Encouraged by increasing demand for eco-friendly new goods and services, a wide range of tech ventures are taking low-carbon innovation to new heights
The move towards a low-carbon economy is fuelling innovation in many fields, as the world’s fast-growing appetite for eco-friendly products, services and technologies creates ever more commercial opportunities.
Hi-tech businesses in particular are busily working on environmentally friendly goods and applications with an emphasis on energy efficiency. Here are just a few recent developments at the leading edge.
Supporting the effort to mitigate global climate change, firms are developing viable methods of removing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels can be recovered from the air and recycled for use in a range of products.
Carbon Engineering, for instance, is scaling up technology to extract CO2 from the atmosphere on an industrial scale and then convert it (using low-carbon electricity) into fuel for transport, thereby reducing our dependence on crude oil at the same time.
Fulcrum BioEnergy is developing technology for transforming household refuse into low-cost jet fuel and diesel. Materials such as food waste and plastic bottles are blended to make a product with a carbon footprint that is 80 per cent smaller than that of its fossil-fuel equivalent.
BP has invested £30m in Fulcrum and has secured a 10-year contract for the supply of fuel to its aviation division.
Similarly, a company called LanzaTech takes the CO2 and carbon monoxide emitted from steel mills and converts these gases into biofuel and other useful chemicals via a fermentation process using microbes called acetogens. The business is working with partners including Virgin Atlantic to test the fuel for use on commercial flights.
They’re an unorthodox source of low-carbon energy, but footsteps are being used to generate power. Clean-tech company Pavegen has invented a floor-tile system that converts footfall to electricity (7W per step). The more pedestrian traffic there is, the more power – for street lighting, for instance – is produced.
“It’s an off-grid power source for cities,” says the firm’s founder and CEO, Laurence Kemball-Cook. “In the busiest parts of cities, such as railway stations and stadiums, it’s a solution that won’t let the footsteps of 50,000 people an hour go to waste.”
Japanese company Challenergy is transforming the destructive power of nature into a force for good. It is developing an egg-beater-shaped wind turbine to convert the colossal energy of a typhoon into a usable form.
The earthquake, tsunami and resulting meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 – and the fact that three typhoons hit Japan every year on average – spurred the firm’s founder, Atsushi Shimizu, into pursuing this project.
The turbine is at prototype stage, says Shimizu, who notes that the energy contained in a single typhoon could power the country for 50 years.
Case study: Transforming business – and our way of life
High-tech company Vantage Power has placed the move to low carbon at the very core of what it does.
Its mission is to develop innovative technologies that radically reduce harmful emissions discharged from heavy-duty vehicles around the world.
The business designs and manufactures hybrid and electric vehicle products in particular developing unique battery pack, control system and telemetry technologies that can be applied to both newly built buses or as a retrofit.
Vantage Power’s hybrid system, for example, reduces fuel consumption by 40 per cent. When it retrofitted a fleet of London buses with this system it also led to a 60 per cent reduction in harmful emissions.
Currently, the company is working hard on a product that will allow existing diesel buses to be converted to pure electric, accelerating the transition to a zero emissions economy.
Co-founder Alex Schey says the business, now seven years old, has successfully raised £7.5 million in investment to date and is on course to achieving profitability within the next 12 months.
Schey describes the low carbon sector as a high growth industry able to attract the brightest and best talent because it’s seen as making a positive difference to the environment and our way of life.
Although, he admits, the sustainability agenda still has far to go in terms of being fully embraced by the business world, the low carbon industry has a key role to play in galvanising action and spearheading innovation.
“The UK is in a global race to remain at the forefront of low carbon technology,” he says. “If we rest on our laurels we will be superseded by countries that invest more in innovation. It therefore makes sense to foster innovation and invest in companies and ideas that are driving this technology forward.”
Case study 2: Fuel for thought – how BP is powering green innovations
Tech innovation is often associated with smaller, disruptor companies, but the big boys are getting in on the act too.
Oil and gas giant BP is one such example, with the company carrying out a number of targeted investments to diversify its offering.
One example is BP’s $5m investment in FreeWire Technologies Inc, a US-based manufacturer of mobile electric vehicle (EV) rapid charging systems.
BP plans to roll out FreeWire’s Mobi Charger units, which allow flexible deployment of charging facilities, at selected BP retail sites in the UK and Europe during 2018.
Tufan Erginbilgic, chief executive, BP Downstream, said: “Mobility is changing and BP is committed to remaining the fuel retailer of choice into the future.
“EV charging will undoubtedly become an important part of our business, but customer demand and the technologies available are still evolving.
“Using FreeWire’s mobile system we can respond very quickly and provide charging facilities at forecourts where we see the greatest demand without needing to make significant investments in today’s fixed technologies and infrastructure.”