food waste nanotechnology

Fighting food waste with nanotechnology

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, half of the world’s fruit and vegetable harvests go to waste every year, for reasons varying from pests and drought to issues with transportation, storage, and retail. Accounting for 8-10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), food waste is also a contributing factor to climate change and undesirable weather events such as droughts and flooding.

A vicious circle

Changes in the global climate and the overuse of agricultural land has a negative impact on crop yields and their nutritional quality, which could potentially lead to an increase in demand that the farms will simply not be able to meet at a certain point. Reducing food waste worldwide could be a critical factor in securing sustainable agrifood systems that make efficient use of the planet’s resources and provide food security and quality nutrition.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to halve per-capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels while also reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses (SDG target 12.3). Reaching this target would have significant implications for breaking the vicious circle in the relationship between food waste, climate change, and the food crisis.

Technology against food waste

There are many measures that could stop or at least reduce food waste, at every step of the production chain, starting with minimizing waste on farms and ending with educating consumers about it. Technological innovation plays an important role here, as most of the initiatives rely on technologies like AI, robotics, additive manufacturing, and even nanotechnology.

Aside from wrapping in plastic (which comes with its own set of sustainability problems), one of the preferred methods in the industry for reducing post-harvest waste is coating fruits and vegetables. These thin layers are made from various substances, depending on the producer, and act like a barrier between the food and the external environment. This slows down the degradation process of fresh produce by preventing direct interaction with atmospheric gases and microbes. The resulting longer shelf-life offers more chances for the product to be bought or consumed, thus decreasing the probability of waste.

Edible wax coating is the most preferred method in doing so, but oftentimes, the wax is mixed with chemical components that are potentially harmful to human health. Many research facilities world-wide are dedicating their efforts to developing such edible coatings that are also harmless to consumers, and many have succeeded. More often than not, however, these biofilms are costly, restricted to the industry, and therefore inaccessible to a wider range of farmers.

A safe and inexpensive edible coating made with nanotechnology

A team from the Nanobiotechnology Laboratory and the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee has developed a nanofiber coating using a blend of silk fibroin, PVA, honey, and curcumin. Their edible biofilm, made with techniques like electrospinning and dip-coating, is cost-effective, and the ingredients used are all FDA-approved.

As a base for their coating, the team used the biomaterial silk fibroin protein extracted from local silk cocoons because of its biocompatibility, non-toxic, higher stability, and good mechanical strength. They added PVA as a supporting polymer for electrospun coating, curcumin for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties, and honey as a natural moisturizer.

The researchers tested their coating on several types of horticulture products, but they selected bananas as a model fruit because of their short shelf life of four to five days. Yellow bananas coated with edible silk fibroin nanofibers (SFNSs) remained fresh for more than four days, maintaining their texture and quality.

A) Time-lapse photography of silk fibroin composite nanofiber coated banana (150 min total electrospinning time by changing the position of banana to allow the proper coating from all sides) and uncoated banana. (B) Banana without peel on 6th day; Note: NC– non-coated, C- coated. Source

In the unripe green banana coated with SNFSs, the ripening process was delayed by two weeks, after which it was ready for consumption as a fruit (yellow banana), while the uncoated green bananas from the control group ripened after two weeks, but could not be consumed and were affected by fungal growth. The coated ones remained unaffected by fungi, thanks to the presence of nano curcumin, an effective antimicrobial agent.

The team tested SNSFs on apples as well, only to discover a spectacular one-month increase in their shelf-life, while preserving their texture, quality, and stiffness.

Another promising result in the experiment was obtained when performing the test of stability on fish. The coated zebrafish retained its morphology and internal fluids, while the uncoated fish dried up entirely.

The conclusion of the study was that silk fibroin as a method of coating is a very promising solution in the food nanotechnology field. It can be tested and extended to the preservation of meat or other non-veg foods that decay very quickly during long-distance transport.

This method is cost-effective, does not require any special expertise, and the edible coating is biodegradable and non-toxic. Furthermore, the team utilized silk cocoons discarded by the industry, so the production method favors the circular economy concept, and the curcumin and honey add extra nutrition to the food.

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Biogenic Limestone: A Revolutionary Pathway to Carbon-Negative Construction

The global construction industry has a sustainability problem. Because cement production requires the addition of burnt limestone – a finely ground powder known as portland cement – as binder, it causes huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to the industry’s role as a leading source of atmospheric CO2.

Overall, the use of cement by the building sector accounts for about 7 percent of carbon discharges worldwide. Increasing awareness of this problem on the part of regulators and the general public are driving efforts to decarbonize cement production and bring global construction in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

In June 2022, a research group in the US involving scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) received a US$3.2 million grant from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) to develop an alternative way of manufacturing portland cement from limestone made by microalgae called coccolithophores. These single-cell plankton organisms build up shells of calcium carbonate from sunlight, seawater, and dissolved carbon dioxide using the same process that results in the growth of coral reefs.

Net negative carbon emissions

Not only does this method avoid the laborious, energy- and time-consuming, and costly process of mining limestone from quarries; because the microalgae extract and store atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis, the resulting biogenic limestone has a neutral carbon footprint, since the amount of carbon released during calcining (heating) is equal to that stored by the microorganisms. If additional quantities of biogenic limestone are used as a filler material, the portland cement produced through this novel method would ultimately result in net carbon negative emissions by permanently storing CO2 in concrete.

This neutral-CO2 cement would be used to replace normal cement in concrete structures, which would contribute significantly to reducing the carbon footprint of the cement industry.”
Catharina Alves-de-Souza, University of North Carolina Wilmington

“This neutral-CO2 cement would be used to replace normal cement in concrete structures, which would contribute significantly to reducing the carbon footprint of the cement industry,” said Catharina Alves-de-Souza, who heads the Algal Resources Collection at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. She added that ARPA-E’s “Harnessing Emissions into Structures Taking Inputs from the Atmosphere” (HESTIA) program was one of the more innovative and exciting examples of microalgal biotechnological applications: “The proposed biotechnological approach offers a revolutionary pathway to produce, for the first time, CO2-neutral portland cement using microalgae. Nothing like that has ever been attempted before.”

Commercial viability of biogenic limestone

Alves-de-Souza is optimistic that the biogenic limestone would not only be good for the environment, but also generate revenue: “We will also obtain other high-value products from the microalgae, such as lipids and proteins, which will make the project economically viable.” Moreover, the industry could adapt the novel manufacturing process very rapidly, according to Dr. Wil Srubar, the lead principal investigator on the stone project and associate professor in Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and CU Boulder’s Materials Science and Engineering Program.

Because biogenic limestone is plug-and-play with traditional portland cement manufacturing, the only real challenge for us is achieving economies of scale.”
Wil Srubar, CEO, Minus Materials

Srubar is also the CEO of Minus Materials, a pre-seed startup spin-off company of UC Boulder that handles the commercialization of the climate-friendly building material. He said the biogenic lime could be taken up almost immediately because it can be seamlessly integrated with state-of-the-art cement production: “Because biogenic limestone is plug-and-play with traditional portland cement manufacturing, the only real challenge for us is achieving economies of scale. Minus Materials has developed multiple viable pathways to get there. All we need to do now is execute,” Srubar told Supertrends.

limestone construction

Denver-based Minus Materials describes its mission as “developing new science and technology to accelerate decarbonization of the cement and concrete industry while strengthening their global value chains through advanced biotechnology”. In a June 2022 funding round, the company received backing from SOSV, a multi-stage venture capital firm with US$1.3 billion in assets under management that focuses on human and planetary health, and from SOSV’s biotech startup accelerator IndiBio.

Scaling up

The researchers believe that producing all the cement required by the US construction industry would require a space of 1 to 2 million acres (4.000 to 8.000 km2) of open ponds for cultivation of the calcium-producing algae. This amounts to just 0.05 to 0.10 percent of the country’s land area. For comparison, a hundred times more land is used to grow corn in the US. The effect would be even greater if scaled up globally: Replacing all cement-based construction around the world with biogenic limestone cement would prevent two gigatonnes of CO2 emissions annually, while extracting and storing another 250 million additional tonnes of atmospheric CO2.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the direct CO2 intensity of cement production saw a 1.8 percent annual increase during the period from 2015 to 2020. However, achieving the goals set in the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario for the global energy sector would require that this value decrease by 3 percent per year.

The intergovernmental organization says that a realistic path toward achieving these climate targets would require a reduction of the clinker-to-cement ratio, since the amount of clinker – the main ingredient in cement – used in production is directly proportional to the volume of CO2 emissions caused during this process. The IEA has also said that carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS) technologies will be “crucial” in preventing carbon emissions during limestone calcination in cement-making.

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The Future of 3D Printing in Construction – Modularity and Innovative Materials

3D printing is a very fast-rising technology that is gaining more and more space across different manufacturing sectors, including the construction industry, where this technology was first introduced in the 1950s. Since then, 3D printers and the related material mixtures used in construction have become increasingly efficient, cost- and time-effective, and environmentally sustainable. Modular 3D printing (M3DP) and advanced materials can help achieve these goals.

3D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, is emerging as a future player in construction practices, with estimates suggesting that this industry will reach the 36-billion-dollar mark by 2025. In this context, more and more companies operating in 3D printing have begun to focus on modularity, (i.e., the construction of buildings composed of modules prefabricated separately in an off-site factory and assembled on-site). This construction process has several benefits, not only for the industry, but also for society and the environment, with a potential ripple effect.

The benefits of modular 3D printing for construction companies

Modular construction began to emerge among 3D printing operators primarily in response to the COVID-19 crisis: worker-to-worker spacing requirements and construction site closures imposed by national health policies severely limited or prevented on-site work and the use of traditional construction techniques. At the same time, the crisis also caused raw materials shortages or delays in delivery due to supply chain disruption throughout industries. In this context, the combination of modularity and 3D printing lent itself to be a very promising solution to a problem that was bound to persist even after the height of the pandemic, as it allowed individual prefabs to be printed off-site and assembled at a later date, with faster and more flexible timelines, with less material needed, and far fewer workers required.

These advantages of modular 3D printing have triggered a trend for companies to favor this construction technique as it is much more flexible in design, customizable, fast, material- and cost-efficient than traditional construction, and capable of creating a more resilient industry in the event of future disruptions and global emergencies.

The benefits of modular 3D printing for society

Future demographic projections point to a trend that will continue to consolidate in the coming decades: the unstoppable drive toward urbanization. This means that more and more people will concentrate in urban centers, with estimates suggesting that by 2050 about 68 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Geographically, this phenomenon affects poorer segments of the population in developing countries the most, but developed countries will also be profoundly affected.

In this context, speed and efficiency in construction, malleability, and the possibility to expand the number of rooms, become the key elements to meeting a growing demand for housing in cities. Modular 3D printing can fulfill these needs while achieving increasingly lower costs in the long run.

3D printing, modularity - Supertrends
Expandable and malleable houses

Modular 3D printing makes it possible to create houses quickly and efficiently using the 3D printing technique and with great potential for expansion due to modularity: depending on requirements, new modules can be added when needed to extend the living space. In addition, different modules can be reassembled in different ways. This allows for a dwelling that can better adapt to the number of tenants and their affordance.

Decent and affordable housing

The affordability of a house depends on construction costs, the cost of labor, and the materials used. Through 3D printing, construction costs can be reduced by about 35 percent through increased efficiency. In addition, the cost of labor is also reduced since fewer workers are needed. Although the cost per worker increases (due to the demand for more advanced or new skills and training) it is still cheaper for a company than traditional construction. The amount of materials used is also reduced by about 40 percent. At the moment, the cost of materials for 3D printing is higher than conventional ones, but it is estimated that there will be a gradual and significant reduction in cost as new more durable, highly-performant, and environmentally sustainable material mixtures are developed.

The benefits of modular 3D printing for the environment

The construction sector is a major source of pollution and resource depletion on our planet, responsible for over 30 percent of global CO2 emissions, raw material extraction, energy, and water consumption. As urbanization increases, these estimates are also likely to rise. This is one reason why, as part of the ambitious global sustainability goals, this sector is encouraged to move away from “tradition,” and explore new techniques and new construction materials.

Modular 3D printing enables a sustainable approach from the beginning to the end of the construction process. The prefabricated modules are printed and already partially assembled in the off-site factory, where work is faster because it is not constrained by potential delays (e.g., waiting for materials to arrive on-site at the appropriate time) or disturbed by external factors that would force operations to be suspended or slowed down. This leads to reduced emissions and lower energy consumption already in the construction and assembly phase. Off-site 3D printing also enables printing more insulating and finished modules than with traditional techniques. This allows future tenants to reduce energy consumption and pollution from heating and air conditioning.

Unlike traditional construction sites that can generate tonnes of waste, 3D printing of prefab produces no waste. Another benefit for sustainability is the wide range of environmentally friendly and bio-based mixes that can be used as printing materials. For example, the Italian 3D printing company WASP, in collaboration with architect Mario Cucinella, has printed eco-sustainable and easily transportable modules conceived primarily for developing communities, using a mix of soil from northern Italy. The same company also works with a mixture composed mainly of rice waste. In collaboration with the Dior corporation, it printed two pop-up stores in Dubai using this mix while producing zero emissions.

In addition to supporting sustainability goals, bio-based mixes also allow new ways of using locally abundant materials. This reduces the need to import materials from third countries and thus reduce the production costs. In the long term, this could allow different regions to become more independent in terms of resources.

From conventional materials to ‘secret recipes

Mixtures created for 3D printing in construction can be employed differently depending on the purposes or the performance desired from the printed construction. It is no coincidence that with the gradual global adoption of modular 3D printing, many companies have begun to invest in R&D to acquire proprietary mixtures (i.e., ad-hoc recipes of combined materials – some kept secret). This allows them to generate printing mixtures with well-defined properties depending on the purposes of the projects: Some may be optimized for building sustainable and eco-friendly houses – as in the case of WASP – while others are resistant to extreme climatic factors such as tornadoes, or even designed to be used on the moon.

D-Shape is one of the companies that employ unusual mixes that go beyond metal and different variations of concrete. A pioneer in the use of a sand-based mix, the company built a house using a sand-binding technique. This provided it with significant strength, preventing it from being blown or washed away. This mixture and the accompanying technique, first presented in 2010, have since attracted increasing interest among 3D printing practitioners, and are likely to see further use in the future.

Another interesting example is that of a mortar-based mixture (i.e., a mixture similar to concrete with the addition of lime), which is already used in traditional construction as a binder between brick layers. Its greater malleability compared to concrete allows for less clogging of nozzles and errors between layers during printing. Companies such as Laticrete are the leading producers of mortar, specifically adapted in its composition to be optimized for 3D printers.

Finally, there are mixtures based on lunar soil. Advances in space exploration have led many companies to think about printing constructions that would be ideal for the moon – or other planets – using local soil. Icon, for example, a construction technologies company based in Austin, creates 3D-printed prototype elements based on lunar materials that, when completed, could grant the company direct testing on the moon’s surface, as part of an upcoming project aimed at implementing a full-scale additive construction system. Similarly, AI SpaceFactory and the NASA Kennedy Space Center are engaged in the creation of LINA, an entirely 3D-printed structure made of a mix of terrestrial polymers and lunar regolith that will serve as a base to support astronauts. The goal is to make the structure more resistant to lunar-specific issues, such as radiations, thermal oscillations, and seismic activities.

‘One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind

3D printing in construction is moving toward a future in which this technique and the related material mixtures will acquire a predominant role in the construction sector. This will allow for reduced costs, higher speed, and resilience, and will sustainably accommodate the demands of an increasingly urbanized society.

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Producing Powdered Hydrogen Through Mechanochemistry

An innovative procedure for gas separation and storage developed at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials is poised to reduce energy consumption in the chemical industry and make hydrogen easier and safer to transport in powder form.

Mechanochemistry, a relatively new concept, represents chemical reactions triggered by mechanical forces rather than heat, light, or electric potential differences. The mechanical power is generated by ball milling, a grinding method that requires very low energy. During this process, a cylinder containing steel balls is turned, making the balls roll up and down, compressing and pushing the material inside. This triggers a reaction that absorbs the gas into the powder and stores it there, thus allowing for safe hydrogen storage at room temperature.

According to the research team, the process could extract hydrocarbon gases from crude oil with a 90 percent reduction in the energy traditionally required for this process. Moreover, storing gas safely in powder form could facilitate hydrogen storage and transportation and serve as a direct fuel for cars and trucks.

With significant benefits and savings in three major areas – energy, costs, and emissions – this mechanochemical process is expected to reach widespread adoption soon. Professor Ian Chen, the co-author of the study published in the journal Materials Today, says: “We’re continuing to work on different gases, using different materials. We hope to have another paper published soon, and we also expect to work with industry on some real practical applications.”

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Decarbonization: Can the Chemical Industry Be a Catalyst for Change?

As a major emitter of CO2, the chemical sector must drastically go on the decarbonization path in its operations. At the same time, its products are indispensable for bringing about a fundamental global energy transition. Already today, a range of options are available that will allow the industry to become a trailblazer on the path to a carbon-free world.

The chemical industry has a CO2 problem. It is not only one of the biggest sources worldwide of carbon emissions, which it mainly causes through thermal energy generation as well as plastics and ammonia production; it is also the largest industrial consumer of fossil fuels in the form of natural gas and oil. In 2020, primary chemical production accounted for 923 MtCO2 globally.

Nearly half of these discharges (450 MtCO2) are due to ammonia production, while another 251 MtCO2 come from the production of high-value chemicals that are mainly used as plastic precursors. These emissions are primarily caused by power plants (55 MtCO2 in 2017), steam crackers that break down saturated hydrocarbons (32 MtCO2), and production of grey hydrogen for ammonia (24 MtCO2). In the EU, chemical corporations account for 18 percent of all industrial emissions.

Decarbonizing this sector is challenging, however, for a number of reasons. First, many of its production processes rely on carbon-based feedstock – raw precursor materials that cannot be easily replaced even if energy consumption is switched to renewable sources. The emissions associated with these products are released further downstream in the value chains. Secondly, because many products and services provided by the chemical industry are indispensable for achieving the energy transition and other UN Sustainability Goals, they cannot be exchanged for greener alternatives at short notice.

Conversely, reducing emissions in chemical production would have significant knock-on effects by helping other sectors downstream decarbonize their own value chains. In the wake of the 2016 Paris Agreement, all economic actors are under growing pressure from regulators, investors, customers, and society at large to drastically reduce their carbon footprints in order to limit global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius.

Incentives for decarbonization

In practical terms, this creates an incentive to ensure that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions decline sharply by 2030 and to arrive at net zero emissions around 2050. The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (REDII), for instance, envisages a minimum share of 32 percent renewable energy production by 2030. To ensure these targets are met, the EU is introducing a raft of measures including emissions trading schemes (ETS), CO2 pricing, and carbon taxes.


However, these incentives may not be sufficient, according to industry representatives. In May 2021, Brigitta Huckestein, Senior Manager for Energy and Climate Policy at German chemicals giant BASF, told the EURACTIV media network that the ETS plans were insufficient and called for the EU to introduce contracts for difference, which are payments intended to make up the difference between the cost of carbon-neutral operations and the carbon price as determined by the EU’s ETS – guaranteeing that industry players will see a return on their investments into carbon neutrality.

Pathways to net zero

Whatever the regulatory measures imposed by national or supranational bodies, it is clear that technological solutions will need to be part of the picture. There are several levers that enable chemical producers to cut back on emissions while remaining productive and competitive, and which may even give them competitive advantages in attracting new business or investment.

In essence, there are three pathways for achieving zero carbon emissions: With efficiency gains, CO2 emissions can be incrementally reduced. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies can help avoid emissions, for instance, by trapping the CO2 underground. Finally, in the long run, switching to e-fuels and greener production processes can help the chemical sector become carbon-neutral.

Short-term and affordable efficiency gains can be achieved in chemical plants through a range of solutions for direct emissions reduction. By modernizing or upgrading existing assets such as rotating equipment and components for electrification, automation, and digitalization, the industry can incrementally reduce its carbon footprint at a relatively low cost of between €10 and €30 per tonne of CO2.

Such measures may be designed, for example, to enhance the efficiency and thus lower the emissions of gas or steam turbines, or of associated hardware like seals, compressors, or generators used in chemical plants. Some fuel-flexible turbines are able to use residual gases from chemical processes, while completely replacing obsolete, high-emissions plants using fossil fuels (e.g., coal) with more sustainable options will bring down emissions significantly.

Cleaner processes

Looking beyond individual hardware components, there are also ways of making entire processes in the chemical industry more climate-friendly. According to a June 2021 report by the German think-tank Agora Energiewende, there is significant potential for abating the CO2 caused by the three most emissions-intensive processes in the chemical industry – heat production, the plastics value chain, and ammonia production – by deploying low-carbon technologies.

Generating thermal energy for process heat and steam could be achieved with a lower carbon footprint using Power-to-Heat (PtH) solutions that convert electricity into thermal energy. According to the Agora report, such technologies can be deployed on a large scale by 2030 as coal is phased out throughout Europe. Electrode boilers and other PtH options could be even more efficient than using hydrogen, especially when powered by renewable electricity.

These could be complemented in hybrid operations by combined heat and power plants and boilers using natural gas when needed. To make PtH commercially viable, the report’s authors argue, electricity pricing would need to be designed competitively with tariffs and surcharges.

In the production of plastics and synthetics, upstream emissions caused by the energy consumption of refineries can be reduced in the end-of-life phase of plastic products. Steam crackers used to break up crude oil into its component substances can also operate with electrical power or equipped with CCS solutions. A number of chemical recycling options are currently being explored in pilot plants by chemical companies, including the use of residual or waste gases and plastics as fuel or the use of (solar) electricity in electrochemical processes and crackers.

An expanded role for hydrogen

Hydrogen already plays a key role in the chemical industry, as a feedstock (for example for methanol and ammonia production) and also as a reaction agent in certain processes. However, the Agora report anticipates that its importance in refinery operations will diminish as the fossil fuel industry is phased out by 2050. Instead, hydrogen use will shift from the chemical industry to the steel sector, which is expected to consume 123 TWh of lower heating value (LHV) hydrogen energy by the middle of the century. Hydrogen will nevertheless still be needed to make ammonia and methanol as well as for the recycling of chemical plastics.

decarbonization chemical industry

Here, the use of green hydrogen – made by breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen in an electrolyzer powered by renewable energy – can contribute further to the decarbonization of processes in the chemical industry as well as associated sectors. Beyond its use as feedstock and as a fuel, it also serves as a storage medium that can enable sector coupling through “Power-to-X” solutions.

As such, the chemical industry can indirectly support the energy transition to a more sustainable power supply by stabilizing grids and assisting the uptake of energy from wind, solar, and other stochastic power sources.

The chemical industry – a catalyst for change?

Transforming the chemical industry, and indeed all industry sectors worldwide, will be a vital part of global efforts to limit global warming and achieve the goals stated in the Paris Agreement to ensure the planet remains habitable for future generations. Indeed, this transformation is already underway, and all major players in the chemical sector must now move towards accelerated decarbonization if they wish to remain relevant. The current investment cycle will determine the sustainability of operations for decades to come.

All industry actors are feeling the pressure to adapt their investments and production processes as well as demands from regulatory agencies and other stakeholders to decarbonize their processes, products, and services. There are many options for achieving this transformation – some are incremental, some transformational. Every corporation must choose their specific pathway, which will be highly dependent on their business model as well as external factors, such as their geographic location and its potential for renewable energy, as well as the regulatory framework in which a company operates.

The bottom line is that the chemical industry, which accounts for a sizeable share of global carbon emissions, can become a catalyst for change and lead the way in the bringing about a transition to a zero-carbon future.

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Grown to Measure: Can 3D-Printed Wood Prevent Deforestation?

A method for growing wood-like materials with specific properties and shapes could pave the way towards 3D-printed wood and offer an alternative to industrial forestry, which has severe effects on the global climate and environment and eliminates about 10 million hectares of forest every year. The ability to make “customizable timber” in a laboratory setting would reduce waste in manufacturing and allow forests to remain untouched as a measure to mitigate climate change.

Scientists at MIT have demonstrated how “wood-like plant material” can be grown in a lab from cell cultures in a way that tailors their material properties and shapes to specific purposes. In the first step, they extracted cells from the leaves of young Zinnia elegans plants. After being allowed to grow in a liquid medium for two days, the cells are placed in a gel-based nutrient medium. This contains hormones that can be adjusted to give the cells certain physical and mechanical properties such as density and stiffness. As such, they behave somewhat like stem cells, according to the researchers.

Moreover, using 3D bioprinting techniques, the plant materials could one day be grown into individual, artificial shapes, sizes, and forms that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional agricultural methods. This means that little waste would be produced when processing the wood-like material into furniture or other purposes for human use.

“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste. There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures,” said Ashley Beckwith, a recent PhD graduate at MIT and lead author of a research paper published in the journal Materials Today.

A 3D printer can extrude the cell culture gel solution in the desired pattern in a petri dish, where it incubates for three months, maturing at a speed that is about two orders of magnitude faster than a tree’s natural growth to maturity. During this process, lower hormone levels resulted in plant materials with lower density, while higher concentrations of hormones in the nutrient broth yielded denser and stiffer material.

More research is needed to study how these lab-grown plant materials can be lignified, i.e., how they can be made more wood-like through deposits of lignin polymer in their cell walls. The scientists also hope to be able to transfer and adapt the novel growth method to other tree species with commercial value, like pine, as a way of reducing deforestation.

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Bright Innovations Based on Smart Materials that Blur the Border Between Sci-Fi and Reality

To collect data you need sensors, to make moving machinery you need actuators or electronics. But what if all the functions are already supplied by the very material you build with? Here are some smart materials innovations made possible today thanks to advancements in nanotechnology and precision manufacturing.

Also called intelligent or responsive materials, smart materials are designed to sense and react in a controlled way to temperature, pressure, impact, and other variables. Some of them can send data to the cloud, others can reconfigure themselves as needed or even self-heal. Due to their responsive and flexible properties, these new materials will change the way we live and design products. Here are some amazing innovations based on smart materials that are poised to disrupt the products and services of the future.

Shapeshifting materials – Autonomous land vehicles can morph into a drone or even a submarine

If you’re thinking that such morphing vehicles exist already, try to take the gears, motors, rotors, and other moving mechanisms out of the equation. A team at Virginia Tech led by Michael Bartlett, assistant professor in mechanical engineering designed such a morphing vehicle approaching the shape-changing function at the material level. They started by developing a smart material that could change, hold the new shape, then return to the original form over and over again without losing function.

Inspired by an old Japanese art of paper shaping, kirigami, they devised a composite made from a low melting point alloy (LMPA) endoskeleton set into an elastomer medium. Heat causes the alloy to be converted to a liquid at 60 degrees Celsius, but the elastomer skin keeps the melted metal contained while stretching. When the metal is cooled down, the stretching is reversed and the material is pulled back into the original shape.

The material could have many applications in various fields like soft robotics, environmental services, healthcare, or even defense and security where smart materials are the key to achieve the sophisticated functionality needed for complex requirements. The team used their innovation to already create two proofs-of-concept in the lab, by building with it a functional drone that autonomously morphs from ground to air vehicle and a small, deployable submarine that can retrieve objects from the bottom of an aquarium.

Currently, the team is on working on solving challenges like manufacturing and component integration optimization so their smart composite material could go into the commercialization phase.

Acoustic garment – Your t-shirt could be also your phone

What if instead of having a phone in your pocket, you could actually wear one? A research team from MIT and Rhode Island School of Design set out to answer this and similar questions when they developed a new type of fabric that can not only cover your body but also convert sound into electric signals. Like a microphone, the material captures vibrations and can be made to display reversed properties, such as transmitting sounds to another receiver.

smart materials innovations

An MIT team has designed an “acoustic fabric,” woven with a fiber that is designed from a “piezoelectric” material that produces an electrical signal when bent or mechanically deformed, providing a means for the fabric to convert sound vibrations into electrical signals.
Image: Greg Hren

The fabric is made from a piezoelectric material that reacts to deformations by producing an electrical signal. It can capture sounds in a broad decibel range and also identify the direction from which they are coming.

“Wearing an acoustic garment, you might talk through it to answer phone calls and communicate with others,” said Wei Yan, lead author of the study. “In addition, this fabric can imperceptibly interface with the human skin, enabling wearers to monitor their heart and respiratory condition in a comfortable, continuous, real-time, and long-term manner.”

The technology could prove to be revolutionary for making hearing aids or garments that can communicate or track vital signals for health benefits, but it can also be used as a “listening ear” in the construction of spaceships, vehicles, or even buildings.

Energy harvesting fabric – Your movements could power your devices

A new type of stretchable, waterproof, perovskite-based material has been shown to transform the energy generated by body movements into electrical energy. The 3×4-centimeter prototype was able to continuously light up 100 LEDs. According to the research team, it could be worn as a base layer or integrated with shoe soles and used to recharge small devices or wearables.

Numerous attempts have been made to develop smart materials that can harvest energy from movement. However, these were unable to retain their electrical output when they were washed or crumpled. The energy harvesting device developed by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore produces energy when it is pressed, squashed, or when it comes in contact with other surfaces (e.g., skin, rubber, etc.). It can generate 2.34 watts per square meter, maintains its function even after multiple washing, folding, and crumpling cycles, and produces a viable output for up to five months.

Professor Lee Pooi See, a material scientist, and study lead said the breakthrough could eventually reduce or eliminate the need for batteries in wearables: “Despite improved battery capacity and reduced power demand, power sources for wearable devices still require frequent battery replacements. Our results show that our energy harvesting prototype fabric can harness vibration energy from a human to potentially extend the lifetime of a battery or even to build self-powered systems. To our knowledge, this is the first hybrid perovskite-based energy device that is stable, stretchable, breathable, waterproof, and at the same time capable of delivering outstanding electrical output performance,” she stated.

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The Road to Sustainability is Paved With Good Inventions

Saving the planet and the environment is a serious challenge, and scientists all over the world are working hard to find ways to tackle the various issues of pollution, over-consumption, and preserving natural resources from all angles. Materials science contributes new discoveries on a daily basis, and sometimes, sustainability in materials science is approached from an unusual direction.

Wood-based foam could help offset air-conditioning costs

Using air-conditioning devices to keep buildings cool is expensive, wasteful, and overall bad for the environment. Researchers at the American Chemical Society have developed a material that reflects sunlight, emits absorbed heat, and acts like a thermal insulator that could be used to keep buildings cool.

The novel material is made from wood-based cellulose nanocrystals and has the form of lightweight foam. The results of the study show that by using it to coat the building, cooling energy needs could be reduced by 35.4 percent on average.

sustainability materials

Coating the building with the novel wood foam could offset the high energy consumption of air-conditioning devices.

The wood-based foam has special properties that are superior to those of other materials built for this purpose, and it presents none of their disadvantages. Unlike similar materials, the new coating admits little heat to the buildings when the weather outside is hot, and it works well even in humid, hot, or cloudy weather. Reflecting 96 percent of visible light and emitting 92 percent of absorbed infrared radiation, the new materials proved to be robust and very efficient in preventing heat from passing through.

The foam is produced by connecting cellulose nanocrystals together with a silane bridge and then freeze-drying them under a vacuum. During the process, the nanocrystals are vertically aligned, resulting in white, lightweight foam.

While conducting the tests, researchers noticed that by compressing the foam, they were able to modify its properties so the cooling parameters of the foam could be adapted to various purposes and a wide range of environments, allowing this innovation to contribute even more to the common goal of sustainability.

Pollen-based paper can be erased and reprinted

Although the world is moving toward pervasive digitalization of communications, paper still has an important place in our economies. The conventional process of making paper, which involves cutting down and pulping trees, accounts for 33 to 40 percent of all industrial wood used in the global economy, so finding alternative ways to make paper could have a huge impact in terms of stopping deforestation and mitigating carbon emissions. A novel pollen-based paper developed by scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) could offer a solution to this issue. Their paper is not only produced in a more environmentally-friendly way, but also allows images to be printed and then erased, with the paper being reused to print on again multiple times.

The team of researchers printed colored images on the pollen paper with a laser printer, then removed the toner with an alkaline solution without damaging the paper. After drying, the paper could be reused for printing. This process can be repeated up to eight times before the surface of the paper shows signs of loss of structural integrity and the quality of printed colors declines.

The conventional recycling process of laser-printed paper involves many steps that cost time, energy, and human resources and are a source of carbon emissions as well. The pollen paper could significantly reduce these costs and negative effects by shortening the process and skipping steps like re-pulping or reconstruction. Also, the process of producing paper from pollen is simpler than the conventional method and consumes significantly less energy.

materials sustainability

Nature produces pollen in large amounts, so it is a raw material that is not only easy and efficient to produce, but also cheap and sustainable.

“Through this study, we showed that we could print high-resolution color images on paper produced from a natural, plant-based material that was rendered non-allergenic through a process we recently developed. We further demonstrated the feasibility of doing so repeatedly without destroying the paper, making this material a viable eco-friendly alternative to conventional wood-based paper. This is a new approach to paper recycling – not just by making paper in a more sustainable way, but also by extending the lifespan of the paper so that we get the maximum value out of each piece of paper we produce,” said Prof. Subra Suresh, NTU President and lead author of the paper.

The pollen-based paper is hypoallergenic, easily recyclable, and can be made from a highly renewable source. Nature produces pollen in large amounts, so it represents a raw material that has all the benefits of scalability, economic efficiency, and sustainability. “By integrating conductive materials with the pollen paper, we could potentially use the material in soft electronics, green sensors, and generators to achieve advanced functions and properties,” said Prof. Cho Nam-Joon, another lead author of the paper.

Your clothes could be dyed with microbes to keep the rivers safe

The dyes that are currently used to color our clothes play a huge part in the textile industry’s overall image as a polluting and unsustainable sector. Artificial colors leaking during production or even in the washing process are degrading the planet’s water resources by inhibiting plant growth and increasing the toxicity, mutagenicity, and carcinogenicity of the water consumed both by animals and humans. As an indirect contribution to pollution, the wastewater treatment that is necessary for removing the textile chemicals from the water is energy-intensive and carbon-emitting.

A better and healthier alternative is to use natural dyes extracted from plants. However, that is not a sustainable option, either. Now, scientists have proposed a completely different solution – obtaining dyes from microbes.

Companies like Colorifix, Pili, and Textile Lab are studying how to engineer such microbes and brew them in vats, in a process similar to beer production, then use them to naturally deposit dyes directly onto fabrics. Colorifix claims that its microbial dyes use at least 49 percent less water and 35 percent less electricity than modern cotton dyeing processes, potentially reducing carbon emissions by 31 percent. The situation is even more promising when it comes to synthetic materials like polyester or nylon.

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Five Technological Innovations Inspired by Nature

Animals, plants, and nature in general often have brilliant solutions for problems that engineers all over the world are trying to solve. This is why inventors and researchers in multiple fields study natural mechanisms and structures in order to understand how nature deals with specific challenges. The imitation of nature to solve human challenges is known as biomimetics. In the following, we present a few recent technological innovations inspired by nature, which show us that sometimes, the answer is in plain sight, if we only know where to look for it.

Super-material stronger than steel

Spider silk may seem fragile, but measured at scale, it has the tensile strength of a super-material and is stronger than steel, with properties that no manmade material can match. For years, scientists have tried to replicate these fibers with their unique qualities, but all attempts were thwarted by challenges in the manufacturing process.

A Californian startup, Bolt Threads, has now achieved a breakthrough with the launch of Microsilk, an artificial fiber produced by genetically engineered micro-organisms that can modify their properties to create different types of fibers, mimicking the natural process spiders use to make their webs.

The resulting material is stronger than nylon but smoother than cotton, and the company is currently using it to manufacture garments that are light, soft, and durable. As the production process is scaled up, the material could have many other applications, for instance, to make biodegradable items, to design improved bulletproof vests, or even for use in infrastructure projects.

A sharkskin suit for airplanes

In a quest to reduce the costs associated with fuel consumption, engineers from Lufthansa Technik and BASF have taken inspiration from sharkskin and developed a new material that mimics its water-repellent quality. Sharkskin is covered with millions of “riblets”, which shape its surface geometry in a way that helps the animal consume less energy when moving. By applying the same principle to fluid mechanics in aviation, the engineers developed a similar “skin” for aircraft in the form of a thin, clear coating containing millions of 50-micrometer-high riblets. The novel coating can reduce drag when applied to the surface of an airplane. The thin coating, called AeroShark, serves to reduce the fuel consumption of the plane by improving its aerodynamic properties.

Lufthansa Cargo plans to equip its entire Boeing 777F freighter fleet with AeroShark coating in 2022.

Retina-inspired sensor

Machines and robots that need to navigate real-world environments are helpless unless they are able to gather images and measurements that can inform their movements and operations. The ability of the human eye to capture the environment even under highly variable lighting conditions was the source of inspiration for a team of researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Peking University, Yonsei University, and Fudan University. The team developed a new sensor that replicates the way the retina functions in the human eye, and which could enable superior vision in robots or surveillance technologies under a broad range of illumination intensities.

After a series of improvements and modifications, the bio-inspired innovation can now effectively imitate the function of a human retina and enhance machine vision with high image recognition efficiency, while simultaneously reducing hardware technological complexity. Currently, the vision sensor is in the proof-of-concept stage, and the team is working to integrate it with the control circuits. Once this has been achieved, the sensor could be introduced for practical applications.

Pathogen-repellant surface

Another brilliant technological innovation, an effective pathogen-repellent coating inspired by the water-repelling surface of the lotus leaf was invented at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada in 2019. The new material imitates the structure of the lotus at a microscopic level, enabling it to shed tiny organisms that come into contact with it, including viruses and bacteria. The material can be used for wrapping high-touch surfaces like railings or elevator buttons or in the manufacturing of medical devices. It could be extremely useful in reducing the spread of harmful pathogens and preventing contamination.

Self-cleaning packaging

The beautiful lotus also inspired the development of an innovative type of plastic at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, which has great potential for solving the worldwide problem of pollution generated by packaging material. The new material stands apart from existing bioplastics on the market by being yard-compostable, easy to manufacture, and self-cleaning.

Plastic materials produced from renewable biomass sources have been on the market for a while now. While they are branded as sustainable, most of them require special recycling facilities to be broken down as they don’t degrade under normal air-sun-soil conditions. Because most countries do not have enough recycling capabilities for these kinds of bioplastics, most of the wrapping ends up in landfills, where they pollute the environment just like regular plastic does.

The self-cleaning bioplastic developed by Australian researchers could solve this problem. The new material preserves its form well, repels dirt and liquids, and breaks down easily once buried in the soil. Made from starch and cellulose, two cheap materials that are easy to source, the new bioplastic is ideal for packaging fresh food and takeaway meals. According to the authors, the new material does not require heat or complicated equipment to manufacture and has the added economic benefit of being easy to adopt and scale-up.

technological innovation

The self-cleaning properties of this flower are often referred to as the lotus effect and they are a source of inspiration for many technological innovations. Its leaves and petals are ultra hydrophobic, which makes the surface of the flower very difficult to stay wet. As dirt particles are trapped under the water droplets due to the nanoscopic architecture of the plant, they get expelled too.

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Nanosensors Benefit Small Farmers and Reduce Pollution

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers pollute rivers, oceans, air, and soil. Yet small farmers rely on them to produce food. Researchers from Singapore are working on ways to improve the efficiency of these tools and reduce pollution at the same time. 

Disruptive technology for a more sustainable agriculture

In an age when sustainability is becoming a major concern, traditional agriculture faces a dilemma between preserving resources and meeting the increasing demand for food. This is where innovative technology comes into play. DiSTAP (Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision), an interdisciplinary research group in the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, recently developed the world’s first nanosensor that can perform rapid testing on plant hormones. 

Synthetic auxins (plant hormones) such as 1-naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) are widely used as herbicides in the agriculture industry. They are also used as plant regulator sprays to prevent premature flowering and fruit dropping. However, they are not safe for human health at higher concentrations, and their residue on plants should be monitored carefully. So far, there are no non-invasive and efficient ways to monitor these chemicals. A DiSTAP research team has now developed nanosensors to monitor the chemicals in real time. 

Will the nanosensors benefit farmers as well as the environment and consumers? Supertrends interviewed DiSTAP team members Dr. Mervin Chun-Yi Ang, research scientist, and Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh, scientific director and principal investigator, to find out more about this breakthrough discovery.

Dr. Mervin Chun-Yi Ang & Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh – Supertrends experts and researchers at DiSTAP

A precision agriculture tool

Supertrends: The sensors have been tested in the lab and in greenhouses to monitor synthetic auxin levels in plants. Does that mean the sensors will also work in real farms?

DiSTAP: As advanced analytical tools, the sensors could be used commercially in the context of precision agriculture as they are able to inform the farmers of the optimal amount of plant regulators required for their specific crops. Furthermore, as the output is available in real time, farmers can adjust and calibrate the amount of plant regulators to suit the growth needs of the crops at every stage of their development.

DiSTAP nanosensor and camera instrument setup

Economic and social benefits

Supertrends: How will farmers and consumers benefit from using the sensors?

DiSTAP: These novel sensing tools help farmers economically by preventing wasteful and ineffective deployment of herbicides, thereby improving cost efficiencies in herbicide usage.

There is also a mounting body of scientific evidence proving that the synthetic auxin herbicide poses a hazard to both human health and the environment. Given its widespread usage in agriculture, it is frequently detected in water from agricultural runoffs. Hence, besides the economic benefits to farmers, there are also health and environmental benefits that could be reaped from these nanosensors because the nanosensors allow for precise calibration of herbicide dosage in order to minimize usage. 

Challenges and future development

Supertrends: What are the major challenges in making the sensors into practical products?

DiSTAP: The environment is complex and changing constantly in the open fields. We are using a sentinel plant model to evaluate the technological robustness of our nanosensors under varying conditions of weather, plant development stage, soil types, etc. It may take one to two years for our nanosensor tools to be available on the market. 

For future development, we are looking into integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms into the nanosensor imaging platforms to simplify the data and make the information more useful to farmers. 

Do you want to know more about supertrends in agritech? Keep an eye on our page of sustainability publications for some awesome content on this topic coming soon.

Groundbreaking Recycling Method Could Expand Access to Rare Earths

SUPERTRENDS – One of the main levers for making electric vehicles more sustainable and commercially viable is the sourcing of rare chemical elements used in components. Nissan Motor and Waseda University have begun testing a newly developed method for recycling rare-earth elements (REEs) from the motor magnets of electric vehicles, which, if successful, could help stabilize prices for electric motors and ease the increasing demand for certain scarce metals that are indispensable for the successful transition to a more sustainable energy system. 

The innovative recycling process, jointly developed by the world’s leading e-vehicle manufacturer and one of Japan’s leading universities, offers a simpler and more economical way of retrieving valuable REEs from damaged or discarded motor blocks. It involves adding a carburizing material and pig iron while melting down the motor at a temperature of at least 1,400° C. Once the mixture is molten, iron oxide is added to the mix as a way of oxidizing the REEs, supplemented by a small amount of borate-based flux that can dissolve rare metals such as neodymium and dysprosium at lower temperatures and assist their recovery. The mixture then separates into two distinct layers: A higher-density layer of iron-carbon alloy and a lighter molten oxide slag from which the rare earths can be recovered.

Preliminary results have shown that this process allows 98 percent of the REEs to be reclaimed in a process that is about twice as fast as conventional recycling methods, where magnets must first be demagnetized, removed, and disassembled. The project partners plan to continue large-scale facility testing, using electric motors supplied by Nissan, to further refine the method.

Key elements of the digital revolution

Rare earth electromobility recycling praseodymium dysprosium neodymium

Some chemical elements have unique properties not found in other materials, and are highly sought after for the manufacturing of advanced electric and digital products. Praseodymium, for example, can be used to make high-powered magnets.

Despite their name, not all rare-earth elements are in scarce supply globally, but they seldom appear in large seams or geological depots and are distributed unequally throughout the Earth’s crust. Some REEs have become highly sought-after commodities, especially in the wake of the digital revolution, since they are vital elements of many high-tech applications, with about one quarter of REE consumption currently related to catalysts and one quarter to magnets.

In the case of electromobility, the valuable materials are used to build lightweight magnets for electric vehicle motors, where the weight factor is a crucial part of determining performance and range. They are also used for fuel-cell batteries in hybrid cars. Looking beyond the automotive sector, REEs can be found other components of sustainable energy assets such as wind turbine generators as well.

Sustainable resource use

This means that more efficient recycling can bring down the cost of components and solutions by reducing the need for permanent resource extraction. Notably, mining, processing, and shipping the REEs from their natural deposits to the end-user also involves a huge environmental footprint that could be greatly reduced be re-using available materials.

Due to their uneven global distribution, there are concerns that a few countries with significant REE deposits could limit production or access, potentially creating bottlenecks and giving rise to trade disputes. China, one of the biggest suppliers of rare earths, has been criticized by other advanced industrialized economies for occasionally restricting exports or imposing quotas, ostensibly to prevent smuggling and protect the environment.

Nissan and Waseda University hope to introduce the recycling technology by the mid-2020s. In the face of increasing demand for these finite resources, any commercial-scale process that could expand access to recycled materials would no doubt be welcomed with open arms by manufacturers around the world. Cheaper sourcing of rare elements might also accelerate the process of electrification across numerous industry sectors.


When will all rare earths be sourced via recycling rather than through mining of raw materials? Join the Supertrends Pro community and share your predictions with everyone!

Image credit: Wikipedia user Jurii

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