What's next: Powering a plane on corn syrup and other green innovations giving us hope

A greener way to mine lithium, net-zero buildings that act like trees and a hydrogen fleet that delivers goods in BC

clean tech
Photo courtesy of General Fusion
Canadian firm looks to harness fusion energy

After 70 years of frustration with government-led fusion projects, a British Columbia company, General Fusion (GF), says it’s finally developing the world’s first fusion power plant. Sure, cynics say fusion is always 10 years away. But some major investors are now showing up, including Jeff Bezos and Tobi Lütke, founders of e-commerce giants Amazon and Shopify. Proponents say this technology, in theory, can create energy that’s cheaper than nuclear, solar or wind by fusing the nuclei of two hydrogen isotopes. Founded in Burnaby in 2002, GF just announced it has raised US$130 million, bringing its total capital to $300 million. That’s enough to start construction of a demonstration fusion plant in the U.K., in partnership with the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority. GF hopes the technology will be commercialized by decade’s end, calling it “the vaccine of climate change.”

A better way to mine lithium

The electric vehicle revolution rests heavily on lithium as the key component of massive EV battery packs. It’s “mined,” mainly in Chile and Australia, through an arduous process of pumping underground saltwater into massive evaporation ponds, then waiting months while the lithium slowly extracts itself. Now a Calgary-based company, Summit Nanotech, has a faster, greener way that should help stabilize North America’s supply. Summit uses advanced materials to directly extract lithium from natural brines, a process that doubles the yield, requires no fresh water, and reduces chemical use and waste by 90%. It’s now beginning trials with six mining partners in Chile. Meanwhile, Summit founder Amanda Hall just won the Women in Cleantech Challenge, a national start-up competition, accepting the $1-million prize from fellow futurist Margaret Atwood in the fall.

Net-zero buildings that absorb carbon like trees

Our homes and offices are huge carbon emitters. In the United States, buildings account for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions – and that’s not even counting the construction phase. How do we produce buildings that do more good than harm? At the UN climate conference in November, Chicago-based architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill introduced Urban Sequoia: buildings that act like trees, with nature-based systems that sequester more carbon than they produce. Outside, these buildings would be wrapped in algae-filled facades that collect solar energy and produce biofuels to power the building. Inside, structural components are made of biological materials such as hempcrete – a concrete replacement made by combining lime and hemp. The firm is now seeking partners to test its designs.

United flies 737 fuelled by corn sugar

History was made in December when a United Airlines 737 with a bright green swoosh flew from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Even United’s CEO rode along to mark the event: the first passenger flight of a twin-engine jet running one engine on standard aviation fuel and the other on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). United says the engine burning synthetic kerosene, made from corn sugar, ran as efficiently as its twin while emitting 75% less carbon. On board were more than 100 VIPS from government, airlines, aircraft makers and energy companies, eager to show their faith in plant-based energy. These fuels may be just a stopgap on the way to electric aircraft, but a group of 50 airlines and energy firms recently pledged that by 2030, SAFs would represent 10% of total aviation fuel consumption – up from 0.1% today.

Meet Canada’s first hydrogen courier fleet

Andrew Mitchell was a four-time Canadian mountain biking champion until he fell off his bike in a race nine years ago. So he geared down and launched Geazone Eco-Courier, a Victoria, B.C., delivery firm powered by Mitchell and two friends riding electric bikes. Today Mitchell is a sustainability champion. Despite consistent growth, including expansion to Vancouver, Geazone has always maintained an emission-free fleet. Besides its e-bikes, pedal-powered cargo tricycles and electric trucks, Geazone is now taking possession of 40 fuel-cell EVs from Toyota: Canada’s first hydrogen-powered fleet. Clearly, B.C.’s leadership in building four hydrogen-fuelling stations, in Victoria and the Lower Mainland, is paying off.

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