Courtesy Steve Penney via University of Cambridge

A team of researchers from MIT, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Cambridge have successfully developed an affordable photovoltaic cell without the use of lead. The non-toxic solar cells utilize bismuth—a chemical commonly found in cosmetics and medicines—rather than perovskite, a compound that contains lead and is used in many solar cells as a cheaper alternative to silicone. The bismuth-based cells have a 22 percent energy conversion efficiency. “Bismuth oxyiodide has all the right physical property attributes for new, highly efficient light absorbers,” said co-author and Cambridge material science professor Judith Driscoll, in a press release. “I first thought of this compound around five years ago, but it took the highly specialized experimental and theoretical skills of a large team for us to prove that this material has real practical potential.” [University of Cambridge]

A team of researchers out of the University of Warwick set out to teach a computer to determine what qualities makes outdoor places beautiful. Using more than 200,000 images of places in the U.K.—which were rated by users of the online game Scenic-Or-Not—the team "trained" a learning algorithm in what characteristics determine a beautiful place. Using the Places Convolutional Neural Network, the program was ultimately able to independently assess places based on comparisons with the catalog of rated images. "We discover that, as well as natural features such as ‘coast’, ‘mountain’ and ‘canal natural’, man-made structures such as ‘tower’, ‘castle’ and ‘viaduct’ lead to places being considered more scenic," the study abstract writes. "Importantly, while scenes containing ‘trees’ tend to rate highly, places containing more bland natural green features such as ‘grass’ and ‘athletic fields’ are considered less scenic." [Royal Society Open Science]

On July 15, a self-powered boat called the Energy Observer departed from Paris, and started a six-year journey around the world. The 100-foot-long boat utilizes renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydrogen fuel—which is produced on board through the electrolysis of sea water—to power itself without the byproduct of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Energy Observer team, the boat is not only the first ever vessel to use hydrogen as fuel, but is now also a case study for testing how sustainable vehicles that use renewable and clean energy sources fare against harsh environments. The team is optimistic that the expedition findings can eventually be applied to projects on land. "There is not one miracle solution to combat climate change: there are solutions which we must learn to operate together," said Victorien Erussard, the Observer's captain, on the expedition's website. "That's what we are doing with Energy Observer: allowing nature's energies, as well as those of our society, to collaborate. We are bringing, around our project, the knowledge from companies, laboratories, start-ups, and institutions together." [Energy Observer]

John Ronan Architects

ICYMI: 2017 R+D Award winner Dynamic ETFE Façade is an inflatable, responsive façade for a building on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus by John Ronan Architects. [ARCHITECT]

A team of researchers at the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands (MARIN)—who developed a concept for constructing man-made, floating mega islands—have recently put a small-scale model to the test. According to MARIN, the mega islands could be constructed from 87 interlocking, triangular platforms capable of floating on water. "They could be used for housing and recreation, or for the generation and storage of sustainable energy technologies like offshore wind farms, tidal energy, and floating solar panels, or for floating farms for breeding fish and seaweed," writes Luke Dormehl in an article for Digital Trends. The research team is currently working on a digital simulation to gauge how the structure of the island might interact with external factors such as extreme weather and native ecological communities. [Digital Trends]

On July 20, business magnate Elon Musk confirmed that his Boring Company had received "verbal government approval" to build a multi-city, underground Hyperloop transportation system that could connect several East Coast cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Such a transportation system could significantly cut travel times down—meaning a ride from D.C. to New York might last a mere 29 minute rather than three hours by train. No further details have been given about this potential project, but Musk and The Boring Company already began work digging under Los Angeles in June—aiming to build a subterranean highway aimed to help the city's infamously paralyzing traffic. [Tech Crunch]