Trains, planes and automobiles: everyone seems to be jumping on the sustainable bandwagon these days, at least where innovation is concerned. Last summer saw the departure of the world’s first solar car from Lucerne, Switzerland, the first ‘biodiesel’ train traverse the UK, and the first solar boat cross the Atlantic.

Environmental technologies have many opportunities in today’s increasingly energy-conscious world. Like most new technologies, however, its development is often experimental, expensive, and not yet commercialised. Government policies, research and incentives help but investment and capacity are needed to take it from concept to reality.

Advertisement

Ever since the Swiss Federal Constitution anchored an energy policy in 1990 to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 10% by 2010, the Swiss have been undertaking extensive and impressive research on a wide host of environmental technologies, from fuel cells to solar power.

Now that the Swiss government has introduced its ‘2000-Watt Society’ that limits energy usage to 2000 watts (17,520 kilowatt-hours) per capita per year, a stronger market is developing that might kick-start the sector. Those involved in sustainable industries are optimistic.

3S Photovoltaik-Fussaden, founded in 2001, moved to Lyse, Switzerland, in mid-2003, primarily because Switzerland has a subsidy programme for building photovoltaics. With worldwide demand up dramatically, sales have increased and the company is expanding. But as corporate executives report, despite intense research in photovoltaics, there is still not much production in Switzerland.

Local focus

Granit SA in Lausanne acts both as an incubator between research and industry and an investment vehicle. Founded in 1971, Granit has successfully participated in taking products and companies to market. Most clients are local.

“We realised quickly that we needed to work at the local level,” says Granit president Alain Jenny. One beneficiary is Biomass Process Solutions AG (BPS) of Illnau, Switzerland.

BPS has developed biorefineries that take agricultural raw materials and manufacture them into thermal and acoustic insulation boards. The boards are sold to the building industry under the registered trade name Gramitherm. BPS was examined by experts of the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) and was rewarded with the CTI-Label in 2006.

Granit signed a contract with the owner to acquire a majority interest in BPS. The company owns the patent and the expertise. Granit will finance its first industrial production line to be located in Granit’s Environmental Technology Center in Orbe.

Innovation centre

Mexican cement manufacturer Cemex operates its Global Center for Technology and Innovation (GCTI) in Biel/Bienne, where it is dedicated to new technology in cement processes to save energy.

“The purpose of the GCTI is to develop innovative solutions and business practices that should translate into competitive advantages for Cemex in the building materials industry,” says Luis Treviño, head of the Cemex GCTI.

Biel/Bienne was selected for the GCTI largely because of its strategic location close to Cemex’s European Research Academy and main European operations.

“We found Biel/Bienne to be a perfect location,” says Mr Treviño. “At the GCTI, our 66 employees represent 14 different nationalities; the canton of Berne was ideal for responding to our needs for diversity and multicultural integration.”

Renewable leader

Denmark is capitalising on its early concentration in renewable energy as one of the first countries in the world to implement a national environmental protection act. Now, as Bagsvaerd-based bio-innovations company Novozymes demonstrates, almost 25 years of experience is being exported to other countries with impressive results.

With approximately 700 different products worldwide, Novozymes is the world leader in bio-innovations. Together with customers across a broad array of industries, its products are used in more than 40 different industries to improve industrial processes and quality and save on water, energy, raw materials and waste.

In January 2008, Novozymes announced a joint agreement with Minnesota-based Cargill to develop technology enabling the production of acrylic acid via 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3HPA) from renewable raw materials. The project is supported by a $1.5m matching co-operative agreement from the US Department of Energy.

“Due to increasing oil prices, conversion of renewable raw materials to chemicals is becoming economically viable and holds significant commercial potential,” says Novozymes executive vice-president Thomas Videbæk.

Energy is big in Saskatchewan, the leading Canadian province for oil and gas production. Whereas most of the world is working towards reducing CO2, oil producers in Saskatchewan are injecting the chemical into the province’s Weyburn oil field to help extract the product from the ground. Without CO2, the oil would be difficult to extract.

The innovation has drawn international attention for what is now known as the Weyburn-Midale CO2 Project, because the CO2 has a use rather than being an undesirable waste product.

Wind power

But innovation in Saskatchewan does not end there. With miles of open plains, SaskPower is constructing a wind power project not far from Swift Current. Known as the Centennial Wind Power Facility, the project will provide 150 megawatts of wind power. The Canadian government is providing approximately C$54m to the project for 10 years through its Wind Power Production Incentive programme.

This has provided business for Hitachi Canadian Industries (HCI), an independent company wholly owned by Hitachi Ltd. of Japan and a world leader in steam turbine fabrication. Saskatoon-based HCI has been capitalising on opportunities to manufacture wind towers since North America’s power generation equipment manufacturing sector declined six years ago. Besides supplying wind towers to customers as far away as Nova Scotia, HCI is a subcontractor to Danish wind energy giant Vestas for 83 mammoth wind towers for the SaskPower project.

Just like renewable energy, what goes around, comes around.