May 2, 2013
In the wealthy world, improving the energy system generally means increasing the central supply of reliable, inexpensive and environmentally-friendly power and distributing it through the power grid. Across most of the planet, though, simply providing new energy sources to the millions who are without electricity and depend on burning wood or kerosene for heat and light would open up new opportunities.
With that in mind, engineers and designers have recently created a range of innovative devices that can increase the supply of safe, cheap energy on a user-by-user basis, bypassing the years it takes to extend the power grid to remote places and the resources needed to increase a country’s energy production capacity. Here are a few of the most promising technologies.
1. VOTO: Millions of people around the world use charcoal and wood-fueled stoves on a daily basis. VOTO (above), developed by the company Point Source Power, converts the energy these fires release as heat into electricity, which can power a handheld light, charge a phone or even charge a spare battery. The company initially designed VOTO for backpackers and campers in wealthy countries so they can charge their devices during trips, but is also trying to find a way to make it accessible to residents of the developing world for daily use.
2.Window Socket: This is perhaps the simplest solar charger in existence: Just stick it on a sunny window for 5 to 8 hours with the built-in suction cup, and the solar panels on the back will store about 10 hours worth of electricity that can be used with any device. If there’s no window available, a user can just leave it on any sunny surface, including the ground. Once it’s fully charged, it can be removed and taken anywhere—inside a building, stored around in a bag or carried around in a vehicle. The designers, Kyuho Song and Boa Oh of Yanko Design, created it to resemble a normal wall outlet as closely as possible, so it can be used intuitively without any special instructions.
3. The Berkeley-Darfur Stove: In the past few years, a number of health researchers have come to the same conclusion: that providing a safe, energy-efficient wood-burning cookstove to millions of people in the developing world can directly improve health (by reducing smoke inhalation), aid the environment (by reducing the amount of wood needed for fuel) and alleviate poverty (by reducing the amount of time needed to devote to gather wood every day).
Many projects have pursued this goal, but Potential Energy, a nonprofit dedicated to adapting and scaling technologies to help improve lives in the developing world, is the furthest along, having distributed more than 25,000 of their Berkeley-Darfur Stoves in Darfur and Ethiopia. Their stove’s design achieves these aims with features such as a tapered wind collar, a small fire box opening, nonaligned air vents that reduce the amount of wind allowed to stoke or snuff the fire (which wastes fuel) and ridges that ensure the optimal distance between the fire and pot in terms of fuel efficiency.
4. GravityLight: Along with wood-burning stoves, the kerosene-burning lamps that provide light throughout the developing world have recently become a target for replacement for one of the same reasons: The fumes generated by burning kerosene in closed corners are a major health problem. A seemingly simple solution is GravityLight, developed by the research initiative deciwatt.org.
To power the device, a user fills an included bag with about 20 pounds of rock or dirt, attaches it to the cord hanging down from the device and lifts it upward. The potential energy stored in that lifting motion is then gradually converted to electricity by the GravityLight, which slowly lets the bag downward over the course of about 30 minutes and powers a light or other electrical device during that time. It’s currently priced at about $10, and because it requires no running costs, the development team estimates that the investment will be paid back in about 3 months, as compared to the cost of kerosene.
5. SOCCKET: Soccer—known simply as football in nearly every English-speaking country besides the U.S.—is easily the most popular sport in the world. The newest product of Uncharted Play, a for-profit social enterprise, seeks to take advantage of the millions of people already playing the sport to replace kerosene lamps with electric light generated in a much different manner. Their ball uses an internal kinetically-powered pendulum to generate and store electricity. After about 30 minutes of play, the ball stores enough energy to power an attachable LED lamp for 3 hours. Development of the product was funded via Kickstarter, and the first ones will ship in the next few weeks. A percentage of all retail sales will go to providing SOCCKETs to schools in the developing world.
April 22, 2013
Over the past few decades, researchers have developed biofuels derived from an remarkable variety of organisms—soybeans, corn, algae, rice and even fungi. Whether synthesized into ethanol or biodiesel, though, all of these fuels suffer from the same limitation: They have to be refined and blended with heavy amounts of conventional, petroleum-based fuels to run in existing engines.
Though this is far from the only current problem with biofuels, a new approach by researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK appears to solve at least this particular issue with one fell swoop. As they write today in an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team has genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to produce molecules that are interchangeable to the ones in diesel fuels already sold commercially. The products of this bacteria, if generated on a large-scale, could theoretically go directly into the millions of car and truck engines currently running on diesel worldwide—without the need to be blended with petroleum-based diesel.
The group, led by John Love, accomplished the feat by mixing and matching genes from several different bacteria species and inserting them into the E. coli used in the experiment. These genes each code for particular enzymes, so when the genes are inserted into the E. coli, the bacteria gains the ability to synthesize these enzymes. As a result, it also gains the ability to perform the same metabolic reactions that those enzymes perform in each of the donor bacteria species.
By carefully selecting and combining metabolic reactions, the researchers built an artificial chemical pathway piece-by-piece. Through this pathway, the genetically modified E. coli growing and reproducing in a petri dish filled with a high-fat broth were able to absorb fat molecules, convert them into hydrocarbons and excrete them as a waste product.
Hydrocarbons are the basis for all petroleum-based fuels, and the particular molecules they engineered the E. coli to produce are the same ones present in commercial diesel fuels. So far, they’ve only produced tiny quantities of this bacterial biodiesel, but if they were able to grow these bacteria on a massive scale and extract their hydrocarbon products, they’d have a ready-made diesel fuel. Of course, it remains to be seen whether fuel produced in this way will be able to compete in terms of cost with conventional diesel.
Additionally, energy never comes from thin air—and the energy contained within this bacterial fuel mostly originates in the broth of fatty acids that the bacteria are grown on. As a result, depending on the source of these fatty acids, this new fuel could be subject to some of the same criticisms leveled at biofuels currently in production.
For one, there’s the argument that converting food (whether corn, soybeans or other crops) into fuel causes ripple effects in global food market, increasing the volatility of food prices, as a UN study from last year found. Additionally, if the goal of developing new fuels is to fight climate change, many biofuels fall dramatically short, despite their environmentally-friendly image. Using ethanol made from corn (the most widely used biofuel in the U.S.), for example, is likely no better than burning conventional gasoline in terms of carbon emissions, and maybe actually be worse, due to all the energy that goes into growing the crop and processing it info fuel.
Whether this new bacteria-derived diesel suffers from these same problems largely depends upon what sort of fatty acid source is eventually used to grow the bacteria on a commercial scale—whether it would by synthesized from a potential food crop (say, corn or soy oil), or whether it could come from a presently-overlooked energy source. But the new approach already has one major advantage: Just the steps needed to refine other biofuels so they can be used in engines use energy and generate carbon emissions. By skipping these steps, the new bacterial biodiesel could be an energy efficient fuel choice from the start.
April 19, 2013
Last year, to celebrate the 42nd Earth Day, we took a look at 10 of the most surprising, disheartening, and exciting things we’d learned about our home planet in the previous year—a list that included discoveries about the role pesticides play in bee colony collapses, the various environmental stresses faced by the world’s oceans and the millions of unknown species are still out in the environment, waiting to be found.
This year, in time for Earth Day on Monday, we’ve done it again, putting together another list of 10 notable discoveries made by scientists since Earth Day 2012—a list that ranges from specific topics (a species of plant, a group of catfish) to broad (the core of planet Earth), and from the alarming (the consequences of climate change) to the awe-inspiring (Earth’s place in the universe).
1. Trash is accumulating everywhere, even in Antarctica. As we’ve explored the most remote stretches of the planet, we’ve consistently left behind a trail of one supply in particular: garbage. Even in Antarctica, a February study found (PDF), abandoned field huts and piles of trash are mounting. Meanwhile, in the fall, a new research expedition went to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, counting nearly 70,000 pieces of garbage over the course of a month at sea.
2. Climate change could erode the ozone layer. Until recently, atmospheric scientists viewed climate change and the disintegration of the ozone layer as entirely distinct problems. Then, in July, Harvard researcher Jim Anderson (who won a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for his work) led a team that published the troubling finding that the two might be linked. Some warm summer storms, they discovered, can pull moisture up into the stratosphere, an atmospheric layer 6 miles up. Through a chain of chemical reactions, this moisture can lead to the disintegration of ozone, which is crucial for protecting us from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Climate change, unfortunately, is projected to cause more of these sorts of storms.
3. This flower lives on exactly two cliffs in Spain. In September, Spanish scientists told us about one of the most astounding survival stories in the plant kingdom: Borderea chouardii, an extremely rare flowering plant that is found on only two adjacent cliffs in the Pyrenees. The species is believed to be a relic of the Tertiary Period, which ended more than 2 million years ago, and relies on several different local ant species to spread pollen between its two local populations.
4. Some catfish have learned to kill pigeons. In December, a group of French scientists revealed a phenomenon they’d carefully been observing over the previous year: a group of catfish in Southwestern France had learned how to leap onto shore, briefly strand themselves, and swim back into the water to consume their prey. With more than 2,000,000 Youtube views so far, this is clearly one of the year’s most widely enjoyed scientific discoveries.
5. Fracking for natural gas can trigger moderate earthquakes. Scientists have known for a while that whenever oil and gas are extracted from the ground at a large scale, seismic activity can be induced. Over the past few years, evidence has mounted that injecting water, sand and chemicals into bedrock to cause gas and oil to flow upward—a practice commonly known as fracking—can cause earthquakes by lubricating pre-existing faults in the ground. Initially, scientists found correlations between fracking sites and the number of small earthquakes in particular areas. Then, in March, other researchers found evidence that a medium-sized 2011 earthquake in Oklahoma(which registered a 5.7 on the moment magnitude scale) was likely caused by injecting wastewater into wells to extract oil.
6. Our planet’s inner core is more complicated than we thought. Despite decades of research, new data on the iron and nickel ball 3,100 miles beneath our feet continue to upset our assumptions about just how the earth’s core operates. A paper published last May showed that iron in the outer parts of the inner core is losing heat much more quickly than previously estimated
, suggesting that it might hold more radioactive energy than we’d assumed, or that novel and unknown chemical interactions are occurring. Ideas for directly probing the core are widely regarded as pipe dreams, so our only options remains studying it from afar, largely by monitoring seismic waves.
7. The world’s most intense natural color comes from an African fruit. When a team of researchers looked closely at the blue berries of Pollia condensata, a wild plant that grows in East Africa, they found something unexpected: it uses an uncommon structural coloration method to produce the most intense natural color ever measured. Instead of pigments, the fruit’s brilliant blue results from nanoscale-size cellulose strands layered in twisting shapes, which which interact with each other to scatter light in all directions.
8. Climate change will let ships cruise across the North Pole. Climate change is sure to create countless problems for many people around the world, but one specific group is likely to see a significant benefit from it: international shipping companies. A study published last month found that rising temperatures make it probable that during summertime, reinforced ice-breaking ships will be able to sail directly across the North Pole—an area currently covered by up to 65 feet of ice—by the year 2040. This dramatic shift will shorten shipping routes from North America and Europe to Asia.
9. One bacteria species conducts electricity. In October, a group of Danish researchers revealed that the seafloor mud of Aarhus’ harbor was coursing with electricity due to an unlikely source: mutlicellular bacteria that behave like tiny electrical cables. The organisms, the team found, built structures that traveled several centimeters down into the sediment and conduct measurable levels of electricity. The researchers speculate that this seemingly strange behavior is a byproduct of the way of the bacteria harvests energy from the nutrients buried in the soil.
10. Our Earth isn’t alone. Okay, this one might not technically be a discovery about Earth, but over the past year we have learned a tremendous amount about what our Earth isn’t: the only habitable planet in the visible universe. The pace of exoplanet detection has accelerated rapidly, with a total of 866 planets in other solar systems discovered so far. As our methods have become more refined, we’ve been able to detect smaller and smaller planets, and just yesterday, scientists finally discovered a pair of distant planets in the habitable zone of their stars that are relatively close in size to Earth, making it more likely than ever that we might have spied an alien planet that actually supports life.
April 5, 2013
In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy last fall, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo joked to President Barack Obama that New York “has a 100-year flood every two years now.” On the heels of flooding from 2011′s Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, it certainly seemed that way. Given that climate change has sparked multiple major storms and raised sea levels, and that urban and agricultural development have impeded our natural flood-management systems, chronic flooding could be here to stay.
Wetlands, which include swamps, lagoons, marshes and mangroves, help mitigate the problem by trapping floodwaters. “Historically, wetlands in Indiana and other Midwestern states were great at intercepting large runoff events and slowing down the flows,” environmental engineer Meghna Babbar-Sebens of Oregon State University said in a recent statement. ”With increases in runoff, what was once thought to be a 100-year flood event is now happening more often.”
One key problem is that most of our wetlands no longer exist. By the time the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (PDF) was passed in 1989, more than half of the wetlands in the United States had been paved over or filled in. In some states, the losses are much greater: California has lost 91 percent of its wetlands, and Indiana, 85 percent. In recent years, scientists have been honing the art of wetlands restoration, and now a recent study published in the journal Ecological Engineering by scientists at Oregon State University is helping to make new wetlands easier to plan and design.
The research focused on Eagle Creek Watershed, ten miles north of Indianapolis, and identified nearly 3,000 potential sites where wetlands could be restored or created to capture runoff. Through modeling, the scientists discovered that a little wetland goes a long way. “These potential wetlands cover only 1.5% of the entire watershed area, but capture runoff from 29% (almost a third) of the watershed area,” the study authors wrote.
Their next step was to begin developing a web-based design system to allow farmers, agencies and others to identify areas optimal for new or restored wetlands and to collaborate in designing them. The recently launched system, called Wrestore, uses Eagle Creek as a test-piece.
The tool has a variety of functions: It helps identify a region’s rivers and streams, divides watersheds into smaller sub-watersheds and shows where runoff is likely to collect—places conducive to building wetlands. If a city wants to reduce flooding in its watershed, the site’s interactive visualization engine displays various conservation options and allows groups of city planners to collaborate on the design of new wetlands.
“Users can look at various scenarios of implementing practices in their fields or watershed, test their effectiveness via the underlying hydrologic and water quality models, and then give feedback to an ‘interactive optimization’ tool for creating better designs,” Babbar-Sebens, lead author of the study and the lead scientist on the web tool, told Surprising Science.
It provides an easy way for landowners to tackle such environmental challenges. “The reason we used a web-based design system is because it gives people the flexibility to try and solve their problems of flooding or water quality from their homes,” Babbar-Sebens said.
As the spring flood season approaches and environmental degradation continues throughout the nation, a new tool for mitigating wetland loss with targeted, minimal wetland gain is certainly a timely innovation. Babbar-Sebens and her team have been testing it out on Eagle Creek Watershed and will be fine-tuning it throughout the spring. ”There is a lot of interest in the watershed community for something like this,” she said.
March 31, 2013
You probably think of the Arctic as a cold, frozen tundra—home to lichen, polar bears and scattered herds of reindeer. In many places, this view would be accurate, but in a few relatively southern areas in Canada, Alaska and Russia, warming temperatures over the past few decades have allowed new types of plants, such as shrubs, to take root.
And by 2050—if current warming trends continue—we’ll see a dramatically different ecosystem across the Arctic, starting with something that’s largely unknown in the area currently: trees. According to research published today in Nature Climate Change, tree cover in the Arctic could increase by more than 50 percent over the next few decades.
The research team, which included scientists from a number of universities and was led by Richard Pearson of the American Museum of Natural History, made the calculation based off of current projections of how the Arctic’s climate will change by 2050. So far, temperatures in the region have risen about twice as fast as those for the planet as a whole.
They created a model that predicts which class of plants (various grasses, mosses, shrubs or trees) will grow given a particular temperature and precipitation range expected for the future; for each spot on a map of the Arctic, they fed in the 2050 projections. Doing this kind of vegetative modeling for the Arctic, they say, is relatively straightforward compared to doing it for somewhere like the tropics, because there are hard limits on the temperature and growing season length that given plant types can tolerate.
They found that tree cover will expand drastically, covering up to 52 percent more land area than currently, rising far north of the current tree line in Alaska and Canada. This new tree cover will mostly come at the expense of areas currently covered by shrubs, but shrubs will take over places now dominated by tundra plants (lichens and mosses), and some areas presently under ice will convert into tundra.
In effect, the area’s warming climate and lengthening growing season will shift all current vegetation zones to more northerly and colder regions. Already, these vegetation zones have shifted an average of five degrees of latitude over the past 30 years–in other words,
the vegetation in one spot resembles how a location five degrees south looked 30 years ago .
But by 2050, this shift will be even more dramatic—perhaps equaling 20 degrees of latitude—and a projected 48 to 69 percent of the Arctic’s vegetated areas will switch to a different class of plants. Some rare plant species could be at risk of extinction if they’re not able to migrate as quickly as the vegetation zones move.
Because plants are the base of any food chain, this conversion will have wide-ranging effects, both locally and elsewhere. “These impacts would extend far beyond the Arctic region,” Pearson said in a press statement. “For example, some species of birds seasonally migrate from lower latitudes and rely on finding particular polar habitats, such as open space for ground-nesting.” Their migrations patterns would presumably be altered by the growth of forests on what had been open tundra.
Most troubling, the conversion of white, snow-covered land to dark vegetation will further
affect the warming of the planet. Because darker colors absorb more radiation than the white of ice and snow, shifting large masses of land to a darker color is projected to further accelerate warming, creating a positive feedback loop: more warming leads to a greener Arctic, which leads to more warming.
Given all the other problems that the area is rapidly encountering as the climate changes—melting glaciers, increasing oil exploration and hybridizing bear species—it’s clear that the Arctic will be one of the most environmentally fragile regions of the planet over the coming century.