Industry and infrastructure are prerequisites for global economic development. But following COVID-19, and in the shadow of the climate crisis, it is essential that countries invest in innovation to ensure that manufacturing, transport, and telecommunications are more sustainable and inclusive
Infrastructure encompasses all the connections that hold the global economy together. Traditionally, these connections have come in the form of buildings, roads, and power supplies. But with the advent of the internet age, cables, wires, data centres, and satellites are increasingly integral to the economy’s nervous system. While many in the developed world take this infrastructure for granted, people in developing countries often lack both physical and digital connections.
Industry sits together with infrastructure as the bedrock of the economy. Today, 23 per cent of the world’s workforce is employed in industry according to the latest figures from the International Labour Organization. And industry has been key to the historic success of the developed world. Sustainable industrialisation is therefore an important priority for those in developing countries.
Global manufaturing took a hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent recovery has been uneven, with less developed countries showing signs of stagnation. At the same time, as the climate crisis becomes ever more urgent, it is important that the economic benefits of industry and infrastructure do not come at an environmental cost that is too high for the world to bear.
Investment in innovation is essential for industrialisation to be sustainable and broad-based in the future – especially in areas of industry that are currently difficult to decarbonise.
Target 9.4 within SDG 9 calls for industrial processes and infrastructure to be upgraded or retrofitted for improved environmental sustainability. One of the challenges when it comes to de-carbonising industry is the need for extremely high temperatures for key processes. At present these temperatures can only be attained economically by burning fossil fuels. Electrification of industrial heating processes is an important goal – especially as most net-zero scenarios envisage electricity generation transitioning almost entirely to renewables.
Finnish engineering company Colbrook has developed ‘Roto Dynamic Heater’ (RDH) technology that uses electricity generated from renewable sources to reach process temperatures of 1700 degrees Celsius – hot enough to replace fossil fuels in a number of processes previously considered unsuitable for electrification. Elsewhere, Saudi Arabian mining company Ma’aden is planning to replace fossil fuels with solar ‘greenhouses’ to generate the steam needed for aluminium production.
In addition to electrification, hi-tech innovations can also lead to improved efficiency and sustainability. Approximately 45 per cent of electricity generated on earth is consumed by industrial electric motors. Current designs are energy-intensive with metal-to-metal contact between rotating and stationary parts acting as a major source of inefficiency. Finnish startup SpinDrive combats this inefficiency with active magnetic bearings (AMB) technology that levitates the rotating parts of a motor using electromagnetic forces.
Elsewhere, a new manufacturing process that combines elements of traditional casting with 3D printing produces complex metal parts that are lighter and up to 80 per cent cheaper than the current industry standard. Affordable, lighter components could lead to improved fuel efficiency in the automotive and aerospace sectors.
Roads, railways, ports, and airports are crucial for both the movement of goods and ideas. But millions of people around the world live more than 2 kilometres from the nearest all-season road. Extending transport links in a sustainable way is therefore essential for economic development. German startup Ecopals has developed an asphalt additive made from non-recylable plastic. The enhanced asphalt improves road longevity and reduces the need for virgin materials and petroleum-based products such as bitumen.
Clean, accessible public transport is particularly important in less developed countries where many do not have the means to own a private vehicle. In Kenya, the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority has recently announced that its new Bus Rapid Transit network will be exclusively operated by green vehicles.
Communications and connectivity
In today’s world, internet connectivity is as important as more traditional forms of infrastructure. Yet, to this day, over a third of the world’s population has never been online. Innovators are working to bring connectivity to even the most remote regions.
Satellite technology is coming on leaps and bounds with companies taking different approaches. Mangata is using a combination of ground-based hubs and high orbiting satellites to make the cloud accessible anywhere. Another company, Astranis, is using small satellites placed in geosynchronous orbit to provide faster broadband speeds. The company’s satellites are much smaller than other geosynchronous satellites on the market and are consequently much cheaper and faster to manufacture.
Even where the internet isn’t available at all, innovators are looking to provide connectivity. Bridgefy has developed technology that enables messaging and app access without data or Wi-Fi.
Re-purposing old infrastructure
As the world transitions to a new energy system, much of the infrastructure that powers today’s world will no longer be used. However, innovators are considering a number of ways in which existing fossil fuel infrastructure could be re-purposed to support a cleaner, more sustainable world in the future.
For example, the UK is exploring how coal mines could be used to provide geothermal energy. And sustainable aviation fuel has been successfully piped to New York’s LaGuardia airport using existing petroleum pipelines.
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5th July 2022