibrous part of the plant sequesters carbon and produces low-carbon materials for construction, while its roots are used to treat joint pain and for deep tissue healing.
And then we have hemp for bioethanol production and even hemp seed veggie burgers. The list goes on; so, there are many ways for farmers to make money from it.
>> What can be done to make our soils healthier? Take a look at our blog on solving soil degradation.
Hemp has excellent insulation properties.
I bet you know at least one person with a bamboo t-shirt or socks. Hemp has similar textile potential to its super material cousin. As the fashion industry interrogates its wayward past, the pressure will increase to lighten the footprint of clothing materials. Estimates vary, but hemp is said to need less than half the water required to cultivate and process than cotton textiles and its toughness is handy in long-lasting carpeting.
Hemp has been heralded as a wonder material for decades but there is that elephant in the room. The restricted uses of hemp-related materials curb the extent to which it can be grown in the UK. At the event, delegates noted that outdated legislation, lack of government support, and education are among the factors holding back the growth of hemp on an industrial scale.
And yet, there is growing demand for natural materials that tackle climate change, especially those that sequester carbon. With pension funds increasingly divesting from fossil fuels, and the ever growing importance of corporate sustainability in business, sustainable materials such as hemp are now more attractive.
Arguably the most exciting contribution of the day was the mention of zero-cannabinoid industrial hemp. Even though the THC content levels present in hemp are low (compared to the high levels found in marijuana) and it’s unattractive as a THC source, hemp is still very strictly regulated in the UK compared to North America and the rest of the EU.
One participant mentioned that hemp genes could be edited to remove the cannabinoid – and, if that were to be achieved, it could change everything. Then we would really see hemp happening in the UK.
>> Interested in more events like this one? Visit our Events pages.
Crop rotation, seaweed extracts, lime, and a range of organic materials can all improve soil health and crop yields. Professor Geoff Dixon shows you several ways to improve your soil.
Rapidly rising costs of living are affecting all aspects of life. Increasing costs of fertilisers are affecting food production, both commercially and in gardens and allotments.
Wholesale prices of fertilisers have jumped four-fold from £250 to £1,000 per tonne within six months. All forms of garden fertilisers are now much more expensive. Crops, especially vegetables, only thrive if provided with adequate nutrition (see nitrogen-deficient lettuce below). Consequently, fertiliser use must become more efficient.
Nitrogen deficiency in lettuce.
Healthy, fertile soils achieved through good management are key to this process. That ensures roots can take up the nutrients needed in quantities that result in balanced, healthy growth.
Soil pH is a major regulator of nutrient availability for roots. Between pH 6.5 to 7.5, the macro nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are fully available for root uptake. Below and above these values, nutrient absorption becomes less efficient.
>> How much soil cultivation do you need for your vegetables? Find out more in Prof Dixon's blog on cultivation.
As a result, soluble nutrients are wasted and washed by rainfall below the root zones. Acidic soils can be improved by liming in the autumn. Sources of lime derived from crushed limestone require up to six months to cause changes in soil pH values. Lime should be used in ornamental gardens with caution as it can result in micronutrient deficiencies.
Iron deficiency in wisteria.
Soil health and fertility are greatly increased by adding organic materials such as farmyard manure and well-made composts. Increasing soil carbon content helps mitigate climate change while raising fertiliser use efficiencies.
Beneficial soil biological life such as earthworms, insects, benign bacteria and fungi are greatly encouraged when you increase soil humus content. Using crop rotations, which include legumes, raises natural levels of soil nitrogen. This is a result of legumes’ symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
Leafy vegetables such as brassicas require large amounts of nitrogen and, hence, should follow legumes in a rotation. Avoiding soil compaction encourages adequate aeration, benefiting root respiration and providing oxygen for other organisms.
Organic materials are of great value in ornamental gardens when applied as top dressings in late autumn or early spring. This provides two benefits: a slow release of nutrients into the root zones as decomposition occurs, and prevention of weed growth.
Inorganic fertiliser use can be further minimised by using proprietary seaweed extracts. These contain macro- and micro-nutrients plus several natural biostimulant compounds that aid healthy ornamental plant growth and flowering (illustration no 3 rose Frűhlingsgold).
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science.
How do flowers use fragrance to attract pollinators, and how do pollution and climate change hamper pollination? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.
‘Fragrance is the music of flowers’, said Eleanour Sophy Sinclair Rohde, an eminent mid 20th century horticulturist. But they are much more than that. Scents have fundamental biological purposes. Evolution has refined them as means for attracting pollinators and perpetuating the particular plant species emitting these scents.
There are complex biological networks connecting the scent producers and attracted pollinators within the prevailing environment. Plants flowering early in the year are generalist attractors. By late spring and early summer, scents attract more specialist pollinators as shown by studies of alpines growing in the USA Rocky Mountains. This is because there is a bigger diversity of pollinator activity as seasons advance. Scents are mixtures of volatile organic compounds with a prevalence of monoterpenes.
Environmental factors will affect scent emission. Natural drought, for example, changes flower development and reduces the volumes and intensity of scent production. The effectiveness of pollinating insects, such as bees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies is reduced by aerial pollution.
Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus).
Studies showed there were 70% fewer pollinators in fields affected by diesel fumes, resulting in lower seed production. Pollinating insects do not find the flowers because nitrogenous oxides and ozone change the composition of scent molecules.
Extensive studies of changes in flowering dates show that climate change can severely damage scent–pollinator ecologies. Over the past 30 years, blooming of spring flowers has advanced by at least four weeks. Earlier flowering disrupts the evolved natural synchrony between scent emitters and insect activity and their breeding cycles. In turn that breaks the reproductive cycles of early flowering wild herbs, shrubs and trees, eventually leading to their extinction.
The lilac bush, known for its evocative scent.
Scents provide powerful mental and physical benefits for humankind. Pleasures are particularly valuable for those with disabilities especially those with impaired vision. Even modest gardens can provide scented pleasures.
Bulbs such as Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus) (illustration no 1), which flower in mid to late-spring, and lilacs (illustration no 2) are very rewarding scent sources.
Sweetly perfumed annuals such as mignonette, night-scented stocks, candytuft and sweet peas (illustration no 3) are easily grown from garden centre modules, providing pleasures until the first frosts.
Sweet peas are easily grown from garden centre modules.
Roses are, of course, the doyenne of garden scents. Currently, Harlow Carr’s scented garden, near Harrogate, highlights the cultivars Gertrude Jekyll, Lady Emma Hamilton and Saint Cecilia as particularly effective sources of perfume. For larger gardens, lime or linden trees (Tilia spp) form profuse greenish-white blossoms in mid-season, laden with scents that bees adore.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
Why do we ignore climate change and what can we do about it? That’s what Toby Park, of The Behavioural Insights Team, explained in our latest SCItalk. Eoin Redahan reports.
Do any of these describe you?
A.I recycle whenever I can, but fly twice a year.
B.I switched to a renewable energy provider, but still drive to work twice a week.
C.I make sure all unnecessary lights are switched off in the house, but eat beef occasionally
D.I plan to live a greener lifestyle, but the real difference will be made at government level.
When it comes to climate change, most of us are full of good intentions. We want to do the right thing but when change becomes too difficult or inconvenient, people (like me) lapse into old habits. In his excellent talk, why we ignore climate change and what we can do about it, Toby Park explained these contradictions and outlined how ‘nudge’ behaviour can be used to tweak our habits.
Fundamentally, Park argued that most people mean well. After surveying a couple of thousand people in the lead-up to COP26, the Behavioural Insights Team found that 67% of respondents planned to take at least five new actions to tackle climate change and 99% said they would take at least one.
So, why then do we ignore climate change en masse? ‘We are like swimmers in a stream,’ Park said. ‘We have the opportunity to swim in one direction or another but we are in a stream that has a current.’
We’re good at recycling but not as resolute when it comes to taking fewer flights.
Life is hard enough. We tend to do what is easy and affordable, but there are other reasons why we’re not falling over each other to buy electric vehicles or driving to the south of Spain for our holidays instead of flying.
The first is psychological distance. For many people, the prospect of climate change is too distant to take seriously. Unless you have woken up to find your kitchen submerged by flooding, its effects may seem far away; yet, the changes we must make are in the present.
The problem is, it’s sometimes hard to act when you cannot feel the urgency. So, people find it hard to frontload the hardship, as they see it. Park likened it to being told that you must have the hangover before you go drinking – and how many of us would choose that?
Second, we are experts at fooling ourselves. As Park noted, we’re all natural storytellers when it comes to crafting positive images of ourselves. We are the masters of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand we feel virtuous when we recycle paper, plastic, and food scraps, yet we’ll hop on a plane for that wedding in Dublin.
‘We all have the tension of what’s in our own self interest and what’s altruistic or pro-social,’ Park said, adding a Robert Heinlein quote that encapsulates the human condition. ‘Man is not a rational animal,’ he said. Man is a rationalising animal.’
A third reason why we ignore climate change, according to Park, is that our actions rarely benefit us personally. If you buy an electric vehicle, the price of that new Tesla will sting and you’re not going to benefit from the carbon emissions saved. However, if there is collective action, everyone would benefit from cheaper electric vehicles to less filthy air.
So, what can we do about climate change?
As was mentioned above, one of the foci of the Behavioural Insights Team is encouraging ‘nudge’ behaviour – what Park described as softly encouraging a certain type of behaviour without restricting choice. And it turns out, there are lots of ways to nudge us well-intentioned, self-centred creatures into healthier habit.
Examples of nudge behaviour are everywhere. In Switzerland, energy companies made green energy the default choice and people – out of either convenience or conscience – tended to stick with this option. Park mentioned how one canteen reduced food waste by up to 40% through the introduction of a small friction: removing the plastic trays (Thiagarajah and Getty 2013). In a similar sphere, he said Sainsbury’s Cafe increased orders of its plant-based meal options by calling items ‘field-grown’ rather than ‘meat-free’ or ‘plant-based’.
Park mentioned that we can motivate different behaviour by introducing a social element. He noted that solar panels were found to be socially contagious in California and parts of Europe, while the same has happened in the UK with the introduction of green number plates for electric vehicles.
Comparing people to their peers is another useful way of changing habits for the better. Benchmarking people’s behaviour against the norm – such as telling someone they use more energy than most customers – is one way of doing it. Publishing environmental performance league tables for organisations is another to encourage a climate-friendly approach.
If you don’t think these sorts of nudge behaviours don’t work, think of the humble plastic bag tax. When you take your own bags for your weekly shop, you might save just 30p on a £30 shop. But have you done it? And are you doing it still?
Unfortunately, there is no dancing around the fact that 60% of emissions reduction requires behaviour change, according to Park. So, nudge behaviour will help but we’ll be needing more power behind that elbow.
What’s in a name? Language can have a profound effect on our choices. Now, who’s for a field-grown breakfast?
‘Small nudges aren’t enough,’ he said. ‘We also need to apply this lens to systemic, transformative change. That means finding smart ways to tilt the functioning of markets.
He said that consistent, long-term decision making is not only important for individuals but for businesses too.
‘Incentives are massively important for corporations,’ he added. ‘That would generally be my first port of call. That’s where the bigger impacts can be found.’
At the end of the talk, a member of the audience asked Park, simply, if there was hope? To answer that, he offered the example of plant-based food.
Not so long ago, many plant-based meat alternatives were the preserve of the few. However, consumer interest in plant-based foods has ‘mushroomed’ in recent years and retailers have responded with a swath of new food products.
‘Change can be runaway and self accelerating, Park said, ‘and we shouldn’t forget that solutions can scale exponentially… New norms can, all of a sudden, spread very quickly.’
>> To listen to Toby’s talk, go to YouTube
How well equipped is the UK’s battery supply chain to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles? We took a closer look to mark National Battery Day.
Main image editorial credit: Phaustov/Shutterstock
For many of us, it’s exciting to see the growth of the electric vehicle industry. Our personal transport will be cleaner. Our roads will be quieter. Indeed, from 2030 the UK government will ban the sale of pure internal combustion engine cars, and the widening role of ultra-low emission zones will hit many motorists in the pocket. Whether we like it or not, change is coming.
That does not mean we are prepared for it. As demand for electric and hybrid vehicles accelerates, and more stringent trade rules put pressure on having a local battery supply chain (stricter Rules of Origin for trade will come into force by 2027), the UK must get its complete supply chain up to speed.
For this to happen, chemists, suppliers, manufacturers, innovators, government representatives, and others need to make strides in several areas. Over the past year, a group of more than 50 participants at SCI’s Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain workshops have identified next generation technology, the scale-up of innovative technologies, the skills and knowledge base, and standards for materials testing as areas for improvement.
Brine pools for lithium mining. There is a global clamour for raw materials including lithium.
The UK also needs a consistent stream of key battery materials. It needs technologies that reduce the dependence on some of the current materials for hybrid and electric vehicles. It must integrate efficient battery recycling and manufacturing approaches to reduce its dependence on long-distance imports and much coveted raw materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt.
It is a big challenge. As David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation (who helped run SCI’s five Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain workshops) said, there isn’t enough of a UK electric battery supply chain at the moment.
>> Find out what the experts thought about improving the UK battery supply chain in our Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain Part 5 video.
David did note that the UK Government (through UK Research and Innovation) has been investing in the scale-up of cell assembly through the Energy Innovation Centre at WMG (from 2012/3) and the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (through UKRI and the Automotive Propulsion Centre). It will also support the construction of Britishvolt’s electric battery ‘gigafactory’ in Blyth, Northumberland.
However, he added that: ‘All of them, however, are talking about the assembly of the cells and 60% of the value is in the materials. We need a battery materials supply chain in the UK – not all the way back to mining, of course, but as much as we can.’
Recent developments in the UK have been heartening, but many more will be needed to create a viable battery supply chain.
Smoother collaboration is also required. ‘We need recognition that the UK needs more support for the chemistry part of the supply chain,’ he said. ‘We need a lot more collaboration – engineers need to understand that chemistry companies would engage more if they understood the size of the opportunity. The main thing we need at the moment is awareness of the opportunities.’
Despite the difficulties, green shoots have appeared recently. In late January, the government announced that it has backed Britishvolt’s aforementioned plans to build large volumes of electric vehicle batteries (through the Automotive Transformation Fund). According to the government, the factory will produce enough batteries for more than 300,000 vehicles a year and create 3,000 direct, highly-skilled skilled jobs. Britishvolt have also announced a partnership with Glencore to recycle battery materials.
>> Sign up for our next Energising the UK’s Battery Supply Chain workshop.
Oxford-based chemical products manufacturer Nexeon has secured US$80 million (about £59 million) in funding to scale up the production of its silicon anode materials. Finally, Sheffield-based sodium-ion battery technology company Faradion has been acquired by Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries for £100 million. A further £25 million will be invested as growth capital to accelerate the commercial rollout of its sodium-ion battery technology.
Faradion says that its sodium-ion technology provides ‘significant advantages compared to lithium-ion technology, including greater sustainability, a patented zero-volt safe transport and storage capability’.
So, there is some good news to celebrate as you gather around with your families to celebrate National Battery Day. The battery supply chain, unfortunately, must wait for another day.
What is the future of electric cars? Find out more in this Autotrader article.
Machine-made snow has made this Winter Olympics happen in Beijing, but at what cost?
If you take a look at the weather in Beijing right now, you’ll notice that it isn’t really that cold. You can enjoy daily highs of about 8°C in early February, which we’d be happy enough here in London.
These mild conditions have been a problem for the organisers of the Winter Olympics, which are currently taking place in Beijing and environs. Indeed, the distinct dearth of snow has meant that the Beijing Games have become the first to be run largely on artificial snow.
Snowmaking machines spray artificial snow on a ski slope during the FIS Ski Cross World Cup, a test event for the 2022 Winter Olympics
For some, the presence of 130 fan-driven snow generators and 300 snow-making guns spewing out machine-made snow represents a waste of resources, even if these machines are powered entirely by renewable energy.
In all, 49 million gallons of water will reportedly be used to make the Games possible. So, to say they are water-intensive is something of an understatement. However, the issues don’t end there. There is also an issue with the type of snow produced.
>> What can you do about climate change? Register for this free talk to find out more.
Some claim artificial snow creates more dangerous conditions for athletes.
According to the recent Slippery Slopes report written by the Sport Ecology Group (in conjunction with Loughborough University UK and Protect Our Winters UK), the composition of artificial snow can create dangerous conditions for the athletes. Basically, it creates a faster, harder surface that could result in more severe injuries.
The reason given for this is that artificial snow is almost 30% ice and 70% air, compared to natural snow, which is closer to 10% ice and 90% air. This ‘grittier ice-pack’ creates tougher conditions for athletes, many of whom travel at great speeds down steep slopes.
In the same report, former Winter Olympian Laura Donaldson explains why these machines create suboptimal snow. ‘The artificial snowflakes they generate have cylindrical structures (unlike the far more intricate structure of natural flakes),’ she said, ‘which mould together to form bulletproof ice conditions.’
Furthermore, this less permeable layer of ice may hinder the growth of vegetation, and the noise of the machines disrupts wildlife. In some resorts, chemicals are also added to create longer lasting snow.
At Beijing, the organisers claim not to have used chemicals in the snow-making process. However, others rely on machines and chemical-kind for a helping hand. According to the Sport Ecology Group report, a pesticide was used at the 2010 Games in Vancouver to allow the water to freeze at higher temperatures; and snow hardeners such as salt and fertiliser have been used to improve snow quality on cross-country skiing trails.
If hosting the Winter Olympics in an area without much snow seems crazy to you, it might not be quite as daft as you think. The bleak reality is that global warming is reducing the number of venues that can host this enormous event without artificial help.
According to an academic paper by Scott et. al. in 2014, only six of the last 19 Winter Olympics host cities will still have the climatic conditions to do so by the 2080s. Of course, that doesn’t take artificial snow into account.
So, when you see Qatar being awarded the 2050 Winter Games, don’t tell me you haven’t been warned.
Johnson Matthey has launched a technology to help create a green hydrogen-based aviation fuel, while the European Commission has approved a €900 million scheme (£750 million approximately) to support renewable hydrogen investments.
SCI Corporate Partner Johnson Matthey has developed HyCOgen to convert CO2 and green hydrogen into a scalable and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The speciality chemicals company says it has combined this Reverse Water Gas Shift technology with FT CANS Fischer Tropsch technology through a catalysed process. With this approach, the green hydrogen and CO2 are converted into carbon monoxide, which is combined with additional hydrogen to form syngas.
Integration with the FT CANS technology is used to turn 95% of the CO2 into a high quality synthetic crude oil. This synthetic crude oil can then be upgraded into sustainable, drop-in fuel products for aviation transport – a sector responsible for 12% of transport-related CO2 emissions, according to the Air Transport Action Group.
Green hydrogen fuel, produced using renewable energy, could help decarbonise the aviation industry.
Jane Toogood, Sector Chief Executive at Johnson Matthey, said: “Given the challenges associated with new propulsion technologies and airport infrastructure, plus the long asset life of aircraft, there are significant hurdles in moving from hydrocarbon-based aviation fuel to alternatives such as battery electric or hydrogen.
“By combining HyCOgen with FT CANS, we can now deliver customers a cost-efficient, reliable and scalable technology to help increase SAF production, backed by our track record of successful technology development and commercialisation.”
>> Concerned about climate change? Find out what you can do in this free webinar: https://www.soci.org/events/hq-events/2022/why-we-ignore-climate-change-and-what-we-can-do-about-it
In other hydrogen-related news, the global hydrogen industry has received a boost with the European Commission approving a €900 million German scheme to support investments in renewable hydrogen production in non-EU countries.
The aim of the H2Global project is to meet the growing EU demand for renewable hydrogen production, which is expected to increase significantly as EU countries reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Even though the initiative will benefit EU countries, UK-based organisations concerned with hydrogen power could benefit from this investment.
>> Young chemists are getting creative in the fight against climate change. Read more in our COP26 review blog.
Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition who is in charge of competition policy, said: “This €900 million German scheme will support projects leading to substantial reductions in greenhouse emissions, in line with the EU’s environmental and climate objectives set out in the Green Deal.
“It will contribute to addressing the increasing demand for renewable hydrogen in the Union, by supporting the development of this important energy source in areas of the world where it is currently not exploited with a view to importing it and selling it in the EU. The design of the scheme will enable only the most cost effective projects to be supported, reducing costs for taxpayers and minimising possible distortions of competition.”
Greenhouse gas emissions statistics can be misleading. At a recent SCI webinar on the Future of Agriculture, the Agrisciences Committee put its finger on some glaring gaps in the figures.
If all of the cows in the world came together to form a country, that nation state would be the second highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
McKinsey Sustainability’s statistic was certainly startling. However, Agrisciences Group Chair Jeraime Griffith mentioned other equally striking figures in his wrapup of the social media discussion generated at COP26.
In his talk as part of the Agrisciences Committee’s COP26 – What does it mean for the future of agriculture? webinar on 7 December, Griffith also noted that:
On the face of it, these figures are sobering; yet, like many agriculture-related figures, they don’t tell the full story.
Insane in the methane
Kathryn Knight felt that agriculture received negative press at COP26 in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. ‘It doesn't seem to take into account carbon sequestration (capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide),’ said the Research & Technology Manager of Crop Care at Croda. ‘Why isn’t that being brought into the equation when we’re talking about carbon and agriculture?’
Martin Collison expanded on this point. He emphasised the need to separate carbon emissions by system – such as extensively grazed livestock animals and those fed on grain – and to account for systems that sequester carbon in the soil. The co-founder of agricultural consultancy Collison & Associates also pointed out the problem with bundling all our greenhouse gases as one.
Greenhouse gas emissions are sometimes unhelpfully bundled together, instead of being separated by gas and agricultural system.
‘We count methane in the same way we emit carbon,’ he said. ‘When we emit carbon, it’s in the atmosphere for 1,000 years, but with methane it’s 12 years. The methane cycle is a lot, lot shorter.’
And the difficulties with the statistics don’t end there. For example, countries often announce impressive emission reductions without taking trade into account. This, of course, gives the figures a greener gloss.
‘To me, there's a need to be more up front with a lot of the data because agriculture and food are traded around the world,’ he added. ‘A lot of the emissions data ignore what we trade.
‘In the UK, we make big claims about how fast we’ve progressed with carbon emissions, but if you look at what we consume, the progress is much much slower. The things we produce less of, we import.’
>> SCI was at COP26 too! Read about the role of chemistry in creating a greener future.
Full of hot air?
Emissions trading also serves to blur the picture. For Jeraime Griffith it is an unsatisfactory solution. ‘In terms of carbon trading, we have cases where the higher emitters continue producing in the way they’ve always been producing,’ he said.
‘It doesn't bring in any restrictions on the amount of carbon they emit; it just shifts the problem somewhere else. I don't know how carbon trading benefits us getting to Net Zero. It just seems to be kicking the ball farther down the road.’
Is emissions trading part of the solution or part of the problem?
So, when you take into account 1. emissions trading, 2. the absence of food imports in data sets, 3. the bundling together of different greenhouse gases in emissions figures, and 4. the failure to take carbon sequestration into account, it’s clear that many of the statistics we receive are incomplete.
‘There’s lots of complexity behind the numbers and we tend to lump all of it together,’ Collison said. ‘There’s a need to go much much further.’
>> SCI’s Agrisciences Group is a unique multidisciplinary network covering the production, protection and utilisation of crops for food and non-food products. It has 250 members including academic and industry leaders, researchers, consultants, students, and retired members. If you’re interested in joining the group, go to: www.soci.org/interest-groups/agrisciences
Gardens in December should, provided the weather allows, be hives of activity and interest. Many trees and shrubs, especially Roseaceous types, offer food supplies especially for migrating birds.
Cotoneaster (see image below) provides copious fruit for migrating redwings and waxwings as well as resident blackbirds. This is a widely spread genus, coming from Asia, Europe and northern Africa.
Cultivated as a hedge, it forms thick, dense, semi-evergreen growth that soaks up air pollution. In late spring, its white flowers are nectar plants for brimstone and red admiral butterflies and larval food for moths. Children and pets, however, should be guided away from the attractive red berries.
Cotonester franchetti | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Medlars (Mespilus germanica) offer the last fruit harvest of the season (see image below). These small trees produce hard, round, brownish fruit that require frosting to encourage softening (bletting).
Its soft fruit can be scooped out and eaten raw and the taste is not dissimilar to dates. Alternatively, medlar fruit can be baked or roasted and, when turned into jams and jellies, they are delicious, especially spread on warm scones.
Like most rosaceous fruit, medlars are nutritionally very rich in amino acids, tannins, carotene, vitamins C and B and several beneficial minerals. As rich sources of antioxidants medlars also help reduce the risks of atherosclerosis and diabetes.
Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica) can be turned into jams and jellies | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Garden work continues through December. It is a time for removing dead leaves and stems from herbaceous perennials, lightly forking through the top soil and adding granular fertilisers with high potassium and phosphate content.
Top fruit trees gain from winter pruning, which opens out their structure, allowing air circulation when fully laden with leaves, flowers and fruit. Fertiliser will feed and encourage fresh root formation as spring progresses.
The vegetable garden is best served by digging and incorporating farm yard manure or well-rotted compost, which adds fertility and encourages worm populations. The process of digging is also a highly beneficial exercise for the gardener (see illustration no 3).
Turning the soil isn’t only good for your garden - it boosts your wellbeing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Developing a rhythm with this task supports healthy blood circulation and, psychologically, provides huge mental satisfaction in seeing a weedy plot transformed into rows of well-turned bare earth.
When the weather turns wet, windy and wintery it provides opportunities for cleaning, oiling and sharpening tools, inspecting stored fruit and the roots of dahlias kept in frost-proof conditions.
Finally, there is always the very relaxing and pleasant task of reading through seed and plant catalogues and planning what may be grown in the coming seasons.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
At COP26, Nikita Patel co-hosted the Next-Gen debate, where an inspiring group of young people discussed how chemistry is tackling climate change. The PhD student at Queen Mary University of London shares her experience.
While the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) may be over, there is still plenty to be done in the fight against climate change. We’ve seen what can be achieved when we work together and no doubt science will play a key role.
On Thursday 4 November, I had the privilege of co-hosting the Countdown to Planet Zero Next-Gen debate organised by SCI to showcase the work being carried out by our young and innovative scientists to tackle climate change. It was a real pleasure to share the stage and hear from some great scientists, exploring the themes Fuels of the Future, Turning Waste into Gold and Engineering Nature. The event gave the audience the opportunity to question and challenge the panel members on their climate change solutions.
Panel L-R: Dominic Smith, Natasha Boulding, Clare Rodseth, Jake Coole, Nikita Patel, Oliver Ring (Brett Parkinson joined virtually).
While I was feeling nervous about my hosting duties, I was very excited at the same time as I knew how important it was to educate the audience, whether they were members of the public or aspiring scientists, on how science is crucial in battling the climate emergency.
An important part of my role as a host was to ensure the incoming questions and comments were understood by all, given the mixed audience attending. This highlighted how essential good science communication is to prevent misunderstandings and the spread of misinformation.
It was brilliant to see how engaged the audience were from the flurry of questions that came in during the session, so much so that we didn’t manage to get through all of them! There were a wide variety of questions aimed at particular panellists but also towards the panel as a whole. It was thought-provoking to hear how scientists from different backgrounds offered their own perspectives on the same topic.
4 November was also Energy Day at COP26 and the atmosphere was buzzing! I learnt a lot from attending the Green Zone, not only from our panellists but from all the exhibitors present too. I appreciate the small, individual actions we can each take that will make a difference but also the need to work together to achieve the common goal of fighting climate change. It was clear to see how science and business go hand in hand to provide solutions to society and how interdisciplinary collaboration is key.
The result of our poll question: ‘Do you think that science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions?’ spoke for itself, with a resounding yes from 100% of the audience participants! This was a very positive outcome and showed that it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to discussing the climate crisis.
On a personal level, I'm going to continue implementing some simple changes like using public transport more, eating more vegan food and flying less and aim to keep the discussion going with my peers as the climate emergency is far from over.
SCI team, panellists and hosts.
I hope the youth panel event has inspired the next generation of scientists and showcased some of the exciting work that is going on behind the scenes which people may not realise and ultimately, that there is hope in science.
>> To rewatch the event, the recording is available on the COP26 YouTube channel: Countdown to Planet Zero Combating climate change with chemistry | #COP26, and on our Climate Change Solutions hub.
>> Want to read more about the technologies discussed by our panel? Read our event review: https://www.soci.org/blog/2021/11/2021-11-05-cop26-review.
‘This is a fragile win. We have kept 1.5 alive. That was our overarching objective when we set off on this journey two years ago, taking the role of the COP presidency-designate. But I would say the pulse of 1.5 is weak’ – Alok Sharma, President for COP26.
If scientists, politicians and activists were hoping that COP26, delayed by one year because of the pandemic, would yield concrete plans for progress on climate change, perhaps the overall conclusion might be ‘at least we haven’t gone backwards’.
The Glasgow Climate Pact, signed by 197 countries, required an extra day of negotiations. In his summing up, the UN Secretary General António Guterres said: ‘The approved texts are a compromise. They reflect the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today.’
In his video statement Guterres said that the agreement ‘takes important steps but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions. We must accelerate action to keep the 1.5 (degrees °C) goal alive…it’s time to go into emergency mode or our chance of reaching net-zero will indeed be zero.’
Guterres added that it was his conviction that it was time to phase out coal, end fossil fuel subsidies and build resilience in vulnerable communities. He also addressed the many young people and indigenous communities, saying: ‘I know you are disappointed. But the path to progress is not always a straight line…but I know we will get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won.’
COP26 President Alok Sharma believes that the measures agreed at COP26 are a ‘fragile win’ in the fight against catastrophic climate change. | Editorial credit: Paul Adepoju / Shutterstock.com
The Glasgow Climate Pact calls on signatories to report their progress towards more climate ambition in time for COP27, which will be hosted by Egypt. Welcoming the agreement, Alok Sharma, COP26 President, said: ‘This is a fragile win. We have kept 1.5 alive. That was our overarching objective when we set off on this journey two years ago, taking the role of the COP presidency-designate. But I would say the pulse of 1.5 is weak.’
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: ‘We have made progress on three of the objectives we set at the start of COP26. First, to get commitments to cut emissions to keep within reach the global warming limit of 1.5 degrees. Second, to reach the target of $100 billion per year of climate finance to developing and vulnerable countries. And third, to get agreement on the Paris rulebook. This gives us confidence that we can provide a safe and prosperous space for humanity on this planet.’
The NGO Greenpeace said in a statement: ‘While the COP26 deal doesn’t put the 1.5C goal completely out of reach, the governments and companies that obstructed bold action on climate change are knowingly endangering whole communities and cultures for their own short-term profits or political convenience. History won’t judge them kindly for this.’
While the final Pact has not reflected the hopes of many, it can be said that COP26 wasn’t short of a desire to see change. Perhaps the surprise package of the two-week event was the declaration between China and US which states that the countries ‘…recognise the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis. They are committed to tackling it through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s, as well as through cooperation in multilateral processes, including the UNFCCC process to avoid catastrophic impacts.’ The declaration from the two countries was widely welcomed.
Other notable developments from COP26 included: The formal launch of the Global Methane Pledge led by the US and the European Union. The Pledge, which seeks to reduce overall methane emissions by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030, saw 100 countries, representing 70% of the global economy and nearly half the global methane emissions, sign up.
In agriculture, the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4Climate) was launched. Initiated by the US and United Arab Emirates, with endorsement from the COP26 Presidency, the goal of the initiative is to increase and accelerate global innovative research and development on agriculture and food systems in support of climate action.
For some, including environmental activist Greta Thunberg, the resolutions agreed by governments at COP26 are insufficient. | Editorial credit: Mauro Ujetto / Shutterstock.com
The initiative has the backing of 32 countries. In addition, ocean protection received a boost with the UK Government using the COP26 Ocean Action Day to announce a wave of investment including at least £20 million in commitments made at the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Roundtable to drive the health and resilience of the oceans and climate vulnerable communities.
The Science and Innovation day at COP26 saw the launch of four initiatives, backed by global coalitions of nations, businesses and scientists. In what was said to be a global first, the Adaptation and Research Alliance was launched. The network of more than 90 organisations will collaborate to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities most impacted by climate change.
In further developments the UK, along with several countries including Canada and India, will collaborate to develop new markets for low carbon steel and concrete. The work is being carried out under the Industrial Deep Decarbonisation Initiative.
Commenting on this, George Freeman, the UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, said: ‘Real change to combat climate change cannot happen without new scientific ideas, innovation and research, and it is clear no country or company acting in isolation can deliver the change that is needed at the pace that is needed.’
While the final COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact has disappointed many, there is no doubt that there is a will to make positive change, keep global temperatures in check and see humanity reap benefits.
How has climate change changed the way our gardens grow and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.
Climate has changed on Earth ever since it solidified and organic life first emerged. Indeed, the first photosynthesising microbes changed the atmosphere from carbon dioxide rich to oxygen rich over millions of years. What we now face is very rapid changes brought about by a single organism, mankind, through industrialisation.
The effects of change are very evident in gardens. Over a generation, leaf bud breaking and flowering by early spring bulbs, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees has advanced by at least four weeks (see main image of Cyclamen hederifolium).
Latter spring displays have advanced by at least two weeks. This is caused by milder, wetter winter weather, encouraging growth. The danger lies in the increasing frequency of short sharp spells of severe frost and snow. These kill off precocious flowers and leaves which trees especially cannot replace.
Desiccated, cracked soil.
Increasingly, the summer climate is becoming hotter and drier. Since the Millennium there has been a succession of hot droughts. These seriously limit scope for growing vegetables, fruit and ornamentals unless irrigation is regularly available. Drought also damages soil structure especially where there is a high clay content by causing cracking and the loss of plant cover (see image of desiccated, cracked soil above).
Cracking disrupts and destroys the root systems of trees and shrubs in particular. The effects of root damage may not become evident until these plants die in the following years.
Climate change is apparently advantageous for microbes. Detailed surveys show that fungal life cycles are speeding up, increasing the opportunities for diseases to cause damage. Even normally quite resilient crops such as quince are being invaded during milder, damper autumns (See image of brown rot on quince fruit below). Throughout gardens, the range and aggressiveness of pests and disease is increasing.
Brown rot (Monilia laxa) on quince fruit.
However, each individual garden or allotment, no matter its size, can contribute to reducing the rate of climate change. Simple actions include the removal of hard landscaping, and planting trees and shrubs reduces carbon emissions.
Using electric-powered tools and machinery in place of petrol or diesel has similar advantages. Tumbling down parts of a garden into native flora, and perhaps encouraging rarer plants such as wild orchids or fritillarias, mitigates climate change. Such areas may also form habitats for hedgehogs or slow worms, increase populations of bees, butterflies and moths and encourage bird life.
All images from Professor Geoff Dixon.
A group of inspiring young scientists took centre stage at COP26 on 4 November to show how the next generation of chemists is finding tangible climate change solutions.
In a day dominated by what countries pledged to stop doing at COP26, such as pursuing coal power and financing fossil fuel projects overseas, it was refreshing to learn about low-carbon technologies and the young people driving their development. At the Next Gen forum, we heard from an array of young chemists, all associated with SCI, who are at the sharp edge of this change.
We heard from Brett Parkinson, Senior Engineer of Low Carbon Fuels and Energy Technologist at C-Zero, who is working on commercialising a way to decarbonise natural gas. The California-based company’s technology converts the natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon to provide a clean energy source while sequestering the carbon; and the aim is to have this process up and running next year.
Natasha Boulding is building towards Net Zero a different way – with a greener concrete. The CEO and Co-founder of Sphera has developed a lightweight carbon negative additive using waste plastics that aren’t currently being recycled. She says the company’s blocks are the same strength and price as existing concrete blocks, but with 30% more thermal insulation. There is also the added benefit of reusing waste materials that would otherwise have gone to landfill or been incinerated.
Another solution discussed by Dominic Smith, Process Development Engineer at GSK, reduces energy consumption through green chemistry. He is trying to find greener ways to make medicines using enzymes. These enzymes, which can be found in plants and soil, replace chemical synthesis steps to cut energy consumption during processing and reduce hazardous waste.
Panel (left to right): Dominic Smith, Natasha Boulding, Clare Rodseth, Jake Coole, Nikita Patel, and Oliver Ring (Brett Parkinson spoke via video link).
It was apparent from the discussion that many solutions will be needed for us to reach our climate change targets. On the one hand, Jake Coole, Senior Chemist in Johnson Matthey’s Fuel Cells team, is working on membrane electrode assembly for hydrogen fuel cells to help us transition to hydrogen-powered buses and trucks.
At the same time, Clare Rodseth, an Environmental Sustainability Scientist at Unilever, has been using lifecycle assessments to reduce the environmental impact of some of the 400 Unilever brands people use all over the world every day. For example, this work has helped the company move away from petrochemical ingredients in its home care products. ‘Even small changes,’ she said, ‘have the potential to bring about large-scale change.’
However, for each of the technologies discussed, barriers remain. For Coole and co., having a readily available supply of hydrogen and charging infrastructure will be key. And for Dominic Smith and his colleagues, the use of enzymes in green chemistry is still in its infancy; and getting enzymes that are fast enough, stable enough, and produce the right yield is difficult. Nevertheless, he noted that manufacturers are now using enzymes to produce the drug amoxicillin, reducing the carbon footprint by about 25%
And some things will take time to change. Natasha Boulding noted that concrete is the second most used material in the world after drinking water, and we simply can’t create many green technologies, such as wind turbines, without concrete foundations.
She said the construction industry is quite traditional but also pointed to perceptible change, with the green concrete market growing and companies becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprints.
Collaboration was seen as crucial in producing climate change solutions.
The reality is that global action on climate change is recent. As Brett Parkinson said: ‘the main reason we’re talking about it now is that there’s a driver to do it. Until the last decade, the world hadn’t cared about CO2 emissions. They just talked about caring about it.’
How pivotal is science in all of this?
So, what could be done to make climate action more effective? For Parkinson, effective policy is key. He argued that if the market isn’t led by policies that encourage low-carbon innovations, then it won’t work as needed. ‘It all starts with effective decarbonisation policy,’ he said. ‘Legacy industries are very resistant to change. If you don’t have strong and consistent policies… then they’re not going to adapt.’
Another key to our low-carbon evolution is collaboration, and the SCI provides a confluence point for those in industry and academia to work together to produce innovative, low-carbon products. As Clare Rodseth said: ‘Collaboration is really important – linking up people who can actually come together and address these problems.’
As the discussion came to a close, you had the impression that the debate could have gone on for much longer. ‘Hopefully, we’ve demonstrated that there is action, and it’s being driven by young people like our panellists today,’ summarised Oliver Ring, the event’s co-Chair, before asking for the result of the audience poll.
The question: How many of those watching believed that science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions?
The answer: Just the 100%.
>> Thank you to Johnson Matthey for sponsoring the event, to the speakers for sharing their time and expertise, and to co-chairs Nikita Patel and Oliver Ring for doing such an excellent job.
This Thursday at COP26, an inspiring panel of young scientists will discuss innovations that will help us mitigate climate change. So, what can we expect?
Millions of young people are frustrated by climate change inaction. Indeed, according to a University of Bath study, 60% of the next generation feel overwhelmed by climate anxiety. Often, the proposed solutions seem vague and intangible – well-intentioned ideas that drift away when the political winds shift.
And yet, when you see the ingenuity of young scientists, business people, and activists, it’s hard not to be excited. Undoubtedly, politics and our legal system will play a huge role in the drive to reach Net Zero, but arguably science will play the biggest role in transforming the way we live. Just think of the falling cost of generating solar power, improvements in battery chemistry for electric vehicles, the development of sustainable construction materials, and the rapid rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.
This Thursday at COP26, SCI will host the Next Gen youth forum event where the panellists discuss the climate change solutions they are working on right now and how they are being applied by industry. In the Countdown to Planet Zero roundtable, these scientists – drawn from within SCI’s innovation community – will explain their work to a global audience and the impact it will have on climate change.
They will discuss innovation in three key areas: topics of fuels of the future, turning waste into gold, and engineering nature.
The next generation has mobilised and is creating solutions to help avoid climate change disaster.
The panel will be chaired by two very capable young scientists. Oliver Ring is Senior Scientist at AstraZeneca’s large-scale synthesis team and Chair of SCI’s Young Chemists’ Panel, and passionate climate advocate Nikita Patel is a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre of Translational Medicine and Therapeutics and STEM Ambassador for schools.
The other panel members include Clare Rodseth, of Unilever’s Environmental Sustainability Science team, who brings lifecycle analysis to product innovation to make products more sustainable.
Jake Coole, Senior Chemist in Johnson Matthey’s Fuel Cells team, is involved in the scale-up of new processes and next generation manufacturing, and Dominic Smith, Process Development Engineer at GSK, who is interested in engineering biology to create sustainable manufacturing processes.
Also present will be Dr Brett Parkinson, Senior Engineer of Low Carbon Fuels and Energy Technologist at C-Zero – a California-based startup that works on the decarbonisation of natural gas. In 2019, Brett was awarded an SCI scholarship for his research.
The lineup also includes Dr Natasha Boulding, CEO and Co-founder of Sphera Limited, a speciality materials company that has created carbon negative concrete blocks made from aggregate including waste plastic. According to Natasha, whose company also won SCI’s Bright SCIdea challenge in 2019: “In terms of combating climate change, interdisciplinary collaboration is the key. No one discipline has the answer to solve our biggest challenges – but together diverse minds can.’
Watch the event online
SCI is proud to be associated with these enterprising young scientists and the imaginative solutions they are developing to mitigate the effects of climate change.
‘As a global innovation hub, SCI wants to show how the next generation of scientists is actively developing solutions,’ said Sharon Todd, SCI CEO.
Sharon Todd, SCI CEO
‘Our COP26 youth forum debate will profile the work of young scientists and entrepreneurs addressing climate change in their work. This next generation of innovators has the power to change our world’s tomorrow.’
If you’d like to see the climate change solutions of tomorrow, register to watch the virtual event here.
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.
A little talked about element, with the atomic mass 140, plays a surprisingly important role in everyday life. It has not only lit many a path, but can be credited with improving and saving the lives of billions of people by enabling cleaner air.
In his talk '140Ce: White light & Clean Air' Andy Walker, Johnson Matthey’s Technical Marketing Director explained why the soft, ductile silvery-white metal Cerium, deserves more recognition.
Walker began by outlining the history of SCI, celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. As an employee of Johnson Matthey, Walker highlighted that George Matthey was among the pioneers of SCI. In addition Walker explained that his PhD research had involved looking at catalysts that included Cerium.
Cerium is a lanthanide and the 26th most abundant element on earth. Indeed it was the first lanthanide to be discovered, found as its ore cerium silicate, in 1803. Cerium makes up 66ppm of the earth’s crust, which is about 5 times as much as lead. It is the only one of the lanthanides able to take on the +4 oxidation state, making it very useful in some of its applications. It is mined in the US, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Australian and China, with annual global production of 24 000 tonnes.
However, this straightforward look at the history of Cerium conceals a much more interesting narrative about how this element shaped the life of a number of prominent chemists of the day. Indeed Cerium was found as early as 1751 at a mine in Vestmanland, Sweden by Axel Cronstedt, who also discovered Nickel. Believing it to be an ore of Tungsten, he sent it to Carl Wilhelm Scheele for analysis. However, Scheele was not able to identify it as a new element.
This turn of events for Scheele, perhaps unfairly, helped to seal his moniker as the ‘unlucky chemist’. Scheele, a prominent chemist and pharmacist, had a number of discoveries to his name. He isolated lactic acid, and discovered hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen sulphide.
But as Walker explained, his most notable discovery was oxygen, some three years before Joseph Priestley. Sadly for Scheele; it took him six years to publish his findings, by which time Priestley had already presented his data. Putting a contemporary slant on Scheele’s misfortune, Walker added that the cautionary tale here was that getting things out into the public domain as soon as possible can be important to ensure credit goes to the right people.
Further work by Scheele led to the discovery of a number of elements including barium and chlorine, but sadly he did not receive any recognition because he didn’t manage to isolate them and identify them correctly. The chemist Sir Humphrey Davy did so, some years later, getting the credit for their discovery and isolation.
So it was in 1803 that chemists Wilhelm Hisinger and Jons Jacob Bezelius proved that Cerium was indeed a new element, naming it Cerium after an asteroid/dwarf planet which had been called Ceres. The successful isolation of Cerium took place in 1875, carried out by American chemists William Hillebrand and Thomas Norton, by passing an electric current through molten cerium chloride.
99.95% fine cerium isolated on white background
Once isolated, the earliest application of Cerium was in incandescent gas mantles. Developed by Carl Auer von Welsbach, in 1891, he perfected a mixture of 99% thorium oxide and 1% ceria, which gave a soft white light. Introducing his new mantle commercially in 1892, von Welsbach was able to monetise his development selling his product throughout Europe.
Gas mantles have been replaced, but Cerium’s importance in producing white light remains. As Walker explained, most white LEDs use a blue gallium nitride LED covered by a yellowish phosphor coating made of cerium-doped Yttrium Aluminium Garnet crystals.
In the medical arena, Cerium was used by Sir James Young Simpson, Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at Edinburgh who did a lot of work in the area of anaesthetics. Simpson found that cerium nitrate suppressed vomiting, particularly that associated with morning sickness, and well into the last century, medication containing Cerium could be bought over the counter. In addition Cerium has been the basis of treatments for burns.
Other applications for this versatile element are self cleaning ovens and mischmetal alloy, used in flints for cigarette lighters. Walker shared that the chemist and author Primo Levi, while imprisoned in Auschwitz, was able to steal cerium-iron rods from the laboratory he was forced to work in. Making them into cigarette lighter flints, he was able to barter for bread. Cerium is used to harden surfaces; it is a good polishing agent. Cerium sulphide has been used to replace the pigment cadmium red as a non-toxic alternative and Cerium is widely used across the chemical industry as a catalyst to produce a host of chemicals.
Catalysis is probably where Cerium has impacted most people as the element is the basis for the catalytic converters that have provided cleaner air for billions of people. Walker explained that the driver for the development came during the 1950s when photochemical smog was a problem in the Los Angeles Basin. Measurements at the time indicated that vehicles were responsible for the majority of the hydrocarbon and NOx emissions that led to the polluted air.
This turn of events led researchers to develop systems that could mitigate the emissions. Johnson Matthey was among those doing the early work on catalytic converters. Meanwhile, the automotive industry was pushing back on their introduction, concerned about the costs, durability and effectiveness. Working with Ricardo Engineering, Johnson Matthey carried out durability tests over 25 000 miles which also showed that the catalysts could pass US emissions tests.
The catalysts had to operate in three ways, at the same time, oxidising carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) while reducing NOx. Early catalysts, circa 1975, were based on Palladium and Platinum and focused on oxidising the CO and HC. Around 1978 a second catalyst was introduced to reduce NOx.
However, the introduction of Cerium then made it possible to develop a single catalyst that was able to carry out the functions that the researchers had wanted to achieve. Hence, 1981 saw the introduction of the three way catalytic converter with all three reactions enabled over a single catalyst. More recently ceria-zirconia oxide based catalysts have been developed with much higher oxygen storage capacity than ceria.
The impact of these developments has allowed the implementation of much more stringent air quality and emissions standards. Indeed Johnson Matthey estimates that its Cerium-based catalysts are responsible for removing around 40 tonnes of pollutants every minute of every day.
A single element has indeed impacted many lives.
Sarah Davidson has made impressive strides in a short space of time. She has risen to Group Sustainability Coordinator for global Research and Technology at speciality chemicals firm Croda and won the Young Ambassador Award at this year’s Chemical Industry Awards.
In the first blog in our Women in Chemistry series, we caught up with Sarah for a chat on embedding sustainability in the workplace, the need for more diversity in senior roles, and the best bit of advice she received.
Tell us about your career to date.
I loved chemistry at school, so I started off by doing a Master’s in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. During the course I did a placement year, which was my first taste of working in industry. Once I finished my degree, I was torn between staying in academia and doing a PhD or going into industry. I chose to go into industry because I had enjoyed my placement year so much and saw where I could make an impact.
I was accepted onto Croda’s Graduate Development programme, where I had three placements around the business. Croda is a speciality chemicals company, so my placements included working as an applications scientist and synthetic chemist. However, it was my placement working with the Sustainability team that I loved the most.
After the Grad Scheme I became Group Sustainability Coordinator for Global R&D. This combined my experience in R&D and sustainability in a brand role that didn’t exist in Croda before. This role allows me to use my technical knowledge and understanding of the way the global team works to enable those responsible for Croda’s new product innovations to include sustainability as an integral pillar in new product development.
What does your day-to-day role involve?
In my role, my main focus is on getting our scientists to think about sustainability during product and process development. At a fundamental level this requires me to change their mindsets around sustainability, getting them to see it is important to what we do and understand what it means.
To do this, I have developed a number of tools including checklists, clearly defined procedures and training documents. I have been working to get these new procedures adopted over the global R&D team by fitting them into existing protocols. Another part of my role is to support our corporate targets and I am part of a number of working groups to do this.
One working group looks at how we define a consistent methodology for Life Cycle Assessments or LCA. In this group I have been doing research to understand the current methods around LCA, and what our customers want in terms of sustainability data. I also help gather data to show where we are up to with these goals, so we understand what actions we need to take to move forward. On a day-to-day basis I will have meetings to discuss the projects I am involved in, conduct research and reach out to other teams and functions to see what they are working on too.
Which aspects of your job motivate you most?
For me sustainability is the future, not only for the chemical industry but for the world. Knowing that I am having a positive impact on sustainability in my role is what motivates me the most. I try to live a sustainable life, and what I do at work is just an extension of that.
What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
To embed sustainability into our ways of working, I need to change people’s mindsets, and subsequently their behaviour. Seeing this change in people is incredibly rewarding. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges. Some of our teams have been working in the same roles for decades without any change. So, it is my job to make these changes easier for them to adopt and persuade them of the benefits in doing so. To overcome this challenge, I have had to work on my influencing skills and know what will work with the audience I am speaking to.
What is the greatest future challenge for people in your industry and how could this be addressed.
Sustainability, and addressing the issues we face as a result of climate change, are some of the biggest challenges we will face as an industry. We are in a lucky position that we can achieve a competitive advantage with sustainability, but our main goal is to protect our planet. This gives us a big opportunity for collaboration where we may not have had one before. I think we can only solve this challenge by collaborating across the supply chain, across country borders, and between industry and academia.
>> Not everyone takes the standard career path into chemistry. Take a read of Claudio Laurenco’s unusual, inspiring story.
Which mentors have helped you along the way and how did they make a difference?
I feel like I have a long list of mentors and am very lucky to be able to call on so many people for advice. The best thing I have learnt from them is to pursue what I enjoy most, as people will be able to see my passion. This will help me move forward in my career. Having mentors who have confidence in me and my ability has helped me build my own confidence, something which I can lack from time to time. My mentors are great sounding boards for ideas, whether that is to do with things I want to try in my job or on the direction of my career.
What is the current state of play within your sector with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion – and is enough being done to attract and retain diverse talent?
I don’t think so. We need to do more to attract and retain diverse talent. We seem to be relatively diverse and inclusive at an academic level, which disappears in industry. There must be a reason for this. There may be bias within recruitment processes, or within job descriptions for senior roles, which means there is less diversity as you move up in organisations. We need to make sure that there are equal opportunities within industry for everyone and make sure everyone has a path to progression that works for them.
Is there any advice you would give to young professionals starting out in your area, especially young women?
Understand where you are different and use that as your advantage. Everyone has a unique lived experience that they bring with them into all situations. As women we have a different perspective to men. This doesn’t mean it is less valuable, it is just different. When you feel like you are in a minority as a woman, or are not being listened to, it is important to remember that our opinions are equal regardless of our background, gender or ethnicity. You have the same right to share your views, as the majority do theirs.
>> We’re always keen to hear from women who are making a real difference in chemistry. If you know someone who you think we should cover, please get in touch with us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Main image: Pea crop | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Peas are a very rewarding garden crop. Husbandry is very straightforward, producing nutritious yields and encouraging soil health by building nitrogen reserves for future crops.
Rotations usually sequence cabbages and other nitrogen-demanding crops after peas. This is a sustainable way to use the organic nitrogen reserves left by pea roots resulting from their mutually beneficial association with benign bacteria. These microbes capture atmospheric nitrogen, producing ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in a sequence of natural steps.
Peas originated in the Mediterranean. They were cultivated continuously by ancient civilisations and through medieval times, and are now the seventh most popular vegetable.
Illustration 1: Pea seeds | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
In bygone centuries, peas provided a protein source for the general population as cooked meals of pea soup and pease pudding helped keep famine at bay before the introduction of potatoes. In the 18th century, French gardeners working for the aristocracy produced fresh peas using raised and protected beds of fermenting animal manure. The composting processes produced heat and released carbon dioxide, stimulating rapid growth.
Generally, however, eating fresh peas only gained popularity in the 20th century as canned and then quick-frozen foods were invented, and large-scale technological development enabled mechanised and automated commercial precision cropping. In recent times, retail market demand has returned for unshelled podded peas – a manually picked crop known colloquially as ‘pulling peas’.
Seeds can be sown directly (illustration 1) or transplants (illustration 2) can be raised under protection, giving an early boost for growth and maturity. Peas are cool season crops. They grow best at 13-18°C and mature about 60 days after sowing.
Illustration 2: Pea seedlings | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Some cultivars such as Meteor can be grown over winter, preferably protected with cloches for very early cropping. The spring sown The Sutton cultivar group (CV) gives rapid but modest returns, and main crop CVs, such as Hurst Green Shaft, deliver the heaviest returns (illustration 2). This cultivar forms several long, well-filled pods at the fruiting nodes.
Sugar peas or mange tout – where the entire immature pod is eaten – is a popular fresh crop, while quick-growing pea shoots that mature in 20 days from sowing are excellent additions for salads or as garnishes for warm cuisine.
Human health benefits significantly by including peas in the diet. As well as being an excellent protein source, they produce a range of vitamins and nutrient elements. Their coumestrol content aids the control of blood sugar levels, helping combat diabetes, heart diseases and arthritis.
So, it’s certainly worth finding a spot for this versatile vegetable in your garden.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science.
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.’
Farmers today are under pressure to produce more food with fewer resources and without damaging the environment around them. Faced with factors such as land pressures, soil fertility, pest management and agricultural policy, farming today is all about efficiency, time and energy saving technology, and the drive to make solutions as sustainable as possible.
This obviously poses the question: what can the agrochemical industry do to increase output on one hand and protect the environment and improve applicator safety on the other?
Formulation technology is becoming increasingly important in answering this question. By designing innovative formulations, agrochemical products can become more effective as well as safer. Without the right formulation, even the best active substance is worth nothing.
Most pesticidal active ingredients are not water soluble or water dispersible, yet the most common mode of delivery is via spray applications of aqueous dilutions. It is necessary to create a formulation of the active ingredient in a way that makes it easily dispersible in water and able to maintain stability over the application time period. Changing what goes into this formulation alongside the active ingredient is crucial in how effectively that material is delivered to where it needs to be.
Demonstration of an EC formulation.
Two of the most common types of agricultural formulations that tackle this issue are emulsifiable concentrates (ECs) and suspension concentrates (SCs). EC formulations are suited to active ingredients that are oil soluble and have low melting points. As they are purely a solubilised active ingredient in an oil or solvent with the presence of emulsifiers, they are simple to manufacture and relatively easy to stabilise. The presence of an oil also enhances the biological activity of the application, making them more efficacious in the field.
SC formulation, with an indication of what occurs upon dilution into the spray tank prior to application.
SC formulations, on the other hand, are suitable for insoluble active ingredients and those with higher melting points. Crucially, as water is the continuous phase, they are also typically safer and more convenient in use for the operator; there is an absence of dust, flammable liquids, and volatile organic compounds.
Built into each of these formulations alongside the active ingredient are formulation additives. Formulation additives, referred to as inert ingredients, are critical to provide the long-term stability to agrochemical products and their ability to mix effectively in the spray tank, making them suitable for [field spray] applications.
While the formulation type targeted is often dictated by the chemical characteristics of the active ingredient, the formulator has the ability to change every element of the spray quality characteristics and agrochemical delivery through selection of formulation additives. Changing both the formulation type and the additives within will habitually have a dramatic effect on the field efficacy of that application and subsequent yield and quality of the crop. Selecting the correct formulation additives is essential in creating a successful formulation, arguably making them as significant as the active ingredient itself.
How formulators learn to map the complex effects within formulations for improved crop protection is just one facet of today’s agriculture challenge.
Interested in learning more about how the formulation of agrochemicals plays its part in feeding the world? Visit: www.crodacropcare.com
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.
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
Rising anxiety about air pollution, physical, and mental health, exacerbated by Covid-19 and concerns about public transport, has seen an increase in the popularity of cycling around Europe, leading many cities to transform their infrastructure correspondingly.
These days, Amsterdam is synonymous with cycling culture. Images of thousands of bikes piled up in tailor-made parking facilities continue to amaze and it is routinely held up as an example of greener, cleaner, healthier cities. Because The Netherlands is so flat, people often believe it has always been this way. But, in the 1970s, Amsterdam was a gridlocked city dominated by cars. The shift to cycling primacy took work and great public pressure.
For some cities, however, the pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity on the roads. Milan's Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning, Green Areas and Agriculture, Pierfrancesco Maran, has explained that, "We tried to build bike lanes before, but car drivers protested". Now, however, numbers have increased from 1,000 to 7,000 on the main shopping street. "Most people who are cycling used public transport before”, he said. “But now they need an alternative”.
Creating joined up cycling networks is a major challenge for urban planners.
In Paris, the Deputy Mayor David Belliard does not seem concerned that the city’s investment since the start of the pandemic will go to waste. “It's like a revolution," he said. “Some sections of this road are now completely car-free. The more you give space for bicycles, the more they will use it.” They are committed to creating a cycle culture, providing free cycling lessons and subsidising the cost of bike repairs. The city intends to create more than 650km of cycle lanes in the near future.
The success in these two cities has been supported by local government but it has also been fuelled by an understandable (and encouraged) avoidance of public transport and fewer cars on the road generally. Going forward, however, it seems likely that those last two factors won’t be present. So how do you create a cycling culture in your city in the long run?
The answer is both simple and difficult: cyclists (and pedestrians) need to have priority over cars. In Brussels, where 40km of cycle track have been put down in the last year, specific zones have been implemented where this is the case, and speed limits have been reintroduced across the city.
In Copenhagen, in the late 1970s, the Danish Cyclists’ Federation arranged demonstrations demanding more cycle tracks and a return to the first half of the century, when cyclists had dominated the roads. Eventually, public pressure paid off — although there is still high demand for more cycle lanes. A range of measures, including changes made to intersections, make cyclists feel safer and local studies show that, as cyclist numbers increase, safety also increases. In many parts of the city, it is noticeable how little of the wide roads are actually available to cars: bikes, joggers, and pedestrians are all accommodated.
Segregated cycleways, like this one in Cascais, Portugal, make people more likely to cycle.
But, if you were starting from scratch, you might not simply add cycle lanes to existing roads and encourage behavioural changes on the road. Segregated, protected bike lanes like those introduced in Paris are the next level up and the results suggest they work — separated from the roads, more people are inclined to try cycling.
Dutch experts suggest, where possible, going even further. Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht, believes the best option is to create solitary paths, separated from the road by grass, trees, or elevated concrete. Consistency is also important. Cities need networks of cycle tracks, not just a few highways. Again, prioritising cyclists is key to the Dutch approach. Many cities have roads where cars are treated as guests, restricted by a speed limit of 30km/hour and not permitted to pass. Signage is also key.
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan’s target is for 80% of journeys to be made by walking, cycling, and/or public transport by 2041. Since 2018, the city has been using artificial intelligence to better understand road use in the city and plan new cycle routes in the capital. However, the experience of other European capitals suggests that, "if you build it, they will come" might be a better approach than working off current usage.
A completely clean, renewable energy system that can be produced locally and that can easily power heat, energy storage and transportation, and travel — that's the future that promoters of a hydrogen economy envisage.
If it sounds a bit like rocket science, that's because it is. Hydrogen is what's used to fuel rockets — that’s how powerful it is. In fact, it’s three times more powerful as a fuel than gas or other fossil-based sources. And, after use, it’s frequently converted to drinking water for astronauts.
US President Joe Biden has highlighted the potential of hydrogen in his ambitious plans for economic and climate recovery and a number of recent reports have been encouraging about hydrogen’s breakthrough moment, including McKinsey and Company (Road Map to a US Hydrogen Economy, 2020) and the International Energy Agency.
Hydrogen fuel cells provide a tantalising glimpse into our low-carbon future
The McKinsey report claims that, by 2030, the hydrogen sector could generate 700,000 jobs and $140bn in revenue, growing to 3.4 million jobs and $750bn by 2050. It also believes it could account for a 16% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 36% reduction in NOx emissions, and supply 14% of US energy demand.
So how does it work?
Simply put, hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce electricity. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell and produces electricity, water, and heat.
This is what gets supporters so excited. In theory, hydrogen is a limitless, incredibly powerful fuel source with no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.
So what's the problem?
Right now, there are actually a few problems. The process relies on electrolysis and steam reforming, which are extremely expensive. The IEA estimates that to produce all of today’s dedicated hydrogen output from electricity would require 3,600TWh, more than the total annual electricity generation of the European Union.
Moreover, almost 95% of hydrogen currently is produced using fossil fuels such as methane, natural gas, or coal (this is called "grey hydrogen"). Its production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. In addition, its low density makes it difficult to store and transport — it must be under high pressure at all times. It’s also well-known for being highly flammable — its use as a fuel has come a long way since the Hindenburg Disaster but the association still makes many people nervous.
A Hydrogen refuelling station Hafencity in Hamburg, Germany. Infrastructure issues must be addressed if we are to see more hydrogen-fuelled vehicles on our roads. | Image credit: fritschk / Shutterstock.com
So there are quite a few problems. What’s the good news?
In the last few years, we've seen how rapidly investment, innovation, and infrastructure policy can completely transform individual renewable energy industries. For example, the IEA analysis believes the declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production could reduce the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity 30% by 2030.
Some of the issues around expense could be resolved by mass manufacture of fuel cells, refuelling equipment, and electrolysers (which produce hydrogen from electricity and water), made more likely by the increased interest and urgency. Those same driving forces could improve infrastructural issues such as refuelling stations for private and commercial vehicles, although this is likely to require coordination between various stakeholders, including national and local governments, industry, and investors.
The significant gains in renewable energy mean that “green” hydrogen, where renewable electricity powers the electrolysis process, is within sight.
The IEA report makes clear that international co-operation is “vital” to progress quickly and successfully with hydrogen energy. R&D requires support, as do first movers in mitigating risks. Standards need to be harmonised, good practice shared, and existing international infrastructure built on (especially existing gas infrastructure).
If hydrogen can be as efficient and powerful a contributor to a green global energy mix as its proponents believe, then it's better to invest sooner rather than later. If that investment can help power a post-Covid economic recovery, even better.
Broad beans are an undemanding and valuable crop for all gardens. Probably originating in the Eastern Mediterranean and grown domestically since about 6,000BC, this plant was brought to Great Britain by the Romans.
Header image: a rich harvest of succulent broad beans for the table
Capable of tolerating most soil types and temperatures they provide successional fresh pickings from June to September. Early crops are grown from over-wintered sowings of cv Aquadulce. They are traditionally sown on All Souls Day on 2 November but milder autumns now cause too rapid germination and extension growth. Sowing is best now delayed until well into December. Juicy young broad bean seedlings offer pigeons a tasty winter snack, consequently protection with cloches or netting is vital insurance.
From late February onwards dwarf cultivars such as The Sutton or the more vigorous longer podded Meteor Vroma are used. Early cropping is promoted by growing the first batches of seedlings under protection in a glasshouse. Germinate the seed in propagating compost and grow the resultant seedlings until they have formed three to four prominent leaflets. Plant out into fertile, well-cultivated soil and protect with string or netting frameworks supported with bamboo canes to discourage bird damage.
Young broad bean plants supported by string and bamboo canes
More supporting layers will be required as the plants grow and mature. Later sowings are made directly into the vegetable garden. As the plants begin flowering remove the apical buds and about two to three leaves. This deters invasions by the black bean aphid (Aphis fabae). Winged aphids detect the lighter green of upper foliage of broad beans and navigate towards them!
Allow the pods ample time for swelling and the development of bean seeds of up to 2cm diameter before picking. Beware, however, of over-mature beans since these are flavourless and lack succulence. Broad beans have multiple benefits in the garden and for our diets. They are legumes and hence the roots enter mutually beneficial relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria. These bacteria are naturally present in most soils. They capture atmospheric nitrogen, converting it into nitrates which the plant utilises for growth. In return, the bacteria gain sources of carbohydrates from photosynthesis.
Broad bean root carrying nodules formed around colonies of nitrogen fixing bacteria
Broad beans are pollinated by bees and other beneficial insects. They are good sources of pollen and nectar, encouraging biodiversity in the garden. Nutritionally, beans are high in protein, fibre, folate, Vitamin B and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, therefore cultivating healthy living. Finally, they form extensive roots, improving soil structure, drainage and reserves of organic nitrogen. Truly gardeners’ friends!
Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science (ISBN 978-1-138-20906-0) published by Routledge 2019.
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.
Where once a country might have wanted to strike gold, now hitting upon a hydrocarbon find feels like a prize. But finding a hydrocarbon is only the beginning of the process and might not be worth it — as Lebanon is discovering.
First, a little background: for some time, Lebanon has been experiencing an energy crisis. Without resources of their own, the industry (which is government-owned) is reliant on foreign imports, which are expensive. Electricity in early 2020 was responsible for almost 50% of Lebanon's national debt. Major blackouts were common.
This contributed to a spiralling financial crisis, prompting public protests and riots as the middle class disappeared and even wealthier citizens struggled. Before Covid-19 and the devastating August 2020 blast in Beirut, Lebanon was in crisis.
The idea that the country might be able to switch from foreign oil to local gas was understandably appealing, especially when a major find was literally right there on the Lebanese shore. In 2019, a consortium of Israeli and US firms discovered more than 8tcm of natural gas in several offshore fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, much of it in Lebanese waters.
A hydrocarbon find off the Beirut coast has failed to live up to its early promise.
But a find is only the beginning. With trust in Lebanese politicians low (the country ranks highly in most government corruption indexes) and a system that has repeatedly struggled to deliver a stable government, there are additional difficulties, not least a delay in the licensing rounds and a lack of trust — both internally, from citizens, and externally, from potential bidders. Meanwhile, Lebanon's neighbours race ahead to exploit their own finds, which ratchets up tensions.
Amid all that, a drilling exploration managed to go ahead last summer. But the joint venture between Total, ENI, and Novatek, which operated a well 30km offshore Beirut and drilled to approximately 1,500 metres, did not bring back the hoped-for results. The results confirmed the presence of a hydrocarbon system generally but did not encounter any reservoirs of the Tamar formation, which was the target.
Offshore exploration is a long process, with a lot of challenges and uncertainties and Ricardo Darré, Managing Director of Total E&P Liban, said afterwards, "Despite the negative result, this well has provided valuable data and learnings that will be integrated into our evaluation of the area". But the faith national politicians have long put in the hydrocarbon find, selling it as an answer to all Lebanon's problems, seems to have only worsened the domestic situation since.
And domestic politics is just the start of the problems…
Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own.
Israel, Egypt, and Jordan already have pipelines, which go to Italy. Turkey is working with Libya on a pipeline. Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own yet, although Russia has storage facilities and pipelines in the country and an eye on possible competition in the gas market.
None of that is an issue if the supply is intended for domestic use but that might not be profitable enough for investors and the Lebanese government would struggle to underwrite production on its own. Cyprus has encountered similar issues exploiting its share of the find.
Lebanon has also set an ambitious goal of having 30% of domestic energy mix sourced from renewable energy by 2030. The hoped-for gas was intended to support the renewable energy mix but, with the clock ticking, it might be that priorities shift to focusing on renewables. The Covid-19 pandemic will significantly impact the budgets of drilling companies and the push for renewable energy, both from governments and investors, seems to be growing as a way to boost economic recovery.
It may be that, after all the excitement around the hydrocarbon find, Lebanon starts to look elsewhere for its energy provision.
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.
We are increasingly conscious of the need to recycle waste products, but it is never quite so easy as rinsing and sorting your waste into the appropriate bins, especially when it comes to plastic.
Despite our best intentions, only around 16% of plastic is recycled into new products — and, worse, plastics tend to be recycled into low quality materials because transformation into high-value chemicals requires substantial amounts of energy, meaning the choices are either downcycling or prohibitively difficult. The majority of single-use plastics end up in landfills or abandoned in the environment.
This is a particular problem when it comes to polyolefins such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which use cheap and readily available raw materials. Approximately 380 million tonnes of plastics are generated annually around the world and it is estimated that, by 2050, that figure will be 1.1 billion tonnes. Currently, 57% of this total are polyolefins.
Why are polyolefins an issue? The strong sp3 carbon–carbon bonds (essentially long, straight chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms) that make them useful as a material also make them particularly difficult to degrade and reuse without intensive, high energy procedures or strong chemicals. More than most plastics, downcycling or landfill disposal tend to be the main end-of-life options for polyolefins.
Polyethylene is used to make plastic bags and packaging.
Now, however, a team of scientists from MIT, led by Yuriy Román-Leshkov, believe they may have made a significant step towards solving this problem.
Previous research has demonstrated that noble metals, such as zirconium, platinum, and ruthenium can help split apart short, simple hydrocarbon chains as well as more complicated, but plant-based lignin molecules, in processes with much lower temperatures and energy.
So the team looked at using the same approach for the long hydrocarbon chains in polyolefins, aiming to disintegrate the plastics into usable chemicals and natural gas. It worked.
First, they used ruthenium-carbon nanoparticles to convert more than 90% of the hydrocarbons into shorter compounds at 200 Celsius (previously, temperatures of 430–760 Celsius were required).
Next, they tested their new method on commercially available, more complex polyolefins without pre-treatment (an energy intensive requirement). Not only were the samples completely broken down into gaseous and liquid products, the end product could be selected by tuning the reaction, yielding either natural gas or a combination of natural gas and liquid alkanes (both highly desirable) as preferred.
Polypropylene is used in bottle caps, houseware, and other packaging and consumer products.
The researchers believe that an industrial scale use of their method could eventually help reduce the volume of post-consumer waste in landfills by recycling plastics to desirable, highly valuable alkanes — but, of course, it's not that simple. The team says that more research into the effects of moisture and contaminants in the process is required, as well as product removal strategies to decrease the formation of light alkanes which will be critical for the industrialisation of this reaction.
However, they believe the path they're on could lead to affordable upcycling technology that would better integrate polyolefins into the global economy and incentivise the removal of waste plastics from landfill and the environment.
More about the study can be read here:
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.
More people are looking at their nutritional intake, not only to improve wellbeing but also reduce their environmental impact. With this, comes a move to include foods that are not traditionally cultivated or consumed in Europe.
Assessing whether this growing volume of so called ‘novel foods’ are safe for human consumption is the task of the European Food Safety Authority. The EFSA points out, ‘The notion of novel food is not new. Throughout history new types of food and food ingredients have found their way to Europe from all corners of the globe. Bananas, tomatoes, tropical fruit, maize, rice, a wide range of spices – all originally came to Europe as novel foods. Among the most recent arrivals are chia seeds, algae-based foods, baobab fruit and physalis.’
Under EU regulations any food not consumed ‘significantly’ prior to May 1997 is considered to be a ‘novel food’. The category covers new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food. Examples include oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids from krill as a new source of food, phytosterols as a new substance, or nanotechnology as a new way of producing food.
Providing a final assessment on safety and efficacy of a novel food is a time consuming process. At the start of 2021 the EFSA gave its first completed assessment of a proposed insect-derived food product. The panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens concluded that the novel food dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption.
Dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption, according to the EFSA.
Commenting in a press statement, as the opinion on insect novel food was released, Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the assessment said that evaluating the safety of insects for human consumption has its challenges. ‘Insects are complex organisms which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed,’
Ververis added, ‘Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.’
EFSA research could lead to increased choice for consumers | Editorial credit: Raf Quintero / Shutterstock.com
The EFSA has an extensive list of novel foods to assess. These include dried crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus), olive leaf extract, and vitamin D2 mushroom powder. With the increasing desire to find alternatives to the many foods that we consume on a regular basis, particularly meat, it is likely that the EFSA will be busy for some time to come.
Gardens and parks provide visual evidence of climate change. Regular observation shows us that our flowering bulbous plants are emerging, growing and flowering. Great Britain is particularly rich in long term recordings of dates of budbreak, growth and flowering of trees, shrubs and perennial herbaceous plants. Until recently, this was dismissed as ‘stamp collecting by Victorian ladies and clerics’.
The science of phenology now provides vital evidence that quantifies the scale and rapidity of climate change. Serious scientific evidence of the impact of climate change comes, for example, from an analysis of 29,500 phenological datasets. This research shows that plants and animals are responding consistently to temperature change with earlier blooming, leaf unfurling, flowering and migration. This scale of change has not been seen on Earth for the past three quarters of a million years. And this time it is happening with increased rapidity and is caused by the activities of a single species – US – humans!
Iris unguicularis (stylosa).
Changing seasonal cycles seriously affects our gardens. Fruit trees bloom earlier than previously and are potentially out of synchrony with pollinators. That results in irregular, poor fruit set and low yields. Climate change is causing increased variability in weather events. This is particularly damaging when short, very sharp periods of freezing weather coincide with precious bud bursts and shoot growth. Many early flowering trees and shrubs are incapable of replacing damaged buds, as a result a whole season’s worth of growth is lost. Damaged buds and shoots are more easily invaded by fungi which cause diseases such as dieback and rotting. Eventually valuable feature plants fail, damaging the garden’s benefits for enjoyment and relaxation.
Plant diseases caused by fungi and bacteria benefit from our increasingly milder, damper winters. Previously, cooling temperatures in the autumn and winter frosts prevented these microbes from over-wintering. Now they are surviving and thriving in the warmer conditions. This is especially the case with soil borne microbes such as those which cause clubroot of brassicas and white rot, which affects a wide range of garden crops.
Hazel (Coryllus spp.) typical wind-pollinated yellow male catkins, which produce pollen.
Can gardeners help mitigate climate change? Of course! Grow flowering plants which are bee friendly; minimise using chemical controls; ban bonfires – which are excellent sources of CO2; establish wildlife-friendly areas filled with native plants and pieces of rotting wood, and it is amazing how quickly beneficial insects, slow worms and voles will populate your garden.
Professor Geoff Dixon is the author of Garden Practices and their Science, published by Routledge 2019.