Environmentally friendly coins

The UK’s Royal Mint is to introduce new copper and nickel alloy-free coins in a move to save on cash and carbon.

The country’s new-look five and 10p coins are to be made from steel with a nickel plating in a move designed to save the Treasury around £8 million a year.

But the cost-saving measure has also inadvertently helped the environment by using a less resource scarce metal mix.

Steel, as well as being a fraction of the cost of copper and nickel, is created from iron ore, which is more abundant and far easier to mine. Iron is also found closer to steel mills – reducing the financial and carbon cost of its production.

The coins are to be introduced into circulation this Easter.

At the moment the cost of a ten pence coin is 4.5p and each one is minted from a cupronickel alloy of 75% copper and 25% nickel.

The traditional coins are becoming increasingly expensive to produce, with a current market value of £4,875 per tonne of copper and £15,000 per tonne of nickel. The UK’s new coins will be made from 95% steel, which costs around £500 per tonne.

Other countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Russia have already made the switch from non-ferrous metals to nickel-plated steel varieties for low denomination coins.

As well as the environmental benefit of the switch, it is estimated the conversion will save the UK Government approximately £123 million over 25 years, the average lifespan of a coin.

In 1992, the UK Government switched the composition of its one and two-pence coins from solid copper to copper-plated steel with very few members of the public noticing.

Low carbon living for real people

A single mother, three teenagers and an East London terrace offer a living piece of research on retrofitting designed for real-time living

Having her washing on show in Green Futures may not have been quite what Tracey Hillyard envisaged when she agreed to be a guinea pig in a low-carbon technology pilot. But the family’s laundry proved a key player in the story of single mother Tracey, her three teenagers, and their three-bed East London home: 61 Warwall.

This terraced house was one of three selected by social landlord East Thames Group for a £150,000 makeover, under the Technology Strategy Board’s Retrofit for the Future programme. Out of this budget, £72,500 was spent on construction, and the remainder went on design fees, VAT and nearly £10,000 worth of energy monitoring equipment.

It’s not just a showhome: it’s a living piece of research:

It may seem a high price to retrofit a modern terraced house. For not very much more, you could buy a similar sized property, with its own damp patches and draughts. But the value of the project was to try out and test innovations which can turn problematic homes into ultra-efficient ones, developing prototypes upon which future retrofits can draw.

It’s important research: social housing makes up a quarter of the UK’s housing stock, which in total accounts for 26 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions. So retrofitting this stock could make quite a cut in the UK’s carbon footprint.

Moreover, it may well prove easier to persuade social landlords to retrofit their stock (taking some weight off the bills for tenants, and so helping them to pay their rent) than to persuade private homeowners to go through the rigmarole alone.

Targets for the projects were therefore set high. Penoyre & Prasad, the London architects chosen to work on 61 Warwall, were asked to reduce the house’s carbon emissions by 80 per cent.

So, how did they do it? Back to Tracey and her laundry. Many an architect pays lip service to the fact that any technology or design is in a constant dance with the human beings who use it. But Penoyre & Prasad took this to heart, spending time tuning into the family, asking fairly searching questions about how they live, their concerns and habits, and their aspirations for a comfortable home.

The architects looked for ways to achieve high energy efficiency, but also to improve the family’s experience of living in the house.

‘It’s no use imposing an ideal way of living’, says David Cole, a senior architect at Penoyre & Prasad. ‘For example, many herald tightly sealed houses and mechanical ventilation as the most effective efficiency approach, and it’s central to the German Passivhaus concept. But I’d argue it’s inappropriate in social housing. It’s hi-tech and not much good if the inhabitants smoke and open windows – as the Hillyards do.’

The firm found that by far the most significant draw on electricity for this particular household was the laundry. The trusty tumble dryer made up a fifth of their bill. Add the iron and the washing machine, and simply getting the family dressed accounted for nearly half of the total electricity used.

So Penoyre & Prasad found a way to combine bringing more natural light and ventilation into the house with the creation of a new space to dry clothes naturally. Where once a gloomy central staircase was overshadowed by a loft, now a ‘lightwell’ opens the landing up to the sky. The window at the top of the shaft opens easily, letting fresh air waft around the neatly hung clothes – and it can even operate automatically, to stop things getting a bit stuffy as the kids come and go.

Another hit was the installation of vertical ventilation panels beside the windows, which allow air to flow through slots without the security risk of a clear opening on the ground floor. And if the house doesn’t already sound like a breeze, it now even has a roof that ‘breathes’. Insulated with natural materials such as wood fibre slab and hemp fibre quilt, it dissipates moisture and avoids condensation.

Today, 61 Warwall isn’t just a show home: it’s a living piece of research.

‘The house is bristling with sensors,’ says Cole, ‘which send data back to the Technology Strategy Board to evaluate which low-carbon technologies work in practice.’

So far, the project has been a success: energy use is down by an estimated 69 per cent, and carbon emissions by 79 per cent.
Tracey is delighted: ‘To be one of the select few to have these improvements is like winning the lottery. I feel proud to have a home in which all the members of my family can feel warm and cosy.’

In 2011, the project won the ‘Best small housing project’ category at the 3R Awards – a scheme celebrating the most innovative and effective retrofits launched by The Architects’ Journal, Construction News and New Civil Engineer.

Sony’s revolutionary bio battery

Sony has unveiled a paper-powered battery prototype in Japan.

The technology generates electricity by turning shredded paper into sugar which in turn is used as fuel.

If brought to market, the innovation could allow the public to top up the power of their mobile devices using waste material.

The team behind the project said such bio-batteries are environmentally friendly as they did not use harmful chemicals or metals.

The Japanese electronics giant showed off its invention at the Eco-Products exhibition in Tokyo last week.

Employees invited children to drop piece of paper and cardboard into a liquid made up of water and enzymes, and then to shake it. The equipment was connected to a small fan which began spinning a few minutes later.

Learning from nature
The process works by using the enzyme cellulase to decompose the materials into glucose sugar. These were then combined with oxygen and further enzymes which turned the material into electrons and hydrogen ions.

The electrons were used by the battery to generate electricity. Water and the acid gluconolactone, which is commonly used in cosmetics, were created as by-products.

Researchers involved in the project likened the mechanism to the one used by white ants and termites to digest wood and turn it into energy.

Their work builds on a previous project in which they used fruit juice to power a Walkman music player.

“Using a ‘fuel’ as simple as old greetings cards – the sort of cards that millions of us will be receiving this Christmas – the bio battery can deliver enough energy to power a small fan,” said Yuichi Tokita, senior researcher at Sony’s Advanced Material Research Lab.

“Of course, this is still at the very early stages of its development, but when you imagine the possibilities that this technology could deliver, it becomes very exciting indeed.”

While the battery is already powerful enough to run basic music players, it is still falls far short of commercially sold batteries.

The environmental campaign group Greenpeace welcomed the development.

“The issue that we always have with battery technology is the toxic chemicals that go into making them and recycling batteries is also complicated,” John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK told the BBC.

“Any way to provide a greener technology could be a potential magic bullet. So from that point of view this is interesting, and I think it’s fantastic that companies like Sony are looking to make the generation of energy more environmentally friendly.”

Sony’s engineers are not the only ones exploring the concept of paper-based batteries.

In 2009 a team of Stanford University scientists revealed they were working on a battery created by coating sheets of paper with ink made of carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires. They said their work might ultimately lead to a device capable of lasting through 40,000 charge-discharge cycles.

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