Sustainability-in-Tech : China Set To Dominate World Green-Energy Budget

New research from the International Energy Agency (IEA) has revealed that even though Europe may outspend the US on clean energy this year, China’s clean energy spending plans will massively surpass that of Europe and the US combined.

China In First Place 

The ‘World Energy Investment 2024’ report from the IEA, which tracks capital flows in the energy sector, shows that clean energy investments are set to be up by more than 50 per cent from 2020.

The report shows that whereas Europe is expected to be spending an estimated $370 billion on clean energy, while the United States spends $315 billion (about $970 per person), China is expected to lead in clean energy investment this year with approximately $675 billion (about $2,100 per person) – nearly twice as much as the combined investments of Europe and the US!

Investment In What And Why? 

The report shows that the focus of China’s investment is primarily on solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, driven by falling module prices and strong domestic manufacturing capabilities. Solar PV investments alone are projected to exceed $500 billion globally, with China contributing a substantial portion.

Also, China’s investments are being bolstered by rapid growth in three new clean energy industries – solar cells, lithium battery production, and EV manufacturing.

Why Are Europe and The US Not Investing As Much? 

The lag in clean energy investment by Europe and the United States compared to China highlighted by the report, can be attributed to factors such as:

– Scale and speed. China’s aggressive scaling and rapid deployment of renewable technologies outpace Europe and the US. However, this is partly down to China benefitting from substantial state funding and low manufacturing costs, enabling quicker and more extensive deployment of solar PV and other technologies.

– China’s manufacturing dominance. China’s dominance in manufacturing solar panels, batteries, and EVs at lower costs due to economies of scale and cheaper labour allows it to invest more heavily in these areas. This competitive edge in production costs gives China a significant advantage over the US and Europe.

– Government policies. Chinese government policies provide strong incentives and subsidies for clean energy projects, fostering growth in the sector. In contrast, the US and Europe have more fragmented policies, with varying levels of support across states and countries, which slows investment.

– The cost of capital. Higher financing costs in Europe and the US hinder clean energy investments. In China, favourable financing terms from state-owned banks lower the cost of capital, encouraging more investment.

– Infrastructure challenges. Europe and the US face significant challenges in upgrading their grid infrastructure and energy storage systems to support renewable energy. China, however, appears to have been more proactive in modernising its grid infrastructure, facilitating the integration of renewable energy sources.

– Strategic policy. China’s industrial policy focuses heavily on becoming a global leader in clean energy, emphasising both domestic production and export dominance. Europe and the US are still developing comprehensive strategies to match China’s aggressive approach.

– The different regulatory environments. Stricter environmental regulations and longer approval times for new projects in Europe and the US can delay investment and project implementation. In China, regulatory processes are often more streamlined, allowing for faster progress.

Isn’t China The Biggest Greenhouse Gas Producing Country? 

In short, yes. China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. For example, in 2021, China accounted for about 27 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, making it the single largest contributor to climate change. This is largely due to China’s heavy reliance on coal for energy and its rapid industrialisation and urbanisation over the past few decades. However, as highlighted by the ‘World Energy Investment 2024’ report, there now appears to be a strong commitment by China to transitioning towards cleaner energy sources. Its clean energy investments will be crucial for reducing its carbon footprint and addressing the global climate crisis.

Global Disparity 

The ‘World Energy Investment 2024’ report highlights not just the fact that China’s clean energy investment will far outstrip that of that of the US and Europe this year, but also that there is an uneven distribution of clean energy investments globally. For example, other regions, particularly developing economies, struggle to keep pace. Clean energy investment in emerging and developing economies remains low, accounting for only about 15 per cent of global spending. High financing costs and lack of supportive policies are major barriers in these regions.

Fossil Fuel Investment Still Strong 

Another key point outlined in the report, however, is that investment in fossil fuels remains strong, with upstream oil and gas investments projected to increase by 7 per cent in 2024 to $570 billion, following a 9 per cent rise in 2023. Coal investments have also been rising, with more than 50 GW of unabated coal-fired power generation approved in 2023 (predominantly in China). Despite this, clean energy investments are growing faster – for every dollar invested in fossil fuels, nearly two dollars are now directed towards clean energy technologies.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The disparity in clean energy investment revealed by the IEA’s ‘World Energy Investment 2024’ report carries significant implications for businesses in the UK and across Europe. For new clean energy industries, the rapid advancement and substantial investment seen in China underscores the urgency for Europe and the UK to bolster their efforts. The heavy investment in solar PV, lithium batteries, and EV manufacturing in China sets a high benchmark, illustrating the benefits of aggressive state support and strategic industrial policies.

For UK businesses, this disparity presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge lies in competing with China’s scale and speed of deployment. However, this also opens opportunities for innovation and collaboration in clean energy technologies. UK companies can leverage their expertise in renewable energy and look to form partnerships that tap into global supply chains. Also, businesses can advocate for more robust government policies that provide clear incentives and reduce financing costs, making clean energy projects more viable.

To increase investment in clean energy, Europe and the UK must address several key areas. First, there is a need for comprehensive and cohesive policies that provide consistent support across all regions. This includes streamlining regulatory processes to reduce approval times for new projects and ensuring that environmental regulations are balanced with the need for swift project implementation. Also, improving access to affordable capital through state-backed financial incentives or low-interest loans could help make a significant difference.

Enhancing infrastructure is another critical area. Upgrading grid infrastructure and expanding energy storage capabilities are essential to support the integration of renewable energy sources. Investments in these areas not only facilitate the transition to clean energy but also create new business opportunities in infrastructure development and maintenance.

Strategic industrial policies that focus on building domestic capabilities while engaging in international cooperation may also help to position Europe and the UK as leaders in the global clean energy market. By fostering innovation and supporting emerging technologies, the UK could develop a competitive edge and create sustainable economic growth.

Addressing these challenges, therefore, through targeted investments and supportive policies will not only help the UK and Europe catch up with China’s clean energy spending but also drive long-term benefits for businesses. Increased clean energy investment will enhance energy security, create jobs, and help position the UK as a key player in the global transition to sustainable energy.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Finns Finally Fabricate Fungus Fodder

Finish company Enifer is bringing back a protein made from fungus (a microprotein) that was first developed and used in the 1970s for animal feed but could now work as a sustainable protein source for the human diet.

Pekilo ® 

Enifer’s Pekilo ® microprotein was developed from fungus in the 70s and used for fifteen years in farming as fodder before being forgotten after the general biorefining focus at the time shifted to waste-water treatment, and the engineering company that developed it also went bankrupt.

Fast forward to 2020 and thanks to the memory of one of the original R&D workers, and the rediscovery of an R&D project, startup Enifer was formed out of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland with five co-founders, Simo Ellilä being the CEO.

Factory Funding 

Enifer has now secured €33 million of Series B funding for the world’s first commercial factory to produce the mycoprotein ingredient from the food industry side stream raw materials at Kirkkonummi, Finland.

What Is Pekilo® And What’s So Good About It? 

Pekilo® is a single-cell protein (SCP) produced through a fermentation process using the biomass of fungi. It is produced from industrial side streams (i.e. waste products from other industries) such as lactose from the dairy industry and lignocellulosic hydrolysates (by-products of processes such as wood and paper production).

Pekilo® has many advantages, such as:

– It offers sustainable production. Being produced from industrial side streams means it’s a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of protein. For example, the process utilises waste materials, reducing overall waste and promoting circular economy principles.

– Pekilo® has a high protein content, typically ranging between 60-70 per cent. This makes it an excellent source of protein for both human consumption or animal feed. Enifer says, for example, it’s “an ideal drop-in ingredient for aquafeed, pet food, and food production”. 

– In addition to the high protein content, Pekilo® also has a generally high nutritional value. For example, it contains essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals necessary for animal growth and health, which is why it is a comprehensive dietary supplement/drop-in ingredient.

– Pekilo® has a lower environmental impact compared twith traditional protein sources like soy or fishmeal. It also requires less land and water and generates lower greenhouse gas emissions.

– The product can be manufactured to have consistent quality in terms of protein content and nutritional profile, which is crucial for feed formulation and ensures reliable nutrition for livestock.

– The fermentation process for producing Pekilo® is relatively fast, meaning this can facilitate rapid production and scalability. This can meet the growing world demand for protein in a sustainable manner.

– It’s antibiotic-free, which means a reduced risk of antibiotic resistance and a cleaner product for animal feed.

– Pekilo® is economically viable because it utilises industrial by-products for its production. This can lower feed costs, enhance economic viability for producers, and make it an attractive alternative to conventional protein sources.

– The fact that it can be used in various feed applications, including aquaculture, poultry, and pigs, makes it a very versatile and flexible component in animal nutrition.

– Pekilo® has long shelf life due to its drying process, which removes moisture and prevents spoilage. Proper packaging and storage in cool, dry conditions further preserve its nutritional value, making it a reliable and stable feed ingredient over extended periods.

– Its neutral flavour (the food grade version) means it’s suitable for a wide range of human foods, Savoury or sweet. Although currently the feed-grade version apparently has a distinctive taste, Enifer is working on making the flavour more neutral. This means it will be more versatile in feed formulations, more acceptable to various animal species and will ensure better feed intake.

Regulatory Clearance Needed First 

Although the product sounds very promising, the food-grade human version will first need to get regulatory clearance as a novel food before being added to any foods for human consumption. It’s understood that Enifer has so far applied to regulators in the EU, with plans to target Singapore and the US next.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The introduction of Enifer’s Pekilo® could be a significant advancement in sustainable protein production. For example, it could offer substantial benefits for UK businesses looking to align with environmental goals and meet growing global protein demand. Using industrial side streams to produce this microprotein not only reduces waste but also promotes a circular economy, making it an eco-friendly choice that could revolutionise the protein industry.

For companies in the food and feed sectors, Pekilo® offers a high-protein, nutritionally rich ingredient that can enhance the quality of animal feed while significantly lowering the environmental impact compared to traditional protein sources like soy and fishmeal. Its consistent quality and rapid production capabilities mean it could reliably meet the increasing demand for protein in a scalable and sustainable manner.

Also, Pekilo®’s long shelf life and neutral flavour mean it could be a versatile ingredient for various applications, including aquaculture, poultry, pig food, and potentially human foods. As consumer awareness and demand for sustainable and plant-based proteins grow, incorporating Pekilo® into product lines could help food businesses to position themselves at the forefront of this market shift. It could also help facilitate the transition towards more plant-based diets, thereby reducing reliance on meat and the associated environmental footprint.

Although regulatory clearance is still required for human consumption, the prospects for Pekilo® seem promising. As Enifer progresses through the necessary approvals, early adoption and integration of this sustainable protein source may offer a competitive edge. Businesses that embrace Pekilo® may not only contribute to environmental sustainability but also appeal to a growing segment of eco-conscious consumers, ultimately driving long-term growth and success in a rapidly evolving market.

By integrating Pekilo® into business operations, food-based businesses may not only investing in a sustainable future but may also help address the urgent need for environmentally friendly protein alternatives. In addition to enhancing a brand’s reputation, incorporating this or similar ingredients could be a way for food businesses to meet consumer demand for sustainable products, and play a crucial role in the global shift towards a more sustainable food system.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Underwater Data-Centres Vulnerable to Soundwaves

A study by cybersecurity and robotics researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Electro-Communications has revealed how powerful sound waves could disrupt the operation of underwater data-centres.

Why Underwater Data-Centres? 

With demand for data-centres growing due to increasing demand for cloud computing and AI, plus with data-centres producing large amounts of heat, one idea from data-centre operators in recent years has been to submerge servers in metal boxes beneath the sea. Doing so can harness the natural cooling properties of ocean water and can help dramatically cut cooling costs and carbon emissions. For example, back in 2018, Microsoft submerged 2 racks with 864 servers beneath the waves in Scotland as part of the experimental project ‘Natick’.

Soundwave Threat 

However, the news from a group of cybersecurity and robotics researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Electro-Communications in Japan has revealed that the successful operation of underwater data-centres has a critical vulnerability – the potential to be seriously affected by underwater sounds. Also, there is the added complication that if servers are submerged in metal boxes below the sea and components broken/damaged (e.g. by sound or other means), it will be a complicated (and costly) operation to fix them.

As highlighted by Md Jahidul Islam, Ph.D., a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UF and author of the study: “The main advantages of having a data center underwater are the free cooling and the isolation from variable environments on land,” but “these two advantages can also become liabilities, because the dense water carries acoustic signals faster than in air, and the isolated data center is difficult to monitor or to service if components break.” 

Why Is Sound A Threat?

The study involved submerging test data centre-style servers in a laboratory water tank and in a lake on the UF campus with a speaker playing music in the water, tuned to five kilohertz. This is a frequency designed to make hard drives vibrate uncontrollably and one octave above what can be played on a piano.

The results were that networks were able to be crashed and their reliability disrupted by sound waves generated from 20 feet away. In wild conditions for example, similarly loud and potentially damaging sound waves could be generated by marine life, submarine sonar systems, industrial activity (drilling), earthquakes and seismic activity and more.

The study appears to have shown, therefore, that even something as simple as an underwater speaker playing a D note could have the potential to seriously disrupt or damage server operations in submerged data centres.

Deliberate State-Sponsored Attacks 

One key worry highlighted by the study is how deliberate sound injection attacks / acoustic attacks (e.g. by other states as an act of sabotage) could be a real threat to underwater data-centres. For example, as highlighted by UF Professor of Computer and Information Science and Engineering Sara Rampazzi, Ph.D, acoustic attacks on a submerged data-centre could be subtle: “The difference here is an attacker can manipulate the data centre in a controlled way. And it’s not easy to detect”. 

Other Defences Tested 

As part of the study, the researchers tested different defences for the submerged servers. For example, sound-proof panels were tried but raised the servers’ temperature too much, thereby countering the advantages of cooling with water. Also, active noise cancellation was found to be too cumbersome and expensive to add to every data-centre.

Algorithm 

To counter the threat of soundwaves to underwater data-centres, the research team developed a software-based solution in the form of an algorithm. The algorithm they developed (using machine learning) can identify the pattern of disruption caused by acoustic attacks and it’s anticipated that improvements to this algorithm could minimise the damage to networks by reallocating computational resources before an attack can crash the system.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

With Microsoft’s submerged server tests showing very positive results in terms of low failure rates and dramatically reduced cooling costs, underwater data-centres appear to be something that will be put into practice in the near future. However, until now, the potential threat to their operation caused by sound is not something that has been fully realised or explored until this research.

The study has therefore been valuable in raising awareness of the threat. For example, in addition to demonstrating how server disruption by sound can happen inadvertently (e.g. from a loud submarine sonar blast), it has also raised awareness of how data-centres could be vulnerable to deliberate acoustic attacks as acts of sabotage. Not only does the research have value in highlighting the threats, but it has also enabled the development of what appears to be an effective solution,i.e., an algorithm.

Finding a way to protect underwater data-centres from acoustic attacks helps future-proof the idea, thus enabling its rollout which will benefit data-centre operators (e.g. with lower costs, better heat management, and expansion of much-needed capacity). It also provides protection for all the businesses, organisations, governments, and economies for whom the smooth operation and expansion of the cloud and now AI is vital to their operations, prosperity, and plans. This study, therefore, helps contribute towards both healthier economies and a healthier planet through reducing data-centre carbon emissions.

Sustainability-in-Tech : World’s Largest Carbon Vacuuming Plant Opens

The world’s largest direct air capture (DAC) plant, dubbed ‘Mammoth’ (which can suck polluting carbon from the air to help tackle global warming) has started operating in Iceland.

Mammoth 

Started on the 28th June 2022 and now completed and operating, Mammoth was designed to remove 36,000 tons of carbon from the air per year – the equivalent of removing 7,800 cars petrol-fuelled cars from the road.

Its creators and operators, Climeworks, based in Switzerland, say it has been built for multi-megaton capacity in the 2030s, and should deliver gigaton capacity by 2050.

Global Warming and Climate Change 

Mammoth is designed to directly remove carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere for climate change mitigation and to meet global climate targets. The challenge, as regards to global warming and the resulting climate change, is that in order to keep the temperature at (or below) the maximum 1.5°C threshold increase, many believe that measures to reduce our carbon footprint are not enough and active removal of CO₂ already in the atmosphere is needed. Climeworks says “we need to extract billions of tons of CO₂ between now and 2050”. 

DAC 

Mammoth, Climeworks’s second carbon capture plant (which is the largest in the world), involves using a geothermal power plant to provide the energy for the facility that vacuum-filters CO₂ from the air.  The filtered CO₂ is then stored in containers (DAC+S), stacked on top of each other. Finally, the CO₂ is ‘injected’ with ‘Carbfix’ and is transported deep underground, where it mineralizes in geological formations.  Climeworks says this process of storing the captured carbon underground in mineral form can keep it locked up (and out of the atmosphere) for “more than 10,000 years”. 

DAC+S Different From CCS? 

Climeworks days whereas DAC+S removes CO₂ directly from ambient air, other technologies to remove carbon, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), differs because it captures CO₂ from point sources of carbon dioxide (e.g., smokestacks of iron and steel factories) and then transports the captured CO₂ to a storage site, where it is sequestered.

Controversial 

Using DAC technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere as a way of tackling global warming, however, is a controversial subject. Some of the criticisms and debates around it include:

– DAC is expensive compared to other climate strategies like reforestation or industrial upgrades, raising concerns about the efficient use of limited financial resources.

– DAC is energy-intensive, requiring significant amounts of clean energy. If powered by non-renewable energy, it could negate its environmental benefits. In the case of Mammoth in Iceland, however, natural geothermal power is being used.

– Simply relying on DAC to save us might delay crucial direct emission reduction efforts due to the belief that technology alone can resolve climate change, a risk known as the “moral hazard.”

– Effectively scaling DAC to impact atmospheric CO₂ levels would demand extensive infrastructure and substantial investment, posing significant logistical challenges.

– The captured CO₂ must be securely stored to prevent leakage or used in ways that might still release it back into the atmosphere, thereby negating its effectiveness. Climeworks, however, describes its mineralisation and underground storage as a “permanent” solution.

– DAC requires significant resources, potentially conflicting with other essential needs like agriculture and water supply, raising concerns about equitable impact distribution.

– Deploying DAC responsibly and at scale requires robust policies and regulation to avoid potential negative environmental impacts and ensure effective climate mitigation.

– Some operators (not Climeworks it should be stressed) use the CO₂ captured using DAC to inject into oil fields to increase the pressure within the reservoir to help push more oil to the surface – known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). Some say this facilitates continued reliance on fossil fuels.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The opening of the Mammoth DAC plant after 2 years of construction may be a milestone in the world of climate technology, reflecting both the innovation and the complexities inherent in modern environmental solutions. As the largest Direct Air Capture facility, set to remove 36,000 tons of CO₂ annually, this is a figure that represents a technological achievement and perhaps a call to industries and organisations worldwide to re-evaluate their environmental strategies. However, as the equivalent of removing 7,800 cars from the roads, this may not sound as though it can make a dent in the carbon problem, in the short term at least.

For any organisation, the potential of DAC technology to substantively reduce atmospheric CO₂ and help mitigate global warming can’t be ignored and is one battle-front in the war ahead. Although Mammoth may not be making a significant dent now, looking towards the future and aiming for gigaton removal by 2050, this technology could play much more of a part in future climate strategies. As such, this suggests a pathway for compliance with emerging environmental regulations and leadership in corporate sustainability.

However, the broader implications of DAC, particularly in terms of scalability and dependency, suggest a balanced approach is needed. While Mammoth operates on geothermal energy, making it relatively sustainable, DAC technology in general is energy intensive.

Also, the example of Mammoth should serve as a reminder of the importance of not solely relying on carbon capture to offset emissions. The ‘moral hazard’ of depending too heavily on technological fixes could detract from essential efforts to directly reduce emissions through renewable energy adoption, energy efficiency improvements, and sustainable operational practices. For businesses, this means integrating DAC as one element of a holistic environmental strategy while reducing emissions at the source.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Designer-Material Absorbs Carbon Faster Than Trees

Scientists at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University have published details of the discovery of a new material that can absorb carbon faster than trees, giving hope to efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

Can Absorb The Most Potent Greenhouse Gasses 

Detailed in a paper published in the journal ‘Nature Synthesis,’ the scientists report how the new porous material they created has hollow, cage-like molecules with high storage capacities for greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and sulphur hexafluoride. Although the new material can absorb carbon dioxide (the most well-known greenhouse gas), the scientist pointed out that sulphur hexafluoride is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and can last thousands of years in the atmosphere.

Used Computer Modelling To Design It 

The project to create the material was a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University, the University of Liverpool, Imperial College London, the University of Southampton, and East China University of Science and Technology in China, and the team used computer modelling to “accurately predict how molecules would assemble themselves into the new type of porous material.”

It was the computer modelling specialists at Imperial College London and the University of Southampton that created the simulations which enabled the team to understand and predict how their cage molecules would assemble into this new type of porous material.

Dr Marc Little (an Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt University’s Institute of Chemical Sciences and an expert in porous materials) said: “Combining computational studies like ours with new AI technologies could create an unprecedented supply of new materials to solve the most pressing societal challenges, and this study is an important step in this direction.” 

In reference to the contribution of computer modelling to the discovery and could play (along with AI) to future similar discoveries, Dr Little added: “Combining computational studies like ours with new AI technologies could create an unprecedented supply of new materials to solve the most pressing societal challenges, and this study is an important step in this direction.” 

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

As Dr Marc Little said: “This is an exciting discovery because we need new porous materials to help solve society’s biggest challenges, such as capturing and storing greenhouse gases.” As such, this groundbreaking discovery could represent a pivotal moment in our collective fight against the climate crisis.

At the heart of this discovery is a collaborative effort by experts in the UK and China and the ingenious use of computer modelling, a tool that played a pivotal role in unravelling the complexities of molecular assembly.

Through precise predictions facilitated by advanced computer modelling, researchers were able to engineer hollow, cage-like molecules capable of efficiently trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and the highly potent sulphur hexafluoride. This strategic fusion of scientific expertise and computational prowess underscores the immense potential of technology in catalysing transformative breakthroughs.

As highlighted by Dr Little, by marrying computational studies with emerging AI technologies, we could have a chance to unlock many more innovative solutions to society’s most pressing challenges. This study, therefore, could be seen as an important step toward a future where computational ingenuity and scientific inquiry converge to address global challenges.

Also, the integration of computer modelling and AI for future projects holds a great deal of promise, e.g. in advancing material science, renewable energy and more.

This discovery and its methodology, therefore, shows how important embracing the transformative power of technology is and will be in helping us tackle our biggest challenges going forward.

Sustainability-in-Tech : New 3D Printer Automatically Identifies Different Sustainable Materials

There’s an increasing range of renewable and recyclable materials now available yet 3D printers have historically been limited by the need to create new parameter sets for each one. However, MIT researchers have now made a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of unknown materials on its own.

Overcoming The Parameter Limitations 

The problem with having to 3D print a new material from scratch up until now has been that typically at least 100 parameters must be set up in the software which controls how the printer will extrude the material as it fabricates an object. The materials commonly used for 3D printing (e.g. mass-manufactured polymers) already have established sets of parameters (that were only perfected through lengthy trial-and-error processes).

Now, with the need to use more renewable and recyclable materials (the properties of which can fluctuate widely based on their composition) making fixed parameter sets in the 3D printer for each one is nearly impossible to create, with the only option to date being users having to set all the parameters by hand.

However, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) appear to have solved this problem by developing a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of an unknown material on its own.

How? 

The new 3D printer is able to work out the parameters for different materials thanks to a modified extruder which can measure the forces and flow of a material. A load cell measures the pressure being exerted on the printing filament, and a feed rate sensor measures the thickness of the filament and the actual rate at which it is being fed through the printer.

The data gathered by the new extruder (via the load cell and feed rate sensor, in a 20-minute test) can then be fed into a mathematical function that is used to automatically generate printing parameters. The parameters can then be entered into off-the-shelf 3D printing software and used to print with a never-before-seen material.

In experiments with six different materials, several of which were bio-based, the new 3D printer was able to automatically generate viable parameters that consistently led to successful prints of a complex object.

As lead researcher Neil Gershenfeld, pointed out: “The goal is to make 3D printing more sustainable”. 

Opens The Door For More Recycled and Bio-based Materials 

Looking ahead, as noted by Alysia Garmulewicz, an associate professor in the Faculty of Administration and Economics at the University of Santiago in Chile: “By developing a new method for the automatic generation of process parameters for fused filament fabrication, this study opens the door to the use of recycled and bio-based filaments that have variable and unknown behaviours. Importantly, this enhances the potential for digital manufacturing technology to utilise locally sourced sustainable materials.” 

Also, the researchers have said that they will be applying their discovery in other areas of advanced manufacturing, as well as in expanding access to metrology (the scientific study of measurement).

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

This discovery by the MIT researchers could be a significant advancement for businesses looking to embrace green manufacturing practices. This breakthrough not only saves time (and money) and simplifies the 3D printing process but also offers the potential for companies to innovate in ways that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.

For businesses, the implications of this technology go far beyond the mere convenience of automation. This printer could enable the use of a wider range of renewable and recyclable materials, significantly reducing dependency on traditional, often non-sustainable materials. As a result, organisations may be able to lower their environmental impact and align more closely with evolving regulations and consumer expectations regarding sustainability.

The ability of this printer to handle materials with variable and unknown behaviours also opens the door to using more locally sourced materials. This could be particularly beneficial for businesses aiming to reduce their carbon footprint by minimising the logistics associated with transporting materials. Also, it enhances the potential for creating more personalised and localised products, catering to specific market demands with greater agility.

The discovery of this new 3D technology could also bring further innovations in digital manufacturing. It may help businesses to explore new product designs and applications without the extensive time and cost previously involved in trial-and-error parameter setting. This may not only accelerate product development but may also make small-scale, bespoke production runs more feasible and cost-effective.

Crucially, the incorporation of more recycled and bio-based materials into mainstream manufacturing processes, facilitated by this new technology, could help more businesses contribute to a circular economy. This shift may help conserve natural resources and also open up new business opportunities in the recycling sector. Companies that can efficiently convert waste into valuable printing materials may be more likely to thrive in an increasingly resource-conscious market.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Prototype Means Solar Farms In Space Getting Closer

Oxfordshire-based Space Solar has reported a world first with the development of a UK Prototype for space-based solar panels that could mean a constant, sustainable energy supply to the planet.

Solar Farms In Space 

Space Solar’s plan is to be able to power more than a million homes by the 2030s using a mile-wide complex of mirrors and solar panels – a solar farm – orbiting 22,000 miles above Earth.

Panels Must Rotate Towards The Sun 

For the space-based solar farm to work effectively, the panels must be able to rotate towards the sun whatever its position, while still sending power to a fixed receiver on the ground. It is this ability that has just been shown to work for the first time at Queen’s University Belfast, in a prototype that used a wireless beam “steered” across a lab to turn on a light. Space Solar has called its super-efficient design for harvesting constant sunlight CASSIOPei.

The Ultimate Form of Clean Energy 

Space Solar says that space-based solar power will be the ultimate form of clean dependable energy because it will deliver a constant, 24/7 clean source of power from space that’s unaffected by the weather, seasons, or time of day.

Other Benefits 

Some of the many other benefits of space-based solar highlighted by the company include:

– It is dispatchable, modulating the output and integrating well with intermittent wind and terrestrial solar.

– Solar panels in space capture 13 times more energy than ground-based ones due to higher light intensity and the lack of atmosphere, clouds … or night!

– It has a low environmental impact with respect to land usage, carbon footprint and mineral resources.

– The technology is very flexible, e.g. it can export energy to other co-operating nations without the need for an expensive fixed infrastructure such as underwater power cables.

– It can be switched rapidly to power green Hydrogen generation or water desalination plants, as well as providing electricity into the grid.

Challenge – 68 Space Flights 

Although the prototype has been developed successfully, there are still some major challenges ahead for Space Solar, not least the estimated 68 space flights that are likely to be needed to get the parts into orbit that could then be assembled by robots into a working space power station.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

Major challenges such as tackling global warming, decarbonising the energy sector to meet targets, keeping up with a growing electricity demand, and finding a more dependable, flexible, and sustainable source of energy have required some innovative thinking. Having solar farms in space where they can provide 24/7 clean, natural energy, therefore, sounds as though it could be one of several options with real promise.

The development of the right kind of solar panel to help achieve this should be celebrated as one important step forward in achieving Space Solar’s vision. There are, however, some arguably much bigger challenges to overcome, including getting the kit into space using almost 70 flights and getting robots to successfully put it all together whilst in orbit. Also, the target of getting it all up and running by the 2030s sounds ambitious, although it needs to be ambitious to tackle our pressing climate and energy challenges. Having a constant, dependable, clean power source beamed from space could be of huge benefit for countries and economies around the world and could help solve the issue of trying to get power to areas where the geography would have prevented this before.

Also, the fact that the technology can be used to power green Hydrogen generation or water desalination plants may also help with this global evening-up of opportunities, helping the world to tackle its main challenges much more quickly and effectively than ever before.

Sustainability-in-Tech : How Cheese Helped Extract Gold From E-Waste

ETH Zurich researchers have reported discovering an effective method for recovering gold from e-waste with the help of byproducts from the cheesemaking process.

Protein Fibre Sponge 

The group of researchers, led by ETH Professor Mezzenga, have reported using a sponge made from a protein matrix (a cheesemaking byproduct) to extract gold from e-waste.

The protein matrix/protein fibre sponge was made by denaturing whey proteins under acidic conditions and high temperatures, thereby aggregating them into protein nanofibrils in a gel. The gel was then dried to create the protein fibre sponge.

The Process 

To test the protein fibre sponge, the research team salvaged 20 old computer motherboards and extracted the metal parts. They then dissolved the parts in an acid bath to ionise the metals. The protein fibre sponge was then placed in the metal ion solution and the gold ions adhered to the protein fibres.

The final part of the process was to heat the sponge, thereby reducing the gold ions into flakes. These flakes were then melted down to form a gold nugget.

How Much Gold?

The researchers reported making a nugget of around 450 milligrams out of the 20 computer motherboards using this process. The nugget was reported to be 91 percent gold (the remainder being copper), which corresponds to 22 carats.

Not Just Gold 

Despite being particularly effective at extracting gold ions, the researchers reported that the process can also be used to extract other metal ions.

How Much Gold In E-Waste? 

It’s estimated that 7 per cent of the world’s gold may be currently locked-away in e-waste and that there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore! Also, for every 1 million mobile phone handsets that are recycled, an estimated 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium can be recovered.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The growing pile of e-waste, the fact that in global terms only 20 per cent of e-waste is formally recycled, and that so much of the world’s gold (7 per cent), and other precious metals are locked up in e-waste are huge challenges. This ingenious method for gold recovery developed by the ETH Zurich researchers which uses a cheesemaking byproduct is, therefore, very promising in terms of sustainability.

The fact that it’s also reported to be a cost-effective method (and, therefore commercially viable) is a bonus that could see it being made ready for the market soon. Another benefit of this method is its flexibility, making it useful for extracting gold from industrial waste from microchip manufacturing or from gold-plating processes. It’s understood that the scientists are also eyeing the possibility of manufacturing the protein fibre sponges out of other protein-rich byproducts or waste products from the food industry, thereby potentially widening the scope and perhaps reducing the cost of the process even more.

Although apparently effective, it should be remembered that tackling the world’s e-waste problem needs a much wider approach. For example, creating a circular economy for electronic goods where waste is minimised, resources are maximised, the environment and health are protected, while businesses and developing economies can still meet their demand, would all help. However, there’s still quite a way to go before this can happen.

Some of the actions that could help bring these necessary changes about could include more legislation and having a more digital and connected world to help accelerate progress towards sustainable development goals. This could possibly be achieved through ‘device-as-a-service’ business models, better product tracking and take-back schemes, plus entrepreneurs, investors, academics, business leaders and lawmakers working together helping create a circular economy that really works.

The e-waste challenge is significant, but as the ETH Zurich researchers have shown, innovative yet relatively simple solutions exist and could have a major impact if scaled up.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Dirt-Powered ‘Forever’ Fuel Cell

Researchers at Northwestern University in the US have created a fuel cell that harvests energy from microbes living in soil so that it can potentially last forever (or as long as there are soil microbes).

Why? 

As Bill Yen (who led the research) suggests, the value may lie in its ability to supply power to IoT devices and other devices in wild areas where solar panels may not work well and where having to replace batteries may be challenging.

For example, talking about the IoT (on the Northwestern University website) Mr Yen says of the growing number of devices: “If we imagine a future with trillions of these devices, we cannot build every one of them out of lithium, heavy metals and toxins that are dangerous to the environment. We need to find alternatives that can provide low amounts of energy to power a decentralised network of devices.” 

Mr Yen also highlights how, putting a sensor out in the wild (e.g. in a farm or in a wetland), can mean being “constrained to putting a battery in it or harvesting solar energy” and points out that “Solar panels don’t work well in dirty environments because they get covered with dirt, do not work when the sun isn’t out and take up a lot of space.” 

Makes Sense To Use Energy From The Existing Environment

In tests, the revolutionary new fuel cell was used to power sensors measuring soil moisture and detecting touch, a capability that the researchers say could be valuable for situations like tracking passing animals.

To tackle the issues of the limitations of relying on normal batteries or solar panels in unsuitable areas, the researchers concluded that harvesting energy from the existing environment (e.g. energy from the soil that farmers are monitoring anyway) is a practical and sensible option.

How Does The Cell Work? 

After two years of research and 4 different versions, the fuel cell is essentially an updated and improved version of a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC), an idea that’s been around since 1911! In essence, an MFC generates electricity using bacteria in the soil in the following way:

– Bacteria in the soil break down organic matter, releasing electrons in the process.

– These electrons travel through a wire from the anode (where bacteria are) to the cathode (another chamber), generating electricity.

– In the cathode, a reaction uses these electrons (plus oxygen and protons) to form water, keeping electrons flowing as long as there’s “food” for bacteria.

The Combination of Ubiquitous Microbes and A Simply Engineered System

Northwestern’s George Wells, a senior author on the study, says the key drivers of the success of the fuel cell design are the fact that it uses microbes that are “ubiquitous; they already live in soil everywhere” and that it has a “very simple engineered systems to capture their electricity”. 

Special Features 

The features that make the MFC made by the researchers at Northwestern University so successful are:

– Its geometry. Rather than using a traditional design where the anode and cathode are parallel to one another, this version leverages a perpendicular design.

– The conductor that captures the microbes’ electrons is made of inexpensive and abundant carbon felt, and the anode (made of an inert, conductive metal) is horizontal to the ground’s surface, with the cathode sitting vertically atop the anode.

– Although the entire device is buried, the vertical design ensures that the top end is flush with the ground’s surface.

– A 3D-printed top prevents debris from falling inside.

– A hole on top and an empty air chamber running alongside the cathode allow consistent airflow.

– With the lower end of the cathode being deep beneath the surface, this ensures that it stays hydrated from the moist, surrounding soil (even if the surface soil is dried out in the sunlight).

– Part of the cathode is coated with waterproofing material to allow it to breathe during a flood and, after a potential flood, the vertical design helps the cathode to dry out gradually rather than all at once.

More Power 

The Northwestern researchers claim that the power produced by their fuel cell can outlast similar technologies by 120 per cent.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

This is an example not just of how an old technology has been re-vamped and supercharged, but also how a relatively simple solution fuelled by nature can be the answer to modern world challenges.

This simple, cheap device, that uses a potentially endless supply of free, natural energy as its power source could be of huge value in areas like precision agriculture to feed the world. For example, farmers wanting to improve crop yields can now have a long-lasting, no-maintenance, natural way to power the sensors/devices needed to measure things like levels of moisture, nutrients, and contaminants in soil. This cell will also free farmers from the task of having to travel around a 100+ acres farm cleaning solar panels or changing batteries. Another major advantage of the product’s design is the fact that some of it can be 3D printed and all the components could be purchased in a hardware shop.

All this means it has a wide potential geographic reach. The fact that there’s already a plan to make the next version from fully biodegradable materials, avoiding using any conflict minerals in its manufacture is also a big environmental plus. In short, this simple, cheap, and highly effective cell could offer opportunities and fuel results that are dramatically greater than the sum of its parts.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Google’s AI Discovers 380,000 New Materials

A new AI tool called GNoME from Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence lab has reportedly discovered and contributed nearly 380,000 new compounds to the Materials Project, the open-access database founded at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

GNoME 

The Graph Networks for Materials Exploration (GNoME), is an AI-powered deep learning tool and a state-of-the-art graph neural network (GNN) model. Originally trained with data on crystal structures and their stability, it is particularly suited to discovering new crystalline materials.

Why Is Finding New Crystalline Materials So Important? 

As Google’s DeepMind says: “Modern technologies from computer chips and batteries to solar panels rely on inorganic crystals. To enable new technologies, crystals must be stable otherwise they can decompose, and behind each new, stable crystal can be months of painstaking experimentation.” 

380,000 New Stable Materials Discovered  

DeepMind reports that using its GNoME AI model, not only has it discovered 2.2 million new crystals (the equivalent to nearly 800 years’ worth of knowledge) but has identified 380,000 of these as being the most stable, making them promising candidates for experimental synthesis.

Faster And Cheaper Than Past Methods 

As DeepMind has highlighted, the traditional methods of scientists searching for novel crystal structures have been adjusting known crystals or experimenting with new combinations of elements. These methods have proven to be an expensive, trial-and-error processes that could take months to deliver limited results. Using the GNoME AI model, therefore, has dramatically speeded up and reduced the cost of this process.

Work Already Under Way On The New Materials 

Google says that researchers in labs around the world have already independently created 736 of the newly discovered structures as part of experimental work. Also, in partnership with Google DeepMind, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have published a paper showing how the AI discoveries can be leveraged for autonomous material synthesis.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

Many essential modern technologies rely on a supply of stable inorganic crystals, e.g. for computer chips, batteries, and solar panels. However, up until now, old methods of finding these crystals have involved time-consuming and expensive trial-and error process. Having an AI tool like GNoME has dramatically increased the speed and efficiency of discovery by predicting the stability of new materials. In doing so, it has demonstrated the potential of using AI to discover and develop new materials.

This could mean that AI models (such as GNoME) have the potential to develop a range of future transformative technologies which could include superconductors, powering supercomputers, and next-generation batteries to boost the efficiency of electric vehicles. Also, Google DeepMind releasing its database of newly discovered crystals to the research community could reduce development times for these new transformative technologies.

This could benefit society and businesses (new opportunities and new industries) as well as contributing to achieving environmental targets and improving sustainability by accelerating the development green technologies.