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PV paint, fungus leather, air pollution and more: best of the week’s news from E&T

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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Photovoltaic ‘paint’ could be applied to cars and homes

As I scanned through the latest stories on the E&T website, it did occur to me that there was a lot of low-hanging fruit there in terms of comment. ‘Green power generation insufficient for reaching net-zero targets’ reads one, and it would be easy to be strident about the need for investment and commitment in renewable technologies. Equally ‘Scotland launches contact tracing app’; I could go on about how the Scots do seem to be more efficient and progressive than the rest of the UK when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. Or the laughable claim that in six months’ time the UK government will have rolled out a programme to test 10 million people a day.

However, I’ve chosen research work in Korea to develop new photovoltaic technology. It sounds good, especially as there is a concern that solar power, along with wind energy, is regarded as sufficiently mature that we take our collective foot off the gas when it comes to developing both them and other renewable technologies. This could be progress, although I can’t see it getting to the point when we simply paint a PV surface onto the shed roof. Surface preparation is all important in making PVs, and paint, unless it was on something like glass or plastic, would struggle to provide reliably connected cells. That is looking at it from the perspective of how current silicon-based PVs are made, which is a precise business. Maybe the Korean research will prove me completely wrong and develop an easy and cheap alternative. Let’s hope.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Fungus leather substitute offers greener alternative material

Seaweed bacteria could help make laundry more eco-friendly

Two complementary stories from our news this week, coincidentally published on the same day, about the seemingly boundless ways in which Mother Nature could yet help save us from ourselves. So many of our entrenched habits and behaviours, which we've become accustomed to treating as sacrosanct merely due to repetition over decades or centuries, will have to be radically revisited in the coming years – but it doesn't have to be all bad. The grim dystopian future, so beloved of science-fiction writers (mostly because grim dystopias make for better drama than sunny utopias), needn't necessarily be our destiny.

Take leather, as one example: its prevailing production methods are an environmental disaster, what with all the cows and goats required to be fed, watered and raised to an acceptable age, even setting aside the moral and ethical issues of ongoing, unquestioning animal slaughter. As it turns out, we may well be able to replace vast quantities of animal leather with an impressively convincing leather-like material derived from fungus (I am hereby coining the term 'fleather' to describe it: fungus + leather = fleather), which has all the good properties of leather as a material, but precious few of the environmental demands and none of the slaughter. I'm probably too old now to wear a pair of mushroom leather trousers, but I staunchly support the right of those younger and fitter than me, with better abs and a tighter behind, to strut their stuff in tight fleather jeans.

Meanwhile, the boffins at one of the largest FMCG companies to be found in our supermarket aisles – Procter & Gamble (aka P&G) – have been working with scientists from Newcastle University to winkle out the secrets of seaweed in order to more naturally improve our laundry chores. The scientists studied how bacteria release themselves from seaweed by using the novel enzyme phosphodiesterase, which breaks down the sticky molecules naturally present on its surface. This enzyme shows potential for use as a new and very effective type of natural cleanser for washing clothes – especially given that it performs at its best at the kind of very low temperatures that occur naturally in the sea. As we all know, modern laundry detergents are optimised to wash our clothes at 30 or 40 degrees, so we don't waste precious energy heating our washing machine water up to 60 degrees plus. If we can take this even lower, using the surprising power of seaweed bacteria, even better.

Despite humankind's indifference to her needs, Mother Nature continues to surprise and delight, offering us new ways out of the hole we're in, for the benefit of all concerned. There is still hope – and it comes wearing freshly washed fleather trousers.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Covid-19 lockdown failed to reduce air pollution in Scotland, study finds

The argument that air pollution won’t subside if petrol cars are banned from the streets is as dangerous as it is largely inaccurate. It can give oil and gas and petrol-transport lobbyists, as well as climate-change denial groups, a plausible argument against air-pollution measures and scientific facts.

The researcher quoted in this news piece, Dr Ruaraidh Dobson, reached out to me to clarify the story and stress that his comments were specifically made only in regard to Scotland and only regarding PM2.5 levels. All his paper argued is that when vehicle use declined during lockdown, PM2.5 levels in Scotland didn't fall. That came with the caveat that most of Scotland's outdoors areas already have "fairly low levels of PM2.5 to start with”, which are below the WHO's annual limit.

The argument that petrol cars and petrol transport systems are responsible for air pollution cause is an important one because it makes people aware of the risks to health as well as climate change risk.

You don’t have to look far to see evidence for climate change denial groups picking up this Scotland study. The Global Warming Policy Forum, which we have investigated in the past, posted an article on its website titled 'Traffic Is Not A Key Contributor To Air Pollution, Study Finds’. It says that the report claims '‘traffic is not a key contributor to outdoor air pollution”.

First of all, the author of the paper did see a decline in NO2 during the lockdown period (“the observed and normalised NO2 concentrations fell substantially in 2020”). Dobson says that "NO2 may be harmful in itself”.

Secondly, the point the paper makes is that indoor pollution is a significant problem. “If you're spending more time indoors around those sources, you can be exposed to higher concentrations of PM2.5 than you would be outside.”

Thirdly, no-one should doubt that the general thesis that humans are responsible for much of the PM2.5 pollution. The paper doesn’t that put this in jeopardy. The UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is very clear. It writes that “human-made sources of PM2.5 are more important than natural sources... Within UK towns and cities, emissions of PM2.5 from road vehicles are an important source... PM2.5 (and population exposure) close to roadsides are often much higher than those in background locations".

It might also come as a disappointment to climate change deniers what the lead researcher actually thinks: “To be clear, removing vehicles from the road is certainly a good thing, both to avoid production of CO2 (contributing to climate change) and to create opportunities for active travel."

Dobson stresses his research received no funding: “My research has never been funded by any group linked to oil, gas or any other fossil fuel lobby,” he says. I am tired of seeing the media misinterpreting scientific findings.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Tesco to trial drone delivery service next month

In the interests of full disclosure, yes I do get a regular grocery delivery from Tesco which I missed when slots became like gold dust during lockdown, and I’m very happy with it. In fact my only complaint is that sometimes the delivery staff who are no doubt working to a tight schedule turn up a little early.

This extension into drone deliveries isn’t going to replace that weekly food drop any time soon. Like systems proposed by other online retailers, it’s designed for small items that can be sent to your door within an hour of ordering – the ‘small basket’ section of the market that is predicted to be worth £10bn in the not too distant future. Those times when even guaranteed next-day delivery just isn’t quick enough.

I can’t really foresee an occasion when I might use this. I’ve got a town centre with shops stocking most things I could need in a hurry a few minutes’ walk away, and after a few months of working at home, any excuse to pop out while feeling I’m doing something useful is usually welcome.

On a voyeuristic level, though, I’d like to see it at least reach a large-scale trial beyond the initial pilot in Ireland. My desk at home is by a first-floor window that makes a great – if distracting – vantage point for keeping an eye on what’s going on in the street outside. Now the novelty of counting the lost courier vans that have ended up down our cul de sac has largely worn off, I’d welcome the chance to spot the odd Tesco drone hovering out there, trying to work out which local resident to alarm with a knock at the door.

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