Article – Innovation and technology in the service of the environment
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Innovation and technology
in the service of the environment

We are experiencing a time when R&D is driving very significant developments not only to prevent environmental pollution, but to reintroduce waste into the production cycle, thereby avoiding the depletion of finite natural resources.

Advances in new environmentally friendly refrigerants


One related field of development is that of the air conditioning and refrigeration sector, of which the recent joint research of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, the University of Cambridge and the University of Barcelona is proving interesting.


Researchers at these universities have discovered that a large cooling effect can be obtained by applying pressure to plastic crystal neopentylglycol (NPG). According to the researchers, this solid material compares favourably with the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) and hydrocarbon (HC) gases used in the vast majority of refrigerators and air conditioners which contribute to global warming when released into the atmosphere.


The development of this alternative could be a significant advance, since this new material is cheap, easy to obtain and works practically at room temperature. Considering that refrigerators and air conditioners consume about one fifth of the energy produced worldwide. With demand continuing to grow, the environmental benefit of an alternative of this type is more than evident.

Photovoltaic cells from wine waste


Advances in the field of renewable energy are also experiencing tremendous momentum. An example of this is the ‘CHEERS’ project funded by the European Commission and run by the Ca ’Foscari University in Venice with the participation of a group of researchers from the University of Malaga.


The project aims to use by-products of wine making to obtain solar energy. For this, the dye extracted from the leftovers of the winemaking process is used to capture sunlight, injecting electrons into a semiconductor, which pass through the external circuit and produce a renewable and sustainable electric current.


This alternative to the traditional systems based on silicon cells, is more economical, sustainable and efficient, involving low environmental impact recycling by recovering leftover wine and transforming it into an environmentally friendly resource. With its powerful wine industry, the development of this technology could have significant environmental benefits in a country like Spain.

From CO2 to solid carbon


Due to its contribution to global warming, putting a stop to the growth of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is one of the main global environmental problems. For this reason, initiatives such as that being developed at Melbourne’s RMIT University, where a group of researchers have managed to convert CO2 into solid coal stand out.


Researchers there have used a set of liquid metals with properties similar to those of the soil, making them good for conducting electricity, as catalysts. The CO2 is dissolved in a glass full of electrolytic liquid and a small amount of liquid metal, which is then charged with an electric current, a process by which the CO2 is converted into scales of solid carbon.


This technique can achieve the continuous production of carbonaceous solids; the process produces a synthetic fuel as a by-product which may also have industrial applications. Despite being far from having large-scale applications this line of research may represent an important environmental advance.

Perovskite and caffeine to improve efficiency


Also interesting in the field of solar cells are the developments of a group of researchers from the University of California. It all started as a joke during a coffee break with one of the scientists making a quip about the fact that, similar to humans, the perovskite solar cells they worked with would perform better with good coffee.


This led them to consider that the caffeine in coffee, an alkaloid compound with a molecular structure that might interact with perovskite, a multi-compound crystalline structure. Tests verified that the interaction increased the minimum amount of energy required for the perovskite film to react, increasing the efficiency of the solar cells from 17% to more than 20%, representing a significant advance in the investigation into this material that might prove a good candidate to replace silicon.