November 26, 2013
No one will ever confuse Detroit with Eden. Many, in truth, would consider it just the opposite—a place rotting from the the inside, broke and blighted and iconically grim.
So it’s not just ironic, it actually borders on inconceivable that the city is now being cited as a pioneer in urban rejuvenation—specifically, the trend of bringing farms and gardens back to the inner city.
Detroit took a big step in that direction last month when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an agreement allowing the Hantz Group, a Michigan-based network of financial services companies, to take over about 1,500 parcels of land on the city’s east side and start demolishing abandoned buildings. Once the lots are cleared, the company plans to plant 15,000 trees, mainly maples and oaks.
Originally, Hantz floated the idea of converting the land to fruit orchards and Christmas tree farms, with the notion that they could provide neighborhood residents with both jobs and fresh produce. After objections that all that fruit could attract rats, the company scaled back to only hardwood trees, for the time being. The first step, Hantz officials acknowledge, is to show a commitment to getting a lot of trees in the ground while building trust with neighbors. There could, after all, be some dicey discussions ahead on such touchy subjects as the use of pesticides.
Critics say Hantz got one sweet deal—it paid a little more than $500,000 for the lots, or about $350 per parcel—and they’re dubious about its long-term commitment to the greening of Detroit. Company officials insist they’re in this for the long haul and say that they will spend another $3 million over the next three years, not to mention that they’ll be paying property taxes on land that hasn’t been generating any revenue for the city.
A lot of other cities are watching closely to see how this plays out. Is it an answer to reviving city neighborhoods in a relentless downward spiral? Will it make a difference only if built around large-scale projects like what Hantz has in mind? Or is all the talk of inner-city farms and orchards just the latest urban renewal fantasy?
For several years now, Mayor Dave Bing has been boosting urban agriculture as one of the keys to revitalizing Detroit, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who is now running the bankrupt city, signed off on the Hantz deal in October. Also, last year, the city became one of the partners in a Michigan State University program focused on developing innovative ways to grow crops and trees on vacant city lots.
Detroit has a lot more of those than most cities—more than 60,000—but this is becoming a common problem. A Brookings Institution study found that between 2000 and 2010, the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. jumped by 44 percent.
That’s a lot of empty space out there.
For dramatic effect, no trend in the greening of cities can top vertical gardens, which started out as plant-covered walls, but have evolved into skyscrapers draped in vegetation. It’s only fitting that French botanist Patrick Blanc, who invented the concept back in 1988, is behind what will soon become the world’s tallest vertical garden, one that will cover much of the exterior of a 33-story condo going up in Sydney, Australia. Almost half of the building’s exterior will be covered in vegetation—actually, 350 different species of plants. The effect, says Blanc, is to replicate the side of a cliff.
It’s easier being green
Here are other recent developments in the urban agriculture boom:
- Let’s go downtown and pick some apples: Earlier this year, a Vancouver business named Sole Food Farms converted an old gas station into North America’s largest urban orchard. It grew 500 fruit trees, mainly apple, in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, with the goal of not only selling organic food to local restaurants, but also providing jobs to recovering addicts and alcoholics in the neighborhood.
- Bargain basements: On Cleveland’s East Side, a designer named Jean Loria has created what she says is the “world’s first biocellar.” It follows her notion of reusing abandoned homes by tearing them down, then reinforcing the existing basements and topping them with slanted, greenhouse-like roofs that would make it possible to grow crops inside. Powered by solar energy and irrigated with harvested rain water, the odd-looking structures, says Loria, could be used for growing strawberries, mushrooms and other organic food.
- You too can be a farmer: Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law allowing local municipalities to lower property taxes on plots of three acres or less if the owners commit to growing food on them for at least five years. The program is voluntary, but it’s designed to motivate cities to create “urban agriculture incentive zones.”
- And here’s a new twist: The design of a skyscraper planned for Berlin is, on its own, pretty imaginative—its curved design creates a figure-8 shape. But the architects want the building, called Green8, to to wrap around multiple levels of vertical gardens that fill up the structure’s hollow sections. And all the greenery isn’t cosmetic—the intent is to include gardens, small orchards and mini-farms to provide fresh produce for the people who live there.
- Dirt is so overrated: For those who want to get in on the urban ag boom, but don’t have much farmable land, there’s GrowCube. Still in the prototype stage, it’s a device that works like a rotisserie of circling shelves while spraying a nutrient-filled mist directly on a plant’s roots. Its inventors acknowledge that since no dirt is involved, the growing process is “much more fragile” than conventional agriculture, but they point out that it uses 95 percent less water.
Video bonus: It’s a TED talk, so this video is a little long, but it would be hard to find a better evangelist for city farming than Ron Finley, who wants to train residents in South Central LA to grow their own food.
Video bonus bonus: One of the better-known urban farming operations in the U.S. is the Brooklyn Grange, which has been making a go of growing crops on large city rooftops. Here’s the trailer from the new documentary, Brooklyn Farmer.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And, to add a little snark to the mix, here’s a take on being an urban farmer from Funny or Die.
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November 1, 2013
During World War II, amid a gasoline shortage, many European commuters had to improvise, often resorting to installing clunky power generators that converted wood into fuel for their engines. (Check out this rig!) But once fossil fuels were readily available again, these briefly popular machines were, for the most part, tossed into the dustbin of history.
Today, in a renovated former artists’ space in Berkeley, an alternative energy startup, has slowly begun resurrecting this more than century-old technology known as gasification. Over the course of five years, All Power Labs has sold over 500 made-to-order versions of their signature invention, a $27,000 refrigerator-sized biomass-converting device called the “Power Pallet.” Customers, most of whom reside in poorer countries like Ecuador, Haiti, Thailand and Nicaragua, obviously are drawn to the fact that the contraptions can generate clean burning fuel for about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, about one-sixth of what power companies typically charge. But that’s not the only perk.
Syngas, the synthetic fuel that’s produced from gasification, is created by putting biomass such as corn husks or wood chip through a decomposition process known as “pyrolysis,” where the combination of a low oxygen environment and heat removes impurities while leaving behind a byproduct known as biochar. A nutrient rich charcoal, biochar can be used as fertilizer to help grow trees, crops and many other kinds of plants that scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Technically speaking, the Power Pallet system may be the only carbon-negative energy technology on the market, meaning the entire gasification process removes more carbon dioxide than it generates.
“When you think about it, nature’s most tried and tested tool to take carbon out of the air is plants,” says Tom Price, the company’s sales director. “If you can grow a tree, you can capture a big chunk of what’s causing global warming.”
The company, made up of artists who occupied what was an artist space known as “The Shipyard,” can credit the city of Berkeley for inadvertently kickstarting their enterprise. A series of code violations left officials no choice but to shut down the facility’s electricity, thus forcing the residents to experiment with alternatives like solar, which didn’t work out so well due to higher costs. Gasification came about as an accidental discovery that began the day the company’s CEO Jim Mason found an old instruction manual and decided to piece one together using old plumbing parts. Since then, Price says the standard art has gone away and the new art has been about looking at ways to hack the global energy problem.
Since we’re talking about resurrecting old technology, many of the kinks that made gasification an unappealing option back then still exist. For instance, gasification machines require a large amount of water filtration, which leaves behind what Price calls a “toxic mess.”
“Solid fuel is very difficult to use compared to gas. You basically have to charcoalize biomass to create a vapor rich in hydrogen to run an engine, which isn’t as easy as piping it out of the ground and refining it,” Price explains. “So liquid fuels, in most cases, are preferable in all respects except one; they are killing the planet.”
Undeterred, the team tapped into the unwavering “maker spirit” that Silicon Valley’s tech scene has become renowned for and started testing out ways to apply the latest automation innovations, such as sensors and process computerization, to regulate parts of the reaction chain. The idea was that if they could control crucial aspects like the smoldering temperature and cracking of the tar with precision, they could eliminate the need for water filtration. Ultimately, what they did was give the old gasifier a high-tech makeover.
Over the phone, Price mentions that he recently sold a Power Pallet to a family living in a rural part of Iowa. Yet, he doesn’t think gasification would make sense for filling the need for energy in the developed world—not now at least. Pumping out hydrogen gas to the degree that it’s practical involves bringing in truckloads of wood and whatever usable forms of biomass are available. And in urban settings, like New York City, for instance, infrastructure is already built so that centralized power plants can supply electricity in a manner that’s convenient for everyone. Even so, Price finds this approach to be not only environmentally unfriendly, but also very inefficient, considering that communities have to rely on sources like coal and constantly-maintenanced power lines to keep buildings and streetlights running. The most fertile ground for developing and implementing a new, less centralized power grid system, he argues, are undeveloped regions of the world that have remained largely agricultural.
“We don’t have the automation to where you can push a button and it goes. This is machinery that requires a trained operator,” Price says.”But when you’re in a place in which the alternatives are either nothing or something very expensive, the effort becomes worth it.”
An example of a situation in which the company’s technology has enabled locals to operate a fully self-sustainable business can be found in Kampala, Uganda, where product engineer Richard Scott helped another local energy startup named Pamoja Cleantech to develop gasifiers that use leftover corn cobs as an energy source for corn flour mills. Instead of being left out to spoil, growers not only can turn the crops into cash, they can also turn the discarded bits back into fuel to run the mills.
With business booming, the All Power Labs team has shifted some of its focus toward developing new reactors that can run longer, with less maintenance, and use a wider variety of biomass, like rice husks, found in abundance in large swaths of farmland in Asia. He hopes that in five years these machines can make fuel from any form of biomass.
“No one’s trying to pass this off as a new idea. Heck, there’s even open source blueprints on our website that you can download and use to build your own,” he adds. “But sometimes, the best ideas are the ones we already had.”
October 24, 2013
We have a drug problem.
Only this time we need drugs, specifically antibiotics. The problem is that more germs are becoming resistant to the antibiotics doctors have been using for a long time, resulting in “superbugs” from which even the National Institutes of Health couldn’t protect itself.
One reason, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned yet again in a report last month, is that doctors continue to be overzealous in prescribing antibiotics. Case in point: A new study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that doctors prescribed antibiotics in 60 percent of the cases where people came in complaining of sore throats—this despite the fact that only 10 percent of those patients had strep throat, the only sore throat antibiotics can cure.
On top of that, Big Agriculture aggressively uses antibiotics both to keep healthy animals from getting sick and to help them grow faster. And while all this excessive use of antibiotics is making them less and less effective, the pharmaceutical industry has dramatically scaled back research into new infection-fighting drugs because it’s not a very profitable line of business.
Some public health experts fear that unless scientists are able to develop new antibiotics soon, we could regress into pre-penicillin days, when everyday infections killed people. Even the CDC, which points out that more than 23,000 people in America die from infections caused by resistant bacteria every year, says we could be facing “potentially catastrophic consequences.”
Turning drugs off
There’s the conventional strategy to dealing with the threat—earlier this year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services committed to pay the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline as much as $200 million over the next five years to try to develop new antibiotics.
But more innovative approaches are also taking shape. Consider the research of a team of scientists in the Netherlands. They’re focusing on a way to deactivate antibiotics after they’ve been used, so that they no longer accumulate in the environment, which is what spurs the development of resistant superbugs. They’ve determined that if the molecules in antibiotics can be made to change their shape, they become ineffective. And the researchers have found they can use heat or light to do just that. In short, they’re developing ways to turn off antibiotics before they break bad.
Or take the researchers at McMaster University in Ontario who argue that the typical practice of growing bacteria in a nutrient-rich lab environment doesn’t really reflect what happens when we get an infection. Our bodies can be far less hospitable than that, forcing bacteria to grow their own nutrients. The researchers did an exhaustive search of 30,000 chemical compounds, with the goal of identifying some that block the ability of bacteria to create nutrients. They honed in on three. But they feel pretty good about those three. Now the trick is to see if they can be turned into effective antibiotics.
As one scientist put it, the McMaster researchers went “fishing in a new pond.” With luck, that might be what it takes.
Here’s more recent research on the battle against bacteria:
- That inner glow: It’s not unusual for bacteria to attach themselves to medical implants, such as bone screws, and develop into serious infections before anyone notices. A team of researchers in the Netherlands, however, may have developed an early warning system. By injecting fluorescent dye into an antibiotic, they were able to see where bacteria was growing. The process could lead to a far less invasive way to check for infections with surgery involving implants.
- Thinking small: Scientists at Oregon State are taking yet another approach to attacking bacteria—they’ve narrowed their targeting down to the gene level. That’s seen as a much more precise way to battle infections, one that’s less likely to cause collateral damage. Said lead researcher Bruce Geller: “Molecular medicine is the way of the future.”
- Say no to drugs: At Duke University, scientists say they’ve developed a blood test that can identify viral infections in people with serious respiratory problems. The test, they say, could significantly reduce the overuse of antibiotics. Since it can be hard to distinguish between viral sore throats, such as those that come with a cold, and bacterial infections, such as strep throat, a lot of doctors still prescribe antibiotics that end up not doing any good. The blood test could take the guessing—and pointless antibiotics—out of the treatment.
- Now will you eat your yogurt?: It figures that one way to fight the bad side effects of some antibiotics would be by loading up on probiotics. Research published earlier this year found that probiotic supplements reduced the risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea by 64 percent.
- All this and super lice, too?: Public health officials in the U.S. have told doctors to be on the lookout for a new strain of “super lice” that have become immune to shampoos and medications containing antibiotics.
- Then again, they are termites: According to scientists at the University of Florida, the reason termites are so disease-resistant is that they use their own feces in building their nests. That promotes the growth of bacteria, which stifles pathogens. The researchers said that their findings could eventually result in new antibiotics for humans, but it might be better if they spare us the details.
Video bonus: Here’s another take on the superbug threat.
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August 15, 2013
A little more than a year ago, Australian scientist Roger Bradbury declared that it was game over for the world’s coral reefs. He referred to them as “zombie ecosystems” that were neither dead nor really alive, and “on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation.” He went so far as to suggest that it’s now a waste of time and money to try to protect coral reefs. Instead, he argued, scientists should focus on figuring out what can replace them.
His piece in the New York Times provoked a lot of feedback, much of it suggesting that he had been far too dire, that while the situation may be grim, it’s not hopeless and that the last thing scientists should do is to stop looking for ways to keep them alive.
Now, as we slide into the last weeks of summer, is Bradbury seeming more prescient? Is it clearer that we’re a year closer to the demise of one of more diverse and vibrant ecosystems the Earth has seen? Most experts would tell you no, that they’re not ready to concede coral reefs are going the way of dinosaurs. But they haven’t had much reason to be more hopeful, either.
A study from Stanford University, published last month, concluded that if carbon emissions stay near where they are now, there will, by the end of the century, be no water left on Earth that has the chemical makeup to support coral growth. The ocean will simply be too acidic.
Another research paper, published in the journal Current Biology earlier this week, suggests that without serious action on climate change, reefs in the Caribbean will likely stop growing and start to break down within the next 20 to 30 years. They’ll basically wear away. An extensive survey is being done in the Caribbean this summer to determine how much of its coral reefs has already been lost. Some estimates are as high as 80 percent.
Clouds as umbrellas
It’s reached the point where some scientists think they can no longer rely on natural forces to keep reefs alive; instead they’re developing ways to use technology to save them. A team of British researchers, for instance, believes geoengineering is called for. Their idea is to turn clouds into umbrellas that would protect reefs by bouncing more sunlight back into space.
They would do this by spraying tiny droplets of seawater up into the clouds above the reefs, which would have the effect of making the clouds last longer and cause their tops to brighten and reflect more sunlight. That should lower the water temperature and slow any bleaching of the coral down below.
Geoengineering makes a lot of people nervous because once humans starts manipulating nature on that large a scale, it’s nearly impossible to foresee all of the possible ripple effects. But they could be minimized in this case because the cloud spraying would be targeted to skies only above reefs. That said, even its boosters don’t see this as a long-term solution; at best it buys some time.
Robots that work like ants
Another group of scientists, this one based at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, is thinking even more boldly. Their idea is to set loose swarms of small robots on dying reefs and have them transplant healthy coral into places where it’s needed. Each robot would have a video camera, along with the ability to process images, and basic tools, such as scoops and “hands” that can grab the coral.
Clever, but also quite challenging. The robots, called coralbots, would need to learn to identify healthy coral and distinguish it from everything else down there. And they would need to be able to navigate their way around the ocean bottom and keep from running into other obstacles and, God forbid, healthy coral.
A key to this approach is how successful the scientists are at programming the robots with “swarm intelligence.” They would work together like ants or bees to perform complex tasks, with different robots having different roles. One might know how to spot places where coral can be planted; another might focus solely on planting.
But it could be a while before we find out if swarming robots is an answer for saving reefs. The researchers hoped to raise about $100,000 on Kickstarter, but weren’t able to reach their goal.
One piece of technology that is functional, however, is the device that’s performing the Caribbean coral reef survey mentioned above. Custom-designed lenses on three camera bodies, mounted at the end of a six-foot pole and propelled by a motorized sled, are capturing amazing 360-degree images of life on the ocean floor. See for yourself.
Here are more recent developments in the world of coral reefs, ocean life and beaches:
- Just beware of crevasse-seeking fish: CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has helped develop the first sunscreen filters that mimic the sun protection used by corals on the Great Barrier Reef. But you may have to wait a bit to take advantage of the Reef’s special powers. The filters, which are resistant to both UVA and UVB rays, may not be incorporated into commercial sunscreens for another five years.
- Where fish pray never to be caught: Earlier this month an artificial reef more than 200 feet long and designed to look like a rosary was lowered into the sea off the coast of Sto. Domingo in the Phillipines. In addition to becoming a home for sea life, the rosary reef was created with the hope that it will become a tourist attraction.
- Hard to get past the idea of glass in your trunks: Meanwhile, back on the beaches, pulverized glass may begin replacing actual sand. In Florida’s Broward County, officials are considering using finely-crushed glass to help fill in sections of beaches where sand has eroded.
- The bad old days: Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego say that the last time Earth was a “greenhouse world”–when the planet had very high levels of greenhouse gases 50 million years ago–it had few coral reefs, tropical water that felt like a hot bath and a paucity of sharks, tuna, whales and seals.
- Finally, we get jet packs, and now this?: A state agency in Hawaii has begun a review of the use of water-powered jet packs. Seems that the devices, which have become popular among tourists wanting to launch themselves over the ocean, may be doing damage to coral reefs.
Video bonus: Take a breather and see what’s going on at the bottom of the sea. Check out NOAA’s live-streaming video camera.
Video bonus bonus: See how statues are being turned into a man-made reef off the coast of Mexico.
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August 7, 2013
A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.
Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.
But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”
This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:
1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.
2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.
3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.
4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.
5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.
6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.
7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.
8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.
9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.
10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.
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