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March 2005 Archives

March 1, 2005

Washington Post on Emission Cut Benefits

Michael Northrop, director of the global sustainable development grant-making program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, has a to-the-point editorial essay in yesterday's Washington Post. In "Benefits of Cutting Emissions," Northrop lays out the case that, indeed, companies and countries which have gone ahead and worked to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by improving efficiency, bringing in new technologies, or through other business process changes) can see a marked improvement in their economic and financial performance. The essay is little more than a checklist of examples -- many of which will be familiar to WorldChanging readers -- but it's good to see them collected in one spot, and in a mainstream publication. It's a good, pithy rebuttal to those who continue to tell tales of economic disaster if we dare try to cut greenhouse emissions.

Measuring Phytoplankton

worldplank.jpgPhytoplankton -- microscopic plant forms floating in the oceans -- are the closest thing on the planet to the underlying fuel for life. Phytoplankton are at the base of the marine food chain, and produce around half of the oxygen in our atmosphere. We know that they bloom and are consumed quickly; phytoplankton have an annual production comparable to all terrestrial plants on Earth. Up until now, however, nobody had figured out a way to determine precise phytoplankton growth rates.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara and NASA have done just that, using satellite observations of phytoplankton color.

The new approach is based on the premise that the "greenness" in phytoplankton, its level of pigmentation per cell, is a reflection of its growth rate, said David Siegel, professor of geography and director of the Institute for Computational Earth System Science at UCSB. The researchers have discovered a means, by satellite, to measure the biomass of phytoplankton from ocean light-scattering properties, and to infer growth rates from simultaneous measurements of the greenness of the individual phytoplankton cells.

Continue reading "Measuring Phytoplankton" »

Big Energy, Public Ownership

windturbine.jpgOne of the less-worldchanging aspects of many of the wind power projects underway is that most are being done by independent companies, which then sell the power to the appropriate electric utility or grid. Not that corporate involvement is a problem -- we're all for firms being a part of the bright green future. But it would be nice to see some of the public utilities get in on the action. That's what's so appealing about the Last Mile Electricity Co-op, and their new White Creek Project, which will open a 200 megawatt wind farm in southern Washington state, with over 80% ownership by public utilities (the remainder owned by participating non-profits).

Last Mile Electric Co-op membership comprises eight public utility districts, a handful of non-profit organizations, and the city of Olympia, Washington. Most of their projects are small-scale, from farm-sized wind installations producing up to a few hundred kilowatts of power, to renewables research such as wind mapping and dairy waste-to-energy projects. White Creek is their first step into utility-scale projects.

Other wind cooperative efforts exist, and many are doing quite well. The White Creek Project, however, will be orders of magnitude bigger than the vast majority of these other projects, and will serve 60,000 regional homes . Although smaller wind (and solar and, eventually, tidal/microhydro) power generation will be an increasingly important part of a smart grid future, it will take more big projects like White Creek for renewables to get the public's attention.

White Creek is scheduled to come online in early 2006.

March 2, 2005

Green Olympics 2012?

The location for the 2012 games has yet to be chosen, but two of the top contenders are New York and London. As noted here recently, New York's efforts to get the Olympics have not gone without controversy; as Emily notes, there's no sign that the organizers for NY2012 have paid much attention to the "green Olympics" conversation going on around the world (especially in China, site of the 2008 games). London, however, seems to be embracing the green Olympics idea in a big way.

If the bid goes out to London, the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will feature many renewable energy and energy efficiency measures in the spirit of the country's recent adoption of the Kyoto Protocol.

Energy conservation and the use of renewable energy will be promoted across Olympic venues, coupled with a public education campaign to raise awareness of these issues. [...]

"This is a fantastic first step to contribute to a 'low carbon Games', and we are delighted to lead the way in helping to achieve this target at such a important international event," said Jeremy Leggett, CEO of solarcentury.

I admit to mixed feelings about this. Of course the venues built for the Olympics should be as energy-efficient and as carbon-neutral as possible, but it would be sad if, in 2012, energy conservation and renewable energy still need to be promoted as something special and different. Making the Olympics in 2012 green shouldn't be seen as being ahead of the curve -- not having a green Olympics in 2012 should be seen as lagging behind.

Distributed -- and Interactive

curve.jpgWe pay attention to the growth of distributed computing efforts for a few reasons: they're quite often projects with distinctly worldchanging aspects, whether trying to figure out protein folding, climate prediction, or controlling a smart electricity grid; they can be projects which promote new forms of social and economic organization, such as the "urban grid" idea; and distributed computing is a useful model for other forms of collaborative endeavors. The one downside to distributed computing projects is that they generally are passive affairs, churning away on your computer when you're not paying attention. But a new project, using distributed computing to find extra-solar planets, might just change the way people use distributed computing.

Continue reading "Distributed -- and Interactive" »

CDM Projects

The "Clean Development Mechanism" (CDM) of the Kyoto Treaty encourages developed world deals in and technology transfers to the developing world in order to cut carbon emissions. CDM projects reduce overall greenhouse emissions, the greenhouse footprint of up-and-coming countries, and bring in new technologies and funds. What's not to love?

Ken Novak links to a couple of articles about CDM projects, one from India, the other from the Philippines. These articles underscore the point that the developing world is part of Kyoto, and that the CDM can be an engine for energy leapfrogging. Read on for a few interesting quotes from each piece.

Continue reading "CDM Projects" »

Biomimicry for Disaster Response

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has embarked on a fascinating research project to study insect group behavior and virus propagation as models for civil engineering collaboration networks in a post-disaster environment. This is biomimicry used not for design, but for understanding human use of information.

The research team, which includes biological, computer and social scientists and civil engineers, will apply their natural-world findings to three major areas: collaboration among organizations involved in disaster-relief efforts; the use of information technology to support preparedness, response and recovery tasks; and the emerging role of civil engineers as key first responders to disasters. [...]

[Noshir] Contractor[, professor of speech communication and of psychology,] said that one of the challenges being explored in the new research is “how first responders have to rely on local information and often work in the absence of global information.”

“An emergency-response strategy based on complete global information being made available instantly to all responders is fundamentally flawed,” Contractor said. “Instead, we need to develop a strategy that leverages cutting-edge research in information technology to enable the rapid assembly and deployment of ad hoc, flexible networks of responders who act largely on the basis of local information. Such a strategy would be enormously helpful in helping us cope with disasters such as the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean.”

Continue reading "Biomimicry for Disaster Response" »

March 3, 2005

Chinese Renewable Energy Law

PhysOrg passes along a report that the Chinese legislature just passed a Renewable Energy Law to "ease the energy strain, secure the country's energy security and better protect ecological environment." Beijing will push for 10% renewable energy by 2020; the new law requires that all state power grids purchase electricity from renewable sources. "Renewable" is defined as including hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal and "marine" energy (presumably tidal & wave).

My take: this is largely window-dressing. 10% by 2020 is a remarkably unambitious goal, and may be met largely by expanded hydroelectric megaprojects. There's no sign that China is set to take advantage of its position to force real advances. Businesses around the world are hungry to get into the Chinese market. Imagine the result if China passed a requirement that all passenger vehicles sold by (say) 2010 used hybrid-electric technology, or that all new buildings (such as the towers going up across the south China coastal cities) meet LEED-style efficiency rules. China could and should do much more than this one new law.

More Reverse Biomimicry

We noted earlier the use of software compression algorithms as tools for discovering new ways for vaccines to spot and attack HIV. Now comes another example of biologists looking at software as a way of understanding nature. Canadian researchers have applied models for the propagation of computer viruses across the Internet to the spread of the spiny water flea in Canadian lakes, an invasive species. The network model provided new insights into both how the flea moves from lake to lake and how it could be controlled. The full text of the article, from the current issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology, is available online. Fair warning -- the article is about the spiny water flea, not about the model used.

While have great affection for biomimicry, the use of natural models for designed products and systems, this use of designed products and systems as models for understanding nature -- technomimicry? -- is also worth watching.

(Via Biology News)

Fuel Cell Benz

benzfc.jpgHydrogen fuel cell cars are getting closer and closer to usability. At the Geneva Motor Show, DaimlerChrysler introduced its Mercedes-Benz B-Class fuel cell car, which uses the same external frame as its popular-in-Europe B-Class compact car. Green Car Congress has some of the details -- the new model fuel cell (shown in blue in the cutaway image) puts out a respectable 134 horsepower (100 kW), and the vehicle can get about 400 km (250 miles) on a tank of hydrogen, both significant improvements over the previous DaimlerChrysler fuel cell design. (An aside: if we move to a hydrogen world, will we still refer to it as a "tank of gas?" I suspect we will, the same way many people still talk about "dialing" a phone or "turning" the channel on a TV. But I digress.)

DaimlerChrysler says that over 100 of their fuel cell vehicles are currently in operation for everyday use, part of "the world’s most extensive series of practical tests for the fuel cell in cars, vans and regular service buses." Additional photos of the B-Class fuel cell car can be found here.

Vehicle fuel cells are progressing nicely, and I would expect to see hydrogen-fueled cars with range and power roughly equivalent to current gasoline vehicles in the not-too-distant future. That solves one of the problems with a transition to a hydrogen world -- but not all of them. Some of the remaining dilemmas we need to work out include: (a) Where does the hydrogen come from? (b) How is it stored? (c) How long does it take to fill the tank? (d) Where can you find fueling stations? (e) Can we bring fuel cell prices down to acceptable levels?

Nonetheless, for those of you pulling for the hydrogen version of the bright green transportation world, this new Benz should be an exciting development.

March 4, 2005

Scooters of Tomorrow

vxe.jpgIt's surprising to me that scooters aren't more popular in the US. After all, scooters can handle the distance and hills of suburbia more easily than bicycles, and can wind through jammed city streets (and find parking) pretty effortlessly. They don't have the power and machismo of motorcycles, true; perhaps they'd be more popular if they were seen not as weak cousins of motorcycles, but as showing how future bikes might evolve.

Honda seems to be taking that path, as it is exploring bringing both hybrid-electric and fuel cell technologies to its scooter line, and is promoting them on its motorcycle web page. The 50cc hybrid scooter gets 60% better mileage than the standard 50cc gas model; the fuel cell model is bigger (125cc), and runs on the same fuel cell stack used in their FCX car. Both are prototypes, naturally; if it turns out there's little interest in hybrid or fuel cell scooters, Honda never has to mention them again...

But what if you do want an advanced technology scooter?

Vectrix is now making the VXe, an all-electric scooter, and has plans to introduce a fuel cell model real soon now. The Honda scooters, while nicely styled, still look like scooters; the Vectrix VXe, conversely, looks like the offspring of a sport motorcycle. It's big -- almost 200 kg in weight -- and maxes out at 100 km/h, almost enough to take on the freeway, and certainly enough to scoot down city and suburban streets with confidence. At least until your battery runs out, that is. As with all currently-available electrics, range remains an issue. Even with regenerative braking adding charge back to the battery, the VXe only goes about 68 miles, less if you drive close to top speed.

Still, it's good to see this kind of technology exploration. It's entirely possible that the limited range of an electric is a non-issue for most scooter riders. Abundant interest in the VXe could, in turn, prompt Honda (and other makers of scooters and motorcycles) to bring their prototypes to market. Scooters are wildly popular around the world: in Taiwan, for example, there are 10 million scooters for a population of 23 million people; Italy has 6 million; China bought 10 million and India bought 3 million in 2000 alone. It wouldn't be a bad idea to start to turn those numbers green.

Hybrid Snowblower. No, really.

Speaking of Honda, while poking around looking for details on their hybrid scooter, I ran across this gem: the HSS1170i hybrid-electric snowblower. The HSS1170i...

...combines a gasoline engine for powering the snowblower apparatus and charging the battery, with electric motors for forward propulsion. [...] Replacing the conventional gasoline engine with electric motors allows for computerization of the HSS1170i drive system. This results in smoother forward propulsion and optimum automatic speed control based on workload. [...] The HSS1170i is equipped with a Honda e-SPEC engine, an environmentally friendly vertical powerplant that surpasses US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Phase II regulations-the most stringent in the world.

Moreover, the HSS1170i is the fourth hybrid snowblower in Honda's lineup. They actually make more models of hybrid snowblowers than hybrid cars.

Sim Outbreak

episims.jpgHow do you handle the outbreak of a highly infectious disease?

Whether it's a terrorist use of smallpox or the Avian Flu, public health officials worldwide are fearful that we will see a deadly pandemic in the not-too-distant future. The right way to respond to such an event so as to limit deaths is a big question. Are immediate quarantines the right answer? Mass vaccinations? Vaccination efforts targeting only the "super-spreaders" who have a multitude of social connections? Epidemiologists often have little more to go on than theory and best-guesses. Researchers Chris Barnett, Stephen Eubank and James Smith at the Los Alamos National Laboratory decided to take a page from urban planning and crafted a simulation system called EpiSims, which maps the spread of infectious diseases and models different containment plans. They wrote about their findings in the current issue of Scientific American.

EpiSims is a program based on TRANSIMS, an urban planning/transit system simulation. The software models the behavior of residents of a virtual city, following their movement and contacts, building maps of their social networks, then charting the spread of infection based on different containment scenarios. TRANSIM was based on Portland, Oregon, and the first EpiSims research (on the spread of smallpox) also used that city. EpiSims followed 1.6 million virtual citizens traveling to over 180,000 different destinations, and determined how the disease would spread through the city. The image to the upper right is from a movie available at the EpiSims website tracing a smallpox attack under two different scenarios.

Continue reading "Sim Outbreak" »

Can Travolta Make Hybrids "Cool?"

I'm not holding my breath on this one, but stranger things have happened.

In the new movie "Be Cool," a sequel to the quirky 1995 "Get Shorty," John Travolta's character ("Chili Palmer") is stuck against his wishes behind the wheel of a hybrid -- in this case, a Honda Insight -- much like he was stuck in a minivan in the first movie. And, as before, he goes about convincing the gangsters and gangstas he interacts with that he's the cool one with his hybrid, making everyone else switch to a similar vehicle.

This is not an unadulterated good; the humor of the subplot rests on the audience assuming at the outset that hybrids are, in fact, not cool. That's not necessarily the case, Ed Begley Jr. notwithstanding. Regardless, if the end result is more people demanding hybrid cars, it's probably worth it.

(Via Mixed Power)

500 Miles Per Gallon?

Fareed Zakaria's Newsweek column "Imagine: 500 Miles Per Gallon," in which he argues that a combination of flex-fuel and plug-in hybrid vehicle technologies could significantly reduce our dependence on petroleum, is getting quite a bit of attention in the sustainasphere (see, for example, here and here). That's fine -- it's always good to see the idea that we do, in fact, already have the technologies at hand to build a better planet get wider play -- but I have to admit some exasperation with the way the story is presented. "500 miles per gallon," it turns out, refers not to the fuel consumption of these green cars, but to their relative consumption of oil.

The current crop of hybrid cars get around 50 miles per gallon. Make it a plug-in and you can get 75 miles. Replace the conventional fuel tank with a flexible-fuel tank that can run on a combination of 15 percent petroleum and 85 percent ethanol or methanol, and you get between 400 and 500 miles per gallon of gasoline.

As long as you mentally add that "of gasoline" every time he tosses out the "500 miles per gallon" figure, it's a decent article. And it is good to get this argument in front of a mainstream audience. I just wish Zakaria had been a bit more careful with his phrasing.

Green Homes

Want to buy a solar-powered condo? Developer Clarum Homes has just completed the "Vista Montana" community in Watsonville, California (in central California, east of Monterey). Vista Montana has the nation's largest building-integrated solar electric system in an apartment complex, a 60 kW system projected to produce over 90 megawatt-hours annually. The units were constructed to use 40 percent less energy than would otherwise be typical.

The program includes the installation of tightly sealed ductwork, a high-efficiency heating and ventilation system, and smart glass windows. Hydronic heating units were used to achieve energy efficiency through the combined function of heating both the water and the living space.

Continue reading "Green Homes" »

March 7, 2005

More Details on Fast-Recharge Batteries

This week's New Scientist has a few more details about the rapid-recharge battery technology developed by Altair Nanotechnology we mentioned recently. Two interesting tidbits from the piece: the improved charge rate comes from increasing the effective surface area of the anode at the nanoscale; and the technology for improving the charge rate also translates into faster discharge rates, making the new type lithium-ion batteries suitable for rapid-discharge uses.

The new design also gives the batteries a greater reuse life, up to 20,000 recharges before becoming useless, as compared to ~400 charging cycles for current Li ion batteries.

Alternative Fuels

Fareed Zakaria's piece in Newsweek suggested that plug-in hybrids combined with flex-fuel engines could greatly reduce our dependence on petroleum. We've talked about plug-in hybrids before, so what's this about flex-fuels?

Broadly put, flex-fuel vehicles are those which can run on a variety of fuels, not just gasoline. While most gasoline engines will run acceptably on mixtures of a small amount of alternative fuel (e.g., ethanol) with gasoline, flex-fuel engines are designed to handle much greater amounts of non-petroleum fuel. "E85," or a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, is a flex-fuel choice with some automaker support. This article at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development provides an overview of non-petroleum fuel options; generally speaking, the ones which include "mixed" or "blended" forms in the description are suitable for flex-fuel use.

An advanced flexible engine technology, HCCI, offers a greater range than most flex-fuel engines. As we noted in August, Fiat will be introducing an HCCI engine design in Brazil able to use four different fuels -- gasoline, diesel, ethanol and natural gas. HCCI engines have significantly lower emissions and much greater efficiency than regular internal combustion engines, but they're also much trickier to design and maintain.

You Own Your Own Genes. Now What?

dnadirect.jpgAs biomedical technologies get cheaper, it becomes easier for non-specialists to get access to them; as the technologies get "smarter," it becomes easier for non-specialists to use those them. We see this happening with devices such as inexpensive defibrillators, now standard issue on many airplanes, which are sufficiently automated to allow people with no medical knowledge to save the lives of heart attack victims in mid-air. This is pretty clearly a good thing. But we're also now seeing this happen with genetic testing, and whether or not it's for the good remains to be determined.

DNA Direct is a San Francisco company founded by Ryan Phelan, who started the website which became WebMD. For a couple hundred dollars, DNA Direct will send you a kit to let you take a sample (typically a cheek swab) and send it back for anonymous testing for genes predisposing you to a variety disorders including, starting this week, breast cancer. Counseling is included with the results, which are delivered via the web. No information gets added to your medical records, no insurance companies get notified. The logic here is straightforward: fear of genetic discrimination could make people avoid taking tests which could help them make lifestyle choices to avoid potential problems. Anonymous testing side-steps that problem neatly.

Continue reading "You Own Your Own Genes. Now What?" »

Participatory Panopticon Update

Omron.jpgSeveral stories popped up over the last week of relevance to the continued evolution of the participatory panopticon:

• Camera and network-enabled mobile devices can be a real thorn in the side of people in positions of authority, as they allow the surreptitious capture of evidence of abuse. This is as true for local authorities as it is for national or global powers, especially when those who are victimized by the powerful tend to have their complaints ignored. An example from just last week: a New Jersey high school student used a video-enabled mobile phone to capture images of a teacher screaming at students for not standing during the national anthem, then pulling the chair out from under one of them.

Unsurprisingly, the student was suspended and the board of education plans to ban cell phones from the school, refusing to state whether the teacher will be punished in any way. Not that it will stop kids from bringing them in, or using them to make a record of abuses.

Continue reading "Participatory Panopticon Update" »

DoCoMo Predicts the Future

docomo.jpgVodafone isn't the only telecom company producing snazzy visions of what tomorrow will bring. NTT-DoCoMo, the major player in the Japanese telecom world, has produced its own scenario of the future, fully enabled by ubiquitous computing and communication, of course. "Vision 2010" is set (you guessed it) in 2010, and portrays the lives of several friends. It's a video, not a flash presentation, so unlike the Vodafone scenario, there are no branching storylines.

Although set in Japan, the video is available in (dubbed) English. The voice acting and translated dialogue are all pretty cheesy -- it's hard to avoid thinking about the bad old days of Toho Studios rubber monster movies -- but if you can get past that, the world presented is not at all implausible. It's a bit less "clean" than the Vodafone version, but not terribly different otherwise. It's actually somewhat interesting to see how close the two telecom visions are: does the similarity arise from (perceived) inevitability, from the nature of the telecom industry, or from an inability to really get imaginative?

After you compare the DoCoMo future with the one from Vodafone, check out the Apple Knowledge Navigator (Quicktime) from 1988. What has changed? What do they get right? What did they miss entirely?

(Via Unmediated)

March 8, 2005

Son of Sonofusion

sonolum.jpgA little over a year ago, we posted a piece about research done at Purdue on "sonofusion" -- the energy released when sound waves compress bubbles in liquids. It's been known for almost a century that pulsing sound through liquid can cause flashes of light, a process called sonoluminescence; some scientists believe that the process results in high enough temperatures that fusion is possible. But many people are skeptical -- in order for this to be fusion, you have to see (among other things) plasma generated in the bubble.

Well, guess what?

Continue reading "Son of Sonofusion" »

Watching the Oceans

gloss_mini.jpgThis week's Nature also includes an outstanding editorial by Keith Alverson, "Watching Over the World's Oceans" (PDF), arguing that the oceanographic response to the December tsunami should not be limited to a handful of tsunami sensors. Previous implementations of stand-alone tsunami warning systems have had mixed results, and because tsunamis are such rare events, funding for their maintenance often doesn't have a high priority. A better solution, he suggests, would make tsunami observations part of a larger system:

...the best way to ensure that a tsunami warning system remains fully operational for decades to come is to embed it in broader efforts to observe the ocean. ...

Continue reading "Watching the Oceans" »


glext&masys_300.jpg• 3% of the Earth's surface is urbanized.

• Coastal environments have 65% of the world's urban population.

• 7% of urban dwellers live in the world's largest mega-cities.

• Tokyo is the world's largest urbanized area, at 30,000 square kilometers.

These are just a handful of the findings of GRUMP -- the Global Urban Rural Mapping Project -- run out of Columbia University's Earth Institute. A four year project, GRUMP is one of the first efforts to combine satellite mapping data with population census information. This combination has led to new insights into the distribution of human population across ecosystems, as well as into changes in the pattern of rural/urban development.

GRUMP has an enormous amount of data for those of us interested in the growth of urban communities:

GRUMP Human Settlements is a global database of cities and towns of 1,000 persons or more, each represented as a point, and includes information on population sizes, longitude and latitude coordinates, and data sources. Populations were estimated for 1990, 1995 and 2000. The GRUMP Urban ExtentMask is the first systematic global-scale attempt to portray the boundaries of urban areas with defined populations of 5,000 and larger. The GRUMP Population Grid represents the distribution of human population across the globe, accounting for urban population concentration more precisely than previous efforts.

Best of all, the GRUMP data are available for free use. A web interface allows access to much of the information for casual browsing (which can easily eat up an afternoon), and more serious users can also download the data for each country in standard GIS formats. This is a tremendous contribution to the study of urbanization, and Columbia should be commended for making the data freely available.

March 9, 2005

China's Renewable Energy Law Revisited

Last week, we posted a reference to China's passage of a Renewable Energy Law, mandating that 10% of China's energy production be from renewable sources by 2020. One question that arose, due to a BBC report, was whether hydroelectric counted as renewable -- without including hydroelectric, the push to 10% renewable would be a bigger challenge and a more impressive goal. With hydro, conversely, my take was that the law was largely window-dressing.

The confusion ends here. The Center for Resource Solutions, a US-based group working with China to expand the use of renewable energy sources, confirms that hydroelectric is, indeed, considered to be part of the renewable mix. Window-dressing it is, then.

Learn To Eco-Drive

Green Car Congress points us to a new program in Japan designed to promote changing driving habits to reduce emissions. This program uses:

...an in-vehicle eco-driving navigation system that instructs the driver on fuel-efficient driving. These systems are being installed in official vehicles, private vehicles and taxis. The system detects sudden accelerations, abrupt slowdowns, harsh braking and idling, and calls the driver's attention to these problems by means of a computer-generated voice and a monitor display. The data can be saved to assess effects.

The eco-driving project started in October and finishes this month; the driving monitors will be loaned out to individuals wishing to learn how to drive more efficiently.


bii_sm.jpgHow do you know when an ecosystem is dying? Discovering species on the edge of extinction -- or already past the edge -- doesn't always give the bigger picture. Changes to a region will affect different species in different ways, letting some flourish even as others die.

Bob Scholes and Oonsie Biggs, Systems Ecologists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa, have devised a measurement they call the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII). Their discussion of the BII appears in this week's Nature; a paper presented at a conference (PDF) last year provides more details about the BII:

Continue reading "Intactness" »

The Red List

© Troy InmanWhile following some of the links for the Biodiversity Intactness Index, I happened upon the Red List: the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource's database of information on threatened, endangered, and recently-extinct species.

The goals of the Red List are clear and stark:

  • Identify and document those species most in need of conservation attention if global extinction rates are to be reduced; and
  • Provide a global index of the state of degeneration of biodiversity.
  • Summary statistics and data are available, broken down by kingdom, class/order/family, and degree of threat, but where the Red List shows its power is the searchable database. The basic search allows you to select by Red List category (from "Extinct" and "Extinct in the Wild" to "Least Concern"), country or region, habitat type, and source of threat. The expert search includes taxonomic information. The search results include the conservation actions necessary to prevent further degradation of species conditions, as well as links to other databases (from AmphibiaWeb to Google) for more information. The breadth of the database -- the number of species under threat -- is staggering. The results of search after search are both fascinating and sad.

    The Red List also includes galleries of images of threatened species, such as the lemur pictured above.

    Mobile Phones and Development

    The BBC reports about a new study, undertaken by Vodafone and a group called the Center for Economic Policy Research, which claims that mobile phone use is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world, and that those countries in Africa with the greatest use of mobile phone also saw higher growth rates. The Vodafone report is available here (PDF); fair warning, it's full of fairly dense academic economics prose. Read on for some of its observations and some discussion of its conclusions.

    Continue reading "Mobile Phones and Development" »

    March 10, 2005

    "This Miracle Will End Soon"

    The German magazine Spiegel has an astounding interview with Pan Yue, Deputy Director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration. Pan is remarkably candid about China's environmental situation, and about the damage caused by China's rapid development. I can't recall ever seeing a Chinese government official talk this bluntly about the country's problems -- heck, it would be hard to find a government official from any country being this clear and stark.

    It's tempting to excerpt the whole thing, but here are some choice bits:

    We are using too many raw materials to sustain this growth. To produce goods worth $10,000, for example, we need seven times more resources than Japan, nearly six times more than the United States and, perhaps most embarrassing, nearly three times more than India. Things can't, nor should they be allowed to go on like that.

    ...This miracle [China's economic growth] will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.

    ...Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn't include the costs for health. Then there's the human suffering: In Bejing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment.

    SPIEGEL: You have advocated the introduction of the so-called "green gross domestic product." What does that entail?

    Pan: It is a model that also takes into account the costs of growth, like environmental pollution for example, and is a topic we are discussing with German experts. We want the performance of functionaries to not only be measured in terms of economic growth but also in terms of how they solve environmental problems and social issues.

    China Newsweek interviewed Pan in January; an English translation of that conversation is here, and he's just as candid with the Chinese press as he is with Spiegel. Pan Yue looks to be someone to watch in China. If he is removed from his position or is otherwise shut up, China's in deep trouble; if he's promoted or takes on a higher office, China might have a chance. Pan Yue may be the key to a Chinese environmental "win scenario."

    (Here's more on China's environmental challenges and promise)

    47 Gigawatts

    The Global Wind Energy Council released figures showing that wind power added 7,976 megawatts to the global power production in 2004, bringing the total to 47,317 megawatts -- just over 47 gigawatts of wind power, worldwide. Germany ranks first in national wind capacity, at 16.6 GW, Spain second at 8.3 GW, and the US third at 6.7 GW. 72 percent of new wind installations in 2004 were in Europe, 16 percent in Asia, and only 6 percent in North America.

    Renewable Energy Access has more details.

    March 11, 2005

    Clean vs. Alternative vs. Renewable

    Would you prefer "alternative" energy or "renewable" energy? What about "clean" energy? Thrown together like this, you probably recognize that they all refer to more-or-less the same thing. Used in isolation, however, they tend to prompt different reactions from people. Clint Wilder, contributing editor at Clean Edge, argues that "clean" energy tends to get the best reaction, based on a recent study:

    In opinion research conducted last year in Rhode Island, the Clean Energy States Alliance and marketing consultancy SmartPower found that the label of “clean” energy had a much more positive public reception than “green” (too political), “renewable” (too niche), or “alternative” (too much of an implication that its users must adopt a new lifestyle).

    If you read WorldChanging closely, you'll notice that we rarely use the term "alternative" to describe wind, solar and other non-polluting energy sources. That's intentional (at least for me): "alternative" cedes the ground to polluting sources, because if they're not the alternative, they must be the mainstream choice. In the Bright Green future we see as happening, sources such as wind, solar, tides and such won't be the other choice, they'll be what we all increasingly will rely upon. I've tended to use "renewable" instead, but Wilder makes a good point. "Renewable" is probably a bit too focused on a technical aspect (as with "fossil fuels"); "clean" energy is a clearer meme, and I'll be sure to add that to the editorial mix in my posts.

    Wilder's essay is well-worth reading, although it centers a bit too much on "reframing." If there's a political meme destined soon to join "soccer mom" and "NASCAR dad" in the purgatory of "shoot me if I read it again," reframing is it. We're guilty of using it ourselves, of course, and the concept it describes -- changing the course of an argument through the use of new terms with different underlying contextual connotations -- remains valid. But don't be surprised if it disappears from the language landscape in the not-too distant future.

    To Go Where Nomad Has Gone Before

    Carnegie-Mellon's sensor-laden Nomad robotic explorer, which traveled 135 kilometers across Chile's Atacama desert in 1997, is set to take on a new adventure. It's going to be sent to Antarctica to search for signs of microorganisms living in the ice -- and may be powered, in part, by an on-board wind turbine and solar panels. In preparation, Nomad took a trip across a lake in New Hampshire:

    Nomad, which successfully traversed 10 kilometers through the snow and ice on Lake Mascoma, was equipped with a wind turbine for the first time, while researchers studied the possibility of powering a robotic investigation with combined wind and solar energy.

    Carnegie Mellon and NASA researchers worked with the Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, to arrange the long-distance autonomous navigation tests on Lake Mascoma, which they say simulates the flat, icy terrain of the Antarctic plateau.

    A more detailed description of the Lake Mascoma excursion -- as well as some great high-res pictures of Nomad in the field -- can be found at the LORAX site (Life On ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer -- yeah, it's a stretch, but it's still a good acronym!).

    This won't be Nomad's first trip to Antarctica; in 2000, it was used to search out and find meteorites in the ice, becoming the first robot to perform scientific experiments autonomously. This time around, it's been upgraded with even more sophisticated software and newly designed biosensors allowing it to seek out and identify microbes in hostile environments.

    (Via Gizmodo)

    First Summer Crossing

    This May, polar explorers Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen will begin a four-month journey across the Arctic Ocean -- the first time a summer crossing will have been attempted. They will travel by slac, a combined sled/canoe, and expect to be in the water at least 30% of the time. Or perhaps even more: summer ice depth in the Arctic Ocean is less than half of what it was in the 1960s, and the ice fields have become sufficiently clear that even the long-sought "northwest passage" may soon be open. Dupre and Larsen intend to use the summer crossing as a way to draw attention to environmental disruption and the effects of global warming, and will be collecting snow samples every 50 miles to be analyzed for pollutants.

    Victory Against Biopiracy

    WorldChanging ally and commenter Laurens "Lorenzo" Rademakers gave us a heads-up on a terrific bit of news: India has won a decade-long battle at the European Patent Office against a patent granted on a product derived from the native plant neem. The EU Parliament's Green Party, India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) successfully argued that the anti-fungal properties of neem were part of the traditional knowledge of Indians, and that the patenting corporation, WC Grace, had engaged in "biopiracy."

    The backbone of RFSTE's challenge was that the fungicide qualities of the neem tree and its use had been known in India for over 2,000 years.

    The neem derivatives have also been used traditionally to make insect repellents, soaps, cosmetics, tooth cleaners and contraceptives.

    Vandana Shiva, the Indian environmentalist in charge of RFSTE, was quoted as saying "...Denying the patent means upholding the value of traditional knowledge for millions of women not only in India, but throughout the South. The Free Tree Will Stay Free."

    Traditional Knowledge Databases are a good start to the documentation of medical, food, architectural and cultural knowledge of different societies, and can help Western political institutions recognize claims of "prior art" in biopiracy patent disputes.

    Upscale Hybrid Review

    We've occasionally posted about the coming wave of "upscale" hybrids -- more expensive, more luxurious, less efficient than the Prius or Civic Hybrid -- and it looks like vehicles are finally reaching the showroom.

    MSNBC has a review of the Lexus RX 400h, a hybrid SUV using the Toyota "Synergy Drive" (also found in the Prius). The 29 miles per gallon combined mileage isn't going to get a second glance from Prius or HCH owners, but is still 38% higher than the 21 mpg achieved by the non-hybrid RX 330. Remember the counter-intuitive math of fuel consumption: a driver choosing the 400h over the 330 will save around 1.3 gallons of gasoline every 100 miles, roughly the same savings seen by a driver choosing a 48 mpg Civic Hybrid over a 28 mpg non-hybrid Accord. Lexus 400h drivers may be overly-conscious of not wanting to look like they've made any sacrifices, but they're actually doing a better job of reducing emissions and gasoline dependence than they may realize.

    March 12, 2005

    Kinetic Energy Cell?

    This is one of those inventions that sounds too weird to be real. The Australian Centre for Energy and Greenhouse Technologies, a privately-run, government-sponsored investment group focusing on the development of sustainable energy tech, announced late last month that they are putting money into something called the Kinetic Energy Cell, a device which captures the energy of movement to produce electricity. The original design came from CRC for microTechnology, an organization founded in 1999 to jumpstart Australia's technology industries.

    The prototype designs are about the size of a 9 volt battery, and CEGT sees the possibility that the kinetic energy cell will replace batteries in some functions. Few details are available about precisely how this thing works, however, and I can't find any research material online talking about the idea. Anyone have a good link?

    Suggestions From The Readers

    We frequently get good suggestions from our readers telling us of interesting stories, links, and ideas that we should be covering. This last week has been particularly bountiful, but it happens to coincide with a bunch of WorldChanging contributors winging their way to Austin for South by SouthWest. Rather than let the suggestions grow stale, I thought I'd put a bunch of them together in one post to give a taste of what WorldChanging readers are thinking about these days.

    Curitiba, Brazil
    Mobile Organic Food Market
    India as Science Hub
    Green Roof 101
    Status of Women Around the World

    Continue reading "Suggestions From The Readers" »

    Central American PV to the Grid

    Solar photovoltaics are fairly rare in Central America, and none of them are connected to the grid. El Salvador is about to receive the first one -- a 20 kilowatt system on the roof of the German School in a suburb of San Salvador. The system will be built by a German pv company, Phonix SonnenStrom AG. Construction started in late February, and the system is scheduled to come online on April 7. While a single 20 kilowatt solar pv system isn't much compared to the growing supply of wind power, it's a start. The Bright Green future will have a mix of power sources, and in the coming years smallish solar installations will become increasingly common as costs continue to drop and Kyoto/CDM projects proliferate.

    March 13, 2005

    Watching the CDM

    cdm.gifWe've been generally enthusiastic about the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto treaty, as it is already leading to pretty large-scale investment by the signatory nations in renewable energy and greenhouse gas-reduction projects in the developing world. In principle, this can be of great benefit to both developed and developing nations, as the CDM projects give the sponsors time to bring down their own emissions while giving the recipients access to new, clean sources of energy. As with all human institutions, however, the CDM is far from perfect; critics claim that the CDM all too often funds projects that don't meet the spirit of the treaty, or pointedly ignore local conditions, even exacerbating problems in poor communities.

    The Indonesia-based CDM Watch website actively monitors CDM projects to make certain that they actually benefit the developing world. They collect ongoing statistics on CDM projects, and watch closely for problems. They have a searchable database of CDM projects, as well as links to project proposals. They've also created a CDM Stakeholder's Toolkit document, describing what the CDM is, how it works, and what questions citizens should ask about CDM projects in their countries and communities; the Toolkit is available for free, and in several languages.

    Continue reading "Watching the CDM" »

    10% of Europeans Safe from HIV

    It appears that around 10% of people of European ancestry are unable to be infected by HIV. These individuals carry a genetic mutation that blocks the virus from entering cells. It appears that the source of this mutation was the Great Plague of the middle ages, which was not the bacterial bubonic plague, but was instead "a continuing series of epidemics of a lethal, viral, haemorrhagic fever that used the CCR5 as an entry port into the immune system."

    It remains to be seen whether this will assist with efforts to create an anti-HIV vaccine.

    Emergency Alerts by Cell/Pager/Text

    We posted last December on the DC Text Alert program, which sends emergency alerts via SMS. The Washington Post (via Yahoo! News) has more details on the system, which is now called the Community Emergency Alert Network. Traffic, weather emergencies, road closures, and the like are beamed to the text-capable devices of over 16,000 subscribers. Broadcasts are available in English or Spanish.

    March 14, 2005

    Hybrid Lighting

    Not only can you drive hybrids for green self-satisfaction, you can light your building with hybrids, too. Hybrid lighting, that is, a new technology from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The system pipes sunlight throughout a building, providing useful levels of light whenever the sun is out. But on cloudy days, or at night, the lighting fixtures turn on fluorescent tubes to supplement the output -- that's the "hybrid" part. The system can even capture light for power generation. World Science Net has some details, but ORNL has an entire section of their website devoted to Hybrid Solar Lighting.

    It's quite the clever bit of technology:

    The concept, originated by ORNL's Jeff Muhs, separates and uses different portions of sunlight for two applications, interior lighting and distributed power generation. The concept takes advantage of two facts. First, the luminous efficacy (or light output per unit of energy, expressed as lumens per Watt) of the visible part of the spectrum is more than double that of electric lamps. Second, photovoltaic cells, especially thermo-photovoltaic cells, are very efficient in converting the infrared portion of the spectrum to electricity.

    Continue reading "Hybrid Lighting" »

    California Clean Energy Fund

    One of the better bits of fallout from recent energy troubles in California is the implementation of the California Clean Energy Fund, a $30 million investment fund to seed new companies focusing on clean renewable energy production. Profits from the investments would be fed back into the fund, which would otherwise operate as a non-profit organization. Three leading venture capital groups -- Nth Power, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and VantagePoint Venture Partners -- will manage the investments. More details at the SF Chronicle and Businesswire.

    (Via GCC and Ken Novak)

    Biological Engineering

    bioen.jpgLast month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology inaugurated its first new major in 29 years (PDF). The field of study? Biological Engineering.

    Biological Engineering is not the same as what is commonly called "biotechnology" or "genetic engineering." It is the application of mathematically-driven engineering principles to the construction of novel genetic structures; in contrast, genetic engineering is often a trial-and-error process, with numerous opportunities for and examples of unanticipated results. Many of the reasonable concerns about GMO foods and animals come from this hit or miss aspect of biotech. Biological Engineers have a more systematic approach, and use an increasingly deep understanding of how DNA works to then make microorganisms perform narrowly specified tasks.

    Last Thursday, the Guardian ran a lengthy article on MIT's Biological Engineering program, covering its history and its intent.

    (Note: as of this afternoon, the MIT Biological Engineering website appears to be down.)

    Continue reading "Biological Engineering" »

    Future Washington

    Rohit passed along this gem, and I thought it worthy of broader note: writer and editor Ernest Lilley, new resident of the American capitol city, is producing an anthology of science fiction stories set in a future version of Washington, D.C.. I'm a sucker for a good piece of political science fiction, and this anthology will undoubtedly have some great examples of the genre. Authors who have expressed an interest in contributing include some well-known names, but all writers are welcome to submit their offerings.

    Deadline for story submission is early April, 2005 (which is less of a deadline and more of a deadsmear, but I digress.

    Technology and Science, Around the World

    TRcover.gifThis month's Technology Review has a fascinating set of stories about how technological development and problems are viewed in seven different countries: China, Chile, Brazil, the United States, South Africa, Germany and the Netherlands. The articles are written by locals (or regional authors), sometimes even people involved in the technological efforts described. The introductory piece, What Matters Most Depends On Where You Are, features a nifty set of maps displaying technological aspects of different parts of the world, from Internet and mobile phone use to production of genetically modified crops. Some of the statistics may be a bit surprising -- were you aware that Argentina was the second largest producer of GMOs? -- while others will confirm suspicions -- the map of Internet access per capita is very nearly the precise opposite of the map of cost of Internet access.

    And, you know, there's something about the issue's cover that seems strangely familiar...

    Some interesting tidbits:

    Continue reading "Technology and Science, Around the World" »

    March 15, 2005

    Party With Bruce

    The Bruce Sterling-hosted after-party is a long-standing South by SouthWest tradition. It used to be held in his otherwise quiet suburban Austin home, but has since outgrown such humble settings. This year, its location was a closely-guarded secret, but the cat's now out of the bag, courtesy Mr. Sterling himself. He posted the details for tonight's shindig on his blog.

    Here's the catch: it's a costume party.

    The Gimmick:
    This party will be taking place in the year 2010.
    Come dressed as yourself five years from now.
    And prepare to vanish like a magic pumpkin
    well before midnight.

    Under Mars

    undermars.jpgWe may not yet appreciate the degree to which the advent of the digital camera has reinvented the recording of history. In the past, if we wanted to gain access to individual stories of critical events, we had to rely on scattered diaries, occasional photos and faltering oral histories, and hope that the perspective they offered bore some connection to how things actually transpired. Today, digital cameras are carried everywhere, giving witnesses and participants an easy way to record events from their own perspective and put them online. The power of this new form of historical documentation becomes most visible when it is used by soldiers.

    Under Mars is an incredible, disturbing, provocative and fascinating website containing digital images from soldiers fighting in the war in Iraq. The operators of Under Mars put up the images as they are received, including the captions provided by the soldiers; subjects of the images range from pictures of buddies to shots of Iraqi buildings and people to stark photos of the dead and wounded. Make no mistake: some of the pictures in Under Mars are extremely graphic in their depiction of the horrors of war. Such images are not numerous, but they are scattered throughout the nearly 1500 pictures currently on the site. I'm not kidding -- there are some pictures that are just shocking.

    Continue reading "Under Mars" »

    How Long Does It Last?

    Quick quiz: How long does carbon dioxide last in the atmosphere? If you said "a few hundred years," you're partially right -- but not completely. It turns out that the chemistry of atmospheric CO2 is a bit more complex than is generally thought. The University of Chicago's David Archer has a guest piece over at RealClimate, spelling out why pumping extra CO2 into the atmosphere makes for a real long-term mess.

    When you release a slug of new CO2 into the atmosphere, dissolution in the ocean gets rid of about three quarters of it, more or less, depending on how much is released. The rest has to await neutralization by reaction with CaCO3 or igneous rocks on land and in the ocean... If one is forced to simplify reality into a single number for popular discussion, several hundred years is a sensible number to choose, because it tells three-quarters of the story, and the part of the story which applies to our own lifetimes.

    However, the long tail is a lot of baby to throw out in the name of bath-time simplicity. Major ice sheets, in particular in Greenland, ocean methane clathrate deposits, and future evolution of glacial/interglacial cycles might be affected by that long tail. A better shorthand for public discussion might be that CO2 sticks around for hundreds of years, plus 25% that sticks around forever.

    The Future Starts Now

    WorldChanging Ally Dale Carrico wrote an excellent essay on the value of nanotechnology as a method of helping the world's poorest regions. I'd been mulling the pieces that he refers to in his essay, but (as I told him in email), Dale articulates the position I'd take far more eloquently and completely than I would have been able to. I'd chalk this piece up as mandatory reading both for nanotechnology enthusiasts and those interested in global development issues. Dale has generously agreed to let us republish this essay in full here.

    The original essay appeared on Dale's website, Amor Mundi.

    The Future Starts Now: Technoprogressives Cannot Postpone the Redress of Poverty and Treatable Illness

    by Dale Carrico

    Friend and ally Mike Treder, one of the directors of the technoprogressive Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, recently posted an editorial to the CRN blog about some of the ways in which advanced (but possibly developmentally proximate) nanotechnologies might be used eventually to ameliorate some of the devastating poverty in the developing world. He is absolutely right about this, and it is encouraging to find more people beginning to think about ways in which emerging technologies might be applied to urgent social and political problems that confront humanity.

    His comments complement points made in a recent article (to which he links in his own post) by Charles Choi, which worries that “Nanotech May Not Reach [the] Poor.” Despite the fact that “the poor of the world, who make up nearly 80 percent of the global population, [stand to] benefit most from emerging nanotechnologies,” writes Choi, they are not likely in fact to reap them at all “unless nations commit the funding and [endorse the] policies necessary to spread those benefits.”

    Treder paints a dramatic and painfully accurate picture of the scope of the global healthcare crisis:

    Continue reading "The Future Starts Now" »

    March 16, 2005

    Goodbye, Kilimanjaro

    For most of us in the west, the African mountain Kilimanjaro is known for two things: its summit is the point on the planet at which one can see more surface area of Earth than from any other location (the North American champ for that is Mount Diablo, which I can see from my back window); and, although it sits close to the equator, its summit is perpetually shrouded in snow, a fact immortalized by Ernest Hemingway's 1938 short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

    Make that, "was perpetually shrouded."

    In 2000, images from Landsat, one of the various Earth-observing satellites, took an alarming picture, showing that much of the snow and glaciation at the Kilimanjaro summit had disappeared in just ten years. The 1990 and 2000 photos are shown to the right; click them for larger versions at NASA. At the time, scientists estimated that the remainder of the ice and snow would be gone by 2015.

    They now have to revise their estimates. Recent photos (small version to the left, click for larger) show that very little of the mountain's snow remains; what's left will probably be gone in a just a few more years. Before the decade is out, Kilimanjaro will lose the snow which covered it for the last 11,000 years -- the snow which fascinated travelers, inspired artists, and gave it the name "shining mountain." Global warming and deforestation are both culprits; the relative balance between the two is still subject to debate (see comments for links). We've linked to other before/after images showing the effect of climate disruption, but there's something deeply symbolic about this particular example.

    The 2004 image is part of a collection called NorthSouthEastWest: A 360° View of Climate Change, given to the attendees of this week's G8 energy and environment summit. The UK, which becomes the head of the G8 this year, has already stated that it will try to make climate disruption the top agenda item for the organization. Pictures like these are useful for making visceral the often-academic discussions of carbon and timelines, and for driving home the point that global warming isn't a problem off in the future, but is happening -- and having serious consequences -- right now.


    Talk about misreading the market... Green Car Congress posts a link to a nice bit of crow eaten by the CEO of DaimlerChrysler, Dieter Zetsche. Admitting that they, along with most other car companies, had completely misjudged the market impact of hybrid cars -- and given Toyota and Honda the "moral high ground" -- Zetsche said that DaimlerChrysler was working with GM to build next-generation hybrid technologies.

    Zetsche added that the collaboration between GM and Chrysler aimed at developing full-hybrid architecture will benefit both companies.

    "As my wife often says, 'If you know you're going to arrive a bit late to the dinner party, be sure you bring the best wine,' " he said.

    GM executives have said the new hybrid system will be available on full-size SUVs and pickup trucks by 2007.


    STEGSM.jpgSave the Elephants is a conservation group working to protect elephants in the wild. In February 2004, they launched the Save the Elephants GSM Animal Tracking Project. Working with equipment donated by the Kenyan mobile phone company Safaricom, they developed elephant collars outfitted with GPS tags and GSM communicators set up to send text messages -- SMS -- with the pachyderm's current location. The system is cheaper than trackers relying on satellite phones, and more useful than those relying on VHF radio; GSM is easily brought onto the Internet, allowing the tagged elephants to be tracked and monitored via the web, helping researchers figure out elephant ranges and movement patterns.

    A June 2004 report (PDF) lays out some benefits which will emerge from the expansion of this project:

  • Better fence positioning to lessen animal-human conflict in high risk zones;
  • Re-routing animals or humans to forestall a human-animal conflict;
  • Faster detection and action response times against potential threats;
  • Enhanced early warning systems to detect changes in poaching levels;
  • Better definition of sites for potential reintroduction of animals.
  • A woefully-devoid-of-details article in the UK's Inquirer suggests that the first of these may already be underway, with farmers near elephant migration routes given warning of nearby herds, so that the farmers can head off damage to crops.

    For obvious anti-poaching reasons, the elephant location information is not available to the public. Still, this is a wonderful example of how inexpensive, ubiquitous communication technology has applications beyond simple human interaction. Save The Elephants is looking to expand the GPS-GSM project to other endangered wildlife species, such as Grevy's Zebra, the black rhino and even the big cats.

    In late February, the project won the GSM Association's "Mobility in the Environment Award."

    (Via Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends, which has some more details and a link to a terrific Safaricom advertisement talking about this project.)

    EFF on DRM and Development

    eff.jpgThe Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a detailed and devastating argument against the use of DRM -- "digital rights management" -- technologies, with a section on problems for the developing world. DRM is used to limit how end-users can make use of digital files, whether music, movies or other media. DRM is meant to "protect" the files from improper use, as defined by the owners (which may or may not be the creators) of the original work in question. While there's no question that artists should be compensated for their work, DRM has numerous failings, both as a technology and as a social institution.

    The document, Digital Rights Management: A failure in the developed world, a danger to the developing world, is available both as HTML and as a PDF. The argument it makes in opposition to DRM in the developing world is straightforward:

    Continue reading "EFF on DRM and Development" »

    March 17, 2005


    susbus_logo.jpgCan landfills be reimagined as a resource? The people behind the Susbus Project think so. They are working to take the methane coming from landfills -- garbage dumps being the largest human source of methane -- and turn it into fuel. It's a complex process, as methane is not the only constituent of landfill gas, but the project is making serious headway.

    Continue reading "Susbus" »

    Digital Solidarity Fund

    We've talked quite a bit about the value of information and communication technology as a tool for development. While certainly not more important than basic literacy, health and nutrition efforts, ICT can play a significant role in both local empowerment and accelerating economic development, especially mobile and free/open source technologies. A recurring question, however, is how to pay for such tools; while proposals to bring down the cost of individual devices can be helpful, broader-based efforts may also be necessary.

    That's the goal of the Digital Solidarity Fund.

    Continue reading "Digital Solidarity Fund" »

    March 18, 2005

    View from the Peak

    Peak Oil -- Hubbard's Peak -- Peak Energy -- no matter what you call it, the notion that we will be at maximum oil production far sooner than anyone thought has caught fire of late, with a series of reports popping up in the industrial, environmental, and mainstream press. Some of these have been triggered by crude oil prices once again popping up above $55/barrel, flirting with an absolute record price (although still nowhere close to 1980's dollar-adjusted price of above $80/barrel). But the biggest peak oil news has to be the report coming from the analysts at John S. Herold, Inc., a respected independent energy industry research group, which made predictions of when various oil companies would see peak production.

    Salon has a good story on Herold's report (subscription or advertisement views required), and it's sobering reading.

    Continue reading "View from the Peak" »

    March 20, 2005

    Steffen & Sterling -- On Video!

    StefSter.jpgDid you, like me, miss seeing Alex & Bruce deliver the closing keynote at last week's South by South West Interactive conference? Emily, Dawn and Jon wrote a terrific summary (which Bruce even linked to), but sometimes... sometimes you have to see the one-half a fabricated dinosaur really to understand just how important it is.

    Fortunately for us all, South by South West now has a short excerpt of the talk in the official conference video up on the conference website.

    Watch Sterling & Steffen in high-quality Quicktime at this link.

    Watch Steffen & Sterling in quick & dirty MPEG at this link.

    (We'll put up link to other WorldChanging-related panel videos as they become available.)

    March 21, 2005

    South-South Pharma

    This has "shape of things to come" written all over it.

    Brazil is one of a handful of countries outside the west with the technical expertise to manufacture anti-AIDS drugs; in order to qualify for the WTO rules giving developing nations the right to use generic versions of patented drugs in emergencies, they have to be able to manufacture them locally. As part of an ongoing program to spread that expertise, Brazil has agreed to help Mozambique fight HIV/AIDS by first acting as quality assurance for imported anti-retroviral drugs, and then building a pharmaceutical plant in Mozambique to produce anti-retrovirals locally. Brazil will train Mozambican staff to operate the facility.

    Another Step Towards the Participatory Panopticon

    There are two major characteristics of the world I've called the "Participatory Panopticon:" personal mobile networked cameras are everywhere; and a significant portion of what we see and hear gets digitally recorded. The first part is more or less already here -- and now we have another step towards making the second part real.

    Unmediated reports that an Israeli company, Natural Widget, is now selling an application which will automatically record your mobile phone conversations. Although it's apparently dependent upon the limited storage built into your phone (assuming you have the Nokia Series 60 phone it works with), the application is being sold for precisely the reasons which I've argued will lead us to a world where everything is seen, everything is recorded, and not by the government, but by us all.

    Continue reading "Another Step Towards the Participatory Panopticon" »

    Diesel Hybrids Real Soon Now

    Last June, we asked where the diesel-electric hybrid cars were. After all, diesel engines tend to get higher gas mileage per gallon than gasoline engines, and biodiesel shows some promise as a way of reducing dependence on petroleum. Adding hybrid tech would have the potential to boost mileage figures even higher than that of the Prius or Insight. It turns out that such technology had been tested, but (aside from narrow uses) never really rolled out in passenger vehicles. Today, however, Wired has a report detailing efforts on the part of automakers GM and DaimlerChrysler (known to be working together to play catch-up with hybrids) to bring out hybrid diesels in the near future, with the potential to boost fuel efficiency by up to 25%.

    The downside appears to be price, with manufacturers claiming that the technology would add up to $8,000 to the cost of a vehicle. I'm skeptical of these figures, however. Automakers currently suing the state of California to block the implementation of CO2 emission reduction rules have a vested interest in showing that making their vehicles more efficient would be too costly.


    Fabien Cousteau -- grandson of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau -- has adopted a remarkable new way to study sharks in their natural environment: become one of them.

    "Troy" is a custom-designed submarine allowing him to swim with Great White Sharks. Designed by a team of Hollywood special effects technologists and shark biologists, Troy is...

    ...an anatomically correct, 14-foot-long, 1000-pound, one-man “wet” sub (there’s water inside) that Cousteau operates in full diving gear. Troy’s experimental motors haul as fast as five knots. “The sub is an observational platform that lets me swim along at shark speed,” says Cousteau. “The whole point is to fool them into thinking I’m a shark.”

    Troy moves with a natural tail motion fast enough to keep up with with shark packs. Its steel frame gives it sufficient strength to support the pneumatic propulsion system, but the material used to simulate shark skin is only camouflage, offering no protection. The eyes are sophisticated video cameras, used both for navigation and recording the activities of nearby sharks.

    Continue reading "Shark-Sub" »

    Zero Emissions Cargo Ship

    orcelle.jpgIs a cargo ship partially pulled along by the wind not sufficiently green for you? How about one complete with photovoltaic-covered sails, power-generating fins, and fuel cells? That's the design now being shown around by Wallenius Wilhelmsen, one of the world's biggest cargo ship manufacturers. Although the "E/S Orcelle" is a concept vehicle (i.e., not intended for production in this form), Wallenius Wilhelmsen intends this as a demonstration that efficient, clean technologies are now available for the shipping industry. The E/S Orcelle, if built as a car carrier (its somewhat ironic default configuration), would be able to carry 50% more than current car carrier ships at similar tonnage -- and would completely eliminate the use of pollution-laden ballast water tanks.

    (Found via Gizmodo)

    Gorlov's Helical Turbine

    Wind and solar power will certainly be part of the bright green future, but they may be overshadowed by hydrokinetic power -- electricity generated from the movement of water. Tides, waves, even the flow of rivers can be harnessed to produce electricity, and most such sources are far more consistent than the wind and sun. And while dams have a variety of environmental drawbacks, newer forms of hydropower -- so called "free flow" hydro -- don't block the flow of water (and its inhabitants), and don't require the inundation of acres of land.

    The Natural Resources Defense Council's OnEarth Magazine reports on a relatively new manifestation of free flow hydro: the Helical Turbine designed by Alexander Gorlov. While it's not the only free flow hydro technology trying to get investor attention, it has some unique properties, and an interesting history.

    For its design, Gorlov credits in part French engineer Georges Jean-Marie Darrieus, who in 1931 received a U.S. patent for a turbine whose blade would be shaped in a way that was "analogous to that of the wings of birds." This, he knew, would increase efficiency and make the turbine spin much faster than the wind or water hitting it. On paper, the Darrieus turbine had magnificent potential, but the real world was too much for it. The ruler-straight blades had a tendency to pulsate wildly, rip from the axle, or snap in two. Gorlov corrected Darrieus's engineering error: By twisting the blades slightly, a bit like a strand of DNA, he eliminated the vibrations. Gorlov received his first patent for the turbine in 1994.

    Continue reading "Gorlov's Helical Turbine" »

    March 22, 2005

    Wolves As Climate Effect Mitigators

    The April 2005 edition of PLoS Biology has an article (released to the web 3/15) describing how Gray Wolves help the Yellowstone regional ecosystem better ride out episodes of climate change. Many predators are also (or even largely) scavengers, but gray wolves are not. It turns out that gray wolf predation patterns actually help scavengers; without gray wolf kills, many scavenger species are unable to make it through shorter winters (when prey species are less likely to die from starvation themselves and can move around more). Wolves act as a "safety net" for scavengers in times of environmental change.

    While interesting in its own right, this story points to the larger issue of recognizing changing the components of a system can have unanticipated (and unintended) consequences, especially when the system is under pressure. Education in how systems -- particularly natural systems -- function, and an emphasis on systemic over reductionist thinking, should be a fundamental part of 21st century schooling.

    My copy of Ken Boulding's The World As A Total System is a bit ragged these days. What texts -- newer ones, if possible -- would you suggest to people who wish to have a better understanding of systems, particularly ecosystems?

    Clean-Energy Trends 2005

    Sustainability Sundays contributer Joel Makower sent us a link to a new report from his company Clean Edge, detailing leading trends in sustainable energy-related businesses. The brief (18 page) report makes for interesting reading; the business side of the bright green future really seems to be picking up steam. Joel summarizes its findings in his blog, and an excerpt is available here. The entire report can be freely downloaded.

    Joel's "five trends to watch:"

    • the growth of fuels from biomass in the U.S. and Europe
    • the growth of energy efficiency due to high energy prices
    • the resurgence of electricity generated by concentrated solar power stations
    • the emergence of the hydrogen infrastructure
    • how the growth of green buildings is stimulating markets for new products and technologies

    Human Development, Human Networks

    Spring is conference season, it seems, and lots of interesting ones keep showing up on our radar. Here are two which may be of interest to WorldChanging readers who are (or will be) in the US this Spring.

    The Arlington Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based futurist consultancy, is running Tools for the Development of Humanity on April 25-26. The list of speakers includes some old friends and familiar arguments alongside some fairly unconventional presenters, and a number of issues of interest to WorldChanging readers are on the agenda. I've known the founder of Arlington Institute, John Peterson, for some time now, and while it didn't work out this year to have WorldChanging in the mix, we're already talking about playing a role in next year's event. The extended entry has an excerpt from the event's website describing its pretty ambitious purpose.

    A few days later is MeshForum, May 1-4 in Chicago. MeshForum will talk about networks in their various manifestations, from technology trends to social behavior -- definitely stuff we pay attention to here. The full program isn't quite set, but some of the speakers have been announced. In this case, WorldChanging will be among them: I'll be giving a talk about the Participatory Panopticon scenario, its implications and the choices it presents. An excerpt from MeshForum's description can also be found in the extended entry.

    Registration remains open for each; both conferences have academic/student discounts.

    Continue reading "Human Development, Human Networks" »

    For Space, For Relief

    Just in time for World Water Day, AP reports that a water purification system designed by NASA for long-term space flights has been licensed by a humanitarian relief group to bring fresh, water to areas in need at a fraction of the cost of shipping in clean water. Designed to be able to turn gray water, urine and even sweat into pure H2O, the system can handle water from wells poisoned by dead animals and contaminated by ocean salt water (such as in post-tsunami South East Asia). The humanitarian group, Concern for Kids, is set to start production next month, and plans to send 13 mobile water purification systems to Iraq and 12 to South East Asia by this fall.

    The AP report was fairly light on details, but a bit of searching around the NASA's website dug up more information. NASA's Water Recovery System (WRS) comprises a urine processing device and a refrigerator-sized system called the Water Processor Assembly (WPA), produced in coordination with Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems International. The WPA can produce 35 gallons of fresh water every day; the device itself weighs nearly three-quarters of a ton, and requires over 900 watts of power to operate. A 2003 page describes some of the work going into the development of advanced water recovery technology; primary processing uses both chemical and biological methods of treating water.

    The two advantages of this system for relief efforts appear to be its relatively compact size and its relatively low cost. The AP report claims the system runs $29,000 in equipment costs plus 3 cents/gallon, presumably for materials, as compared to nearly $400,000 for a stationary setup. Coupled with a solar/wind+battery system for off-grid power, this could be a perfect system for re-imagined, transformed relief efforts worldwide.

    Scientific Balance

    darwinhasaposse_sm.jpgDave Roberts at Gristmill gives us the heads-up on this delightful editorial from the latest issue of Scientific American. The SciAm website only has the first couple of paragraphs for free, but a helpful LiveJournal user has retyped the whole thing. Go read it.

    Good journalism values balance above all else. We owe it to our readers to present everybody’s ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts. Nor should we succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do. Indeed, if politicians or special-interest groups say things that seem untrue or misleading, our duty as journalists is to quote them without comment or contradiction. To do otherwise would be elitist and therefore wrong. In that spirit, we will end the practice of expressing our own views in this space: an editorial page is no place for opinions.

    (I've been waiting for a chance to use this graphic, btw -- click it for a link to bookmarks with that design. Bigger version in the extended entry.)

    Continue reading "Scientific Balance" »

    March 23, 2005

    Genetic Backup Files

    arabidopsis.jpgThe current issue of Nature includes a report by biologists at Purdue University about the Arabidopsis thaliana plant's ability to reverse mutations in subsequent generations. While the article itself is only available to subscribers, summaries are available at Nature News, the New York Times and the Washington Post, among others. This is one of those discoveries that sounds a little esoteric at first, but could have some pretty important implications.

    In the traditional understanding of genetics, organisms which reproduce sexually only express mutations when both parents carry the trait, while organisms which reproduce asexually will pass any mutation along to subsequent generations. Arabidopsis thaliana, a mustard weed, is of the latter type, reproducing through self-fertilization. The plants being studied had developed a mutation known as "hothead," where the flowers were fused (as in the photo). The researchers noticed that about 10% of the offspring of the mutated plants had reverted to the normal configuration and, when examined, the normal non-mutated genes, the same as the grandparent plants. In effect, the mutation had been wiped away.

    Continue reading "Genetic Backup Files" »


    reprappump.jpgLast week, Alex wrote about the Future that Fabbing Suggests. Some of what he talked about is still some years off -- but some is a bit closer than you might think.

    RepRap is a design for a Replicating Rapid-Prototyper ("rapid prototyper" being a more common industry term for fabber). While it hasn't yet been built, nothing in the design is outside the realm of what's currently possible. The designer, Dr. Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath's Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technology, sees it as a way to kick start the fabbing revolution. Bowyer intends to put the entire design, when completed, on the web for free download under the GPL -- he's already made the software for a RP-built robot available. The RepRap would work in a manner similar to ink-jet printers (its syringe pump is shown here), and would be able to embed conductive wires within plastic shapes. The RepRap would not technically be self-replicating, as it would only be able to produce its own parts -- some assembly would be required.

    What's really interesting, though, is the question of what happens if RepRap works.

    Continue reading "RepRap" »

    Mandatory Mileage Gauges?

    Rod Edwards at Sustainability Zone suggests that making mileage information readouts mandatory would be a useful step towards greater driving efficiency. It's a not-so-unreasonable argument: the cost of implementation would be fairly low, so automakers couldn't complain about expense; it would be useful information, giving consumers a way to make better choices; and anecdotal evidence suggests that drivers change their habits when shown how mileage is affected by driving patterns. I'm told that many new cars already include mileage readouts (some with the ability to shut it off, when the news is too painful). Mandatory mileage gauges would by no means result in sufficient improvement in efficiency by itself, but it would be a good -- and easy -- start.

    I-Unit in NYC

    iunit.jpgAlmost a year ago, we wrote a bit about Toyota's "Personal Mobility" concept vehicle, which combined a radical body design, battery power, and distributed computing to create a new model for individual car transportation. Typically, concept cars show up on computer screens or at trade shows, and disappear as the designers move on or shiny new technologies attract their attention. Imagine the surprise, then to see Green Car Congress note that Toyota will be bringing the "I-Unit" concept vehicle to the upcoming New York International Auto Show.

    The I-Unit is clearly evolved from the PM concept. Few details are currently available, but both GCC and WC will keep a watch for them to emerge. It will be interesting to compare the 2005 specs with the previous incarnation of the design; what Toyota keeps and what it drops could be a larger indicator of where the automaker is headed. Toyota is aggressively promoting itself as being the most forward-looking carmaker around; the current issue of Wired has an extended article about Toyota, going into some detail about the company's plans for broader use of hybrid technologies.

    March 24, 2005

    Green Car China

    Wired magazine's April 2005 cover story is hybrid cars, with several articles of varying WorldChanging interest. We mentioned the main piece on Toyota, "Rise of the Green Machine," yesterday; the comparison of current hybrid vehicles (written by the founder of a Detroit-based car website, so adjust your expectations accordingly) is also getting a bit of attention. But the most important article in the bunch has to be "China's Next Cultural Revolution," by Lisa Margonelli. It's an examination of China's oil dilemma (encapsulated in the quote, "When everyone can afford a car, you won't be able to drive.") and the push for a rapid move to fuel cell vehicles.

    Many of the themes the article touches on will be familiar to WorldChanging readers: questions about sustainable development; the need to look ahead to respond not just to current problems, but possibilities down the road; and the big one, opportunities for leapfrogging.

    Decades behind developed nations when it comes to supporting a car culture, China may actually benefit from its very backwardness. All those bicycles mean there isn't a cumbersome - and entrenched - gasoline infrastructure to stand in the way of the next big thing. That's why China hopes to eventually bypass the oil-based auto culture and go right to a hydrogen economy. "Some theorists believe China has an advantage with fuel cells because it has no resistance," says General Motors vice president David Chen as he attends to a Shanghai dignitary at Bibendum. "It's been cut off from the world for 30 years. It may be in a unique situation to leapfrog."

    Continue reading "Green Car China" »

    Canada Gets Green Car Promise

    In the Irony Can Be Pretty Ironic department: Reuters reports that Canada has reached an agreement with major carmakers to cut the greenhouse gas emissions from their vehicles by 25% by 2010. As the Sierra Club notes, this is essentially the same requirement as the emissions-reduction law passed in California last year -- the one that the same automakers are suing to stop, claiming that they cannot meet its demands. As the Sierra Club's Dan Becker notes, "The auto companies are now in the awkward position of telling a judge that they cannot make the same cars in California that they will make in Canada."

    A number of states have signed on to the California proposal (under a federal law allowing states to choose between EPA air quality rules or tougher California requirements); adding in Canada, and over one-third of the North American auto market will have the stricter greenhouse gas emissions rules. This could result in most carmakers simply using the stricter guidelines across the board, rather than trying to build certain cars for Canada & the coasts.

    (Via Salon)

    Phase-Changing Wax and the One Liter House

    German chemical company BASF has developed a new form of building insulation, and is testing it in a complex of employee houses. The insulation, along with high-efficiency windows and other energy-saving features, results in the buildings requiring only about one liter of oil per square meter for annual heating -- 5% of the average home requirement in Germany, and well below the nation's new efficiency mandate of 7 liters per square meter. The new form of insulation?


    Underneath the wallpaper is an innocuous looking plaster which is designed to ensure that the interior temperature of the house is always comfortable. The secret is millions of tiny wax capsules embedded within the plaster, which regulate the temperature. These microcapsules measure a hundredth of a millimetre or less, and work on the principle of latent heat. In other words, if it gets too hot outside, the wax melts and soaks up the excess heat, keeping it cooler for longer inside. However, if the weather gets too cold, the wax solidifies again and releases the stored heat. According to Dr Patrick Amrhein, head of the research team at BASF which pioneered these phase changing materials, or PCMs, the microcapsules are so effective at climate control that a mere inch of this plaster has the same heat absorption capability as a 10in thick timber-bricked wall.

    BASF is marketing the phase-changing materials specifically to "green building" architects, but the researchers also argue that PCMs will be useful in clothing and packaging. PCM wallboard is currently on sale in Italy and Germany, and soon in the UK. I've found nothing yet indicating that the material will be available to American homebuilders.

    A Solar Eclipse On Mars

    h_deimos_sun_03.jpgOkay, so it may not be particularly world-changing in and of itself, but it's still pretty cool: the Mars Rover "Sprit" has captured images of Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos transiting the Sun. When our Moon does that, we call it a solar eclipse. As the photo here shows (click it for the QuickTime movie), the ratio of Martian Moon size to Sun size doesn't result in a real eclipse, but it's the same process.

    (Extra bonus coolness: You Are Here -- a photo of Earth as seen from Mars.)

    March 25, 2005

    Donating a Green Million

    Renewable Energy Access reports that Puget Sound Energy is donating 1 million kilowatt-hours of green power "to families who need help paying their energy bills as a way to mark the utilities hallmark of serving a million electric customers in the state." It's a bit more convoluted than that, but the idea's good. PSE will donate $60,000 to the Salvation Army's Warm Home Fund (enough to purchase a million kWh), then buying a million kWh worth of renewable energy certificates from Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which invests in renewable sources such as wind and solar.

    T. rex Tissue

    Even those whose contact with paleontology was limited to toy dinosaurs as children know that fossilization means the gradual replacement of organic material by minerals, and that over millions of years, all that's left is rock in the shape of bone. If scientists are lucky, conventional paleontological wisdom goes, they might get an imprint of skin or feather left in the mud and then hardened. Nobody would ever imagine that soft tissues would ever survive the fossilization process.

    Time to rewrite the biology texts. Dr. Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University and Montana State University has managed to extract blood vessels and fibrous tissues (good pictures here) from the interior of a fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex femur found in 2003. The bone had to be broken in two in order to be lifted from its resting place, and researchers noticed that the interior of the fossil wasn't quite as solid as the exterior. Schweitzer used a mild acid to dissolve the mineral components, leaving organic material which was stretchy and pliant, with well-defined blood vessels and cell structures. Schweitzer went on to duplicate the process with three more dinosaur specimens, two more T. rex and a hadrosaur.

    The research as it stands demonstrates a close structural resemblance at the microscopic level between the dinosaur tissues and large birds such as ostrich -- hardly a surprise to those of us who have continued to follow paleontology well past the toy dinosaur phase, but a welcome confirmation of current theory. Given the obvious Jurassic Park jokes, paleontologists are being very cautious about any notion that DNA could be extracted from the tissues, but do suggest that proteins could be identified. 65 million year old proteins would be a tremendous boon to our understanding of evolutionary biology.

    Hybrid Savings Calculator

    hybridcalc.jpgFootprint calculators are a good way to get a sense of how one's lifestyle affects the environment -- a way of making the invisible visible, as we say -- but they often suffer from being a bit too generic, making broad assumptions that may not necessarily fit how you live. Tools for measuring use are helpful, if sometimes awkward (a problem remedied by better ways of presenting information). What we need more of are ways of calculating the effect of specific activities.

    Mixed Power, one of the growing number of web sites for hybrid car enthusiasts, gives us a good start with its handy-dandy web calculator, designed to let you figure out just how much you would save by dumping that Canyonero XCM and moving to something without the godzilla-like carbon footprint. Enter the price of gas, the mileage of your current vehicle, how many miles you drive in a given timeframe, and which hybrid you're considering -- HCH, HAC, Insight, Prius, Escape or RX400h -- and your savings will be shown. The calculator tells you how many fewer gallons of gas you'll be consuming, and how much money you'll be saving -- an almost useless figure, since gasoline prices won't remain stable for the full 10 years to which the calculator projects. Fortunately, the calculator also reveals how many pounds of CO2 you will no longer be personally responsible for via your driving -- a number which is of mild interest to most people now, but will likely be a regular part of conversation a decade hence.

    We have a well-connected, well-informed network here -- what other environmental/lifestyle calculators have you run across?

    Centennial Challenges

    We reported last August about the Elevator 2010 competition, an effort to kick-start the design and construction of an Earth to orbit elevator by holding competitions for interim developments. While we focused on the climber competition, a reader noted that a tether strength competition was in the works, too. This week, NASA's Centennial Challenges program, intended to fund prizes for innovative ideas and competitions for solar system exploration, announced that it would be underwriting the Elevator 2010 competitions, including boosting the 2006 prize money. With the NASA support, the climber competition will include a 'beamed power' component, where the elevator's power is beamed to it from the ground rather than carried onboard.

    This Elevator 2010 page includes some answers to common question, as well as a link to a video explaining the concept, complete with computer graphics and a cheesy corporate-video soundtrack.

    Brazilian Microbe Bank

    One way to avoid biopiracy is to document a nation's cultural and environmental heritage. Traditional Knowledge libraries are a good step towards the former, and now Brazil has given us an example of the latter.

    The Brazilian Collection of Environmental and Industrial Microorganisms -- better known as the Brazilian Microbe Bank -- is a recently-opened repository of information about native microorganisms. The researchers in charge of the bank have collected detailed information on and examples of 700 types of microbes, with facilities for maintaining up to 12,000.

    The collection includes microorganisms originating in soil, water and plants in different Brazilian ecosystems, such as the Atlantic rainforest and the cerrado, a kind of savanna. Other specimens were isolated from petroleum reserves and oil fields.

    The Unicamp team also developed software for managing information about the microorganisms, such as their identity, place of origin, conditions needed to grow them in laboratory conditions, photographs and information on their genetic material.

    The bank is online (in Portuguese, the name is Coleção Brasileira de Microrganismos de Ambiente e Indústria, or CBMAI). The home page includes a button to switch to an English translation; unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work. Any Portuguese-speakers want to poke around the site and give us a first-hand account of what you find?

    March 26, 2005

    FabLab Future Salon

    neilcba.jpgFabLabs are pretty damn worldchanging, and we've been swooning about them since first wrote them up last September. $20,000 gets the future in a box: a self-contained facility with tools to build just about anything (anything bigger than a microchip, that is). The MIT Fab Lab program has already deployed six Fab Labs around the world, in a poor part of Boston, in Norway (with some of Europe's last remaining nomadic people), in Costa Rica, in Ghana, and two in India; a Fab Lab in South Africa is coming soon. The Economist has a brief but interesting story about Fab Labs this week, noting that the World Bank has been leery to underwrite purchases of Fab Lab equipment in the developing world, calling it too "speculative." We prefer to think of it not as speculation, but as foresight.

    Dr. Neil Gershenfeld heads up the Fab Lab project, and has just finished a book on it. He'll be dropping by the Bay Area Future Salon on Friday April 15. While that's terrific for those of us in the SF area, if you can't make it in person, don't despair: a real-time Internet Relay Chat session will be transcribing the talk, and there will be a Quicktime webcast available, as well. This will definitely be a talk not to miss.

    Wind Power Maps

    Treehugger points us to a site at the US Department of Energy showing wind power maps for most American states. There aren't too many surprises in store -- as expected, wind power tends to be greatest along high hill and mountain ridges, and along coastlines. Still, it's interesting to get an early warning as to which locations may turn out to be wind power capitols in the not too distant future (hello, Wyoming!).

    March 28, 2005

    Bridging the Divide 2005

    One could almost call this the Leapfrogging Conference. Bridging the Divide 2005: Technology, Innovation and Learning in Developing Economies looks at the ways in which new technologies, science and education can accelerate development. A joint project of UC Berkeley and the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Bridging the Divide 2005 runs April 21-23 on the campus of UC Berkeley.

    The workshops are all held on Friday, April 22, and run parallel tracks on healthcare, education, energy & resources, and information/communication technologies. I certainly hope that the conference puts up links to presentations and materials afterwards -- parallel tracks make for efficient use of time, but are frustrating to people who have broad interests. I'm a little disappointed by the speaker selection; most are from big companies and global NGOs (reflecting the conference's sponsorship), and in general the list is far less global than I would have expected, with only a handful from outside the US. The conference is the extension of grad student research in the application of technology to development, however, and many of those projects look very interesting.

    Will any WorldChanging readers be attending?

    Can't Buy Conservation

    What's the best way to maintain the health of rain forest parks? Perhaps that's better asked as, what's the best way to dissuade people from damaging the health of rain forest parks? A logical answer would be to invest in the economic well-being of the people who live near the parks. Logical -- but, as new research suggests, quite possibly wrong.

    A recent survey of 16 African parks and wildlife preserves in 11 countries (published in the May 2005 issue of Biological Conservation -- summary here) found that one of the most important factors correlated with rain forest park success is a positive public attitude towards the parks. Direct financial support for development -- even sustainable development -- seems to be much less effective.

    "You can't buy conservation," said Struhsaker. "Our evidence was contrary to beliefs expressed by such organizations as the World Bank -- that investment in economic development around parks aids in their success.

    Continue reading "Can't Buy Conservation" »

    Ocean Power Update

    We've posted a number of items about ocean power (aka tidal power or wave power). It's the dark horse renewable energy system -- not many people are aware of it, but the more one learns about its features, the more attractive it becomes. Less transient than wind or solar power and less of a visual trigger for NIMBY backlash than wind turbines, ocean/tidal is starting to get more attention. If I was a betting man, I'd wager that, by 2050, ocean/tidal power will represent the largest source of centralized energy production worldwide (solar will probably figure higher overall, with the broad use of solar-embedded building materials, paints and polymers).

    Technology Review has a good overview article on ocean power, including links to some companies developing the technologies and some discussion of current projects. Few of the technological or environmental claims in the piece will come as much of a surprise to WorldChanging readers. What might be a bit more startling is the news that the US Department of Energy has discontinued funding for ocean power development. As of the present the UK appears to be pushing to become the world leader in ocean/tidal power.

    Oh, and one last cool thing about ocean power. Tides are generated from the pull of the Earth's moon. Ocean power can, in all seriousness, also be called Lunar Power.

    Biodiesel, North Dakota Style

    Green Car Congress points us to an announcement at the website of ND senator Kent Conrad of plans to build the largest biodiesel refinery in North America. A German company, Science and Technologies Industries International, will be the parent company behind the venture. The plant will produce 100,000 tons of biodiesel annually (a little over 2,000 barrels/day); the source biomass will be canola grown in North Dakota and Canada. Construction begins in August, and will be completed by December 2006.

    Tethered Turbines

    Here's a fascinating bit of alt-energy technology: tethered wind turbines.

    Professor Bryan Roberts, an Australian engineer with sought after expertise in helicopter technology, has long realized the potential of high altitude wind energy and has refused to abandon pursuing it. [...] He has now designed a Flying Electric Generator, classified as a rotorcraft, using a single tether, designed to operate at an altitude of 15,000 feet and higher where only average winds are sufficient to generate power.

    And it is clear now that FEGs rated in the tens of megawatts may operate at higher altitudes with rotor diameters not exceeding those used today on the largest helicopters.

    Sky Wind Power imagines clusters of 600 units, each producing 20 megawatts, together putting out more power than a nuclear power plant, and taking up a 10x20 mile rectangle of airspace.

    Roberts claims to have built a prototype able to generate power at a lower altitude, and the website has an abundance of pages detailing available winds at different heights, global power consumption, the long-range economics of the design, even how the FEGs could be used to generate hydrogen. The intensity of the prose AND THE OVERUSE OF ALL-CAPS gives the site a distinctly "crank" feeling, as does the Gernsbackian vision of tethered autogyros supplying power to us all. But the engineering & science aren't outrageous; in principle, such a thing should be possible (if not necessarily feasible). Safety is the biggest concern -- tethered vehicles at 15,000 feet and higher can pose a bit of a problem for non-tethered aircraft, and there's the perennial "what happens if the line snaps?" problem. Perhaps the design should be altered to include a lighter-than-air element -- who can say no to autogyros and dirigibles?

    (Via Treehugger)

    Orange Juice

    The Florida Hydrogen Initiative has just awarded $500,000 to the fuel cell company ENER1 to develop a rest stop powered by a 10kW fuel cell. The fuel cell, moreover, will use hydrogen converted from methanol, which in turn will be created from theme park food waste and orange peels from citrus processing. The so-called "HyTech Rest Area" (the namer of which should be never allowed to work in public relations again) will be completed within the next 18 months.

    Theme park waste and orange peels... could one imagine a more appropriate source for Florida power generation?

    March 29, 2005

    Toshiba Superfast Recharge Batteries

    toshbatt.jpgWe've posted in the past about rapid-recharge battery technologies using nanomaterials. NEC and Altair Nanotechnology have been making the most noise about the development, but it looks like Toshiba may end up being first to market. The Japanese tech giant announced today a new generation lithium-ion battery technology which can be recharged to 80% in one minute, with total recharge taking a few minutes more. That's not all:

    The excellent recharging characteristics of new battery are not its only performance advantages. The battery has a long life cycle, losing only 1% of capacity after 1,000 cycles of discharging and recharging, and can operate at very low temperatures. At minus 40 degrees centigrade, the battery can discharge 80% of its capacity, against 100% in an ambient temperature of 25 degree centigrade).

    The Register and Tech Japan have summaries, but the Toshiba press release actually has some interesting details, including this graphic:

    Continue reading "Toshiba Superfast Recharge Batteries" »

    PC Conectado

    Use of Linux and other free/open source software projects continues to grow steadily in the developing world. Brazil, no stranger to Linux by any means, is taking the drive to F/OSS dominance another step further. The new PC Conectado plan, starting next month, will make Internet-connected PCs affordable to poor households -- and they'll run Linux.

    "For this program to be viable, it has to be with free software," said Sérgio Amadeu, president of Brazil's National Institute of Information Technology, the agency that oversees the government's technology initiatives. "We're not going to spend taxpayers' money on a program so that Microsoft can further consolidate its monopoly. It's the government's responsibility to ensure that there is competition, and that means giving alternative software platforms a chance to prosper."

    Buyers will be able to pay just under $25/month for 24 months for PC and Internet service; the Brazilian government expects up to a million participants in the program by the end of the year. The push to put Linux on the machines is coming under criticism from opposition politicians, and Microsoft continues to tout its feature-reduced "Windows Starter Edition" for the developing world. Not surprisingly, a fully-featured version of Linux is broadly considered more appealing than a stripped-down version of Windows.

    The New York Times piece seems to be the only English-language information currently available on PC Conectado. Any Brazilian readers (or Portuguese-speakers) want to tell us a bit more about the program?

    Plug-In Hybrid Prototype

    Valence Technologies (a battery producer) and EnergyCS (a maker of computer control systems) are introducing a plug-in hybrid concept car based on the Toyota Prius. The concept plug-in hybrid gets up to 180 miles-per-gallon for commute-type use of 50-60 miles per day. The design uses a custom lithium-ion battery with a longer life and better discharge rates than current standards.

    Given the generally uninspiring performance and inconvenience of past electric cars, it's no surprise that makers of hybrids have gone out of their way to emphasize that hybrid-electric vehicles don't have to be plugged in. As it happens, however, the option to plug them in would be a good thing, enabling a variety of useful features -- longer electric-only range, the ability to recharge batteries using lower-cost (and sometimes renewable-sourced) overnight grid power, even the ability to run the household with vehicle batteries for a limited time should the power go out (something I personally could have used this morning).

    Today's news about the rapid-recharge Li-ion battery technology from Toshiba is both good and bad for the plug-in hybrid concept. Bad because the rapid-recharge means that there would be little need to plug in overnight to recharge the vehicle batteries, eliminating one of the arguments for the model. Good, conversely, because anything that makes hybrid batteries more powerful and usable is bound to be seen as having broader applications.

    (Via Green Car Congress)

    The Mine Dragon

    dragon.jpgThe Mine Wolf is a good piece of landmine-removal technology, to be sure -- fast, relatively inexpensive (at least for de-mining equipment), and able to be refitted for agricultural work after landmines have been removed. But it has one problem: it removes mines by breaking them up or by detonating them. Exploding landmines, even to remove them, can be dangerous for people nearby, and can spray toxic chemicals around the landscape.

    Enter the Dragon.

    Designed by de-mining specialists Disarmco and explosives experts at Cranfield University in the UK, Dragon is a pyrotechnic torch able to destroy landmines by burning them out instead of detonating them. They've also developed a portable production system able to make Dragons in the field using local materials.

    The tubular shaped pyrotechnic device directs a very hot flame at the munitions to achieve the deflagration effect. It can be placed either on the ground next to the munitions or directed at the landmine mounted on a simple wire frame.

    The torches are made in situ in the portable unit and do not require any specialist knowledge or expensive training in order to be used safely by local communities employed in decontamination efforts.

    Professor Ian Wallace, Head of the Department of Environmental and Ordnance Systems at Cranfield University, explained: "Working with the Disarmco team, we've created a new formulation based on low-cost materials which are readily available around the world. Local communities – with little training – can use the portable production unit to manufacture the thousands of 'Dragons' required to deal with landmines and UXOs [unexploded ordnance]."

    Christopher Le Hardy, Director of Disarmco, added: "Burning is a more effective and scientifically safer way to dispose of certain types of landmines and UXOs compared with high explosives that are inherently more dangerous."

    The BBC notes that Dragon prototypes were tested in Lebanon in 2004, and will be used in Cambodia in May of this year. Although the Dragon does not have the same kind of broad utility that the Mine Wolf has, it makes up for it in low cost, easy use, and (as noted) greater safety for both people and the environment.

    March 30, 2005

    TAICON 05 Postponed

    Just a follow-up: Tools for the Development of Humanity, The Arlington Institute Conference 2005 we mentioned last week, has been postponed. Insurmountable logistical reasons, they say; we know how that goes. No new date has yet been posted for the conference.

    Garbage Futures

    bigbelly.jpgThe average garbage truck gets about three miles per gallon, mixing long-haul trips to and from dumps with short start-and-stop pickups, invariably with the diesel engine idling. Garbage is picked up on schedules, not necessarily when the cans are full -- which could be well before or well after the scheduled stop. Our whole system of material use and disuse is due for a revolution; in the meantime, we can look for piecemeal improvements.

    On the garbage collection side of things, there has been a step in the right direction. Wired reports on the BigBelly, a four foot tall solar-power trash compacting system able to crush 300 gallons of garbage into under 30 gallons of space. What's more, it signals a home base when it's getting full, so that pickups happen when needed, not according to a poorly-predicted schedule. Garbage truck use can be dramatically reduced with the BigBelly; the article cites a claim that four times/day pickups at commercial sites can be reduced to once every four days.

    Continue reading "Garbage Futures" »

    The Fuel Cell Timeline: 2010 Or Bust

    Will personal vehicles of the bright green future be battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell based? The most reasonable answer is probably "both," with battery and fuel cell vehicle power storage co-existing like gasoline and diesel today, used in ways which take advantage of unique strengths. Yesterday's fast-recharge battery news from Toshiba certainly gave new vigor to the idea of usable battery-powered cars, potentially solving the "it takes how long to refill?!?" problem. But while hydrogen fuel cells have their detractors (some of whom post in the comments here frequently), the technology has been improving quite steadily.

    Yesterday, Ballard Fuel Cells -- probably the best known dedicated fuel cell company around -- announced its technology "road map" for the next five years, staking its future on its ability to meet a series of key requirements by 2010.

    The "road map" covers four key areas: durability; freeze start; power density; and cost (each PDF). The goals are reasonable, but still a challenge:

    Continue reading "The Fuel Cell Timeline: 2010 Or Bust" »


    So you want to build yourself a nice green sustainable home. Can you get the money to do it? Turns out that banks are often less than enthusiastic about making loans for non-traditional homes -- and, sadly, sustainable design can be considered such. If you're in the UK, you're in luck: the Ecology Building Society is a lending institution which specifically underwrites mortgages for "properties which given an ecological payback." According to their site, they focus on:

  • energy efficient housing
  • ecological renovation
  • derelict and dilapidated properties
  • small-scale and ecological enterprise
  • low-impact lifestyles

    Anybody know of similar lending institutions in other countries?

    (Via Treehugger)

  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios

    If you even come close to the sustainable blogosphere (as I increasingly see it called) today, you know that the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report is out. The vast majority of news reports about the Assessment emphasize its dark, "sobering" presentation. This isn't surprising -- the planet's environmental systems are under a lot of stress, and if things don't change, we're in for disaster. But that's an important caveat -- if things don't change.

    What most readings of the Assessment have so far seemed to miss is that the listing of the ways in which we're harming the planet is not all the report contains. The report also includes a chapter on scenarios of what the next fifty years might hold (Chapter 5, pp. 123-141, for those of you reading along at home). They're more summaries than fully-fleshed out scenaric worlds, but even so, they dispel the notion that the MEA is just about how bad things are and how much worse things can become. In fact, of the four, only one could be called openly pessimistic, and the remaining three have distinctly WorldChanging overtones.

    Continue reading "Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios" »

    Alex On the Urban Future, Live

    If you're in Seattle next week, be sure to catch "Where in the World are We Going? How Nature, Cities and Culture Can Flourish in the 21st Century," a discussion forum on the urban future in the natural world. The speakers are Terry Tempest Williams, Andrew Light, Stuart Cowen, David Conrad, and our very own Alex Steffen.

    Each of our guests is expert at implementing a compelling vision with real world benefits. Each is working on elements of a vision for the future that not only incorporates protection and restoration of the natural environment but also includes tools and concepts of sustainable cities and culture.

    The talk is on April 6 at 7:30pm. Location is the Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $15.

    March 31, 2005

    Jamie Oliver, School Lunch Hero

    We noted recently that TV chef Jamie Oliver had launched a campaign for a 'school dinner revolution' to improve the quality, taste and nutrition of the food served in schoolrooms around the UK, and that Tony Blair had promised changes as a result. Now the UK government is coughing up the money to make those changes:

    The education secretary promised an extra £280m to improve school meals yesterday, in an announcement apparently prompted by the TV chef Jamie Oliver's popular campaign. [...] "His programme [has] brought into focus what everyone in their heart of hearts knows - which is if you feed children decent food, you are more likely to get responsible children who are healthier and fitter," said Tony Blair.

    But Oliver said it was a shame that it had taken his TV series to prompt action, although he described the extra cash as a "massive improvement".

    Celebrity chefs: the special operations force of the Second Superpower?

    About March 2005

    This page contains all entries posted to WC Archive in March 2005. They are listed from oldest to newest.

    February 2005 is the previous archive.

    April 2005 is the next archive.

    Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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