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November 2005 Archives

November 1, 2005

Heavy Metal Bioremediation

tobacco.jpgBioremediation is the process of using living organisms -- typically plants or microbes -- to remove toxic material from the environment. Previous examples we've noted include seaweed cleaning up DDT, bacteria removing uranium from groundwater around weapons production sites, and tumbleweeds removing uranium from the soil. In most cases, the bioremediation takes advantage of a natural process within the selected organism.

Most, but not all: SciDev.net reports on work being done at the Peking University's College of Life in Beijing to bioengineer tobacco to bioremediate heavy metals from the soil, and algae to remove metals from water. This doesn't use a natural feature of the organisms, however. Instead, it uses a rat gene involved in the creation of a protein in rat livers that binds with toxic metals:

Continue reading "Heavy Metal Bioremediation" »

Choose Your Scenario

Notice of two different sets of scenarios popped up this last week. Royal Dutch Shell, the organization that drove the development of corporate scenario planning, and the UK's Energy Saving Trust, an environmental non-profit, have each produced scenarios of what the early 2020s might hold. The two sets of scenarios are quite different, but make for interesting comparisons.

In Jet Stream, Shell gives three scenarios: Low Trust Globalization emphasizes security and efficiency; Open Doors emphasizes efficiency and social cohesion; and Flags emphasizes security and social cohesion. Open Doors is clearly the most WorldChanging-friendly scenario, and it's heartening to see that Shell seems to like it best, too. The full set of scenarios is only available for purchase, but the executive summary (PDF) gives a good sense of how the scenarios play out.

The Energy Saving Trust, in 2020 Futures: Energy and Waste in an Age of Excess, gives us two different scenarios: Back to Basics is a kind of collapse-lite, with power and water rationing, skyrocketing fuel prices, and the wholesale abandonment of suburbia; the Alternate Sustainable Future depends upon a near-term shift to high-efficiency energy use, and reads like they pulled pages right off of WorldChanging, with distributed power, prefab homes, green roofs, and carbon trading. As of now, only a summary page is available; I've written in requesting a copy of the full scenarios.

(Shell: Thanks, Eric Boyd; EST: Thanks, City Hippy)

Engineers Without Borders, Around the World

Back in December of 2003, Alex posted a brief piece on Ingenieurs san Frontieres/Engineers without Borders, a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to providing technical and technological support for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. We were recently contacted by folks from Engineers without Borders USA, a parallel organization with similar goals -- but without any apparent link. It turns out that Engineers without Borders is (ironically enough) not an international organization, but a name common to a variety of national groups operating in a variety of countries.

Regardless, this is a group well worth talking about again. The description at the EWB-USA site captures the mission common across all of the ISF/EWB groups: Engineers Without Borders - USA partners with developing communities to improve their quality of life through implementation of environmentally, equitable, and economically sustainable engineering projects, while developing internationally responsible engineers and engineering students.

Check the extended entry for a list of EWB organizations around the world, from the EWB Canada website.

Continue reading "Engineers Without Borders, Around the World" »

Hacking the City, Creating Community

ilesansfil.jpgMichael Lenczner wrote to me suggesting that I check out a recent post on his weblog about some of the larger issues raised by his work at Ile Sans Fil, a Montreal community wireless project. It's a provocative piece, as he compares the value of free community wifi to that of more traditional centers of community activity (such as neighborhood soccer fields). I'm not sure we're seeing that model in too many places, but I heartily agree with his underlying point: the use of these networked technologies by artists and non-profit organizations can fundamentally reshape the way that citizens experience their built environments.

We are hacking the built city.

This statement is based on the idea that as wireless devices and services proliferate and ubiquitous computing becomes a reality, the physical environment (especially the built city) is rapidly becoming enhanced space or mixed-reality. The supposedly seperate existences of off-line and on-line are intersecting and overlapping - most rapidly in cities. [...]

Continue reading "Hacking the City, Creating Community" »

November 2, 2005

Wikipedia in Print

What do you call a wiki project that isn't online and can't be edited by the users? We're going to find out soon, as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has announced plans to bring Wikipedia to print. His goal is to make the collaboratively-edited encyclopedia more readily available to people in parts of the world without computers or reliable Internet connections, according to CNN:

"I have always liked the idea of going to print because a big part of what we are about is to disseminate knowledge throughout the world and not just to people who have broadband," Wales said by telephone from St. Petersburg, Florida.

Issues like funding, distribution and topics were still being discussed but a first printed work could be ready from mid-2006, he added.

Wales also plans a CD/DVD version for use in places with access to computers and local networks.

(Via TEDblog)

The Nanotube Site

We do love those nanotubes, at least if the volume of posts on WorldChanging about their sundry capabilities is anything to go by. If you love those nanotubes, too, you need to put the Nanotube Site on your list. Operating by David Tomanek at Michigan State University, the Nanotube Site is intended to: ...facilitate the exchange of ideas among researchers by concentrating links to sites dedicated to nanotubes. One of the benefits is to provide an easier (or better structured) electronic access to bibliographical information and preprints. Information about providers of nanotubes is intended to increase the production volume and find new applications for nanotubes.

The links vary in specificity -- some are general nanotube-related sites, others focus on particular attributes and applications -- but all are relatively technical. Enjoy.

Zero Footprint

zerofootprint.jpgIt's interesting to watch the progress of the "environmental footprint" concept. We've been talking about the idea from early on, and we're hardly alone. The argument that the goal of modern environmentalism should be to reduce one's overall footprint nicely encompasses many of the core elements of new school greens, in particular a focus on systemic thinking and an emphasis on efficiency. The latest appearance of the footprint concept is at 0footprint (zero footprint), a new website combining magazine, information resource, and movement.

Based in Toronto, 0footprint describes itself as "an organization that is creating a marketplace built around a common ground for people worldwide to engage in sustainable commerce," but the market elements are a small part of what they offer. zfp Magazine offers interviews, advice and feature stories; the Zeropages section is a fairly well-developed directory of sustainability, environmental awareness, and green business sites. The least-developed section -- but the one with the greatest potential -- is the Small Ideas project, an attempt to solicit and exhibit concrete, achievable ideas to encourage environmental sustainability:

Continue reading "Zero Footprint" »

Galileo Masters

vulog.jpgGalileo is a satellite-based positioning network similar to -- but more accurate than -- the well-known Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS, put into space by the United States, originally limited civilian accuracy but gave the military full access; as noted in the comments by read Jim Studt, since 2000 all GPS users have an accuracy of about 2 meters. Galileo, a European Space Agency system, uses the same overall protocols as GPS (and therefore accessible using the same hardware), but its readings will be accurate to less than a meter. Galileo is set to be operational by 2008. The European Union, in an attempt to encourage innovative uses of Galileo, holds an annual Galileo Masters competition, and this year's winners have a distinctly green aspect.

The top prize went to VU Log, a French company building a satellite-monitored electric car sharing network. As the BBC describes it:

The transport application devised by the Vu Log company in Sophia Antipolis, France, envisages a fleet of "green" vehicles on city roads. Each electrically powered mini-car would be equipped with instant and highly precise positioning equipment. Commuters could use the internet or their mobile phone to find the nearest vehicle, jump in and start it with a smartcard, and then drive it to their destination.

Continue reading "Galileo Masters" »

November 3, 2005

Solar Update

diysolarelec.jpgLots of work happening at WorldChanging central on the book, but that doesn't mean we're not still paying attention to new developments. Here's an update on some recent news in the world of solar power.

DIY Solar Electricity is a UK project to bring low-cost photovoltaic systems to poorer countries and regions. The small panels are intended to replace batteries, but more importantly to provide hands-on experience with photovoltaic systems for people who could adopt solar power technologies for agricultural or telecommunication systems (see below for more on solar telecom support), and to start local businesses.

The organization has projects underway across the developing world, including Peru, Mongolia, Tanzania and Somalia. The group's work in Kenya was featured in a BBC article from last year:

Continue reading "Solar Update" »

November 4, 2005

Salon on Global Warming

salonfaces.jpgSalon.com, well-established as a progressive political outlet, is increasingly finding its voice in the world of environmental politics, as well. They regularly publish articles by Grist's Amanda Griscom Little, and today their lead story focuses on the people leading global efforts to fight against the effects of global warming -- along with a short essay by Al Gore demonstrating what an environmental "call to arms" looks like. As with all Salon pieces, access to the full articles requires either a paid subscription or viewing of a brief advertisement.

The names and faces populating the "Climate Warriors and Heroes" article cut across disciplines and positions. Readers won't agree with all of their choices -- I certainly don't -- but the spectrum of roles and actions the list encompasses is broader than many might expect. Established names like Gore and Amory Lovins rub shoulders with global figures like director of the China Automotive and Technology Research Center Zhao Hang, University of Iceland hydrogen specialist Dr. Bragi Árnason, and chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference Sheila Watt-Cloutier. The list leans a bit too heavily for my tastes on mainstream politicians (such as John McCain, Tony Blair and Arnold Schwarzenegger), but succeeds in demonstrating that concern about and action against global warming is not isolated to scientists and activists.

Gore's essay also strikes a mainstream chord, repeatedly linking back to Winston Churchill's statements in the era leading up to World War II. The piece is clearly not meant to lay out any new initiatives or draw any new conclusions about the climate; instead, it's meant to rally those who know enough to be concerned about the environment, but don't quite grasp the seriousness of the situation:

Continue reading "Salon on Global Warming" »

November 5, 2005

Serious Games: Go Do Something Cool

foodforcehelicopter.jpgThe Serious Games Summit took place this last week, and by all reports, it was a worthwhile event (one I'm sorry that I missed!). We talk with some regularity about the use of games for educational and "non-entertainment" purposes, and the Serious Games Summit covered the issue in some depth. (Previous "serious games" we've looked at include A Force More Powerful, climate games, Food Force and -- of course -- SimCity.)

Ian Boqost at Water Cooler Games was one of the presenters at the Serious Games Summit, and blogged both days of the event (Day 1, Day 2). The Washington Post had a detailed story about the event, as well, one that gives a good introduction to the concept of non-entertainment games. The article also tells a story about the utility of games as a training tool:

Continue reading "Serious Games: Go Do Something Cool" »

November 7, 2005

FreeCharge Weza

freeplay-freecharge-weza-portable-energy-source.jpgFreeplay Energy rocks. They're the company that makes hand-crank radios and lights, including the Lifeline hand-charged/solar radio for humanitarian workers. We've mentioned their products a few times, but their new device, the FreeCharge Weza, really stands out.

The FreeCharge is a portable power supply putting out 12V DC through a standard "cigarette lighter" style plug. It puts out enough power to jump-start a car or boat, but can also recharge most portable devices. But what's so cool about it is the way that you charge it:

You step on it.

More precisely, you use the "step treadle," meaning that you step up and down on it for a short while to bring the battery back up to full. If that doesn't sound fun, the Weza is designed to be charged with solar panels and small wind turbines (Freeplay recommends a 30 watt rating). You can even recharge it from a wall outlet, but that's cheating.

Downsides: no direct AC output, so you'll need an inverter of some kind to use typical electric/electronic devices with it; it's not cheap -- few of Freeplay's distributors carry the Weza, and the one that does (C. Crane) lists it for just under US$300; it's also not going to be in stock until March of 2006.

Even with these limits, Freeplay's first non-dedicated charger looks awfully attractive for well-off-the-grid use, and would be a good companion to a small photovoltaic system.

(Via BookofJoe)

Today Shanghai, Tomorrow...

British design firm Arup is set to announce that the Chinese government wants them to take their "eco-friendly city" model to up to four more major Chinese cities, the UK Guardian reports.

Up to four more eco-cities will be built, though exact locations have not yet been revealed. [...] The eco-cities are intended to be self-sufficient in energy, water and most food products, with the aim of zero emissions of greenhouse gases in transport systems.

Arup's work with the Shanghai expansion, Dongtan, is underway. The first phase, a 630-hectare development intended to house a 50,000-person community, is set to be completed by 2010.

November 9, 2005

Waiting to be Connected

brazil_popularpc.jpgAs enthusiastic as we often are about both the utility of low-cost information tools and the open-source/networking-related efforts of the Lula government in Brazil, it's important to recognize when things aren't working out the way one would wish. Failures can be more important than success when it comes to learning, as long as the same mistakes aren't repeated. A recent article from the online computer magazine C|Net entitled "Brazil's bumpy road to the low-cost PC" is important not because it describes a successful effort, but because it helps to explain why success has been elusive -- and what can be done about it.

Brazil has been trying to make and distribute a low-cost Internet-connected computer system since 1999. Earlier efforts fell prey to poor design (a system without a disk drive, just a small flash memory), political tribulations (the program was abandoned while Lula's predecessor was in office), or the simple economics of a proliferation of duties and taxes -- a PC could cost 50% more in Brazil than its equivalent in the US simply because of extra fees.

The PC Conectado ("connected PC") program started up in 2003, and rolled out its first systems earlier this year. Manufacturers would get a tax break, and users would get a PC that they could pay for over several years. However:

Continue reading "Waiting to be Connected" »

Native Wind

nativewind.jpgWe're accustomed to talk about leapfrogging as a process that happens elsewhere. But nearly every advanced industrialized country has pockets of poverty that are as damaging and as pervasive as you'd find in the developing world. They're also opportunities for leapfrogging -- and Native Wind may have the key.

In the United States, among the locations most in need of transformation are the Native American reservations. Native Wind wants to turn the reservations around by making them centers of wind power development. Most reservation areas in the western and mountain states have some amount of wind power potential. But it turns out that some of the richest areas for wind power can be found on reservation territories in the northern plains states: twenty reservation locations have a combined potential of around 300 gigawatts of wind power.

The Native Wind project is bringing together wind energy experts and tribal leaders to work out ways to build wind farms on tribal lands. Two wind facilities have already been built -- a 750kW turbine at the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation and another at the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota -- and two more should be completed by the end of this year. Fort Berthold alone is believed to have over 17 gigawatts of wind power potential. In 2006, the Rosebud location will be expanded into a 30MW wind farm, and another 80MW of wind farms are in development.

Continue reading "Native Wind" »

November 10, 2005

Bio-Printers, Revisited

organprinting.jpgOur future will be built with ink-jet printers. Not only can we print out polymer electronics and solid objects, we can print out biological structures. Last January, I wrote about the University of Manchester's process for building organs to spec with ink-jet technology; in July, I wrote about researchers in the US and Holland using a related process to grow cruelty-free "cultured meat." Now University of Utah College of Pharmacy Glenn Prestwich has created a "bio-paper" that works with a "bio-ink" to build tissue to repair damaged organs. Research sponsored by the US National Science Foundation will look at how well the combination works with organ-printing technology.

The details are a bit spotty, and I'm still looking for something other than popular media accounts. But for what it's worth:

The NSF study will try first to print blood vessels and cardiovascular networks. Once they prove it can be done, the scientists will look at more complex organs such as livers and kidneys and simpler but more mechanical organs like the esophagus, Prestwich said.

Continue reading "Bio-Printers, Revisited" »

The Five Percent Solution

The UK's Department for Transport has announced new rules mandating that 5% of all UK retail fuel come from renewable sources -- that is, biofuels -- by 2010. According to Transport Secretary Alistair Darling, The Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation I am proposing today is predicted to save around 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 - the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.

The 5% requirement would be a 20-fold jump in the use of biofuels in the UK. Interestingly, the mandate allows fuel companies to sell more than 5% biofuels to generate a transferrable credit. The feasibility study put together by the DFT demonstrating that this plan would actually work can be found here.

(Via Green Car Congress)

November 11, 2005

Cultivation for Biodiversity

One of the more insidious forms that loss of biodiversity can take is the reduction of genetic diversity within a particular species. The species itself may not go extinct -- in fact, it may thrive, at least for awhile -- but the individual members show little genetic difference, putting them all at risk from disease or environmental stresses that, in a more natural environment, would only harm a fraction of the species. The usual cause of this plant cultivation. But a report out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that small-farm cultivation of the jocote plant in Central America has actually protected the species' genetic diversity.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis report that farmers and families in Central America actually have saved genetic variation in the jocote (ho-CO-tay), (Spondias purpurea), a small tree that bears fruit similar to a tiny mango. And they've done this by taking the plants out of the forest, their wild habitat, and growing them close to home for family and local consumption. [...] The authors say that, through multiple domestications in arenas such as living fences -- fences made of plants like jocotes -- crops, orchards, trees cultivated in backyards and forests, genetic diversity in the jocote has been preserved.

This points to one of the less-often-recognized values of small farms (vs. large-scale industrial agriculture): greater likelihood of preservation of species diversity. And this kind of genetic resilience is exactly what we want in a time of global environmental change.

SMS Disaster Alert System

In the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, one of the ideas we discussed here a bit was the creation of a disaster alert system using SMS, the mobile phone text messaging system. Washington DC and New York City have implemented limited versions; now the idea's popped up in Holland. According to CNN, the Dutch government is testing a system called Cell Broadcast to send out regionally-targeted warnings of disaster to mobile phone users.

"This is a more instantaneous way of informing people about what is going on right now. It's an extra medium to communicate directly with people during a disaster," [Interior ministry spokesman Frank van Beers ] said. "If something happens in the center of The Hague, for example, we can select communication points from telecom companies and everyone who is within a few 100 meters can get the information."

Other scenarios could include terrorist attacks, fires, explosions and leaks of toxic substances.

As Taran Rampersad at KnowProSE points out, the main drawback is that this is a one-way system, keeping people in the role of disaster victims rather than participants in disaster response.

Gravity Tugboat for Dangerous Asteroids

gravtractor.jpgHow do you keep a large asteroid from hitting the Earth? If you're in Hollywood, you blast it with a nuke; sadly, in the real world, that really wouldn't work. A more considered approach would be to attach rockets and push it gently, changing its orbit enough to miss us. But it turns out that the best approach of all could be to park beside it and just sit there.

NASA astronauts Edward T. Lu and Stanley G. Love describe this scenario in the latest Nature. In "A Gravitational Tractor for Towing Asteroids," the scientists argue that a sufficiently large mass, about 20 tons or so, kept within close range of a moderate-sized asteroid, could exert sufficient gravitational influence to pull the object off-course. You would have to keep the gravitational tugboat parked by the asteroid for a year or so. And you'd have to do it 20 years in advance.

With the gravity plan, a spacecraft would not have to dock on the asteroid, but instead hover above its surface. The craft's thruster jets would angle outward to avoid blasting the asteroid's surface and pushing it away.

Continue reading "Gravity Tugboat for Dangerous Asteroids" »

The Greening of China

chinasolargansu.jpgAs China goes, so goes the future.

A successful bright green world requires a green China. A China that continues to spew tons of coal smoke into the air, tear up the landscape for dams and minerals, and push the adoption of the automobile as a "pillar industry" is a China that could drive the world past the environmental tipping point, regardless of the efforts of the rest of the planet. A year or two ago, the likelihood of Chinese leaders seeing this disaster unfolding and changing direction in time seemed slim. Now, we may well see a glimmer of hope.

The last month or so brought us a bonanza of reports about the new choices the Chinese leadership is making regarding the environment. Some are doubtlessly motivated by wanting to look good for the 2008 Olympics. But many of the proposals look to be the kinds of steps necessary for China to head off further environmental disaster -- big, risky steps, with the possibility of significant benefit should they succeed.

Hit the extended entry for links and discussion.

Continue reading "The Greening of China" »

November 12, 2005

Google Risk

You've examined the crime maps, scouted out environmental disasters, sought out a good coffee, compared bus routes to real-time traffic, and checked the weather. What else is there to do with Google Maps? How about a game of Risk?

GMRisk is the classic wargame, but uses Google Maps as the playing board. It's more of a "hey, look what we can do!" than a really usable game, at least for now (no AI, opaque interface), but it is suggestive of the varied ways in which online mapping systems like Google Maps and Yahoo! Maps can be used.

As we continue to play with the idea of building a good global environment sim/game, the idea of using online maps as the base of play is definitely something we'll keep in mind.

FabLab on Science Friday

Neal Gershenfeld, founder of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and the creator of the Fab Lab project, was the guest on yesterday's Science Friday edition of NPR's Talk of the Nation.

The audio is now online -- check it out!

(Thanks for the heads-up, Judy Galli!)

Print Screen

printoledscreen.jpgHere's another indication that the ink-jet future is upon us (and it's likely to be a more palatable example than the last one): Cambridge Display Technologies is now able to produce 14" laptop displays by printing the organic polymer LED material using ink-jet tech. Already appearing in small form on cell phones and other handheld devices, organic LEDs have some real advantages over the LCD technology in your laptop or flat-panel screen:

OLED is viewed as a potential successor to liquid crystal displays, used in many flat-panel TVs and computer monitors. Materials in an OLED display emit light when an electrical current is applied. The displays can function without a backlight, which cuts down on power consumption, screen thickness and cost. OLED displays also offer higher resolution than LCDs.

The screens, potentially, also cost less to produce. Cambridge sprays its pixels on with multi-nozzle inkjet printers. The printers can sport 128 nozzles and come from a company called Litrex, which is half owned by Cambridge.

Another big advantage of organic polymer electronics in general is that they have a much lower environmental footprint in terms of energy required to produce them and toxic material content, in comparison to LCDs and traditional (read: obsolete) CRT technologies.

Continue reading "Print Screen" »

Mars Simulation Project

marssimproj.jpgOnce we go to Mars, we'll probably stay. Setting up a permanent scientific station, as we've done in Antarctica, might not cost much more than a short visit, since getting there is arguably the biggest expense. An outpost would surely give us enormous scientific benefits, and would point us towards the day that human civilization isn't limited to a single, fragile world. But just how hard would it be to get a Mars habitat up and running -- and keep it alive?

One way to find out is Scott Davis' Mars Simulation Project, an effort to simulate management of human settlements on Mars, from tiny outposts to sprawling communities. Begun in 1998 and still under active development (the most recent version, 2.78, came out in late October of this year), the Mars Simulation Project is a dynamic and complex application, with a wealth of details including statistics on the health and condition of every single colonist -- sort of The Sims Go To Mars -- and myriad station components, exploration tools, and even disasters. The graphics aren't very pretty, more spreadsheet than 3D game, but it's hard to imagine a richer simulation.

Built in Java, the Mars Simulation Project runs on nearly every operating system, and the configuration files are easy to modify. Best of all: it's open source, so if you want to add your own ideas to the model, you can. We may mourn the loss of the Maxis SimMars game and NASA's "Mars: The Journey Begins," but the Mars Simulation Project looks to be a more than worthy alternative.

November 14, 2005

Catching Up with the Wind

windturbinestva.jpgEverybody's talking about wind power right now, and it's easy to see why -- a combination of new developments, high energy prices and (in the northern hemisphere) the return of brisk fall breezes put us all in the wind turbine frame of mind.

While we've all been busy getting WorldChanging: The Book completed (can WorldChanging: The Motion Picture be far behind?), a number of wind-related stories have piled up on my desktop. Rather than let them go to waste, I thought I'd give you an old-fashioned bullet point rundown of the developments.

  • Piezoelectric Wind Power
  • Do home turbines make economic sense?
  • Floating Wind Power
  • Vertical Turbine Design
  • Guandong's Wind Energy Potential
  • UK Wind Energy Potential

  • Continue reading "Catching Up with the Wind" »

    Egypt Crosses Over

    Mobile phones are an engine of leapfrog development, and it looks like another developing nation is moving quickly towards cellular dominance. The number of mobile phone subscribers in Egypt now exceeds the number of land-line users, according to the Egypt Mobile Communications 2005 Report. At the end of September of this year, Egypt had 12 million mobile phone users and 10.3 million land line users. Analysts believe the difference will be more than 3 million by the end of the year; this will represent about 18 percent of the Egyptian population. The Report projects mobile phone growth to reach 21.1 million users by the end of 2008.


    aavishkaar.jpgBy and large, people working to improve conditions in the poorer parts of the world consider microcredit -- the practice of offering very small loans to individuals starting small businesses -- to be a successful tool. But microcredit isn't as well-suited for people starting up riskier ventures; the funds needed are often substantially higher, and the more significant risk involved in the startup would inevitably lead to a greater default rate. MIT's Neal Gershenfeld, of Fab Lab fame, described in his book Fab the need for "micro-venture" services in the developing world to support the greater risk and greater upside of local innovation. It turns out that he wasn't alone in seeing that need.

    Aavishkaar India Micro Venture Capital Fund started operation in May, 2002, with the goal of promoting development in rural and semi-urban India through funding and operational support. In principle, this differs little from any venture capital company in Silicon Valley or London; the main difference is the size of the required funding: Aavishkaar provides equity ranging from "Rs. 10 lacs to Rs. 50 lacs, approximately USD $20 thousand to USD $100 thousand." They've been careful with the funding -- of the Rs. 5 crore (a bit more than a million US dollars ) raised, Rs. 3.5 crore is yet to be invested.

    According to Aavishkaar, their focus is on "sustainable financing" (PDF):

    Continue reading "MicroVC" »

    November 15, 2005

    Sustainable Future

    Curt Rosengren, author of the Alternative Energy ~ Renewable Energy blog, has started up a new site that looks to be just as good: The Sustainable Future weblog.

    I have a blog devoted to alternative energy sources, and I find myself constantly wanting to address sustainability issues beyond its energy focus. So I finally took the hint from my brain and thought, "Hey, why don't I create a sustainability blog?!"

    And so I have. Just like that.

    RSS feed can be found here. Good luck, Curt!

    One More on Wind

    This is a short entry, but it's notable enough to warrant a main column position.

    With the recent increase in natural gas prices, services using gas as a fuel have correspondingly become more costly. This is most visibly reflected in the cost of home-heating (customers in California have been warned that winter heating costs could double), but it affects electricity as well, used in many regions as fuel for power generation. Combine this with improvements in wind power technologies in recent years, and we get this somewhat startling (but very good to see) entry at the Green Power Markets page at the US Department of Energy:

    November 2005 - Utility customers participating in green pricing programs that offer some form of protection from fossil-fuel price changes are finding that their green power premiums are shrinking or even turning negative. For example, as of November 1, Colorado customers participating in Xcel Energy's Windsource program are paying 0.66¢/kWh less for wind energy than for "regular" electricity because of an increase in the utility's energy cost adjustment (ECA). Since the ECA announcement, Xcel has sold out of its remaining available wind energy supply and has established a waiting list for new program signups.
    In Oklahoma, OG&E Electric Services customers purchasing the OG&E Wind Power product now pay 0.13¢/kWh less for wind energy than for traditional electricity and customers of Edmond Electric's pure&simple wind power program now pay 0.33¢/kWh less.

    In a growing number of regions across the US, wind power is now officially cheaper than the baseline electricity rate. The state-by-state ranking of green power programs still shows the October data; it's the page to keep an eye on to see how the "negative premium" scenario spreads.

    (Thank you for the tip, Joseph Willemssen, who notes that Xcel Energy spokesmodels still reflexively claim that wind is more expensive.)

    Meme Alert: "GEMs"

    I've put in a request for a copy of the article, but just on the basis of the press release, I think we have a new bit of buzzworthy jargon coming down the road. Georgia Tech researcher Kenneth Sandhage and his team have come up with a method to apply biological processes to the manufacture of non-biological microdevices. The release then says:

    This study's newly invented approaches for the low-cost mass production of micro-devices could yield unprecedented breakthroughs in genetically engineered microdevices (GEMs) for biomedical, computing, environmental cleanup, defense and numerous other applications.

    Genetically engineered microdevices -- you know we're going to be hearing more about these.

    Tackling the Central Dogma with an Optical Trap

    image courtesy Stanford UniversityStanford researchers have designed the first microscope sensitive enough to watch a protein molecule function in real time -- and in doing so, they may have both solved some of the deepest questions about how DNA replicates and kicked off an entirely new field of study.

    Dr. Steven Block and his team designed and built an "optical trap" microscope that uses the minute pressure of infrared light to hold a molecule in place for measurement without interfering in how the molecule works; the system has an accuracy of one angstrom, equal to one-tenth of a nanometer -- roughly the diameter of a single hydrogen atom. This allowed them to watch genes being copied in real time. And this, in turn, let them resolve a question at the heart of what biologists call the "central dogma."

    Continue reading "Tackling the Central Dogma with an Optical Trap" »

    November 16, 2005

    DIY Cell Phone

    phoneparts.jpgIt's not uncommon for technically-inclined folks to build their own PCs out of basic parts; although it's not necessarily cheaper to do so, one can build exactly the setup one wants, with exactly the components and function. In addition, we shouldn't discount the satisfaction of having put together a useful device with one's own hands. But are cellular phones significantly harder to build than PCs? What would it take to make a homebrew phone that would still work on standard networks? A handful of hackers want to find out.

    Surj Patel and Deva Seetharam, in the UK, and Casey Halverson, in Seattle, Washington, are all trying to build GSM-network mobile phones out of readily-available parts, to meet their own particular needs. In both projects, however, the core of the phone will be a tiny Linux computer. This isn't all that surprising; aside from issues of even getting access to proprietary phone operating systems, only Linux would offer the enterprising phone hacker the flexibility needed to get the phone to do something new.

    This "something new" could be integration of phone addresses with social networking software to create active phonebooks:

    Continue reading "DIY Cell Phone" »

    Grameen and Nokia

    The Grameen Foundation employs some of the most innovative poverty-reduction and economic development tools around: microfinance; biomass-based village micropower; and "Village Phones," which enable rural communities to maintain access to regional and national markets, information and -- most important of all -- family members. Grameen Phone has been wildly successful in Bangladesh, where it started (and now serves as the nation's top phone company), as well as in Uganda and Rwanda.

    Yesterday, the Grameen Foundation and Nokia announced a partnership to expand the Village Phone network in Africa:

    With tiny loans, financial services and mobile technology, Village Phone provides affordable access in a sustainable manner.

    The collaboration between Nokia and GFUSA is designed to accelerate efforts to make universal access, particularly in rural areas of Africa a reality. As part of this effort, Nokia and GFUSA have jointly developed a solution based on Nokia's most affordable phones and an external antenna to serve rural communities in Uganda and Rwanda, the two countries where GFUSA's Village Phone currently operates.

    As far as I can tell, this is more of an expansion and acceleration of the Village Phone project than a new venture, but so far, there's little more information available than in the press release (which is identical on both the Grameen and Nokia sites).

    The final part of the press release promises that Nokia and Grameen will work together on a large-scale study of the socioeconomic impact of mobile phones on global development, as well as on the sustainability of microfinance -- a good sign that both organizations are starting to think through the longer-term implications of their decisions.

    (Via On Safari with El Jorgito)

    One Laptop Per Child -- Updated

    laptop-handside.jpgKofi Annan and Nicholas Negroponte were scheduled to unveil the prototype design of the "$100 Laptop" (also known as the One Laptop Per Child project) today at the World Summit on the Information Society meeting in Tunis. (WorldChanging has previously discussed this project here -- Ethan gets a preview, here -- I get an update, and here -- my original post on the subject.) I haven't seen any reports yet from the scene, but while we wait, here are some updated links:

    The One Laptop Per Child website at MIT has new pictures up of the latest version of the design. The crank (which currently does not actually work) has a definitely "toy" look to it, which is intentional (see below), and the unit itself is actually fairly small. The ability to flip the system into "e-book" and "laptop theater" mode is striking, however -- it's something most laptops costing ten or twenty times as much can't do.

    Continue reading "One Laptop Per Child -- Updated" »

    Energy Efficient Software

    Lower-power microprocessors can reduce computer energy use, but the solutions don't have to all be in hardware. PowerEscape, a programming tools company, has unveiled a utility called "Insight" that lets programmers improve the efficiency of their software with an eye towards reducing overall power consumption, according to LinuxDevices.com. The more the data has to be shuffled around, the more power is needed.

    In the olden days of slow, limited hardware, programmers had to work to maximize both processor efficiency and memory use; those habits have largely fallen away in the era of desktop supercomputers. It's just possible that the growing need to improve energy efficiency will trigger a return to programming parsimony, a desire to get the maximum possible result out of minimum possible effort.

    PowerEscape's utilities are available for Linux, MacOS X, and Windows XP.

    (Via Make)

    November 17, 2005

    Ethan's In Tunisia

    Ethan Zuckerman is in Tunis for the World Summit on the Information Society conference, where's both an observer and a participant. He's blogging his observations over at his home site, ...My Heart's in Accra. Ethan, along with Global Voices partner Rebecca MacKinnon, are running a workshop entitled "Expression Under Repression" -- and they got a taste of it at the summit.

    Yesterday, we were warned that our session could be cancelled by the Tunisian authorities. We also discovered that the session wasn’t listed in the official program guide. Today, we came to the room where the session was to be held and there was a sign on the door stating that the workshop was cancelled. Friends who passed by the UNDP booth on the WSIS floor earlier today heard gossip that the security forces would appear at our session and anyone who attended would be arrested. [...] This low-grade harrasment did nothing to dampen our turnout for the session. The room is literally standing room only and people are listening in through the doorway.

    White LED Efficiency Breakthrough?

    The details are slim, but the UK's Inquirer reports that Japanese researcher Satoshi Kamiyama of the Meijo University has figured out how to increase the efficiency of white LEDs quite dramatically. The new technique produces white LEDs capable of 130 lumens per watt. Normal incandescent light bulbs produce 15-20 lumens per watt; modern fluorescent bulbs produce between 60-110 lumens per watt; and current LED methods allow for a maximum of 60-70 lumens per watt. In short, if this is real, it's a big breakthrough.

    Dr. Satoshi is said to be starting up a company to sell the new LEDs by next year.

    DNA, Behavior and Food

    labrat.jpgWe're all familiar with the ways in which the chemicals in food can change our behavior, sometimes dramatically (as anyone who has been around me when I'm having a mid-day low blood sugar crash can tell you). But it turns out that ingested chemicals in the bloodstream can do more than change transient behavior -- they can change the way our DNA is expressed.

    That's the finding of Drs. Moshe Szyf, Michael Meaney and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, speaking at this week's Environmental Epigenomics conference. They found that injecting L-methionine, a common amino acid and food supplement, into the brains of lab rats, could turn well-adjusted rats into easily-stressed, shy rats, by causing the same kinds of changes to DNA expression in the brain as result from rats that are not properly groomed and cared for by their mothers:

    Continue reading "DNA, Behavior and Food" »

    Green My House -- BedZED Style

    insidezedfactory.jpgIn my August post about the LEED Home proposal, I noted that what the US Green Building Council really ought to work on next was a LEED for "Neighborhood Development." Little did I know that a comparable plan already existed: the ZEDstandards checklist, from ZEDFactory, the architects behind the low-footprint housing development BedZED.

    Like LEED, the ZEDstandards presents a checklist of various sustainability criteria. These criteria are based on the group's experience with the BedZED project, and hit many of the important points about Bright Green cities we've identified here over the past two years, including product-service systems, sustainable transit, and high density development; the only real missing element is a recognition of the value of "smart" environments. The most recent version of the ZEDstandards checklist can be found here (PDF). Details on the process can be found in the 2004 introductory document "Operation Step Change" (PDF), and the "Roadmap to 2050" document (PDF). The rules have less to do with how the homes are built (although that's there, too) than with how the communities are built.

    Continue reading "Green My House -- BedZED Style" »

    Global Warming, Global Health, Global Ethics

    climateandhealthnature.jpg"Impact of Regional Climate Change on Human Health," a new report in the latest edition of Nature, makes for sobering reading. A combined effort from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the World Health Organization, the report reviews the evidence connecting changes to climate conditions and threats to human health. The study looked at both empirical data from past observations and model-based simulations of future interactions. Unusually, the full report is available to non-subscribers; a good summary can be found at SciDev.net.

    The nations that have been, and will be, hardest-hit by climate-related health effects are those least able to respond; they're also the least responsible for the global temperature increases both over the past century and (with the arguable exceptions of India and China) likely over the next. This is not a happy article, or a study full of solutions; it does, however, underscore why global warming is so dangerous -- and why the need to respond to environmental risks can't be disconnected from the need to respond to global poverty.

    The World Health Organization now estimates that at least 150,000 deaths each year are directly attributable to the effects of climate disruption. Over the next 25 years, that risk will rise substantially:

    Continue reading "Global Warming, Global Health, Global Ethics" »

    November 18, 2005

    Butterfly Biomimicry

    We may end up getting a boost to the efficiency of LED-based lighting thanks to lepidopterists.

    African Swallowtail butterflies signal each other using fluorescent patches on their wings. Scales on the wings function as "2D photonic crystals," focusing and enhancing the signal by trapping light particles and preventing them from spreading in all directions. This is an identical process to a recent breakthrough in high-emission LED design -- but even more efficient.

    "Unlike the diodes, the butterfly's system clearly doesn't have semiconductor in it and it doesn't produce its own radiative energy," Dr Vukusic told the BBC News website "That makes it doubly efficient in a way.

    "But the way light is extracted from the butterfly's system is more than an analogy - it's all but identical in design to the LED."

    Dr Vukusic agreed that studying natural designs such as this could help scientists improve upon manmade devices.

    Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Sequestration and Oil Production

    co2_sequestration.jpgThe US Department of Energy trumpeted the result this week: the DOE-funded “Weyburn Project” successfully sequestered five million tons of carbon dioxide into the Weyburn Oilfield in Saskatchewan, Canada, while doubling the field’s oil recovery rate. The press release goes on to say,

    “The success of the Weyburn Project could have incredible implications for reducing CO2 emissions and increasing America’s oil production. Just by applying this technique to the oil fields of Western Canada we would see billions of additional barrels of oil and a reduction in CO2 emissions equivalent to pulling more than 200 million cars off the road for a year,” Secretary of Energy Bodman said.

    I'm quite certain that you folks have already picked up on the key underlying problem. The additional barrels of oil put out carbon dioxide even while the sequestration buries it. In fact, as I show in the extended entry, the additional oil puts out more CO2 than is buried. The Weyburn sequestration model is a study in the need to pay attention to the trade-offs involved in quick-fix solutions to big problems.

    Continue reading "Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Sequestration and Oil Production" »

    November 19, 2005

    Edison's Conquest of Mars

    edisonmars_sm.gifGiven the relative success of the recent War of the Worlds movie, based on H. G. Wells' 1897 novel, I wonder if anyone will make a movie version of the book's sequel from the next year, Edison's Conquest of Mars.

    You probably haven't heard of Edison's Conquest of Mars,probably because it wasn't actually written by H. G. Wells, but by Garrett P. Serviss, an astronomer and journalist. Hired by newspaper publisher Arthur Brisbane to come up with a serialized sequel to Wells' popular story, Serviss came up with a story that set the tone of science fiction for decades to come. Edison's Conquest of Mars contains the first known literary depiction of a ray gun and of a space battle, and managed to mix depictions of known science (such as the effects of zero gravity) with a reasonable adventure story. More importantly, Edison's Conquest of Mars is one of the earliest examples of a political debate carried out in the pages of speculative fiction.

    (A book version of Edison's Conquest can be purchased here, but scans of the original serial, and its art, can be found here -- warning, the images are large, and download very slowly.)

    Bruce Franklin, in War Stars, cites Edison's Conquest as a pro-Imperialism story meant to generate support for the Spanish-American War, and to counter the anti-Imperialism of Wells' War of the Worlds, and it's easy to see why. As the story's title suggests, the lead character taking the fight back to Mars was none other than Thomas Alva Edison, who invents most of the devices used by Earth to defeat the Martians. He's accompanied by Lord Kelvin, who plays Spock to Edison's Kirk, giving scientific explanations but steering clear of combat. Unsurprisingly, the story includes stoic soldiers (fresh from wars of conquest on Earth) and women in distress, held hostage by the savage Martians. And, of course, the Earthlings win, killing off the Martians in an act of genocide and annexing Mars for colonization.

    Continue reading "Edison's Conquest of Mars" »

    November 21, 2005

    Waterless Washing Machine Design

    airwash.jpgTwo students from the National University of Singapore's school of industrial design have won the Electrolux Design Lab 2005 competition with a prototype unit that uses compressed air, negative ions and deodorizing agents to wash clothes.

    The award winning design of third year students Gabriel Tan and Wendy Chua, beat entries from 3,000 other students from over 88 countries. Called Airwash, the waterfall-inspired washing unit is waterless and does not use detergents. [...] By using atmospheric air and negative ions – a natural cleansing agent – it fights dirt and bacteria with nature's own weapon.

    Although in principle the Airwash could be used to clean any kind of clothing, the likely application is as a home dry cleaning unit or (in an industrial format) a chemical-free dry cleaning system.

    The Airwash remains a prototype/"concept washer" design, but it's nicely illustrative of an emerging focus on solutions to everyday problems that use fewer resources. The articles about the Airwash make no mention of its power requirements, but it could in principle both replace the washer and eliminate the need for a dryer. Depending upon load size, it may well have lower overall power needs than the obsolete combination. It also reduces the resource dependency from two or three (electricity, water and possibly gas) to just one (electricity).

    Product designs such as this exemplify the bright green scenario of devices that can do more with fewer resources -- what we sometimes call "economies of scope."

    (Thank you, Chris Albon)

    Climate Prediction For Beginners

    Oxford University, in collaboration with ClimatePrediction.net, has created a "Climate Basics" website using interactive Flash to explain how climate change is predicted, for non-scientific audiences. The site's emphasis is very much on how we figure out what's coming, not explanations of greenhouse gases or why we know warming is happening, etc.; it's an interesting example of what a "global warming for beginners" looks like in a setting where the core evidence is already accepted and non-controversial.

    I should emphasize that it is a very basic presentation, and several of the observers on RealClimate have pointed out some underlying problems with the probability math used in the program. The errors aren't anything that would change one's understanding of the issues, but more mathematically adept readers may wish to watch for them.

    Mosquito Magnet

    proproduct.jpgCompact, quiet and effective up to one and a quarter acres (around 5,000 square meters), the Mosquito Magnet is apparently one of the better devices out there for mosquito abatement. The system puts out simulated "breath" with a mosquito-attractive scent, then sucks them in and dehydrates them -- no insecticides are involved at all. The system has real worldchanging elements -- the manufacturer, American Biophysics, sees the Mosquito Magnets as having real benefits for preventing the spread of malaria, and the biggest system even has a solar panel to charge the battery.

    Moreover, the devices are about to become parts of a smart wireless network:

    Now AmBio, as the company is commonly called, is upping the ante with a "smart" mosquito net, or computerized defense system, to serve the corporate and public health sectors. By the first quarter of 2006, AmBio executives hope to have finalized sophisticated software to control a network of magnets--forming a kind of wide-scale fence--which will be able to communicate with a central network through wireless 802.11b technology.
    That way, the system will be able to efficiently ward off bugs from golf courses and resorts, or even help mitigate cases of malaria in third world countries, according to [AmBio CEO Devin] Hosea."

    But there's a catch:

    Continue reading "Mosquito Magnet" »

    November 22, 2005

    Clean Power, Drinkable Water

    pkstill.jpgAustralian company Energetech is one of the growing number of companies building systems to turn the motion of the ocean into usable energy -- something we've taken to calling "hydrokinetic power." Waves, tides even undersea currents can, in principle, be tapped to generate electricity; the technology is in transition from real-world experiments to early adoption, and the preliminary signs are that the systems can indeed produce usable amounts of power at competitive prices.

    Energetech has taken their system a step beyond power generation, however. Working with a company called H2AU, Energetech added a small desalination system to a test deployment of a wave energy system at Port Kembla in Australia. Happily, the combination works splendidly:

    Most desalination installations use electricity to create the pressure needed to drive a reverse osmosis system but the two Sydney-based, privately owned companies' combined technologies use wave pressure directly to power a reverse osmosis desalination plant. This unusual project avoids the multiple energy losses in converting wave energy to electricity before using the electricity to drive pressure pumps. [...]

    Continue reading "Clean Power, Drinkable Water" »

    Invest Green

    If you think that climate disruption and our resulting global response will be the big story of the 21st century, you have to figure that investment markets will eventually start to pick up on who the winners and losers in such a world might be. And if the market as a whole is on the trail of clean, green companies, then the maxim of "buy low, sell high" suggests that savvy long-term investors will want to get there first. Today's Wired News has what will undoubtedly be one of many articles about how to scope out the investment market in a global warming world. It's a good start.

    The article doesn't try to define any winners and losers just yet, but does spell out some steps that those of us thinking about how climate disruption will shape markets should keep in mind. Interestingly, these also make for good rules for catching early indicators of which political figures and non-market organizations are best-positioned to become leaders in the years and decades to come.

    Wired's rules, paraphrased, are:

    Continue reading "Invest Green" »

    November 23, 2005


    starsight.jpgStarSight is one of those ideas that makes one wonder why it wasn't developed years ago. StarSight combines a street light -- something which can bring down crime rates dramatically -- with solar panel, wireless network (WiFi or WiMax), remote management, local network access, and (optionally) hookups for charging small devices. The designers, UK-based Kolam Partnership and Singapore's Nex-G, describe StarSight as being a key element of a "virtual utility," a low-cost, low-maintenance provider of intangible but very useful services such as public lighting and wireless networks. All of this is very cool, and makes a great deal of sense, but there's one last element that makes it truly worldchanging:

    Its first deployment is in Cameroon, and the designers have explicitly intended the system for use in the rapidly-urbanizing developing world. Mike Butcher at the Financial Times has the details.

    A technology to roll out green energy street lighting along with telecommunications and power could well be the great leap forward for which Africa is looking.
    Yannick Gaillac, founding partner of the Kolam Partnership, is enthusiastic: “This project will definitely change lives for the poorest people in the world and that’s what I wanted to do. We didn’t invent these basic technologies, but we are gathering them together in one solution.”

    Morocco, China and India are said to be next on StarSight's list for potential sites for the system. And the set-up is not limited to lighting and communication -- other potential uses include disaster warning systems, pollution monitors, and other location-aware network services.

    (Thanks for the tip, Mike!)

    Congratulations to Global Voices!

    Global Voices, where WorldChanging contributor (and board chair) Ethan Zuckerman hangs his hat, just won the "Best Journalistic Blog in English" award from Deutsche Welle.

    Global Voices rocks -- congratulations to Ethan, co-GV leader Rebecca MacKinnon, and the entire crew!

    Bacterial Cameras and the Fabrication Future

    It may need four hours to take a picture, and even then only create monochrome images, but the bacterial camera made by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, could be pretty important.

    Chris Voigt and his team hacked the genome of E. coli, the common food-poisoning gut microbe, to make it sensitive to light by adding sequences from photosynthesizing algae. When activated by light, the new genes can shut off the action of another gene, in this case one controlling the color of the bacteria. A sufficiently large mass of E. coli can then be used to "print" images. Because the "pixels" are bacteria, the resolution is astounding -- over one hundred megapixels per inch.

    The goal of the experiment wasn't to produce a slow, massively high resolution black & white camera, however; the goal was to demonstrate the use of light sensitivity as a control for other bacterial functions.

    ...their success in getting an array of bacteria to respond to light could lead to the development of “nano-factories” in which minuscule amounts of substances are produced at locations precisely defined by light beams.
    For instance, the gene switch need not activate a pigment, says Voigt. A different introduced gene could produce polymer-like proteins, or even precipitate a metal. “This way, the bacteria could weave a complex material,” he says. [...]
    As a method of nano-manufacturing, the biocamera is an "extremely exciting advance" says Harry Kroto, the Nobel prize-winning discoverer of buckminsterfullerene, or buckyballs. "I have always thought that the first major nanotechnology advances would involve some sort of chemical modification of biology."

    This bio-photolithography would be a good way of using microbes to construct macro-scale structures without having to develop complex chemical signalling mechanisms.

    The image chosen for the experiment, in case you don't recognize it, is the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- and clearly this work has been touched by its noodly appendages.

    The Fading Relevance of the Feds

    We've long noted the growing importance of local and state officials in the effort to halt global warming, and now research shows that these sub-national political bodies are making a real difference. In a "Brief Communication" in the November 17 edition of Nature, Brendan Fisher and Robert Costanza from the University of Vermont show that, in the United States, up to a third of the US population lives in areas that either already have or will soon adopt policies in accord with the Kyoto protocols. Moreover, the Kyoto-friendly regions account for nearly one-half of the total US GDP -- a total economic output greater than that of Japan, currently the world's second-largest economy.

    The catch is that there are few mechanisms to enforce compliance at the sub-national level, so meeting the policy commitments will be even more difficult than under a national system. Conversely, as the authors note, "the local nature of these initiatives could make it possible to develop adaptable, site-specific plans for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions."

    November 25, 2005

    Happy (Belated) Peak Oil Day!

    Reasonable people may disagree, but Princeton geology professor emeritus Ken Deffeyes, author of 2001's Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage and 2005's Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak (sense a theme?), stated on his blog in early 2004:

    Although it is a bit silly, we can now pick a day to celebrate passing the top of the mathematically smooth Hubbert curve: Nov 24, 2005. It falls right smack dab on top of Thanksgiving Day 2005. It sounds a little sick to observe a gloomy day, but in San Francisco they still observe April 18 as the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.

    That's right -- according to one of the more preeminent peak oilers, yesterday was the day the world saw its maximum oil production. Probably.

    The reality is that oil peaking is not a smooth curve, of course. Unexpected discoveries, technology improvements, and the like will sporadically increase output, even after the decline has truly begun. And, as we've noted in the past, peak oil matters most when demand exceeds supply. The best defense against peak oil nightmares is to stop using so damn much of the stuff. We know how to move to a cleaner, greener, higher-efficiency civilization; the time to do so is now.

    (Via isen.blog)

    November 26, 2005

    The Biofuel Dilemma

    Biofuels such as biodiesel may prove to be a useful transition technology for the move away from fossil fuels and into the Bright Green world. While they currently cost more than fossil fuels, a new process from the Tokyo Institute of Technology may bring down production costs dramatically. But attractive as they are, biofuels pose some sticky problems. Fortunately, a solution may be at hand.

    There's much to like about biofuels. They can replace fossil fuel uses without requiring significant modification of machinery. Since they are generally derived from vegetation, they're close to carbon-neutral (as the next crop of plants will take up the carbon dioxide released from burning the previous biofuel crops). Biofuels like biodiesel produce significantly fewer particulates and carbon monoxide than regular diesel, and produce few of the sulfur emissions leading to acid rain. And while some regions hope to become biofuel powerhouses, the ability to make biofuels is not limited by geography, so cartels and "peak production" won't become problems.

    But biofuels have some notable drawbacks, too. Making biofuels from plants already in demand for food, such as soy, corn and canola/rapeseed, raises the prices of the food versions and reduces available supplies. And increased demand for biofuels is triggering the expansion of agricultural land, with devastating results in some areas. According to this week's New Scientist, the clearing of land in south-east Asia for palm oil production is the leading cause of rain forest destruction in the region; Brazil faces a similar problem with soya plants, already the primary cause of deforestation prior to the biofuel boom.

    The solution may be to stop looking at new crops for biofuels, and to start looking at waste biomass.

    Continue reading "The Biofuel Dilemma" »

    South-South Superpower Science

    SciDev.net notes an announcement that India and China are set to begin joint biomedical research, focusing on both traditional medicine and stem cells -- the latter due, in part, to China's stricter regulatory standards on stem cell work.

    In the field of traditional medicine, these include surveying and documenting medicinal plants, creating scientist exchange schemes, and developing systems for both approving the sale of traditional medicines and regulating the trade. [...] India sees stem cells as a key area for research... But despite government support and scientific know-how, the sector has been plagued by concerns over India's lack of a regulatory authority to ensure that guidelines are being followed.

    Traditional rivals China and India working together on research on ancient and cutting-edge medicine, with China as the responsible, conservative partner. It's hard to imagine a better demonstration that we live in counter-intuitive times.

    Mobile Phones as Development Catalyst

    04-05-mobile-world.jpgWe've made the point repeatedly here that mobile phones represent a critical leapfrog tool for the developing world. They provide access to information, contact with friends and relatives, even community business models. With programs like Grameen Phone and efforts like the GSM association's Emerging Markets Handset project, mobile phones are available to growing numbers of people in the poorest countries. The revolutionary utility of the mobile phone hasn't escaped the notice of phone manufacturers or even the gaze of conventional journals like The Economist.

    Now the world of international development is picking up on this idea. Developments: The International Development Magazine just published an article entitled "Loose talk saves lives," by Matthew Bishop, describing the poverty-reducing effect of widespread access to mobile phones.

    Readers familiar with the discussion here on WorldChanging will find in it little that's new. That's why it's a useful piece, in fact: the article provides a wonderful summary of the major points of the argument. Bishop hits the key issues, including the rapid spread of mobile phones in Africa, the relationship between phone access and GDP, the need for even lower-cost phone units, the Grameen Phone program, and even the mobile phone as a "leapfrog" technology. Bishop uses enough new examples that the piece doesn't simply read as a mashup of various Worldchanging posts, but it's clear that he's on our wavelength.

    (Via Smart Mobs)

    November 29, 2005

    Howdy, TEQs

    stepsdown.jpgProblem: we need people to reduce their individual carbon footprints.
    Solution: we need to give them an incentive to do so.

    David Fleming knows what that incentive should be: he calls them "TEQs" -- Tradable Emissions Quotas. Under the TEQs scheme, individuals would be issued a quota of allowed emissions on a weekly basis, and would have to charge any purchase of carbon-emitting materials (chiefly fuel) against that quota. If the week's purchases amount to less than the quota, the remainder can be saved up for a carbon splurge (like a long flight) or sold off to other, less-efficient, participants in the program.

    If this sounds a bit familiar, it should; it's essentially the same idea as the Domestic Tradable Quotas proposed by the Tyndall Institute in the UK (we've talked about DTQs here and here). What makes the TEQs model different is that David Fleming first originated the tradable quota concept back in 1996, and has spent the last decade working on the idea. He's spelled out in some detail how the TEQs program would work in a Creative Commons-licensed pamphlet entitled Energy and the Common Purpose (PDF).

    At the start, a government registry issues TEQs quota units to companies and to individuals on a per capita basis, probably via an electronic smart card:

    When consumers (citizens, firms or the Government itself) make purchases of fuel or energy, they surrender units to the energy retailer, accessing their quota by (for instance) using their TEQs Card or direct debit. The retailer then surrenders TEQs units when buying energy from the wholesaler. Finally, the primary energy producer surrenders units back to the Register when the company pumps, mines or imports fuel. This closes the loop.

    Over time, the number of TEQs units allotted to each person and company gradually reduces, so that one's efficiency has to continue to improve, albeit gradually.

    Continue reading "Howdy, TEQs" »

    Free Computer (At A Price)

    icon_pc_s.jpgHong Kong company Asiatotal is set to release"iT" -- a computer intended to be given away for free to users in the up-and-coming parts of the developing world, starting this month with Brazil. Unlike the One Laptop Per Child project, it's not meant as a tool for education; the iT computer is very much meant as a way to connect users to retailers. In fact, the iT is in almost every respect the Bizarro-world opposite of the $100 Laptop -- and a provocative challenge to those who would bypass the market to bring information tools to the global poor.

    Here's what's known about the iT: it's a desktop design, and can only run on external power; it uses WindowsCE as its core operating system; it includes a variety of basic utility applications, but users cannot load new programs onto it (preventing virus attacks); it has no hard drive, using instead smart cards to store user data, and a small (7") flat screen; it has a modem for connecting to the Internet, and possibly an ethernet port (based on a photo on the site), but no wireless connection. In short, it's less-capable than a typical "normal" PC, arguably less-capable than the $100 Laptop design, and definitely less-open than either. It is being given away for free, however, and is not likely to generate the kind of black market that the OLPC design surely will.

    But the most controversial aspect of the iT has to be the quick-connect sponsorship keys:

    Continue reading "Free Computer (At A Price)" »

    Too Good To Be True?

    UK online retailer Good Gifts wants you to buy a Kalashnikov rifle (most likely an AK-47) -- £25. Or perhaps a rocket launcher (£55). Or a tank, for £1000. Not for your own use, mind you, but to provide the raw materials for enterprising blacksmiths and metalworkers in Sierra Leone, who turn the iron and such into "farm implements... hoes and axe heads... pickaxes, sickles and even school bells." A single tank will provide a year's work for 5 blacksmiths, they say, and convert into 3,000 items.

    This sounds amazing and clever. Although the Good Gifts site provides few details about how it's accomplished (and how everyone's certain that the AK-47 goes to the blacksmith and not the local militia), the organization behind the site, the Charities Advisory Trust, is reputable, and several UK media outlets have profiled the Good Gifts program.

    It's not every day we actually get to turn the modern equivalent of swords into plowshares.

    (Via HippyShopper)

    About November 2005

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

    October 2005 is the previous archive.

    December 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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