Last reviewed 28 August 2020

In our latest review of green innovations, Tim and Caroline Hand take a look at how companies are steering towards a more sustainable future.

Formula One fridges

As supermarkets are responsible for approximately 3% of the UK’s energy use, the fact that fridges account for half of the sector’s energy consumption undoubtedly requires addressing. Fortunately, the Aerofoil, a new device inspired by the wing design of Formula One cars, looks set to speed supermarkets towards a greener future. The Aerofoil guides cold air more efficiently down the front of the fridge, substantially reducing the amount of cold air lost from the unit. This results in lower energy usage, as well as improving the experience of shoppers by tackling “cold aisle syndrome”. This in turn eliminates the need to heat aisles, saving further energy. Prominent retailers have chosen to introduce the devices, with the Carbon, Utilities and Engineering Manager at Sainsbury’s stating that the company had seen a 15% reduction in energy created from fridges across its estate since rolling out Aerofoils.

Tesco has also adopted “Vortex” technology designed to deliver enhanced energy and temperature improvements in refrigerated cases through advanced Computational Fluid Dynamics modelling. The use of the “Vortex” technology resulted in fridges using up to 52% less energy when combined with Aerofoils in laboratory testing, and it has been speculated that Aerofoil technology could deliver annual savings equivalent of a month’s worth of CO2 emissions from a city as large as Manchester. A “cool” prospect if ever there was one!

Flying and floating sustainably

Although Covid-19 has greatly reduced the level of overseas travel and prompted serious questions regarding the necessity of many long-distance journeys, boats and planes will undoubtedly continue to play key roles in our society. With that in mind, the need to render such vehicles more environmentally friendly is of paramount importance; aviation causes around 2% of the world’s carbon emissions according to the International Air Transport Association.

However, some recent innovations could represent positive change in these sectors. Startup company ZeroAvia has completed test flights for its prototype six-seater electric plane, which is said to be Europe’s largest emission-free aircraft. Although the plane was produced with a lithium-ion battery, the company is developing a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain, which they claim has a more promising energy-to-weight ratio, making it viable for commercial operations more swiftly and at a far larger scale.

ZeroAvia plans to have 50–100 seat configurations in flight by the end of the decade, and to bring a 200-seater, zero emission aircraft to market by 2040. On a more nautical note, Danfoss Editron has been chosen to provide drivetrain systems for the first hybrid crew transfer vessels (CTVs) in the UK, which will be used to serve Ørsted’s Hornsea Two offshore wind farm. The CTVs can operate in either completely electric mode or hybrid mode, and it is estimated that both vehicles will save around 127t of CO2 in comparison to conventional diesel vehicles. These CTVs, which will be able to carry 24 passengers, are scheduled to be delivered in the second quarter of next year. Let’s hope they make a splash!

Funding for liquid air

It is all well and good coming up with a bold invention, but overall, it’s the implementation that counts, which is why the Government’s decision to award £10 million to the “Cryobattery” facility project, designed to compress air into liquid and later use this liquid air to generate electricity, should be regarded as a promising development. The concept was previously examined in December’s green innovations article Festive cheer and a hopeful New Year: Green Innovation update, and now looks set to become a reality which will not only balance electricity supply and demand and maximise the value of intermittent renewables by storing energy, but it will also hopefully create “green collar” jobs in the Greater Manchester area.

Seawater battery

Although electric vehicles (EVs) could play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, their construction can itself harm the ecosystem due to the fact that the lithium-ion batteries that power most EVs are constructed using heavy metals such as cobalt. The mining operations used to obtain these finite metals can cause pollution and involve humanitarian issues such as the use of child labour.

However, IBM has developed a new battery devoid of heavy metals, which is instead made from three new materials derived from seawater, including a liquid electrolyte and a cobalt and nickel-free cathode material. These new batteries take less than five minutes to reach an 80% charge, and IBM have argued that they could also outperform existing batteries in terms of upfront cost and energy efficiency within five years. If the design proves successful once it has been fine-tuned and released on the mass-market, the technology could also be used for aircraft and smart energy grids. Furthermore, the battery is also far less flammable than its lithium-ion counterparts, as the new cathode and the electrolyte materials limit the creation of lithium dendrites, reducing the likelihood of your EV going out with a bang!

Waste-fuelled deliveries

In other driving-related news, the John Lewis Partnership has announced plans to construct a biomethane filling station at its head office in Bracknell, as part of its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. It will enable the company’s largest heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to run on biomethane made from food waste and waste materials, as opposed to diesel, and will serve 120 of Waitrose’s HGVs. This step represents progress towards the company’s climate goals, such as converting its entire HGV fleet to run on biomethane by 2028, which is expected to reduce the fleet’s CO2 emissions by 80%.

Moreover, the facility alone is expected to save over 70,000 tonnes of CO2 over the next seven years (the equivalent of over 13,000 households’ carbon footprint). The John Lewis Partnership also claims that the biomethane-fuelled HGVs will be quieter, thus reducing noise pollution, which will be particularly relevant for urban deliveries. This development forms part of a wider adoption of biomethane by businesses that use HGVs, such as Argos and Hermes. Looks like John Lewis isn’t just keen to innovate in the Christmas ad field!

Solar record smashed

“Quantum dots” may sound like a pseudoscience concept from an Ant-Man film, but these nanoparticles that generate an electrical current when exposed to solar energy in a solar cell device are very real. Furthermore, a recent breakthrough at the University of Queensland (UQ) could represent a key step towards the technology’s release on the mass market. A group of scientists at UQ were able to fabricate a quantum dot solar cell with 16.6% efficiency, which represents an increase in relative efficiency of almost 25% over the previous record. If the technology becomes commercially viable, it could be used to cover the screens of electronic devices and feed their systems with electricity, and could also be competitive for large-scale arrays and buildings if the research team successfully meet their new target of a 20% efficiency rate. In what will be good news for those despairing of solar power in Britain due to temperamental weather, quantum-dot solar panels are able to produce electricity in wet and cloudy weather conditions, and the UQ researchers have described the technology as “British weather proof”. Let’s hope this new innovation brings some sunshine into our lives!