Save the trees!

A staggering 60,000 new wooden electricity poles are needed in the UK every year, with a further 50,000 in the telecoms industry. These poles can take up to 18 months to source and deliver, because exactly the right kind of pine tree has to be sourced. these trees are than treated with creosote, a carcinogenic substance being phased out across the EU. In addition, a large number of these poles are produced and sit in storage wastefully, rather than being manufactured to order in case of storm damage to the existing network.

The obvious answer to this problem in the past has been to build poles from plastics or fibreglass. However, the production process for these is slower, less energy efficient, uses more harmful chemicals and ultimately produces products that are almost impossible to recycle, not to mention, also carcinogenic.

Thanks to the growing awareness around sustainability, people are beginning to understand the environmental damage caused by plastics and are looking for sustainable alternatives.

The challenge

The challenge this month is to come up with a way to replace the traditional wooden electricity pole with something that is lighter and stronger than fibreglass and biodegradable but isn’t coated in harmful substances.

The idea we have in mind will be revealed in the October issue of Eureka! Until then see what you can come up with. Submit your ideas by leaving a comment on the Coffee Time Challenge section of the Eureka! website or by emailing the editor:

The solution

Our solution to last month’s Coffee Time Challenge to come up with a more sustainable alternative to fibreglass electricity poles – which, in turn, were an alternative to solid wooden treated poles – comes from a British start-up called Pollywood.

The company uses a novel production method to produce hollow tubes from wood fibre and bio-based resins that don’t need coating and have a higher strength-to-weight ratio than steel. Six or seven of these tubes can be produced with the same amount of raw material than one solid wood pole. Plus, production time is slashed from 18 months per pole to seven days, reducing the need to store so many.

What’s more, because Pollywood’s manufacturing method uses up to 85% less raw material than traditional ‘one-tree-one-pole’ manufacturing, there is a similar saving in fuel needed to ship the materials. This has the potential to save up to 90,000 trees annually.

Pollywood has received funding via Northern Powergrid to get this project to Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 3 over the last 24 months, proving its feasibility with a 1.5metre prototype. A further £1.4m investment is now needed so it can develop new machinery capable of creating larger structures and progress to TRL 9, when it will become ready for market roll-out.