10 Green Technologies that will Change the World
A glimpse into a greener, better future
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 demonstrated 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 an external source 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 a range of customized ways: over a large surface, directed at the ceiling (which gives an illusion that the light comes through an open shaft), or onto a large 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 the natural cycle outside. Parans suggests that the fibre optic cables can lead sunlight 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 mixed together with asphalt. 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 on-going right now to understand its long-term impact on the local environment. If successful, PlasticRoads can also significantly reduce the carbon footprint (50 to 72%) of traditional road construction thanks to longer lifespan and 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 close with the sunset. 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 maximize solar energy production. The SmartFlower produces between 4–6 MWh/year depending on the location, enough to fulfil the average electricity needs 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 growing 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. Like any other plant, 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 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 rely on toxic 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 of milk per Kg of fibre, 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 and 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 produces 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.
Food crops based bioplastics are not as climate-friendly as one would assume, as the large scale production of bioplastics would require changes in land use globally — from high CO2 absorbing forests to arable land. Avantium’s PEF however showed a 45–55% greenhouse gas reduction potential (from corn starch feedstock) compared to current petroleum-based plastics. Switching to agricultural residues such as straw could provide increased carbon savings in the future.
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 reasons we are getting rid of fossil fuel-based electricity. Actually, PV can 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. Cool 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.
A “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 cool pavements can be constructed 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 measures.
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 11HP or 8.5kw which is able to make the car reach 50mph top speed. In the end it emits about 40g/km, lower than EVs with unfavourable energy source mixes.
But its advantages to the environment don’t end there. Firstly, the Rasa cannot be owned. If you want to drive this car you 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 are 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. In Europe their climate impact amounts to 14.2 million tonnes of CO2.They also include toxic materials including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chlorine and bromine. However most of us discard them after 3 or 4 years.
A number of companies have been addressing these problems head on. One of the leaders is Fairphone. Already fully present 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 explicit aim to develop a smartphone that does not contain conflict minerals, ensures fair labour conditions along the supply chain and guarantees longer durability of each smartphone.
Another 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 low supply chain footprint, sustainable-minded design (use of durable, replaceable or fixable components) and end-of-life responsible practices (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 would a city filled with green walls and roofs be?
Of course, like any new technology, together with perceived advantages there are always drawbacks. Yet, 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?