Innovation That Matters

Spotted: Following an increase in the number of people worldwide without access to electricity in 2022, 2023 is seeing a decline, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) highlighting local home solar systems as one of the main reasons for the improvement. That growth, however, is still deemed too slow to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 of affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030. 

Determined to assist the 700 million people without electricity, Okra Solar uses mesh-grids to bring hyperlocal solar energy systems to the world’s most remote communities. Mesh grids use low-voltage connections to distribute power between homes that are in very close proximity to each other.  

Any other type of network requires far more infrastructure such as cables, poles, and materials capable of containing higher voltage currents, all of which are key reasons why most of the world’s isolated communities remain without electricity. Okra Solar’s solution allows last-mile energy delivery by providing either standalone home solar (SHS) systems or a small number of connections between neighbours.  

An Okra pod is installed in every home, and the Internet of Things (IoT) capability makes sure that energy flows where it is needed in the network, which allows residents to consume more than they would otherwise generate on their own. The IoT also provides remote monitoring of the system via cellular data or Wi-Fi, and the pods are powerful enough to support appliances like freezers, power tools, and a variety of lights. 

Homeowners can make payments via mobile, and the cloud connection means that the system’s always-on monitoring ensures that homes have the required minimum amount of energy. The Okra Solar team creates a least-cost-of-electrification plan for every location and includes detailed cost breakdowns along with a comparison to alternatives such as microgrids.  

Okra Solar’s mesh-grids are being used by more than 14,000 people across four different countries, and the company recently raised $12 million (around €11.4 million) to scale further the deployment of its panels and system.  

Other recent solar power innovations in Springwise’s archive include the repurposing of old EV batteries for off-grid solar energy and a rent-to-own solar panel programme that makes renewable energy far more accessible.

Written By: Keely Khoury 

Spotted: The negative environmental impacts of mining are well-established. As well as generating substantial volumes of greenhouse gas emissions, the mining process is also responsible for biodiversity loss, water contamination, and air pollution. Mineral extraction is still necessary, however, with these materials playing an essential role in energy transition technologies, as well as in electronics and fine jewellery. 

Startup Regeneration, which was founded by US NGO Resolve, is on a mission to make mining a sustainable practice. Instead of sourcing new mineral deposits, the company has a growing network of old mining sites that makes use of waste rock and mine tailings to access essential minerals. Mining techniques in the past were highly inefficient, as well as highly damaging to the environment, meaning that lots of valuable materials have been left behind in legacy mines. Using new methods and technologies, Regeneration is able to re-mine and take full advantage of old mining tailings. 

In addition to putting mining waste to good use, Regeneration also restores surrounding ecosystems that have been damaged by past mining practices, clearing polluted water systems and rebuilding habitats. Once fully re-mined, the company closes out a legacy mine properly to ensure that an area will not continue to be polluted. The startup then monitors biodiversity and regeneration progress on its closed sites to make sure the environment is healing as expected. 

Brands can partner with the organisation to access sustainably re-mined minerals and metals for their own products, and Regeneration uses its sales profits to go back into habitat restoration and mining closures.  

The company has already joined forces with the likes of Apple, and in May this year, popular Canada-based jewellery brand Mejuri also announced its own partnership as part of its first Sustainability Report. Through this relationship, Mejuri will be able to produce its jewellery lines using efficiently and sustainably mined metals, while helping to support essential ecological rehabilitation.

In the archive, Springwise has spotted other innovators looking to make jewellery better for the planet, including one that is 3D printing zero-waste items and another that sources diamonds from the ocean.

Written By: Matilda Cox

Spotted: For most people, picking a place to holiday is pretty easy – but what if you also had to consider that your freedom or even life could be at risk?  

There are 67 jurisdictions still criminalising private and consensual same-sex sexual activity, while 14 countries criminalise the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people. In response, French company Misterb&b has developed a travel platform that provides a level of safety and confidence for LGBTQ+ travellers. 

The platform collates vetted LGBTQ+-friendly hotels and hosts, while the chat function allows members to connect with each other in a real community. When users book through Misterb&b, they also receive vouchers, credits, and cashback. 

Beyond a travel database, Misterb&b is also committed to helping vulnerable LGBTQ+ individuals with its Mister for Good scheme, wherein the company partners with local non-profits to provide free emergency housing from within its community to help LGBTQ+ people in need. It also donates some of its profits to positive impact projects. 

The platform currently boasts a 1 million strong community. And, in January 2023, the startup was selected by Expedia’s new One World Accelerator programme, which will help it to expand its services further.

Many LGBTQ+ individuals around the world still face prejudice and discrimination, but luckily innovators are working to strengthen social equality. In the archive, Springwise has also spotted a platform that connects social activists and a credit card for the LGBTQIA+ community in Europe.

Written By: Amanda Simms

Spotted: Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is a form of hydropower that generates electricity by harnessing the temperature differences (thermal gradients) between ocean surfaces and deep ocean waters. While research into this method began in the 1970s, progress has stalled – until now.

Recently, a project led by the Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey in China successfully completed sea trials of a floating OTEC 20-kilowatt device that generated power over almost five hours, with a maximum power output of 16.4 kilowatts. 

The successful 10-day trial focused on developing key technologies involved in OTEC, such as deep-sea thermal insulation water intake, cold-water pipeline installation, and more accurate estimation of ocean temperature differentials. The project also added considerable practical experience to what has up to now been largely theoretical work.

However, China is not the only country moving ahead with this technology. UK-based firm Global OTEC Resources recently received its first certificate of approval for the installation of a cold-water riser—a pipe used to transport seawater from the ocean to a seawater tank (and vice versa) from an offshore OTEC platform. This is a key design certification in the company’s plans to deploy a 1.5-megawatt commercial-scale OTEC platform in the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe by 2025.

Other companies, including Makai Ocean Engineering Bluerise, NELHA, and the Bardot Group are also developing OTEC technology. However, progress has been slow, due to the expense of the technology and the limited number of areas where it can be used.

If successful, OTEC could join energy innovations spotted in the Springwise archive such as microgrids and energy harvesting from raindrops as a future source of sustainable energy.

Written By: Lisa Magloff

Spotted: When we think of global warming, the itchy eyes of allergy season are unlikely to be the first thing that springs to mind. But, experts highlight that worsening climate change means longer pollen seasons – and more runny noses for hay fever sufferers.

Historically speaking, researchers have analysed pollen in the air manually, which is a highly laborious task. Now, to monitor the growing rates of pollen and better understand environmental change, scientists from the University of Exeter and Swansea University are turning to cutting-edge technologies –including imaging flow cytometry and deep learning artificial intelligence (AI) to create a system that’s able to spot and categorise different pollens much more quickly.

As researcher Dr Ann Power highlights, “Pollen is an important environmental indicator, and piecing together the jigsaw of different pollen types in the atmosphere, both today and in the past, can help us build up a picture of biodiversity and climate change.”

As well as helping us to better understand our changing environment and shifting biodiversity levels, the AI-powered system could also help those with severe pollen allergies better manage their symptoms. Understanding when certain types of pollen are most prevalent, such as the grass pollens that so many are allergic to, would help to improve pollen forecasting so that individuals can limit exposure or take medications accordingly.

Accurately keeping track of biodiversity and climate change is the first step in ensuring that we are moving in the right direction for environmental protection. In the archive, Springwise has also spotted the use of AI and sensors to monitor farms and assessment software to forecast climate change risk.

Written By: Matilda Cox

Spotted: Solar panels offer a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to polluting fossil fuels such as coal and oil. And in full, direct sunlight, they are a highly efficient way to power your home. However, in the shade, they will produce significantly less energy than they would in the full glare of the sun. In fact, US startup Optivolt claims that a shadow covering just 1 per cent of a conventional solar panel will reduce power output by 33 per cent, while a 10 per cent covering will render the panel essentially useless.

The company is tackling this problem with its patented technology, Pulse. When partially in the shade, the Pulse technology ensures the whole panel continues to work effectively by ‘stretching’ the shadow across the entire panel, mimicking a direct sunlight scenario that is slightly dimmer. According to Optivolt, this enables up to 25 times more power to be generated in real-world shading conditions.  

By optimising shaded panels, Pulse claims it unlocks 261 terawatt-hours of untapped energy, which equates to an additional 34 billion dollars worth of solar energy per year.

In addition to the utility and rooftop applications we are all familiar with, OptiVolt’s technology could unlock new applications for solar power. In a field study conducted by Anduril Industries, Optivolt’s solar panel proved capable of powering Anduril’s military devices through harsh winter conditions. The technology is also battle-tested by the United States Homeland Security and Ukrainian front-line units to provide mission-critical power where traditional solar falls short.

Optivolt’s home installations will begin in 2024. 

Solar panels are a vital tool in fighting climate change, and it’s no wonder Springwise has spotted many innovations in the archive looking to make the most out of them. Solar AI provides rent-to-own solar panels to make renewable energy affordable for many, while Terabase Energy is producing a digital field factory to speed up the construction of solar farms.

Written By: Anam Alam

Spotted: Aviation is one of the toughest sectors to decarbonise. While promising efforts are well underway to power planes using batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and liquid hydrogen, these are focused on shorter flights. Long-haul flights remain a tougher nut to crack.

Today, batteries lack the energy density to power heavier aircrafts, and while some hope that next-generation solid-state batteries might provide the answer, the technology isn’t currently there for electric long haul. Similarly, the power density of hydrogen fuel cells is too low for long flights of heavy aircraft, and gas and liquid hydrogen, while light, take up much more space on an aircraft than jet fuel and must be compressed, requiring tanks that are too large and heavy for longer flights.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are an alternative solution that many are pinning their long-haul hopes on. SAFs are fuels that have similar chemistry and behave in a similar way to traditional jet fuel. They can be ‘dropped in’ to existing planes, which is why they are often also called ‘drop in’ fuels. SAFs can be made from bio-based materials – indeed, commercial flights powered by biofuel have already taken place – but there are significant concerns about the availability of feedstock for this approach. US startup Dimensional Energy, on the other hand, is one of several companies looking at producing SAF using captured CO2 as a feedstock.

Chemically, SAFs are made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms, just like kerosene. But in the case of Dimensional’s process, the carbon ultimately comes from CO2 captured from industrial sources, combined with green hydrogen produced using an electrolyser powered by renewable electricity. The company’s core breakthrough is the development of novel catalysts that break the ‘notoriously stable’ molecular bonds within carbon dioxide releasing one of the oxygen atoms to create carbon monoxide. This carbon monoxide is then combined with hydrogen to create syngas, which can be further transformed into jet fuel.  

Dimensional’s process is powered by renewable energy, and because the fuel is made using captured carbon, it only emits CO2 that would have been emitted by the industrial source. However, to be truly ‘carbon-neutral’ the fuel would need to be made from CO2 captured from the atmosphere, and the startup states that its system can integrate with direct air capture – a technology that can do this – as it matures.

The main limitation for SAF today is scalability, so the ability to ramp-up production is crucial for startups operating in this space. Dimensional is currently producing, around 5 gallons of its fuel today at its demonstration plant in Tucson, Arizona. This is a very small amount, but the company has long-term plans to open larger plants in Vancouver (2023), Niagara Falls (2025), and California (2027), and is also exploring licensing partnerships with other fuel manufacturers.

Springwise has previously spotted other SAF innovations such as a partnership between a German aircraft manufacturer and a South African energy company and a project in Chile to produce SAF using wind power.  

Written By: Matthew Hempstead

Spotted: Classic approaches to waste management are what you might imagine: urinals being unblocked with caustic chemicals, bathroom odours being masked with harsh cleaning agents and deodorisers that need daily reapplication, and even chemical descaling of sewers that can destroy the functionality of a sewer. This is where Advanced Bacterial Services (ABS) comes in. The company utilises patented microbial treatments to solve the root cause of these issues.  

ABS currently has three commercially available treatments for issues of this nature: FOGZAP, SLUDGEZAP, and URIZAP. In each, the company has tailored the microbiome to fit the intended purpose, so that the bacteria will simply digest the blockage or undesired waste. 

FOGZAP utilises bacteria to digest FOGS – fats, oils, grease, and saponification (associated salts, fatty acids, and glycerol). SLUDGEZAP can be used to break down natural build-ups of organic material either in pipes or septic tanks, improving the health of these systems and bypassing the need for costly manual removal methods. Finally, URIZAP removes unpleasant odours from urinals and gets rid of any blockages, while helping to prevent future blockages. The microbial content of the treatment digests built-up uric acid that would ordinarily require heavy drain unblockers.  

Inefficient water and waste management can result in unnecessary costs, whether that be from leaks or lengthy, expensive repairs that may be needed in the long run if sanitation systems aren’t monitored properly. In the archive, Springwise has also spotted self-healing sludge that can be used in sewers and technology to spot pipe breaks.

Written By: Archie Cox

Spotted: Dubbed “a historic Mediterranean superfood” by Portugese foodtech company Landratech, acorns are an often-overlooked resource for food, leather tanning, baking, and textile dyeing.

Landratech points out that in 2018, the European Union (EU) imported 102,000 tonnes of gluten-free cereal grains, pulses, and oilseeds. Cereal crops produce around 200 kilogrammes of CO2 equivalent per tonne, but the environmental footprint of acorns is significantly lower because of the carbon sequestration capability of oak forests and the fact that many European countries have the climate to support their own oak trees – meaning they wouldn’t need to rely on emissions-intensive overseas imports.   

The company provides landowners with a range of tools to maximise the income they earn from their forests, and supports the growth of this new market by buying acorns from growers to provide agri-food producers with relevant raw materials. It also supports B2B connections between growers, producers, and distributors. 

The acorn itself is useable in many ways, with the cap providing essential tannins for the leather industry. The kernel is high in antioxidants, as well as being gluten-free, which makes it a highly nutritious alternative to traditional cereals and grains used for flour and other foodstuffs. The shell of the nut, meanwhile, has useful antimicrobial and antioxidant qualities and also provides tannins for textile dyes and for tanning leathers. The Landratech platform creates a supply chain with full transparency for acorn products that encompass: flour; coffee; granulate for new, more sustainable food products; and more. The company also works to publicise the healthfulness and usefulness of a nut with a particularly low public profile. 

Landratech currently runs four projects dedicated to creating a digital marketplace for acorn products and supporting research and development on the healthfulness of the nut as a pillar of a sustainable diet.  

Nuts are particularly valuable elements of many communities’ diets, and in the archive, Springwise has spotted examples of them being used for lifestyle improvements that include the at-home production of plant-based milk and as a sustainable replacement for palm oil.

Written By: Keely Khoury

Spotted: Despite concerted efforts by individuals and organisations worldwide, nearly 80 per cent of plastic that’s thrown away either goes to landfill or ends up in the environment. Reducing and then eliminating the use of virgin plastics is an important step that the packaging industry needs to take as quickly as possible. Helping scale commercial transitions from non-recyclable, virgin plastics to compostable alternatives is US-based Cirkla.  

The company provides an end-to-end solution that bridges the gap between a business’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals and new products made with new materials. Cirkla assesses an organisation’s portfolio of packaging to identify supply chain opportunities and creates a plan to transition away from petroleum-based plastics. As part of the review of a company’s consumer packaged goods ranges, Cirkla provides life cycle assessments for every type of packaging. The full data set allows businesses to accurately track improvements in their carbon footprint. 

In order to replace virgin plastics, a company has to develop, prototype, and test alternatives. Cirkla takes care of that with the help of its extensive network of manufacturing partners throughout Asia. Contract manufacturers in countries that include India, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, and China produce custom packaging solutions within days. Reducing the development time from months to days means that a business can more quickly assess customer feedback and tweak designs and materials as needed.  

Materials that Cirkla works with include 100 per cent recyclable and home-compostable moulded fibre that is a direct replacement for rigid plastic; recycled plastics; food-grade compostable films; and 100 per cent recyclable paperboard. The moulded fibre is made from plants and plant waste including bamboo, sugarcane, and wood pulp. The film and paperboard are printable, act just like the plastic products they replace and are available in bespoke sizes and shapes.  

Cirkla recently raised $3 million (around €2.8 million), which the company plans to use to expand its operational capacity and continue its research and development (R&D).  

Single-use plastics are such a scourge that in the archive, Springwise has spotted a number of innovations seeking to end the waste by using bio-based versions instead. Examples include packaging that biodegrades on its own, without requiring composting or recycling facilities, and a polystyrene foam replacement made from agri-waste.

Written By: Keely Khoury