October 24, 2013
While LED technology has, in some ways, become the latest poster child for the future of energy-efficient lighting, it hasn’t discouraged entrepreneurs from tinkering with a few intriguing alternatives that happen to not require any electricity at all.
Earlier this week, I wrote about an algae-powered street lamp, currently being developed by a French biochemist, that absorbs carbon dioxide along with photosynthesized sunlight and, in return, produces oxygen and bio-illumination for streets and parking lots. Well, in the United Kingdom, a businessman named Hamish Scott hit upon a similarly bright idea in creating Starpath, a special luminescent coating for common ground surfaces that collects and stores energy from ambient light during daylight hours and releases a blueish, galactic glow when it gets dark. The multi-layered organic material, which may cut electricity bills, has proven promising enough that city officials in Cambridge have opted to try the technology at Christ’s Pieces park where 1,600 square feet of a pathway were renovated.
What’s remarkable about Starpath is that while the material, a high-grade version of what’s found in glow-in-the-dark toys, can generate reliable illumination for about 16 continuous hours, it also exhibits “smart” sensing qualities that allow it to adjust to varying light conditions, brightening up just enough during the early evenings and going into full effect when the sun is down. Though Scott says that Starpath loses luminosity over time, most observers will still be able see people walking toward them and even make out what the person is wearing. It’s also environmentally friendly and 100 percent recyclable.
“It is quite a cool thing. Until you have seen it, you can’t really comprehend it,” Scott told the Fairfax NZ News in a seperate interview. Naturally, one might wonder if a park with Starpath, as opposed to lamp posts, is safely lit. But, Scott adds, “When you are walking down a pathway you know what is around you. From 80 metres away you could tell if someone had a tie on or was male or female.”
The coating process involves first spraying a polyurethane base mixed with an aggregate comprised of a rocky, sandy mixture. A layer of UV-absorbing material is then spread over the base, followed by a waterproof polyaspartic finish that seals everything in and protects it from harsh elements for as long as 60 years. Scott perfected his formula after spending five years testing various combinations of light-storing particles and other advanced materials on the pavement lining his own driveway.
“I wanted to test it there (his driveway) because I wanted to watch it for wear and tear,” he says. “I wanted to make sure road traffic can go out on it without affecting its overall effectiveness.”
His company, Pro-Teq Surfacing, can add its special self-lighting coating to pathways for 70 British pounds per square meter (or about $10.50 per square foot), but the cost can be reduced if it were a large scale job. And as of now, such a renovation requires specialized equipment and so there isn’t a consumer market product for those who are hoping to do it themselves.
“But we aren’t just illuminating pathways,” Scott adds. “We also repair and reinvigorate them, depending on how bad the damage is. Most jobs can be completed in a matter of hours, and we try not to disrupt people’s day-to-day business.”
The product, however, has its limitations. First of all, it won’t work on anything that’s loose, like pebbled or rocky surfaces, only smooth surfaces such a concrete, tarmac and steel bridges. Scott also reasons that it wouldn’t be considered practical for areas, like busy highways, which would be better served with conventional street lighting. He foresees the technology mostly filling a niche within parks, suburban spots and parts of the developing world that don’t have reliable access to electricity.
Andrea Reiner, Cambridge’s executive councilor for public places, told the Telegraph that if park visitors are pleased with the Starpath technology, the city may consider expanding its use to other regions of the city while also ensuring to “balance any safety benefit against the desire to preserve the historic nature of our open spaces.”
Scott, who doesn’t consider himself a die-hard environmentalist, sees the value of Starpath in very simple terms. “I just thought with this, that instead of making more electricity, we’d try attacking it from the other end and save as much electricity and money as we can,” he says.
October 22, 2013
There’s something very special about bioluminescent algae. They soak up sunlight, absorb carbon dioxide, and in return, breathe out oxygen while emitting a soft fluorescent glow. In essence, it’s nature’s all-in-one version of a solar panel, a carbon sink and a light bulb.
With that very thought, French biochemist Pierre Calleja has spent several years working on a way to harness the microorganisms’ special abilities to help mitigate some of planet Earth’s most pressing problems, namely global warming, threats to ecosystems and the need for renewables. His solution comes in the shape of a cylindrical algae-powered lamp that requires no electricity and is thus completely self-sufficient, operating through a process wherein all the energy produced during photosynthesis is collected and stored in a battery that helps to power the light during the evenings.
But how much of a difference maker can these goopy little marine organisms be? I mean no one’s ever heard of a lamp saving the world. Well, the fact is that microalgae is incredibly efficient at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, about 150 to 200 times more than trees. Basically, an algae lamp can remove as much CO2 in one year as a tree would in its lifetime. Also, extracting algae from aquatic environments, such as oceans, could potentially save fish and other marine life since rapid increases known as algal blooms have caused widespread mortality due to harmful toxins that are sometimes released.
Calleja recently gave a filmed TED talk in Lausanne,
Italy Switzerland, where he described the genesis of his concept and how he hoped to implement the technology (algae lamp-lined parking lots anyone?). During the presentation, he showcased a prototype that appeared to emit a fairly bright and consistent neon-ish radiance.
“The light that goes through that lamp is very special,” Calleja explains to the audience. “It is a very soft light because it goes through a live animal.”
But bio-engineering such a dream scenario isn’t without its challenges. As Atlantic writer John Metcalfe points out, skeptics are still waiting to hear how Calleja plans to overcome some of the plant’s problematic properties, such as the “light-smothering qualities of dense plumes of algae” and maintenance to prevent the ”dirty fishbowl” effect in which a murky buildup starts to accumulate on the glass lamp over time. He also cites Rose Ann Cattolico, an algae scientist at the University of Washington, who suggested that designing a version for practical use would “task the abilities of a bioengineer.” And of course the project’s ultimate feasibility would hinge on costs to, er, grow the technology to a wider scale, though Calleja’s employer, FermentAlg seems to have a reputable track record of developing algae-based technological solutions. So far, the research team has installed one operational demo lamp in a parking lot in the city of Bordeaux in southern France.
So who knows if algae lamps will light the way to greener, smarter cities? But at least the hope looks a little bit brighter.
August 1, 2013
A few weeks ago, officials of a Chinese company, the Broad Group, posed, shovels in hand, and tossed dirt for the camera. Standard stuff—except this had the potential to be very special dirt because one day it could be beneath the tallest building on the planet.
The plan is to build, pretty much in the middle of a big open field, an implausibly statuesque vertical city that would be home for as many as 30,000 people. It would climb more than 200 stories or just above 2,700 feet high. That would make it almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building and about 33 feet higher than the world’s reigning skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Burj Kahlifa took five years to build; the Broad Group claims that, because it will use modular construction, its building, dubbed Sky City, will be ready next spring.
A few days after the photo opp, several newspapers in China reported that the project wasn’t moving forward after all. The Broad Group apparently hadn’t obtained all the necessary permits. A spokesperson for the company says nothing in the its plans has changed, although he did not say when real ground would actually be broken.
But even if Sky City never comes to be, another absurdly tall tower will take its place in pushing the limit of how high people can live in the sky. The world’s cities are in the midst of a skyscraper boom, and not with just tall buildings, but with ones officially designated as “supertall.” Nearly 600 buildings of at least 200 meters—or about 60 stories high—are either under construction or in the planning stages. That would almost double the number that height within the next 10 years. Now only three skyscrapers are above 500 meters, or more than 1,600 feet. By 2020, there are expected to be 20 more.
Up, up and away
So why now?
Some of this obviously has to do with making a statement, particularly with countries wanting to transform their images into one that’s more modern, diverse and economically glamorous. Some is driven by ego, pure and simple—the chairman of the Broad Group, Zhang Yue, for instance, has become almost a messianic figure among his 4,000 employees, who all wear matching outfits, along with name tags bearing motivational slogans, such as “Innovate Life Now” or “Perfect Oneself.”
But there are other reasons that have more to do with demographic trends and technological innovation. Here are just a few of them:
- And one day we’ll all just get stuck in elevator traffic: Already more than half the people on Earth live in urban areas; by 2050, seven out of 10 will. Growing upward is seen as a wiser, more sustainable option than sprawling outward. The truth is that seeing skyscrapers as office buildings has become so 20th century; now they’re designed as places for people to live, and do just about everything else. If and when Sky City is built, it will have, in addition to apartments for tens of thousands of people, multiple shopping malls, schools, restaurants, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts and movie theaters, not to mention its own hotel, hospital and giant vertical garden. Since residential and retail spaces require narrower floor plates than offices, mixed-use buildings can go higher with the same amount of material. And skyscrapers with a lot of tenant options are a lot easier to fill. In 2000, only five of the 20 tallest buildings in the world were mixed-use; by 2020, only five won’t be.
- So long to basic cable: Believe it or not, one of the key factors limiting how high buildings can go is the weight of steel elevator cables. If they stretch much beyond 1,600 feet, they’re at risk of snapping under their own weight. But a Finnish company has developed a cable it calls UltraRope, which is made of carbon fiber and weighs almost half as much. UltraRope, say engineers, will make a 300-story building possible.
- Like Legos, only bigger: The Broad Group made a big splash in late 2011 when it erected a 30-story building in 15 days. That’s right, two weeks. It was able to do this only because each floor was pre-fabricated in a factory, then connected on-site. While it may be hard for most of us to imagine pre-fab skyscrapers, people in the high-rise business don’t think that’s far-fetched at all. Some even envision tall buildings of the future being built in a factory, then fitted together by an army of robots. Clearly, the modular approach is catching on. More than 60 percent of the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yard project in Brooklyn will be constructed off-site, including a 32-story building. And if Sky City does move forward, it would mean that the tallest building in the world would be modular. That’s how the company can plausibly talk about Sky City being finished by next spring. Speed is one big advantage. Cost is another. The Broad Group says Sky City should cost roughly $850 million to build. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai cost $1.5 billion.
- Now those are bad vibes: Even 3-D printers have played a role in accelerating the skyward building boom. Engineers can now print multiple 3-D models of a building, then test each one in a wind tunnel. The models are covered with sensors that take pressure readings that are fed into a computer simulation that reveals a building’s vulnerable spots. The engineers can even re-create the building’s future surroundings—hills, highways, other buildings—to see what kind of wind patterns they may create. What they want to avoid is a phenomenon called vortex shedding, where even a moderate wind flowing around a structure can cause it to sway and actually vibrate—not the effect you’re looking for 150 stories up. To counter it, architects create rounded edges or notches and cut-ins at the building’s corner. A great example is the design of the 116-story Imperial Tower which will dominate Mumbai’s skyline. The building is skinny and rounded, but to keep it from oscillating, its facade is broken up with random cut-outs—balconies in some places, gardens in others. The point, say the architects, is to “confuse the wind.”
Video bonus: Watch a 30-story building go up in 15 days. Yes, that’s enough to make a video go viral.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s one that’s really old school—construction workers perched on high steel as they finish up the Empire State Building in 1930. Nothing personal, but they were crazy.
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July 17, 2013
Yes, he’s the founder of Space X, the first commercial venture to send a cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.
And yes, he’s the co-founder of PayPal and chairman of SolarCity, the largest provider of solar power systems in the U.S.
And yes, he’s head of Tesla Motors, which produced the world’s first all-electric sports car, its first electric luxury car and actually turned a profit in the first quarter of 2013.
But earlier this week Elon Musk did something that made even some of his fans wonder if he’s about to fly a little too close to the sun. Or maybe that he’s spent a little too much time out in the sun.
What Musk did was tweet about an invention he calls the “Hyperloop,” promising that in less than a month, he’ll be revealing more details, including its design.
In case you missed it, Musk first started talking about the Hyperloop last summer, describing it as a “cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table,” and suggesting that a sun-powered tube could whisk vehicles between San Francisco and Los Angeles in half an hour.
He referred to it as the “fifth mode” of transporation,” but one that, as he sees it, could leave the other four–planes, trains, boats and cars–in the dust. Here’s what else he told Pando Daily in that interview:
“How would you like something that never crashed, was immune to weather, that goes three or four times as fast as the bullet trains we have now or about twice the speed of an aircraft, that would get you from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco in under 30 minutes and it would cost you much less than any other type of transportation.”
A few months later, he would tell Bloomberg News that the Hyperloop would also allow you to leave as soon as you arrive “so there is no waiting for a specific departure time.”
Sounds great. And I assume that you’ll also be able to get giant donuts that turn fat into muscle.
Okay, that’s probably not fair. In truth, Musk’s idea is not all that far-fetched. As Business Insider pointed out recently, it sounds a bit like a 21st century version of a concept pitched by a Rand Corporation physicist named R.M. Salter way back in 1972. He proposed something he called Very High Speed Transit, or VHST, which was essentially an underground tube that could shoot pods from New York to Los Angeles in a little more than 20 minutes.
As Salter saw it, the vehicles would have been driven by electromagnetic waves much as a surfboard rides the ocean’s wave. The VHST would have used all its kinetic energy to accelerate, and that power would be returned when it decelerated, through energy regeneration.
It’s not clear how the Hyperloop would work–that’s what Musk will share next month. What is known is that a Colorado company named ET3 is working on a system using vacuum-sealed tubes that it says could propel capsules as fast as 4,000 miles per hour, while exposing passengers to the G-forces of an ordinary car ride. It’s been reported that ET3 hopes to have a three-mile test track functioning by the end of the year. But Musk is not known to have any connection to the company.
He promises that he won’t patent the Hyperloop concept, that he wants to keep it open source. Musk says he’s looking for “critical feedback” and that he’d welcome partners–so long as they’re like-minded.
As he tweeted on Monday “Happy to work with the right partners. Must truly share philosophical goal of breakthrough tech done fast w/o wasting money on BS.”
There’s been news in the other modes of transportation recently, too. Here’s some of the latest.
- You are here: Researchers at the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago have devised a system that allows cars to know where they are without relying on GPS. By using two cameras and software that determines when and how the road curves, it can nail down a location by comparing the layout of the route and its intersections to a map of the area from OpenStreetMap. The designers claim that in 20 seconds, the system can figure out where you are, even if you’re in a tunnel.
- Siri, I’ve met something new: GM announced recently that some of its new models rolling out later this year will come with their own apps store. Instead of living in a smartphone, these apps would be directly accessible from your car. It’s part of the accelerating trend 0f turning cars into moving smartphones, with the goal of not just creating another source of revenue for car makers, but also allowing dealers to stay connected to their customers. Among the possibilities: Diagnostic apps that can monitor your car’s condition and send e-mail or text alerts if it needs servicing, Internet radio apps for a more customized selection of music, or news, traffic, and weather apps for real-time information on what’s happening on the road ahead.
- Talk fast, this is my stop: Coming soon to the Prague subway: A car on each train that’s set aside for singles. The idea is to give time-crunched singles a chance to meet up while riding to work or elsewhere. What’s not clear is how they’ll keep married lurkers out.
- Pump it up: A team of Canadian engineers recently conquered one of aviation’s greatest challenges by designing a helicopter of sorts that is powered by a human pumping pedals. For their effort, they won the Sikorsky Prize, a $250,000 challenge that had gone unclaimed since it was first offered by the American Helicopter Society 33 years ago.
- Is it me or did the window just try to sell me a car?: The British online broadcaster Sky Go, along with the German ad agency BBDO Düsseldorf, are planning to use a new technology that would allow windows on buses or trains to send ad messages directly into your brain. It works like this: When a commuter rests his or her head against a window, oscillations beamed into the glass are converted into sound through a process called bone conduction, and he or she will hear the ad message while other passengers remain oblivious.
Video bonus: No one’s quite sure what Elon Musk’s Hyperloop will be, but the closest thing to it may be the “evacuated tube transport” concept being developed by ET3. Now this is 21st century travel.
Video bonus bonus: It doesn’t look like any helicopter you’ve ever seen, but the Atlas gets airborne through one guy pedaling.
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June 28, 2013
I’d be the first to concede that the image of Archimedes yelling “Eureka” as he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse makes one fine visual for the concept of discovery.
Which is a shame, not only because it most likely didn’t happen–the story first appeared in a book two centuries after the Greek scholar had died–but also because it has long fed the fantasy of discovery as a solitary and sudden experience. Both history and research tell us that it rarely is–most of the time innovation is an iterative process that fits and starts over months, years, decades. And way more often than not, invention is the result of human friction, of people with different backgrounds and skills and ideas bumping into one another, sparking fresh thoughts and collaborative visions.
One of the better examples of this messy, but fruitful dynamic played out after World War II in a nondescript structure at M.I.T known simply as Building 20. In his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” published in 2010, Steven Johnson wrote about how, because the building was used to handle overflow from fast-growing science departments, it scrambled together an eclectic mix of nuclear scientists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, acoustical engineers and even linguists.
And that resulted in hallway conversations and random exchanges that made Building 20 one of the more creative places on Earth, a place that incubated an amazing sweep of scientific breakthroughs, from the first computer video game (SpaceWar!) to major advances in both microwaves and high-speed photography to the earliest attempts at computer hacking.
The beauty of congestion
Social scientists will tell you it’s that same swirl of commingled ideas and constant interactions–albeit on a much larger scale–that makes cities founts of creativity. In fact, research published earlier this month by scientists from M.I.T. concluded that productivity and innovation in urban areas grow at roughly the same rate as population, largely because the greater density of people living in a city increases the opportunities for personal interactions and exposure to different ideas.
The research team, led by Wei Pan, analyzed all kinds of factors to tabulate the “social-tie density” of different cities–that’s the average number of people each resident will interact with personally. They looked at everything from the number of call partners with whom a cellphone user will end up sharing a cell tower to the number of people connecting through location-based social networks like Foursquare to the contagion rates of diseases spread only through personal contact. And they found that the higher a city’s social-tie density, the higher its levels of productivity and patents awarded.
“What really happens when you move to a big city is you get to know a lot of different people, although they are not necessarily your friends. These are the people who bring different ideas, bring different opportunities and meetings with other great people that may help you.”
His model doesn’t hold up, however, for some huge African and Asian cities that have even denser populations than cities in the West. But Pan has an explanation for that. Generally, those cities have terrible transportation systems. If people can’t get around, can’t have those serendipitous interactions, a city’s density has less impact.
It’s all about the friction.
Here’s other recent research on what makes us more–and less–creative:
- They are, however, extremely cranky: Lose the image of the creative genius so inflamed with inspiration that he or she can go days without sleep. Not likely. According to a study at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, people who don’t get enough sleep tend not to be all that creative.
- Does “Words With Friends” count?: On the other hand, if you are staying up late, it may do you good to read a little fiction. Research done at the University of Toronto determined that people who read fiction were more comfortable with disorder and uncertainty than people who read an essay and that fostered more sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.
- Do not disturb. Daydreamer at work: And it turns out that being bored at work may not be such a bad thing. A team of British scientists found that people who do tasks they find boring tend to daydream more and that can lead to more creative thinking. The question that needs to be answered now, says lead researcher Sandi Mann, is: “Do people who are bored at work become more creative in other areas of their work — or do they go home and write novels?”
- Take a hike: It may not come as such a big surprise, but now there’s more evidence that spending time out in nature and getting away from all your digital devices sharpens your creativity. Researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Utah worked with a group of people going on Outward Bound excursions and found that those who took tests the fourth day into their trips showed considerably more creativity than those who did so before their journeys started.
- They also looked better: Meanwhile, in Germany, researchers concluded that people who were tested in a dimly-lit room exhibited more “freedom from constraints” and performed with more creativity than those who took the same test under bright lights.
- Pretend to smell the coffee: It was just a matter of time. Near the end of last year a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a study reporting that people showed more creativity in an environment of ambient sound–such as a coffee shop–than in a silent room. And now, if you’re too lazy to go out for coffee, you can head right down to a website called Coffitivity and it will play a coffee shop soundtrack for you–minus the mindless cell phone chatter.
Video bonus: When it comes to how good ideas come to pass, writer Steven Johnson is a big believer in what he calls the “slow hunch” theory.
Video bonus bonus: But wait, there’s more. Creativity author and expert Ken Robinson shares on his take on the components of truly creative environments.
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