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.”
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.
More from Smithsonian.com
April 30, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that Texas has more solar energy workers than ranchers and California has more of them than actors, and that more people now work in the solar industry in the U.S. than in coal mines.
Or that in March, for the first time ever, 100 percent of the energy added to the U.S. power grid was solar.
Okay, so now you know all that, but I’m guessing you’re no more aquiver over solar energy than you were five minutes ago. That’s the way it is in America these days. Most people think solar is a good thing, but how jazzed can you get about putting panels on a roof.
Bertrand Piccard understands this. Which is why later this week, weather permitting, he will take off from Moffett Field near San Francisco and begin a flight across the U.S. in a plane entirely dependent on the sun. Called Solar Impulse, it will move at a snail’s pace compared to commercial jets–top speed will be under 50 miles per hour–and will stop in several cities before it ends its journey in New York in late June or early July.
But the point isn’t to to mimic a plane in a hurry, crossing the country on thousands of gallons of jet fuel. The point is to show what’s possible without it.
To do this, Piccard and his partner, André Borschberg, have created one of the strangest flying machines ever–a plane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, but one that weighs about a ton less than an SUV. Its power is generated by nearly 12,000 silicon solar cells over the main wing and the horizontal stabilizer that charge lithium-polymer battery packs contained in the four gondolas under the wing. The batteries in total weigh almost 900 pounds–that’s about one quarter of the plane’s weight–and they’re capable of storing enough energy to allow the plane to fly at night.
Piloting the Solar Impulse is neither comfortable nor without a good deal of risk. Only one pilot can be in the cockpit–a second adds too much weight–and the engines are vulnerable to wind, rain, fog and heavy clouds. But Piccard is, by blood, an inveterate risk-taker. In 1999, he co-piloted the first gas-powered balloon to travel non-stop around the world. In 1960, his father, Jacques, was one of the two men aboard the bathysphere lowered into the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. In 1931, his grandfather, Auguste, was the first balloonist to enter the Earth’s stratosphere.
It was near the end of his own record-setting balloon trip that Bertrand Piccard was inspired to find a way to fly without needing to rely on fuel. He almost ran out of propane while crossing the Atlantic. He and Borschberg spent years planning, designing and finding investors–that was no small challenge–but they persevered and, in 2010, the Solar Impulse made the first solar-powered night flight over Switzerland. Last year it completed the first solar intercontinental flight, from Europe to Africa.
The ultimate goal–after the flight across America–is to fly a solar plane non-stop around the world. That’s tentatively scheduled for 2015, but it will require a bigger plane than the Impulse. Since they estimate that it will take three days to fly over the Atlantic and five to cross the Pacific, Piccard and Borschberg have been making other alterations, too–the larger version will have an autopilot, more efficient electric motors and a body made of even lighter carbon fiber. It also will have a seat that reclines and yes, a toilet.
There certainly are easier ways to go around the world, but Piccard sees his mission as stretching our imaginations about the sun’s potential. “Very often, when we speak of protection of the environment, it’s boring,” he said during a recent interview with Popular Science. “It’s about less mobility, less comfort, less growth.”
Instead, he wants to show that clean energy can just as easily be about being a pioneer.
Here comes the sun
Here’s other recent developments related to solar power:
- It’s always good to save some for later: A team of researchers at Stanford University has devised a partially liquid battery that could lead to the development of inexpensive batteries which can store energy created by solar panels and wind turbines. One of the challenges of both sun and wind power is to be able to store energy efficiently so it’s available when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing.
- Forget the undercoating, we’ll throw in solar panels: BMW, which will begin selling its first electric cars later this year, says it will offer buyers the opportunity to get a solar-powered home charging system designed to be installed in their garages.
- Go ahead and fold. Avoid spindling and mutilation: A Milwaukee middle school teacher-turned-inventor has created a small, foldable solar array that can charge an iPhone in two hours. Joshua Zimmerman turned what had been a hobby into a company named Brown Dog Gadgets and he’s already raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter to get his business off the ground.
- And you thought your shirt was cool: An Indian scientist has designed a shirt containing solar cells that power small fans to keep the wearer cool. The shirt would also be able to store enough juice to charge cell phones and tablets.
- Charge of the light brigade: Since you never know when you need a lantern, there’s now a solar powered bottle cap that lights up your water bottle. Its four bright, white LED lights can turn your beat up water bottle into a shiny beacon.
Video bonus: Take a peek at the Solar Impulse during its test flight over San Francisco last week.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 5, 2012
Until a week ago, my relationship with batteries had been purely prosaic. Sure, I charged cell phone and laptop batteries every night, but with no more deliberation than brushing my teeth or skipping past Jay Leno’s monologue.
Then came the Derecho of 2012, and I, like millions of other Americans, lost power for days that seemed like weeks. And I, like so many others, succumbed to juice hysteria, an obsession with staking claims to working outlets in public places–Starbucks, libraries, shopping mall food courts–so that we could bring our devices back to life.
Today I have power again. I also have a far deeper appreciation for all things electrochemical. Because in the world we now live, battery life is a very big deal, whether it’s to keep us connected in the day-to-day or the key to the future of electric vehicles and renewable energy.
As it turned out, last week was a momentous one for batteries. The day before the storm that crippled Washington, a study was published in Nature Scientific Reports revealing that a working battery had been created simply by spray-painting a surface. That’s right, power from paint.
Hard to believe? Here’s how a team of scientists at Rice University in Texas did it. They converted into liquids the five components of a lithium ion battery–a positive current collector, a negative current collector, a cathode, an anode and a separator–and then sprayed each, in extremely thin layers, over a variety of surfaces. They painted bathroom tiles. They painted glass and stainless steel. They painted flexible film. They painted a ceramic beer mug. All were able to carry a charge.
They even connected the bathroom tiles to a solar cell. They were able to keep an LED display–it spelled out RICE–glowing for six hours.
We’re still a long way off from you being able to charge your smart phone with a beer mug, but this could be a game changer in terms of opening up all kinds of new ways to store energy. And that could be a boon to solar power as a source of energy within our homes.
As Neelam Singh, one the Rice researchers put it, “You could turn your home into a battery.”
An Edison comeback?
Also last week, researchers at Stanford announced that they’ve given new life to the nickel-iron battery that Thomas Edison once hoped would power cars. Roughly 100 years ago, Edison was a big believer in electric cars. But batteries back then weren’t up to the job, so he lost out to his friend Henry Ford and his gas-powered engine.
The problem with those nickel-iron batteries was that they were painfully slow to charge and discharge. But the Stanford group, using nanotechnology rather than simply mixing nickel and iron, has been able to make the battery function 1,000 times faster than the old version. It took only two minutes to charge a small prototype battery.
Nickel-iron batteries aren’t strong enough to power today’s electric cars, but if combined with the lithium ion model now being used, they could dramatically reduce the time required to charge an electric vehicle, which now takes hours. This setup also could allow a vehicle to actually capture the energy created when you applied the brakes. And the fast discharge rate would make it easier for a car to accelerate.
At the same time, IBM is among several companies taking on the dreaded range anxiety–the fear having your electric car run out of juice in the middle of nowhere. The typical range now is 100 miles per charge. But IBM is aiming to raise that to 500 miles by refining what’s known as a lithium air battery.
Instead of having oxygen built into the battery, lithium air models would generate power by taking in oxygen from the outside air. That would make them significantly smaller and lighter than the lithium ion batteries now being used.
IBM has been able to get the concept to work in a lab. But, time for a reality check. It likely will be at least another 10 years before it could function in a car.
Who knows, by then you may be able to charge your car with your spray-painted mailbox, which will, no doubt, be needing a new reason for being.
Here’s more recent news about batteries:
- Cutting the cord: It’s only a matter of time before electric vehicle owners won’t need to plug in their cars to charge up. Instead, they’ll be able to do it wirelessly by parking over mats that do the work.
- Put that in the bank: A giant bank of batteries installed near the tracks has started to save Philadelphia’s subway system lots of money. It captures energy created when trains slow down at a station and puts it back on the line to help them accelerate.
- I wear the body electric: Two University of South Carolina engineers were able to turn a store-bought T-shirt into fabric that could store an electrical charge.
- The slow ride to freedom: Inmates at a prison in Brazil can reduce their sentences by a day for every 16 hours they ride a stationary bike that charges batteries. Their pedaling powers streetlights in a nearby town.
- Giving new meaning to the term “button nose”: And now the downside of the battery boom: According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, the number of kids going to emergency rooms after swallowing those little button batteries– or sticking them in their noses or ears–has doubled in the past 20 years.
Video bonus Here’s a little blast from the past, when TV commercials took on the challenge of trying to make batteries funny.
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June 18, 2012
Science is rarely pretty. Stunning, yes. Provocative and enlightening, of course. But pretty? Not so much.
But brain scans are a different story. Once they’ve been splashed with vibrant purples and reds and yellows, they can look downright ravishing. Makes you want you want to pat yourself on the head and say, “Stay beautiful in there.”
Alas, therein lies a problem. Not only has technology made it possible to see our brains as something they’re not–a fiesta of technicolor–but it also has made it easier to draw absurdly simple conclusions about a ridiculously complex organ.
We’re understandably desperate for a neurological Rosetta Stone, something that can help us decipher the magical call and response of electrochemical impulses inside our thick skulls. But when, with that purpose, we conjure up notions of a “love center” or “God spot” inside our brains, we insult our own intelligence.
It’s far more complex than that, particularly when it comes to such matters as spirituality. A recent study concluded that it involves not one, but many parts of the brain. But a larger issue centers on how brain scans are interpreted. As writer Vaughan Bell pointed out recently in The Guardian, false positives are a big concern, resulting in scans suggesting that parts of the brain are linked to certain activities when, in fact, other factors may be responsible. A few years ago, a Dartmouth scientist with a sense of humor made this point by reporting that scans reflected activity in the brain of a salmon shown photos of humans. He also noted that the fish was dead.
Can they predict behavior?
Most neuroscientists have become more cautious about drawing definitive conclusions about what scans show. But, as is often the case with innovative technology that captures the public’s imagination, neuroimmaging is headed in unexpected directions, spreading beyond scientific research into legal tactics and commercial ventures. In a way, it’s become the new DNA testing, science that’s seen as a nifty tool, in this case to predict or explain behavior.
Earlier this year, defense attorneys for a convicted double murderer in Mississippi submitted his brain scans in a last-minute, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to show he was mentally ill and not suitable for the death penalty. Last year the French parliament was moved to update its bioethics law so that it now reads: “Brain-imaging methods can be used only for medical or scientific research purposes or in the context of court expertise.”
Scientists were not happy about that last phrase. Many, such as Olivier Oullier, think it’s too soon to give the technology legal standing. As he wrote in the journal Nature, “Brain scientists may not be oracles, but our research, responsibly interpreted, can help policy-makers to make informed decisions. As such, it should be given the opportunity to progress. Law and science have something in common — both can be misinterpreted.”
On the flip side
That said, neuroimaging has given scientists the first real look inside the brain at work. You can’t underestimate the value of that. And it has allowed them to start making tenuous connections between blood flow to certain areas of the brain and particular behavior. But the more they learn, the more they realize that no matter what “lights up” in an image–and keep in mind, that reflects blood flow, not actual mental activity–it likely tells only part of the story.
Psychiatrists have begun using brain imaging data to try to predict who might develop neurological or psychiatric disorders. It’s a start. But as Kayt Sukel, author of Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships, wrote recently on Big Think.com, “At best, most of these studies can only offer predictions slightly higher than chance. Better than a coin flip–but only just.”
So while they can create beautiful 3-D images of the brain in action, scientists are still working the surface, still in the realm of educated guesses. The brain, it seems, refuses to be dumbed down.
Despite their limitations, neuroimages are helping scientists get a clearer picture of how brains function and why they malfunction. Here’s some of the latest research.
- Think good thoughts: A study in Wales found that patients with depression could learn to control aspects of their brain activity by getting “neurofeedback” while their brains were being scanned. Scientists described to them how trying different ways of creating positive thoughts was affecting their brains, based on continuous measurements.
- The dope on dopamine: Researchers in Germany discovered a link between low dopamine levels in the brain and aggressive behavior. It was just the opposite result from what they expected.
- Running on empty: A University of Iowa neuroscientist says that based on MRI imaging in his research, self-control is a commodity in limited supply and that a brain can truly run out of patience.
- Early warning system: This month doctors in southern Florida will be able to start using a new brain imaging radioactive dye that will help them detect plaques of the toxic protein that builds up in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. It will help confirm an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and also rule it out in cases where something else might be causing memory loss. And scientists hope that these scans will help doctors spot Alzheimer’s much earlier, when there still are no symptoms and treatment can be more effective.
- Either I need sleep or barrels of Doritos: According to a study at Columbia University using brain scans, subjects getting only four hours of sleep a night were more likely to develop cravings for junk food than those who got a full eight hours.
Video bonus: Okay, so we’ve reached the point where we’ve started to put dogs in MRI machines. Researchers at Emory University are trying to get a bead on what dogs are thinking. Good luck with that.