Innovate UK’s Jonny Voon explores some of the most exciting green ideas this year, ranging from UK lithium mining and plastic recycling breakthroughs, clothing that ‘grows’ with the children wearing it

The UK economy has suffered considerably over the past two years at the mercy of Covid-19. While uncertainty persists, there are lots of reasons to be hopeful. We have a fantastic opportunity as we recover from the pandemic to build an economy and society which is greener, fairer and more resilient.

Key to a sustainable recovery is innovation. Young, dynamic companies and their inspirational entrepreneurs are the lifeblood that can revive our economy and deliver pioneering solutions to our most pressing challenges. They can help us to develop a more robust economy, promote equality, diversity and inclusion, and achieve the country’s net zero goals.

There are a large number of early-stage projects and companies, and visionary leaders, I have been impressed by in recent months that are creating new products, services and processes that will help the UK to decarbonise and minimise adverse environmental impacts. These are my top five sustainable innovations to watch in 2022 – exciting companies that are changing manufacturing processes and developing greener technologies:

1. Impact Recycling

Currently, only up to 15 per cent of plastic is recycled. Bulky mixed rigid plastic accounts for 70 per cent of plastics produced, and makes up 60 per cent of the waste plastic sent to landfill or incineration in the UK and EU today. Existing solutions either cannot separate this plastic or cannot do so in a scalable, economically viable way.

Impact Recycling has developed a breakthrough plastic recycling technology which provides a scalable, automated, water-based solution that achieves 98 per cent purity – a quality level which is vital to ensuring plastic can be reused. Its technology separates the ‘hard to recycle’ stream of mixed rigid waste plastics by amplifying slight differences in relative densities between polymers through the manipulation of fluid dynamic principles of water.

The founders aim to bring the innovative system to plants across the globe, saving the equivalent of 4.2 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of plastic recovered. Its most recent and highly promising project seeks to determine the viability of recycling high value polymers from currently incinerated medical waste.

2. Petit Pli

An estimated £140m-worth of clothing enters UK landfill every year, and our unused clothing is worth approximately £30bn. Petit Pli is tackling the wasteful and unethical fast fashion industry by extending the lifecycle of clothing, creating children’s clothes that ‘grow’ as they do. This reduces water and carbon footprints, and the need to keep buying new clothes.

Petit Pli has embarked on transforming adult clothing too. Its team believes that designs which fulfil real human needs will never be thrown away, and is creating clothing with the versatility to adapt to a wide range of body shapes and sizes, styles, activities and purpose.

Increasing clothing life by nine months equals a carbon and water reduction of 20-30 per cent per garment, so extending that lifespan further could have huge implications for reducing the cost of our wardrobes and halting environmental damage. 

3. Lightricity

Lightricity’s technology enables the large-scale deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) devices by eliminating the need to replace or recharge batteries, and the associated environmental, production and maintenance costs. It fuels IoT devices using solar PV panels that are powered from indoor light sources and is six times more efficient than previous iterations of artificial light harvesting technologies.

Its most recent project involves understanding the feasibility of a self-powered network of sensing and communicating beacons/trackers that enables the location and status monitoring of assets in a hospital. This could reduce lost time of healthcare professionals and enabling life-saving equipment to be easily located and usage to be optimally managed.

It can also help healthcare system operate more efficiently locating critical equipment and monitoring status/condition of tracked items to save money and lives, relieving the current pressures and helping prepare for future periods of high demand. 

4. Tyre Collective

Currently, tyre wear is the second-largest microplastic pollutant in our ocean after single-use plastic and accounts for up to 50 per cent of air particulate emissions (PM) from road transport. Tyres wear out from friction every time we brake, accelerate or turn a corner. The particles become airborne, affecting our lungs. More are swept into our waterways and oceans, eventually entering our food chain.

Tyre Collective mitigate emissions by capturing tyre wear at the source to ensure clean air, safeguarding our environment and health. It addresses the issue through electrostatic capture of carbon dust from tyres. What started off with rubbing a balloon against a sweater, eventually led to its device that directs and captures charged tyre particles.

Its device is positioned close to where the tyre meets the road, a position that takes advantage of airflow around a spinning wheel and currently captures 60 per cent of all airborne particles in testing.

5. British Lithium

This company’s aim is to extract lithium from granite in an ethical, environmentally responsible way and will be the first producer of battery-grade lithium in the UK, paving the way to rapidly scale up the rollout of electric cars.

British Lithium has a substantial lithium-mica-granite deposit in Cornwall, but lithium has never been commercially extracted from mica. Previously, mostly academic work on processing granites has proposed froth flotation and sulphuric acid leaching which would produce millions of tonnes of contaminated residues.

British Lithium has developed proprietary technology for separating mica from the granite without using chemicals and extracting lithium from that mica, and has produced battery-grade lithium at laboratory scale. Its technology potentially offers the lowest environmental footprint of any world lithium producer.

If successful, it will place the UK at the forefront of the integrated manufacture of lithium batteries and zero-emission vehicles, supporting the green-led recovery of the UK’s automotive sector.

Jonny Voon is head of the Sustainable Innovation Fund at Innovate UK.

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