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
While LED technology has, in some ways, become the latest poster child for the future of energy-efficient lighting, it hasn’t discouraged entrepreneurs from tinkering with a few intriguing alternatives that happen to not require any electricity at all.
Earlier this week, I wrote about an algae-powered street lamp, currently being developed by a French biochemist, that absorbs carbon dioxide along with photosynthesized sunlight and, in return, produces oxygen and bio-illumination for streets and parking lots. Well, in the United Kingdom, a businessman named Hamish Scott hit upon a similarly bright idea in creating Starpath, a special luminescent coating for common ground surfaces that collects and stores energy from ambient light during daylight hours and releases a blueish, galactic glow when it gets dark. The multi-layered organic material, which may cut electricity bills, has proven promising enough that city officials in Cambridge have opted to try the technology at Christ’s Pieces park where 1,600 square feet of a pathway were renovated.
What’s remarkable about Starpath is that while the material, a high-grade version of what’s found in glow-in-the-dark toys, can generate reliable illumination for about 16 continuous hours, it also exhibits “smart” sensing qualities that allow it to adjust to varying light conditions, brightening up just enough during the early evenings and going into full effect when the sun is down. Though Scott says that Starpath loses luminosity over time, most observers will still be able see people walking toward them and even make out what the person is wearing. It’s also environmentally friendly and 100 percent recyclable.
“It is quite a cool thing. Until you have seen it, you can’t really comprehend it,” Scott told the Fairfax NZ News in a seperate interview. Naturally, one might wonder if a park with Starpath, as opposed to lamp posts, is safely lit. But, Scott adds, “When you are walking down a pathway you know what is around you. From 80 metres away you could tell if someone had a tie on or was male or female.”
The coating process involves first spraying a polyurethane base mixed with an aggregate comprised of a rocky, sandy mixture. A layer of UV-absorbing material is then spread over the base, followed by a waterproof polyaspartic finish that seals everything in and protects it from harsh elements for as long as 60 years. Scott perfected his formula after spending five years testing various combinations of light-storing particles and other advanced materials on the pavement lining his own driveway.
“I wanted to test it there (his driveway) because I wanted to watch it for wear and tear,” he says. “I wanted to make sure road traffic can go out on it without affecting its overall effectiveness.”
His company, Pro-Teq Surfacing, can add its special self-lighting coating to pathways for 70 British pounds per square meter (or about $10.50 per square foot), but the cost can be reduced if it were a large scale job. And as of now, such a renovation requires specialized equipment and so there isn’t a consumer market product for those who are hoping to do it themselves.
“But we aren’t just illuminating pathways,” Scott adds. “We also repair and reinvigorate them, depending on how bad the damage is. Most jobs can be completed in a matter of hours, and we try not to disrupt people’s day-to-day business.”
The product, however, has its limitations. First of all, it won’t work on anything that’s loose, like pebbled or rocky surfaces, only smooth surfaces such a concrete, tarmac and steel bridges. Scott also reasons that it wouldn’t be considered practical for areas, like busy highways, which would be better served with conventional street lighting. He foresees the technology mostly filling a niche within parks, suburban spots and parts of the developing world that don’t have reliable access to electricity.
Andrea Reiner, Cambridge’s executive councilor for public places, told the Telegraph that if park visitors are pleased with the Starpath technology, the city may consider expanding its use to other regions of the city while also ensuring to “balance any safety benefit against the desire to preserve the historic nature of our open spaces.”
Scott, who doesn’t consider himself a die-hard environmentalist, sees the value of Starpath in very simple terms. “I just thought with this, that instead of making more electricity, we’d try attacking it from the other end and save as much electricity and money as we can,” he says.
October 23, 2013
It is hard to imagine, but there was once a time when cars didn’t come equipped with rearview mirrors. In fact, it wasn’t until 1916 that the simple, yet game-changing invention became standard, making it easy for drivers to safely weave through traffic—except, of course, in those situations when they’re stuck behind a slow moving cargo truck on a two-lane road. Too bad there wasn’t also a way to see ahead of these road turtles to determine when it would be safe to pass.
Today, it’s 100 percent possible, and to prove it, researcher Michel Ferreira of the University of Porto in Portugal has developed a technology that seems to magically let you peer through the car you’re trailing. And, for manufacturers, what’s attractive about the computer scientist’s “See-Through System” is that it isn’t an entirely new device but rather a clever adaptation of a nascent technology known as Vehicular Communication Systems, designed to let wirelessly interconnected cars communicate and update each other with traffic information. One example of such systems is the ongoing development of semi-autonomous platooning vehicles, where a network of cars relay information, which is used to navigate the streets together as a convoy.
The See-Through System makes innovative use of these systems by tapping into the visual data being recorded by the forward-facing webcam that some vehicles have installed on their windshield. When a truck or bus ahead of you has this type of webcam, the system within your own car streams the feed from this camera into a transparent LCD screen built into your windshield. The viewpoint helps you judge distances and see whether any incoming cars in the other lane are moving into view.
“These windshield cameras will someday be very common and I predict you’ll eventually find them standard on every car,” Ferreira says. “But besides letting cars simply communicate with each other, it can also be deployed as a form of augmented reality, where you can see through cars.”
The most immediate and obvious concern with relying on transmitted data from some of these more elaborate communication systems, like for instance GPS, is the possibility of computer error and the real-time lag that’s common even with high-speed data transmission technologies. The reason why rearview mirrors are generally dependable is because they reflect accurate and instant changing road conditions at the speed of light. Even then car manufacturers are required to affix a warning that “objects may appear closer than they actually are.” In an interview with New Scientist, Hannes Kaufmann of the Vienna University of Technology in Austria says that while he thinks “it’s a good idea to support drivers to judge situations better,” these kind of interventions can be a “two-edged sword.”
“What if the image transmission stutters?” he wonders.
Ferreira has already taken this potential “blind spot” into account and has thoroughly road-tested the system (as evidenced in the video), even going to so far as building in a fail-safe that shuts off the feed in case a glitch were to occur.
“The big problem that’s been brought up is the latency of the transmission. When you’re driving you don’t want to have a half-second delay, and our tests show that the latency isn’t more than 200 milliseconds, which translates to about 10 meters at high speed and won’t make any difference with safety in real-world driving,” Ferreira argues.
Even if you’re not quite ready to trust the professor’s word on it, there’s no need to worry right this minute. Such a system likely won’t be available until car-to-car communication becomes much more ubiquitous.
“What you’re seeing in the video are the raw beginnings of core research,” he says. “This has been possible for a little while now, so the work I’m doing is just so that people can see that it is.”
October 22, 2013
There’s something very special about bioluminescent algae. They soak up sunlight, absorb carbon dioxide, and in return, breathe out oxygen while emitting a soft fluorescent glow. In essence, it’s nature’s all-in-one version of a solar panel, a carbon sink and a light bulb.
With that very thought, French biochemist Pierre Calleja has spent several years working on a way to harness the microorganisms’ special abilities to help mitigate some of planet Earth’s most pressing problems, namely global warming, threats to ecosystems and the need for renewables. His solution comes in the shape of a cylindrical algae-powered lamp that requires no electricity and is thus completely self-sufficient, operating through a process wherein all the energy produced during photosynthesis is collected and stored in a battery that helps to power the light during the evenings.
But how much of a difference maker can these goopy little marine organisms be? I mean no one’s ever heard of a lamp saving the world. Well, the fact is that microalgae is incredibly efficient at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, about 150 to 200 times more than trees. Basically, an algae lamp can remove as much CO2 in one year as a tree would in its lifetime. Also, extracting algae from aquatic environments, such as oceans, could potentially save fish and other marine life since rapid increases known as algal blooms have caused widespread mortality due to harmful toxins that are sometimes released.
Calleja recently gave a filmed TED talk in Lausanne,
Italy Switzerland, where he described the genesis of his concept and how he hoped to implement the technology (algae lamp-lined parking lots anyone?). During the presentation, he showcased a prototype that appeared to emit a fairly bright and consistent neon-ish radiance.
“The light that goes through that lamp is very special,” Calleja explains to the audience. “It is a very soft light because it goes through a live animal.”
But bio-engineering such a dream scenario isn’t without its challenges. As Atlantic writer John Metcalfe points out, skeptics are still waiting to hear how Calleja plans to overcome some of the plant’s problematic properties, such as the “light-smothering qualities of dense plumes of algae” and maintenance to prevent the ”dirty fishbowl” effect in which a murky buildup starts to accumulate on the glass lamp over time. He also cites Rose Ann Cattolico, an algae scientist at the University of Washington, who suggested that designing a version for practical use would “task the abilities of a bioengineer.” And of course the project’s ultimate feasibility would hinge on costs to, er, grow the technology to a wider scale, though Calleja’s employer, FermentAlg seems to have a reputable track record of developing algae-based technological solutions. So far, the research team has installed one operational demo lamp in a parking lot in the city of Bordeaux in southern France.
So who knows if algae lamps will light the way to greener, smarter cities? But at least the hope looks a little bit brighter.
October 21, 2013
Anyone who’s ever wondered why technology hasn’t delivered a mass-produced flying car for every man, woman and eager teenager should take a look at the Aeromobil, a prototype that’s being developed by Slovakian inventors.
To its credit, it’s one of the most stylish and gorgeous drivable aircrafts produced to date. In a promotional video (above) of version 2.5′s test flight, released last month, the “street” airplane is seen elegantly easing out of its curbside parking spot, fluidly navigating city streets and highways before unfolding a pair of mechanical wings and shifting into its highest possible gear. The video seems to be one of those ultra-slick and overly glossy glimpses of the future—that is until the time comes for the sexy contraption to do its thing.
No amount of camera tricks can conceal the fact that the Aeromobil looks downright unsteady as it struggles to keep its balance while gliding barely a few meters off the ground. The clip then ends with an oddly ominous quote from automotive pioneer Henry Ford in which he states, “Mark my word: A combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” I know the crescendo nature of the presentation was obviously meant to kindle a soul-affirming kind of excitement, but I can’t help but feel an unnerving sense of doubt (especially considering that the project has been in development for about 20 years).
The Aeromobil is the brainchild of former Audi, Volkswagen and BMW designer Stefan Klein and Juraj Vaculik, whose expertise comes primarily from working in advertising. The demonstration was carried out in hopes of drawing in investors and the interest of potential manufacturers. While it’s been the Terrafugia concept that has received much of the attention over recent years, perhaps the winged car’s sleeker aesthetics and aerodynamic design will give it an edge.
The fantasy of living in a world where cars fly isn’t just one of those impractical sci-fi dreams that make for fun cartoons. (Check out the Helicar—an invention thought up in 1923 to remedy New York City’s traffic.) Inventors have made it their quest for decades now. Aeronautical engineer Moulton Taylor produced the Aerocar in the 1950s (shown in the newsreel, above) that achieved a cruising speed of about 100 miles per hour. And some of the most powerful and well-heeled power players in aviation have put their weight behind efforts to build a land- and air-capable beast. The Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and some esteemed research universities tried unsuccessfully to get such a project off the ground, and Phantom Works, the advanced defense and security division of Boeing, had been working on a control system that would enable a four-wheeled flyer. Even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sought funds to produce a flying SUV called the Transformer (TX).
But trying to hybridize a car and airplane can be akin to figuring out how to cross-breed a catfish with an eagle. The point being that they’re two completely different animals and the unique attributes that serve particular functions make it trickier to incorporate others. As evidenced by Aeromobil’s video, one of the most vexing issues is coming up with an adequate control and stability system in what’s primarily a road vehicle.
“Most prototype flying cars lack two key ingredients needed for success: They don’t look very good, and they fly even worse,” writes Stephen Pope of Flying magazine. “The new Aeromobil 2.5 out of Slovakia at least has overcome one of these shortcomings. From certain angles, the styling of this flying sports car is simply stunning. Unfortunately, based on the video of its maiden flight, it would seem that stability in the air continues to be a major challenge for roadable aircraft.”
Rob Bulaga, president of Trek Aerospace, another company involved in developing a flying car, told the Economist, “It’s just basic physics. Any vehicle that takes off and lands vertically is unstable.” Computers are needed to constantly adjust the aircraft to allow for any kind of stability, otherwise, he adds, gliding alone is like trying to balance on a beach ball.
Additionally, there are often-cited concerns, such as the potential for high rates of fatal accidents. The website Carinsurance.com estimates that the average automobile driver gets in three to four accidents over the course of their lifetime. And since humans already have a hard enough time steering on land, imagine mid-air errors or technical malfunctions causing people to suddenly plummet from the sky.
Ironically, while Henry Ford’s prediction might very well come true, it can sound more like a warning now than a hopeful endorsement.
Editor’s Note: Originally, the use of a quote in the post from Rob Bulaga, president of Trek Aerospace, suggested that the Aeromobil takes off and lands vertically. The flying car, however, is not a vertical take-off and landing aircraft, like a helicopter, and we have updated the post to reflect this.