The sustainable 'innovations' from Popular Science's list

December 7, 2021
Vertical Oceans shrimp farm
Image from Vertical Oceans
By Eko Diena in 

For the last 34 years, Popular Science magazine has been publishing an annual list of what they consider to be the years greatest innovations and 2021 is no exception.

This year's list of the 'top 100 greatest innovations' contains things like revolutionary new kinds of vaccine for Covid, a 3D printer that can make bricks in space from moon dust, and magnetic mascara (yes, that's a vital innovation apparently).

Buried throughout the list are a few innovations that are actually driving sustainability forward as well, in fact we noticed 16 of them, so we've decided to pull those out of the list and, in no particular order, present just those ones here.

MS Green Ammonia by Wärtsilä Norway and Grieg Edge AS

Container ships fuel our economy of cheap consumer goods, but create almost three percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Electric batteries don’t have the energy density to efficiently power the massive vessels—and plunking chargers in the middle of the ocean is pretty much impossible. This year, Finnish engine maker Wärtsilä teamed up with the Norwegian logistics giant Grieg to bet on carbon-free ammonia to propel future ships. Powered by a Norwegian wind farm, engineers will use electrolysis to create hydrogen gas that reacts with nitrogen in a factory to create ammonia.  Wärtsilä already completed an engine burning a mix of 70 percent ammonia, and is planning a pure ammonia version to deploy in a tanker in 2024.

Shrimp Farms by Vertical Oceans Pte. Ltd.

Global hunger for farmed shrimp has destroyed some 3.4 million acres of mangrove forests since 1980, mostly in Southeast Asia. Tearing apart those carbon-absorbing ecosystems gives the practice a footprint higher than dairy cattle, pigs, or chickenDisease outbreaks and waterways choked with waste also plague the industry. The “Vertical Oceans” model takes the whole operation indoors. The shellfish live in modular school-bus sized tanks, and algae, seaweed, and bottom-feeding fish filter out waste. This way, nearly 100 percent of the water gets recirculated, and there is no need for a sewer. A prototype in Singapore delivered 10 harvests of shrimp this year, totaling more than a ton of crustaceans.

Framework Laptop by Framework

Crack open most laptops, and you’re already in trouble. Manufacturers play a game of logistical Tetris every time they try to cram powerful PC pieces into increasingly trim machines. That usually involves gluing components in place, which makes the computers a nightmare to fix or upgrade. The Framework Laptop’s totally modular design expects people to swap parts as they break or become obsolete. Snap-in components make it simple to change out everything from keyboards to mainboards, memory, and ports. Ardent Right To Repair advocates iFixit gave it a 10 out of 10, which means it’ll stay out of the recycling center for way longer than the machine you’re looking at right now. 

SolarCell Remote by Samsung

Many TV remotes still rely on alkaline batteries, which feels like an anachronism in 2021. So Samsung developed a controller with a solar panel built into its backside. Like your old high-school calculator, the remote can pull all the power it needs from any kind of indoor illumination. In the off chance it needs a little extra juice due to heavy use or lots of time spent in the dark, a USB-C port on the bottom provides another charging option. Samsung estimates that its plans to include these remotes with its TVs will eliminate the need for roughly 99 million AAA cells over the next seven years. 

Recycled asphalt shingles by GAF, a Standard Industries company

Discarded roofing shingles typically end up tossed in landfills or incinerated. Those that do get reused are usually melted down and packed into roads. GAF, however, has figured out how to turn about 90 percent of this demolition scrap into usable material for new shingles. Once the discarded sheets of asphalt are cleaned of construction debris, they’re cut into 4-inch squares and two carpet beater-like machines remove any grippy granules that may degrade the quality of the mix. The clean 4-by-4s get ground into a powder, sieved, and separated to get the asphalt in one place, packed into briquettes, and tossed back into the standard shingle manufacturing process. The new ones contain up to 15 percent recycled material.

World Flood Mapping Tool by UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment, and Health

In the face of climate change, knowing where and when water levels have already risen is an invaluable resource. The World Flood Mapping Tool, made for the United Nations, runs in a browser and can show where past floods have occurred, down to the street level, in any given spot on the globe. The tool draws from Google Earth and Landsat data collected since 1985, is accurate within 30 meters, and includes both population and land use filters—both of which should help planners mitigate harm from future deluges. Later versions will include AI-generated risk maps.

R1T by Rivian

Rivian, the Amazon-backed electric automotive startup, finally launched its long-awaited R1T electric pickup. In doing so, it beat (or at least matched) veterans like Ford and General Motors to the punch. The R1T is Rivian’s “adventure vehicle,” meaning that while it can do pretty much anything that a gasoline-powered pickup can, the company doesn’t promise the highest towing capacity or best overall bed volume. Instead, it’s more of a lifestyle truck—one capable of off-roading, overlanding, and just general outdoorsy activities, but in an EV with a roughly 400-mile range.

Rivian offers an array of add-ons that are especially handy for such adventuring. An optional three-person tent accessory enables camping on the go, and a slide-out Camp Kitchen stovetop fuels eat-what-you-catch fishing trips. And all that stuff neatly stows away in the R1T’s gear tunnel—a hollow just behind the cab—to avoid taking up precious bed space. Even with all of those features, it’s still a totally capable pickup truck. Each wheel is powered by an independent hub-mounted electric motor that together deliver a total of 800 horsepower and 900 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough oomph for the all-electric pickup to sprint from 0 to 60 in just three seconds. Yes, really.

Ioniq 5 V2L by Hyundai

The Ioniq 5’s smart looks and tech-centric features make it seem like the perfect daily driver for any EV-curious driver. But here’s the coolest part: The car can use as much as 80 percent of its stored electricity to send juice to just about anything with a standard power cable—think of it like a giant battery pack on wheels. Hyundai says that its Vehicle-to-Load charging enables the Ioniq 5 to supply up to 3.6-kW of power to external devices, which is perfect for devices like a laptop or tablet. And during events like camping trips or a power outages, the Ioniq can supply small appliances or even charge e-bikes.

F-150 Lightning Electric Truck by Ford

In spring of 2021, America’s best-selling pickup started the transition away from combustion. The new battery-powered truck maintains the familiar F-150 design and comes with up to 563 horsepower and 775 pound-feet of torque, enough to shoot from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds or tow up to 10,000 pounds when properly equipped. As for range, batteries come large enough to cover up to 300 miles on a single charge. And if juicing up from the road, a 150-kilowatt fast charger can add an additional 54 miles of range in just 10 minutes—not all that much longer than a typical pitstop in a combustion car. To top it off, the F-150 Lightning can also act like a battery pack on wheels, supplying up to 9.6 kW of power through the same charger it uses to fill up. This means that the pickup can help keep an energy bill low during peak hours when electricity rates are high, or keep a home lit during a storm.

Jeep Wrangler Magneto Manual Transmission by FCA

The Magneto has electric motors and a battery just like other electric vehicles, but it also has something most other EVs don’t: a six-speed manual transmission. However, one component that a manual-equipped EV doesn’t need is a clutch, so Jeep left out the Wrangler concept’s third pedal. After all, an electric motor can’t stall, and changing gears is largely optional in an EV. Drivers still have the benefit (and fun!) of gear selection to control how broadly torque is applied, but with the convenience of an automatic transmission’s clutchless operation.

braid better by Rebundle

Natural hair can benefit from protective styling—the braids, twists, and other looks that tuck fragile ends away from cold winds, UV rays, friction, and other irritants that can cause breakage. For many, adding extensions to the mix is a crucial way to get length while keeping hair healthy. But human hair is expensive and can come from suspicious sources, while synthetic options are generally made of plastic, which is potentially irritating to scalps and definitely irritating to the planet. Rebundle’s banana fiber-based strands provide a great look and feel for protective styles, plus they biodegrade completely in a compost pile.

L’Oréal Water Saver by L’Oréal

The salon experience would be nothing without a luxurious scalp massage—and the hosing down that comes with it. L’Oréal’s new washing system aims to make that ritual a little more eco-friendly. A showerhead cartridge injects shampoos and conditioners by Kérastase and L’Oréal Professionnel directly into the waterstream, which ups the efficiency of the washing and lathering process. The sprayer also produces small, fast-moving droplets that make it feel like more H2O is flowing, allowing stylists to rinse clients out with less. The result cuts down on the wet stuff by 80 percent compared to a standard showerhead. A similar product for at-home use should roll out in the near future.

Flyways AI by Airspace Intelligence

Take a flight between any two airports, and a dispatcher at the airline also serves a key purpose: They decide in advance what route the aircraft will take along the way, filing a flight plan with the FAA before takeoff. These humans working on the ground must consider variables like weather, restricted military airspace, and more. Often, they just go with a pre-existing option. Now, at Alaska Airlines, the dispatchers have an AI helper. Created by startup Airspace Intelligence, the software can suggest bespoke routes between cities, which the dispatcher can then accept or not. The suggestions result in an efficiency boost: Alaska Airlines says that since they started using the system, more than 28,000 flights have had their routes optimized, saving an estimated 15.5 million pounds of fuel and thus 24,490 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The flights tend to land a couple minutes sooner, and not only that, the airline also has a more precise sense of when a plane will actually touch down. Passengers, meanwhile, will hopefully spend less time just circling the airport, waiting to arrive.

HYBRIT Green Steel by SSAB, LKAB, and Vattenfall

Steelmaking yields between seven and nine percent of the world’s carbon emissions, mostly due to a specially processed type of coal called “coke.” At temperatures as high as 3,000°F, coke reacts with oxygen in iron ore, purifying the metal into a form needed to make steel—but belching carbon dioxide in the process. To reduce the footprint, a Swedish industrial consortium developed Hybrit, a steel whose production taps hydrogen, rather than carbon, to transform iron ore. The hydrogen, freed from water, reacts with the oxygen in ore in a machine called a shaft furnace, heated to 1,500*F with fossil-free wind energy and hydropower. The scheme releases hydrogen and water, instead of carbon dioxide, and the resulting “sponge iron” melts in an electric arc furnace with a small amount of carbon to create steel. Hybrit says the process has carbon dioxide emissions less than 2 percent of those from the standard coke-fueled regimen. This past summer, Volvo took delivery of the first batch of this “green steel” and used it to make a mining and quarrying vehicle.

‘Big Jim’ by Form Energy Inc.

To maintain fully renewable grids, utilities need big, inexpensive batteries to meet peak demand when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. But, the lithium-ion cells inside laptops and EVs are expensive. So Form Energy has pioneered a new and highly efficient battery chemistry based on one of the most abundant metals in the Earth: iron. The company’s “Big Jim” prototype discharges electrons by reacting ambient oxygen with iron, creating rust. Inbound electrical current turns the rust back into iron, releasing oxygen, and recharging the battery. Environmental engineers say a battery that runs at $20 per kilowatt-hour is the magic number for utilities to say goodbye to coal and natural gas—which is where Form Energy hopes to price Big Jim’s final product.

SkyCool Panels by SkyCool Systems

Air conditioners and fans already consume 10 percent of the world’s electricity, and AC use is projected to triple by the year 2050, sucking up more energy and pushing heat back into the surrounding landscape. SkyCool is breaking this dangerous feedback loop with rooftop nanotech that reflects light. Coated with multiple layers of optical films, the aluminum-based panels bounce radiation at wavelengths between 8 and 13 micrometers, a specific spot that allows the waves to pass through Earth’s atmosphere and into space. In doing so, the panel temperatures decline by up to 15°F, offering emissions-free cooling to a building’s existing systems. A prototype installed last fall on a grocery store in Stockton, Calif., cooled water pipes beneath the panels to chill the store’s refrigeration system—saving an estimated $6,000 a year in electrical bills.

Sixteen out of a list of a hundred innovations pointing the way towards a most sustainable future is a good start, but we hope that the list is going to be a lot more filled with them in the coming years.

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