April 5, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that last year a record amount of wind power was installed around the planet. The U.S. set a record, too, and, once again, became the world leader in adding new wind power, pushing China into second place for the year.
You’re not alone in being clueless about this. So was I. After all, this is a subject that gets about as much attention as 17-year-cicadas in a off year. What generally passes for energy coverage in the U.S. these days is the relentless cycle of gas-prices-up, gas-prices-down stories and the occasional foray into the natural-gas-fracking-is-a-blessing-or-is-it-a-curse? debate.
Okay, so wind power had a very good year in 2012. But that doesn’t mean that it’s gone mainstream. Hardly. It accounts for only 4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. Plus, a big reason for the spike last year was that companies scrambled to finish projects before a federal tax credit expired at the end of December. (It was renewed as part of the end of the year tax deal, but only for one more year.)
Truth is, wind power still has some familiar challenges, such as the wind’s refusal to blow 24/7 and the not insubstantial death toll inflicted on bird and bat populations by twirling turbine blades–estimated to be hundreds of thousands killed a year. (Although that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions that die from flying into buildings.)
And it has some new ones–”wind turbine syndrome,” for instance. That’s the name that’s been given to the ill effects that some people who live near wind farms have complained about–headaches, dizziness, ear pain, difficulty sleeping. NPR ran a story on it just the other day.
But many scientists and public health experts think the ailment is more psychosomatic than physiological. In fact, a recent study in Australia found that the syndrome was much more prevalent in communities where anti-wind farm groups spread warnings about negative health effects. In short, the research concluded, people were more likely to feel sick if they were told turbines could make them sick.
Lose the spin
That said, the industry could probably use a different approach to capturing the wind, something that didn’t involve huge spinning blades. Which explains why there’s so much interest in an innovation developed at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It’s a wind turbine that not only has no blades, it has no moving parts, meaning little wear and tear.
It works like this. Instead of generating electrical energy from the mechanical energy of the rotating blades, this device, called a Ewicon (short for Electostatic Wind Energy Converter) skips the whole mechanical energy part.
It comprises a steel frame holding horizontal rows of insulated tubes, each of which has several electrodes and nozzles. The nozzles release positively charged water droplets and they are drawn to the negatively-charged electrodes. But when the wind blows, it creates resistance and that generates energy.
Only a few prototypes have been built so far, but the inventors, Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam, think that if their design takes off, it could be a boon to wind power in cities, where massive turbines aren’t an option.
Still another approach is what is known as Windstalk. Again no blades, but in this case, energy is generated by a small forest of more than a thousand narrow, 180-foot-tall poles packed tightly together. Within each hollow, carbon fiber pole, which narrows from base to tip, is a stack of small ceramic disks and between the disks are electrodes.
These discs and electrodes are connected to a cable which runs up the pole. When wind causes the ‘stalks’ to sway, the discs compress, generating a current.
The windstalks have been proposed as one of the sources of energy in Masdar City, the world’s first carbon-neutral and car-free city, being built near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Catching the breeze
Here are five other recent wind power stories. Chances are you haven’t heard them either.
1) And the wind…cries…chowda: It’s been 10 years in the works, but Cape Wind, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., took a big step forward last month when the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ signed a $2 billion agreement with the project’s developers. The plan is to build 130 turbines, each with blades 50 yards long, in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod. If it stays on schedule–construction is supposed to begin late this year–Cape Wind could be lighting 100,000 to 200,000 homes by 2015.
2) That “beyond petroleum” thing…just kidding: It wasn’t all that long ago that British Petroleum changed its name to BP and then CEO John Browne made it clear that it stood for “beyond petroleum” and that the company was fully committed to begin shifting to renewable energy. But that was before that messy spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, the one that may cost BP as much as $42 billion. Earlier this week, the company announced that it plans to sell its wind energy interests in the U.S. It has investments in 16 wind farms in nine different states and hopes to earn as much as $3 billion by putting them on the market.
3) That’s because back East anything that big has a video screen: A study done by researchers at Purdue University found that a lot of people in Indiana actually like having wind farms in their communities. More than 80 percent of the people surveyed said they supported wind turbines, even in counties where local governments had opposed them. Some said wind farms gave rural areas a certain charm and one person noted that when friends visited from the East Coast, they couldn’t stop staring at them.
4) The answer, my friend, is bobbin’ in the wind: A new type of wind turbine that floats is being tested off the coast of Japan. Most turbines extend from pylons buried in the seabed, but this model, while anchored to bottom, has a hollow lower core that’s filled with seawater. And that keeps it upright. If it works, this approach could dramatically reduce costs of offshore wind farms.
5) Waste management is so 20th century: And in Italy, law enforcement authorities have seized the assets of a Sicilian businessman suspected of laundering money for the Mafia. The man under investigation, Vito Nicastri, is so big in the renewable energy business in Italy that he’s known as “Lord of the Wind.”
Video bonus: So why do wind turbines have to be so big? Here’s a nice, little video on how a wind farm off the Dutch coast works.
Video bonus bonus: And for a change of pace, here’s a tutorial on how Windstalk would work.
More from Smithsonian.com
April 2, 2013
Usually, when we talk about innovation, it has to do with some whizzy new invention, like a robot ant colony, or a novel approach to solving a problem, say a wind turbine that doesn’t wipe out bats and birds.
Rarely does it have to do with something as ancient, or prosaic, as olive oil.
Sometimes, though, research tells us something new about something old and it forces us to view it with fresh appreciation. So it is with olive oil.
In this case, it’s two studies. The first, done by the German Research Center for Food Chemistry, focused on whether it’s possible to lower the fat content of food without making it lose its flavor. The problem with a lot of low-fat food, as the researchers pointed out, is that people tend to compensate for how unsatisfying the meal was by overeating later. Their mission was to see if oils used to flavor food could make people feel full.
So they split up 120 people into five groups and had each of them add 500 grams of yogurt to their diets every day. For four groups, the yogurt was enriched with one of four fats–lard, butter, olive oil and canola oil. The fifth group ate straight yogurt. After three months, the scientists found that the people who ate yogurt laced with olive oil not only had the greatest increase in their blood of serotonin–a hormone that’s been linked to people feeling sated–but also that they tended to eat less other food.
Then the researchers ratcheted things up a notch. They split everyone into two groups. One ate plain no-fat yogurt, the other ate no-fat yogurt with an aroma extract that made it smell like olive oil. And guess what–those eating yogurt with the olive oil fragrance cut back their calories from other foods and also showed better results in glucose tolerance tests.
The aroma made the difference.
The grain in Spain
Another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in late February brought us more good news about the Mediterranean diet, the main ingredient of which is, yes, olive oil, along with lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. Fish and red wine are okay, but, as doctors like to say, “in moderation.”
Researchers in Spain found that people on a Mediterranean diet had 30 percent fewer heart attacks, strokes or deaths from heart disease than people who followed more conventional diets that included red meat. In fact, the diet’s benefits were so obvious that the research was stopped early–the scientists thought it was unethical not to allow people in the control group to switch to the Mediterranean. It was the first time a study showed that a diet can be just as effective as drugs in preventing cardiovascular problems.
So a toast to olive oil. Make it red wine. In moderation.
Here are eight other recent studies that taught us something new about food and diets:
1) Is there anything bacon can’t do?: If you’re a repeat late-night snacker, you may want to reintroduce yourself to bacon and eggs in the morning. A study just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that people who eat breakfasts high in protein are considerably less likely to chow down on foods loaded with sugar or fat late at night.
2) The Doritos say they’ll make you feel better, but they lie: For all the talk about foods that can put you in a good mood, it turns out that junk food can be quite the downer. Research at Penn State University found that bad eating habits can sink a person’s mood, particularly if that person is woman worried about what she eats. The women in the study almost always felt worse after they munched on junk food.
3) Your mother was right–spit out the gum: Here’s one more reason to lose the gum–although it’s one your mom didn’t know about. It seems that the minty flavor that keeps your breath feeling fresh can discourage you from eating healthy fruits and vegetables because it makes them taste bad, the same way orange juice can taste funky after you brush your teeth. In fact, researchers at Ohio State University determined that people who chew gum eat more high-calorie sweet foods.
4) Hold the latte: For those looking for a reason to cut back on the coffee, here you go: Scientists at Johns Hopkins say that coffee, black and green teas and the flavoring known as liquid smoke can damage our DNA. Specifically, they found that they tend to make a certain “repair” gene become highly activated, which usually means a person’s DNA is in some distress.
5) And in case you hadn’t heard, eat more veggies: There’s even more evidence that if you increase the fiber in your diet, you’ll be doing your health a big favor. In the latest research, an analysis of eight other studies, completed at the University of Leeds, scientists determined that a person’s risk of having a stroke dropped by 7 percent for every additional seven grams of fiber he or she ate every day. They recommended consuming 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily. Most Americans eat only half that much.
6) You eat what you are: If only you knew this when you were a kid: You’re a picky eater mainly because of your genes. That’s what researchers at the University of North Carolina concluded after finishing a study of 66 pairs of identical twins. In fact, they go so far as to say that 72 percent of a child’s avoidance of certain foods can be blamed on their genes.
7) Here’s to more, longer-living fruit flies: Okay, so there’s still debate over the nutritional value of organic food, at least for humans. But fruit flies love the stuff. And it’s apparently really good for them. Scientists at Southern Methodist University say that based on their research, fruit flies that eat organic treats tend to live longer and lay more eggs.
8) What a piece of work is man: And finally, a study reminding us that sometimes we humans are about as smart as fruit flies. A researcher at Cornell has found that when people see a green calorie label on food packaging, they tend to think the food inside is healthier than it would be if it had a red or white label. That’s even if the number of calories are the same. Ah, the Dumb Diet.
Video bonus: Dieting can be funny, at least in commercials.
Video bonus bonus: A food classic: When dogs dine.
More from Smithsonian.com
February 19, 2013
Last Friday was, astronomically speaking, one of those days that comes along every 40 years. Actually, a lot less frequently than that. That’s how often, according to NASA estimates, an asteroid the size of the one that flew by Friday gets that close to hitting the Earth–it passed 17,000 miles away. But when you throw in the considerably smaller meteorite that exploded over Russia the same day and injured more than 1,000 people–that’s never happened before–you’re talking about one extremely unique moment in space rock history.
Most of us have moved on, taking comfort in the belief that that’s not happening again any time soon. But there was something sobering about seeing how much damage could be done by rock about as big as one and and a half school buses. Also, that if the flyby asteroid, which was three times that size, had been on target to hit our planet, we really couldn’t have done much about it–the giant rock was spotted by a team of amateur astronomers in Spain only a year ago.
All of which prompted two basic questions: “How much warning will we get before a monster asteroid collides with the planet?” and “What’s the plan for stopping it?”
Beware of “city killers”
The good news is that NASA, which really didn’t start tracking near-Earth objects until the mid-1990s, believes it has charted almost 95 percent of the 980 asteroids more than a half-mile wide that are orbiting in our part of the universe. These are known as “planet-killers,” space rocks so large that if they collided with Earth, it would pretty much end civilization as we know it. None, I’m happy to say, are headed our way.
But move down a bit in size to asteroids roughly between 100 feet and a half mile wide and it’s a very different story. NASA figures it’s located only 1 percent of the near-Earth objects that small. They may not sound very menacing, but keep in mind that the rock that missed us Friday was roughly 150 feet wide and it would have had a cataclysmic impact if it had exploded over or landed on a populated area. And the one that did blow apart over Russia and hurt so many people was only 55 feet wide.
Scientists at the University of Hawaii, with NASA funding, are developing a network of telescopes designed to find the smaller ones. It’s called ATLAS, which stands for the ominous-sounding Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System, and its creators say they’ll be able to provide a one-week warning of incoming ”city killers”–rocks about 150 wide–and three weeks notice of “county killers”–ones three times as large.
Seek and you shall find
The truth is, though, infrared telescopes surveying from space are better suited for the job, particularly when it comes to spotting asteroids orbiting close to the sun. NASA’s WISE telescope identified 130 near-Earth asteroids, but it’s been shut down for two years. Instead of replacing it, NASA is reviewing proposals for a sensor that could detect asteroids as small as 100 feet wide, while attached to a communications satellite.
But now private groups have started floating their own ideas for finding rocks flying through space. One, called the B612 Foundation after the fantasy asteroid on which the Little Prince lived, has ambitious plans to launch a deep space telescope named Sentinel. From a vantage point as far away as Venus, it should be able to look back at our planet and see the heat signatures of objects that come near the Earth’s orbit.
It’s no small undertaking–the estimated cost is $450 million–but among those driving the project are two former astronauts, Russell Schweickart and Edward Lu, who’s now a Google executive and has been able to stir up interest for the mission in Silicon Valley. Lu sees last week’s double asteroid display as a wakeup call. Sure enough, his group was getting calls all day Friday from people wanting to know when it will have its telescope up. Most likely it won’t be until 2018.
And two companies hoping to make a fortune by mining asteroids will also soon be in the business of tracking them. Planetary Resources, which includes among its investors filmmaker James Cameron, Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and X-Prize Foundation head Peter Diamandis, plans to launch its own asteroid-charting space telescope late next year. The other, Deep Space Industries, has proposed a kind of sentry line of spacecraft circling the Earth that would evaluate and, if necessary, intercept incoming asteroids.
Taking care of business
Okay, but then what? Can an asteroid moving at 18,000 miles an hour be stopped, or at least steered away?
Forget about the Armageddon approach. Blowing up an asteroid with a nuclear bomb–good for a movie, bad for Planet Earth. The resulting debris shower might do almost as much damage.
Instead, here are five ideas that have been proposed:
1) A shout out to our old friend gravity: This would involve what’s referred to as a “gravity tractor.” Actually, it’s a large spaceship that would be maneuvered as close as possible to the orbiting asteroid. In theory, the gravitational pull of such a large object would be strong enough to change the asteroid’s path. Unfortunately, some scientists say we might need a decade’s notice to pull this off.
2) Prepare for ramming speed!: The European Space Agency is working with scientists at Johns Hopkins University on a plan that would involve sending a spacecraft to bump an asteroid off course. Called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection misson, or AIDA for short, it would actually involve sending up two spacecraft. One would be there to observe and gather data while the other does the ramming. The goal would be to alter the asteroid’s spin and ultimately, its direction.
3) Okay, so there is a nuclear option: But it hopefully wouldn’t involve blowing up the asteroid to smithereens. Instead, scientists would prefer to detonate a device close enough that it would change the rock’s orbit. This is always referred to as a last resort.
4) Would you like something in an eggshell? Or perhaps a tasteful pearl white?: Then there’s the white paint strategy. According to this plan, a spacecraft would approach the asteroid and pummel it with white paint balls. The new white coat would more than double the rock’s reflectivity and, over time, that would, in theory, increase solar radiation pressure enough to move it off course. You scoff? This plan, devised by an MIT graduate student, won the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Paper Competition sponsored by the United Nations.
5) You knew there had to be lasers in here somewhere: And just in time for last week’s space rock event, two California scientists outlined a strategy in which they would use the sun’s power to create laser beams that could be aimed at an asteroid. They would start small, creating an array in space about the size of the International Space Station. The laser beams it created would be strong enough to push an asteroid on to a different path, say the plan’s inventors. But they wouldn’t stop there. They foresee building out the array until it’s as large as six miles wide. And then it would be able to produce laser beams powerful enough that , within a year, could vaporize an asteroid.
Sure, it sounds like a George Lucas fever dream. But the scientists say it’s eminently feasible. Besides, says one, physicist Philip Lubin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, it’s time to be proactive instead of reactive. As he put it, “Duck and cover is not an option.”
Video bonus: In case you forgot how bad a movie Armageddon was, and that it featured Steve Buscemi as an astronaut, here’s the over-the-top trailer.
Video bonus bonus : Or if you want to stick to the real thing, here’s a collection of videos of Friday’s asteroid flyby.
More from Smithsonian. com
January 23, 2013
During his inaugural speech Monday, President Barack Obama uttered a phrase that during last year’s presidential campaign were The-Words-That-Shall-Not-Be-Spoken.
He mentioned climate change.
In fact, President Obama didn’t just mention it, he declared that a failure to deal with climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”
But ask any Washington pundit if Congress will do anything meaningful on the subject and they’ll tell you that that’s as likely as D.C. freezing over in July.
Also this week, as it turns out, a study was released outlining the latest geoengineering idea for saving the planet in the event of an unstoppable downward spiral of the Earth’s climate.
This one would involve dumping billions of tons of dust of the mineral olivine into the oceans, a process that, in theory at least, could significantly reduce carbon dioxide levels and also slow the increasing acidification of the oceans.
But there’s a catch. Actually, there are many. For starters, the German scientists who did the study estimate that it would require an undertaking as large as the entire world’s coal industry to mine enough olivine, and then it would take at least 100 large ships working 24/7 for a year to spread enough of the mineral dust around to have an impact. Plus, all that olivine dust would undoubtedly change the biology of the oceans in ways no one can really predict.
Back to nature
Okay, back to reality. The only response to climate change that’s truly moving forward is what’s known as adaptation. Or, put more simply, preparing for the worst.
It’s not likely that there will be another Hurricane Sandy this year. Maybe not next year either. But no one running a city, particularly along a coastline, can dare to think that the next devastating superstorm won’t come along for another 50 years.
So their focus is on minimizing the damage when it does hit. And, perhaps not surprisingly, they’re increasingly looking to nature’s resiliency to help them deal with nature’s wrath.
Case in point: One proposal to reduce future flooding of Lower Manhattan is built around the idea of converting part of that section of the city into wetlands and salt marshes. That’s right, the concrete jungle, or at least the lower end of it, would get very squishy.
As architect Stephen Cassell envisions the transformation, the edge of low-lying neighborhoods, such as Battery Park, would become a patchwork of parks and marshes that could sop up future storm surges. And on the more vulnerable streets, asphalt would be replaced with porous concrete that could soak up excess water like a bed of sponges.
It’s just one of several ideas that have been floated, but its mimicking of natural wetlands has a simple, rugged appeal. As Cassell told the New York Times:
““We weren’t fully going back to nature with our plan. We thought of it more as engineered ecology. But if you look at the history of Manhattan, we have pushed nature off the island and replaced it with man-made infrastructure. What we can do is start to reintegrate things and make the city more durable.”
Know your roots
But that’s almost prosaic compared to Skygrove, the concept for a skyscraper inspired by the mangrove tree. Mangroves, which often grow in swamps or along rivers, are known for their gnarly network of roots that keep their trunks above the water.
Architects at the New York firm of HWKN copied that model for a building that could sit above rising water. Instead of having a single foundation, the Skygrove would rest on a base of “roots” extending outward like fingers spread under the water.
Each root of the building–which is meant to be a vertical office park for the City of New York–would be independent of the others and self-sufficient, able to provide its own energy. And each would be designed to survive whatever extreme weather may come its way.
To believe the designers, the Skygrove is a model for the kinds of buildings we may see more often in what they call the “newly nebulous coastal zone.”
It’s nature’s way
Here are other new inventions based on mimicking nature:
- But do not try this on trees: A London industrial designer has created a super-strong bicycle helmet by modeling it after the heads of woodpeckers.
- No word yet on how it may affect human mating: A team of researchers has found that LED lights that copy the structure of a firefly’s “lantern” are 55 percent brighter.
- Okay, let’s clear the air: A Copenhagen chemist has invented an air-cleaning device that mimics the process through which the Earth’s atmosphere cleans itself. In response to sunlight, polluting gases rising into the sky form particles when they come across compounds such as ozone. And those newly formed particles are washed out of the atmosphere by rain. The invention, which removes industrial pollutants from the air, is now being tested at a Danish plant.
- But do they ever tell dogs “You’ll just feel a little stick?”: One day we could have less painful hypodermic needles thanks to a group of scientists who studied porcupine quills. They determined that the backwards-facing barbs on a quill help it enter skin easily and then stay in place. The researchers learned this by measuring how much force it took to push in and pull out porcupine quills jabbed into pig skin and raw chicken meat.
- Mussels and bodybuilding: A team of researchers from Penn State and the University of Texas, Arlington believe that a version of the powerful adhesive that allows mussels to stick stubbornly to underwater surfaces can be used in operating rooms to close and heal wounds.
Video bonus: An idea whose time, sadly, has come: robot cockroaches. It will creep you out.
More from Smithsonian.com
November 2, 2012
Talk about being prescient.
Not quite two months ago Mireya Navarro wrote the following in the New York Times:
“With a 520-mile-long coast lined largely by teeming roads and fragile infrastructure, New York City is gingerly facing up to the intertwined threats posed by rising seas and ever-more-severe storm flooding.”
She also noted that critics say “New York is moving too slowly to address the potential for flooding that could paralyze transportation, cripple the low-lying financial district and temporarily drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.”
Actually, Navarro was not quite as oracular as it might seem. Scientists at Stony Brook University, working together as the ominously-named Storm Surge Research Group, have been beating this drum for years, warning that New York City becomes more vulnerable with each passing year as ocean levels rise. And last year, a New York State report estimated that a bad coastal storm could flood the subways and cost up to $58 billion in economic damage and revenue lost.
Even the city’s Museum of Modern Art has raised the spectre of a shrinking New York, with a 2010 exhibit titled “Rising Currents.” It included one architect’s vision of a Lower Manhattan defined by “a network of walkways that allow people to walk among the marsh and tall grass.”
Don’t speak of this
The idea of building a series of sea gates along Manhattan that could be closed during a major storm has been much discussed, but so far hasn’t moved much past the talking stage. For starters, there’s the potential cost, estimated at $10 billion, probably more. Also, it hasn’t helped that climate change has become the Lord Voldemort of political issues–you know, the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named guy.
Which helps explain why New York is hardly alone among American cities when it comes to being skittish about investing heavily in climate change protection, which, by the way, is now referred to as “resiliency planning.” In fact, according to a recent study at MIT, only 59 percent of U.S. cities are engaged in such planning, as opposed to 86 percent of cities in Australia and New Zealand, 84 percent in Europe and 80 percent in Africa.
Luckily, most American cities aren’t as close to the brink as New York when it comes to the impact of extreme weather. So they’ve been able to get by with adaptation more incremental than transformative.
But at least some cities are starting to make resiliency planning a core part of their 21st century agenda. Chicago, for instance, has for several years now, been repaving its almost 2,000 miles of alleys with permeable concrete, a surface that allows storm water to seep through into the soil below instead of streaming into an overwhelmed sewer system or flowing as polluted runoff into streams and rivers. And that water in the ground beneath the concrete also keeps the aIleys cooler during the blisteringly hot summers Chicago has suffered though in recent years. Soon the city will start using the porous pavement in bike lanes.
Chicago’s also become a leader in the development of green roofs--rooftops covered with grass, flowers and decorative bushes that not only cut a building’s air conditioning costs, but also reduce the amount of rainwater that pours down gutters and into the sewers.
Other cities, such as Philadelphia, Nashville and Houston, have become much more aggressive about planting trees in environmentally sensitive areas to help them counter the impact of storms capable of unloading several inches of rain in a day.
Will that be enough? Maybe not. But one of the lessons from Sandy is that cities, in particular, no longer have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty in linking extreme weather to climate change.
As Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, told the Huffington Post:
“Whether or not there was a climate change component to this storm, it teaches us a lot of things, including how behind the 8-ball we are in being able to handle big events of the type that we believe — that scientists think — are going to get more frequent and intense in the future. So whether this one was 5 percent due to climate change or 1 percent or 10 percent — it’s interesting, it matters to a certain extent, but it’s not the whole story by any means.”
Jennifer Morgan, the director of the climate and energy program with the World Resources Institute, put it another way: “While it’s important to understand the scientific evidence underpinning these events, waiting for certainty that a particular storm or other event is caused by climate change is courting disaster. You don’t wait for 100 percent certainty that your house will burn down before you take out fire insurance.”
Slideshow bonus: With New York and Miami at the top of the list, here are the 17 U.S. cities most at risk from rising seas.
Video bonus: Watch time lapse video of Superstorm Sandy pummeling New York and Lower Manhattan going dark.
More from Smithsonian.com