Sustainability

16 April 2019

How innovation fosters sustainability

Sustainability is hot. More and more people are starting to realise that we urgently need to adjust our way of life and of consumption. Technological innovation can help speed up the development of sustainable solutions.

Innovations in sustainable energy

Many kinds of technology for generating sustainable energy are already well established. Examples are solar panels, windmills, hydroelectric plants and heat pumps. But innovation is still going on continuously: 

  • Tiles that generate energy: Pavegen has developed floor tiles that convert footsteps into energy. As you walk on them, you produce 5W per step. These are already being used to illuminate football fields in Brazil and Nigeria, a corridor at Heathrow Airport and offices and shopping centres in London.
  • Generating wind energy with glider aircraft: “It’s easy", says Wolbert Allaart, director of Ampyx Power. “A PowerPlane with an autopilot and an array of sensors takes off. The plane, with a cable attached, flies in a figure-eight pattern. As the aircraft moves, it pulls the cable which drives a generator*.” If it’s very windy, the glider can supply a neighbourhood with power almost soundlessly.
  • Solar windows: Physee produces glass that converts light into green electricity. There are already some large buildings equipped with the company’s Smartwindows in the Netherlands. The technology is now expanding beyond the Dutch border, into Ireland.
  • Solar energy from space: The idea of transmitting solar energy from space to the Earth may seem far-fetched. But in early 2018, scientists at the California Institute of Technology announced that they had successfully produced a prototype that can do just that.  
The Smartwindows convert light into green electricity.

The Smartwindows convert light into green electricity.

Innovations in sustainable transport

The last decade has seen many innovations brought to market in the area of transport as well. We tend to think first and foremost of electric cars here, but hydrogen-fuelled cars are also becoming increasingly popular. In addition, major investments are being made in other innovative means of transport:

  • Hyperloop: a prestigious project that has been dubbed “the most important novelty in the area of transport in the past 100 years”. Elon Musk introduced the concept of this vacuum train in 2012. The Hyperloop One uses a vacuum tube through which people and goods can be transported at theoretical speeds of up to 1,200 km/hour. In 2017 and 2018, a few successful tests were conducted with speeds of up to nearly 400 km/hr. 
  • Electric self-driving buses: in the Netherlands, Finland, Australia and the United States, a lot of experiments have been made with electric self-driving buses. These are mainly small shuttles intended to fill gaps in public transport.
  • Expanded bike lanes: Copenhagen has been investing for years in an unusual bike infrastructure, consisting of 350 km of paved bicycle paths, traffic lights that are tailored to the speed of cyclists and parking systems that use parked cars as a buffer between bike paths and moving traffic. In 2014 the Cykelslangen (bicycle snake) was opened: an elevated bicycle path above the harbour to facilitate traffic flow. The result of this rigorous focus on cycling infrastructure: more than 50% of Copenhagen's residents ride their bikes to work.
The Hyperloop One uses a vacuum tube through which people and goods can be transported at theoretical speeds of up to 1,200 km/hour.

The Hyperloop One uses a vacuum tube through which people and goods can be transported at theoretical speeds of up to 1,200 km/hour.

Innovations for corporate sustainability
‘Corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) has been a recognised concept in the business world for some years now. Creating a circular economy plays a major role in this regard.

Companies have a major responsibility when it comes to sustainability. ‘Corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) has been a recognised concept in the business world for some years now. Creating a circular economy plays a major role in this regard. In a circular system, the use of raw materials and the production of waste, emissions and energy leakage is minimised by closing energy and raw materials loops. The focus is on sustainable design, maintenance, repair, reuse, recovery and recycling.

  • Coolrec, a subsidiary of Renewi, is doing its utmost in this context. At its site in Wandre, the recycling specialist processes electrical and electronic appliances such as fridges and IT equipment into high-quality secondary materials. They process the recovered plastics into usable materials, and sell iron, aluminium and precious metals to partners who can reuse them in manufacturing processes.

In the construction industry, too, there has been a great deal of interest in recent years in innovative sustainability concepts in which energy use is closely monitored via an intelligent system. The data collected are then used to optimise processes and technologies and to launch new initiatives for more efficient energy use.

  • A few years ago, ACCIONA implemented an integrated energy management system in one of its office buildings in Madrid. The building is monitored by an intelligent building management system which allows several different variables to be viewed in real time. A wireless network architecture which connects the various modules and sensors has been installed for the purpose. The sensors measure aspects such as temperature, relative humidity, luminosity (inside and out), energy production and energy consumption. Renewable energy from photovoltaic and wind-powered systems is integrated into the building’s micro-grid. Weather forecasts are used as input for the building management system. 
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