sustainable fashion digital

Can Digital Technology Be a Driver for Sustainable Innovation in Fashion?

As the fashion industry is generally considered the second largest polluter in the world just after the oil industry, it’s no secret that a lot needs to change to make this industry more sustainable. In order to be profitable, brands are constantly anticipating which outfits will be sold, and try to order the appropriate stocks of the garment in question. Inevitably, however, huge quantities of excess clothing end up being destroyed. In an interview with Supertrends, fashion expert Heidi Svane Pedersen says one way for the industry to solve the problem is to go digital.

sustainable digital fashion

Heidi Svane Pedersen is a specialist in innovation, technologies, and new ways of thinking circular business models, working on building bridges between academia and the lifestyle industry. Some of her initiatives have seen her working on the future of retail in San Francisco, the metaverse in Seoul, digital fashion/furniture in Amsterdam, or tech experiments with blockchain, IoT, and virtual tools to understand where they catalyze the circular economy.

She holds a master’s degree in strategy and innovation and is the head of digital at Lifestyle & Design Cluster, a Danish national business cluster promoting innovation and sustainable growth, primarily in small and medium-sized housing and clothing companies as well as in the related creative industries.

(In the picture to the right, Heidi Svane Pedersen is wearing a digital hoodie.)



Supertrends: Heidi, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. To begin, could you briefly describe your work at Lifestyle & Design Cluster?


Heidi Svane Pedersen: Amongst other things, we help startups in the fashion, furniture, and design industry get a good start in their business. But on an everyday note, our lab’s purpose is to keep this sector in Denmark as one of the most innovative in the world. We apply for funding, we raise the means and the resources to support them in this transition, moving towards a more circular industry, making sure that they use the leverage of technology, but also that they stay competitive in the future.

S: Can you say a few words about the trend of on-demand fashion?

HSP: On-demand fashion can mean so many things. First of all, the most important thing is that when we do research projects, we have to make sure that the industry gets new insights on how to become more responsible. We need to change the way we’re working and strive for an industry whose products can be circulated a lot more, so on-demand fashion questions this linear way of working today.

Do we actually know, as a brand, what our consumer wants? And do we enough to produce what they want in a linear model and keep it in stock until people are ready to buy it? You don’t need to be a researcher to see all the sales and discounts being offered by retail stores or E-commerce platforms. The current business model of the fashion industry has flaws, and doesn’t quite suit the customers’ needs, hence the extra stock.

We need to change this model, and on-demand fashion offers this way of thinking that if we knew more about exactly what a customer would like or what a user wants to wear, we would produce exactly what they need. It instantly helps us reduce stock, reduce waste, reduce resources, manpower, and hours. And it offers new business models in the way that we can offer fashion to a particular user to suit their needs in a more precise way.

S: You mentioned improving productivity and better adaptation of what companies are offering to what the customer needs for a more sustainable approach. In your opinion, can fashion companies provide on-demand fashion and still remain profitable?

HSP: That’s a really hard question right now because being more responsible is still more expensive. The business model calls for new ways of thinking, either new ways of offering products or new ways of producing because it’s going to be difficult in that situation. Because it is more expensive to produce responsibly, companies need to invest large amounts of money in order to exchange their business model for a more sustainable one.

Using digitalization is one way of approaching that. Some of the models that we’re seeing today are very much inspired by the gaming industry. For example, we see more brands being curious about how to use 3D rendering. You can design 3D clothing as a skin for your avatar, or use it as an image, as a video, or as an augmented reality filter today on your web shop, or on Instagram. Already today, you could publish the product you want to offer online in digital form, and let consumers give you feedback. Do they want to buy it or not? With the technology evolving exponentially, that software will just become better and better and give a more neat and emotional reaction later on.

There is also the question of big data. If you want to do on-demand fashion, you have to look at mass customization models, where you’re not customizing exactly for the individual need. But you might have a bulk of data that could tell you that your client database has these items in these sizes, so you can offer products that are more customized for them. But then the last trend may be tapping a little into slow fashion.

S: What can you tell us about slow fashion from the perspectives of the consumer and the supplier?

HSP: Over the past 30 to 40 years, we have become so used to being just able to buy and throw away, then buy again and throw away, that we’ve kind of lost respect for fashion. When we buy a couch, it’s a craft, it takes time and we respect that we might have to wait for six, eight, or twelve weeks before we receive the couch. As consumers, maybe we need to refine that respect for fashion as well. We need to understand the craftsmanship that goes into creating a piece of fashion.

On the supplier side, in reaction to fast fashion, at least here in Denmark, we see the emergence of micro-factories that can help a design brand execute their idea. They can post their digital designs, models, or drawings or renderings to their community to get instant feedback and find out if people are willing to buy this.

And then they have the technology to produce fashion locally via these micro-factories that can create the garments locally. A lot of things are happening in this industry right now, but fashion on demand offers a lot of questions right now – maybe a few more questions than answers.

(In the picture to the left, Heidi Svane Pedersen is wearing a digital outfit.)

S: You mentioned that companies need to invest heavily in order to produce sustainably. Do you think that the future will favor those who are doing that?

HSP: For me, that’s a simple answer. Sustainability primarily means transparency. Traceability is a license to operate in the future, and for textile and fashion, this is being legislated as well. In 2022, the EU proposed a new textile strategy, which will in the future demand a digital product passport, it will demand eco-design principles, and it will demand traceability of your CO2 footprint. This is all part of proposed legislation that will most likely happen in some format.

It’s not just a matter of accommodating your consumer. You will also be legally required to protect the climate. We know for a fact now that if we want to change something in the fashion industry, we need to bring down new production by 75 to 95 percent. That means a lot of businesses have to reinvent the way that they’re making clothes.

I think a lot of brands are using digitalization to understand how can they use data to tailor their production more accurately to what is demanded and what is needed: How can we, within new business models, circulate the garment that has already been produced? Some of the startup businesses that we see being successful offer the consumer the possibility to go into their platforms and type in their measurements. But very likely, soon they will be able to do this by scanning and maybe even use an avatar that can automatically project their needs.

To top it all, in 2017, Amazon filed a patent application for fashion on demand, where they would use data from their Prime customers and from all their sources of data to determine what type of fashion customers they want. This would allow them to launch their own fashion brands and accommodate this fashion on demand. This wouldn’t be possible without the power of digitalization, of mastering big data.

S: Will the companies dream even further and offer digital applications that you could use to design your own outfit application before placing the order with a supplier?

HSP: It is always interesting to think about designing your own clothes. What we have to take into account is that being a designer is a craft and an education. There are so many compromises you have to make in order to make a piece of fashion that is both beautiful and put together with the right material.

When we’re talking about involving the consumer in the development phase, we have to think about the user journey. This is where we see artificial intelligence and especially virtual technologies come into play. Because you can simulate fashion easily with an algorithm or with an augmented reality filter, which makes it way easier for customers to understand how their choices impact the design.

Let’s say they were to write, “I want long sleeves, I want a dress with draped skirt, I want it with this specific material.” They’re not designers, so it’s difficult for them to understand how the dress becomes beautiful. But these newer technologies, which are maturing extremely quickly, make it possible for them to use something almost like a Snapchat filter, try the model on, and see if their creation is what they want and reflects their choices. That being said, I don’t think this possibility is that far in the future. But implementing it demands that brands think about how they can make these collabs with their users.

S: You mentioned all sorts of digital technologies like artificial intelligence, digital clothes, augmented reality, and virtual fitting rooms, but you focused mainly on the benefits. Can you think of some pitfalls of using those?

HSP: Yes. First of all, we are talking about technologies in the fashion and textile industry, which is a really hands-on business and has not been very good at accommodating new competencies for academia or technology competencies. It is historically an industry primarily oriented toward fashion competencies. There’s a gap between utilizing these new technologies, digital or otherwise, and having the competencies to actually make a good business out of them.

Very often, if you ask the industry, IT projects are too expensive. They haven’t really shown great results. They demand much more than the organization is capable of lifting. That’s the biggest challenge in including these technologies into the pool of core competencies right now. It almost feels like it’s two different industries. We’re trying to match technology and fashion.

Second of all, technology is still expensive. We’re talking about artificial intelligence or blockchain technology that is only 10-15 years old. Our research shows that the technology of blockchain is kind of at the level that the internet was in the 1990s, so it’s still very much evolving. We’re talking about 3D technology and 3D rendering. These do not provide photorealistic results yet. A lot of people say: “Well, I can’t really use it, I need it to be faithful to reality.” My point is we’re still in the maturity stage of a lot of these technologies, but they’re maturing way faster than maybe the industry is.

And then there’s a cultural thing, right? Fashion is something personal, it’s something that people use as an identity, so there are so many customer demands out there that are really, really different. We are working in a world where the tech giants are keeping their data close. I think some of the brands in the world today are a little bit challenged on when to do open innovation, and when to keep it close to your business.

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sustainable banking

Sustainable Banking – Between Aspiration and Inconvenient Truth

The idea of sustainability has attracted exponential attention in the last decade. But in many sectors, the concept is sometimes reduced to an amalgamation of catchphrases and token gestures rather than real efforts to promote collective best interests and environmental protection. How can the banking industry pivot toward true sustainability and deal with the challenges that it faces along the way?

Sustainability is one of the many ideas that have enjoyed exponential attention in the last decade. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Environmental, Social, Governance Approach (ESG), Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet, Profit), plus thousands of reporting standards: An endless list of catchphrases and prospective corporate values has been devised to guide businesses and industries towards promoting collective best interests and environmental protection.

On everybody’s radar, from politicians and futurists to corporatists, environmentalists, NGOs, scientists, and human rights activists, sustainability is still a broad, loosely defined concept, a buzzword or an alphabet soup of acronym-heavy measurement and reporting standards that gained momentum once climate change became a globally recognized issue.

Despite the lack of a shared understanding and commonly agreed standards regarding this concept, publicly listed companies with over 500 employees or €40 million turnover must disclose annual sustainability reports showing their performance concerning environmental, social, and corporate governance goals.

Lately, an increasing concern from the investors’ side has led to even more criteria and evaluation models. Currently, the sustainability reporting system is very fragmented, with 307 reporting instruments that are mandatory and 230 that can be applied voluntarily under the so-called “comply or explain the approach.” The UK is leading in terms of the number of provisions, followed by Spain and Colombia.

sustainable banking
Figure 1: Number of reporting provisions in 20 countries and EU (Source: Carrots&Sticks, 2021)

Organizations that must comply with these regulations are state-owned companies, large corporations, and publicly listed companies. This situation raises numerous challenges for businesses in general and requires them to invest a huge amount of resources into gathering data, agreeing on materiality topics and targets, and working towards their implementation. These obligations are even more complex for multinational companies that must meet the reporting requirements of different countries.

How does the banking sector keep up?

An analysis published on Statista regarding sustainability reporting on a global level in 2020 shows that the financial and banking sector ranks fifth in terms of disclosures regarding ESG targets. However, a more detailed report conducted by KPMG shows that only 57% of the companies in this sector disclose carbon reduction targets, which is significantly less than in other industries such as Automotive (80%), Mining (72%), Oil and Gas (69%), and others.

Figure 2: Sustainability reporting rate worldwide, 2020 (Source: Statista)

A benchmark analysis conducted by KPMG and published in July 2022 points out that the nature and extent of climate-related disclosures in the banking sector is currently minimal. Most institutions in this sector approach sustainability-related issues from a risk perspective, trying to mitigate any issues that might prevent them from achieving their business targets. Acknowledging the impact climate-related risks have on their credit operations, reputation, image, and compliance makes banks more inclined to address them.

A global research project undertaken by East & Partners ranked the most important providers of banking services based on perceptions regarding their sustainability. According to the study, BNP Paribas was perceived as the best “Stand out” ESG/Sustainable Finance provider globally, followed by Standard Chartered, Citi, HSBC, JPMorgan, Barclays, and BAML/Bank of America.

What actions could banks undertake to achieve sustainability goals?

Various organizations state that the general hallmarks of sustainable banking should include transparent operations and policies, community support, as well as bank policies and products that favor and promote responsibility in the production and distribution of goods and services.

The Initiative for Responsible Investment, an applied research center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, has gone a step further and defined a series of Key Performance Indicators for sustainability in the banking sector, taking into consideration factors such as the percentage of investments evaluated for climate change risk, the percentage of branches located in low- and moderate-income communities, gender distribution and minority inclusion at board level and senior management, and CO2e emissions in kg per square foot, to name just a few metrics. GRI (The Global Reporting Initiative) is another international independent standards organization that advocates for transparency in sustainability reporting and makes available specific standards for each industry.

“Profit at all costs ceases to be the primary objective of sustainable banking. While a healthy bottom line continues to be a goal, other objectives that will encompass environmental and social criteria start being significant considerations in selecting investments and formulating policies.” Banks.com, an aggregator of financial services

In practice, banks can “mix and match” various standards and apply those that match their own goals and interests. For example, UBS, a multinational investment bank and financial services company founded and based in Switzerland, plans to release 100 green, social, or sustainability-linked bond mandates in 2022, initiate a task force to research climate-related financial disclosures recommendations and direct US$175 million towards philanthropy projects. By 2025, it aims to invest US$400 billion in assets in sustainable investments and adapt its operations to achieve zero energy emissions.

However, a sustainability benchmark in this sector is difficult to achieve, given the myriad of evaluators and analysts. Depending on which instance performs the evaluation, the same company can rank differently, making benchmarking challenging to follow.

The bottom line

Even though significant progress has been made in terms of defining sustainability goals and raising awareness around this issue at the consumer, business, and governmental levels, there is still a long way to go until this goal is implemented according to its true meaning. Changes in mentality, banking values, and operations could propel sustainability from a simple PR exercise to a core value within the organization. However, most of the current efforts in this direction strive to recast actions that are already being performed to reduce risk, maximize profit, and improve company performance as efforts aimed at meeting sustainability and CSR goals.

Rishi Bhattacharya, CEO of the communications consultancy Impact & Influence, explains: “Many banks are in a ‘place race’ when it comes to showcasing their ESG credentials and expertise, through marketing and communications, but also through their actions.” Therefore, the greatest danger comes from the fact that, because it is so loosely defined, sustainability measures in the banking industry can be easily touted and marketed, even if they are not carried out properly.

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limestone construction

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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Greenwashing, sustainability

Sustainability Index Tools – a Potential Greenwashing Promoter?

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a fashion brands alliance, has declared that it will stop making sustainability claims based on the Higg MSI assessments due to greenwashing suspicions raised by fashion sustainability activists and the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA).

Launched in 2021 by the SAC, the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) is a tool used to measure the environmental impact of materials in the apparel, footwear, and textile industry. The scores are calculated based on industry data and various product life-cycle assessments, thus facilitating benchmarking and comparability across multiple brands and companies.

250 companies including H&M, Norrøna, Nike, Primark, Walmart, Boohoo, Amazon, and Tommy Hilfiger have already implemented these rating systems on their product advertisements. They form the basis for the companies’ claims about sustainability, such as that certain products use over 80 percent less water compared to conventional materials or have a 10 percent lower environmental impact.

Fashion sustainability activists have heavily criticized this model, labeling it as a greenwashing tool that misleads consumers and spreads wildly inaccurate data about clothes and footwear. The reaction is in line with other concerns claiming that the SAC uses research funded by the synthetics industry to convince people that petroleum-based products are more environmentally sound than natural fibers.

After investigating Norrøna’s sustainability claims, the Norwegian Consumer Authority concluded that the data was misleading and the sustainability claims unsubstantiated. Moreover, it threatened the H&M group with economic sanctions unless it stops using MSI-related marketing messages by 1 September 2022.

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3D printing - modularity in construction

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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Hydrogen, chemistry

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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CRISPR Beef – A Breakthrough in Scalability and Affordability of Cultured Meat

For the first time, the genetic modification of meat cells using the CRISPR method has been successfully demonstrated in an experimental setting, addressing two of the main obstacles facing the cultured meat industry: the problem of large-scale production and the high cost of the end product. These two issues have been tackled head-on by the start-up SCiFi Foods, which modified the production process to obtain an affordable, cruelty- and animal-free burger. The product can be produced quickly and is identical – in terms of taste and nutritional properties – to meat obtained from living animals.

Unlike “traditional” lab-grown meat, SciFi Foods’ beef burger combines genetically modified cultured beef cells and plant-based ingredients. The genetic modification of the beef cells, achieved with CRISPR technology, enables them to multiply in suspension, that is, without the need for microcarriers (usually plastic beads) that are generally used for growing non-genetically modified cells. This allows a larger number of cells to grow within the limited space of a bioreactor.

The resulting beef is blended with plant-based ingredients, thus allowing the finished product to be obtained much faster and potentially in larger quantities than allowed by current processes used by other players in this sector, making it easily scalable and cost-effective at a price of about US$10 per burger in the pilot stage, which the company hopes to reduce to US$1 once large-scale production begins.

With these promising premises, the company plans to open a pilot plant in the San Francisco Bay Area by the second half of 2024. SciFi Foods is confident it will receive the go-ahead from US regulators to launch its genetically modified cultured burgers on the market. US policymakers are more accepting of GMOs than consumers in Europe. Whether the product will succeed in European markets remains to be seen for now. The EU published a report in 2021 signaling the desire to revise current GMO regulation. This bodes well for GMO-enhanced cultured meat products, but the final decision on approval in the EU will also depend on the outcome of the ongoing public consultation.

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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.

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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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New Carbon Sorbent Enables Direct Air Capture at Record Efficiency Rate

A recent scientific breakthrough in capturing atmospheric CO2 promises to remove GHG faster, more efficiently, and with less energy consumption than conventional methods by using isophorone diamine as a sorbent. Market observers believe the new method could speed up the commercial viability of DAC solutions as a key element of climate change mitigation.

Direct air capture of carbon emissions is one of several promising approaches for mitigating climate change. Atmospheric CO2 can be locked in through long-term storage solutions or used to produce carbon-neutral fuels for sectors that are difficult to decarbonize, such as aviation.

Under the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, around 350 megatonnes of air-captured carbon emissions will be used by the middle of the century for the production of synthetic clean fuels whose combustion releases only as much CO2 as was removed from the air for their production. The ability to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere is a key pillar of global efforts to prevent warming from exceeding 1.5° Celsius.

Nevertheless, most existing carbon emissions capture and storage (CCS) technologies have drawbacks, both in terms of efficiency and regarding the speed at which they can be deployed on a scale where they can appreciably lower the global warming impact of greenhouse gases. A new approach for CCS presented by Tokyo Metropolitan University researchers could change that, however. In a paper published on 10 May 2022 in the research journal ACS Environmental Au, the scientists describe a novel approach using isophorone diamine (IPDA) as a sorbent with high absorption/desorption efficiency that can remove more than 99 percent of CO2 under a 400 ppm CO2 flow system.

Rapid and efficient carbon capture

In their article, “Direct Air Capture of CO2 Using a Liquid Amine–Solid Carbamic Acid Phase-Separation System Using Diamines Bearing an Aminocyclohexyl Group”, the Japanese research group, headed by Seiji Yamazoe, explained how the IDPA – a chemical mostly used as a precursor to polymers and coatings – was able to extract nearly all of the CO2 under conditions mirroring carbon emissions concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere (<500 ppm).

It did so at least twice as quickly as existing systems, including those employing potassium hydroxide and calcium hydroxide, which are less efficient and have higher recovery costs. IDPA, on the other hand, can be reused after being slightly heated, and is therefore suitable for use in a forward-looking sustainable energy system based on circular use of materials.

The researchers at Tokyo Metropolitan University had spent some time studying liquid-solid phase separation systems as a way of achieving direct air capture of atmospheric carbon. In these systems, the air is bubbled through a liquid that reacts with the CO2 in such a way that the non-soluble carbon is precipitated as a solid. This means that the reaction product does not accumulate in the liquid, but can be easily removed, allowing the liquid to be recycled and reused with minimal loss of reaction speed and efficiency.

Industrial-scale commercialization

direct air capture carbon emissions

Miraç Yazıcı, a market research expert based in Liverpool whose tutoring and consultancy company Econscan tracks tech trends, believes that while the IDPA-based technology has some drawbacks, especially when it comes to cost, its efficiency and speed in removing carbon from the air are huge advantages. “This new method is twice as fast as the nearest other removal technique and operates at low temperatures of about 60° Celsius,” he notes. As such, it is certain to be of interest to the operators of the handful of CCS facilities that are already in operation.

Yazıcı mentions two projects that are currently in the news and indicate strong interest in commercializing the capture and usage or storage of GHG emissions. In the UK, Tata Chemicals Europe – a market leader in the production of sodium carbonate, salt, and sodium bicarbonate – inaugurated the country’s first industrial-scale carbon capture and usage plant at Northwich, Cheshire on 24 June 2022, capping a £20 million (€23.2 million) investment that was supported by a £4.2m grant from the British government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as a contribution to reaching its ambitious net-zero targets.

Only days later, on 29 June, a consortium consisting of Exxon Mobil, Shell, and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (Cnooc Ltd.) signed a non-binding agreement with the government of China’s Guangdong Province to build a CCS facility that would capture as much as 10 million tonnes of CO2 annually. That is the equivalent of about 0.1 percent of China’s annual emissions, which would make it one of the largest such projects in the world.

Energy efficiency – a game-changer?

“There are new developments and advances almost daily in this area,” says Yazıcı, adding that some components still need to be improved before the technology can make a viable contribution to the problem of atmospheric carbon. Solutions that operate at higher temperatures also have higher energy consumption, and some of them actually burn natural gas as a source of thermal energy, which runs contrary to the aim of GHG removal – or as Yazıcı puts it: “It’s madness.”

That’s one reason why he believes the IDPA-based process is a potential game-changer, since reducing the amount of process heat also means lower energy consumption.

Because the source and amounts of energy required are such important factors in DAC technology, the ability to operate at lower temperatures would bring down the cost of decarbonization. A target price of US$100 per tonne of CO2 captured would make direct air capture commercially viable, but currently, that price is up to six times higher, depending on the solution used.

The price also determines the feasibility of using captured carbon for multiple industrial applications including construction materials; synthetic fuels; chemicals and polymer production; carbonated beverages, or the development of advanced materials like carbon fibers, nanotubes, and fullerenes or graphene.

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Lightning-In-A-Bottle: New Fusion Tech Gets US$160M Funding Lightning-In-A-Bottle: New Fusion Tech Gets US$160M Funding

Lightning-In-A-Bottle: New Fusion Tech Gets US$160M Funding

Nuclear fusion start-up Zap Energy has completed a successful test on a prototype of its Z-pinch fusion technology. The company also raised US$160 million in Series C funding to further commercialize its technology.

Nuclear fusion, the energy process that powers the Sun, has the potential to provide unlimited sustainable and safe energy. Researchers have been developing fusion projects by generating high pressure and temperatures or using lasers. US-based Zap Energy is taking a different approach that has been called “lightning-in-a-bottle”.

Z-pinch technology is a type of plasma confinement system that “pinches” the plasma in a relatively short column by its own magnetic fields until it becomes hot and dense enough to produce nuclear fusion. Zap Energy reached a technical milestone by creating the first plasma in the company’s new prototype reactor named FuZE-Q. FuZE-Q is designed to surpass energy breakeven, which means the device can produce more energy than it consumes. The breakeven point could come “within a year”, according to a statement by Zap Energy.

Meanwhile, the company has also reached another milestone by closing a US$160 million Series C round. With the new funding, the company aims to bring its Z-pinch technology to market by producing garage-size small fusion reactors that could be used to power remote communities. They can also be combined to provide energy to cities.

“We can design, build and test systems at a much faster pace than other approaches, and we are working on technology in parallel that we are going to need on the other side of breakeven,” said Zap Energy President Benj Conway.

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Image: Laboratory scale Z-pinch showing glow from an expanded hydrogen plasma. Credit: Sandpiper at English Wikipedia

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Electric Vehicles: A Roadmap for Sustainable Mobility

What will it take to facilitate a global transition to sustainable transport of goods and people? New studies by the International Energy Agency and by Bloomberg New Energy Finance show how this goal can be achieved in a way that is both ecologically and economically viable.

A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) finds that the global market for electric vehicles (EVs) is growing steeply, driven by strong uptake of battery-powered cars in China and elsewhere, but the 2050 milestone of net-zero carbon emissions is still elusive. Sales of EVs must be complemented by other efforts including more investment in public transportation and policy measures to foster adoption of clean mobility solutions, according to the IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook, published in May 2022.

The EV market has seen a great deal of movement recently, especially in China, where sales of electric cars account for half of global growth in the sector, thanks to low-cost manufacturing and government efforts to reduce fuel consumption. Global indicators confirm this trend: In 2021 alone, sales of EVs doubled to 6.6 million cars. That is four times higher than in 2019 and more than 50 times the number for 2012, when just 120,000 electric cars were purchased worldwide – a decade later, more EVs are sold every week.

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In 2021, there were 16.5 million EVs in the world, three times as many as in 2018. In the first quarter of 2022, another two million battery-driven cars were sold, for a 75 percent increase over the same period in the previous year.

Many industrialized countries have programs to wean themselves off fossil fuels and expand EV infrastructure, including with US$30 billion in public spending, while car companies are not only offering new EV models (about 450 different ones in 2021, or five times as many as in 2015), but plan to exceed legal electrification targets.

Elusive net-zero target

Despite these promising indicators, stumbling blocks remain. Uneven uptake of electromobility means the net-zero emissions target for 2050 could be missed. In Brazil, India, and Indonesia, according to the IEA’s study, EVs account for less than one half of a percent of all car sales. Much of the recent EV growth has been driven by China, the top manufacturer and seller of electric cars, whose 3.3 million sales in 2021 topped the total number of global EV sales in 2020.

In China, a preference for smaller vehicles as well as lower R&D and manufacturing costs means EVs are just 10 percent more expensive than conventional cars, compared to 50 percent more in other major markets. Nevertheless, in the US and Europe, sales continued to grow by 60 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

More robust policies are needed to foster uptake in countries currently lagging behind. This finding is supported by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BloombergNEF) in its recent Long-Term Electric Vehicle Outlook (EVO): “There is also a widening gap between wealthy and emerging economies on EV adoption. There is a growing risk that the transition is not an equitable one, and that many economies miss out on the benefits of better air quality and new investment.”

Sourcing raw materials

Making car batteries requires a reliable and affordable supply of raw materials. Global supply chains have been disrupted by COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sanctions on one of the world’s main suppliers of many natural resources. These sourcing problems have raised prices for raw materials like cobalt, lithium, and nickel (although research on alternative battery designs is underway).

Between 2021 and May 2022, lithium prices increased sevenfold. Prices of nickel already increased steeply before the pandemic due to supply shortfalls in China, and sanctions against Russia, which supplies 20 percent of the world’s high-purity nickel, have brought more disruptions and higher costs. BloombergNEF anticipates that this trend will continue: “Raw materials supply constraints for batteries also look very tight for the years ahead. This is set to push back the point of EV price parity in some segments but will not derail the global EV market.”

Efficiency standards

EVs can not only mitigate climate change and increase air quality, but also make the global energy system more efficient. An electric motor is about three or four times more efficient than comparable combustion engines. Battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are thus not only cleaner, but also much more economical than conventional designs. Reducing mobility costs could boost global economic recovery and bring down the cost of living.

To ensure that adoption of electric cars, trucks, and buses is accompanied by increasing efficiency standards, China’s government requires recipients of funds under its subsidy scheme for new energy vehicles to meet benchmarks for efficiency and performance. This should support domestic technology innovation and lead to the development of ever more efficient EVs for export. China’s prioritization of longer-range EVs has extended their range by 50 percent in the past six years.

Five ways to boost electric vehicle sales

The IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook proposes five measures for fast-tracking the replacement of combustion engines with electric motors. First, it recommends replacing direct subsidies with budget-neutral “feebate” programs, where inefficient fossil-powered engines are taxed to generate revenue for subsidizing low-emissions vehicles or EVs. Stringent efficiency and emissions standards can accelerate the mobility transition.

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Zero emission vehicle sales mandates, purchase incentives and CO2 standards can all help speed up the transition

Secondly, heavy-duty electric vehicles such as electric buses and trucks should become more competitive. “Zero emission vehicle sales mandates, purchase incentives and CO2 standards can all help speed up the transition,” the report notes. In some economies, moreover, electric two- and three-wheeled vehicles and urban buses should be prioritized and supported with more charging infrastructure.

Next, political and fiscal measures to expand charging points, smart grids, and other infrastructure must be continued. Policymakers should require home chargers in parking spaces and ensure EV charging readiness in both new and existing buildings. The IEA also recommends coordination between governments to enable power grids to handle additional loads, and to facilitate two-way communication between EVs and grids for optimized charging and pricing, which would stabilize networks rather than creating additional strains.

Future-ready supply chains

Finally, the Global Electric Vehicle Outlook recommends making supply chains more secure, resilient, and sustainable. Extraction and processing of raw materials requires long lead times and timely investments, which have been neglected in the past. “Governments must leverage private investment in sustainable mining of key battery metals and ensure clear and rapid permitting procedures to avoid potential supply bottlenecks,” the authors write.

Recycling and research into alternative solutions requiring less or different critical minerals could reduce demand, and batteries must be appropriately sized to the size of the car. Coordination between producer and consumer countries, sustainable business practices, and knowledge-sharing will strengthen supply chains to achieve environmental and social development goals, paving the way for e-mobility systems that will make net-zero emissions a reality by 2050.

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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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Two New Types of Crops Benefit Farmers and the Environment

Climate change is reducing crop yields and threatening global food security. At the same time, farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and the climate problem. Innovations in biotechnology could help to address this dilemma by developing more productive and resilient crops that have a lower environmental impact.

Gene-editing for higher resistance

For the first time in history, man-made climate change is occurring at a faster pace than plants can adapt to, causing a reduction in both yields and seed protein content. Many scientists are betting on the technology of gene editing to improve resilience in crops.

Using gene-editing technology such as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), biologists are able to edit DNA – the genetic code of plants – to raise yields and make them more resilient to diseases and environmental pressure such as heat, floods, droughts, and salinity. Gene editing has the added benefit of making crops healthier by removing allergy-causing elements, reducing saturated fats, and improving nutrients. 

Gene-edited crops are not the same as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs involve the insertion of DNA sequences from other plant or even animal species, while in gene-edited crops, CRISPR and other gene-editing tools allow for the fine-tuning of DNA sequences. Authorities in the US consider gene-edited crops to be “substantially equivalent” to natural crops, which means food products from gene-edited crops do not require special labeling. Since 2021, the UK and China have also relaxed their regulations for gene-edited crops. 

Plant geneticist Yi Li, a professor at the University of Connecticut and Supertrends expert, is developing gene-edited citrus trees that can resist a devastating disease called Huanglongbing (HLB), also known as citrus greeening disease. Due to the comparatively longer life cycle of citrus trees, he expects that HLB-resistant citrus trees could be developed through gene-editing by 2030. However, he pointed out that the development period could be as short as one to two years if a plant’s reproduction cycle is relatively short. 

We see a role for genome editing technologies in many other plants used in the agricultural, horticultural, and forestry industries. For example, we are creating lawn grass varieties that require less fertilizer and water.”

Professor Yi Li, plant geneticist and Supertrends expert[1]

Crops that produce their own fertilizer 

From production to usage, fertilizer contributes one third of all emissions from agriculture. Nitrogen and phosphorus from excess fertilizer can also run off the land and pollute waterways. Bioengineers are taking an innovative approach to making crops produce their own fertilizer instead of using artificial fertilizer. 

Plants like beans and peas do not require fertilizer because they receive nitrogen from a type of bacterium called rhizobia that lives in the soil. Rhizobia fix nitrogen and exchange nitrogen with carbon from beans and peas. If major crops could produce their own fertilizer like beans and peas do, the environmental benefit would be substantial. 

A research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working on a project to make this happen. The team aims to enable cereal crops, such as corn, rice, and wheat, to make the nitrogen/carbon exchange with rhizobia bacteria. The researchers plan to identify and produce the molecules that enable the exchange in beans and peas through genetic engineering. 

“Focusing on corn alone, this [the production of its own fertilizer] could reduce the production and use of nitrogen fertilizer by 160,000 tons, and it could halve the related emissions of nitrous oxide gas.”

Professor Jing-Ke Weng, plant biologists[2]

Biotechnology innovations like those mentioned above and others have been used to address many challenges in agriculture and to benefit farmers, consumers, and the environment. 

[1]  Li, Y. “These CRISPR-modified crops don’t count as GMOs”. The Conversation. 22 May 2018. https://theconversation.com/these-crispr-modified-crops-dont-count-as-gmos-96002

[2]  Meadow, M. “Using plant biology to address climate change”. MIT News. 19 April 2022. https://news.mit.edu/2022/using-plant-biology-help-address-climate-change-0419

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