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06/11/2019 – Sustainability / Innovation / Start-ups

Green game-changers?


The recently announced winners and runners up of the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge 2019 reveal an array of novel and potentially game-changing solutions to the world’s sustainability challenges.


Focused on sustainability innovation, the annual international competition is designed to encourage and support start-ups to take their business to the next level. Below we explore the novel green innovations that stole the limelight during the recent contest, and catch up with last year’s winner.


Boosting efficiency of solar PVs…with algae?


Recipient of a half-million-euros first prize was Swedish Algae Factory, which has worked out a way to boost the efficiency of solar PV panels with innovative algae material called ‘diatoms’. In nature, these diatoms grow in dark, cold seas – and have adapted to survive in such inhospitable conditions by developing protective shells with unique properties.


Currently the only company in the world to cultivate these microalgae group diatoms on a large scale, Swedish Algae Factory sells the high-tech silica shells under the brand name Algica. With unique, light-manipulating properties unmatched by synthetic materials, these shells can be utilised to enhance the efficiency of solar panels by at least four per cent studies have shown. The material also has a moisturising and cleansing effect, so can be used as a natural ingredient for personal care products. 


And there’s a clear sustainability benefit to this solution: In the production process of the material, CO2 is absorbed instead of released. Customers that purchase this material will also contribute to reducing eutrophication (the over-enrichment of water bodies with minerals and nutrients, resulting in oxygen depletion) as well as a healthier food supply chain due to the recycling of two life-sustaining nutrients: nitrogen and phosphorous.


“We’re so happy and honoured to win this prize,” enthused Ms Sophie Allert, Co-founder of the company. “This win will help us reach more personal care and solar clients, and increase our production capacity faster. Algica reduces CO2 by 200 tons/kg per year when applied on solar panels and replaces harmful and less-efficient ingredients in personal care. Algica is therefore contributing towards a more circular, bio-based industry.”


Sustainable switchgear


Fabian Lemke – Co-founder and MD of German start-up nuventura – was rewarded by the jury with the runner-up prize of EUR200,000. Together with his team, Fabian has set himself the goal of replacing switching installations that use the powerful, highly harmful greenhouse gas sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).


A crucial component of an electricity grid, switchgear controls and distributes electrical power flow in the electricity grid network. Existing gas insulated switchgear (GIS) predominantly use SF6 – the most potent greenhouse gas in existence – as an electrically-insulating medium, and often also as a breaking medium. The gas is 23,500 times stronger than CO2 in terms of its global warming potential; it also has an extremely long lifetime (around 3,200 years). “Our aim is to eliminate SF6 from the electrical grid while improving the switchgear’s performance,” explained nuventura’s MD.


Indeed, while renewables often grab the headlines in the march towards clean energy, huge impacts can be made with far less visible technologies working behind the scenes. Put simply, nuventura’s innovative switchgear technology replaces SF6 with dry air, which not only leads to environmental benefits, but also enables significant performance advantages. 



Sun-powered desalination


Anglo-Dutch company Desolenator was recognised for its development of tech that uses the residual heat from a solar panel (an astounding 85 per cent of which is typically not converted into energy) to purify polluted or salt water. 


William Jannsen, Founder and CEO, said: “When I lived in Dubai, I saw the incredible need for desalination, and I was also confronted with the fact that the desalination industry is a terribly polluting and environmentally unfriendly industry,” – not to mention a prohibitively expensive one. Indeed, while two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, the UN estimates that by 2030 half of the global population will lack access to a clean water source. “Currently, we are trying to change that,” said Mr Jannsen, whose company aims to ‘disrupt the water crisis’.


“Desolinator uses the power of the sun and uses 100-per-cent sustainable technology to create water for those in need. A solar panel is able to convert 15 per cent of the energy of the sun into electricity. What happens to that other 85 per cent? Most of that energy is lost in the form of heat. Desolenator captures this heat in the form of heating hot water,” he informed. “We use the thermal energy and the electrical energy specifically for the process of desalinating water – to convert dirty water into clean drinking water.” 


The company’s community model can generate up to 250,000 litres of water per day, and because the technology is completely solar-powered, the only real limitation on how much water it can produce is space. “The magic of Desolenator is that we can purify even the most complex contaminations – from an arsenic-contaminated well to the Pacific Ocean,” enthused Louise Beach, the firm’s Business Development Manager. “All you need for our solution is a water source and sun.” The company has two live pilots this year – one in Dubai for the emirate’s government, and another in West Bengal, serving a community of 5,000 people with clean water.


Nature-inspired rainwater management 


Meanwhile, Field Factors from the Netherlands was recognised for its development of a circular system called Bluebloqs for rainwater management in cities. Inspired by nature, the firm’s Bluebloqs modular system is a green, compact and integrated solution to connect, treat, store and reuse rainwater in urban areas. 


“With climate change we are facing extreme events, with longer periods of drought or intense rainfall. Normally we see cities as the problem when facing climate impacts, but we thought instead how we might see the city as a solution, in terms of designing systems or interventions where we can make use of rain,” suggests Karina Peña, co-founder of Field Factors, which has been developing technologies to recover rainwater and use it in times of drought.


By using rainwater to create a new local source of clean freshwater, the Bluebloqs system solves the effects of pluvial flooding due to intense rainfall, as well as that of water shortage, heat stress, and declining groundwater tables during long periods of drought. “The specific problem that we address with Bluebloqs is to put in balance water availability in urban areas,” clarifies Ms. Peña.


Via its sustainable system based on biofiltration and subsoil storage, the firm is currently infiltrating around 20,000 cubic metres of water, and storing it at a depth of 15–30 metres below the ground. Thereafter, the water can be recovered to supply for use – be that irrigation of a sports field, or for cooling, or supplying water to fountains or other applications. “The very first application of Bluebloqs technology was last year, around the Sparta football club stadium in Rotterdam,” reports Ms. Peña. “Having now proven our technology, the next step is scaling up. By the end of 2020, we will have a market-ready system to be commercialised and scaled up all over Europe.”


Cost-effective energy storage


Finally, Swedish start-up TEXEL Energy Storage – headed up by founder Lars Jacobsson – was recognised for its development of a cost-effective battery for storing wind and solar energy.


TEXEL has developed, in co-operation with US Department of Energy (DOE), a new thermochemical battery. This energy storage solution is cost competitive, head to head, in combination with renewable energy, to traditional energy sources like oil, coal and gas. 


In a new independent report, produced by the DOE, the TEXEL battery is defined not only as the most cost-effective battery in the world, at 1.98 cents/kWh or up to 90-per-cent cheaper than Lithium-Ion, but also as a battery technology that does not include any rare-earth materials. The battery is 100-per-cent recyclable, with the capability to decentralise and secure grid baseload energy distribution to turn future electricity production away from CO2 emissions.


Progress with ‘The Great Bubble Barrier’


Last year, Dutch start-up The Great Bubble Barrier won the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge. Its air bubble screen unobtrusively collects and removes plastic in rivers and canals in the fight against plastic pollution in the ocean.


Providing an update on the progress made by the business over the past year, Co-founder Saskia Studer told us the team have now developed the product, although there’s much more investigation work to be done – “regarding the impact we could have on micro-plastics, for example,” she notes. “We also plan to take the Bubble Barrier international, to a city within Europe. Then, we want to focus on Asia, because the plastic problem there is way bigger than Europe due to [lower levels of] awareness and regulation, as well as the practice of Western countries shipping trash to Asia. Ultimately, we’re all responsible.”

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