Engineering is not just about problem solving – it’s about developing solutions that can make our lives better. When it comes to the environment, innovation can literally help us save the world.
Climate change, resource depletion, over-population, pollution, waste disposal, water shortages – these are just some of the environmental issues we’re facing. But there is hope.
Here are some of the innovations, and their engineers, leading the way to a more sustainable future.
1. Solar Impulse plane
Engineers: Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg
Technology: Made of ultra-light materials, the Solar Impulse plane has 17,000 integrated solar cells built into its wings, supplying four electric motors with renewable energy. Energy-dense lithium batteries charge during the day so it’s also able to fly at night.
Environmental credentials: Completing the first-ever around-the-world solar flight (2015-16), the aim of the Solar Impulse plane was to inspire people and raise awareness of the importance and potential uses of clean tech and renewable energy sources.
2. Max-AI AQC recycling robot
Engineers: Eugenio Garnica, Sadako/BHS (NRT)
Technology: Max-AI combines computer vision, GPU deep learning, multi-layered neural network AI capabilities and robotics to identify and select recyclable items, such as plastics, from other items. Capable of learning, it is designed for autonomous optimisation.
Environmental credentials: Max will speed up the process of sorting and recycling materials, making it more cost-effective. The vision is that it will increase the amount of materials recycled and reused so the next generation can inherit a cleaner and more sustainable environment.
3. AQuarias Wave Energy System
Engineer: Robert Schuster
Technology: AQuarias uses “a combination of gravity and ‘buoyancy’ found between air and water to produce power that can be used to generate and/or produce electricity”.
Environmental credentials: A solution to the world’s growing renewable energy needs, AQuarias is cost-effective, has a baseload zero carbon footprint, uses no consumables and can be installed almost anywhere on the planet. It has the potential to make towns and cities self-sufficient.
4. Salt-filtering graphene sieve
Engineers: Rahul Nair
Technology: Seawater is passed through a graphene-oxide membrane, filtering out the salt from the liquid. Expoxy resin walls added on either side prevent the membrane from swelling up and allowing enough pore control to filter out all particles.
Environmental credentials: By turning seawater into drinking water, the graphene sieve could be an efficient, accessible, cost-effective solution to the world’s water shortages.
5. Wattway solar powered road
Engineers: Jean-Luc Gautie, Colas
Technology: Each panel contains 15-cm wide cells, making up a very thin film of polycrystalline silicon that transforms solar energy into electricity. The panels are coated with a clear silicon resin to withstand traffic and can be laid on existing roads.
Environmental credentials: By combining road construction with photovoltaic techniques, Wattway solar-powered roads can deliver clean, renewable electric energy, without the need to overtake valuable farmland or natural landscapes. 20m² of Wattway can power a single home.
6. Seawater Greenhouse
Engineers: Charlie Paton and Chris Rothera
Technology: The Seawater Greenhouse uses the cooling and humidifying abilities of water vapour that are produced from evaporating salt water. Modelling software is used to simulate the growing environment and optimise the design.
Environmental credentials: The technology takes advantage of two abundant resources – sunlight and seawater. It offers a green solution to boosting crop production, as well as enabling climate rehabilitation, while minimising the associated issues and costs.
7. C2C supercapacitor
Engineers: Rui Silva
Technology: C2C is a full-scale nickel-carbon asymmetrical supercapacitor with an aqueous electrolyte. It “uses a unique method of manufacturing electrodes constituted by metal oxides with a dentric structure for storing electrical energy”.
Environmental credentials: The aim of C2C’s storage device is to deliver high energy efficient solutions in tough environments, critical to a sustainable industrial future. It also has a long lifespan, meaning it reduces waste.
Engineer: Eijiro Miyako
Technology: Robobee is an autonomous drone robotic pollinator complete with GPS, high-resolution cameras and artificial intelligence. Its bottom is covered in horsehair and coated in a sticky gel. When it flies on to a flower, pollen grains stick to it before rubbing off on the next flower.
Environmental credentials: As our food production needs increase and the bee population potentially decreases, Robobees are designed to be used by farmers to boost pollination and crop yields. They can also help increase genetic diversity and improve the quality of crops.
Images © Eijiro Miyako
Engineers: Pete Ceglinski and Andrew Turton
Technology: Essentially a floating bin, Seabin sucks in water from the surface and passes it through a bag inside that catches any debris. Its submersible water pump plugs directly into a 110/22v outlet and is capable of displacing 25.000 litres per hour.
Environmental credentials: Seabin is designed to help clean the ocean by removing discarded items from marinas, docks, yacht clubs and commercial ports. It also has the potential to collect a percentage of oils and pollutants floating in the water.
10. Insect wind turbines
Engineers: Vincent Cognet
Technology: Inspired by the flexible wings of insects, turbine rotor blades are constructed from pliable material, which flexes back and forth respective to the wind and centrifugal effect. This constantly changes the pitch angle, improving efficiency.
Environmental credentials: Flexible wind turbines have proved to be 35% more efficient in producing energy. If these designs become commercialised, as a sustainable energy source they could provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Just a small sample of the environmental engineering projects happening around the globe, innovations such as these demonstrate not only what’s possible, but what a critical role engineering, science and technology are playing in forging a sustainable future for our planet.