problem-solving is one of our best features. And what better way to celebrate what we can achieve by putting this brain power to work towards the good of our natural environment. Citizens from around the globe are putting their thinking caps on, leveraging on their personal experience or expert knowledge, to address some of the major environmental challenges we are facing. But great discoveries are not taking place just in high end research centres or labs. Here are five examples of innovative technologies that could change the world most assuredly for the better:
Levulinic Acid: a game-changer molecule
For those of us following British football, Arsenal’s French midfielder Mathieu Flamini may be a familiar personality. What most of us don’t know is that Flamini also founded and invested in a company that first developed and deployed the technology for producing levulinic adic at industrial scale and competitive prices. Levulinic acid was recognized by the US Department of Energy as one of the top biobased platform chemicals of the future[sc:2]. It can potentially replace petroleum-based products in the chemical and biofuel sectors which is critical if our economy is to move away from fossil fuels. Levulinic acid is made entirely from bio-based sources such as wood, grass and other inedible parts of plants.
The Ocean Cleanup: mission possible?
As a teenager, Boyan Slat from the Netherlands started developing an idea about how to clean up our oceans from plastic pollution. While over the years he has come across several critics of his idea, he has been able to gather support from across the world so that he can put his concept to the test.
Slat is convinced that by taking advantage of the ocean’s own currents his simple device could theoretically remove about half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years[sc:3]. By acting like an artificial coastline, an array of floating barriers, anchored to the sea bed, would catch and contain the floating debris. Because of the ocean currents, the plastic would move along the barriers towards a platform, where it would be extracted. Any fish other sea life would be able to pass underneath the barriers without any problems.
Accidental nanorods: harvesting water from air
Scientists often make mistakes but sometimes these lead to the discovery of a great technology. This is how researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) unintentionally created carbon-rich nanorods which when placed in a humid environment, expel rather than absorb water. This behaviour is not shared by any other material and can potentially pave the way to low-energy water harvesting systems and even sweat-removing fabrics. The researchers are now working to perfect the size, shape and performance of the nanorods as well as determine whether they can be used in conjunction with different nanomaterials to collect other liquids, such as methanol[sc:4].
AirCarbon: plastic from CO2
Every day, natural processes capture carbon that would have otherwise been emitted into the atmosphere contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Inspired by these natural mechanisms, a company called Newlight developed a technology that captures carbon emissions to produce a plastic material, which they have called AirCarbon. AirCarbon is made by combining air with methane emissions generated at a farm; it is composed of 40% oxygen from air and 60% carbon and hydrogen from captured carbon emissions. Newlight is now working with Fortune 500 partners and brand name market leaders to use AirCarbon as a material to launch carbon-negative products across a range of sectors such as automotive, electronics, construction and apparel.
Trinity: wind power on the go
There is a lot of talk about the potential of renewable energy sources for a low carbon future that can help us address climate change. A lot of these technologies require upfront investment and can deliver change when deployed in sufficient numbers. But Trinity offers individuals the potential to harness renewable power to charge our own personal electronic devices. Trinity is a portable wind turbine which comes in different sizes and can help power devices as small as a smartphone or as big as an electric car. This handy gadget can be folded down to an easily transportable size and includes an app that tracks energy generation and allows the user to remotely turn the gadget on and off[sc:6].