- Climate hub
- 3 Jun 2022
- 6 min read
Emissions free energy: the latest sustainable innovations
By Amy Hamilton-Chadwick
Some of the smartest minds around the world are coming up with innovative ways to try and solve the problems of our carbon-reliant world. From portable EV charging units to plastic-eating enzymes, and from plants that accumulate rare metals to carbon-capturing algae, here are some of the recent developments in renewable energy and climate change innovation.
Portable EV charging units let you recharge anywhere
With the huge number of electric vehicles needed for a successful transition to a low carbon future, plenty of focus is going on the level of charging infrastructure that will be needed. Most are expected to charge overnight at home but there will still need to be a significant number of public charging stations.
One UK company is already thinking way beyond that. ZipCharge is trialling a portable EV charger that will contain between 4 and 8 kilowatt hours of energy, and can themselves be charged from a household plug. Then when you’re on a road trip and run out of juice, you can plug in your extra charger. This could also provide a solution for short-distance commuters who would like an EV but can’t park near a charging unit – people who park on the street or under a carport, for instance.
The ZipCharge Go is comparable to a suitcase on wheels in terms of size, weight and transportability. It takes half an hour to an hour to charge your car with up to 8kW/h. The average EV consumes around 0.2 kilowatt hours per kilometre, so 8kWh could potentially power your car for around 40km. The units will cost around £1500, or NZ$2950, and are available for pre-order now, with delivery estimated for 2023. If you get one, let us know how it performs.
The AI-generated enzyme that eats plastic in days
Artificial intelligence has helped to engineer a new type of enzyme that can break down PET plastics in days, not years.
Being able to get rid of plastics is vital to fighting climate change and protecting ourselves and our environment. Now University of Texas researchers have developed a hydrolase variant that can decompose PET into its component molecules, which can then easily be recycled into new products.
The scientists used machine learning to predict which mutations on the enzyme would work to break down plastic, and then successfully tested the mutated enzymes on 51 different types of plastics. The results were excellent, with products broken down to their basic molecular units within a week – some broke down in just 24 hours.
These enzymes have huge potential to help clean up landfills and waste plants, as well as reducing pollution in our waterways and oceans. This also improves our chances of achieving a circular economy, because it makes plastic so much more readily recyclable.
Work on this has been happening around the world since 2015 and the video below explains where the University of Texas has got to.
Harnessing the power of tides
Tidal energy could be a vital tool in our sustainable future – a tidal turbine has just launched in Canada to harness the power of the largest tides in the world. The Bay of Fundy, in Halifax, has tides of up to 16 metres, and a 30 metre by 30 metre floating turbine is now using that tidal energy to generate electricity for Nova Scotia’s grid. The platform is scalable, modular, and it’s generating enough energy to power 420 homes.
In the UK, a new energy innovation campus has recently been opened that includes FASTBLADE, the world’s first dedicated test facility for tidal blades. It aims to simulate the harsh ocean conditions that turbines must withstand, in the hopes of learning more about how to overcome the barriers to widespread adoption.
Although tidal energy is currently expensive and turbines have often broken up in the sea, it holds considerable potential as a renewable source of power. It is far more predictable and dependable than solar or wind energy, and once in place should be cost-effective to maintain. This is an exciting area for future research and development.
The video below is a good backgrounder on how scientists across the world have investigated the potential of harnessing tidal energy and the different options they’re working on.
How plants could provide a carbon-negative way to mine rare metals
Could we mine for rare metals through agriculture? The science of agromining uses plants to draw metals out of the soil, simultaneously giving us a greener way of harvesting valuable metals and cleaning up contaminated land.
Plants are extremely adaptable, and when they’re growing in soil with lots of metal, they store that metal in their leaves. Certain species are are particularly good at this, and they are known as hyperaccumlators. These plants store nickel, zinc, aluminium, cadmium and even gold in their leaves, which can be collected and treated to access the metal. And because the plants remove this metal from the ground, they also help remediate the soil, making it more fertile for future crops.
Farming these hyperaccumulating plant species could allow us to harvest rare metals in a low-impact, low-emissions way. Nickel accumulators are already being farmed in Malaysia, and will help supply nickel for lithium-ion batteries and stainless steel. Ultimately agromining should provide a carbon negative method of mining for rare metals, hopefully reducing the use of traditional strip mining.
Algae farms in the desert could capture gigatons of carbon
An enormous green pond in the Sahara Desert is turning algal blooms into carbon sinks. UK start-up Brilliant Planet is aiming to fight climate change with algae, and says per unit area, its algal plant captures as much carbon as a rainforest. And while a tree will eventually return that carbon to the atmosphere when it decomposes, the algae is collected, dried out, and buried in the desert, so the carbon is permanently captured.
The pond in Morocco is a testing site for the company to run trials and has been operating for nearly five years. Now Brilliant Planet has raised funding to start building a commercial-scale plant in 2024 which will cover 1,000 acres and should be able to remove 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. The company wants to achieve a cost of under US$50 to remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere. And as a bonus, the algae farming process de-acidifies the ocean water, which has a positive impact on ocean life.
Algae is being used in a number of different ways to capture carbon, including an Australian craft brewery. See how that’s progressing in the video below.
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