A  view looking down on forest meeting the sea.

The Earhtshot Prize is the most prestigious environmental prize in the world. ©everst/Shutterstock

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Museum nominates two projects for this year's Earthshot Prize

The Museum has nominated two projects for this year's Earthshot Prize.

The first, the StranksLab, is developing lightweight, high-performance photovoltaics from abundant and inexpensive materials, while the second, The Tyre Collective, is aiming to solve the pervasive issue of microplastics, specifically those from vehicle tyres as they drive along the roads. 

Launched in 2020 by His Royal Highness Prince William and The Royal Foundation, the Earthshot Prize is the most prestigious environmental prize in the world.

The Earthshot Prize aims to highlight and champion companies, organisations, individuals and even countries around the world who are all contributing in their own way to prevent the climate crisis and make the planet a better place.

There are five categories for the prizes, and every year until 2030 one winner for each category will be awarded a million pounds each to help them achieve their goals.

The first category is Protect & Restore Nature, which aims to make sure that by 2030 the natural world will be growing and not shrinking. Clean Our Air focuses on ensuring that every person in the world can breathe clean and healthy air, while Revive Our Oceans looks at ways to repair and preserve the world's oceans. The category Fix Our Climate aims to provide solutions to building a carbon-neutral economy, and finally Build a Waste-Free World rewards projects which are creating a more sustainable, circular society. 

This year, the Museum has been invited to nominate projects that will be considered for Earthshot Prizes, and has submitted one for the Fix Our Climate category and another for Clean Our Air.   

A hand wearing a blue glove holds a piece of the photovoltaic between its thumb and forefinger.

Improving not only the efficiency but also the manufacturing of photovoltaics will be critical as we transition away from fossil fuels. 

Improving photovoltaics

As the world shifts away from its reliance on fossil fuels, it needs to embrace green, renewable technologies to make the energy required for society and the economy to continue to function.

One of the main problems in this move away from polluting energy production has been the scale and cost of the technologies needed to make this transition.

The International Energy Agency has stated that in order to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, photovoltaics that convert light into electricity using semiconducting materials will need to be the largest source of energy. Currently, the production of silicon-based photovoltaics is limited by the cost and speed of manufacturing. To meet the demand which will be required to hit the net-zero pledges of countries around the world, this needs to change.

To tackle this, Sam Stranks and his lab at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with Swift Solar and the Diamond Light Source facility, are developing lightweight, high-performance perovskite photovoltaics. They are currently testing the performance of these technologies and figuring out ways to increase the efficiency of its manufacturing.

Created from abundant and inexpensive materials, and at a much lower temperature required to make traditional silicon solar panels, perovskite photovoltaics have the potential to radically change how solar panels are manufactured.

So far the technology has been proven in the lab and in a small-scale pilot scheme. The next stages aiming to replicate the success on a larger scale as well as demonstrating the ability to recycle the technologies to help create a more circular economy.

Dr Tim Littlewood, the Executive Director of Science at the Museum, says, 'Capturing solar energy efficiently is currently limited by the availability of energy-hungry, environmentally costly materials and processing.

'Sustainable renewable energy production through technological innovation also requires a nature positive, environmentally friendly, approach to resource use and manufacture. This project is unique, innovative, scalable, and nature positive.'

A concept drawing of a tyre with the device attached to it.

Collecting the tiny pieces of plastic shed by tyres will prevent pollution of both the oceans and air. ©The Tyre Collective

Trapping tyre wear

Over the past decade, the issue of microplastics has become more widely known. Often, this is talked about in reference to single use plastics and, more recently, microfibres shed from washing machines.

But a little-known source is the wear of tyres as cars drive along roads. In fact, the microplastics derived from the estimated 1.4 billion vehicles on the roads globally are thought to be the second-largest source of microplastics in the oceans. It is also a significant contributor to air pollution, which is a growing cause of physical and mental health issues.

The tiny pieces of plastic shed by tyres are known to wash into drains, travel through sewers, and eventually find their way into the waterways before ending up in the oceans. Here, the plastic is then consumed by many animals, often accumulating in fish and then travelling up the food chain.

The Tyre Collective is a new start-up that aims to prevent this. By developing the world's first 'on-vehicle' device which can be attached to cars, trucks, lorries and busses, the technology uses electrostatics and airflow to attract the tiny tyre particles as they are shed during driving.

The captured particles can be upcycled into a variety of applications. This will not only help to save raw materials and carbon by creating a circular economy, but also prevent air and microplastic pollution.

'Although electric cars will contribute to Carbon net-zero, this initiative tackles a pernicious, long-lasting, and neglected source of pollution that will only grow if not tackled,' says Tim. 'Tyre wear emissions is a major contributor to waterborne and airborne pollution, toxic across ecosystems and throughout food chains.

'The Museum sees this as unique, innovative, scalable, and solutions led fitting our goal for a future where both people and planet have an opportunity to thrive.'