Nature returns to Valladolid!

Nature returns to Valladolid!

During the confinement, we have witnessed how nature quickly returned to the cities in our absence. Wild flora took over the corner of our cities, growing in every available crevice and gradually recovering lost space. It became visible that the streets also belong to the vegetation, but as it is thought, the city prevents their development. At what point did nature begin to disappear from urban environment? Is it possible that they live together? And, if we want vegetation to return to cities for good and to be able to enjoy it, what measure can be taken?

The relationship between nature and city has not always been as we know it today. Before the development of the modern city, vegetation was included in many spaces (tree-lined paths, spurs, avenues…) forming part of the urban landscape. Some of these spaces still survive and we can enjoy them. But this coexistence begins to disappear with the development of the current city (mid 20th century). Due to the growing demand for spaces for cars, roads, parking lots, buildings… the city has been deforesting and relegating green spaces and trees to the background, limiting its growth to specific and insolated areas, and in many cases disappearing completely. Taking te city of Valladolid as an example, we can find multiple cases where trees and gardens disappeared during this time. The Plaza Mayor, San Benito, Plaza Zorrilla, San Pablo,,, at present they are hard, waterproof squares without a trace of the vegetatiom that until not so long ago they had.

With this new urbanism, not only were many green spaces lost, but also the social and environmental benefits they provide, reducing the quality and comfort of urban spaces. Green areas are areas for leisure, games, sports and spaces for contact with nature, but they also improve the well-being and comfort of citizens by reducing high temperatures and improving air quality by capturing environmental pollution. Currently, the presence of vegetation in cities is especially important to help cities adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects, since they act as carbon sinks and improve rainwater management, among other benefits.

For this reason, in recent years it has become very important to reserve the current city model and implement new urban development policies aimed at re-naturalizing and recovering the traditions of nature in the city.

Cities are beginning to take measures in this regard and there are already actions that reintroduce new urban green spaces to take advantages of their benefits. Returning to the example of Valladolid, a representative case is that of Plaza España. This, like many other squares, lost its trees for the construction of an underground car park, on which there is currently a market.

urban green spaces in Plaza España, Valladolid
Evolution of Plaza España in images

Thanks to old photographs, it can be seen that previously the square was a green area, with two rows of trees, offering a shady and pleasant space. It is with the construction of the underground parking (1995) when the vegetation on the surface disappears. Until now, the square had remained a hard space, with hardly any trace of the vegetation of yesteryear and it was not until last year (2020) when the square was recovered as a green space of the city. These actions are within the URBAN GreenUP project, coordinated by CARTIF (www.urbangreenup.eu), whose objective is the application of Urban Re-naturalization plans, in Valladolid and in two other European cities: Liverpool (United Kingdom) and Izmir (Turkey). In this case, it is a green roof over the canopy, which allows the current market and parking uses to be maintained. Returning the vegetation to the square not only has an aesthetic impact, it also affects the comfort and well-being of the space, also providing other benefits such as better management of rainwater and the creation of a new space to promote urban biodiversity.

The combination of new forms of vegetation together with the traditional ones, has allowed nature to return to this point of the city… from where it should never have left. We hope that many squares will follow this example and recover the lost green spaces!

Biomethane and biohydrogen: the future of energy is here

Biomethane and biohydrogen: the future of energy is here

Both biomethane and biohydrogen are two gases that have been going strong in our current energy landscape. Both have a renewable origin and their formation can be associated with CO2 capture and storage processes, another of the great objectives of our society to fight against global warming.

Biomethane is nothing other than methane with a renewable origin, as opposed to natural gas where methane has a fossil origin. Biomethane is typically generated by purifying the biogas produced in anaerobic digesters that treat waste streams such as sewage sludge, manure or other biodegradable streams. It is the operation generally known as the upgrading process [1]. Biomethane has the added advantage that it is chemically identical to natural gas, so it can be substituted in any of its applications. For this reason, biomethane is expected to play a transcendental role in the decarbonization of the Spanish and European economy with a view to 2050 [2].

If we return form biogas, its other major component is CO2, but there is the possibility of reintroducing this CO2 to the anaerobic digester or treating it in another reactor and, through what is known as the methane process, generating more biomethane [3]. That is, we can use CO2 to generate methane, who gives more? But this process is not as mature as that of conventional anaerobic digestion and, although it has been shown to be technically feasible (more than 100 operating plants are known in Europe), the performance of the process needs to improve so that its economic viability is out of all doubt.

Once we have the biomethane, another option we have is to generate green hydrogen (named for its renewable origin) through a well-known reforming process. The reforming of natural gas to produce hydrogen is a common industrial practice, so reforming biomethane is an entirely plausible option. The usual reforming is carried out by reacting methane with water vapor, but there is already work that has shown the possibility of replacing this water with CO2, so we return to using carbon dioxide as a raw material, removing it from the atmosphere and instead producing the desired hydrogen.

But hydrogen can also have a biological origin, which is what is known as biohydrogen. In nature there are algae and bacteria that generate hydrogen through their metabolic cycles. These organisms, grown in a controlled environment, can also become a biohydrogen factory. In this case, and as it happened in the methanation processes, it has been shown that the processes work and can be scalable, but the yields that are currently achieved remain a barrier to their implementation for industrial purposes.

But that’s what research is for, to keep working and make these processes (and others that we will talk about on another occasion) a reality in the short-medium term.

[1] Hidalgo, D., Sanz-Bedate, S., Martín-Marroquín, J. M., Castro, J., & Antolín, G. (2020). Selective separation of CH4 and CO2 using membrane contactors. Renewable Energy, 150, 935-942.

[2] Elguera, N. M., Salas, M. D. C., Hidalgo, D., Marroquín, J. M., & Antolín, G. (2020). Biometano, el gas verde que pide paso en España. IndustriAmbiente: gestión medioambiental y energética, (30), 50-56.

[3] Hidalgo, D. Martín-Marroquín, J.M. (2020). Power-to-methane, coupling CO2 capture with fuel production: An overview. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 132, 110057.

Blockchain for a better planet

Blockchain for a better planet

Blockchain technology has been explained in a previous entry of this Blog, and another entry about Blockchain and the electric market customers is also available. This new entry is again focused on this technology but, in this case, it will be focused on all the opportunities offered by this technology in the environmental and energy sector.

Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs from now on) and, in particular, blockchain technology have the potential of transforming the energy sector. The World Economic Forum released a joint report identifying more than 65 blockchain use cases for the environment, including new business models for energy markets and, even more, moving carbon credits or renewable energy certificates onto the blockchain.

Its defining features are its distributed and immutable ledger and advance cryptography, which enable the transfer of a range of assets among parties securely and inexpensively without third-party intermediaries. Blockchain provides a new, decentralized and global computational infrastructure that is transforming many existing processes in business, governance and society, offering many opportunities to address multiple environmental challenges such al climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity.

Due to increasing integration of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), many consumers have become prosumers, who can both generate and consume energy. As generation of DERs can be unpredictable and intermittent, prosumers may decide to store their surplus energy using storage energy devices, or supply others who are in energy deficit. This energy trading is called Peer-to-Peer (P2P) energy trading, and it is a novel paradigm of energy system generation where people can generate their own energy from (Renewable Energy Sources) RES in dwellings, offices and factories, and share it locally with each other. Waste heat and cold can be also traded in a similar way to energy from RES. One of the main contributions of DLTs in the scope of P2P Energy trading is to register all the transactions in a secure and non-mutable way, and to simplify the metering and billing system of the P2P energy trading market.

In the scope of the SO WHAT project, CARTIF has been involved in the definition of the business model linked with the use of Blockchain to exchange waste heat and cold. Besides, CARTIF has worked in a research internal project called OptiGrid which main aim was the development of innovative solutions in the scope of the smart grids. CARTIF is also working in a project called Energy Chain (subcontracted by Alpha Syltec Ingeniería) to jointly develop a platform to allow energy trading between prosumers. Both OptiGrid and Energy Chain are projects financed by the “Instituto de Competitividad e Innovación Empresarial” (ICE) and are focused on the use of blockchain as a driver to deploy platforms devoted to energy trading. In the scope of Energy Chain, Alpha Syltec Ingeniería will also develop machine learning algorithms that will interact with the blockchain platform providing useful data about generation and demand.

The use of blockchain in the scope of SmartCities is clear due to its applicability to transfer information in a secure and immutable way, reducing (and even removing) the amount of intermediaries. Blockchain can be used in multiple ways apart from the aforementioned one: it can push the use of electric vehicle (e.g., P2P Electric Vehicle Charging), it can be used as a driver of public empowerment (e.g., increasing the security level, the transparency and the reliability of elections, online surveys, referenda, etc.)…

Other examples of the use of blockchain is its use as a driver of off-set carbon footprint processes, increasing the transparency and security of the transactions, and its use to improve the traceability and transparency of green energy in relation to the Guarantee of origin (GoO). One example of the use of Blockchain in this sense is ClimateTrade, which main aim is to help companies to achieve carbon neutrality by offering them their carbon offsetting services.

Cities as New York and states as West Virginia have used blockchain to exchange energy or to vote using the mobile phone, Estonia is using it to manage personal data, and Dubai’s Smart City Program has addressed more than 500 blockchain projects that will change the way to interact with the city. Blockchain is a reality, and is here to stay.

From consumer to prosumer

From consumer to prosumer

Most users have been consuming electricity in the same way our entire lives. We simply know that we can plug in the electrical device wqe want at any time, and that, in return, at the end of the month, we get a bill (for many, more difficult to understand than an Egyptian hieroglyph, by the way). But this way of consuming electricity can change very soon (if it hasn´t already). Not for a long time, we can contribute with our own energy to the main grid without many complications, decide when is the best moment for us to consume, or partner with other users to benefit each other…or all these options at the same time.

In other words, the energy sector is moving from a model in which the user had a merely passive role, to a totally different one, where the user can have an active participation in the production, management and consumption of electricity. For this paradigm shift, a new word has emerged as a result of combining producer and consumer: prosumer.

Although the concept of prosumer is now broader, it originally refers to users who produces their own energy for their own consumption, and discharge the surpluses to the electrical network. In this way, not only we can consume less from the grid, but our electricity is also supplied to the main system, and we contribute to achieving a more sustainable model while we reduce our bill.

Given the rise of distributed generation facilities for self-consumption, largely driven by the publication of RD 244/2019 in Spain, it is not surprising that this type of prosumer is the most common. However, the options for prosumers are more and more varied, and are not only limited to installing solar panels on our roof.

For example, the interaction of the user with the main grid can also be more proactive by combining responsible electricity consumption with electricity tariffs which depend on the market price (rates indexed to the electricity pool market-the hourly market-, also called PVPCs tariffs in the case of Spain-stating for Small Consumer Voluntary Price-, for users with a contracted power lower than 10kW).With this type of tariff, every day you can know the hourly price of electricity for the next day, so that if today we are told that tomorrow morning the price of electricity will cost almost 90% less than it costs right now (as happened a few days ago in the Iberian Peninsula(, we can decide if we prefer no to turn on certain appliances today (e.g. washing machine, dryer or dishwasher, in the case of residential consumers), and use them tomorrow, hence getting some savings due to the energy term associated to their consumptions.

But, what happens when there is hardly any sun or wind, and the prices of the electricity market soar to all-time highs, as happened a few weeks ago during the storm Filomena in Spain? In the previous case,basically we would have to ´´ endure the downpour´ and pay it at the end of the month. How ever, if we had energy storage solutions, we could avoid these type of scenarios, and in general we could reduce our consumption from the grid durign periods when the price of energy is high. This prosumer alternative is also very simple: at night or in the morning, when electricity is cheaper, we could program the charging of our energy storage equipment (electric batteries, including our own electric vehicle, but also thrmal systems of thermoelectricc), so that when the price of electricity went up, we would not have to pay its exorbitant costs, but could use our stored energy.

Precisely, this combination of prosumer options– installation of a renewable production system, storage, dynamic rates and active management of our demand- is part of the study that is being considered in the MiniStor Project, where CARTIF has participated since last year. In this project, a thermoelectric storage system that integrates lithium batteries, phase change materials and a thermochemical reactor is being developed, also including hybrid solar panels that produce both heat and electricity and an optimal energy management, considering both the prediction of our consumption, the prediction of our systems production, and the electricicty costs. A very interesting challenge for which we will be able to tell you more about very soon.

As we have seen, the prosumers´ participation options go far beyond having our own self-consumption facility (which is not a small thing), and, although this time we have presented a few, the alternatives where this actor has a fundamental role are almost infinite (demand aggregators, blockchain integration, microgrids, energy communities…) Surely, in a short time others options will emerge, that at the moment we cannot imagine. What is clear, is that the role of prosumers is already considered as decisive, we are at the beginning of what can be a true paradigm shift in the energy sector, and from CARTIF we are on the trail to be leaders in this revolution.

And you, do you want to become a prosumer?

Is sustainable mining possible?

Is sustainable mining possible?

Mining activity has defined civilization since its inception and in approximately 90% of our daily activities we use chemical and mineral elements extracted from the interior of the earth.

Currently, mining contributes to sustainable processes, such as the European Green Deal, which try to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, ensuring the supply of raw materials, particularly critical or fundamental raw materials. Critical raw materials are those that are economically and strategically important for Europe, but with a high supply risk.

The EU list for 2020 contains thirty critical raw materials, used in electronics, health, steel, aviation, etc., and some of them are increasingly present in renewable energy. An example of this is the addition to this list of lithium, used in batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles, and bauxite, the main source of aluminum, which with steel and copper represents approximately 90% of the total weight of a wind turbine . The permanent magnets in the generators of these same turbines also contain other critical raw materials such as some rare earths, cobalt and boron.

In photovoltaic solar energy, more than 90% of the solar cells installed in the panels are made of silicon, in addition to containing other critical raw materials such as indium, gallium and germanium.

At the same time, the mining activity is implementing sustainable measures as new techniques in restoring the impacts generated and the use of remote sensing to monitor environmental behavior. Another measure is the reprocessing of waste, for example iron, zinc and platinum, turning these into secondary raw materials, moving towards a circular economy that will increase jobs in the EU by 2030.

More and more, electric and hybrid mining machinery is being used with autonomous and geolocation systems, saving costs and fuels, and various projects are being launched where there are wind and solar photovoltaic energy installations for self-consumption in mining operations.

Another mechanism that contributes to the European Green Pact is the Just Transition with the diversification of activities in regions with high dependence on coal, where there are sources of raw materials used in renewable energy.

Finally, in achieving the zero-emission target in the EU, the environmental and social risks posed by strategic agreements to guarantee the supply of critical raw materials with some countries outside the EU will be taken into account.

As a conclusion, the mining sector is important for the decarbonisation of Europe and the use of renewable and clean energy by integrating these into its own mining operations.

Going green on your car (in a good way)

Going green on your car (in a good way)

As you may already know, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide and methane) as a consequence of human activity is one of the main reasons behind the faster pace of the climate change in the last decades. And among the wide range of causes, passenger cars are one of the main sources of CO2 emissions, accounting for a 12% of the total emissions (European Commission).

For this reason, the European Union has been adopting increasingly stricter measures to regulate the levels of emissions. In 2015, a limit of 130 grams CO2/km was set. Moreover, by 2021 a more ambitious target is planned to be fixed at 95 grams CO2/km.

In this context, car manufacturers have been forced to reduce fuel consumption (or increasing the autonomy in electric vehicles) and emissions in his petrol and diesel-fuelled models. How can automakers do that? Besides designing more efficient engines, the main strategy is lightweighting. This technique consists of reducing the weight of the car by replacing the heavier materials (i.e. steel) by lighter ones such as plastic or composites.

However, currently the mismanagement and misuse of plastics rather than the material itself is one of the top environmental issues, since 8 million tons out of the 300 million tons of plastic which are annually produced end up in the ocean (According to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature). So seems that increasing the use of plastics in cars does not look like and ideal solution, right? Well, how about using an alternative material with similar of even better performance than conventional plastics and reduced environmental footprint? It doesn’t seem an easy task, although bioplastics may be part of the answer.

What are bioplastics, and why they seem to be so trendy nowadays? According to European Bioplastics, it’s a heterogeneous set of materials with different properties and applications which can be biobased, biodegradable or both.

In other words, since they are biobased, their use potentially reduce the consumption of fossil fuels while their biodegradability widens the possibilities of treatment at the end-of-life stage. As a result, these materials could achieve the desired combination of performance and sustainability.

This is what the BIOMOTIVE project is all about. It tries to develop materials (textile fibres, foams made of polyurethane for automotive seating and other polyurethane-based parts for the interior of cars) from biobased sources which combine good technical properties with reduced environmental impact. Starting from renewable raw materials such as forest biomass and vegetable oils not in competition with the food chain, it is expected to produce at industrial scale products with up to 80% biobased content.

The project has received funding under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme and gathers European private companies and institutions sharing the ideal of reducing the impact of the industry paving the way towards a more sustainable economy.

The role of CARTIF in the project is to perform the sustainability assessment of the final products, since the prefix “bio” does not necessarily mean that a product is better for the environment than its fossil-based counterpart. To determine that on a scientific basis, it is important to evaluate the impacts of the product along its whole life cycle (that is, from the extraction of raw materials to the end of life) considering not only the environmental impacts, but also social and economic aspects.

So the next time you are holding a plastic object, before throwing it away, it is worth considering from where it came and where will it go.