How Amazon Catalyst faces climate change

 By Amanda Saint

Retail giant Amazon is not just a marketplace for physical goods and a place for people to self-publish books. It has a number of other initiatives on the go. The company has recently teamed up with the University of Washington to provide help getting new ideas off the ground…

The Amazon Catalyst program supports innovation by encouraging people in all fields to think big, invent solutions to real-world problems and make a positive impact on the world. It provides funding up to $100K per project as well as mentorship and other support. People selected for the program become Amazon Catalyst Fellows and join a community dedicated to finding solutions to some of the biggest problems that humanity faces.
There’s no doubt that managing the effects of climate change and environmental sustainability as the global population continues to grow rapidly is one of the biggest challenges around today. Universities, governments, businesses and individuals the world over are busy coming up with ideas and inventions to help and the Amazon program is among them.

Catalyst for climate change and sustainability

Although it supports projects in all fields, from humanities, and engineering to the sciences and the arts, the Catalyst programme has invested in a number of environmental sustainability projects so far.

  • Self-cleaning solar panels: Professor Karl Böhringer and Di Sun, a graduate student in electrical engineering, received funding for their research into a nanomaterial that can enable solar panels to clean themselves. This is an important development as many of the world’s solar farms are in remote, difficult to reach desert regions where the high levels of sand and dust particles can reduce a solar panel’s efficiency by up to 35 percent.
  • Seed-seq and the BIOFAB lab: Professor Eric Klavins and Orlando DeLange, a postdoctoral researcher, have developed a solution for identifying the genes that make plants drought- or pest-resistant, which is key as climate change is posing significant threats to food supply chains the world over. Professor Klavins received funding to expand this project and also further funding to develop the BIOFAB lab, which is a cloud laboratory for genetic engineering that can help speed up research into new solutions. It is available to researchers across the university and gives them lower-cost access to full-scale molecular biology and cell engineering resources, enabling them to carry out experiments anywhere from their laptop.
  • Low cost flow battery for solar power: The development of solar power has long been plagued by storage issues but flow batteries, which are rechargeable and work like a fuel cell and a battery combined, are proving to be very promising. If they can be made commercially viable, then they could become the leader in grid-scale renewable energy storage. High production costs mean market adoption has been slow but now a team of engineers has figured out a way to lower the price of flow batteries by as much as 30 percent. The Membrion technology uses silica gel, which is normally found in sachets in food or clothing packages to soak up moisture. One of the researchers involved has now co-founded a company, Membrion, dedicated to producing the batteries.
  • Energy efficient, low-cost desalination: Engineer Guozheng Shao has built a device that could potentially slash the cost of desalinating water. He’s invented a device that uses paper coated with titania, the oxidized form of titanium, to desalinate seawater rather than using the traditional more expensive method of reverse osmosis. The device also uses less than 10 percent of the energy of traditional methods, and could lead to a hundred-fold increase in the rate of clean water output. Currently only around 1 percent of the world’s drinking water comes from desalinated sources. As freshwater becomes more scarce, developments like these mean that desalination can play an important role in meeting future demands, particularly in areas where climate change is expected to lead to more frequent and severe droughts.

The program is ongoing and new projects receive funding all the time — there is no doubt there will be more exciting developments for battling climate change from these collaborations.

READ MORE: California’s cleantech revolution by Andrew Burger

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.