The “non-energy” issue

In researching the Energy Innovation Brief, we come across a lot of great stories. However, we discard many of them because they aren’t directly energy related. But this month, we’re making an exception – welcome to the “non-energy” edition! In this special issue, we are highlighting some fantastic innovations happening in other sectors and industries. But don’t worry, we’ll be back to reporting on energy innovations next month!

In this month’s roundup of non-energy innovation news: 

1. British designer creates plastic film made from fish waste
2. The warehouse of the future brought to you by ant colonies
3. An AirBnB – but for forests
4. Inching closer to a plastic-free ocean
5. AI devices will soon allow us to decipher animal language
6. Alberta ramping up food, farming, and forestry innovation

British designer creates plastic film made from fish waste

According to a young British product designer, fish waste is the new plastic. In her last year of university, Lucy Hughes saw an opportunity in the near 500,000 tonnes of low-value fish waste processed in the U.K. each year. The result was MarinaTex – a biodegradable, versatile, and durable bioplastic made entirely from fish waste and red algae. MarinaTex can replace traditional plastic film, or low-density polyethylene (LDPE), for a variety of applications – from sandwich wrap to single-use packaging to plastic bags. In fact, the waste from just one Atlantic cod can produce 1,400 MarinaTex bags (without smelling fishy). The material is also extremely durable, with initial tests proving MarinaTex to be as strong as, if not stronger, than LDPE at similar thickness. In 2019, MarinaTex received the international James Dyson Award for design, worth £30,000. However, the product isn’t available on store shelves just yet; MarinaTex is still in the research and development phase. Read the full story here.

This innovation is interesting because it is targeted to solve two intertwining problems: fish waste and plastic waste. Globally, more than 27 per cent of all captured fish are either thrown away or left to rot before they’re sold, translating into approximately 50 million tonnes of fish going to waste each year. At the same time, more than eight million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year. By innovating an alternative to plastic made from fish waste, MarinaTex has been able to create value from an otherwise unused or underused material while cutting down on waste – a shining example of how innovation based on the principles of the circular economy can create sustainable, viable solutions to complex environmental issues.

The warehouse of the future brought to you by ant colonies

These days, people are shopping online more than ever before – a trend accelerated by the pandemic. This means that retailers are looking to get their products out the door as quickly as possible. But how? One Calgary-based company, Attabotics, believes that the answer lies in ant colonies. Attabotics has innovated a vertical, 3D storage system that mimics the natural movement of ants within colonies. Like ants, Attabotics’ robots are able to move within the storage system in virtually any direction – forward, backward, up and down. These robots determine where to store goods and are responsible for selecting and delivering items for packaging. In fact, the company’s name was inspired by the leaf-cutter ant, whose Latin name is “Atta.” Using this system, retailers are able to condense their merchandise into a fraction of the space that would be required in a typical warehouse (saving up to 85 per cent on the footprint), allowing them to operate in locations closer to major city centres and save on real estate costs. In December 2019, retail giant Nordstrom announced that it would be incorporating Attabotics’ supply chain technology at their new fulfillment centre in California. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, Honeywell, Forerunner Ventures, and Coatue are also among the organizations that have invested millions into the promising start-up. Read the full story here.

E-commerce is booming – particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us to shop from our couches. This is all putting an enormous strain on warehouses and fulfillment centres – requiring more space, more merchandise, and more transportation. The ability to take giant warehouses and compact them into just 15 per cent of the footprint with greater efficiency and without compromising on delivery, has serious potential to disrupt how we think of warehouses in the future.

An AirBnB – but for forests

The concept of the sharing economy has transformed industries by offering greater flexibility, accessibility and affordability. But this model has potential far beyond AirBnB or Uber. In fact, one U.S. entrepreneur is looking to extend the concept to forests. Inspired by his travels in Kenya, Tevis Howard recognized an opportunity to solve Africa’s wood shortage crisis by inventing what he calls “an AirBnB for forests.” His company, Komaza, enables smallholder farmers to earn a profit on land that they own but that is sitting empty. Komaza partners with the farmers to plant tree seedlings, and when the trees are fully grown, Komaza’s team harvests them to be used for construction or other industrial purposes. By unlocking the power of small-scale farmers and supporting them through the entire forestry supply chain, Howard has a vision of becoming Africa’s largest forestry company. In 2017, the company raised a $10 million Series A investment, and recently closed on a Series B investment of $28 million in July 2020. Komaza is based in Nairobi, Kenya and currently employs 450 people. Read the full story here.

Africa relies on fuel wood for 75 per cent of its energy, including household cooking and heating. Yet, it is facing a domestic timber shortage. By 2030, it is expected that Africa will import up to 75 per cent of its annual industrial demand for wood (about 220 million m3), exposing it to price variability and challenges to domestic job creation. Rather than relying on large-scale forests that are expensive and need vast parcels of land, smaller-scale plantations — like the ones being developed by Komaza – can yield greater positive impacts for landowners, industries and the overall economy.

Inching closer to a plastic-free ocean

At an age when most teenagers have a problem cleaning their room, an 18-year-old Dutch inventor set out to solve an even bigger problem – cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other concentrated sites of ocean debris. In 2013, Boyan Slat founded the non-profit The Ocean Cleanup from his hometown of Delft, Netherlands, with the goal of getting rid of 90 per cent of ocean plastic pollution. His solution was a passive collection system employing a 600-metre-long flotation apparatus and net that uses the ocean’s natural forces to capture the waste like a large funnel. Once the system is full, a vessel comes along to remove the plastic (like a garbage truck). Although ambitious, the idea has not been without challenges and criticisms, both technical and environmental. But the company is moving out of beta testing and into full commercialization, with their full-scale, fully operational ocean cleanup system (System 002), expected to launch in 2021.

Not content to clean only oceans, the organization has also developed the Interceptor to be deployed on rivers. The majority of ocean plastic waste stems from rivers, with 1,000 rivers in the world responsible for roughly 80 per cent of all river pollution. The Interceptor is a catamaran-like machine that leverages the natural currents of a river to autonomously guide debris onto a conveyor belt, where it is it stored on board. One Interceptor is capable of extracting between 50,000 to 100,000 kilograms of trash per day. It is already being deployed in several international waterways, including in Indonesia and Malaysia, and soon to be in Dominican Republic, Thailand and the U.S. Finally, the Ocean Cleanup has partnered with DNV GL, an international classification society, to develop an ocean plastic certification that will enable traceability of the origin of the recycled plastic. Read the full story here.

The Ocean Cleanup is not the only organization working on this problem.  The Ocean Voyages Institute brought in a record haul of 103 tons of plastic on their last voyage in June, all collected by hand to minimize disturbance to marine life and ecology. And the OceanCycle has similarly put out an ocean-bound plastic certification. But no matter who is tacking the issue, the amount of plastic entering our oceans each year is not sustainable, and as economies and populations continue to grow, we need real solutions to clean up our act – fast.

AI devices will soon allow us to decipher animal language

Have you ever wondered what your dog is thinking? Most of us have – and thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, we could be one step closer to being able to understand our furry friends. Researchers in different parts of the world have been working on ways to leverage artificial intelligence to interpret animal language. For example, scientists at MIT have developed a program that interprets the sounds of a marmoset (a type of monkey) with a 90 per cent accuracy. A Swedish start-up called Gavagai AB is working on software with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology to interpret dolphin-speak, with hopes to have an operational program ready by 2021. In the U.S., a professor at the Northern Arizona University, Con Slobodchikoff, founded a start-up called Zoolinguam which is developing AI linguistic software to translate woofs or meows into English words such as “I am hungry.” And at the University of Cambridge, scientists have developed software that can analyze the faces of sheep to detect different emotions, such as pain. So far, the software has been able to achieve an 80 per cent accuracy rate. It’s feasible that we could be reading our pets’ minds in less than a decade. Read more here.

AI is being applied to an increasingly wide variety of applications – everything from powering Siri’s speech to enhancing crop productivity to diagnosing disease. It is particularly well suited for problems where there is a lot of data and a probabilistic output. Applying AI to decipher animal communication is a great fit – and it could have profound impacts for how we treat and care for animals in the future.

Alberta ramping up food, farming, and forestry innovation

When it comes to the prairies, the food, farming and forestry sectors are an integral part of our identity. The Government of Alberta, through Emission Reductions Alberta (ERA), will soon be giving a boost to these sectors to spur new innovation, investment, and growth. In June 2020, ERA launched the Food, Farming, and Forestry Challenge, a $40 million funding opportunity to support farmers, ranchers, industry, and entrepreneurs in advancing their innovations. The program is targeted at technology innovations in agriculture, agri-food, fibre and forestry, and will fund projects in areas such as GHG emission mitigation and sequestration, forest management, digitalization, nutrient management and cultivation, as well as quantification and measurement techniques. Each selected project will be eligible to receive up to $5 million in funding and compensation for up to 50 per cent of total project costs. The funding will be fully sourced from the carbon tax for large emitters under Alberta’s Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction Fund. Applications for the program closed on August 27, 2020 and are currently under review. Read the full story here.

Canada’s agricultural industry is highly innovative and already leading the pack in things such as zero-tillage farming, improved farm practices and agricultural equipment manufacturing. But the industry is constantly seeking newer and better ways to rise to the challenge of feeding a growing population in a sustainable manner. That’s why government support programs such as this are critical to supporting growth and competitiveness in these sectors by injecting capital for these innovations and start-ups to thrive. For more information on this topic, read the Canada West Foundation’s recent What Now? brief, Sustainable Canadian Agriculture: Canada’s solution for a global problem.

The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Jade McLean and Marla Orenstein. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .


Banner photo by Josh Withers, Unsplash