MagazineJuly 2008Four Eco-Innovations That Could Save the World

Four Eco-Innovations That Could Save the World

by Graham Averill

In the midst of all false hype—and hope—surrounding corn ethanol and carbon offsets, these four 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.

The trouble with solar right now is that it’s still too expensive to compete with subsidized coal. But not for long. The California-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, well under the price of coal-fired energy.

The company’s new production facility in San Jose, California, 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: California recently passed the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which offers tax rebates for 100,000 solar roofs per year, every year, for ten years.


In-vitro meat, (also known as 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. Every two pounds of beef is responsible for as much carbon dioxide emitted by a car driven for 155 miles.

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. According to a 2006 United Nations report, “Meat causes land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water loss, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”

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? After all, many Americans are still haunted by Charlton Heston screaming, “It’s people! Soylent Green is people!”


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 that can be used to generate electricity. Inside the plastic domes, bacteria breaks down the waste into sludge. During the process, methane gas is released, captured, piped into a storage canister, 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 a safe fertilizer.

It’s not likely that biodigesters will catch on in the United States, 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; waste from the inmates provides half of all Rwanda’s prison energy needs.

Several Western scientific firms are also developing similar technology that would turn hog excrement into biofuels. Untreated livestock manure stored in large lagoons poses a serious environmental threat to ground and surface water, and they contribute to global warming through the release of methane gas. Belgium has installed a large methane gas digester on a major hog farm, and six other systems are on order for farms across Europe.


The Norwegian car company Think Global will introduce the first affordable long range, high speed electric vehicle in the United States in 2009. The Think City will be a two-seater car with a top speed of 65 mph and a range of 124 miles on one charge. The price tag? Under $25,000. Think Global is hoping to sell 50,000 of the Think City cars each year in the United States, being the first company to bring zero emissions vehicles to the American mass market.

Transportation is the fastest growing segment of the U.S.’s carbon emissions, and it represents a third of our total greenhouse gas emissions. Already, Americans are ditching gas-guzzling SUVs for more fuel efficient vehicles. If the EV1, the electric car produced by General Motors in the ‘90s, was any indication, there’s a large market waiting for this sort of technology. Before the EV1 was mysteriously abandoned by GM, there was an extensive waiting list for the electric vehicles—and they were only leased in two states.

The electric vehicle market is growing steadily in Europe and Canada, where Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (25mph top speed, 40 mile range) are increasingly popular, as well as full-range electric vehicles. Tesla, Phoenix Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Subaru are also developing electric car prototypes.

Places to Go, Things to See:

Skip to content