November 27, 2013
Ireland is one of those rare places where it seems like clean water flows with abundance. But that’s all about to change as the government has recently begun installing underground water meters in preparation to become the last European country to charge for water usage, as reserves from rivers and lakes dwindle as a result of rising demand, leakage issues and the effects of climate change.
The milestone of sorts underscores the sobering reality of fresh water being a limited resource that’s quickly becoming scarcer in virtually every populated region of the world. While it’s most heavily felt in developing regions, such as Africa and South America, where 780 million people don’t have access to clean pipeable water, a study in the Journal Nature forecasts that large swaths of East Asia and Europe will be hit hard as water supplies diminish. So, does that mean that we’re all destined to inhabit a world so constrained by evaporating reservoirs that everyone will be forced to make due with flushing and showering less frequently?
It’s this framework of environmental conservation by austerity, wherein people assume they have to scale back from a certain standard of living to help save the planet, that entrepreneurs like Mehrdad Mahdjoubi find to be wrongheaded. For one, fresh water is a renewable resource that already gets replenished partially through the naturally-occurring water cycle. The real problem, the Swedish industrial designer points out, is that about 95 percent of the water delivered to households goes down the drain. A 10-minute shower, for instance, can waste as much as 40 gallons of water.
That’s where Mahdjoubi’s invention, the OrbSys Shower, can really make a splash. For a 10-minte shower, the closed-loop system utilizes an advanced real-time water filtration system to continuously heat, sanitize and pump a set amount of water measuring as little as 1.5 gallons as it flows from the shower head, down to the drain and then re-circulates back again. Mahdjoubi‘s company, Orbital Systems, claims that it has conducted internal studies that suggest his water recycling technology cuts water usage on average by 90 percent and energy by 80 percent compared to standard showers. In economic terms, he estimates that having a unit installed can translate to a combined water and energy savings of at least €1,000 ($1,351) annually for each person.
“We developed this system based on the values of the future consumer,” says Mahdjoubi. “They’ll eventually be looking at how smart or how efficient a product is while also not having to sacrifice the comforts that people are used to.”
The most common knock on existing shower water recirculating systems is that it requires a noticeable reduction in water pressure. In contrast, Mahdjoubi says the Orbsys system actually improves upon the overall shower experience. Performance enhancements include a dedicated heating unit to maintain a steady, uninterrupted water temperature and beefed-up pressurization that maxes out at a little over six gallons per minute, a notable boost in contrast to the four gallons per minute rate offered by regular household systems. The filtration process was designed to remove 99.9 percent of contaminants, including viruses, to ensure that the water quality is at a level where it’s even safe to drink.
Inspiration for a water-filtering shower came while Mahdjoubi was a student at the University of Lund in Sweden and assigned to work on an undisclosed project at NASA’s Johnson Space Center aimed at helping astronauts survive lengthy space missions. The fact that the International Space Station is equipped with a toilet that recycles urine back into drinking water should give you an idea of how limited basic resources are aboard the satellite. After securing commercial funding, he consulted experts from several fields, including medical engineers who specialized in blood recycling dialysis systems, to assemble and test viable prototypes.
Though the Swedish industrial designer remains tight-lipped about how the technology works, a patent application available online reveals a dual filtering process in which a pre-filter device catches large debris such as hair and dirt while a primary absorbs finer contaminants like bacteria and viruses. The only maintenance required on the part of the user is to replace the filter about once a month, a quick-swapping procedure Mahdjoubi himself demonstrated on CNN’s Blueprint.
However, the technology blog Extreme Tech has disputed Orbital Systems’ 1,000 euro annual savings figure as wildly exaggerated. In an analysis, writer Sebastian Anthony argues that the number should be closer to $200 a year if you take into account that realistically homeowners would be charged a rate of about 15 cents per kWh. He’s naturally also dismissive of the company’s claim that it would take only two years for the shower system to pay for itself since they wouldn’t disclose a total cost for the system and suspects the number was derived from the same “crazy” estimate. When asked, Mahdjoubi declined to declare a hard number for how long it would take for ownership to be cost-effective, reasoning that calculating such an exact point in time would vary depending on the user and region of the world.
“It would depend on the actual behavior,” he explains. “If you don’t use it very often then it’ll take you longer to recoup that money.”
The first two commercial shower units have been installed and put in use at Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, a coastal bathing house in Malmo, Sweden where more 1,000 guests visit during the summer to bathe, swim and before showering off. With the booths constantly occupied throughout the day, Mahdjoubi says the owners have already saved over 100,000 liters (26,417 gallons) and have placed an order for more showers units. Other customers awaiting being to have units installed include a nursing home and sports arena, both of which are located in Sweden.
While the heavy-duty systems are currently only available for businesses within Scandinavia, Mahdjoubi hopes to expand to other parts of Europe within two years. Also in the works is a scaled-down home edition that’s designed to be more affordable, hopefully.
June 8, 2012
You may soon, if you haven’t already, be making your first visit to the beach since last summer. A lot has happened out in the ocean since then, although most of us probably haven’t been paying much attention. Truth is, the sea doesn’t get a whole lot of press, unless a tsunami or shark attack happens.
But, like I said, a lot of unusual things are going on in the ocean these days. Scientists have been doing some innovative research to a get handle on where all this is headed, but they are truly in uncharted waters. As marine biologist Callum Roberts wrote in Newsweek, “With an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before. In most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet.”
Since today is World Oceans Day, here’s a rundown of 10 things we now know about the sea that we didn’t a year ago.
1. The oceans are getting more acidic every day. In fact, according to researchers at Columbia University, acidification is occurring at a rate faster than any time in the last 300 million years, a period that includes four mass extinctions. As the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, oceans absorb it, and it turns into a carbon acid. And that is putting sea creatures at risk, particularly coral, oysters and salmon.
2. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is even greater. The latest on that massive swirl of plastic particles in the North Pacific? It’s way bigger than scientists thought. They’ve known that it’s roughly the size of Texas. But in a new study researchers collected samples from the below the surface, in some cases 100 feet down, and they’ve concluded that the size of the mass may have been underestimated by 2.5 to 27 times. Another study found that small insects known as sea skaters have taken to laying their eggs on the plastic and that that could end up harming crabs that feed on them.
3. Coming soon: Deep sea mining. Advances in robotics, computer mapping and underwater drilling are stirring up interest in mining metals and minerals under the ocean floor. For mining companies, the prospect of finding rich veins of high-quality copper is particularly enticing. Also, later this month three Chinese scientists in a submersible will dive into the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth–which is seen as a prelude to gearing up an underwater mining industry.
4. The Arctic meltdown could make harsh winters more likely. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive, but yet another study, this one by researchers at Cornell, reinforces the theory that warmer water in the Arctic sets off a climatic chain reaction that can result in brutal winters, like last year in Europe, or relentless snowfalls, like those that buried America’s East Coast in February, 2010.
5. Sea life needs to swim farther to survive climate change. After analyzing 50 years of global temperature changes, scientists at the University of Queensland concluded that both the velocity of climate change and the shift in seasonal temperatures will be higher at sea than on land at certain latitudes. And that means that if sea creatures can’t adapt to the rising temperatures, they may have to migrate hundreds of miles if they hope to survive.
6. Looks like tough times ahead for leatherback turtles. They’ve been around for more than 100 million years but some scientists believe leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world, may not make it through the rest of this century. They’re already threatened by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Nino cycles in their nesting grounds in Costa Rica, and scientists are predicting a climate that’s 5 degrees warmer and 25 percent drier on the country’s Pacific coast in coming decades.
7. And not such a happy future for the Great Barrier Reef, either. Industrial development in Australia is a growing threat to the Great Barrier Reef, so much so that it may be designated a world heritage site “in danger” later this year. Australia is experiencing an investment boom from Asia, with over $400 billion worth of projects on the horizon, including coal and natural gas plants and development of new ports.
8. Fukushima radiation is showing up in tuna caught off the California coast. A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that bluefin tuna caught off America’s West Coast are carrying radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima badly damaged in a tsunami last year. Fortunately, the radiation is not at levels that would be harmful to humans.
9. Melting of ice sheets caused an ancient global flood. Analysis of coral reefs near Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets more than 14,000 years ago to a global flood when sea levels around the world rose an average of 46 feet, at a rate 10 times more quickly than they are now. Scientists hope to create a computer model of the mega-flood, which will help them make better predictions of coastal flooding from our modern-day meltdown.
10. And yet, some creatures still find a way to survive. Scientists have known for awhile that microbes have survived for millions of years in the mud of the ocean bottom. But they couldn’t figure out how they stayed alive. Now they know. After probing sediment at the bottom of the Pacific with oxygen sensors, researchers from Denmark found the bacteria are consuming oxygen at extremely slow rates, and that what they’re consuming is organic matter that’s been trapped with them since dinosaurs walked the Earth. Yes, they’ve been chowing on the same meal for millions of years.
Video bonus: It’s hard to find a better ambassador for the sea than Sylvia Earle, who’s been exploring the deep for more than 40 years. Here’s her TED talk from a few years ago, but it’s more relevant than ever. And as a Bonus Bonus, here’s a video slideshow of some of the stranger creatures you’ll ever see, all living under the sea.