Everyday we hear about a green future. But some way or another, that future seems to be constantly delayed or difficult to put into words or images. Where are the examples of the new green technologies? Concrete practices, that make us dream that the oft-mentioned win-win feature of green technologies will actually come to fruition?
In this article I have collected examples of commercially available green technologies / products that hold considerable promise regarding reducing our footprint on our planet.
1. Sunlight Transport
We know very well that the best way to save carbon emissions is to save energy. What if we could light up entire buildings with just sunlight? This is what the Swedish company Parans has been developing. Their technology “Sunlight Transport” is a passive system that channels sunlight from a source such as a roof, and transports it through fibre optic cables to illuminate light-deprived rooms, As a result, energy consumption during daytime is zeroed.
The sunlight emitting luminaries look and work pretty much like a normal lamp, giving off ambient light. Parans’ system can spread light in different customised ways: over a large surface, directed at the ceiling which gives an illusion that the light comes through an open shaft, or over a larger wall area like a waterfall. The light changes as sunlight outside changes, enabling people even in the darkest rooms to re-establish a connection with natural cycles. Parans suggests that the fibre optic cables can lead sunlight through a hundred metres inside a building while retaining maximum light intensity.
As the indoor lighting is provided by a passive system there is no energy consumption – during daytime hours that is. During the evening, the system must be replaced by a regular artificial setting.
2. Plastic Roads
Remember the floating waste continent in the Pacific? Well, imagine if we could grab all that plastic to maintain our road infrastructure. Well, this possibility actually exists, and they are called “Plastic Roads”.
In terms of plastic roads technology we have two options: either they can be made entirely of plastic or of an asphalt mix with some amount of plastic waste incorporated. The former is the most common (see e.g. MacRebur).
The 100% plastic variety consists of prefabricated, hollow, modular elements made from consumer waste plastics. There is no asphalt in the mix. This product, duly called PlasticRoad, is still in the demonstration phase. The developer has just demonstrated the product in two 30-metre stretches of cycle track in the Dutch towns of Zwolle and Giethoorn. Monitoring is right now on-going to understand its long-term impact on the local environment. If successful, PlasticRoads can also reduce significantly the carbon footprint (50 to 72%) of traditional road construction thanks to the longer lifespan and the reduction of transport movements involved in its construction.
3. Solar Flower
A solar flower is a solar panel system mounted on the ground and shaped as a flower. To my knowledge there is currently only one commercial brand in the market – SmartFlower. Their system consists of a structure with 12 petals which open up at the beginning of the day with the sun, and closes as soon as it comes down. Contrary to solar panels that require installation, the solar flowers are completely portable and ready-to-plug-in. Also, the system is self-cleaning twice a day, which increases efficiency and durability.
The biggest difference from a rooftop panel is that it includes a sun tracker to maximise solar energy production. The SmartFlower produces between 4000-6400 kWh/year depending on location, enough to fulfil the average electricity requirement of a household in Europe and half of an American household.
The Solar Flower is an environment-friendly way to get clean energy. The sole impact should be related to the production and the materials included.
4. Plant Walls
Plant or Green Walls have become an architectural piece in recent years. Plant Walls are vertical built structures that hold enough soil to have different types of plants or other greens grow on them. Because these structures have living plants, they also usually feature built-in irrigation systems. A Plant Wall can be enhanced with features of smart technology, such as monitoring and self-irrigation, improving its survival, aesthetic and air purification potential. Some degree of maintenance is however required. Pruning dead plants and weeds and filling in gaps will keep the wall healthy and pleasant looking.
There are numerous advantages to having plant walls besides the visual impact. Outdoor plant walls reduce the insulate buildings, capture rainfall and provide habitats for insects. The transpiration process of plants can slightly reduce temperatures and purify the air indoors as well (Tiina Mustonen). Plants can also reduce stress and improve concentration (Psychology Today).
5. Milk Textiles
Milk textile is a type of fabric that is made with the casein found in milk. It has long been prized for its softness and smoothness. However, it is relatively difficult to produce casein fibre. To achieve the fibre the casein is extracted and purified and through additional chemical processes transformed into yarn. These processes traditionally relie on heavy chemicals (including sulphuric acid and Formaldehyde) and considerable quantities of milk. The German company Qmilk has however reinvented the process to make it chemical-free and use no more than two litres per five minutes of processing, while also maintaining a zero-waste policy. The material is produced at lower temperatures therefore requiring less energy than other textile production processes. The end-result is 100% natural smooth as silk fabric.
Milk textiles can be used to weave socks, underwear, other forms of intimate apparel, clothing usually made from wool, and household textiles.
6. Plant-based packaging
The Dutch company Avantium is currently demonstrating a plant-based plastic that is 100% recyclable and degradable, with superior performance properties compared to today’s petroleum-based packaging materials. The material is polyethylene furanoate (PEF) which is a kind of plastic called polyester. The difference is that it is made entirely from bio-based feedstocks (sugars). Avantium states that the sugar is currently sourced from sugar beet, sugar cane, wheat and corn as well as non-food crops such as agricultural residues. The sugars extracted from these plants are subjected to a series of chemical reactions to obtain the building block molecules. In the future the company hopes to change source composition to residues exclusively.
Most bioplastics do not represent a carbon emissions savings as a similar amount is required to manufacture them (Biocycle). Avantium’s PEF however showed a 45-55% greenhouse gas reduction potential (from corn starch feedstock) compared to current petroleum-based plastics.
As a plastic, the usages of plant-based PEF are considerable, but is currently being used in the packaging, textiles and plastic films markets.
7. Building Integrated Photovoltaics
Photovoltaics (PV) has been one of the culprits for helping us get rid of fossil fuel-based electricity. PV can actually be directly incorporated into the façade or roof of a building, substituting envelope materials seamlessly. The most common Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) systems are the photovoltaic shingles – solar panels that mimic the appearance and function of conventional roofing materials like slate, while performing the core task of generating electricity. Tesla solar roofs have been getting a lot of attention lately, but they are other brands such as RGS Energy, SunTegra and CertainTeed.
Besides providing savings in materials and electricity costs, solar roofs often have lower overall costs than PV systems (Energysage). The average solar shingle can last for two to three decades while delivering maximum energy output. Solar panels produce zero emissions once installed on the roof. However, they will have an environmental impact during manufacturing and at the end of their useful life.
8. Cold pavements
Conventional pavements are a main contributor to the urban heat island effect, common in large urban areas, where average temperatures can be up to 4° C higher than their surroundings. This happens because conventional paving materials such as asphalt and concrete absorb 95 to 60% of the energy reaching them instead of reflecting it into the atmosphere.
Cool pavement is a road surface that uses additives or special mixes to reflect solar radiation. Reflective pavements stay cooler in the sun than traditional pavements. They can potentially reduce local air temperature by 0.6°C (1°F). Existing pavements can be altered to increase albedo through white-topping or by adding a reflective coating. New pavement can be constructed to increase albedo by using mixes with higher reflectivity, permeable pavements or vegetated pavements.
The impact on the environment is manifold. Cool pavements lower urban air temperature, improve air quality, and lower surface temperatures, which can contribute to local climate change adaptation strategies.
9. Hydrogen-fuelled Cars
The Riversimple Rasa is a British-made car, propelled by hydrogen. The Rasa was conceived with the sole purpose of being an accessible, affordable alternative to zero-emission electrical vehicles (EV). Still only available as a prototype, the Rasa boasts a 300 miles range and a re-fuelling time of a few minutes. The range is achieved by very low weight (580 kg) and a propulsion engine of 11 hp or 8.5kw which is able to make the car reach 50mph top speed.
But the advantages to the environment don’t end there. Firstly, the Rasa cannot be bought. If you want to drive this car you must pay a subscription fee that includes maintenance, insurance and hydrogen. Secondly, low environmental impact is rewarded along the supply chain. For example, the supplier of the hydrogen fuel cell remains its owner, so they have an interest in its longevity and reliability. Thirdly, Riversimple has adopted a completely open intellectual property model. The design plans and specifications of the Rasa is free to be shared with anyone interested in collaborating in the design or build of their cars.
10. Sustainable Phones
Smartphones are one of the most resource intensive products on the planet. They even include toxic materials like PVC, phthalates, zinc, lead, brominated flame retardants and arsenic. The climate impact of phones in the EU was 14.2 million tonnes of CO2.
A number of companies have been adressing such problems head on.
One of the leaders is Fairphone. Already fully in the market, Fairphone is a social enterprise company that designs and produces smartphones with a lower environmental impact and higher sense of social responsibility. The company was founded with the aim to develop a mobile device that does not contain conflict minerals (typically gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten), has fair labour conditions for the workforce along the supply chain producing it and help people to use their phone longer.
Another more sustainable phone is the Teracube, based in the USA and financed via Crowdfunding. Offering a 4-year guarantee, every component of this no-frills smartphone is replaceable, including the battery (there is no glue, only screws) . The chassis is biodegradable, and the packaging is made out of recycled paper and printed with soya-based ink.
Both phones production have lower supply chain footprint, sustainable-minded design (use of durable, replaceable or fixable components) and of end-of-life responsibility (take back system and/or recycling programme).
As some of these technologies are still in a demonstration phase they have not been very visible. However, they do offer a narrow glimpse of how exciting a low carbon future can actually be. How amazing and comfortable would a city filled with green walls and roofs be?
Of course, like any new technology, together with perceived advantages there are always drawbacks, for example relating to economic feasibility. Yet, such as at the start of the steam-powered revolution, only by trial and error in real conditions we can advance into greener innovations.
What about you? Do you use any of these green technologies? How have they improved your life or reduced your recurring expenses?