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September 2005 Archives

September 1, 2005

Alex in Grist, Part 3

In the final part of the Alex in Grist interview saga, Alex Steffen and Dave Roberts talk about how the environmental movement needs to change, how to make the case for sustainability compelling, and how to defeat the Emperor by tossing him down a convenient bottomless pit.

Alex: ...once you have better ways of doing things -- better both in that they're cleaner and safer but also in that they make money for shareholders -- then you're able to cast the old-school chemical companies, the fossil fuel companies, as what they are: old, bloated, heavily subsidized industries with a lock on politicians who benefit from a quid pro quo arrangement. You can finally cast them as the enemy in such a way that you're not against industry, you're against old, dirty, last-century industry, which is standing in the way. Why won't they get out of our way? Why won't they let us do things in a healthier way? Why are they making money off poisoning us when we could make more money doing it cleaner?

Car Sharing Heats Up

Hot on the heels of Zipcar's announced expansion, Seattle-based Flexcar yesterday revealed investments from and board memberships for two close-to-household names: Steve Case (formerly of AOL) and Lee "Not Snoop Dog" Iacocca (formerly of Chrysler, pre-Daimler era). The money (undisclosed but apparently significant) will allow Flexcar to double its fleet, open up in five new cities in the next 16 months, and double its membership levels.

While we're not normally all that interested in celebrity corporate executives, an investment like this is a big, flashing neon sign that car-sharing is set to get big. No doubt the threat of $4/gallon gas and $100/barrel oil will make even die-hard solo drivers think again about their car habits, and car-sharing is well-positioned to assist a transition towards greater use of public transit.

(Thanks, Joseph Willemssen)


The next big thing is space probes looks to be very small. "Nanosatellites" -- fully-functional satellite systems measuring a few dozen centimeters in length. As we noted last June, NASA is working on nanosats as sort of micro-UAVs for inspecting the space shuttle and station. Canada's University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, Space Flight Laboratory (UTIAS/SFL) is working on something a bit more complex, however. CanX -- Canadian Advanced Nanospace eXperiment -- is a series of increasingly-complex, very small satellites, able to work either alone or in "flocks." Multiple nanosats are potentially much less expensive than big solo satellites, and allow for greater flexibility and robustness: the loss of a member of a flock doesn't threaten the whole mission.

The second nanosat in the series, CanX-2, is set to launch in mid-2006; the launch will test a new propulsion system, custom radios, cheap & tiny attitude sensors and actuators, and a commercial GPS receiver. CanX-3 is already being built, with even greater functionality, and CanX-4 and 5 are in design.

Nanosat development would be particularly useful for countries and regions without extensive space programs, as they would allow more collaborative space-based environmental monitoring and research at lower cost and lower risk.

Getting Smarter About Genetic Modification

One of the reasons that many people with solid scientific backgrounds have concerns about the use of genetic modification techniques in agriculture is the degree to which the potential for unintended consequences seems to be downplayed. This is especially true when microbial genetic material is involved. Unlike more complex organisms, bacteria can spread changes to their genomes through methods other than traditional reproduction; "horizontal gene transfer" across species is said to be responsible for up to 10% of evolutionary changes to bacterial genes. The use of microbial DNA in agricultural biotechnology risks increasing the possibility of horizontal transfer, particularly between bacterial species that don't normally have contact.

Given the overwhelming concern these days about bacteria acquiring antibiotic resistance, one would expect that this would be an area that plant bioengineers would be extra-careful about. One would be wrong. It turns out that genes for a particular type of antibiotic resistance are part of many plant modifications, for reasons explained below. Fortunately, researchers in Tennessee have come across a set of plant genes that impart similar resistance to antibiotics, but cannot be transferred -- horizontally or otherwise -- to bacteria. The adoption of this technique won't allay all reasonable concerns about GMOs, but it would go a long way to preventing one particularly nasty outcome.

Continue reading "Getting Smarter About Genetic Modification" »

Smart Sprawl

On balance, it's not too difficult to think up ways to make cities more sustainable if you're able to create something new. Figuring out the right combination of transportation, infrastructure, and services to promote livability, strengthen the economy, and keep efficiency up and resource use down is much easier when you can plan out the whole thing in advance. But such opportunities are rare -- and, as we see in New Orleans -- are themselves often fraught with tragedy. Building sustainable cities means working with what we've got; in most cases, that means working with sprawl.

The effects of sprawl can be confronted at the local level and at the regional level, and demand not just rethinking the transit systems, but re-examining how we want our cities to operate. But what would such a process look like? Walter Siembab, Principal of Siembab Planning Associates, has one approach: he calls it "Smart Sprawl."

Continue reading "Smart Sprawl" »

Architecture for Humanity on the Aftermath of Katrina

AFH.gifReaders who were around for the December tsunami will not be surprised to learn that Architecture for Humanity -- the non-profit architecture and design group run by WorldChanging contributor Cameron Sinclair and his partner/AfH co-founder Kate Stohr -- is already looking at what it can do to help the recovery and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and the gulf coast. Cameron is currently traveling in Sri Lanka and India, looking in on the post-tsunami construction, while Kate is holding down the AfH fort; she has generously allowed me to quote from a letter that she sent to the American Institute of Architects on what AfH's experience teaches about how best to respond to this disaster.

I am wondering if we shouldn't direct our donations to housing assistance and reconstruction rather than on short-term relief and recovery. I say this only because in our experience with Bam, Grenada and the Tsunami, we've found that though a great many groups will aid and fund emergency/relief efforts there are very few places families and communities can turn six-months, a year, or two-years after a disaster for housing assistance and for help in rebuilding.

Continue reading "Architecture for Humanity on the Aftermath of Katrina" »

September 2, 2005

RealClimate on Katrina

The connection between climate disruption and Katrina is a complex issue, one that is ill-served by either bald assertions that global warming "caused" the hurricane or talking point-driven claims that any suggestion of a link amounts to "politicizing" the disaster.

As we've noted here, the connection between global warming and hurricanes looks to be one of increased average intensity -- but not something allowing simple, "if-then" logic for any single event. But we're not climate professionals; you're better off hearing from people who are experts in the field. I mean, of course, the scientists at the RealClimate website.

In Hurricanes and Global Warming -- Is There A Consensus? the RealClimate authors give a painstaking breakdown of the factors that could contribute to increased hurricane intensity. Their conclusion won't satisfy partisans, but gives a good read on where the science is these days: Thus, we can conclude that both a natural cycle (the AMO [Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or Hurricane Cycle]) and anthropogenic forcing could have made roughly equally large contributions to the warming of the tropical Atlantic over the past decades, with an exact attribution impossible so far.

September 3, 2005

Political Games, Walking A Fine Line

simbabwe.jpgAt what point does satire become cynicism?

The line between them can be extremely fine, one very dependent upon perspective. But it's an important distinction to make, because one point of satire is to reveal the deceptions at work in public performances (whether they be for entertainment or politics); done correctly, satire makes it much harder to accept these continued deceptions. The revelations of satire make us laugh and hurt at the same time. Cynicism, conversely, often takes the deceptions as a given, and admits their existence while denying that we have any choice in the matter. The revelations of cynicism at best make us seek to escape, at worst make us look for ways to get into the game.

Simbabwe, a computer game put together by The Daily Grind (MacOS X only), walks that fine line between grim satire and cynicism; those of you who get a chance to play it can tell us in the comments on which side you feel it falls. After running through a full game, I'm tending towards grim satire, but am willing to entertain counter-arguments.

Continue reading "Political Games, Walking A Fine Line" »


Longtail-empty-fuel-cans.jpgA typical retort to those who advocate greater reliance on bicycles as a primary mode of transportation is that they're not very useful when trying to go to the grocery store. Admittedly, most bikes that one can buy in the US are ill-suited to carrying much of a load. But there are many places throughout the world -- primarily in developing nations -- where bicycles are the main form of transportation; how do bicycle users in these places handle heavy loads?

So-called "cargo bikes" are the usual solution, but they often are little more than standard bicycles with trailers. Although this configuration can carry quite a bit, it does so at a high price (as it needs two more wheels, the costliest part of a bike) and tends to be fatiguing over longer distances. In the late 1990s, Xtracycle started to sell an add-on that would allow bikes to carry larger loads; the non-profit arm of the company, XAccess, makes this add-on available at low or no cost through the developing world. Over the subsequent years, the XAccess team improved the design, and eventually came up with "utility bicycles" made specifically to carry heavy loads. This April, XAccess started a 10 month trial of its "Bigga Boda" bike in Kenya, a vehicle able to carry hundreds of pounds of cargo or two additional passengers easily, and at a substantially lower cost than other forms of human-powered utility vehicles. XAccess intends the Bigga Boda to be available to end-users for around $30 -- 5% of the cost of a bicycle rickshaw.

Continue reading "XAccess" »

September 6, 2005

Dencity and the Augmented Environment

dencity.jpgI'd seen a few references to the denCity project in the various sites I read, an effort to build an emergent urban augmentation system by creating barcodes which, when photographed with a cameraphone and compared to a phone-accessible website, return detailed information about whatever is tagged by the barcode. I find such location-based technologies to be intriguing, and the use of the cameraphone as the interface for capturing local tags has obvious connections to my ongoing examination of the Participatory Panopticon. DenCity struck me as interesting, but somewhat derivative of other projects such as Yellow Arrow, the New York-based art project, which also allows users to create their own notes for given locations. At present, the denCity system works only in the city of Aachen, Germany.

Curious about the genesis of the project, I wrote to the creators of denCity, Philipp Hoppe and Kai Kasugai, asking them about what they had in mind. Philipp and Kai were kind enough to reply, and to allow me to quote them on WorldChanging. Their answers, although brief, got me thinking about what these kinds of urban meta-tagging tools might really mean.

Continue reading "Dencity and the Augmented Environment" »

KatrinaHome by WAP

katrinahome.gifWe mentioned the KatrinaHome.com website the other day -- it's a site designed to match people with available space with evacuees from the hurricane zone. This is exactly the kind of offering for which the web is ideally-suited: a bottom-up provision of assistance to strangers, mediated by decentralized networks. It's such a good idea that MoveOn.org started Hurricanehousing.com, providing similar connections, the very next day!

But KatrinaHome founder Rod Edwards (who also runs WorldChanging ally SustainabilityZone.com) has taken the site to a new level, and has done something very, very smart: KatrinaHome.com now has a WAP interface for access via cellular phones. (WAP, or Wireless Access Protocol, allows for simplified web pages to be sent over standard cellular networks.)

wap.katrinahome.com/index.wml allows people with mobile phone connections but no computer -- almost certainly a not-insubstantial number of the evacuees -- the ability to access the housing database. Although some advanced mobile phones can run full-blown web browsers, a far larger number are limited to WAP-based sites. By making Katrinahome.com available over WAP, Rod has dramatically expanded the number of people who could take advantage of the match-making service.

This is something worth talking about more widely, and if you're running a weblog or mailing list -- or even just conversing with your circle of friends about the hurricane aftermath -- consider giving it a link.

(Edit: And, as David says in the comments, thank you, Rod. This is truly wonderful work on your part.)

AltWheels 2005

The annual AltWheels festival, held in Brookline, Massachusetts, is just around the corner. AltWheels is a chance to get some hands-on time with a wide variety of alternative and sustainable transportation ideas, from advanced bikes to hydrogen cars to solar vehicles. I gave a heads-up last year, and reader Jeff Egnaczyk posted a link to his photos of the event. This year, I'd love to hear from more of you who attended. In particular, I'd like to know: what struck you as realistic? What seemed implausible or ill-founded? What surprised you? What gave you a "I'd really like to see *that* on the road" feeling?

AltWheels 2005 will be held Saturday and Sunday, September 17 and 18, at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum. Directions and (inexpensive) pricing info can be found here.

September 7, 2005


Although a good case can be made for the idea that science has an important role to play in the process of global development and the abolition of poverty, scientific journals quite often focus upon subjects and research of greater interest to the developed world than to the developing regions. To an extent, this is not at all surprising: the bulk of the research happens in the West and in Japan, and scientists do tend to work on issues that are important and interesting to them. Yet there are large numbers of working scientists in the developing world, too; how can their voices be better heard?

That's the goal of AuthorAid (PDF), a proposal from the editors of the Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP), with the backing of the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research and the Council of Science Editors' (CSE) Task Force on Science Journals, Poverty, and Human Development. AuthorAid recognizes that talented scientists in the developing world are doing outstanding research on locally-relevant subjects, but often cannot get published in the mainstream science journals for reasons of language expertise, laboratory support or basic access. AuthorAid links developing world authors with volunteer editor/scientist mentors around the world, on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis:

Continue reading "AuthorAid" »

China's Renewables Plan

In March, we noted that China was set to pass a law requiring that 10% of its energy production come from renewable sources, including hydropower, by 2020. Not terribly ambitious in terms of either goals or technology, we argued at the time that "China could and should do much more" to move to cleaner power and consumption.

Slowly, China seems to be shifting towards recognition the need to do more. The latest example comes in a report from Reuters that Shi Lishan, director of renewable energy at the policy-setting National Development and Reform Commission, last week told a Beijing energy conference that 15% renewables was a reasonable goal, and that shifting from a 10% to a 15% target was being considered by top officials.

15% is still a fraction of what China could do by 2020, but a jump like this in just 6 months is notable. China seems to have a growing recognition that current models of energy production and consumption are unsustainable. Perhaps more importantly, China may be seeing that the same is true globally -- and that the first major economic power to aggressively shift to cleaner technologies could have a "first mover" advantage over the rest.

More Steampunk Solar

Stirling Energy Systems, fresh from signing a major deal with Southern California Edison for the construction of a 4,500 acre Stirling engine solar power farm, has just locked up another regional energy giant: San Diego Gas & Electric. SDG&E has just agreed to buy 300MW of power from another Stiring Energy Systems farm, with the option of expanding to 900MW. If the full installation goes forward, the Stirling farm would produce 10% of SDG&E's total power capacity -- a big step towards the company's goal of 20% renewable energy production by 2010.

The SCE Stirling farm was to be the largest solar power array in the world; the full SDG&E plan would be a bit larger, and would result in California being home to nearly two gigawatts of non-photovoltaic solar power production within the next decade.

(Via Green Car Congress)

WorldChanging Nanotechnology

nanofactory.jpg"Nanotechnology" gets a great deal of attention these days, including here at WorldChanging, and for good reason. The ability to create materials and operate machines that have useful properties at the nano-scale (about a billionth of a meter, or roughly the size of molecules) has the potential for dramatic changes in realms as diverse as energy production, medical science, and even adhesives, among many others. Increasingly, governments, companies and NGOs around the world recognize the possibilities arising from these new technologies, and many have noted the particular applicability of nanotechnologies to the needs of the developing world -- including leaders in the developing nations themselves.

But not all nanotechnologies are alike; the range of innovations encompassed under the umbrella of "nanotechnology" is even greater than the difference between "micro-scale" technologies such as antibiotics and printed circuits. Although some nanotechnology specialists may quibble, I tend to split the concept of nanotechnology into three general categories. There are differences in complexity between the categories, but more important are the differences in use.

Read on for a discussion of the various types of nanotechnologies, including examples pulled from research announcements made over the last day or two, along with examinations of both their possible benefits and their potential risks.

Continue reading "WorldChanging Nanotechnology" »

September 8, 2005

Kate Stohr on The World

Architecture for Humanity co-founder Kate Stohr was just interviewed on the BBC/PRI radio show The World, talking about the role of architects and design in the response to disasters (WMA). Katrina and New Orleans are certainly foremost in the conversation, but Kate also touches on some of the previous AfH efforts, including the post-tsunami work.

"You can't rebuild the past. You can't. We have no choice but to look forward and to rethink New Orleans as a new city... New Orleans was a gift, it was an architectural gift, so what kind of gift and legacy are we going to leave to future generations?"

(Thanks, Clark!)

Nichia "Next Big Thing" Competition

Okay, fast writers, here's something for you: the Japanese electronics company Nichia (which tries to emphasize environmental responsibility, at least in its press pages) is holding an essay contest:

As we embark on our 50th anniversary, we can't think of a better way to celebrate our history and commitment to the environment than to look toward the future and invite you—our future problem solvers and scientists—to help us discover “The Next Big Thing."

How can electronics contribute to environmental solutions?

We challenge you to answer this question in an original essay of 500 to 1,000 words. A panel of judges, including esteemed Nichia scientists and graduate students from across the country, will choose a winner to receive the $25,000 prize.

Yep, you read that right: a 500-1000 word essay can win $25,000. Here's the thing -- I just found out about this today, and the essay deadline is... September 9. Tomorrow. At one minute before midnight Pacific time. The contest is open to residents of the US, UK and Japan over the local "age of majority."

Design, Disasters and the Value of Thinking Big

As the aftermath of the December tsunami, hurricane Katrina, and countless other recent disasters demonstrates, we've done a pretty lousy job of late planning for catastrophe. Since the next major disaster to hit -- anywhere in the world, not just the US -- is likely not to be a hurricane and flood combination, we should be cautious of attempts to "learn the lessons of Katrina" that focus too closely on the kinds of responses that could have saved New Orleans, but would have little utility elsewhere. Instead, we need to be thinking about the kinds of guidelines for response that could be applied more universally -- our response capacities, if you will. And we need to be thinking carefully about making sure that as many people as possible can play a role.

Figuring out how to maximize both capability and usability is very much the role of a designer. In late December, we addressed the question of Disaster-Secure Design by discussing a handful of guiding rules that could prove useful when figuring out how to build systems for emergency response. It's worth revisiting that list, and seeing what might be added in light of this latest disaster.

Continue reading "Design, Disasters and the Value of Thinking Big" »

People Finder Tech

pfif.jpg(Note: I should have remembered that Emily linked to this in her post from the other day about distributed responses to disaster. And I should have noted that WorldChanging's Jon Lebkowsky and Ethan Zuckerman have been critical to getting this project going. Still, it's worth calling out for additional attention, as it's suggestive of the lessons being learned from this disaster.)

There are over 50 sites on the web set up to help New Orleans evacuees and their loved ones find each other. Problem is, none of these sites talk to each other, so people trying to find their family and friends end up having to find and search every one of the sites, just in case the names they were hoping to see only ended up in a single database. The PeopleFinderTech team has set out to implement a standardized data format (PFIF, or PeopleFinder Interchange Format) for these sites, making it possible to search many (hopefully all) of the databases in one go. The database, when completed, will live at http://katrinalist.net.

The project is well underway, but still has some major hurdles to leap before it's ready -- and here's how you can help.

Continue reading "People Finder Tech" »

Playing Hybrid Catch-Up, Globally

Honda and Toyota continue to dominate the hybrid market, with Ford a distant third, but even long-time automaker holdouts against the adoption of hybrid technologies have sullenly come around.

BMW, DaimlerChrysler and GM -- three of the biggest also-rans in the world of hybrid cars -- have decided to throw their lots in together on the design of a new hybrid engine system. BMW and GM have focused their long-term efforts upon hydrogen vehicle technologies, and all three missed the rise of the hybrid as a nearer-term option for reducing fossil fuel consumption. GM and DaimlerChrysler claim to be coming out with hybrid SUVs in 2007 and 2008; we'll see if they actually do so.

More interesting is the Reuters report that Volkswagen -- which had been reluctant to the point of obstinate about building hybrids -- has signed a deal with Shanghai Automotive to start building hybrid vehicles in China. The line will produce small numbers of cars by 2008 (as show vehicles for the Olympics); large scale production is said to begin by 2010. The report had few real details about the deal, but it appears that VW will be designing the hybrid system on its own.

Of course, by 2008 Toyota and Honda will have converted an even larger portion of their vehicle fleet to hybrids...

Recycling the City

Ed Burtynsky: Densified Scrap Metal No. 3a
In email, Eric Townsend asks,

Hey Jamais,

Do you know anyone that can discuss all the stuff that's about to get thrown away and how it could possibly be recycled? Maybe someone in waste management and recycling at a city level that could do envelope calculations on how much trash Katrina created? How many cars are totaled, how many household appliances will need to be replaced? How many televisions and monitors loaded with heavy metals are going to get tossed? Will any of this crap get recycled or will it just become landfill?

These are really good questions, but they might not have good answers. (If any of you know the answers, or know where the answers can be found, please let us know in the comments.) The disaster is still too fresh for many people to think about something like recycling and trash disposal, but the cleanup efforts are already underway; by the time it's comfortable to think about the subject, it will be too late. We may not know what is done with the material remains of New Orleans until well after the fact.

Chances are, the vast majority of inundated buildings will be bulldozed, swamped cars will be towed to wrecking yards, and many tons (hundreds of thousands? millions?) of debris will be loaded into dump trucks and hauled off to landfill. As Eric suggests, much of the debris will be appliances and electronic gear filled with toxins. What kind of effect will putting a city's worth of metal into the waste stream all at once have on the environment?

Continue reading "Recycling the City" »

September 9, 2005

Recycled Water Shower

Water-saving has something of a bad reputation, as it often requires reduced facility effectiveness (as with the low-flow showers that don't clean well or the water-saving toilets that too often require multiple flushes). WorldChanging readers should already know what the right kind of solution is: a system that both reduces consumption and provides benefits that more wasteful incarnations can't match. Today's BBC brings word that British design student Peter Brewin has come up with just such a solution.

Brewin has constructed a water-recycling shower that takes the "gray water" running down the drain and filters it to clean water status, heats it to the desired temperatures, then pumps it out at full flow. The filtering system is similar to the ultra-advanced Dyson vacuum cleaner, and adoption of the shower could save a dramatic amount of water (the BBC describes it as £170 worth per year per household). But what makes the design really attractive are its various added features:

The shower has some nifty functions, including a pause button designed to please anyone who has unwittingly stepped into a freezing cold shower. The button allows water flow to be stopped until it hits the right temperature. Other features include a water meter showing water usage per shower and a chlorine filter.

Okay, these aren't super-sexy, but this is an excellent example of how to rethink the way we use resources. We've said it dozens of times: trying to save the world by making everyone give up perceived benefits is a losing strategy. But combine advantages such as cost-savings and new capabilities with responsible use -- especially use with no visible reduction of benefits -- and you have a winner.

Leapfrog Medtech

Endoscopy, the examination of interior surfaces of organs through the insertion of a small, flexible scope, is a standard practice in medical offices around the world. But the cost of a typical endoscope -- around $30,000 -- can be a real problem in poorer regions. Vietnam, for example, has but a single endoscope in each province. But a Vietnamese physician, Dr Nguyen Phuoc Huy, took advantage of the bloom in cheap, powerful digital technologies, and was able to build his own endoscope at a fraction of the cost of a standard device.

The homebrew endoscope combines a normal microscope (at $800, by far the most expensive part of the device) with inexpensive lenses, a webcam, and an old PC for image processing. Components, aside from the microscope, ended up costing under $300. Although the doctor notes that the PC runs Windows, in principle there's no reason why a similar system couldn't run Linux or other FLOS software.

Interestingly, the article makes no mention of one of the real advantages of this kind of system over more traditional endoscopes: built-in Internet access. With the applications built in to any modern operating system, the resulting images can be readily saved in web-standard formats and emailed around the world for consultation. In fact, it would take little effort to allow multiple doctors on the net to observe an endoscopic examination as it happens.

Remote medical assistance to developing regions can be worldchanging; I hope that Dr. Huy takes advantage of the potential of his invention.

(Via SciDev.Net)

Danny's Reva

dannysreva.jpgRemember the "G-Wiz," the electric micro-car being sold in the UK? It was notable for a few reasons: its relatively low up-front cost (around £7,000, or about $12,000); the waiver it receives on the London "Congestion Charge" and parking fees in multiple locations; and its origins. The G-Wiz is built in India by the REVA Electric Car company.

The discussions here around the G-Wiz and other micro-cars often ended up around comfort and usability. Would most people fit in a car that small? Is a 40 mile range really sufficient for city driving? What kinds of sacrifices are made to vehicle features to keep the weight (and the cost) down?

Danny Fleet could answer these questions. Danny is a proud new owner of a G-Wiz, and has decided to "vlog" (video log) his experiences.

Continue reading "Danny's Reva" »

Motion As Power

lawrencerome.jpgDr. Lawrence Rome's "Suspended-Load Backpack" has clearly struck a nerve on the web, with links to it popping up all over the place. One aspect of the story that's unusual is that Rome is a biologist, not a product designer or engineer, and he published his discussion of the concept in Science. For Rome, the backpack is as relevant to the study of biomechanics as it is to figuring out new forms of energy production. I won't belabor you with the details of the backpack and how it works; National Geographic does a terrific job of filling that role. Instead, I'd like to speculate for a moment about the bigger picture.

We've become accustomed to idea of embedding solid-state electronics into various materials, making it possible for airplane wings to report otherwise invisible damage, walls to become solar panels, and objects of all sorts to be able to report their location and condition with cheap RFID tags. But all of these, while they may make the materials "smart" in some way, remain intrinsically passive systems. What happens when motion and pressure are added to the mix?

Continue reading "Motion As Power" »

September 10, 2005

Elevator Going Up!

kbvator.jpgAn Earth-to-orbit elevator (sometimes called a "Beanstalk," a "space bridge," or an "orbital tether") is one of those ideas that, at first blush, sounds almost too ludicrous to be real. After all, we're accustomed to thinking of rockets as our only way into space, mixing danger and adventure; taking an elevator into space sounds almost boring. It turns out, however, that a space elevator is not only plausible, it's potentially revolutionary. Perhaps more importantly, given all that has happened in recent days and weeks, the notion of a space elevator can provide a bit of almost giggly optimism about the future.

The present might look grim, but within 20-30 years, we'll be taking an elevator to orbit!

We've talked about elevators numerous times in the past, but one aspect that we haven't really addressed is appearance. For many of us, it's a bit difficult to imagine what a 60,000 mile long elevator cable would look like. Fortunately, WorldChanging ally Kenn Brown, of Vancouver's Mondolithic Studios, has given us a hand. Kenn has crafted detailed illustrations of the two types of space elevators described by futurists: the Tower and the Ribbon. Read on for the details -- and follow the links to enjoy Kenn Brown's terrific works of art.

Continue reading "Elevator Going Up!" »

72 hours

Those of us who live in places that haven't given much thought to how citizens should prepare for disaster can learn from cities and regions where natural disasters are more common. The city of San Francisco's Office of Emergency Services, for example, has set up a terrific website called 72 Hours, spelling out in easy, straightforward language the basics of how to prepare for a major disaster. The information focuses a bit more on earthquakes than on other kinds of events, but the vast majority of the content is applicable to just about any kind of traumatic event. The advice is quite good, too: tips for making disaster plans; lists for "Go Bags;" specific sections for planning to aid children, the disabled, and household pets; what to put into an emergency first aid kit; and much more. The site is available in English, Spanish and Chinese.

I know that many of our readers live in locations also prone to disasters, and likely know of local resources giving useful information as to how to prepare for trouble. The 72 Hours site is good, but is likely missing sections of use in other kinds of emergencies.

Please use the comments to give links to good disaster prep information, especially for places outside of the United States.

September 11, 2005

Asian Wind

Not much of a surprise, but a good data point nonetheless: governments in Asia are starting to pay much closer attention to renewable energy technologies. Why? The reasons are manifold: local pollution coming from fossil fuel power generation; reduced supply and greater competition for oil, globally; and a growing recognition that this is an emerging market, and first movers could have a real advantage as more countries start looking at renewable energy technology options.

Reuters has a feature article on renewable energy in the region, "Asia sees sense in going green as oil prices rise," focusing primarily upon China but touching on renewable energy strategies across the region. Interestingly, Japan and Korea are not mentioned, but Indonesia, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Philippines each get a paragraph.

South Korea gets its due in a brief note at Renewable Energy Access, however, "Wind Power to Evolve in Korea & China." Korea Electric Power is set to invest $57.5 million in a wind power facility -- in China. The first foreign company to invest in a Chinese wind power project, Korean Electric will own 40% of the facility. The value of this investment is two-fold: income from a rapidly-growing power market, and experience with large-scale wind generation. Korean Electric's investment in China pales, however, in comparison to energy company China Datang's investment in a wind power project in Inner Mongolia: $989 million.


springboard.jpgI have a growing suspicion that Royal Dutch Shell might actually be taking this whole global warming thing seriously.

Diligence and skepticism are entirely warranted when evaluating the environmental behavior of global industrial players, especially those who have a history of (let's just say) not entirely green behavior. Even projects that pass the initial smell test can end up being less exciting than once hoped (has anyone heard much lately about GE's "Ecomagination" project beyond the TV ads extolling the virtues of coal?) Oil companies are on particularly shaky ground here, as their stock-in-trade is one of the chief culprits behind climate disruption.

That said, it's clear that there's some variation among the major oil companies. BP and Shell, for example, have arguably been more willing to accept the evidence for global warming than has ExxonMobil, and both seem to be more interested in developing non-fossil energy technologies than the other oil companies. To the extent that the efforts are used to promote their own environmental behavior, however, the "greenwashing" label is hard to avoid.

That's what makes Shell's new project, "Springboard," so interesting.

Continue reading "Springboard" »

September 12, 2005

The Uses of Disaster

Almost exactly a year ago, in the midst of the last hurricane season, I asked "Do We Need A Disaster?," exploring the question of whether we as a human society require monstrous events to focus our attention on the need for change. Although I was -- and remain -- hopeful that change could happen without such painful triggers, history offers me little support for my hopes.

Author Rebecca Solnit explores this question further in the latest issue of Harper's magazine. In "The Uses of Disaster," written before the recent hurricane but with an after-Katrina postscript, Solnit looks at the psychology of human behavior after major disasters. Moreover, she looks at how disasters in history, around the world, have been catalysts for major cultural changes.

If we do need a disaster to change our thinking, how best can we make sure that the changes are for the better?

(Thanks, Daniel Haran)

Better Health through Environmental Regulation

economic benefits of eco regulationA common argument against the implementation of stricter pollution regulations (including greenhouse emission caps) is that they would exact too high a cost on the economy. Businesses and governments would have to lay out billions of dollars on retrofits and cleanups, the argument goes, slowing economic growth. A new study from MIT (from the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment) shows why such claims have no merit -- and why environmental regulations are actually good for the economy.

It all comes down to public health.

Pollution in the air, water and soil has a measurable impact upon human health. Pollution can increase the rates at which people get sick, and prolonged exposure to pollution can shorten the productive lifespan. These effects, in turn, have a measurable impact upon economic growth. Reducing pollution by regulating environmental pollution, therefore, should lead to greater public health, which should then lead to greater economic productivity -- and it's a bit startling to see how much greater.

Continue reading "Better Health through Environmental Regulation" »

The "Big Here" Quiz

How much do you know about where you live? Not the politics of your hometown, mind you, or the details of the local markets and economy -- how much do you know about the land and your local environment? Peter Warshall started asking this about thirty years ago, turning the questions into a quiz (one we wrote about earlier); over time, his list of questions has grown. Kevin Kelly gives us the latest iteration of the test, which he calls the "Big Here" quiz.

Questions include:

2) What time is sunset today?
3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap.
19) How many days is the growing season here (from frost to frost)?
20) Name five birds that live here. Which are migratory and which stay put?
25) Name three wild species that were not found here 500 years ago. Name one exotic species that has appeared in the last 5 years.

The drive to get people back in touch with their particular local environment has a number of expressions, and is perhaps most visible in the "eat local"/"100 mile diet" movement. People can reasonably disagree about the importance of deep knowledge of a location in an era when few people stay put for long (I'm of two minds about the whole thing, myself), but this quiz is certainly a good trigger for making one think about what does and doesn't know about one's own surroundings.

Development Progress Report

undphdr.jpgWe have just ten years left before we hit the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals. How are we doing? And how do the various leading aid donor nations compare?

Draft answers to these two questions came out this last week.

The 2005 Human Development Report, from the UN Development Programme, is a detailed discussion of the current status of global development. Nearly half of the Report -- which totals nearly 400 pages -- is taken up by charts on a tremendous variety of development-related subjects. The full Report is available as a single 6.3mb PDF, and each chapter can be downloaded separately at this location. Complete versions in English, Spanish and French are available, with summaries in a variety of other languages.

The Commitment to Development Report, from the independent non-profit group the Center for Global Development, ranks the OECD countries on the basis of a variety of development-support categories. These rankings are a mix of quantitative and qualitative measures, and are therefore a bit more subjective than the UN's information. Nonetheless, the report offers a filter through which one can compare different countries' strategies for supporting global development.

Although one is an official document from a global institution, deeply rooted in measurable indicators, while the other is a more political document from an independent group, combining measurement and perspective, they both come to largely the same conclusion: we (as a planet) are not doing nearly enough, and if we're going to meet the Millennium Development Goals' deadline of 2015, we'd best get moving.

Continue reading "Development Progress Report" »

Rebuilding for Sustainability

rebuildingfema.jpgI found a website with detailed plans describing how communities devastated by natural disasters can rebuild in a more sustainable way. The plans, all in PDF, cover matching sustainability concerns to hazard types, the role of the community, even ways to seek US Federal funding for sustainable rebuilding projects. Additional material includes a sustainability glossary, recommended readings, and "quotable materials" on sustainability, starting with "The Wingspread Principles: A Community Vision for Sustainability."

The website for the plans introduces itself in this way:

Repetitive disaster losses diminish our quality of life and divert resources that could be used to address other concerns. Recovery from natural disasters presents a unique opportunity to consider alternatives to the damage-rebuild-damage cycle. These alternatives can help communities rebuild stronger, safer and smarter and thereby become less vulnerable to disasters. Communities can also use this opportunity to become more sustainable by integrating hazard mitigation strategies with other community objectives related to economic health, environmental stability, and social well-being.

The website where I found this treasure trove? The US Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Continue reading "Rebuilding for Sustainability" »

September 13, 2005

Mental Health and the MDGs

The latest issue of the open access Public Library of Science - Medicine journal includes a provocative article with a relatively staid title: "Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: Does Mental Health Play a Role?" The authors, J. Jaime Miranda (Wellcome Trust Research Training Fellow) and Vikram Patel (reader in International Mental Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), argue that the likelihood of successfully meeting the Millennium Development Goals is dramatically undercut by the lack of recognition of mental health as a factor in a number of development arenas. For the authors, by not addressing mental health, the MDGs miss an important aspect of sustainable community development.

Miranda and Patel assert that, in developing countries, mental-health-related conditions are among the the most important causes of sickness, disability and (in some age groups) premature mortality. Although this seems on its face a surprising claim (one might expect physical diseases to play the greatest role), they point out that mental health conditions contribute to the likelihood of seeking out care for physical illnesses, reduce the incidence of mothers breast-feeding their children (in turn reducing their overall physical health), and increase the likelihood of risky behavior that could lead to harm.

Continue reading "Mental Health and the MDGs" »

The French Way

France, never very shy about using government policies to set broader economic and social goals, has announced that it will be taxing high-CO2 vehicles, with the tax money going to fund research into hybrid car technologies. Green Car Congress has details.

The tax, effective 1 Jan 2006, will be set at €2 (US$2.45) per gram for cars producing between 200 and 250 g/km CO2, and €4 (US$4.91) per gram for those producing more than 250 g/km. The proceeds, expected to be about €18 million (US$22 million), will flow into the French Environment and Energy Saving Agency.

The research goal is technically a "family car" that produces less than 100 g/km of carbon dioxide, but the Ecology Minister has already said that hybrid-electric technology is the likeliest candidate.

Green City China

dongtan.jpgBritish design consultancy Arup has announced that it has been tapped by the Chinese government to lead the construction of an "eco-city" expansion to Shanghai. Dongtan, the expanded development near Shanghai's airport, will eventually cover about 8,800 hectares -- roughly the size of Manhattan island. Shanghai claims that the Dongtan project will be "the world's first genuinely eco-friendly city," using recycled water, cogeneration and biomass for energy, and striving to be as carbon-neutral as possible.

The first phase, a 630 hectare development including a mix of transport facilities, schools, housing and high-tech industrial spaces, will begin construction late next year, and is expected to be completed by 2010.

So what does it mean to be a "genuinely eco-friendly city?" Arup gives this overview:

Continue reading "Green City China" »

Solar is Hot

In case you needed some additional confirmation that the interest in alternative energy systems is skyrocketing, the New York Times business section has a nifty little piece going over the growth in stock value of the various small and medium-sized producers of photovoltaic gear for the home. For those of us with more of a focus on users than on shareholders, the article includes a graphic showing just how much the installed base has grown from 1996 to 2004. Worldwide solar power generation nearly doubled over the 2003-2004 period, and 2005 looks to be another record year (if silicon shortages don't hold us back, that is).

September 14, 2005

Suburban Obesity?

We know that there's a correlation between obesity and suburban sprawl. But what's the nature of the connection? The traditional conclusion is that the fewer opportunities to walk and ride bicycles in suburban and exurban communities exact a toll on physical health -- in short, that living in the 'burbs can make you fat.

But two Oregon State researchers have come to a different conclusion. In their research, just published in Journal of Regional Science, they find that living in sprawl doesn't make one fat, but that a reluctance to walk or ride bikes makes one more likely to want to live in the suburbs!

The researchers found that fit people choose to live in neighborhoods that allow them to walk to work or shop and fat people pick places where they need a car.

The study was adjusted to eliminate differences due to income and other factors.

The upshot is that changes to urban design may not have the health effects many of us might wish for. Real change will require changing people's minds about exercise. Sadly, this may be even harder than transforming urban landscapes.

Grass Power

miscanthus.jpgWhen talking about biomass-based fuels, a few plant names keep popping up -- soy, jatropha and (to a lesser extent) corn. But what about Maiden Grass?

Professor Steve Long, at the University of Illinois, argues that Maiden Grass, the common name for the various species of Miscanthus, has some pretty attractive qualities as a feedstock for bio-energy. Also called "elephant grass" (as it can reach four meters in height), It can be grown in a wide variety of soil types, requiring little or no fertilizer. It can be harvested off-season, so farmers can grow it along with food crops. Each ton of dried Miscanthus yields energy equivalent to three barrels of oil, and a single hectare can produce from 12 to 60 metric tons of dried plant. (The lower number is a typical current yield; the higher is from an experimental stand at U of I.)

The grass appears to be hardy, but as it's not a native species, Long is taking no chances:

The scientists used a sterile hybrid of the plant, which comes from high altitude areas in Japan and produces a silver, feather-like foliage, in the trials so it would not become invasive.

"Currently, in those trials that have been carried out, there appears to be no real problem with pests or diseases," according to [Long's partner Dr. Mike] Jones.

Long claims that converting about eight percent of the land area of Illinois to growing Miscanthus would produce sufficient fuel to generate the entire electricity load of the entire state, including Chicago. Eight percent is roughly equivalent to the entire developed area of Illinois, and about 1/8 of the current farmland. Such estimates are a bit silly, of course; real conversion of electricity production to renewable sources will need a mix of types, including wind and solar.

(Thanks, Eric Townsend)

Generation Fabrication

youhavethepower.jpgTools for the design and creation of usable, compelling objects and works of art continue to get less expensive and easier to use. "DIY" -- "do it yourself" -- used to refer to people who had spent thousands of dollars assembling the right set of tools and equipment to be able to make things that were a cut above the run-of-the-mill garage hobbyist. Now a proliferation of digital technologies make it possible for anyone with even a modicum of interest and a bit of talent to produce works that, in some cases, can rival the output of major companies and stars.

The decline in cost and rise in capability of the DIY tools mean that limited resources is less of a barrier for people with big ideas and limited resources. This doesn't just apply to Japan, Europe and the US -- the same technologies that let people record DVDs of their child's first steps, for example, have enabled filmmakers around the world to produce commercial movies. Hollywood at Home, meet Nollywood Global.

We've covered quite a few of these tools for personal creation here, from fabrication-by-email to music production, and the mainstream media is picking up on the idea, too. It should come as little surprise, then, that specialists in branding and marketing have caught wind of this development. Futurewire points us to a company called Trendwatching, which has, over the past year, been charting the growth of the home creativity movement, or what they term "Generation C." It's a good piece of research -- but what they miss has the potential to be even bigger than what they catch.

Continue reading "Generation Fabrication" »

BusinessWeek Dreams

Alan AtKisson's essay, Dreaming of a New New Orleans, Version 1, has received abundant, well-deserved attention. It's going to get even more -- Alan's essay was featured in a short article at BusinessWeek magazine.

This is important for a number of reasons. Not just because it gives Alan more visibility (although that's terrific to see), not even because it gives WorldChanging more visibility (ibid), but because it gives mainstream attention to these ideas. People who have never even heard of WorldChanging will be exposed to Alan's persuasive prose, and the notion of rebuilding New Orleans on a basis of sustainability and long-term livability will have a greater chance of entering the broader public conversation on the city's, and the country's, future.

September 15, 2005

European Hybrids

European carmakers rolled out some demonstration hybrid-electric vehicles at the Frankfurt Auto Show this week, but only grudgingly. As we've noted, auto manufacturers like Volkswagen and BMW have been dismissive of hybrids, declaring them to be less efficient than diesels and less advanced than planned hydrogen/fuel cell cars. Both of these may well be true -- a good diesel vehicle can get mileage along the same lines as a hybrid, and (under certain conditions) sometimes better -- but demand for hybrids appears to be growing, globally.

The mainly German carmakers discussed in the New York Times article seem to be giving lip-service to building hybrids, but promising no rollouts before 2010. It's pretty clear that they hope that the demand for hybrids dies off before then, an attitude that seems to have much in common with traditional US automaker behavior.

The real difference between diesels and hybrids, from my perspective, isn't which one is more efficient now, but which one has the greater potential for increased fuel efficiency. We know that gas-optional hybrids and other experimental variations are getting mileage the equivalent of about 100 mpg on the relatively heavy Prius frame; are there experimental diesel engines that can make the same general claim?

Mother Talks To Mike

Sustainability Sundays contributor Mike Millikin, editor of the fantastic Green Car Congress website, is the subject of an interview in the current Mother Jones. The discussion is a good one, and the interview could serve as a primer on the current and near-future trends in building more efficient vehicles. (And if you shy away from Mother Jones for political reasons, you don't need to for this piece -- it's almost entirely focused on vehicle technology and its social context.)

Millikin: ...one of the things I try to do is emphasize new engine concepts. It's very difficult to develop an engine, and it's hard for inventors and innovators to come up with something that can really make any headway. And so in at least one case – and I'll be doing this with other cases – I've thrown up a new concept on the site, and the inventor and the readers interacted and discussed it in great depth.

I've got the educated or leading-edge consumers, researchers from universities, engineers and developers from the auto companies checking in regularly. It's a good cross section. And I've been very pleased with the types of discussions and interactions that have developed. All I'm really trying to do is to get people learning and thinking and then taking what they've learned and doing more.

Open Technology Roadmap

roadmapleaf.jpgOpenness is at the heart of truly worldchanging systems. Transparency of process, connections and results make open systems more reliable, more accessible, and better able to be connected to other systems; it also encourages collaboration and the input of interested stakeholders. This is perhaps most tangible in the world of technology, particularly information and communication technology (ICT); open ICT systems are increasingly engines of innovation, and are clear catalysts for leapfrogging across the developing world, via reduced costs, potential for customization, and likely interoperability with both legacy and emerging technologies.

Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society has just published something they call the "Roadmap for Open ICT Ecosystems" (PDF), a guidebook for policymakers, business strategists and technical specialists looking to implement open information and communication technologies around the world. The Roadmap doesn't focus on any single type of open ICT, but on the greater value of the open approach, and the ways in which open systems encourage collaboration and innovation using "a potent combination of connectivity, collaboration and transparency."

One aspect of the Roadmap that I find particularly compelling is that, although it speaks only to information and communication technology needs, the majority of the principles and ideas considered could apply more broadly -- to other kinds of technologies (such as biotech and nanotech), and even to political and social systems (such as voting methods and urban planning).

Continue reading "Open Technology Roadmap" »

Apocaphilia, Peak Oil and Sustainability

apocnow.jpgAlthough I recognize that the depletion of oil supplies is a serious problem, I haven't always been entirely supportive of the "peak oil" movement. There's a good bit of "apocaphilia" in many of the peak oilers, a fascination with the end of the world that goes well beyond terriblisma. I'm not saying that they look forward to things falling apart, the center not holding, and mere anarchy loosed upon the world, but some may well be looking forward to being able to say "I told you so."

More importantly, a good many of those who pay close attention to the peak oil theories are all too ready to discount any attempt at solutions, declaring flatly that it's too late, that no solutions will be sufficient, and that no amount of "techno-fix" or "idealism" will be able to handle the social trauma inflicted upon our civilization by the depletion of oil reserves. I count James Howard Kunstler in this group, as his Long Emergency (and ongoing blog, Clusterfuck Nation) seem to be terribly influential in the peak oil community. As we've explored here a bit, Kunstler has no time for people who want to fix the system, seeing only the cleansing hand of catastrophe as the only way we'll change our ways.

Obviously such a philosophy isn't well-received here at WorldChanging. Our core principle is that things are bad, possibly even worse than most recognize, but that there are many ways to make things less-bad -- and even, if we're clever, innovative, and insightful, ways even to make things better. Such a philosophy doesn't deny that things could go the way that Kunstler, et al, foresee, but argues that such a fate is not the only possibility. We can change the world, and for the better.

Continue reading "Apocaphilia, Peak Oil and Sustainability" »

September 16, 2005

The Abrupt Kim Stanley Robinson

50DB.jpgScience fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, who brought us the iconic Mars trilogy, is set to release the second in his series of global warming novels next month. The first, Forty Signs of Rain, was mostly set-up; in appears that in the upcoming book, Fifty Degrees Below, we start to see the payoff.

Leading up to the release of the new book, Robinson has been talking about the impact of climate disruption and its utility as the kernel of a novel. His interview with the UK's Guardian newspaper is definitely worth reading, and pulls no punches; it will come as little surprise that he's no fan of the current US administration, and it's clear that this has influenced the nature of the fictional Washington DC of his current novels. But more interesting to me is a new short essay he's published entitled Imagining Abrupt Climate Change: Terraforming Earth.

Continue reading "The Abrupt Kim Stanley Robinson" »

September 17, 2005

Jamais at ACC

Just a quick note: I'm at the 2005 Accelerating Change Conference, held at Stanford University. I will be speaking tonight (in the final section for the day, at 10:15pm), and have already had the pleasure of meeting several readers.

If you are at ACC05, please feel free to say hi. I look forward to the chance to meet more worldchangers.

September 21, 2005

Back Now

Normal blogging should resume today; my talks at the Accelerating Change 2005 conference and at Global Business Network both went well, although it should be noted that I need to figure out how to tell the WorldChanging story in a more compact fashion.

Global Warming... On Mars

Mars Global Surveyor, which went into service around the Red Planet back in 1997, has outlasted its original mission spec, giving planetologists a chance to view longer-term changes on Mars. One discovery with some Earthly implications -- the Martian climate is changing. The carbon dioxide ice cap at the south pole has receded each of the last three years, indicating that the planet is gradually getting warmer; NASA researchers are still working on precisely what is triggering this climate shift.

This is an excellent example of why the space program (particularly automated probes) is an important tool for building the Bright Green future. Determining what natural forces are at work warming Mars can help pinpoint the levels to which the same natural forces could contribute to Earth's climate disruption. Human activity far outweighs the effect of solar variation, for example, but it's important to measure just how much of an effect the Sun does have, so as to better determine what level of change to human activity would be required to pull us back from the brink (more solar influence=more work we have to do to bring the human influence down).

Conference on CO2

CO2record.jpgThe Seventh International Carbon Dioxide Conference opens September 25, and it looks to be a significant scientific event.

The conference opening should be particularly interesting, even for non-scientists, as it will match the director of the Bush administration's official Climate Change Research Program, Dr. James Mahoney, with Dr. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology. Dr. Caldeira has made the abstract of his talk available, and it's pretty serious:

Continued emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will affect climate and ocean chemistry. [...] From the perspective of geology and biological evolution, these changes would occur rapidly, overwhelming most natural processes that would buffer CO2 changes occurring over longer time intervals, and thus may produce changes at a rate and of a magnitude that exceed the adaptive capacity of at least some biological systems. To find comparable events in Earth history, we need to look back tens of millions of years to rare catastrophic events.

Continue reading "Conference on CO2" »

Biodiesel 101

biod6.jpgBiodiesel seems too good to be true. Substituting processed vegetable oil for petroleum-based diesel is as much a political act as a technical one, and tends to inspire thoughts of being able to say goodbye to Big Oil. Plant-based fuels are inherently close to carbon-neutral, and biodiesel is non-toxic, as well. It's especially appealing to those worried about being able to shift to new vehicle technologies before oil runs out, too, since we already know how to make diesel engines. There has to be a downside, right?

Well, yes. Commercial biodiesel is still pretty expensive, where available, and questions remain about just how energy-efficient the whole process is. Biodiesel has some disadvantages as a fuel, such as a higher "gel" temperature than regular petro-diesel, meaning that your car will stop working in colder weather. On top of this, in the US, at least, diesel cars are actually pretty hard to come by these days.

But let's say you do have a diesel car, live where it's still relatively warm, and want to give this whole biodiesel thing a try. While some truck stops may have biodiesel/petrodiesel mixes available (usually "B5," 5% bio, or "B20," 20% bio), most biodiesel aficionados actually make it themselves. And that remains one serious advantage of biodiesel: it's the only fuel for your car you can make at home in the kitchen.

Instructions for making biodiesel at home aren't too hard to find online, but one of the better recipes comes from a site that's rapidly becoming one of my favorites: inhabitat, a site which mixes innovation, design and sustainability. Inhabitat writer Sarah Rich gives a detailed DIY guide for "brewing biodiesel," using a process that she uses herself. It's a good mix of science and straightforward step-by-step instructions, and makes me long for an as-yet-unavailable diesel hybrid.

How many of you use biodiesel in your own vehicles? Tell us your stories...

Scientific American: Crossroads for Planet Earth

Run, don't walk, to the nearest magazine vendor carrying the September 2005 edition of Scientific American. (The October issue should be out soon, so go now. We'll wait.) The special issue, entitled "Crossroads for Planet Earth," is the closest one could get to WorldChanging ideas in magazine form without any articles by WorldChanging writers. Topics covered include poverty, public health around the world, biodiversity, efficiency as a source of profit, and prosperity as a function of sustainability. Many of the articles are freely available on the Scientific American website, so if you miss your chance to pick up the issue, all is not lost. But I have to say that this is probably the most impressive copy of Scientific American I've seen in awhile, and I'm very glad I grabbed up the print edition.


rita09211830hrs.jpgThe National Hurricane Center now says that Rita is currently the third most powerful hurricane on record. This is up from fifth most powerful earlier today.

The NHC has made an RSS feed for Rita available -- it will only include reports on this hurricane.

The latest report, as of posting time:


It's my understanding that, at this strength, Rita could maintain hurricane status as far inland as Austin, Texas. It undoubtedly does not need to be said, but if you live in the at-risk area (see map to the right), please start making plans now to evacuate.

September 22, 2005

What Is A "Climate Forcing?"

We've recommended that WorldChanging readers check out the Real Climate website numerous times. Run by real, working climatologists, it takes a science-based approach to discussions of climate issues (global warming in particular). Today's post on climate forcings is particularly useful, as it helps to peel back some of the apparent fuzziness about how scientists determine the relative importance of different interacting forces when looking at a changing environment. This post is also a good example of how scientific disagreements should be handled -- with respect for another scientist's view, a reasonable explanation of why that view might be held, and details of why the author sees things differently.

A Refugee Camp In The Heart Of The City

camp300.jpgFew Americans (or Western Europeans, for that matter) truly know what it means to live in a refugee camp. Some of the problems that arise from such conditions can be easily recognized from television news, such as lack of access to food or sanitary latrines. Some may only be visible upon deeper reflection, or through actual experience -- for example, how does one store sufficient amounts of water in a communal shelter?

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has developed a program called "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City," bringing a small but accurate version of a typical refugee facility to cities in the West. The exhibit includes examples of shared housing, food distribution centers, and a health care clinic, as well as information about sanitation and malnutrition. Most importantly, the MSF refugee camp brings stories from real refugee camp survivors from around the world. First constructed in 1995, where it traveled across Western Europe, the MSF camp has been visited by thousands. An exhibition in 2000 toured around the United States, bringing the educational program to audiences from Manhattan to Santa Monica. A 2005 version -- updated to include information about refugee experiences over the last five years -- was set to open this week in Central Park, in New York.

That opening has been postponed until 2006, and for good reason.

Continue reading "A Refugee Camp In The Heart Of The City" »

Fossil Fuel-Free Sweden

The Swedish government announced this week that the country will seek to end its dependency upon fossil fuels by 2020.

The Prime Minister Goran Persson announced this as part of a package of boosted support for alternative energy research and development. Persson explicitly connected the plan to the advent of global warming. "We are frightened by climate change today... The mean temperature of the earth is rising, and it is rising most nearest to the poles."

I've asked Alan for more details, when he has a chance.

September 23, 2005

Big Business for Climate Regulation

It may surprise some readers to learn that some of the loudest voices calling for strict climate-related regulations come not from activists, and certainly not from government bodies, but from the corporations which would be regulated. This definitely came as a surprise to British writer George Monbiot, who penned an editorial for the Guardian earlier this week entitled, "It Would Seem That I Was Wrong About Big Business." It's definitely worth checking out.

A moment's reflection will reveal the logic at work. The lack of regulation means that, whenever the adoption or production of a greener alternative process or technology costs more than sticking with the old, dirty version -- which is most cases, if only due to basic switching costs -- companies that go green face a temporary set back against less forward-looking competitors. And while some green moves will end up benefiting the adopting companies far faster and far more than they expect, that's not always true.

Companies in the US face an additional issue: inconsistent regulation from state to state. Figuring out how to meet wildly divergent state environmental standards can end up being more expensive than even strict -- but consistent -- national standards.

Hurricanes and Oil Production

"Professor Goose" from The Oil Drum -- definitely one of the best places on the web to visit for information on the ongoing energy transformation -- writes to tell us that The Oil Drum is keeping an updated page for the impact of Rita on the Gulf Coast oil sites. The page includes updated maps comparing the hurricane path and oil infrastructure sites, damage models, and of course updates on the course of the storm.

Spikes in oil prices have pushed more American drivers into high-mileage vehicles, and that's a good thing. But some of the scenarios that come from a rapid decline in oil availability aren't so appealing: drilling off California and Florida beaches; boost in coal production for liquified coal; and, of course, the kind of greater economic instability that tends to lead political figures to avoid thinking about long-term consequences in order to avoid short-term political pain.

Zero Net Energy Habitat for Humanity

1332_HabHumanDenver_final.jpgHabitat for Humanity is one of those organizations that doesn't make a lot of noise, but does a lot of good. Focusing on the construction of homes for the poor, Habitat for Humanity uses volunteer labor and (usually) simple designs. The homes built by Habitat are decent but utilitarian, tending to be typical wood-frame structures, meeting but rarely exceeding code guidelines. They're hardly places in which one would expect to find abundant green design.

And yet we now have at least one. A number of sustainability blogs have pointed to an article at Renewable Energy Access, describing a home built by the Habitat for Humanity group in Denver, Colorado, sponsored by the US Department of Energy. The "Net Zero Energy Habitat for Humanity House" is meant as a model home for what comfortable and affordable green housing could look like. Not all of the components are cutting-edge, but they're an excellent example of how current green home technologies can be used:

Continue reading "Zero Net Energy Habitat for Humanity" »

Time to Worry?

h5n1_in_tissues.jpgWith all of the attention in the US focused on hurricanes and attention in Europe focused on figuring out who's in charge in Germany, it's not surprising that a story out of Indonesia isn't getting quite the attention it deserves. If it turns out the way some fear it might, however, it will be getting quite a bit of attention soon enough.

We've been pointing out the possibility of a global Avian Flu outbreak for awhile now. One of the catalysts for such an outbreak would be a shift in the genome of the virus, making transmission from bird to human -- and human to human -- easier. This week, we have the first sign that such a mutation may have happened: there are reports of a jump in cases of H5N1 in Indonesia. According to the Avian Flu news aggregator site, The Coming Influenza Pandemic?, health officials in Indonesia are clearly very worried, even as World Health Organization spokespeople try to "dial back" concerns, arguing that the increased number of cases could simply be increased effectiveness of screening.

That may well be true -- let's hope it is, in fact. But this is very much how a pandemic would start: with confusion, conflicting reports, initial denials, and a growing number of the dead. Even though this particular surge will almost certainly turn out to be a false alarm (except for those in Indonesia who are dying), we should use it as a reminder to accelerate the construction of strong bottom-up tools for disease awareness, modeling, social response and treatment. The next time we start getting these kind of reports, it may be too late.

Microbe-Killing Bandage

University of Florida researchers have developed a coating for gauze bandages that both speeds healing and prevents fungal and bacterial infections. Moreover, the method used by this coating for its microbicidal properties is said to be highly resistant to evolved resistance. Unfortunately, the press release from UFL -- while detailed about how the bandage blocks the migration of microbes to wounds (through tightly-bonded nitrogen clusters) and how it promotes healing (by pulling excess moisture from wounds) -- says little about how the microbicidal coating actually kills bacteria and fungi.

If this material actually does what the researchers say it does (and clinical trials will start later this year), this could be a very useful tool for preventing the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections.

Congratulations, Cameron!!!

cameronwon.jpgThis is absolutely wonderful news: Architecture for Humanity, founded by Kate Stohr and WorldChanging's Cameron Sinclair, has just won the world's largest prize for design -- the INDEX Design Award -- for the Siyathemba project, the football club and health outreach center in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. From the AfH press release (PDF):

The project was born out of a partnership between the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies and Architecture for Humanity. Called Siyathemba (the IsiZulu word for hope), the facility aims to use sports as a vehicle to stem the spread of AIDS in the rural South African community where youth are three times more likely to become HIV positive than youth in other parts of the world. The pitch will also be home to the area’s first organized girls soccer league. [...]

Set to take place every four years, the INDEX Awards were established in 2005 to acknowledge innovative designs as important factors in developing solutions that improve life for large numbers of people as well as securing a liveable future for all. The awards recognized achievements in five categories (body, home, work, play, and community); the winner of each category receives €100,000 euros. Siyathemba was awarded the prize for the "community" category.

There were hundreds of nominees for this prize. We are enormously pleased and proud that Cameron and Architecture for Humanity was one of the winners. Congratulations, Cameron.

September 24, 2005

Virtual Plague

corruptedblood.jpgWorld of Warcraft is the most popular massively-multiplayer online game in the US and Europe, and is rising quickly in Asia. We've mentioned WoW (as it's usually called) before, and I play occasionally. It's by no means the most advanced game in terms of graphics or underlying technology, but the designers have done a good job of building something that's both easy and fun to play. But they've managed something else, something less expected: emergent phenomena.

A recent patch added a new region to the world of Azeroth, a region where players must fight the troll god of blood, Hakkar. One of the effects in the fight is a "disease" that does persistent damage and -- more importantly -- can be passed from an "infected" player to any other nearby characters. It was a nasty but seemingly straightforward effect. But then things got weird:

Continue reading "Virtual Plague" »

September 25, 2005

Microgrids as Peer-to-Peer Energy (Welcome, BBC Readers)

The BBC News website has an excellent piece up today about the utility of local distributed power networks, or "microgrids," as a tool for increasing energy efficiency and the adoption of alternative energy technologies. The article covers the key points, and is an excellent primer for understanding how such a system could function and why we'd want to build it. It's also excellent because WorldChanging is linked -- twice -- in their related resources list.

A quick note for new readers: we haven't used the term "microgrid" much here; we more often refer to "distributed power" and "smart grids." Search on those terms, for the full set of articles we've written. Some of the more useful pieces include:

  • How To Do Decentralized Energy
  • Urban Sustainability, Megacity Leapfrogging
  • Making the Meters Smarter
  • Smart Energy Grids

  • The Shifting Conventional Wisdom

    bizweekenergy.jpgOne of the catalysts for making the Bright Green Future possible is for the mainstream vision of the future -- what I sometimes call the "baseline scenario" -- to take on characteristics that make the WorldChanging vision no longer seem quite so radical. If smart grids, hybrid vehicles, and green buildings are part of the default image of tomorrow, then energy-producing materials, sustainable urban design, and biomimetic architecture will appear as exciting possibilities, and entirely within reach. One good way to checking out the state of the zeitgeist is to look at business magazines, especially the old-school, pre-dotcom journals.

    BusinessWeek looks to be a bit ahead of some of its competitors in terms of checking out how the world is changing. We've linked to their articles a few times, and while they will by no means provide shocking new insights for even casual WorldChanging readers, they do give a good sense of how Bright Green ideas are being translated for a conventional wisdom audience. Last week's BusinessWeek (cover date Sept 20) is no exception: the technology special report, "A Low-Cost Energy Future," shows both how close the mainstream world is to the Bright Green vision, and how far it has yet to go.

    Continue reading "The Shifting Conventional Wisdom" »

    September 26, 2005

    Viral Batteries

    The name of MIT's Dr. Angela Belcher has popped up a couple of times here on WorldChanging. A 2004 MacArthur "genius grant" winner, she works on the integration of biological processes and nanoscale materials. Now we can learn a bit more about the work that she's been doing:

    Copying how red abalone build their shells, Belcher and her team are developing a way to actually "grow" rechargeable batteries with the help of viruses — tiny microbes that multiply by infecting living cells. Their technique would take a matter of weeks, rather than the 15 years the red abalone needs to assemble a full-sized shell.

    "We're forcing the viruses to interact with materials that they would never interact with, normally. So now the viruses are a template to actually grow that material… it incorporates these new materials into its coat surface," Belcher explains.

    The ScienCentral article includes a video description of the project and interview with Dr. Belcher, as well as links to some of Dr. Belcher's recent publications, including a 2000 article in Nature.

    (Via MedGadget)

    Using Rita

    vorticity.jpgThere's been a flurry of understandable attention of late about the relationship between global warming and hurricanes. Climate scientists have emphasized that the number of storms this season -- unusually high, so much so that we may run out of storm names and have to move to Greek letters -- is still within the historical context of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or "hurricane cycle." There's not much evidence that the increased sea surface temperatures have resulted in more storms. Instead, climate science suggests that the effect of warmer oceans is two-fold: heated water expands, so warmer oceans mean higher storm surges; and, as hurricane strength is primarily driven by ocean surface temperatures, warmer seas can mean stronger storms. A number of recent studies, both historical and model-based, have shown this relationship, and you can find more detail on the relationship between hurricane intensity and global warming here.

    As a result of this increased attention to storm intensity, research agencies around the world are putting more effort into better observations and forecasts of hurricane strength. This week, both the American National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the European Space Agency (ESA) have announced ongoing storm intensity projects. NCAR is using this year's hurricane season as a test of their new Weather Research and Forecasting model, known as ARW, while the ESA has turned its Envisat network to watch North Atlantic hurricanes, providing novel insights into the inner workings of hurricane Rita. Both organizations are making their work available to the public over the web.

    Continue reading "Using Rita" »

    Intel Cuts Processor Power

    Not processing power, mind you, just the electrical power used by their computer chips. Intel claims that about half the power consumed by processors comes not from active computing, but from "leakage current" when the transistors are in a "low-level sleep state." Intel's latest chip production process will result in processors that won't suffer from such levels of "transistor leakage." According to CNET, the new chips could cut wasted power by as much as a thousand times. Overall, the new design chips should use about one-tenth the power that current generation mobile technology processors use.

    Although processor power consumption isn't the only draw on device power, it's an important one. This is the kind of development that will make self-powered mobile devices more likely, with greater consumption efficiency matching improvements in plastic photovoltaic production capacity.

    (Via Mobile Technology Weblog)

    African Climate Change Network

    Despite being likely to suffer the worst effects of global climate disruption, Africa actually has few climate scientists. A step taken last week could help change that situation, however, boosting support for geophysical sciences in Africa.

    A workshop held in Nairobi, Kenya last week heralded the creation of the Africa Network in Earth System Science, a transnational group encouraging the sharing of ideas and resources between organizations working on climate change (as well as other Earth science issues). A major goal of the network will be to address the shortage of good climate and geophysical scientists in Africa.

    Capacity building was therefore imperative, [Bob Scholes of South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research] said, adding that African researchers produce only one per cent of scientific articles published in major climate change journals.

    Continue reading "African Climate Change Network" »

    Toyota Gets It Partly Right

    toyotadhpfig3.jpgThe Toyota Dream House PAPI (Japanese site) is a concept home designed by Professor Ken Sakamura of the University of Tokyo. Building on the TRON intelligent home project, the Toyota Dream House PAPI (and I have no clue as to what PAPI stands for) integrates a prototype Toyota-designed plug-in Prius as a secondary power source.

    Toyota Dream House PAPI was designed to interface with other Toyota technologies. One of the most important of those other technologies is Toyota Motor Corporation's Prius hybrid sedan, which can also be used to supply electricity to the intelligent house for 36 hours in an emergency, such as an earthquake that cuts off normal electrical supplies.

    Conversely, the house can supply electricity to the battery packs of the vehicles via the stand in the middle of the garage. Some of that electrical energy can be obtained from solar cell panels that cover the roof, plus the sides of the structure. The house also uses solar heating and fuel cells, which makes it a kind of hybrid energy house.

    Green Car Congress has some added detail. Despite the building-integrated solar, the Toyota Dream House is not really a "green home" design. Most of the emphasis is on ubiquitous wireless networks and "smart home" controls, rather than on high-efficiency high-style construction and materials. Still, it's good to see Toyota doing more than just talking about the possibility of gas-optional hybrids with home power use; the combination of BIPV and plug-in Prius would go well with "microgrid" distributed power networks.

    Thank You, Stanislav

    stanislav_petrov.jpgTwenty-two years ago today, the world nearly ended.

    We owe the fact that it didn't to the level head of one Stanislav Petrov.

    Those of you who remember late 1983 might recall that it was a remarkably tense time. The Soviet Union had just shot down a Korean airliner that had flown into Soviet airspace. The US was performing large-scale military exercises within quick reach of the USSR. In the US, President Ronald Reagan talked about the "Evil Empire," while Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov ordered the KGB to get ready for an imminent US attack. The two superpowers threatened each other with nuclear missiles in Europe, and shot at each other's proxies in brushfire wars in Central America and Central Asia.

    Stanislav Petrov wasn't the regular overnight officer on duty on September 25-26, 1983, at the Serpukhov-15 Ballistic Missile Early Warning System control post. He came in as a substitute to maintain his skills, expecting that -- like every other night since the Oko monitoring satellites had gone into orbit -- it would be a quiet evening.

    Forty minutes after midnight, September 26, the computer system registered the launch of a Minuteman missile from the United States. In a 2004 interview for the Moscow News, Petrov described what happened:

    Continue reading "Thank You, Stanislav" »

    September 27, 2005

    Nano Dermal Display

    Seattle-based designer Gina Miller has come up with a piece of plausible speculative technology. Her Dermal Nanotech Display is worn on the back of the hand, where billions of nanomachines planted just under the skin provide a linked information display. Miller's model (including animation) focuses on personal biomedical information; in principle, there's no reason why the same display couldn't also interface with an external network.

    Real implanted displays probably won't be exactly like this, but I find these kinds of speculation projects to be very useful for helping to frame what we do and don't want with emerging technologies.

    (Via Medgadget)

    The Manchester Bobber

    ManchesterBobber.jpgPower generation based on the "motion of the ocean" offers significant long-term value, and arguably could eventually displace solar and wind generation for large-scale renewable energy projects. Hydrokinetic power (encompassing wave, current and tidal power) doesn't have the "intermittency" problems facing solar and wind, nor are there as many issues about ruined views and overrun landscape. Costs remain high, however. There are numerous ocean power projects in testing, and while most show promise, I don't believe we've yet seen the real breakout project putting ocean power at the front of the renewable energy race.

    The latest contender is the "Manchester Bobber," an ocean power platform design from the University of Manchester. The up-and-down motion of the water surface drives a generator; a full-size unit should be able to produce a mean power output of around 5 megawatts:

    Continue reading "The Manchester Bobber" »

    Sequestration Revisited

    "Carbon Sequestration" is sometimes suggested as a parallel process alongside a significant shift away from carbon-producing technologies. The logic is straightforward: carbon dioxide is still produced, but rather than remaining concentrated in the atmosphere for a century, it is extracted. This extraction can take place at the point of production (so-called "carbon capture") or more generally, using CO2-loving plants. Although some may hope to use carbon sequestration as an excuse to delay or ignore a move towards non-carbon-emitting technologies, the reality is that the planet is close enough now to a potential climate tipping point that we should not rule out any effort that might help us forestall disaster. Moreover, as much as we would like to see all manner of CO2-producing industries (such as power production or cement manufacturing) move to cleaner technologies, even in the best likely scenario it's going to take decades for the transition to be complete. In principle, if CO2 output can be reduced from those industries during the transition, we're all better off.

    But the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) wondered just what kind of effort would be required to make a real difference in CO2 output. The IPCC commissioned a study, and the preliminary results are now in. Read on for a discussion of our sequestration options.

    Continue reading "Sequestration Revisited" »

    September 28, 2005

    Carbon Free Volvo

    Volvo production, that is. The Swedish automaker has announced that its truck manufacturing facility in Tuve will be the world's first CO2-free automotive plant. All of the factory's power and heat will come from a combination of wind power and biofuels, coupled with efforts to boost overall power efficiency by 20%. The Tuve facility is the first step in a longer-term effort to convert all Volvo facilities to CO2-free energy. Energy produced in excess of factory needs will be sold to the national grid.

    "The Greenhouse Effect is a reality and the automotive industry has a specific responsibility for coping with emissions of carbon dioxide," says Volvo's Chief Executive Officer Leif Johansson. [...] "Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is no easy task [...] But the issue is so important that I believe we must be prepared to try out a variety of different alternatives, if we really want to succeed. Our investment in the Tuve plant is one such effort."

    (Via Green Car Congress)

    Satellite of La Mancha

    DQprobe.jpgThe question of how to respond to warnings that a Near Earth Object (NEO) was on an eventual collision course with our home planet is a minor recurring theme here at WorldChanging. In a way, it's one of clearer issues that we grapple with -- there are no questions of human culpability or poor planning decisions to make the problem more complex. The reality is that our planetary neighborhood is pretty dangerous, and that one day, one of the thousands upon thousands of asteroids and comets swirling about our solar system is going to have Earth's name on it.

    But it's something that, given enough warning, we could act to avert. We've written before of various calls for NASA to put together response plans, but haven't said anything about other space programs getting into the act. This was a mistake, as it appears that the ESA -- the European Space Agency -- is taking the issue of NEO impact very seriously, and is prepping the first in a series of missions to study what it would take to deflect an oncoming asteroid. The name of the mission is Don Quijote, and it will comprise two satellites working together: Hildalgo and Sancho (Jon first alerted us to plans for this mission back in July, 2004!).

    Continue reading "Satellite of La Mancha" »

    Civ IV

    Oh, I'm in trouble. Civilization IV will be out this Fall, possibly next month, and aside from the expected graphical and game play upgrades, the game ships with an incredibly sophisticated modification system. From the Gamespy preview:

    Meanwhile, Civilization IV promises to be the most moddable game in the franchise yet. It'll ship with an in-game "worldbuilder" that allows you to shift units around and redraw the map, similar to a scenario editor. More hardcore modders can jump into XML files and tweak all of the unit stats and variables in the game. Beyond that, users who know the Python scripting language can actually go in and set up scripts and triggers to make game events happen or alter the way the game plays, while a Game A.I. SDK that'll be available shortly after the game ships will allow players to completely change the way the A.I., combat system, or game rules work.

    World-building games (or even city-building games) should always open up the rules to players to examine and modify. The modification possibilities in Civ III were substantial; it sounds like what they're doing with Civ IV will be close to revolutionary.


    scrapile.jpgInhabitat's Jill Fehrenbacher has a terrific interview up on her site, a conversation with Carlos Salgado and Bart Bettencourt of Scrapile, the New York-based design group that manufactures stylish tables, benches, shelves and lamps out of scrap wood from lumber mills and building companies. Scrapile has now opened up a sustainable building materials company, Bettencourt Green Building Supplies, and is considering expanding into flooring. Jill's interview really gets into what drives Salgado and Bettencourt, and gives welcome insight into the mind of the green designer.

    JILL: Were you always interested in environmentalism?

    CARLOS: With my own stuff I’ve been involved in environmental concerns for a while now. I was really involved with solar power for a while, and that sort of led me into green building. But I can’t say I was always green. I mean at the time, even when I was interested in building green, a lot of materials just weren’t available, and when they were they were just so expensive it wasn’t feasible.

    BART: Philosophically, environmentalism is definitely the most important thing in this for me. When I started learning about furniture design and all the materials that go into it, I just started getting really turned off by the industry standard, what was available, and particularly what was available in New York.

    Carlos actually brought some “green” sample materials by the shop one day, and we immediately started researching the field. I sort of plugged him into the furniture that I was making, and we just started making a push to replace the environmentally damaging materials that were being used.

    If you don't already read Inhabitat, this is a good place to start. And remember the names Jill Fehrenbacher and Sarah Rich (Inhabitat's two main writers) -- they'll be popping up here again soon...

    September 29, 2005

    More Solar

    sprayonsolar.jpgOne of the ideas underlying the Bright Green Future is the greater use of radically distributed energy generation. Although this has the most visible manifestation in the development of (for example) micro-wind turbines and gas-optional hybrids as mobile power sources, one of the more intriguing applications will be the greater integration of energy generation materials into the construction of objects and buildings. Although there will undoubtedly be a variety of intrinsic power generation technologies (such as the suspended-load power backpack), the most commonplace form will be integrated photovoltaics.

    Widespread adoption of integrated solar power is still a few years off, but this last week saw a two developments bringing that day much closer.

    Continue reading "More Solar" »

    Nanotubes For Hydrogen Extraction

    CtubeH2cracking.jpgResearchers at North Carolina State University have discovered a way to crack hydrogen from water using heat that takes about half the energy of the previous method. The reason? Defective carbon nanotubes. The research is to be published in tomorrow's Physical Review Letters.

    The team, led by physicist Dr. Marco Buongiorno-Nardelli, found that naturally-occuring defects in carbon nanotubes could increase the rate of certain chemical reactions because the atoms forming the tubes are essentially "incomplete," making them more reactive.

    Because of this, a temperature-based method of cracking hydrogen from water, which normally requires the water to be heated to 2,000° C, can take place at significantly lower temperatures.

    “We studied water for many months and ran many different calculations, and we ended up showing that if you want to break a water molecule, you spend a lot less energy if you do it on this defective carbon material than if you do it by simply heating the molecule until it breaks,” Buongiorno-Nardelli said. “You can reduce the energy necessary by a factor of two – you can do it at less than 1,000 degrees.”

    As is typical for such breakthroughs, what's demonstrated in the lab may not ever make it to real-world use. The Buongiorno-Nardelli method, although requiring less energy, cannot yet be done in commercially viable quantities. The next step for the NCSU team is to collaborate with engineers working with nanoscale devices to design and build "nanoscale reactors" to allow cost-effective hydrogen production. In principle, however, this method would make it possible to crack water efficiently without needing the extreme temperatures; high-temperature hydrogen extraction is sometimes used as a justification for more construction of nuclear reactors.

    Okay, all together: "Oh carbon nanotube, is there nothing you cannot do?"

    (Via Green Car Congress)

    September 30, 2005

    Mice of Regeneration

    The story of the regenerating mice first popped up on science sites a couple of weeks ago, but it hadn't caught my eye until I saw the details in this Wired News article. In brief, bioscientists at the Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, working on the auto-immune disorder Lupus, accidentally created mice with the uncanny ability to regrow lost limbs and to heal, without scars, serious injuries to tissues and organs, including the heart, liver and brain.

    Amazing, yes, but it gets even better:

    The researchers also made a remarkable second discovery: When cells from the regenerative mice were injected into normal mice, the normal mice adopted the ability to regenerate. And when the special mice bred with normal mice, their offspring inherited souped-up regeneration capabilities.

    The researchers, who have since been joined by other institutes in the project, have yet to figure out precisely which set of genes and proteins make this amphibian-like regeneration capacity possible. When they do, it may well lead to similar kinds of healing in human beings; Cambridge scientist Aubrey de Grey, a specialist in life extension, argues that this breakthrough may well be the turning point in work on radical longevity (or, in his terms, "engineered negligible senescence").

    Hydrokinetic Energy in Scotland

    scotwavepower.jpgAlthough hydrokinetic power -- energy generated from the tides, currents and waves -- has a great deal of potential as a primary source of power generation around much of the world, it doesn't have the visibility of technologies such as solar and wind power. This is due, in large part, to the relative scarcity of real-world implementations of marine energy. Many of the existing examples are test-beds, small-scale efforts to demonstrate that the concept is viable. But the demonstration efforts have been well-received, and Portugal will be opening the first commercial wave farm next year, and South Korea will be opening a tidal power project in 2009.

    But Scotland is also near the forefront of adoption of this potentially transformative technology. Last year, the first wave farm connected to the grid opened off Orkney, a demonstration system generating about 750kw. Ultimately, Scotland could get 10% of its energy production from ocean power -- and intends to do so, according to Renewable Energy Access.

    Continue reading "Hydrokinetic Energy in Scotland" »

    Earth + 1000'

    liftportballoon.jpgAn Earth-to-orbit elevator became all the more plausible last week with the successful test of a "climber" robot -- the moving part of an elevator system. The test, organized by the LiftPort group, had the robot climb a thousand feet into the air on a ribbon attached to a high-altitude balloon. LiftPort notes that this was the first-ever use of the climbing technology on a free-hanging ribbon.

    This LiftPort climber is a huge advance; design and construction of a device able to climb a ribbon is just as important -- and nearly as difficult -- as producing the carbon nanotube-based elevator ribbon. And while a thousand feet is a tiny fraction of the eventual length of the LiftPort elevator (100,000 kilometers), this development is still a pretty big step forward.

    Coincidentally, Arthur C. Clarke -- often given credit for being the first to popularize the idea of elevators to space, in his 1978 novel Fountains of Paradise -- had an editorial in the London Times about the idea. In it, he notes:

    Continue reading "Earth + 1000'" »

    Paisanos al Rescate

    rescate.jpgClose to 300 people -- adults and children alike -- die every year from dehydration and the effects of the scorching desert sun crossing the desert along the border between the United States and Mexico. Over the last year, 229 people died in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico alone; regardless of one's views on undocumented immigration, it's imperative these tragic deaths be prevented. A volunteer organization called Paisanos al Rescate (countrymen to the rescue) is working to do just that, using an aging Cessna to bring water and hope to those crossing the desert.

    Armando Alarcon founded the group in the summer of 2004, and he and his volunteers fly over the borderland desert multiple times every week, looking for signs of people crossing over. When immigrants are spotted, Paisanos al Rescate drops water in parcels, sheathed in heavy bubblewrap, attached to nylon-webbing parachutes normally used for Army signal flares. Two liter bottles are dropped for every person in the group, along with instructions for how to signal distress. The goal isn't to aid undocumented migrants to get into the US, but to prevent needless deaths. According to volunteer Luis Rivas, interviewed by Gisell Velazquez for the latest Pop and Politics, the US Border Patrol has come to welcome their efforts:

    PP: Does Paisanos al Rescate ever come into conflict with the Border Patrol or other such government agencies?

    LR: No. Andy Adame, a Border Patrol spokesman, was quoted as saying that we are one of the better humanitarian organizations out there. We work in cooperation with the BP. We will notify the BP if we encounter anyone in distress. The BP will send the BORSTAR team (Search and Rescue) and provide aid to those in distress.

    Many of the deaths of migrants come as a result of smugglers simply abandoning to the desert those who are injured or too slow to keep up. Deaths resulting from something as minor as a sprained ankle are far too common. Illegal immigration is a complex issue, but saving the lives of people at risk of a slow, painful death is not.

    About September 2005

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

    August 2005 is the previous archive.

    October 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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