“we need to create cheap hydrogen”

Innovations to protect our planet

European SMEs that can help the world go green


DECEMBER 2021 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair 

At the COP26 summit in Glasgow last month, commitments of the kind needed to meaningfully address the climate crisis were notable by their absence. Lobbying by the fossil fuel industry and pushback from countries including China and India led to even the wording of the non-binding declaration being watered down to a pledge to “phase down” coal use.

The EU did commit €1 billion to fight deforestation, which 100 countries agreed to end by 2030, though that is less than what Jeff Bezos promised (after flying to Glasgow on a private jet). Japan, which lobbied before the summit against a rapid shift away from fossil fuels, pledged an extra $10 billion over five years to help Asia decarbonise.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that governments and the most carbon-intensive industries are unlikely to do enough, quickly enough, to prevent environmental catastrophe, so technologies from new ventures that offer some solutions are taking on ever-greater importance. A number of these promising firms are emerging in Europe.

With more than 1,000 patents to his name, Henrik Stiesdal approaches the technological challenges of climate change from the perspective of an inventor. After creating a pioneering wind turbine design in the mid-1970s, Stiesdal went on to become chief technology officer at Siemens Wind Power before founding Stiesdal A/S in 2016.

The Denmark-based group comprises four companies, each dedicated to a separate but related field: offshore wind, energy storage, fuel, and Power-to-X (PtX).

PtX uses electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, creating a versatile energy carrier that can be used as is, for example, in steelmaking, or be converted into fuels such as green ammonia and ethanol.

“The way I see the PtX game is that we need to create cheap hydrogen, which only requires renewable energy and water,” says Stiesdal.

His company’s answer to this challenge is the HydroGen electrolyzer, a low-cost prototype unit that Stiesdal is confident can be mass produced and deployed on an industrial scale, a key requirement for all the firm’s technologies.

Another Stiesdal A/S project is the production of fuel and feedstock from nearly any form of biological waste. The process will actually capture CO2 from the atmosphere, making it carbon-negative, notes Stiesdal.

On the energy-generation side, the firm has developed an innovative design for offshore wind turbine foundations, which are lighter and cheaper than the current industry standard, and they can be factory produced instead of assembled quayside. These Tetra foundations open up vast potential in floating offshore wind, which could produce far more electricity than the world needs.

A pilot project is underway off the Norwegian coast, and Stiesdal says he is waiting to bring the technology to Japan — a place he had in mind when he founded his company.

“We’re ready, but the big issue in Japan is regulatory,” says Stiesdal, referring to the legal hurdles that have restricted deployment of this hugely promising tech along Japan’s nearly 30,000km of coast.

Rethinking our energy systems is of vital importance, but it’s not the whole picture. Manufacturing processes also need to be overhauled, along with the approach to raw materials.

“It’s like nature has always had the answers but we hadn’t been able to harness them”

Finnish firm Spinnova has developed a ground-breaking method of creating fibres that drastically reduces emissions and water usage, eliminates the use of microplastics and harmful chemicals, and results in a product that is recyclable and fully biodegradable.

Partly inspired by the way spiders weave webs, Spinnova creates strong, durable fibres that are as warm as wool from raw materials such as wood pulp, biomass, or leather, as well as from food, agricultural, and textile waste, and almost anything that contains cellulose.

Founded by physicists in 2014, the company’s tech is based on the “flow dynamics of pulp” and a methodology “completely unique in the world”, according to Spinnova’s spokesperson Emmi Berlin.

Creating the fibres uses 99.5% less water than is required for cotton and emits 65% less carbon, something Berlin says has attracted much attention from clothing brands aiming for decarbonised, sustainable operations.

The firm is currently building its first commercial-scale manufacturing plant, which is expected to be online in around a year. It has partnerships with brands including Adidas, Bergans of Norway, H&M Group, Marimekko, and The North Face.

The same tech can be used to create composite materials that have a wide variety of applications, and it has potential in the automotive, aviation, and maritime fields, reports Berlin.

A collaboration with Finnish ski maker PUSU will put Spinnova composite material in its skis, and these are expected to debut on the slopes next year.

“It’s like nature has always had the answers but we hadn’t been able to harness them,” suggests Berlin. “Instead, we created all these artificial fibres, which aren’t very sustainable.”

One example of a somewhat less obvious source of a recyclable material is the canvas from ship sails. Spanish firm Dvelas, founded a decade ago by architect Enrique Kahle Olaso, has been gathering sails from around the world, and turning them into high-end furniture, bean bags, lamp shades, canopies, sunshades, and floating loungers.

Sails from maxi yachts used in races are both huge and made from high-tech textiles. They are removed from yachts due to minor damage or defects, with the rest of the material often still in excellent condition.

Being made from yacht sails, Dvelas’s products are waterproof and highly durable. Each piece is marked with the name of the yacht it came from as well as details such as its home port.

“Each one is made individually and is unique, because each sail is different and has a story behind it,” says Mai Takeda of Gate Japan, the sole local distributor for Dvelas.

So far, the biggest customer segment in Japan has been boutique hotels, according to Takeda. However, she says there is a noticeable shift in thinking among companies and consumers away from mass-produced goods and towards more sustainable items.

None of these technologies alone is going to save humanity, but they have the potential to play their part in a more sustainable economic system.