Net zero: five innovative solutions for a green future

Big thinkers around the world are coming up with innovative ways to decarbonize lives. These innovative solutions offer hope for a cleaner future.

Wind-powered cargo ships

Any sea dog who is a good swimmer will be able to navigate a sailboat. But, it isn’t easy to operate one. Oceanbird’s vessels? Even experienced hands could find it difficult.

Bringing sailing into the modern epoch, the Swedish firm’s boats promise wind-powered solutions to shipping’s emissions problem.

Problem it is. Shipping is a major source and emitter of hot air, accounting for around 2.5% of global emissions. If the shipping industry were a country it would be the sixth largest polluter, just behind Germany.

Oceanbird has a solution. It sounds simple (sails), but is anything but. These sails are made from steel and composite materials and look more like aeroplane wings. They can also be remotely controlled to move in unison, providing maximum thrust.

Oceanbird concedes that trips will take longer compared to diesel cargo vessels – four days longer in the case of crossing the Atlantic. Oceanbird is launching its first ship in 2026.

Other companies are also developing hydrogen-powered boats, which the airline industry holds high hopes for. Aviation is currently responsible for around 5% of global emissions and rising. It is difficult to decarbonize. But these beachside cocktails may soon taste even sweeter, thanks to Zeroavia. Don’t pack your bag just yet, but it is working on zero-emissions, hydrogen-electric planes and the team says it will have a commercial jet in the sky by the end of the decade.

 

Molten salt storage

Image: The molten salt test loop at Sandia National Laboratories’ National Solar Thermal Test Facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Credit: Sandia Labs licensed by CC BY -NC-ND 2.0

Renewables are great, but what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow? Batteries, right? Although conventional battery technology is advanced, it’s not capable of storing large amounts electricity for extended periods.

Enter Malta Inc, a US firm that’s among those working on a solution. Billing itself as “the future of energy storage”, it has developed a system that converts renewable electricity into heat and then reconverts it back into electricity when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing.

The system switches to charge mode by using electricity to start a heat pump. The heat generated is stored in molten sodium. The system can also be used as a heat engine in discharge mode. It uses the stored warmth to generate electricity.

It’s nifty storage solutions like these that could help unleash the power of renewables, solving the so-called ‘intermittency problem’ of wind and solar.

 

Reinvented cement

A pilot is testing tunnel segments made from low-carbon concrete in France. Image by Ally Griffin

It is the basis of civilisation. We live on it, walk on and send our waste down it. Cement is versatile, inexpensive, and easy to make. It is the second most used material on Earth, after water.

And it’s terrible for the environment, accounting for around eight per cent of global emissions.

It would be a good idea to use less, so efforts are being made to incorporate circular thinking into construction. Another trend is to use alternatives, which is a reason for the resurgence in timber. But the cement industry itself must be cleaned up.

Doing the heavy lifting can be tiring. Ecocema startup from Ireland that claims to have reduced cement’s carbon footprint by about 95 percent

How? It uses slag – a waste product from the steel industry – as a substitute for clinker, which is the most CO2 intensive ingredient in cement.

Is it any good? The stuff is being used for the Paris Metro extension and other global infrastructure projects.

 

Star power is limitless

Nuclear fusion energy: a jet interior with superimposed plasma

Image: The interior of the Joint European Torus laboratory at Oxford. Credit: UKAEA/EURofusion

The concept alone is enough to bend your mind, but this technology is not the stuff of science fiction – it’s in development right now.

It’s best known as nuclear fusion, the process by which stars, like our sun, generate energy. Although nuclear reactors have been built to produce energy using fission, fusion harnesses the heat that is released when atoms become fused.

The fuel required is two widely available isotopes of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – and the fusing can be done in a facility the size of a shipping container.

The technology made a huge leap forward in February thanks to the Joint European Torus laboratory in Oxford, which smashed its own record for the amount of energy extracted from the process, and in May scientists updated a ‘foundational principle’, meaning it could provide even more power than previously thought. Although it is not yet commercially feasible, fusion could save humanity from climate change.

 

Tidal sequestration

Olivine is a natural mineral found in Hawaii that could reduce emissions. Image by Lance Asper

A beautifully simple solution by US nonprofit Project Vesta could sequester millions of tonnes of carbon while reducing ocean acidification – by simply scattering sand on beaches.

This is not just any sand, this is olivine, which dissolves CO2 as it’s broken down by the waves – a natural process known as chemical weathering. Bicarbonate, which adds acidity to the water, is an added bonus.

Olivine can be found naturally in places such as Hawaii. US-based Project VestaA pilot study is being conducted in the Dominican Republic to determine if scattering it on beaches has any impact on the local ecology.

If olivine is deployed on just 0.25 per cent of global shores, Project Vesta reckons it could remove 1bn tonnes of CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere.

Main image: Wallenius Marine

 

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