Three Eco-Innovations that Could Save the World

By Graham Averill

In the midst of all false hype—and hope—surrounding corn ethanol and fuel cells, these three lesser-known innovations are gaining attention and research funding. Together, they represent some of the brightest opportunities for a green infrastructure, from the food we eat to the energy that powers our homes.

Nanosolar Panels

The trouble with solar right now is that it’s still too expensive. But not for long. The San Jose-based solar company Nanosolar has developed a low-cost, printable solar cell manufacturing process. Instead of the traditional solar panel, the Nanosolar product is a thin layer of photovoltaic film that converts light into energy. Powersheet solar cells cost one-tenth of conventional solar panels, can be produced at a much faster rate, and have proven to be just as efficient.

Traditional solar panels require silicon, which is increasingly rare, expensive to ship, build, and install. The silicon also has to be applied to glass, which exacerbates the shipping and installation woes. The cheapest conventional solar panels cost $3 a watt to produce. Nanosolar’s Powersheets cost only 30 cents a watt to produce, and are being marketed to the consumer at 90 cents a watt.

The company’s new production facility will churn out 430 megawatts of panels a year, more than all other U.S. solar plants combined. The first 100,000 panels are going to Europe for a 1.4-megawatt power plant. The company couldn’t have picked a better time to produce its technology: 2007 was the first full year for California’s Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which offers tax rebates for 100,000 solar roofs per year, every year, for ten years.

Test Tube Meat

In-vitro meat, (also known a laboratory-grown meat or cultured meat) is flesh that has never been part of a living animal. Scientists mix stem cells from a living or dead animal into a nutrient-heavy mixture. When the mixture is placed in a bioreactor, eventually those stem cells turn into muscle fibers. NASA has been working on in-vitro meat since 2000, but a growing number of scientists are pursuing a commercially viable form of test tube meat to help supply the world’s growing appetite for all things fleshy. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has even offered a $1 million award for anyone who can develop commercially viable (and tasty) in-vitro meat by 2012.

Global demand for meat has doubled in the last 40 years and is expected to double again in the next 40 years. Meanwhile, Americans eat twice as much meat as the average earthling. All this beef consumption is an environmental nightmare. Thirty percent of the planet’s land is devoted to livestock production, a process that is responsible for a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases—more than all of the world’s transportation infrastructure.

But greenhouse gas emissions are just the tip of the melting iceberg. 800 million people suffer from malnutrition on this planet, but 70% of all corn and soy we grow is fed to farm animals. The agriculture responsible for that corn and soy consumes half of all freshwater and contributes to three quarters of all our water pollution.

But don’t get too excited about in-vitro meat just yet. Right now, it would cost $1 million to produce a 250g piece of beef. It will likely be 20 years before we see a commercially viable in-vitro steak. The real question is: Will 20 years be enough time for Americans to get used to the idea of eating ribeye grown in a lab?

Feces Energy

Human excrement could hold the key to energy independence—at least for developing nations.

Sintex, an India-based plastics company, is investing in at-home biogas digesters to help solve India’s two greatest problems: a growing need for energy, and a desperate need to dispose of human waste. The small plastic domes turn human excrement and cow dung into fuel. Inside the plastic domes, bacteria breaks down the waste into sludge. Methane gas is captured and then used to provide gas for cooking and electricity. Household digesters in India will run about $425 and would provide enough gas for a family of four to cook all its meals while providing a byproduct that can be used as fertilizer.

It’s not likely that biodigesters will catch on in the U.S., where sanitation is paramount. However, larger models have been successfully employed to accommodate entire villages in India. And in Rwanda, overcrowded prisons are powered by feces digesters.

Several Western firms are developing similar technology that would turn hog excrement into biofuels. Untreated livestock manure poses a serious environmental threat to ground and surface water, and contributes to global warming through the release of methane gas. Belgium has installed a large methane digester on a major hog farm and six other systems are on order for farms across Europe. The U.S. could be next.

—Article courtesy of Blue Ridge Outdoors