Sustainability is driving innovation in a variety of business areas including product reformulation and process modification.

Researchers say companies that prioritize sustainability are using it to drive innovation in product reformulation, equipment redesign and purchase, process modification, waste recycling and other areas. Notable breakthroughs on the sustainability horizon:

  • Imperial College London post-grad students have developed a recyclable, biodegradable concrete substitute that uses abundant desert sand with half the carbon footprint in place of increasingly scarce beach and river bed sand. The substance, called Finite, can be used to make glass, computer chips and other products, in addition to concrete.
  • Plenty United is one of many “indoor farming” startups. The company is growing lettuce, arugula, herbs and other crops in a renovated 51,000-square foot warehouse near San Francisco, using LED lights. The warehouse will yield up to 3 million pounds of leafy greens a year for local tables. Others are also looking at giant warehouses, old factories and repurposed shipping containers, equipping them with sensors that measure temperature and moisture, and fitting them with automated systems that pump in water and nutrients, and use LED strips to provide energy with no need for sunlight or soil. Plenty United employs a sponge-like plastic as a soil substitute and pumps in mineral-infused water.

Indoor farmers claim they can produce 150 times more lettuce per square foot as an outdoor farm, with just 1% of the water consumption. Their operations reuse water, avoid pesticides, and reduce fossil fuels needed to power tractors and deliver over long distances. They tend to be heavy on power consumption because of the LED lights and climate-control systems.

  • Conventional farmers continue to incorporate technology into their work, experimenting with field sensors, geospatial imagery and analytical processing to boost yields. McKinsey says farmers using geospatial imagery can measure down to “microfields” of 14 square meters or less and better manage irrigation and fertilizer use. The same technology is being used by large commodity buyers to identify the most environmentally suitable crops based on climate, proximity to markets, global crop-yield performance and other factors.
  • Graviky Labs, an MIT Media Lab spin-off based in Bangalore, India and Singapore, has developed a device that captures particulates emitted through motor vehicle tailpipes and industrial smokestacks to manufacture ink and ink-based art products. Captured soot is processed to remove harmful metals and carcinogens, and to leave behind carbon pigment. “Many black inks are already made using carbon black, which is mostly produced by burning heavy petroleum products. That means Graviky’s process could have a twosided impact on pollution and greenhouse gases,” Fortune magazine says. Gravick Labs hopes to fit its device to bus and taxi fleets in countries such as India, where emissions standards lag behind those of Europe and the United States.
Indoor farming using LED lights