Put a bit of Evian in the tank and head out on your journey! This is what filling up at service stations could be like in the future. Or at least something to that effect. In fact, right now, clean tech has the wind under its sails, and much like wind energy, won’t be petering out any soon.
The term ‘clean tech’ (an abbreviation of clean technology) refers to new technologies that replace classic products and services to fulfil the same functions, at the equivalent level of performance, with a less negative impact on the environment.
This trend has already been growing for some years, but 2016 will see it completely boom. The situation is actually rather urgent and it is time we started producing and consuming as responsibly as possible. The growing number of alarming predictions are making even the most sceptical think twice. For example, on the occasion of the Davos 2016 forum, the results of a study jointly led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the McKinsey firm were revealed: if we continue to make do with the current environmental status quo, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean in 2050. You only have to switch on your television to see the consequences of the warming of the oceans: we are seeing more and more violent natural phenomena, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. And don’t forget the devastating floods, mud slides and forest fires. The earth is fighting back, often leaving us lost for words.
But fear not, innovation and technology could provide a technical solution, we just need to adopt a different attitude. The main priority of players in the field of clean tech is obviously to find alternatives to fossil fuels. Whether it is used as a fuel or raw material in the manufacture of plastic, which is now everywhere, petroleum is gradually disappearing. We’ll explain what we mean.
Is hydrogen the new industrial revolution?
Hydrogen, a gas, is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. And, in some cases, it can be used as a substitute for petroleum. We can now use it to generate electricity and therefore much more: driving your car, charging your smartphone or even heating your house. This can all be done whilst strictly respecting the environment. We may very well be at the dawn of a new industrial era!
Step on the gas
Let’s start with the latest addition to the Toyota family, the Mirai. After launching its hybrid electric car, the Prius, in 2000, the Japanese manufacturer switched up to a higher gear. This car is powered by a fuel cell, which runs on hydrogen. The vehicle is therefore driven on the electricity produced by this clean fuel. And its only emission is steam! But won’t it just break down after the first 10 miles? The sceptics may be disappointed to hear that the answer is “no”. In actual fact, this futuristic racing car can travel for over 300 miles and only requires the same charging time as it takes to complete a petrol refill. So what more could you ask!
No more need for petroleum for the commute. This car is certainly more expensive to buy than a normal electric car and refills aren’t cheap either. However, giving the environment a helping hand will be worth it in the long run, won’t it? And technology is advancing at exponential speeds so these modern day steam cars will become more affordable in years to come.
The Mirai has been on the Japanese market since 2014, but it isn’t expected to launch on the French market before 2017. Our European neighbours, however, have been more fortunate; the four-wheeled Japanese creation is already available in the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and Denmark. It is worth noting that these countries have a hydrogen distribution network, which is a crucial step in persuading motorists to convert. We can but hope that the Mirai’s arrival in France will help speed up the construction of the necessary infrastructure.
Filling up your phone
But that’s not all, mobile phones can also run on hydrogen. The brains behind Intelligent Energy, a British company specialising in clean energy production technology, have developed a mini hydrogen cell. This cell can power mobile phones and computers, but more importantly, it has a greater battery life than classic batteries.
In an interview, CEO of Intelligent Energy Henry Winand explained that his researchers had developed an iPhone 6 prototype powered by hydrogen. You can use it like a normal smartphone and you only have to charge it once a week. Rather tempting, isn’t it?
Along the same lines, Viessmann and Panasonic have designed a boiler that runs on a fuel cell. Tried and tested in Lorraine, France, it can significantly reduce your electricity and heating bills, whilst helping protect the environment. It can lower CO2 emissions by 30% and this boiler gives the user greater energy independence.
But life doesn’t just revolve around hydrogen; clean technologies can also be a substitute for the oils found in plastic.
Let’s do away with plastic
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Plastic waste, which is everywhere and insufficiently recycled, is doing real damage to our planet. As such, researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have found a solution to bring an end to the reign of plastic: Shrilk. This bioplastic is made from chitosan, an organic material that can be found throughout nature, particularly in the shells of crustaceans. Its properties are similar to those of plastic: flexible, strong and transparent. The main advantage: it decomposes quickly and naturally, without damaging the environment. It can even be used as soil fertiliser!
So, in concrete terms, how does it work? The shells of eaten prawns are collected (so they are not fished exclusively for the production of bioplastic) and are then mixed with silk proteins. The high natural abundance of chitosan is what enables the mass production of this new form of clean plastic.
So the days of plastic rubbish littering the streets and piling up in the oceans until they form new continents are soon to be a thing of the past. To think that a single bottle of water can take hundreds of years to decompose and that, until then, it will pollute the soil and sea is enough to make you shudder. And just to add insult to injury, we now use twenty times as many plastic materials as we did fifty years ago. This figure is expected to double in the next twenty years. Aside from the environmental impact, the cost of it is astronomical. Between 80 to 120 billion dollars is wasted on plastic packaging every year for lack of an effective recycling system.
Of course, it wouldn’t be right to talk about clean tech without mentioning start-ups. Young start-ups are actually some of the biggest contributors to this fast growing sector. And the examples are legion, in France alone.
A French start-up called Glowee, founded in 2014, has developed a form of technology that produces light without electricity in a renewable way.
The co-founders based their concept on an observation: 90% of marine species are capable of producing light naturally. This phenomenon is called bioluminescence. Following on from this, they looked for a way of reproducing this phenomenon in the laboratory in order to use it as a clean light source. The solution: isolate and cultivate the bacteria responsible for this luminescence in squids and then inject the bacteria into shells that are adhesive and can be customised according to the user’s needs. Transparent in daylight, they emit a soft and non-polluting light at night, which can be used to light up city centres.
This solution has been specially adapted for city lighting, which is often a town’s main source of expenditure. Street fittings, monuments and shop windows can thus be lit up in an environmentally-friendly way and at no extra cost to the taxpayer.
So that’s how the clean tech horizon is taking shape in 2016. And that’s just a taster; there are countless innovative ideas for ways to produce and consume more responsibly. That’s all very well, but it’s going to take more than that to save the planet. In order to properly resolve the climate issues, we need governments and major players from the private sector to jointly devise a global initiative. COP21 seemed to be a good start, but there are still doubts as to whether commitments made in Paris will be upheld.
And we must ask ourselves another crucial question: how can we make the actual process of creating clean technologies more environmentally friendly? The solution may be to make the leap from a linear economy to a circular economy. But we will discuss that in another article as there is so much to say on the subject.
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