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June 2005 Archives

June 1, 2005

What Does Peak Oil Look Like?

oildepletion.jpg"Peak oil" -- the notion that global production of oil will soon reach its maximum, and will subsequently decline (even while demand continues to rise) -- is getting quite a bit of attention lately. It's not surprising; peak oil is a useful metaphor for the broader problem of not paying attention to longer-term problems, as well as an implicit driver for a move away from fossil fuels. If global warming isn't reason enough, the argument goes, and if sending money to corrupt and unstable nations isn't reason enough, running out of oil is.

Today's Green Car Congress has a brief post that provides a useful visual companion to the peak oil argument; I've reproduced it at right. It's an image of the Abqaiq oil field in Saudi Arabia taken by a device that measures vertical fluid density.

By using different colors the authors have shown the different fluid densities, and these can simply be translated into four zones. Over time the field has been injected with water (the blue zone) and this has pushed up the oil (the green zone) into the wells. The red is the overlying gas cap. When the reservoir was untapped it was likely all red and green. After all these years of pumping you can see how little of the green—the oil—remains.

Political blogger Kevin Drum, over at the Washington Monthly, has written a short series of posts going into a bit more detail about peak oil arguments, avoiding the energy industry jargon that often infects them. Part 1 nicely illustrates the sometimes-ignored fact that oil production peaks differentially -- it peaked in the US in 1970, and will peak in the non-OPEC world around 2010 (according to ExxonMobil, hardly a scare-monger in that regard). When oil will peak in OPEC countries remains a point of debate. Drum's Part 2 gives a bit of history to the peak oil concept, and Part 3 looks at where future oil production will come from once the easy-to-get oil is gone. Drum promises that more posts on the subject are to come.

It's worth pointing out that peak production does not mean final production. That is, once we hit the global oil peak, petroleum production does not subsequently collapse. It's a decline, to be sure, but it can be a slow one, and will fluctuate with new (albeit hard to reach) discoveries and improved technologies. And even if we can't do anything about the planet running out of accessible oil, we can do something about our consumption. Lower oil production only matters if demand is greater than supply. As we've demonstrated here time and again, we have the tools and models necessary to shift into a high-efficiency, low-energy-consumption, high-quality lifestyle.

We just need to make the decision to do so.

World Environment Day -- Water Challenges

logo_world_leaf.gif(Quick note: forget what I wrote yesterday about most sessions being drop-in; all require free registration, no matter what the website says.)

Day One of World Environment Day started with a big announcement: California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Executive Order S3-05 establishing greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for the state, and giving the California EPA oversight over their achievement. The targets are significant, but not startling:

The targets the Governor announced today call for a reduction of GHG emissions to 2000 levels by 2010; a reduction of GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020; and a reduction of GHG emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

As an executive order, not a regulation, there are no real penalties for failing to meet the targets, and any subsequent governor is free to change or abolish the order. Still, as symbolic gestures go, it's a good one -- it opens up the floor for new discussions in the state about how to meet these (admittedly modest) goals.

The formal session I attended today was Solving Water Challenges in the 21st Century: Local Solutions to a Global Crisis. Two of the three presenters (the fourth being absent due to illness) were from the Pacific Institute, a San Francisco Bay Area research group focusing on sustainability and security, with a particular interest in water issues; the last was from the San Francisco water district -- and a former Pacific Institute employee.

All three speakers (as well as in the summary presentation of the fourth speaker's talk) covered similar themes:

  • Rethinking the concept of "water supply."
  • Developing an "efficiency mindset."
  • Relying upon "economies of scope" rather than "economies of scale."

    Read on to learn more about what these mean...

  • Continue reading "World Environment Day -- Water Challenges" »

    Green in the Frozen North

    Finland may have the world's best school system, but it is also a leader in another respect: eco-business. That's the message from this Washington Post article, at least, which profiles a variety of Finnish businesses taking advantage of the increasingly aggressive EU environmental rules.

    Proventia Automation [...] produces machines that can cut up television sets and computer monitors, separating leaded from unleaded glass with a laser and recycling all the glass and other valuable, reusable components. Noponen hopes the E.U.'s new standard will produce numerous new customers for this technology.

    More broadly, his firm can provide information technology and management advice to help manufacturers figure out how to meet the new rules most efficiently. Manufacturers of electronic equipment can actually make money by recycling their own creations when their useful lives are over, Noponen said.

    Finland, Finland, Finland... Finland has it all.

    June 2, 2005

    The 2000 Watt Society

    2000watt.jpgThe "2000 Watt Society" is a radical model of efficient, high-quality living being pushed by the Swiss Council of the Federal Institute of Technology. Worldwide average energy consumption per capita is about 17,500 kilowatt hours, working out to a continuous consumption of 2000 watts. But as we all know, that per capita consumption is not evenly distributed. Switzerland, efficient for Europe, uses around 5000 watts per capita; Europe as a whole, about 6000 watts per capita. Developing nations use substantially less -- the average for Africa as a whole is about 500 watts per capita. The US, conversely, runs about 12,000 watts per person. The Swiss Council wants to move the nation as a whole towards a 2000 watts per person goal, not by cutting back on the Swiss standard of living, but by dramatically improving the energy efficiency of all aspects of life.

    A document entitled "Smarter Living" (PDF) lays out the details of the agenda:

    Continue reading "The 2000 Watt Society" »

    Climate Lawsuits

    Bruce Sterling, in his Viridian mailings, often draws an explicit comparison between greenhouse gas-emitting industries and tobacco companies, arguing that the same kind of lawsuits that have hammered the cigarette companies are likely to hit oil, auto and other heavy-CO2 companies, too. But now he's not alone in making that argument. An article from Agence France Presse -- translated and posted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development -- explores the growing recognition that lawsuits around the world over greenhouse gases and heavy weather are nearly inevitable.

    "Litigation on climate-related damage is clearly on the horizon," says Richard Lord, a senior London attorney in commercial law. [...] "If generally accepted scientific assessments are accurate, global warming is likely to be the most expensive environmental problem ever," says Andrew Strauss, a professor of international law at Widener University Law School in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

    The biggest knot to untangle is likely to be apportioning the blame. How much responsibility goes to the maker of mega-SUVs (for example), and how much to the millions of buyers? But that won't mean that greenhouse-guilty industries will get off the hook easily. One of the probably unanticipated results of demands for more research and more certainty is that it will be hard for greenhouse companies to argue that they didn't understand the results of what they were doing...

    World Environment Day -- Planning Sustainable Cities

    EcoCity Builders BerkeleyFor Day Two of the World Environment Day conference, I went to the afternoon session on urban environments, "Partners Planning for Sustainable Cities" (I was tempted by the sustainable business event with Gil Friend and Joel Makower, but decided that they'd do a far better job telling us what they said themselves...). The green cities session included an interesting mix of theory and practice, along with quite the global perspective.

    Presenters included two UN officials (one from UN-Habitat, one from UNEP), a representative from the World Bank Institute, the mayors of cities in Peru, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Spain, and an Oakland-based urban designer with a strong environmental focus.

    Although the experiences of the various mayors varied widely, all of the presenters ended up striking similar themes. The big ideas:

  • Sustainable planning now is largely making up for a lack of past planning.
  • The key determinant of success is coordination among stakeholders.
  • Knowledge transfer is critical, both transfer from best practices used elsewhere, and transfer to cities just now starting to think about sustainable design.
  • Increasingly, decentralization/devolution of control to local authorities is seen by planners as crucial.

    Read on for more detail on these themes, as well as a discussion of urban transitions to sustainability.

  • Continue reading "World Environment Day -- Planning Sustainable Cities" »

    June 4, 2005

    Possible New Process for Storing CO2

    Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have come up with a new way of sequestering carbon dioxide emissions -- one based on natural processes.

    The process involves reacting carbon dioxide in the stream of waste gas from a power plant with water and calcium carbonate (limestone) or other carbonate compounds. Instead of carbon dioxide emissions, the plant generates wastewater rich in soluble bicarbonate ions, which can be released beneath the surface of the ocean. [research scientist with UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences Gregory] Rau said he expects this would have little impact on the ocean.

    "Limestone weathering is one of the ways the Earth naturally mitigates increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide," Rau said. "But nature is slow. We propose to speed up the limestone weathering reaction."

    Rau argues that the release of bicarbonate ions in the ocean would actually improve conditions for coral reefs. Clearly this method will require a great deal of study before being implemented -- we really really don't want to make things worse in the ocean -- but nonetheless it's an interesting example of the greater use of natural processes as models for human activity. And in this case, it's a particularly important activity: sequestration is not the solution to global warming, but it's an important adjunct to an aggressive adoption of renewables and a cultural shift to a bright green society.

    Greens in Space, Part II

    Earth as seen from MarsGreens in Space was one of the first long essays I posted to WorldChanging, back in January of 2004. In it, I argued that space exploration was an important tool for environmentalists, both because satellites give us otherwise unobtainable information about Earth and because studying the geophysics (and, potentially, biology) of non-Earth planets gives us points of comparison with our own world, moving us beyond trying to model planetary processes based on just a single data point. But the argument I made in that essay presumed that the space program(s) doing the exploration would be the traditional government-run agencies -- NASA, ESA, and the like. In that, I was probably wrong.

    Over the next couple of decades, we could well be moving to a world in which space activities are no longer limited to governments and big corporations. From private space launches to space tourism to the (increasingly likely) space elevator, Earth's orbit (and potentially beyond) could become as accessible as the deep ocean -- not easy, not cheap, but still quite possible to visit. Author Robert Zimmerman referred to this emerging era as a "space renaissance" -- a revolution in how people on Earth see and can use space resources. Because of changes in our culture, a stagnant and hide-bound field -- aerospace -- is ripe for transformation:

    Continue reading "Greens in Space, Part II" »

    June 6, 2005

    Steffen & Sterling -- the Complete Keynote

    Back in March, WorldChanging's Alex Steffen and Ally #1 Bruce Sterling gave the closing keynote to South by SouthWest Interactive. Dawn, Emily and Jon ably blogged many of the good ideas Alex & Bruce discussed, and a video excerpt was soon made available. But now, for your listening pleasure, is the audio of the complete SXSW keynote talk, presented by IT Conversations.

    The talk's available as streaming Windows media, streaming MP3, or as MP3 download. It runs about 53 minutes, and the download size is 24 megabytes.

    How can we redesign properity so that we can deliver prosperity to the whole human population? How we can design solutions to the problems of air polution, traffic, over-population, and food shortages? How do technological leapfrogging and the eviro-coture, treefrogging movement impact these problems? How can we change our long-term consumption patterns? How will bio-mimetics and neobiology help us create a sustainable ecology? [...] These are other questions that Alex and Bruce explore while they talk about how we can choose the future that we want and not the unthinkable future we'll have if we change nothing.

    June 7, 2005

    The Modern Medieval City

    Author Robert Neuwirth, a New York City native, took up residence in slums (or, as he terms them, "squatter cities") across the developing world -- among them, the Rocinha neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Kibera in Nairobi and Sanjay Gandhi Nagar in north Mumbai -- for his new book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World.He sees in these squatter cities parallels to medieval urban communities, and this parallel is the subject of a talk he is giving this coming Friday, June 10, in San Francisco, for the Long Now organization. The monthly Long Now seminars are always quite interesting, and admission is free (although a $10 donation is appreciated).

    I try to attend these talks, and am always happy to chat with WorldChanging readers who run into me there. As always, a recording of the presentation will eventually be made available on the Long Now website.

    Drum on Peak Oil

    We mentioned Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum's series on peak oil last week; part 4 and part 5, along with a concluding observation, have now been posted.

    Grist's Dave Roberts is exactly right: Drum's policy observations are by far the most disappointing aspect of the series. Not only does Drum act as if all solutions are equally reasonable (and assume that solutions beyond improving car efficiency and drilling more -- such as changing the way we structure our communities -- are politically impossible), he pointedly ignores the bigger context of the "peak oil" scenario: greenhouse gases and climate disruption.

    That said, the Washington Monthly articles are worth reading if only for the straightforward and blessedly hyperbole-free analysis of what peak oil is, why it's a concern now, and how soon it could hit.

    Isn't It Enronic?

    Social network analysis does more than help us better understand who's sleeping with whom. It can also help investigators get to the bottom of one of the biggest corporate scandals in history: Enron.

    Jeff Heer, at UC Berkeley's Computer Science department, has built a viewer for visualizing and clustering the thousands of email connections between Enron executives made public as part of the Enron investigation. Enronic is a java application (requiring the mysql database of Enron email (219 MB)) allowing users to search through the messages, looking for patterns and otherwise non-obvious connections.

    (A categorized subset of Enron emails, with a focus on business-related messages, is also available.)

    While work remains to be done on making Enronic a fully-developed tool for corporate network analysis, it is already showing promise. An initial test run resulted in the system highlighting Tim Belden as critical, an Enron executive already convicted for conspiracy to manipulate the California energy market. Enronic is now part of the UC Berkeley Enron Email Analysis research program.

    (Apologies for the post title, but really, how could I resist?)

    (Via Future Feeder)


    nanoprinter.jpgBooks existed well before the invention of the printing press, but they were individual, painstakingly-crafted affairs. The printing press meant that books could be assembled both more easily -- itself a revolutionary development -- and more consistently. Mass production, as we conceive of it today, has its roots in the printing press. Now that concept is set to be applied to the nanoworld.

    Researchers at MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering Supramolecular Nano Materials Group have developed a process for "nano-printing," using DNA/RNA information transfer as a mechanism for the mass production of complex organic and inorganic molecular devices.

    In the new printing method, called Supramolecular Nano-Stamping (SuNS), single strands of DNA essentially self-assemble upon a surface to duplicate a nano-scale pattern made of their complementary DNA strands. The duplicates are identical to the master and can thus be used as masters themselves. This increases print output exponentially while enabling the reproduction of very complex nano-scale patterns.

    Continue reading "Nano-Printing" »

    Building Integrated Solar

    gebipv.jpgLast August, we noted the California "Million Solar Homes" proposal; last week, the 2005 version of the proposal passed the California Senate by a wide margin, and will be considered -- and almost certainly passed -- by the state Assembly later this month. Perhaps as a result, manufacturers of solar photovoltaic systems for home use have been rolling out new designs meant to appeal to those homeowners who want the energy benefits of solar but don't want the ungainly (and, to quite a few people, unsightly) bolt-on photovoltaic panels adorning their rooftops. Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) -- sometimes called "solar shingles" -- are the growth market in home energy production.

    At the Pacific Coast Builders Conference last week, GE, PowerLight and Sharp all unveiled new or updated solar shingle designs meant for the residential market.

    Continue reading "Building Integrated Solar" »

    Biomimetic Concept Car

    dcxbionic.jpgConcept cars present futurephiles with a profound dilemma: they often portray some of the more interesting near-term possible changes to automotive design, but inevitably, the commercially-available cars that eventually come out usually bear little resemblance to the concept. Concept cars represent the potential for revolution, but commercial cars rarely represent more than timid evolution. This painful dichotomy will undoubtedly be seen yet again in whatever results from Daimler-Chrysler's DCX "Bionic" concept car.

    Daimler-Chrysler is one of the companies caught flat-footed by the rapid growth in consumer demand for hybrid cars. Much of their high-efficiency auto research has gone to fuel cell vehicle designs (years away at best) and to diesel cars for the European market. The four-passenger DCX is also a diesel, but exceeds the most restrictive EU emissions standards. It gets 70 miles per gallon (US method), better than the Prius or even the ultra-efficient (but tiny) Honda Insight -- and at a constant speed of 90 km/hr, it gets up to 84 mpg.

    But what stands out about the DCX is the look. The shape is, in a word, funky -- but that's because it's designed to mimic the super-streamlined shape of the boxfish.

    Continue reading "Biomimetic Concept Car" »

    June 8, 2005

    Participatory Panopticon Update, June Edition

    bloodtestmobile.jpgExamples of mobile technologies used to monitor ourselves and our environment -- what I've come to call the Participatory Panopticon -- are coming out fast these days, and it seems simpler to me to just collect recent tidbits and present them all at once. Here's what I've run across lately...

    Cellular-News reports that Uppsala BIO, a Swedish biotechnology research group, has developed a blood testing device to be used with cameraphones. According to the description at the Uppsala BIO website:

    The chip will be constructed from a polymer, a piece of “plastic”, and will have narrow channels and small compartments. The compartments will hold the solutions and reagents needed to detect the biomarker and to generate light. [...] If the searched biomarker is present, this will trigger a series of chemical reactions that will generate light. The whole process takes place on the surface of a small particle, a nano particle. Antibodies and enzymes are bound to the nanoparticle to recognize and bind the biomarker, and to catalyze the reaction that gives rise to light. The nanoparticles are used to enhance the efficiency of the light generating process and to enhance the contrast between light and no light. Light is generated in the same way that it is generated by fireflies, and can be recorded by a standard camera, such as the ones that are present in most mobile phones. The recorded image is readily communicated to a doctor or other expert for interpretation.

    See the illustration at right. Telemedicine via cameraphones is a rising phenomenon. The Swiss researchers have determined that, at least in certain circumstances, diagnoses via cameraphone images can be comparable to in-person examinations. The Uppsala BIO mobile phone blood test, however, is designed specifically to be used with digital cameras and cameraphones. It won't be the last one.

    Continue reading "Participatory Panopticon Update, June Edition" »

    Another Path to Desktop Fusion

    pocketfusion.jpgLooks like sonofusion is going to have some competition. Researchers at UCLA have succeeded in producing a fusion reaction on the desktop using a "pyroelectric" crystal (i.e., a crystal that produces electricity due to temperature changes). The crystal fusion technique is less exotic than sonofusion, but also (apparently) less controversial. The report of the desktop fusion reaction appeared in Nature; as usual, the article itself is subscribers-only, but supplemental material (including two mpeg videos) are freely available.

    The design of the "reactor" is startling in its simplicity: a small pyroelectric crystal (lithium tantalite) rests inside a chamber filled with deuterated hydrogen. Warming the crystal from -30 F to 45 F results in an electrical field of about 100,000 volts across the crystal, which is then concentrated by the insertion of a metal wire tip near the crystal. The result is a neutron flux over 400 times background, about 1,000 neutrons per second -- a characteristic sign of fusion.

    The amount of energy coming from the reaction is much lower than the energy used to produce it, so this is by no means is an indicator that limitless fusion energy is just around the corner. Nonetheless, this is a simple way of producing a neutron flux, useful for a variety of tasks, from scanning luggage at airports to tumor removal to microthrusters for tiny satellites. And while it's not likely, the possibility that this breakthrough could eventually lead to energy production can't be ruled out.

    Decent write-ups of the story can be found at Nature News, the Christian Science Monitor, MSNBC, and WBCSD.

    Power Generating Microbes

    Bacteria that can clean up industrial wastes are not new. Bacteria that can generate electricity by feeding on sugars in wastewater are not new. But microbiologists at this week's General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology report finding a species of bacteria able to both remediate some pretty nasty industrial chemicals and produce usable amounts of electricity while doing so.

    Desulfitobacterium is a recently-discovered genus of "anaerobic dehalogenating" bacteria, meaning they are able to neutralize a variety of chlorinated compounds, solvents and even PCBs. But Charles Milliken and Harold May of the Medical University of South Carolina have found that Desulfitobacterium has an additional useful property: it can generate electricity, and do so by consuming a wide variety of substances:

    Continue reading "Power Generating Microbes" »

    Online WIPO Forum on Intellectual Property

    The World Intellectual Property Organization is hosting an online forum on IP issues from June 1 through June 15 (i.e., the conversation started last week). The focus of the discussion is the World Summit on the Information Society, the series of meetings looking at the global evolution of information and communication technology access (we wrote about the previous meeting, in December of 2003; the next meeting is a few months away, in November of 2005).

    Intellectual property issues -- patents, copyright, free vs. closed source, genetic rights and the like -- show up often on WorldChanging, and (like many topics we discuss) solutions are neither easy nor obvious, but are possible to achieve with sufficient reasoned discussion. This is a good opportunity to get in and have your say about the direction global policies should take, and the concerns the world should keep in mind, as information technologies continue to spread.

    (Thank you, Agatha Dobbs!)

    If You're Looking For Me, You'd Better Check Under the Sea...

    sea-labs.jpgSEA-LABS -- Sensor Exploration Apparatus utilizing Low-power Aquatic Broadcasting System -- may be a bit of an acronymic stretch, but the idea underlying the jargon is rather exciting. SEA-LABS is a student-designed project to use low-power wireless transmission to monitor coral reefs in real-time -- and the technology could be applied to any remote undersea sensor scenario.

    Five engineering undergraduates at the University of California, Santa Cruz (disclosure: I did my undergraduate degrees at UCSC) came up with the SEA-LABS design to assist with biological monitoring of the reefs of Midway. The SEA-LABS sensors will be installed this summer, and will make it possible for biologists and oceanographers to keep tabs on coral conditions from thousands of miles away.

    The core of SEA-LABS is a Programmable Ocean Device (POD), which consists of a processor, a memory storage component, and a battery that can last up to two years, all housed in a waterproof casing about the size of a small wastebasket. The POD can be bolted to the seafloor near a reef. It must be completely waterproof at depths up to 60 feet and sturdy enough to withstand heavy wave action.The POD has cable connections to sensors that independently record pressure, light, salinity, and temperature. The sensors are small enough to fit in any desired location on or within a reef and can be placed right next to plants, corals, and other reef inhabitants.

    Continue reading "If You're Looking For Me, You'd Better Check Under the Sea..." »

    Ten Easy Steps

    Want to reduce your greenhouse gas footprint a bit? The Union of Concerned Scientists has a ten step program for you. No admission that you're powerless over your addiction to carbon required -- in fact, the program recognizes that your CO2 output is under your control, and you can choose to reduce it.

    The "Ten Personal Solutions" are almost all easy, inexpensive, and extremely common-sense. Drive a high-mileage car, buy clean power when available, use Energy Star appliances, plant a tree -- that sort of thing. Taking all ten of these steps will reduce a household's greenhouse emissions by a little or a lot, depending on how non-green they were beforehand. Hybrid-driving, compact-fluorescent-using, walking-when-possible worldchanging types won't see a huge difference -- but that's okay, being an example that taking these steps won't hurt can be useful, too.

    (Via Treehugger.)

    June 9, 2005

    Taxes, Credits and Going Carbon Negative

    Atmospheric carbon dioxide is 375 parts per million and rising, expected to push over 400 ppm even in the best-case scenarios. Avoiding ruinous warming means keeping CO2 levels at or below 440 ppm (with some small flexibility if we can get a handle on methane, too). Remaining below that limit means moving as fast as possible away from fossil fuels and towards much greater efficiency across the spectrum of human activities. Mitigation of atmospheric carbon dioxide is generally thought of in terms of large-scale government efforts -- and often carries the whiff of heavy carbon emitters trying to get away from regulation.

    But that's not the only scenario.

    A combination of tradable carbon credits, carbon taxes and individual carbon offsets has the potential to both drive us towards a much more energy-efficient society and lead us to a world that isn't just carbon-growth neutral, it's carbon-growth negative. Read on to find out how.

    Continue reading "Taxes, Credits and Going Carbon Negative" »

    Heads Up

    olympushmd.jpgI know I said I'd wait to post participatory panopticon-related pieces until I had several to do together, but I couldn't wait on this one: Olympus is now testing a very light-weight wearable "head mounted display" (HMD). As described on Wonderland:

    To explain the system briefly: it projects information on your glasses (normal or sunglasses). The goal here is to project everyday use data like train schedules or the arrival of an email or whatever else you might want. We can imagine a system that incorporates a database with information about the city and that gives information about the area where you are situated, possible hooked up to a GPS system and a system that detects what the eye is looking at.

    Asian technology news website Tech-On has more:

    Continue reading "Heads Up" »

    Brazil and Open Source

    Hey -- did you know that Brazil had become the world's biggest advocate of free/open source software for developing countries? If you've read WorldChanging over the last couple of years, there's no way you could have missed it. But if you need to get up to speed on Brazil's adoption of Linux and the free software philosophy, the BBC has a useful article. It hits all the key points, and does so relatively clearly.

    Government support? Check. Global Organization for Free Software? Check. Favelas? Check. Lula vs. Bill? Check.

    No surprises in store for those who have been following this story, but a nice summation of how things stand now. A good one to pass along to your friends and families...

    June 10, 2005

    Sustainability Rankings

    Sustainlane -- which describes itself as a "community-generated guide for living a better life" -- recently posted a ranking of 25 American cities on sustainability concerns. The leaders should come as no surprise (SF #1, Portland #2, Berkeley #3, Seattle #4, Santa Monica #5), and the list is (by and large) further confirmation of the correlation between sustainable urban centers and "cultural creative" centers. What makes the Sustainlane list particularly valuable, however, is that they are transparent with their methodology, and did more than simply count the number of hybrids or LEED buildings. Interestingly, none of the leading cities scored well in every category, and all but the #1 (San Francisco) had at least one aspect measured as a "sustainability laggard" or worse.

    Commenters at Cascadia Scorecard debated whether the good-but-not-great ranking of New York (#7) was too low, and whether the rankings gave too great a weight to plans instead of actions. That's the good thing about transparency of method -- if you disagree with how Sustainlane came to its conclusions, it's easy to draw your own.

    New Generation

    A variety of stories about ideas and technologies for energy generation have popped up recently, and all seem worth paying a bit of attention to. Rather than QuickChange them one at a time, I'm going to mix them all together here and see what results.

    News combining a couple of favorite themes -- environmental megaprojects and the UK -- shows up in plans to build what would amount to the world's biggest wind farm in the Greater Thames Estuary. This 270 turbine, 1-gigawatt project would provide power to a quarter of London's homes, and would be running by 2011. The BBC has details (of course), but James at the Alternative Energy Blog has more. The wind farm would be far enough out not to be visible from the shore, but objections have (predictably) nonetheless been raised. However, Friends of the Earth have come out squarely in favor of the project, and a new study suggests that fears of bird kills by wind turbines appear "over-inflated," and that the observed risk is much lower than previously thought.

    Continue reading "New Generation" »

    Leapfrog Lighting

    Evan Mills wants to change the world one lumen at a time.

    Mills is a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division, specializing in the ways in which developing regions provide lighting. As we've noted from early on, lighting is one of the less-obvious but still critical parts of development. Kerosene, wood, candles and the like -- so-called "fuel-based lighting" -- pollute the air in homes, can be energy-intensive to gather, and often provide insufficient illumination for extended work or education. But Mills sees a solution in solid-state lighting: LEDs. Light-emitting diodes are definitely worldchanging, and Mills argues that LEDs are the ultimate source of leapfrog illumination:

    “As they modernize, developing countries can select better technologies, and in so doing surpass levels of efficiency typical of industrialized nation. The latest improvement is the solid-state white light-emitting diode [WLED].” In recent years, R&D performed by private industry as well as the Department of Energy has made these light sources suitable for task illumination.

    Mills also points out that LED systems are well-suited to developing nations—they are rugged, portable, use direct current, have long service lives, and run on widely available “AA” batteries.

    Continue reading "Leapfrog Lighting" »

    The Race to Beat Kyoto

    Over 160 cities have signed on to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickel's plan to get US municipalities to agree to meet the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse emission targets, calling on signatories to reduce emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Some cities have announced even more ambitious targets -- San Francisco claims that it will get to 20% below 1990 by 2012. But, of these potentially-green cities, which one is closest to meeting its goal?

    Let's give a big round of applause to Portland, Oregon.

    On Wednesday, Portland released a report (PDF) showing that the city's overall carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 were 0.1% below 1990. Nationwide, CO2 emissions have increased by 17% in the same time frame. Notably, the bulk of the reduction came from institutional sources:

    The report, prepared by [the Office of Sustainable Development] and the Multnomah County Department of Business & Community Services, says the largest drops came in the industrial, transportation and waste-management sectors. It cites an array of reasons, including: Creation of two more light-rail lines and a 75 percent growth in public transit since 1990. Portland's purchase of renewable energy for 10 percent of its electricity. Planting of more than 750,000 carbon-dioxide absorbing trees and shrubs since 1996. Weatherization of more than 10,000 multifamily units and 800 homes in two years.

    As with water, most of the effort on improving efficiency has been outside of domestic use. As getting Portland down to the Kyoto goal of 1990 -5% (or its own more ambitious goal of 1990 -10%) will require coming up with new ways of improving energy efficiency, the relative lack of movement in the domestic arena suggests an obvious pathway. Fortunately, the technologies and ideas for making homes more efficient just keep coming. Portland looks like it will be the first better-than-Kyoto city in the US, unless some other city makes a real effort to beat it.

    Is your city up to the challenge?

    June 11, 2005

    Shadow Cities and the Urbanization of the World

    rio.jpgRobert Neuwirth spent three years living in the squatter communities growing in some of the developing world's biggest megacities: Nairobi, Rio, Mumbai and Istanbul. He documented his experiences in the book Shadow Cities, which Ethan reviewed a few months ago, and regularly brings this perspective to bear in the comments here on WorldChanging (hi, Robert!). Last night, he spoke in San Francisco, at the monthly Long Now Seminar, taking the audience on a trip through the new urban world.

    Some numbers: today, there are approximately one billion squatters -- about 1 in 6 people on the planet; by 2030, it's estimated there will be two billion squatters, or about 1 in 4; by 2050, there could be three billion squatters, or 1 in 3. Some 200,000 people move from rural communities to urban communities every day, globally. That's around 70 million per year, or 130 every minute. Inevitably, the cities of the future will be built by squatters.

    Continue reading "Shadow Cities and the Urbanization of the World" »

    Visions of Change

    One Planet, Many Peopleis the UN Environment Program's new atlas, released last week in connection with World Environment Day. Using satellite photos, it documents the ways in which human activities have changed the planet's environment. A hardcover version costs $150, but the book can be downloaded chapter by chapter as PDFs, in resolutions suitable for screen or for print display (warning: the print versions are significantly larger in file size).

    Although the book contains a wide variety of images and graphs, the heart of the atlas is found in the before-after shots, comparing satellite photos of various locations -- usually cities, but not always -- from recent years and from a decade or more ago. The image to the right (clicking leads to a much larger version) compares Las Vegas in 1973 and in 2000. This is what we mean when we talk about "sprawl."

    Continue reading "Visions of Change" »

    June 12, 2005

    Pierre Omidyar Interviewed

    Pierre Omidyar has done some very good things with the money he made founding eBay, not the least of which is starting the Omidyar Network. Business Week -- fast becoming the favorite economics magazine around WorldChanging -- interviews Omidyar this week, talking with him about the "power of community" and the need for greater attention to the social good.

    We have technology, finally, that for the first time in human history allows people to really maintain rich connections with much larger numbers of people. It used to be, your connected group was really your immediate community, your neighborhood, your village, your tribe. The more we connect people, the more people know one another, the better the world will be.

    Everywhere, people are getting together and connecting. And using the Internet, they're disrupting whatever activities they're involved in. It's because it's a fundamental shift in power toward the bottom, toward the people as they organize themselves, and away from a small group of people who want to impose a policy top-down. That's really the promise of the technology, and we're seeing it in all these fields.

    Metaphor On Your Desk

    eco-spheres.jpgIt's often said -- occasionally even by us -- that we currently know of but a single ecosystem, our own, with no other data points for reference. That's not precisely true. Although we know of no other naturally-occuring ecosystem (yet), it is possible to construct self-contained ecologies, receiving no input other than sunlight -- just like the Earth. The "Biosphere II" project, despite its many failings, stands as one of the biggest experiments in such construction. But it turns out that you don't have to buy up land in the Arizona desert to give the biosphere experiment a try. You can do it on your desk.

    "EcoSpheres" are sealed globes containing filtered water, a variety of microorganisms and shrimp, able to live and reproduce for years, even a decade or more, with only sunlight as input. They come in a variety of sizes; the larger ones tend to last longer. They require no maintenance other than keeping them at a comfortable temperature.

    I don't have one of these, and the various typos and clumsy constructions on the website give me some caution. The UK website is much better, however, and there are equivalent sites for a handful of other countries. Nonetheless, I'd have just checked the site and gone about my business had I not seen an essay by one EcoSphere owner -- Carl Sagan.

    Continue reading "Metaphor On Your Desk" »

    June 13, 2005


    FreeForAll (FFA) describes itself as "an international collaboration of libraries whose mission is to provide underserved nations with health science journal articles for free." A noble calling, to be sure. Begun earlier this year, FFA gets researchers and doctors in developing nations access to medical journal articles by having participating US libraries serve as intermediaries. Services such as PubMed and Loansome Doc index and distribute various biomedical research papers to libraries; FFA extends the reach of this program substantially.

    The FFA website is a single page linking to a handful of other sources for free journal articles and providing guides to ordering through FreeForAll (in English -- PDF -- and in Spanish -- MS Word format). The real action takes place on the FFA mailing list, where participating libraries can coordinate orders, exchange references and discuss the best ways to make sure that valuable medical literature is getting to the people who need it. More information on FreeForAll can be found on page 13 of this April 2005 Medical Library Association newsletter (PDF).

    Libraries wishing to participate in FreeForAll should visit this Yahoo! Group.

    Getting Smart About Disasters

    Nearly six months ago, on December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake off of Indonesia resulted in a tsunami which killed upwards of 160,000 people in South and South-East Asia. In the days and weeks following, questions of how best to identify, communicate and report on the possibility of disaster consumed many weblogs and media outlets. What tools could be used to make sure that a tragedy of this magnitude could not happen again?

    While attention to the aftermath of the tsunami has faded in many (but not all) areas, the continued likelihood of other disasters -- natural, such as earthquakes or asteroid strikes, or human-related, such as terrorist attacks or disease pandemics -- has kept numerous researchers focused on improving our collective responses in emergencies.

    The most important tool we have, of course, is information. Knowing what to do before disaster strikes makes smart responses far simpler, as can having access to good information once a crisis is underway. For many people who pay attention to the ways we could all be in trouble, the most likely near-term emergency is the possibility of an Avian flu pandemic. Thanks to Dr. Lucas Gonzalez, we may now be in a much better position to be able to respond effectively to a possible pandemic.

    Continue reading "Getting Smart About Disasters" »

    Claytronics and the Pario World

    catom.jpgIf you've read the more esoteric nanotechnology treatises, you're undoubtedly familiar with the concept of "programmable matter" -- micro- or nano-scale devices which can combine to form an amazing assortment of physical objects, reassembling into something entirely different as needed. This vision of nanotechnology is light years away from today's world of carbon nanotubes or even the practical-but-amazing world of nanofactories. It shouldn't surprise you, however, to note that -- despite its fantastical elements -- serious research is already underway heading down the path to programmable matter.

    Called "claytronics" at Carnegie-Mellon University, and "dynamic physical rendering" at Intel (which is supporting the CMU work), the synthetic reality project has already made some tentative advances, and the researchers are confident of eventual success. Just how long "eventual" may be is subject to debate.

    According to the Claytronics project's Seth Goldstein and Todd Mowry, programmable matter is:

    Continue reading "Claytronics and the Pario World" »

    Prospective Age and the Effect of Life Extension

    standardizedage.jpgWhat does healthcare improvement and life extension do to a society's average age?

    According to Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov of the World Population Program at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, longer lives reduce the effective average age. This according to their paper (subscription required) in the latest issue of Nature (National Geographic has a good summary; the IIASA press release is more terse).

    Conventional measures of age count years since birth; however, as lives lengthen, we need to think of age also in terms of years left until death or in proportion to the expanding lifespan. Here we propose a new measure of ageing: the median age of the population standardized for expected remaining years of life.

    They call this the "prospective age," and it's getting higher in nearly every country. Prospective age is the expected number of years remaining for a given age range; as healthcare and medical technology improve, that prospective age grows. As various efforts at radical life extension begin to have an effect, prospective age will grow quickly.

    Continue reading "Prospective Age and the Effect of Life Extension" »

    June 14, 2005

    Rob Carlson on Open Biology

    Open Biology and Open Source Biotech are favorite subjects around here, and were among the very first topics we posted about. The free and unobstructed development of biological science has worldchanging implications, not least for the developing world. Various tools and support systems for open biology have been built, and the philosophy is gradually gaining more adherents.

    Rob Carlson knows better than just about anyone the value of open biology. As research fellow at the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley from 1997-2002, he first started writing about the idea of open source biotech, and has long been one of its most vocal proponents. He takes strong issue with those who would resist opening up biosciences in the name of security, arguing that we're more secure in an open research regime than we would be if official work was restricted and censored. He elaborates on that idea in a commentary in the latest Future Brief:

    Continue reading "Rob Carlson on Open Biology" »

    Tharsis India

    Dr. Amitabha Ghosh, a NASA planetary geologist on the Mars missions, wants to bring the excitement of exploring space to India. Along with colleagues from NASA -- both US-born and India-born -- Dr. Ghosh has started the Tharsis India Initiative, an attempt to accelerate space science education in India. The site includes a wide variety of links to NASA and JPL resources, as well as activities aimed squarely at young students.

    The Tharsis India team will be visiting India from June 10-June 24, talking about their experiences working on Mars missions. Dr. Ghosh is a vocal advocate of building up the Indian space program. India has a fairly well-established domestic satellite industry, but has not yet ventured beyond Earth orbit.

    (Via The Scientific Indian)

    Gas-Optional & Green

    The bright green community of the future may be eminently walk-able and replete with useful public transit, but in the meantime, strong demand remains for personal mobility (i.e., cars). Although two broad technology categories are facing off for the title of Car of Tomorrow -- electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells -- a somewhat more humble development is sneaking in as the near-term technology of choice: gas-optional hybrids.

    We've posted about gas-optional hybrids before, generally under their previous label "plug-in hybrids." Unlike current hybrids, gas-optional hybrids would add the ability to plug them in when parked, drawing power from the grid. Gas-optional hybrids have much larger batteries than current hybrids, and can go quite a ways on electric power, only switching over to the gas engine if the batteries are drained or when going onto the highway. They have a far better range than electric cars, get better mileage than traditional hybrids, and are far cleaner than old-style gasoline-only cars. What's more, gas-optional hybrids can also serve as "mobile generators," putting power back in to the grid if the batteries are full when plugged in. Best of all, gas-optional hybrids are possible now, and some people are even retrofitting Priuses to gas-optional function.

    The obvious question that arises is whether a gas-optional hybrid, recharging from the grid when parked at home, is really better than a standard hybrid when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. After all, electricity generation using coal or natural gas puts out CO2. How does the power drawn from the grid compare to a comparable amount of gasoline used by a regular hybrid?

    Continue reading "Gas-Optional & Green" »

    Off-The-Shelf DNA Tagging

    Y-DNA.jpgWe've written about "DNA Barcoding" before, but as a means of identifying species via short strands of unique DNA. But it turns out that there's a different kind of DNA Barcoding out there, one that uses non-expressing DNA strands as tags for monitoring pathogens. A group of researchers at Cornell have just come up with a way to make these tags easier to create, less expensive, and more useful.

    The researchers use "dendrimer-like DNA," short Y-shaped strands of DNA. The DNA employed doesn't actually code for anything; instead, it's used as a physical structure for the tags.

    An antibody or some other molecule that will bind to the molecule to be detected is attached to one of the loose ends of the DNA. To other ends are attached molecules of fluorescent dye in a predetermined pattern.

    Continue reading "Off-The-Shelf DNA Tagging" »

    June 15, 2005

    Sierra Club on Green Innovators

    Not only does Ally #1 have a lengthy article in the latest Sierra Club magazine, but the issue covers a group of innovators undertaking some very WorldChanging projects, including: the guy who developed the infrared-sensitive, quantum-dot based plastic solar cells; an Australian company using biomimetic design to improve industrial efficiency; and a profile of Natalie Jeremijenko (whom Emily interviewed for us last year), for example, updates us on some of her latest environmental technology ideas:

    ...creations include a particulate-sensing "Clear Skies" mask bicyclists can wear to find out what's in the air they breathe, a virtual tree that can be grown on a computer desktop (its rate of growth is determined by a CO2 meter plugged into the computer's serial port), and a "printer queue virus" that counts the number of pages consumed by a printer and spews out a cross section of a tree stump when it's used up a tree's worth.

    Bottom-Up Environmental Revolution -- in China

    pollutioninchina.jpgAlthough the presence of officials such as Pan Yue in the Chinese bureaucracy is a small sign of hope, China remains an ever-worsening environmental disaster. Air and water pollution still choke the country, brought on by barely-regulated industries. Cities are being rebuilt to better-accomodate automobiles, and China is now the number two importer of oil in the world, beating out Japan, behind only the United States.

    But there are signs that some citizens of China are starting to take environmental matters into their own hands. Two recent stories illustrate the breadth of what that can mean: urban dwellers buying and using electric bikes made by small start-ups in defiance of city leaders and the national auto industry; and a peasant uprising over industrial pollution. Read on for details.

    Continue reading "Bottom-Up Environmental Revolution -- in China" »

    Cameraphone Augmented Reality

    CamBlaster! is a game which can only be played on a cameraphone. It provides moving targets that the player can "shoot" while moving the camera around. The site's a little vague on how this is accomplished, but presumably the software looks for changes in what the camera sees and figures out direction and speed of movement. It is even able to keep track of how far the camera has moved, and can put the same targets back where they (apparently) were when the camera moves back to its original position.

    Don't think of it as a game; think of it as an early-indicator, and think about how it might combine with other mobile phone technologies. Take the (horribly named) "crunkies" idea I posted about last week, a system for planting location-based messages, "tagging" the space. Adding in the ability to gauge roughly what direction the camera is facing (with the "origin" set by pointing it at a given item) would allow for a more complex set of tags, with different SMS messages coming in depending upon where the cameraphone was pointed. Or add the animations to some kind of barcode reading system for the cameraphone, so that icons for the results could be shown over the item and remain tagged in place even when the cameraphone is moved around.

    This gets really interesting when you start adding in heads-up displays...

    (Via Picturephoning)

    Open Source Flyer

    heli-xpad.jpgGet ready for homebrew swarms.

    Cheap, flexible mobile sensor platforms have a great deal of utility for understanding the environment, whether out in the wilderness or deep in the city. Cameras, chemical sensors, pressure meters, biosensors, and more can be even more useful when put on a platform that's able to move around, sending signals back via radio. Mobile platforms that travel on the land or in the water are definitely useful, but most intriguing are those that fly.

    Small robotic flyers have a variety of potential applications, from environmental monitoring to security to disaster recovery. Most commercial manufacturers of "unmanned aerial vehicles" (UAVs) cater to the needs of the military, however, and the products are priced accordingly. But if you're not interested in a UAV to travel halfway around the world (or shoot something with a Hellfire missile...), it's possible now to build semi-autonomous microbot flyers using material from the local hobby store and free/open source software. And in the not too distant future, it will be possible to build a group of flyers able to communicate with each other and coordinate movement.

    Continue reading "Open Source Flyer" »

    June 16, 2005


    Charlie Stross does the plausibly surreal trick better than almost anybody I know. The worlds he builds are painfully real, viscerally real, and yet push the boundaries of what may happen in ways that go well beyond spec. This is best seen in the short stories he wrote from June of 2001 though December of 2004, the multi-generational tale of the Macx family, spanning the years leading up to, during, and well past what often gets called the Singularity. Those stories have been collected and edited into a novel: Accelerando.

    Accelerando as a bound book is due out in the US the beginning of next month, but Stross has joined a growing list of authors who recognize that, in many cases, giving away your work actually increases sales. To that end, he's made a Creative Commons licensed version available for download at accelerando.org. He has it in a variety of (free) formats, all zipped up and ready to be grabbed via BitTorrent.

    What makes Accelerando particularly appealing to me is Stross' depiction of the world, the noises and flows and people. It's most recognizable in the first section, unsurprisingly, but even as things get very, very strange, the underlying familiarity of the world remains. And through this world roams one Manfred Macx, venture altruist:

    Continue reading "Accelerando" »

    Improvement to LED Efficiency

    It's becoming increasingly clear that the (very near) future of lighting is solid-state. Light Emitting Diodes are already among the most energy-efficient illumination technologies. Now researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have devised a way to boost the light output from white LEDs by up to 60% without changing power requirements. How do they do it? A specially-shaped lens prevents "backscatter" photons from being reabsorbed by the diode. The main downside is that it makes the LED larger; it's as yet unclear how much of a problem that will really be, however. Commercial application of the idea should be hitting the shelves within a couple of years.

    Solar Flight

    solong.jpgThe combination is irresistible: photovoltaic cells covering the long, wide wings of an airplane, making the electricity to drive the propellor. If the solar cells could also charge batteries to run the plane at night, it would be possible to keep the plane in the air as close to perpetually as the weather allows. But heavyweight batteries and inefficient solar cells made such an accomplishment difficult.

    Difficult -- but not impossible. Last week, AC Propulsion, an organization specializing in electric vehicle engineering, demonstrated a solar-battery unmanned air vehicle (PDF) that flew for just over 48 hours straight.

    Remaining aloft for two nights is the milestone for sustainable flight. One night is possible just by discharging the batteries, but two or more nights means that the plane has to fully recoup and store the energy used at night while flying in the sunlight the following day. Once that is achieved, the cycle can repeat continually, and keep the plane airborne indefinitely.

    Continue reading "Solar Flight" »

    June 17, 2005

    Standing Out

    Among the differences between the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius -- both companies' main hybrid vehicles -- is the underlying design philosophy. The Prius has a unique look, one that immediately identifies the car and the driver; the HCH, conversely, looks effectively identical to the gasoline-only Civic (with a few small differences that only a few will note). Honda was explicit about its desire to make the HCH (and its more recent sibling, the Accord hybrid) be thought of as just another Honda.

    Toyota recognized, however, that the symbolic and technological arguments for buying a hybrid outweigh the economic arguments, and that most folks who seek them out have little aversion to being identifiable as hybrid drivers. In that spirit, Honda has decided that its 2006 model year Civic Hybrids will have sufficiently distinctive styling that they will be immediately distinguishable from the gas-only Civics. The Honda spokesperson said that it won't be as radical a look as the Prius, but there will still be clear differences. A side benefit will be a small improvement in mileage.

    The question this raises, at least for me, is whether the growing availability and ubiquity of hybrids will mean that Honda was right before -- and most hybrids will eventually look like other cars -- or that we're seeing a paradigm shift in auto design, and as more hybrids get on the road, we'll see more "unusual" styles.

    Corporations For Carbon Taxes

    If you've followed WorldChanging for any length of time, you'll know that it's increasingly evident that corporations are waking up to the problems posed by climate disruption. There's self-interest involved, of course; a late, haphazard, panicked response to global warming could be as bad for business as no response at all. The Los Angeles Times published a lengthy report earlier this week -- reprinted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development -- detailing the ways in which big American companies are trying to push Washington to be more active on the subject.

    There is also far less momentum for global warming regulations in the House than in the Senate, backers acknowledge, making passage of any legislation unlikely.

    "We're not there yet in the House, quite frankly. These businesses are way ahead of us," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who supports a federal program to reduce greenhouse gases. The Bush administration stance "happens to be wrong," he added, but he expressed optimism that it could change as dissenting businesses become more vocal.

    For many of us, the proposals pushed by the big companies will seem timid and a bit too-easily gamed. The importance here is changing the course of the political conversation. Right now, it's stuck at "should we do something now?" -- with enough momentum, it will become "how much should we do?", which in turn can soon become "how much more do we need to do?"

    Broadband for Barefoot Bankers

    We've argued many times here that, while computers should not come before clean water and secure homes, access to information and communication technology is critical to the growth of the developing world. Mobile phones and Internet-connected computers can do much to improve the economies of rural and remote communities, as well as help to maintain the social ties often broken by urbanization. This is becoming especially visible in China, where the Internet boom has moved from the gleaming coastal high-rises of Shanghai and Shenzen to millions of inland rural homes and businesses -- and, especially, Internet cafés. Moreover, an effort is now underway to deploy high-speed Internet connections as part of microfinance programs, a project called "Broadband for Barefoot Bankers."

    China's Internet user population is now estimated at 100 million, up from 80 million in late 2003, and while precise numbers are hard to come by, observers say that most of this growth came from outside the big cities. A rapidly-rising share of Chinese Internet users get on via broadband, both in the cities and in the countryside. As IEEE Spectrum describes it:

    Continue reading "Broadband for Barefoot Bankers" »


    metroquest.jpgAmong the various "innovators" profiled in the latest Sierra Club magazine, one that leapt out for me was the write-up on Dave Biggs, founder of Envision Sustainability Tools. Envision makes software called MetroQuest, which allows urban planning teams to devise scenarios of how a city could evolve over the coming decades. Operating in a manner similar to SimCity, MetroQuest is used by Envision for urban planning workshops. But like SimCity, the question of how the assumptions shape the model can't be ignored.

    MetroQuest enables what consultants often call a "multi-stakeholder" conversation, allowing various groups with differing agendas to work out plausible balances of interests. By visualizing the results of these discussions, and allowing the participants to change the parameters to work out the best (or least-bad) compromises, MetroQuest is intended to help the stakeholders get a more visceral appreciation of differing outcomes.

    Continue reading "MetroQuest" »

    Tiny Fuel Cells

    The development of a button-sized fuel cell by Cal Tech professor Sossina Haile has gotten a bit of attention (e.g., Treehugger, Gizmodo) due to its small size and relative power. The research was reported in last week's Nature (as usual, sub required for full article, but the supplemental figures include a nice illustration of the fuel cell structure). The power density of these fuel cells is quite high. Predictions that they'll eventually replace batteries in laptops and MP3 players are premature, at best. While the life of a fuel cell may be far greater than that of a battery, refilling a fuel cell means either inserting a disposable fuel cartridge or refilling the propane tank -- neither of which has the convenience of a plug.

    The greater life and power density of a fuel does seem well-suited for microbots and microbot flyers, however, enabling a longer movement and sensor/signal life than batteries. As microbots are generally too small to recharge themselves with solar, long-life fuel cells have another clear advantage over batteries: easier refueling in the field.

    Invention Resource Database

    inventiondb.jpgThis is what the future could look like.

    The Invention Resource Database (or InventionDB) is a database of open-source hardware projects, designs and information. The entries vary greatly in complexity, detail and completeness. The projects range from the straightforward (a web-controlled LEGO base for a webcam) to the unexpected (a system using tactile feedback to keep singers on-pitch). The resource listings are equally varied, from lists of components and vendors to links to green building sites. The site has a blog, as do some of the entries.

    The InventionDB describes itself as:

    an online application designed to help people create web entries about their project, help people find and learn about neat resources, and to help people manage group projects. [...] InventionDB is designed to do three things well:

    Continue reading "Invention Resource Database" »

    A Location-Based Wikipedia

    Russel Buckley at the Mobile Technology Weblog has written "A Manifesto for Taking Wikipedia into the Physical World," an exploration of how the Wikipedia concept could be extended to physical spaces. He's essentially arguing for an open urban informatics model, one combining camera phone networks, virtual tags and location-based services. What makes his argument novel is that it makes the wiki concept central to the model -- anyone can annotate, update and edit.

    The information would be from a variety of new and existing online sources. Some compiled especially for the Mobile Wikipedia by citizen contributors, some merely linked to sites that are already there. Citizen journalists would create the physical world links and then edit how the information was presented online - probably when they were back at a terminal more suited to the purpose. This might be a PC, or when they were able to dock their phone into a larger screen and keyboard combo.

    Like the original Wikipedia, it would have potentially unlimited links and content and would be self-editing.

    The argument isn't entirely new, but Buckley puts a nice spin on it, and explores some of the issues raised by trying to implement it.

    June 18, 2005

    Games As Political Lessons

    Sept12sm.jpgPolitical games have a long history in the computer game world, but rarely a good one. Politics are hard to model well, and it's all too easy for a game designer to let biases overtake simulation. When this happens, it's nearly always to the game's detriment as both lesson and enjoyment. But even those failures can show us how a more compelling version might look; when the good ones do show up, they can be amazingly powerful tools for provocation.

    You can't talk about political computer games without giving a tip of the hat to Balance of Power, by Chris Crawford. Probably one of the best political simulations around, it allowed the player to assume the role of leader of either the US or the USSR, and to navigate crises without unleashing nuclear war. Over 250,000 copies sold, a remarkable number considering the era. The original, from 1985, focuses entirely on the bipolar conflict; the "1990" update, from 1988, adds multipolar complexity and more nuance. Crawford, who continues to write and speak about computers and interactivity, has since put the Macintosh version of Balance of Power II on his website, along with a few of his less-successful games (the ecological sim Balance of the Planet and the economics sim Guns and Butter).

    Continue reading "Games As Political Lessons" »

    "The Deal" -- A Peak Oil "Day After Tomorrow"?

    TheDeal.jpgLast summer, The Day After Tomorrow added some momentum to a growing conversation about the effects of global warming. While the science of the movie was, at best, murky, many of its themes (of human-caused climate disasters, the intransigence of politicians, and the heroic role of scientists) were sufficiently on-target that quite a few environmentally-focused websites and organizations used the film as a way to spread their own messages. At the time, we suggested that The Day After Tomorrow might be the first of a trend of movies with an environmental edge.

    The Deal may be the next in that trend. The movie is set a few years in the future, with the US at war with the Confederation of Arab States, gasoline in hitting $6/gallon and the economy on the verge of collapse. Reviewers call it dark, dense and cynical; it's not as sprawling nor as effects-laden as The Day After Tomorrow, but in its own way, it's also a movie about the end of the world.

    Continue reading ""The Deal" -- A Peak Oil "Day After Tomorrow"?" »

    GaiaSelene -- Space Opera Documentary

    gaiaselene.jpgGaiaSelene is ostensibly a documentary. Interviews with scientists, engineers and futurists spell out in detail a plan to solve the environmental and energy problems the Earth's citizens have gotten themselves into. But the subtitle of GaiaSelene is "Saving the Earth by Colonizing the Moon," and that sums up this movie quite well. GaiaSelene explains that building a series of lunar bases would result in the ability to provide nearly-limitless energy to Earth through mining Helium-3 (an isotope of Helium much more readily usable for nuclear fusion) and by collecting solar power and beaming it to earth via microwave.

    That neither of these technologies is quite ready yet is hand-waved away; speakers in the preview (streaming QuickTime) assert that we can do this today, if we just had the will. Dismissed with equal ease is any notion that there might be other solutions. For the GaiaSelene folks, this is our only choice.

    Continue reading "GaiaSelene -- Space Opera Documentary" »

    June 19, 2005

    Fueling Aviation in a Post-Oil World

    While batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are variously bandied about as appropriate power sources for cars, and high-speed trains (also electric, or diesel-electric hybrid) an excellent choice for longer-range travel, the question remains of how airplanes will fly without energy-intensive aviation fuel. After all, you can't really run a jet-plane equivalent on batteries. Alternatives like airships and "gravity planes" are interesting, but have substantive drawbacks, mostly regarding speed. And virtual reality (even with "claytronic" avatars) is still nowhere close to being a strong alternative to face-to-face contact.

    Blogger and occasional WorldChanging commenter "Engineer-Poet" tackles the question of post-oil aviation in a new post on his blog, The Ergosphere. The post is particularly interesting in the way he peels down the issues and lays out just where the solutions could come from. The short answer is liquid methane, which actually has some advantages over current jet fuels. The entire argument is worth reading, so don't just go by this one-sentence summary.

    Global Warming and Hurricanes

    ivan-sm.jpgHurricane season is now underway (and if you live in a hurricane-prone area, or simply want to follow the season in detail, don't forget about the National Hurricane Center's RSS alert feeds), and a great deal of attention will be focused on whether this year's storms will match the ferocity of last year's. Climatologists were quick to deny any explicit causal connection between global warming and the multiple big hurricanes last year, only going so far as to say "this is what we could expect to see." If this year is a repeat of the last, however, expect some climate scientists to become a bit more assertive with their claims.

    One who is already ahead of the trend is Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In a piece written for the current issue of Science, Trenberth argues that --

    "Trends in human-influenced environmental changes are now evident in hurricane regions," says Trenberth. "These changes are expected to affect hurricane intensity and rainfall, but the effect on hurricane numbers remains unclear. The key scientific question is how hurricanes are changing." [...]

    The strongest links between hurricane intensity and climate change, according to Trenberth, are a long-term rise in ocean temperatures and an increase in atmospheric water vapor. Both processes are already under way and expected to continue, he says. The additional water vapor will tend to produce heavier rains within hurricanes and an increased risk of flooding at landfall, Trenberth notes. [...]

    "Computer models also suggest a shift in hurricane intensities toward extreme hurricanes," says Trenberth.

    Because the climate is a complex system, transient interactions can lead to unexpected local weather. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that this year's hurricane season will be far milder than last year's. But if that happens, we should be guard against seeing it as a sign that global warming's effect on hurricanes isn't so bad. Instead, we should look to a mild season as an opportunity to build up our disaster warning, response and relief systems up -- particularly in the Caribbean nations -- before things do turn ugly.

    It *Can* Happen Here

    Building a new public transportation network in a sprawling city and suburb rings is difficult -- witness the timid, almost irrelevant metro rail system built in Los Angeles over the 1990s, for example. But difficult does not mean impossible. Keith Schneider at the Michigan Land Use Institute looks at a success story, in a piece entitled "In Denver’s Transit Breakthrough, A Lesson For Detroit." Although directed explicitly at the political wrangling over sprawl in Detroit, its message can apply well to any large urban/suburban/exurban city. Schneider explores the conditions that allowed Denver, Colorado, to build out a useful, well-regarded and busy transit network, and to continue to expand the network's reach.

    From 1994 to 2001, the Denver region built 16 miles of light rail line. Next year, 19 more new miles of light rail will connect the downtown to its southeastern suburbs. And the good news keeps coming: Last November, by a 58 to 42 percent margin, the region’s voters approved a new, $4.7 billion sales tax that will vastly expand the system, adding 119 more miles of light and commuter rail, 18 miles of rapid bus routes, and 57 new stations. [...]

    Continue reading "It *Can* Happen Here" »

    Eastern Winds

    Wind power projects are becoming so commonplace it's hard to keep up with them all, but reports of two new ones stood out this week as further examples of energy leapfrogging in action.

    The World Wildlife Fund details the opening of Southeast Asia's first wind farm, in the Philippines. Rated at 25 megawatts, it's not massive, but is a good first step. Over 70 megawatts of additional wind power should be coming online in the next few years, and the WWF estimates that the total wind potential in the Philippines amounts to 7.4 gigawatts. (via Sustainablog)

    And Alternative Energy Blog offers a brief report of a new one gigawatt wind farm underway in China. The details are light (and the original source, People's Daily Online is no help), but if it is built, this would be the biggest wind farm yet in China.

    Tentative steps, to be sure, but positive ones.

    June 20, 2005

    Finding A Green Home, Part 2

    When last we addressed the question of how one could find a green home, we found that there were resources for finding environmentally sustainable dwellings in the UK, but couldn't find any for the US. They do exist, of course -- we just needed to chum the water a bit to find them.

    But first, just to underscore why someone might want to consider a green home, a new report from the University of Toronto's Department of Civil Engineering lays out the financial benefit of building green. Professor Kim Pressnail compared the costs of building a home meeting bare minimum standards to that of one meeting the high-efficiency Canadian "R2000" standard:

    They found that the cost of upgrading a $160,000 home to the R2000 standard was $5,560--an increase of just 3.5 per cent. The upgrade translated into energy savings of $818 a year. If a homeowner paid for R2000 upgrades by increasing mortgage payments, she could generate $423 a year in annual cash flow on energy savings.

    Continue reading "Finding A Green Home, Part 2" »

    YASB (Yet Another Solar Breakthrough)

    Solar electric company HelioVolt announced that it will be developing "building-integrated copper indium selenide" photovoltaic panels. Copper indium selenium (CIS) is considered the best-performing and most rugged "thin film" photovoltaic material, but has suffered from being far too difficult to produce. HelioVolt claims to have figured out a way to make the material relatively inexpensively and very quickly. CIS is able to be coated on building material for which silicon cells are unsuitable; if the HelioVolt claims are realized, this could be a big step forwards for greater application of building-integrated PV.

    (Via @Monkeysign, which also links to a 1999 article from Siemens describing CIS in more detail.)

    Air Pollution Alerts

    yourair.jpgWe posted about the European Space Agency's Global Monitoring for Environment & Security (GMES) program back in November, 2004. The program is intended to put useful satellite information about Earth's environment in the hands of citizens. The initial focus was on mapping land use and agriculture, but the ESA has now come up with an altogether different application.

    YourAir is a project providing air quality forecasts in great geographic detail, down to the street level. It currently serves London as a prototype, but if successful, will be expanded to other European cities. Forecasts are made for particulate, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone pollution. Last month, the service added a new feature: pollution warnings sent via SMS to mobile phones.

    Continue reading "Air Pollution Alerts" »

    Desertification -- What Are The Options?

    For a variety of reasons, some related to climate disruption, some not, the desert areas of the Earth's surface are growing. As many of the planet's poor live in the dry regions, the loss of economic and agricultural productivity is a particularly serious issue for reasons of both environmental sustainability and amelioration of poverty. Nature reports that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment addressed some of these issues, and has now released a more detailed report on their findings: Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Desertification Synthesis (PDF).

    Two elements of the report stand out in particular for me. The first is the use of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment scenarios as a tool for examining the future course of desertification; too often, the scenaric aspects of a study end up standing alone, withering from lack of attention and integration into the ongoing findings. The second is the exploration of options for dealing with desertification as a development issue; the MEA recognizes that, no matter how aggressive our mitigation and amelioration efforts, human activity has profoundly changed the planet's environment. We cannot get back to a pre-industrial condition. Even as we adopt practices to limit the damage done, we have to be looking at ways to adapt to the changes that have happened, and will continue to happen.

    The Art of Science

    plasmatable.jpgThis Spring, the Princeton University community was asked to submit images for an art exhibition. The only rule was that the images must either have been produced in the course of research or using tools and concepts from science. The organizers of the first annual Art of Science Competition received over 200 works in 15 days. 55 were selected to appear in the exhibit, which is now online.

    The images represent a staggering range of scales, and a diverse array of fields and approaches. A dust particle a few micrometers across rests on a silicon wafer; two galaxies collide, some 30 million light years from Earth; individual ants are given discrete paint patterns for behavioral studies; the design of a cantilever beam "evolves" in simulation; a model of freight transportation maps the flow of goods; discarded circuit boards are assembled into a work which provokes contemplation of sustainability.

    The first prize image is Plasma Table, shown here, by Elle Starkman and Andrew Post-Zwicker. In it, a cloud of silicon microspheres are illuminated by laser as they float in a plasma suspension above an electrode.

    (Via Howard Lovy's NanoBot.)

    Nanosats and Microbots

    If building and flying a microbot over the countryside is exciting, imagine how much fun it would be to control one in orbit.

    The Mini AERCam (Miniature Autonomous Extravehicular Robotic Camera) is a NASA-designed "nanosatellite" intended to be used by astronauts in orbit as a means of visually inspecting objects (including the underside of the space shuttle) and as an assistant during space walks. Measuring 7.5 inches in diameter and massing 10 pounds, it's not "nano" in the nanotechnology sense; it's much closer in form and function to a micro-sized "unmanned aerial vehicle." As with the micro-UAVs, it extends the functional reach of the users by providing views otherwise unattainable.

    The Mini AERCam is currently outfitted only with cameras, although other types of sensors are not out of the question. This version doesn't have any sort of ability to manipulate objects; although the Mini AERCam website doesn't mention it, such a feature seems an obvious extension of the device's capabilities. Like micro-UAVs, the nanosat is capable of both remote operation and independent flight. As the system intelligence increases, greater autonomy is planned, culminating in future AER design being used as robotic assistants for astronauts. Presumably, the software supporting autonomous operation could eventually be applicable to Earthly microbots, as well.

    Logistics and the Tsunami

    The Fritz Institute is a non-profit organization providing logistical support and software to humanitarian efforts worldwide; I spoke with its managing director, Dr. Anisya Thomas, last November. Its primary goal is to build up an "institutional memory" of best practices for relief and humanitarian logistics. To that end, the Institute has now published Logistics and the Effective Delivery of Humanitarian Relief, based on its experiences assisting with post-tsunami operations in Southeast Asia.

    The key finding: there aren't nearly enough people who understand logistics working in humanitarian fields.

    Logistics and the Effective Delivery of Humanitarian Relief can be downloaded from the Fritz Institute website (PDF).

    June 21, 2005

    PDA for the Blind

    I've mentioned before that I worked for a couple of years providing computer support to disabled college students, faculty and staff. While much of what I worked with was otherwise standard gear tweaked slightly to accommodate special needs, one of the coolest pieces of tech I ran across was a note recorder for the blind. The user didn't just talk into it, he typed notes to himself using an eight-key chording keyboard; the notes would then read back to him in a computer-generated voice.

    Well, that was the early 1990s. Today, the blind have a new note-taking device: the BrailleNote PK. It does everything the earlier version did (including speech output), but also has an 18-cell Braille display (essentially a series of pins that form Braille characters, read by running fingers along them), USB & Bluetooth for syncing with a PC, WiFi and a web browser, and a media player (along with a bunch of other features) -- and it weighs just under a pound.

    It's been my experience that technologies and adaptations intended initially for the disabled very often evolve into technologies for everyone. Sometimes, however, the reverse is also true: technologies meant for the mainstream can, occasionally, be adapted and transformed so as to accommodate those who can otherwise be cut off. And that's pretty cool.

    (Via Gizmodo)

    Adopt A Chinese Blog

    adoptachineseblog.jpgThis idea is so brilliant it gives me chills.

    Blogging is popular in China, enough so that the government is paying more attention now to what people say on them. Numerous blogs have been shut down, either from government pressure or just by Chinese host providers fearful of its users possibly breaking the law. In addition, an April 2005 law mandates that all non-profit website owners must register their sites with their real personal information. The recent revelation that Microsoft was censoring various terms in the blogging service they offer in China only added to the fear that free speech on the Chinese web would be harder and harder to find. Some Chinese bloggers managed to put their websites on offshore servers, but the language and cost issues are prohibitive for many.

    Adopt A Chinese Blog is an end-run around official censorship. How? By making the hosting of Chinese blogs a distributed, collaborative process:

    Continue reading "Adopt A Chinese Blog" »

    Engineering with DNA

    dnascaffold.jpgNanoscientists and biochemical engineers are starting to play with DNA not as replicating code, but as physical tools for nanoassembly. Researchers at Arizona State University and at New York University have independently come with ways to use DNA as a framework upon which to build sophisticated molecules. The work has implications for biochemical sensors, drug analysis, even DNA computing. And while the practical applications of these specific techniques are interesting, their larger importance is as a demonstration of the increasing sophistication of our ability to work at the nanoscale.

    Continue reading "Engineering with DNA" »

    Google Map Goodness

    Google Maps has now added a bunch of global cities to its roster. Some have more of a zoom than other, and a number of big cities are missing, so don't get your hopes up about seeing your house from space. Still, it's very cool to see cities such as Paris, Istanbul, Cairo, Beijing, Mexico City and Kabul up close and personal...

    June 22, 2005

    Blogging 'Round the Clock

    WorldChanging ally Sustainablog will be celebrating its two year anniversary on July 11. In commemoration, Jeff Strasburg, Sustainablogger, will be holding a "Blogging 'Round the Clock" blogathon to raise funds for the Missouri Botanical Gardens' Earthways Center.

    Jeff's soliciting "per post" pledges. And not only will Jeff be blogging for 24 hours, he's asked a variety of other writers from what he terms the "sustainable blogosphere" to pitch in. You'll see some familiar names among the contributors...

    If you're not already reading Sustainablog, you should be. Sustainablog is a terrific resource for keeping tabs on what's going on in the world of environmental issues, and I'm happy to see the site celebrate another year. Congrats, Jeff!

    Solar Mass Transit

    Solar power may not yet be up to the task of powering mass transit vehicles, but it can do a fine job of powering mass transit stations. The Stillwell Avenue subway stop in Brooklyn has become New York City's first solar-powered train station, with over 76,000 square feet of thin-film PV generating 250,000 kWh a year.

    The picture at Renewable Energy Access demonstrates what a large-scale building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) system looks like. Interestingly, they don't completely block light transmission -- about 20-25% of the light gets through, reducing the need for artificial daytime lighting.

    Plastic Lubrication

    Lubricating oil is one of the myriad petroleum-based products that will become more expensive and harder to come by should the dire predictions of the Peak Oil folks come to pass. But chemical engineers at the University of Kentucky and ChevronTexaco have figured out a way to use waste plastics as the base material for engine lubricant. Only 1 million of the 25 million tons of plastic used in the United States every year is recycled; the rest is tossed into the garbage. The process developed by the researchers works with both polyethelene and poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET) plastics; the resulting lubricant is the functional equivalent of high-quality lubricant made from natural gas. The article will be published in an upcoming Energy & Fuels journal from the American Chemical Society.

    Although battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles won't have the same lubrication requirements of internal combustion engines, hybrids -- even gas-optional hybrids -- do. If this process can be scaled up to commercial use (and early indications are that it can), it could provide a transition lubricant for the Peak Oil future, and reduce the problem of plastics going into landfills.

    Biomass Chemistry

    "Peak Oil" continues its march to memetic dominance, and a greater number of pundits and politicians not previously known for talking about the environment have started to ask what happens when oil runs out. For many who embrace the "Peak Oil Is Here" idea, the answer is simple: chaos, because petroleum is at the heart of much of industrial and agricultural production, not just transportation.

    But that's not the only scenario. There has been quite a bit of research into alternative means of producing the materials we now make using oil. Biomass is the top candidate for oil equivalents, and indeed biodiesel has been getting more attention of late as a renewable and low-net-carbon method of fueling vehicles, both by renewable energy advocates trying to move away from fossil fuels and by researchers trying to improve the efficiency of biodiesel production. Biomass is also being used as an experimental feedstock for chemicals now requiring petroleum. And by stretching the definition of biomass a bit, even fertilizer -- a favorite of the apocyphiles -- can be made without fossil fuels.

    Continue reading "Biomass Chemistry" »


    ScalaBLAST.jpgIt may be awhile before it shows up on your desktop, but the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has just made a massive leap in the ability to sequence genomes.

    ScalaBLAST is a software tool for use with multiprocessor systems, dividing up the work of analyzing biological information. With the PNNL's supercomputer -- number 30 in the latest Top 500 supercomputer list -- the software allows genome sequencing to happen hundreds of times faster than before. Prior to ScalaBLAST, sequencing the DNA of a single organism took 10 days, a remarkably short time compared to the months and years such a process took less than a decade earlier. With ScalaBLAST, the same machine can analyze 13 organisms in 9 hours, or about 42 minutes per organism.

    The PNNL scientists are enthusiastic about the opportunities this could provide:

    Continue reading "ScalaBLAST" »

    InstantSOUP for the Fabricator's Soul

    netbell.jpgInstantSOUP -- Instant Satisfaction Potentially Useful Objects (the acronym reversal is, um, amusing) -- is hardware and software toolkit designed to introduce people to "physical computing." It uses a beginner-friendly input/output board and programming language called "Wiring," which in turn is based a visual programming language called "Processing." All are open projects, intended to grow as they gain more users and developers from the broader community. They're also aimed at people who wouldn't normally think about learning to program computing hardware.

    InstantSOUP projects, or "recipes," include: SoundPad, an introduction to wiring and output); Etch a Sketch, which uses hand-built controllers to draw on your computer screen; TinkerToy, where you build a remote-control car; and the NetBell (shown), which taps a glass to make a gentle tone whenever someone visits a given website. While none of these lessons may be immediately applicable to one's art or design projects, they teach larger lessons about how digitally-controlled hardware functions and is crafted. Discussion forums and workshops are available, as well, to help users learn the environment.

    I'm particularly happy to note that Wiring and Processing are available for MacOSX and Linux, as well as Windows.

    Hit the extended entry for more details on each of these projects.

    Continue reading "InstantSOUP for the Fabricator's Soul" »

    June 23, 2005

    The Kaya Identity and the "Conservation Bomb"

    onepercent.jpgNot a spy thriller, the Kaya Identity is the formula which projects the amount of atmospheric CO2 as a function of population, GDP per capita, watts per dollar, and CO2 per watt. It's pretty straightforward: our carbon output depends on how much power we use, how efficiently we use it, and how "dirty" the production is. Recall that current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are just under 380 parts per million, and that the general consensus among climatologists is that (looking just at CO2), the climate is up for some serious problems once we hit the 440ppm level. With the Kaya Identity, we can calculate just what combination of factors would keep us below that level.

    The math isn't hard -- it's just multiplication -- but charting it out over course of the next century can get a bit tedious. Fortunately, for a class in the Geosciences department at the University of Chicago, Professor David Archer put together a Kaya Calculator allowing you to plug in preferred figures for each element and see what results. For most factors, you don't have to give absolute numbers, just the amount of change every year. The calculator is set to show the results over the course of the 21st century, and displays a number of graphs detailing the figures. The most important of the resulting graphs is "Carbon-Free Energy Required for CO2 Stabilization" -- that is, how much of our overall energy production will have to be carbon-free in order to stabilize CO2 at a given portion by 2100.

    With the default figures -- taken from the global trends of the last century -- we'd need over 17 terawatts of carbon-free power (out of the total produced) to stabilize at 450ppm in 2100. I've reproduced the graph showing these results above. Unfortunately, the chart doesn't indicate just what the total energy production would be; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can help here -- their average scenario for energy use in 2100 is roughly four times the present, or about 40-50 terawatts.

    But that assumes we don't try to change things.

    Continue reading "The Kaya Identity and the "Conservation Bomb"" »

    Zero Waste, Perpetual Food

    In natural systems, "waste" is a nearly unknown concept. What may be waste products for one species is nearly always food for another. The interconnection between the various organisms in an ecosystem means that, absent external disruption, environmental cycles can continue more-or-less indefinitely. That's not the case with most agricultural or industrial methods, however; much of what we do makes waste, and waste is a sign of inefficiency.

    Environmental engineer Dr. George Chan thought we could do better, and has for the past two decades been working (along with the Zero Emissions Research Initiative) on something he calls the Integrated Food and Waste Management System (IF&WMS), a method of layering different types of production together such that the waste output from one component feeds another. IFWMS has a goal of zero waste -- and in its growing number of implementations, it comes pretty close. IF&WMS combines farming of livestock, aquaculture, horticulture, and agro-industries. The oneVillage Foundation sums it up in this way:

    Continue reading "Zero Waste, Perpetual Food" »

    June 24, 2005

    Plankton, El Niño, and Sinking Carbon

    phytoplanktonnasa.jpgIt's hard to overestimate the importance of phytoplankton to the planet's global ecosystem. Plankton are pretty much the bottom of the food chain, and as their numbers rise and fall, so too do the fortunes of nearly every other creature of the sea. But it turns out that the oceans aren't the only part of the Earth with a fate dependent upon plankton -- they affect the atmosphere, too.

    Dr. Wendy Wang and her colleagues at the University of Maryland, working with data from NASA's EOS global monitor satellite, have determined that phytoplankton account for about half of the carbon dioxide absorbed annually by plants. Moreover, the cycle of El Niño/La Niña weather phenomena strongly correlates with the decline and growth of phytoplankton.

    Continue reading "Plankton, El Niño, and Sinking Carbon" »

    Making the Meters Smarter

    Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the main energy utility in California, has proposed to the regulatory commission that it be allowed to spend the next five years (and about $1.5 billion) installing upgraded meters for its customers. These meters would allow for variable rates based on peak/off-peak use, as well as remote reading (i.e., no more backyard visitors). Over time, the improved meters will mean reduced operating costs, as well as lower overall peak consumption as customers shift home activities to off-peak hours.

    It's a good start, but there are a couple more improvements I'd like to see: support for distributed energy connections; and support for Internet access to use history and real-time measurement by customers.

    Continue reading "Making the Meters Smarter" »

    June 25, 2005

    El Niño and Global Warming, Revisited

    elnino.jpgYesterday, I discussed the interaction between the El Niño weather phenomenon, its suppression of phytoplankton blooms, and the importance of phytoplankton in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and suggested that this connection was worth paying close attention to. If climate disruption resulted in weaker El Niños, the accelerated growth of phytoplankton might be a useful moderator to global warming; if it resulted in stronger El Niños, the suppression of phytoplankton might end up making matters worse. I expected that research about the interrelation between climate disruption and the El Niño/La Niña phenomena would emerge in the future.

    The future came faster than anticipated.

    In an upcoming issue of Science, Michael Wara, Ph.D. student in Ocean Science at UC Santa Cruz, along with his professors Christina Ravelo and Margaret Delaney, argue in an article entitled "Permanent El Niño-Like Conditions During the Pliocene Warm Period" that the most recent era in which the Earth was warmer than it is now (the Pliocene epoch, 5mya-1.7mya), conditions in the southeast Pacific were essentially identical to those found during an El Niño -- but without a cyclical return to a La Niña period.

    Continue reading "El Niño and Global Warming, Revisited" »

    June 28, 2005

    Saving Homes, Saving the Forest

    The favelas in and around Rio de Janiero regularly suffer from mudslides and floods resulting from the combination of heavy weather and deforestation. But if the denizens of the squatter cities have few recourses for lowering the weather risk, they can do something about the trees: plant more. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, favela dwellers have planted over 4 million trees around the edges of Rio, thereby reducing the threat of mudslides and floods. But the trees have had an even greater effect than that:

    In addition to saving lives, the municipal project has resulted in the return of dozens of species of birds, monkeys and other animals -- many not seen in decades. Natural springs have been reborn, air temperatures have become cooler, and mahogany, rosewood and other native species of tropical hardwood once more grow in the region.

    Nearby trees have also made it possible for residents to supplement their meals with fresh fruit, and to boost the local economy by selling fruit to the rest of the city.

    (Via Squattercity)

    Do-It-Yourself Solar Generator

    Phil Heiple wanted a home solar electricity system to act as a power backup and to serve as portable power for vacations. But being a do-it-yourself kind of guy, he decided to assemble his own. This page lists exactly how he did it, at a cost less than $300 total.

    It's worth noting that he didn't make a solar panel -- he bought one of those -- but a solar-charged power system. Whatever he needed to plug in actually pulled from the battery storage; the solar panel served to recharge the battery. In addition, the page appears to date from around 1996 -- and while the overall instructions are still quite valid, it would be interesting to see just how much better a system one could assemble for the same rough price with modern technology.

    (Via Make)

    Batteries on the March

    In the 1980s, there was much talk about "spin-off" technologies from government research, particularly military research -- devices and ideas first developed to benefit the Pentagon, and later used by the far larger civilian market (for example, the Global Positioning System). In the 1990s, the flow of ideas reversed, and political economists started to talk about "spin-on" technologies, a clumsy neologism covering the use by the military of off-the-shelf devices for reasons of cost, size or capabilities(for example, hand-held GPS units). We may be moving back towards the spin-off scenario, however, in the realm of portable power.

    PhysOrg has the latest example of this: advanced Lithium-ion batteries with up to 40% more power than standard batteries of equivalent sizes. The batteries are intended for use in power vests to be worn by soldiers, powering the variety of electronic gear carried by modern infantry. As such, the batteries need to operate in a far greater temperature range, be more rugged, and last significantly longer than off-the-shelf batteries.

    Those characteristics are also precisely the ones needed for more reliable batteries for electric vehicles, and the batteries look to be able to scale up in order to meet that demand. The improved battery technology also scales way down, for use in implantable medical devices.

    Storing the Sun in Cannisters

    One of the problems facing the distributed renewable power is that sometimes zapping the electricity down wires isn't your best choice, either for reasons of efficiency or of convenience. The Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich have come up with a novel solution, at least for solar power: store it in a metal ore.

    Solar heat is used to crack zinc from zinc oxide; the metal can then be readily moved around. The zinc can then be used in zinc-air batteries or to help crack hydrogen from water vapor. In both cases, the reaction with oxygen creates zinc oxide, which can then be used by the solar heater.

    The first trials of the solar power-plant have used thirty-percent of available solar energy and produced forty-five kilos of zinc an hour, exceeding projected goals. During further tests this summer a higher efficiency is expected. Industrial size plants, for which this is a prototype, can reach efficiency levels of fifty- to sixty-percent. The success of this solar chemistry pilot project opens the way for an efficient thermo-chemical process whereby the sun's energy can be stored and transported in the form of a chemical fuel. In this process the zinc is combined with coal, coke or carbon biomass which acts as a reactive agent, yet in this reactor only a fifth of the usual amount of agent is used. The sun's rays are concentrated on this mixture by a system of mirrors and the zinc forms as a gas which is then condensed to a powder.

    So the question for you engineering types out there: at what point does this become preferable to storing the power in batteries?

    Cyber Island off the Coast of Africa

    The Chicago Tribune reports on the desire of the tiny nation of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, to be the world's first "cyber island," complete with total WiFi coverage and high-speed connections to the global Internet.

    Mauritius has been struggling as the low-wage basis of its economy (largely textile manufacturing and sugar production) has become less and less viable. A leap forward is needed, and Deelchand Jeeha, the Minister of Information Technology and Communications, believes he knows what to do:

    In Ebene, just south of Port Louis, the capital, the government has built the first of three planned high-tech parks. It also has stepped up training programs to turn out tech-savvy workers and has rewritten its business rules in an effort to create an attractive investment climate. The changes are aimed at luring call centers, remote data backup facilities for companies worried about terrorist attacks and, eventually, software development companies.

    The biggest goal is the construction of a wireless internet connection to cover the entire 40-mile-long island. The biggest challenge is the government, however; although officially promoting the service, the Mauritius government owns the telecom monopoly, and is loathe to give up its high profits by opening the telecommunications market to competition. Fortunately, island citizens now say that the government is slowly coming around, and that many have gone from being dismissive of the plan to being cautiously optimistic about its potential.

    June 29, 2005

    "It Should Be More Green"

    Newsweek interviews Honda's chief US engineer, Charlie Baker, this week, and he sounds like exactly the kind of auto designer we need to clone. 7 out of the top 10 most fuel-efficient cars are Hondas, and while the company doesn't get the same kind of green cred often ladled out to Toyota, fuel efficiency is a core Honda philosophy -- the quote used as the title for this piece comes from Honda America's head, Koichi Amemiya.

    As you develop future vehicles, what are your assumptions about gas prices?

    We don't really care. Why would we?

    Well, because it could have an effect on consumers' choices.

    We don't spend a lot of time agonizing about fuel consumption. The answer is already clear. You are going to have the best fuel economy in class of any vehicle. Period. Have a nice day. You don't need to do any market research. You don't need to do any fancy negotiations because you are never going to get anything approved by the board of directors without proving you have the best fuel economy in class. That's it.

    My Honda Civic Hybrid may not have the Car of Tomorrow look of the Prius -- and I really wish I could retrofit it as a Gas-Optional Hybrid -- but this interview made me feel pretty good about my choice.

    Today's Front Pages

    newseum.jpgGet ready to spend the next couple of hours clicking in fascination.

    Newseum, a site billing itself as "the interactive museum of news" has created "Today's Front Pages," a Flash-based interface to let users see the front page of over 425 newspapers across 45 countries. While many are in the United States or Europe, there are numerous papers from the rest of the world, too. Brazil, in particular, has an abundance of news outlets available online.

    Pointing at a dot will show the current front page for the linked paper; clicking will give you a close-up of the front page in a new window. The close-up page will also allow you to head over to the newspaper's site.

    For me, a service like the Today's Front Pages site is a useful tool for getting a quick glance at the global zeitgeist. What are people in Hong Kong concerned about today (bird flu)? Or India (student fees)? Or Chile (flooding)? Or Canada (the legalization of gay marriage)?

    The least-represented continent is, unsurprisingly, Africa. A single Tunisian newspaper is available; clearly, either the Newseum needs better African links or the African newspapers need to start putting up images of their front pages...

    PLoS Computational Biology

    The latest addition to the PLoS (Public Library of Science) stable is PLoS Computational Biology. PLoS comprises a growing array of academic journals which make all materials available for free over the net -- thereby making them open to poor regions unable to afford traditional library subscriptions. But what is computational biology, you ask? From the inaugural editorial:

    Computation, driven in part by the influx of large amounts of data at all biological scales, has become a central feature of research and discovery in the life sciences. This work tends to be published either in methods journals that are not read by experimentalists or in one of the numerous journals reporting novel biology, each of which publishes only small amounts of computational research. Hence, the impact of this research is diluted. PLoS Computational Biology provides a home for important biological research driven by computation—a place where computational biologists can find the best work produced by their colleagues, and where the broader biological community can see the myriad ways computation is advancing our understanding of biological systems.

    In short, computational biology is an interdisciplinary approach to using information technology as a fundamental tool for analyzing and describing living systems. Simulation, modeling, and bioengineering/biohacking all fall under this rather broad scope.

    Guide to Self-Assembly

    Technology Research News has an occasional series entitled "How It Works," describing in relatively straightforward language how important technological or scientific processes are accomplished. The latest is on "self-assembly," with a focus on biological replication. Self-assembly is particularly important for working at the nanoscale, as top-down assembly tools are simply too big and unwieldy to build anything quickly. Such techniques can mimic or even use DNA as a base for replication.

    I think the TRN piece doesn't go quite far enough in explaining how the DNA and protein tools are used, but it's a good start for understanding the basic processes involved.

    Microbial Nanowires

    Geobacter is quite the interesting genus of bacteria. As extremophiles, they can live quite happily under conditions too toxic for most creatures big or small. Moreover, many Geobacter microbes are able to convert those toxins into materials far less dangerous -- a process referred to as "bioremediation" -- sometimes generating electricity in the process.

    But in trying to better understand how Geobacter is able to do all of this, researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst -- including the original discoverer of the Geobacter line -- stumbled across another remarkable characteristic of these creatures: nanowires. Geobacter is criss-crossed with tiny (3-5 nanometer wide) protein wires able to conduct electrons out of the cell.

    The remarkable and unexpected discovery of microbial structures comprising microbial nanowires that may enable a microbial community in a contaminated waste site to form mini-power grids could provide new approaches to using microbes to assist in the remediation of DOE waste sites; to support the operation of mini-environmental sensors, and to nano-manufacture in novel biological ways. This discovery also illustrates the continuing relevance of the physical sciences to today’s biological investigations." [...]

    Continue reading "Microbial Nanowires" »

    June 30, 2005

    Deep Impact

    Deep Impact is the NASA project to smack a probe into the surface of a comet in order to get some insights into what it's made of. The impact event will happen on Monday, July 4. The comet -- which will by no means be destroyed -- is Comet Tempel 1. The impact will be watched by a variety of space probes, and will be visible from some parts of the Earth.

    Why do this? Two main reasons. The first is that comets have, by and large, been around since the formation of the solar system, and taking a look at the guts of one can give some added clues about how the planets came to be. The second will be familiar to regular readers of WorldChanging: it will help us better understand how to keep comets from hitting the Earth. They don't hit very often, but when they do...

    A final digression: if scientists are concerned about Hollywood mangling science in the service of entertainment, they probably shouldn't be using Hollywood names for their projects to get more attention. Just saying.

    Flu Wiki

    Dr. Lucas Gonzalez' idea to use Wikipedia as a resource for flu pandemic preparation is a good one, and was inspired by the use of Wikipedia as information hub in the immediate post-tsunami days. But, just as the post-tsunami needs were greater than Wikipedia could support -- spawning the South-East Asia Earthquake And Tsunami site -- so too does the effort to head off a global avian flu emergency need its own home. And now it has one: Flu Wiki.

    The goal of the site is to be:

  • a reliable source of information, as neutral as possible, about important facts useful for a public health approach to pandemic influenza
  • a venue for anticipating the vast range of problems that may arise if a pandemic does occur
  • a venue for thinking about implementable solutions to foreseeable problems

    We wish them well.

  • More Eco-Protests in China

    The uprising over factory pollution in the village of Huaxi I posted about in mid-June was not an isolated incident. The month has also seen pollution-related uprisings in the village of Jianxia (over toxic waste from a battery factory) and in the Cangnan County region (over a power plant). An uprising in April in the village of Huankantou was also pollution-linked, although the proximate trigger was the death of two elderly protesters.

    If the smog-filled skies, poisoned lakes and spiraling fuel costs don't convince the Chinese government that they need to change direction fast, perhaps these villagers -- and millions more like them -- can.

    About June 2005

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

    May 2005 is the previous archive.

    July 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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