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Newsletter #10

Newsletter #10

πŸ’‘ One idea: Biomimicry, innovation inspired by nature

πŸ“ˆ One data figure: Biomass makes up 60% of all EU renewable energy

✨ One success: Electra is disrupting the steel industry

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πŸ’‘ Biomimicry, innovation inspired by nature

No need to test your new startup idea yourself, Mother Nature has been selecting what works well for the past million years already. Chase unicorns where there live, in nature! Because animals, plants, and microorganisms are experienced engineers, designs following biometrics are likely more resilient and sustainable than any human-made ones. Biomimicry, literally the imitation of the living, takes inspiration from solutions adopted by nature and translates them into human engineering.

The scope of applications seems infinite: from medicine to research, industry, economy, architecture and urban planning, agriculture and even organisational development. You may not be aware that some of today's mainstream technologies were actually ground-breaking biomimicry innovations. Here are three great examples.

  • Michael Phelps' 2008 Summer Olympics famous swimsuit. Sharkskin is made up of countless overlapping scales in a certain fashion that makes water flow faster. Using electron microscopy, scientists have been able to decipher and replicate it in swimsuits. The technology works so well that it is now banned in major competitions, but still has applications in the maritime and aircraft industry.
  • The German researcher Dr Claus Mattheck analysed the optimal natural structures that exhibit maximum strength with the minimum amount of material, such as trees and bones. He then developed the striking simple method of the tension triangle still in use in design software in various industrial sectors.
  • The Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train, links major cities in Japan and set an astonishing world record of 603km per hour while remaining relatively silent, a critical feature in highly populated areas. Engineers achieved this technological feat after studying owls' wings and kingfishers' beaks to improve air penetration.

Amazing right? You can find other success stories on the Biomimicry Institute website. And there is much more to come: ECOncrete developing biomimetic concrete that replicates coral reef structures, NucleΓ‘rio designing its reforestation solution inspired by the forest leaf litter ecosystem, Werewool creating a revolutionary fibre that leverages natural properties for sustainable textiles, etc.

Here is a great resource to find equally exciting startups and ideas:

Biomimicry Global Design Challenge Gallery β€” Collection β€” AskNature
Explore biomimetic design concepts created by university students and young professionals from the Global Design Challenge.

Biomimicry is not itself a product, it is a process. As everyone is talking about getting net zero. Tim McGee explains that a natural system usually goes one step further: β€œit’s almost never net zeroβ€”the output from that system is usually beneficial to everything around it.” Biomimicry is still an emerging sector but Nature is not done with inspiring us yet. Innovation is just out there, simply open your eyes, the sky is the limit.

πŸ“ˆ Biomass makes up 60% of all EU renewable energy

Biomass for energy, or bioenergy, is still the main source of renewable energy in the European Union (EU), with a share of almost 60%. Hydro, solar and wind are far behind in comparison.

There are multiple sources of biomass for energy, such as agricultural byproducts or the organic fraction of waste. But forestry remains the main source, through logging residues, wood-processing residues, fuelwood, etc. Wood pellets, mainly for heating and electricity production, have become an essential energy carrier.

Share of renewables in the EU's gross final energy consumption for 2016 and breakdown of the bioenergy contribution. Source: Eurostat 2018b

The heating sector is the largest end-user, using about 75% of all bioenergy, and the consumption of bioenergy per capita is highest in the Scandinavian countries and in Austria. More data per country is available here. Most of the bioenergy demand is met from domestically produced biomass (about 96% in 2016), an interesting fact at a time when European countries intend to reinforce their energy independence.

In September 2022, the European Parliament voted to recognise primary woody biomass as a renewable energy source, as part of the new EU taxonomy for sustainable activities. However, environmental activists have fiercely opposed the decision, stating that it would encourage deforestation, leading to biodiversity loss and eventually more CO2 emissions. Bioenergy will certainly play a key role in achieving the EU's renewable energy targets for 2030 and beyond, but biomass for energy must be produced, processed and used in a sustainable and efficient way.

✨ Electra is disrupting the steel industry

From cars to bridges to high-rise buildings, modern life is made of steel. The steel-making industry already accounts for 1% of the global GDP and 7% of greenhouse gas emissions, but its impact will keep growing as populations and cities expand across the globe. Yet, the production process has not changed much since the 19th century... until the serial entrepreneur Sandeep Nijhawan decided to step in.

Challenging the status quo, Electra is honing its groundbreaking electrochemical process and intends to produce carbon-free steel. Instead of using coke (coal) to turn iron ore into pure iron at 1400ΒΊC, Electra method needs a temperature of only 60ΒΊC. Therefore, it can rely on little quantities of intermittent renewable energy, while significantly reducing costs.

For now, Electra produces these A4-sized plates with a thick layer of iron metal on them

If their core technology is validated, Electra would provide affordable green steel and disrupt the entire industry, not to mention additional benefits such as grid balancing services, potential carbon tax relief and significant CO2 emissions reduction. Unsurprisingly, Electra has just raised $85 million in a round led by Bill Gates's Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The first facility should be built next year, and a proper plant later on.

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