Since 2006, the European Patent Office has recognised “the creativity of inventors the world over, who use their technical, scientific and intellectual skills to contribute to technological progress, thereby driving and economic growth and improving people’s daily lives” at the annual European Inventor Awards. Sadly the 2020 European Inventor Awards were cancelled, just like Eurovision. As a result, the 15 inventors and inventor teams on the 2020 shortlist (along with us, loyal fans) have waited a whole year to find out who will emerge victorious.
In November last year, Joanne Pham discussed (here) the need to “close the loop” by moving to a circular economy where materials are reused or recycled; today’s waste becoming tomorrow’s products. Two of the inventors on the shortlist appear to be doing just that.
From Thin Air
German chemical engineering company Covestro Deutschland AG has developed a ground breaking system for using carbon dioxide to produce polyurethane, a ubiquitous plastic found in everything from seat cushions to surf boards. The inventors Christoph Gürtler, Walter Leitner, and their team have made huge strides to solve a problem that has stumped researchers since the 1960s. Namely, to produce useful plastic from waste carbon dioxide in a way which is commercially viable and scalable. The relevant patents EP3041883, EP3008100 describe the process which uses alkylene oxides and carbon dioxide in the presence of a specific cyanide catalyst to produce useful polyethercarbonate polyols, a precursor to polyurethane.
Their technique reduces the amount of fossil feedstock (oil) needed to produce a given amount of polyol by up to 20%, and further provides a use for waste carbon dioxide which would otherwise find its way into the atmosphere, warming the planet. In this case, the Covestro Deutschland AG pilot facility was positioned near an ammonia plant which provided a reliable supply of carbon dioxide. Other facilities across the EU will produce useful polyurethane precursors using carbon dioxide from steel mills.
While “closing the loop” typically seeks to avoid the need for new or “virgin” plastic, the reality is that some applications will continue to require new material. If this material can be made from an otherwise harmful greenhouse gas, this should be applauded. More information can be found here.
A Pelt of Fruit
Across the continent, Spanish entrepreneur Dr Carmen Hijosa and her company Ananas Anam have developed a versatile material that takes aim at the leather industry. If you paid attention in Spanish class, you may have worked out that Dr Hijosa’s new material is derived from pineapples, specifically pineapple leaves which are a by-product of the pineapple harvest.
Dr Hijosa recognised the high environmental cost of traditional leather goods. The damage comes not just from the rearing of livestock, but also from the chemical intensive tanning processes. Dr Hijosa’s process involves drying the pineapple leaves in the sun and purifying the fibres to leave a “fluff-like” material. The pineapple leaf fibres are then mixed with polylactic acid and are mechanically formed into a non-woven mesh material which is then finished depending on the application.
By using pineapple fibres, not only are the environmental costs of leather production avoided, but it provides an additional revenue source for pineapple farmers, and provides a use for pineapple leaves which would otherwise be burnt releasing yet more greenhouse gas. This joined-up thinking characterises many innovators involved in the circular economy, and it is at the heart of Dr Hijosa’s work.
Dr Hijosa’s invention is not just a diverting curiosity, it is big business. The material, Piñatex®, has already found application in almost 3000 fashion, accessory & furnishing brands including Hugo Boss, H&M, Hilton Hotels, and Paul Smith. Your next shoes could very well be made from pineapples. More information can be found here.
Gürtler, Leitner, and Dr Hijosa are at the crest of a growing wave of innovation to make the circular economy a reality. A brief look at European patent publications in two key CPC classes reveals a steady rise in filings in technology areas associated with recovering and reusing waste material. The CPC classes this attorney considered are:
B29B17/00 – “Recovery of plastics or other constituents of waste material containing plastics”
C08J11 – “Recovery or working-up of waste materials”
There is a clear and growing interest in technology fields which seek to recover usable material from waste, to close the loop. It appears that the inventors and entrepreneurs of the future will be up against increasingly stiff competition if they want to win a European Inventor Award themselves.
As for this year’s European Innovator Awards, the award ceremony will be held in an “extended reality format” on 17 June 2021; anyone can attend. Details can be found here where you can also vote for the winner of the Popular Prize Award, just like Eurovision.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it