Categories
Environment News Science

Ocean Cleanup

plastic-bottle-beach
We have all heard about the problem of the oceans getting cluttered up with plastic. Unfortunately, solving the problem of marine plastic pollution is not as simple as picking up all of the pieces of plastic. While a lot of plastic pollution is concentrated in the gyres, it is not floating in a single mass on the surface. Pieces of plastic are distributed vertically, through the water column. Plastic breaks down into tiny particles in the ocean, making clean-up efforts very difficult. One of the many challenges of cleanup is how to remove the plastics from the ocean without also removing or damaging marine life.

The Natural Resources Defense Council website has lots of information related to the problem. They also describe some of the possible solutions as also being problematic. This is what they say about bioplastics and their marketing:

“The term “bioplastics” is increasingly being used to refer to a wide range of products, some of which are primarily or entirely plant-derived, others of which contain fossil-fuel-derived plastic, and all of which might be biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, some combination, or none of the above. While many companies are marketing these products as “green” alternatives to traditional plastics, the reality is more complex. Even biodegradable and compostable plastics are typically designed to break down efficiently only in commercial composting systems; on land or in water, these plastics generally persist long enough to cause potential hazards to water systems and wildlife. Any plastic, regardless of whether it is derived from plants or from fossil fuels, should be properly disposed of, and ideally should be recyclable and/or compostable to avoid the need to landfill.

Besides the issues related to improper disposal, production of bioplastics is also potentially problematic. Corn-based bioplastics are some of the most widely available bioplastics today — while these represent a positive step in the growing market toward finding alternatives to non-renewable, fossil-fuel-derived plastic, they rely on the production of corn, which raises concerns about agricultural impacts on land use, food production and global warming. These production impacts are all significantly reduced by specifying bioplastic products made from waste-based agricultural residues (residues left over after harvest from an existing agricultural land use which would otherwise be treated as waste). Replacing some current plastics with renewable bioplastics (especially those made using agricultural residues) is a promising way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but more research is needed to develop better products which will reduce the reliance on non-renewable resources and address concerns associated with marine plastic pollution”.

Interesting food for thought, so bioplastics do not seem to offer a solution. What we need to do is stop putting plastics into the oceans and try to get the plastic out that is already there.

The Ocean Clean up organization believe they have found a viable way to proceed with the removal part of my great plan, and have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise the money to put their idea into full production. 19-year-old Boyan Slat has been leading a team that have designed a system that helps the ocean to clean itself. The system uses a series of solid floating barriers that are placed in the ocean. The currents and wind force the ocean to pass under the barriers, but anything that floats or is neutral in the water (plastic for example) cannot pass and so is collected in the boom. The plastic collected can then be reused. The website has a more detailed explanation and a glossy video.

This concentration of the waste means that it can then be removed from the booms easily, and at much lower cost both economically and environmentally that using other methods. Check out the concept here.

So all they need is to raise $2 million to step up into the next phase. At the time of writing the crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $765,000, and with 80 days to go it looks hopeful to me. If you have a few quid to spare it might be a good investment.

Readers might like to have a look at a post I wrote earlier this year about the INSS meeting in Charlotte. The post includes a review and photos of an art installation called “The Real Toy Story”, that includes a giant baby stuffed with waste plastic taken from the sea.

Categories
Environment News Science Technology

Protecting Our Coral Reefs

Last month the US military announced that they had dropped four unarmed bombs into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park last week during a training exercise that went wrong. Two aircraft dropped two bombs each, one an inert practice bomb but the other an unarmed lazer guided explosive bomb into the World Heritage marine park. The bombs fell into an area away from the coral and the military report that they did not explode.

The action obviously caused outrage within the environmentalist and marine protection community, and it led me into looking into the state of our reefs today.

According to Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network we have lost 20% of the planet’s coral reef in the last 20 years. They also sate that a further 35% is in serious danger. We are talking about an area in total of 284,800 square kilometres of the seabed that is currently inhabited by coral.

A Coral Reef
A Coral Reef

Anyone who has ever been to the Great Barrier Reef will have seen the effects that mass tourism had on the reef in the past, before it became better regulated. Large parts of the reef lie dead. Overfishing is also one of the major causes for concern, as is climate change, the change in sea levels and the ever growing problem of rubbish (particularly plastics) that float around the reefs.

Recently however scientists at the University of Marche in Italy have discovered that some of the substances used in suncream could damage both the reefs and other maritime life. This presents another serious problem, as millions of us splash it on before going into the sea, washing zinc, various nanoparticles and petroleum derivatives into the water and over the reefs.

We could call it involuntary pollution, and we can debate the risk factor (risk to my skin versus risk to ocean life), but you will be pleased to hear that some cosmetic companies have started to produce a more ecologically sound form of suncream.

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The UK based company Aethic for example produce an Eco-compatible suncream called Sôvée, and they are working with King’s College London to develop a suncream that mimics the capacity that coral naturally has to protect itself from the sun’s rays.

Any development could have multiple uses, and at least help to remove one of the dangers that are threatening these structures.

Categories
Environment News Science

Carbon Emissions and Aviation

On Sunday I will be lifting off into the wild blue yonder once more for a quick scoot across the Atlantic from Boston to Dublin and on to Milan. This is a rather regular occurrence nowadays. Flying is part of my life and for the kids, who have been on more aircraft than trains.

The environmental impact of all of this folly though is tied up in a rather controversial debate. On the one hand we have those who say that airline carbon and pollution emissions is minimal, others disagree. It seems that between 2 and 5% of possible global warming type emissions come from aviation. Not a lot we might think, when we bear in mind that 10% comes from car use, and about 17% from agricultural food production, but we all eat, we do not all fly.

This year the European Union was to start taxing airlines on their carbon emissions, in line with the way they tax other industry on theirs. This might seem fair to some, not to others, particularly large airlines and countries. Here in the USA a law was passed to state that US airlines could not participate in the scheme, and so could not pay the tax. China, India and others followed, and so the scheme has been postponed.

A Modern Jet Engine
A Modern Jet Engine

So back to my flight on Sunday. Between us, I and my family will produce about 12 metric tons of carbon dioxide in our time in the air. The average European produces about 10 a year, Americans more like 19 0r 20 and the average African about 0.3 tons per year.

Oh to put things in perspective the global average is 1.3 metric tons per year per person, and the 1.1 billion people who live on the continent of Africa produces about 7% of the emissions that the 0.6 billion population of North America produce.

So taken in terms of people and not percentages, flying is extremely polluting. But people are not going to stop flying. The aviation industry is ever expanding, even vegetables fly nowadays.

One way that aircraft engineers are trying to cut down on emissions is to design lighter and more fuel efficient engines. Weight is a big problem in flying, and it is our old friend 3D printing who might come to the rescue.

A company called CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and the French company Snecma, has created the LEAP engine — an acronym for “leading edge aviation propulsion” that the company hopes reflects just how innovative the new aircraft component is. LEAP has many futuristic features, including a 3-D-printed nozzle, the part of the plane responsible for burning fuel.

3D printing allows engineers to produce objects in materials that either would be too expensive or impossible to make using conventional techniques, and they can use lightweight materials or ceramics as is the case with the new CFM engine to substitute heavy metal parts. Check out this article in CNN for details.

Over the last couple of weeks an aeroplane has made a trans America flight using solar power, and this is just part of its round the world trip. A whole new concept in low carbon emission flight, although currently a bit slow.

Another possibility is to use organic jet fuel. Although this may seem strange, as long ago as 2009 Air New Zealand conducted a test flight using an organic jet fuel mix that seemed to demonstrate a 60% cut in carbon emissions.

Here is a link to an article in the New York Times about aviation and carbon developments and some more data about carbon emissions in Africa if I have tickled your interest. And as always, I am all ears.

Categories
Environment News Science

Mining the Seabed

Last year I wrote about the possibility of sending robots to asteroids to mine them for their metals, and although this might sound a little far fetched there are companies that exist to promote and make the idea possible.

In this posting I would like to draw attention to proposals for mineral mining a little closer to home. The International Seabed Authority (part of the UN) released a report last week about how it intends to manage the extraction of metal rich rock from the seabed.

The sea floor contains gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and other metals, and it now seems that the mining companies have the engineering capability to harvest it. The prices are high for these metals too, so they also have some economic push to help them along.

Licenses to prospect have already been granted, so it seems only a matter of time until companies are given permission to start removing pieces of the sea floor.

A hydrothermal vent under the ocean
A Hydrothermal Vent

What they are interested in are pieces of the chimneys of hydrothermal vents which contain many of these metals in high quantities. Some estimates related to the bed of the Eastern Pacific Ocean give an idea of the amount of materials that are down there, seven billion tonnes of manganese, 340 million tonnes of nickel, 290 million tonnes of copper and 78 million tonnes of cobalt.

This is a completely new field for mining companies though, nobody has experience in this kind of work. But the only way to gain experience is through actually doing the job, so the authorities are in a tricky position. How can they give licenses to a company with no track record in the field? Surely that means accepting a trial and error system that will inevitably lead to accidents and pollution. There are plenty of recent examples of deep sea oil drilling going very wrong, and that is after many years of experience.

And these hydrothermal vents host life that only exists in the unusual conditions that they create, what will happen to those highly developed and particular creatures and plants?

So I ask the possibly false question of sustainability. We all use these minerals, they are in everything we touch but we don’t tend to think about where they come from. Mining is a dirty business in any situation, and by definition it cannot be sustainable as far as I can see because we are dealing with finite quantities of materials that will not reproduce themselves.

But should we or indeed can we draw a line? Asteroids, the seabed, the Antarctic, where next?

Categories
Environment How To Guides

How to be a little greener

We all leave a footprint on the world, just by being alive we contribute to environmental degradation. No matter what you do, you can’t eliminate your effect (offset it maybe) on the world, but you can minimise it.

In this article I am going to look at some very simple things you can do to reduce the impact you have on the planet, making you a greener individual.

Water Usage

The amount of water we use has a big impact on the environment, as well as other people. Last April I posted an article which asked you to question your usage of water. I have included a brief summary of the article

Of all the water on earth, just 0.007% is drinkable, and whilst our usage of water and the number of people on earth are both rapidly growing, water supplies aren’t. Drought is a real issue in many areas of the world and one in nine people don’t have access to safe drinking water.

Rainwater storage tank
Wall mounted water butts are becoming more popular – a great way to collect and store rainwater.

Excessive use (and arguably wastage) of water via things like regular use of hose pipes and using water hungry appliances (like washing machines) when they have spare capacity, can easily be reduced, and can significantly decrease our water usage.

In the comments, there was some great feedback. Jonny suggested using a water butt to collect rainwater to water your garden, saying “it is really shocking to think that many people use drinking water to keep the lawn green“. Shane told us how he plays 5 minute songs when having a shower, so he know when it’s time to get out, and Jean noted how he tries to fix leaks as soon as he finds them, as they are a massive waste of water – and money!

Buy Local

Another step you can take which will reduce your carbon footprint is choosing local. In 2009, I wrote an article on the technology behind food, discussing the journey food takes, and the impact it has on the planet, getting it to our table. Although the figures might have slightly changed, the concept behind the article is still the same: buying local produce significantly reduces your carbon footprint.

Local doesn’t even have to mean that close. Ideally, within 20 miles of the shop you buy is the best sort of ‘local’, however even food that has been grown within 200 miles is much better than food that has been flown across the globe.

Local food not only promotes energy conservation, but it also supports local farmers. Farm shops are a really good place you can get local food, why not check out BigBarn, a site designed to help you find where you can get locally produced food.

Farmers shop
Farm shops are a great place to source local food.

Reuse, Repair and Recycle Technology

It is important to use technology to its full potential, and to keep using it until it is no longer viable. Once something stops working, or is no longer able to fulfil your needs, whenever possible, repair or upgrade it. If your PC is starting to run a little sluggish, try to speed it up again (maybe visit my speed up your computer article) add some more RAM, upgrade the graphics card, and consider increasing the storage capacity.

As Jonny wrote last year, electronic waste is a real problem, computer components can be hard to recycle, and are often toxic. Therefore it is important to try to reduce electronic waste, and when it does occur, ensure it is disposed or/recycled properly.

If you have reused and repaired a device as much as possible, the next step is recycling. Recycling electronic waste is a growing industry, computer recycling and schemes which enable you to recycle mobile phones, so your technology is either properly recycled, or repaired and reused, either resold locally, or distributed to developing countries are becoming ever more common. Many firms (like the one I link to above) are even paying you for your old technology – reduce your ecological footprint, and get paid, what more could you ask for!

Save Energy

There seems to be a growing resistance to nuclear power, fossil fuels are running out and this matched with the lack of investment in renewables, is leading us to a global energy crisis. Every individual can make a difference, by reducing their consumption.

Electrical energyTurning off devices instead of leaving them on standby, switching to energy bulbs, and insulate your home and relatively simple and cheap ways to save energy, which we have probably all heard many times. Steps which involve using smarter technologies, such as getting Remote Heating Control installed and choosing smarter energy using devices are also good ways to save power, and are now also becoming more common.

In Summary

Four of the best ways you can reduce your environment impact are to: be more frugal with water; try and buy local produce; maintain technology for as long as possible, and then recycle it; and reducing your energy usage.

Feel free to critique any of my points, and by all means, suggest your own ideas below.

Categories
Media News

Boston Bombs and the Billboard Problem

As I am sure many of you will already know, last week was a difficult one to say the least for my fellow citizens of Boston and Cambridge.

The events have caused a debate here though about the use of advertising technology. In the US many places host digital billboards. They are enormous, bright, attract attention and the content can be changed at will, using a computer and not a pole with wallpaper paste on it. Many change every 10 or 20 seconds, allowing great generation of revenue for both the publicity companies and the cities and states that license their use.

Digital Billboards In Use
Digital Billboards In Use

I first saw something like these while watching the Premier League, boards that changed by the side of the pitch through a disk system, but the modern equivalent are just like watching giant TV’s, in HD quality no less.

So why the debate? Well it turns out that the FBI have contracts with the largest billboard operators, and they can take over any number of the appliances and show what they want. In the case of Boston the contract is with Clear Channel Communications, and this allowed the FBI to show the photos of the two presumed bombers. Direct to the public marketing, for those of us still living without TV and smartphone (yes I am).

But many groups argue that the billboards themselves are dangerous and present a distraction to drivers, and many are placed in residential areas causing numerous complaints. Light pollution as much as skyline destruction are both problems when they are placed in residential or historic areas. The City of Los Angeles has in fact recently taken many of them offline on these grounds as this article explains, and pressure groups exist that campaign for their removal.

A Distraction?
A Distraction or an eyesore?

In all fairness they are not all trying to ban them, but to place them only in commercial districts where they do not cause distraction, but as you might imagine this does not go down too well. Distraction (or attention anyway) is after all one of their main goals.

But there is a lot of money involved. The city of Chicago hopes to raise $155 million by placing billboards throughout the city. The City recently approved a deal as this article explains.

The State of New Jersey has just struck down a ban on their use, again hoping to raise much needed funds.

The FBI argue that they are useful tools in crime prevention, stating that they have already apprehended 51 fugitives after posting their faces on billboards, and insist on their position as a public good. The debate rages and I am sure will continue on for some time.

The Scenic America website offers links to several safety studies regarding digital billboards for the interested reader.

On a lighter note and thinking about my post last week I wonder if they are on Shodan and easily hacked? That might be interesting.

Categories
Media News Science Technology

Report from the Nanotechnology Lecture

Today I would like to look at some of the issues raised at the Nanotechnology lecture that I posted about last week.

The lecture was delivered by Michael Bruch, head of Research and Design of Allianz insurance company. He brought up some interesting points about nanotechnology and its production.

One problem that he raised is that we do not really know how much nanotech we are surrounded by as products containing engineered nano-particles do not have to be labeled.

Many cosmetics, sun creams and sports related products use the technique, but also food manufacturers, so it is really difficult to understand how much exposure we have to these particles. Scratch resistant paint and darkened windscreens are already here, but self repairing paint is also under trial, as is paint that changes colour.

Another problem is that their manufacturing processes are practically unregulated. Most of these materials are produced by small companies that have little or no safety procedures. And it is unclear what type of procedures would be of use.

This is because it is unclear how exposure affects the human body. These particles can enter the body in various ways, and have the capability of passing directly from the blood to the brain. This means that they can be used for medical cures such as in fighting cancer, but also that once in your body they can transfer everywhere.

Nanotechnology Lecture Panel - Jonny Hankins
The panel of speakers

Recent studies have found that exposure to nano carbon tubes does affect the heart in mice however, and similarities are drawn with asbestos as many of the fibres look similar. One complicating factor however is that materials used on a nano scale have different properties, so something that is inert such as gold might be toxic at nano scale or the other way round.

Further problems arise when we think about end of life treatment. Much of the expert knowledge is not passed down the line to those responsible for disposal of these products, so they may not be treated correctly when it comes to recycling or destroying them.

All of the above means that the nanotech industry brings with it an enormous amount of risk. Health risks are easy to see, but also environmental risks. We do not know how much is released into the atmosphere today, nor whether there will be industrial accidents and what their effects might be.

Regulation is difficult to draw up however as terms and definitions have not been agreed upon. Voluntary codes seem to be the only attempt at implementing some form of standardization.

What is safe to say is that this technology is certainly changing our lives, but that as it is developing so quickly little is known about how to treat it or the consequences it might bring.

I made a speech myself, the outline of which is below. Thanks to everyone who watched via streaming, the photos were taken from the live stream by Christopher.

Jonny Hankins nanotechnology lecture
Me at the lecture

Comment by J Hankins of the Bassetti Foundation at the Bocconi University in Milan.

I would agree with previous comments that there is definitely a role to play for insurers in innovation.

I would also argue that the lecture Dr Bruch has just delivered is not only about innovation, but also about responsibility and obligation.

Innovation is a complex phenomenon combining science, technology, finance, management, enterprise and organizations to achieve a goal that is not only scientific but also entrepreneurial and political. The ultimate use of any results will be outside science, even though they greatly need the contribution of science, in what is by definition a continuous process.

Taken literally, innovation is something that comes about when an advance in knowledge, which is a result of a discovery, is accompanied by and combined with technology, and the power to put that advancement into practice (capital). It is not simply discovery. It is something more than that. It is part of a new historical situation arising from a combination of knowledge, technology, know-how, and the risks/opportunities developed and implemented by business or other powers. That is, it is something that was not there before and which has come about through a “new” combination of knowledge and power, bringing change into the social world. This change is appropriated, negotiated, lived through, or fought, by people – whether as citizens or as consumers.

Innovation, however, is also creativity, which necessarily implies unforeseeable change. It implies increased risk/opportunity and social power. It leads to unpredictability in the socio-political field (new institutions, types of relationship, of production, of war, and new powers), in the technical and economic realms (new materials, sources of energy, tools and categories of goods), and the cultural-aesthetic field (new styles, fashions, tastes and habits).

If we look at the interest that governments currently show in nanotechnology development this relationship to power becomes easier to see. As an agent of change, risk is intrinsic to all innovation, and I would argue that it should be carried out responsibly.

The development of nanotechnology in some ways exemplifies the problem of responsibility in innovation perfectly. As we have seen in Dr Bruch’s lecture, developments in the medical field offer new treatments for cancer, in engineering we are seeing ever lighter and stronger construction materials, and these advances will continue to ever more change the way we live and our surroundings.

But as stated, these developments are not without risk, and risk requires responsibility to be taken.

It is the entire process of innovation that must be responsible through the actions of all involved in it, in all of their different roles. It would help to have a societal understanding and a political framework in place for collaborative deliberation and for a collective capacity to rethink the fundamentals of our own premises and assumptions as we go along, changing the world we live in.

I would argue that Dr Bruch’s presentation can be seen as a call for responsible innovation in its entirety. In some ways he is saying that a company can only insure you if you play your part, as the innovator you must be transparent and thorough. But the cover is also reliant upon other actors. The consumer must be educated and informed so that when they purchase something they do it knowingly. This requires reliable information on the part of the media as well as an absence of political manoeuvring. The regulator figure is also necessary, as they must inform and orchestrate the communication that underlies their decision making and intervention.

The fact that insurance cover is seen as necessary before investment means that companies that cannot find insurance cover have difficulty securing funding for their products. This puts the insurance companies in an interesting position, as they have a direct influence on the innovation process. In some ways they become the gatekeeper, allowing those that display best practices to pass, and those who may not demonstrate an appreciation of the consequences of their work may find finance difficult.

If we look at the risk analysis in Dr Bruch’s lecture we find that it is necessarily very widely drawn, sometimes even vague as the spectrum of possible effects is large and the time scale immeasurable. This does not mean however that it is not important or should be overlooked however.

If we have no loss history, as in the case of nanotechnology, how can we measure the risk involved? Can we gain foresight? Can we use the experience of the insurance industry to create an algorithm for future risk that is not based on case history. If so could we in fact do the same for responsibility?

The examples of needs and obligations given in Dr Bruch’s lecture are not only applicable to nanotechnology however. The process required for the adequate testing of exposure levels, medical studies, political decisions, the drawing up of regulation and its implementation are present throughout society. We cannot believe that ad-hoc regulation is an answer, because by definition it can only be implemented late on in the innovation process, when the factors that may be foreseeable have been measured, standardized and formalized, and we should remember that many other factors that are more difficult to see will also play their part.

Regulation is necessary, but if we accept that it can only appear late in the innovation process it cannot be the basis for our goal. The innovation process itself must be imbued with responsibility, its design and implementation must try to take implications for the future of present actions into account.

As Dr Bruch mentioned perceptual risk is also an issue that needs to be addressed. Here we move into the political arena, an arena that should certainly not be overlooked given the influence of national, international and global politics in nanotechnology. The management of the perception of risk is as real as the management of risk itself, as perception affects decision-making.

If I could raise some questions to the audience I would like to think more about ‘stewardship’, the responsibility insurance companies hold in granting cover to operators in the nanotech industry and how a premium can be calculated in the face of such uncertainty and indeterminacy.

Categories
Business Environment Science Technology

E-Waste and Computer Recycling

I am by no means a ‘techie’ as Christopher calls himself, but a quick look round my house reveals a quite astounding history. In various cupboards I find an HP desktop computer from about 10 years ago, very rarely if ever used, another obsolete Hitachi desktop from 15 years ago, my last Chinese laptop (the lid broke off), an IBM Thinkpad, an HP laptop, an old Vaio and even an Ollivetti laptop from 20 years ago.

I have never thrown them out for various reasons, one being security, another being that one day I might need my undergraduate dissertation for something and the third being that I want to know what happens to them when they are taken away.

Recently I have learned that all is not quite what it seems with recycling of computers too, and this makes my quandary all the more difficult.

Chinese workers take apart electronic trash on the street in Guiyu, China.

Several companies offer to recycle your old computer for you, and an enormous industry has grown up around the trade in old technology. In China entire cities have been born that specialize in taking our old stuff, but I feel that recycling is a bit of a big word to use for the ensuing process, as it has positive connotations. The computers are dismantled and all of the re usable pieces taken away, then the rest is dumped in a large pile. People from the surrounding areas scratch a living by doing a bit of home made scavenging, be that boiling components on their cooker at home or dipping cables in acid baths to extract the tiny bits of semi precious metals that they contain. Obviously this is done without regulation, and the results are often poisoning for those involved and the surrounding areas. See this photo essay about the city of Guiyu pictured above, probably the largest e-dumping ground on Earth today, and where a large portion of the products in question end up.

Another possibility is that the computers are shipped as donations to the Third World. These donations come in containers, not packaged in cardboard however but just thrown in, so although some do work, the majority don’t. The recipients have to unload them and try each one to see if it is usable. Those that don’t have to be dumped, and can be found piled up in heaps or abandoned by the roadside outside the larger African Cities, again to poison the ground etc.

This video from Ghana goes into greater detail.

India has some recycling sites and used to import waste for processing but now the problem is that the country itself is now a major producer of waste as it becomes one of the most technology saturated countries on the planet. And India is not alone, consumer societies all over the ex developing world are hungry for new technology, and obsolescence is just round the corner. This short article in Time expands upon the argument.

Large sums of money are involved as we would imagine, but the industry is practically non-regulated in real terms. Government regulation does exist but with the majority of the work carried out in the informal economy it is not adhered to, and dirty job as it may be it provides income for hundreds of thousands of poor migrant labourers.

And we are speaking about a problem that can only get worse. I personally don’t think it has to or should be like this however, it is not fair and it is exploitation, and so my question is ‘what can be done about it?’ Or more correctly ‘what can we do about it?’ We are the guilty party after all.

Categories
Environment Science Series

Cutting Fuel Emissions from Transport Systems

In this the second post of my series about environmental conservation issues, I look at technology whose use could contribute to lessening the planet’s dependency on fossil fuels.

One of the major concerns for the environmental lobby is, and has for a long time been, the environmental cost of transport systems. As we know the vast majority of goods and people use petrol as a propellant, produce lots of pollutants and don’t do the planet any good whatsoever.

There are various option however that are readily available today for cutting down on petrol use, and in this post I would like to introduce a few.

The internal combustion engine is a simple machine, an explosion in a chamber forces a piston out and that is attached to a rod that drives a wheel (or 4 in most cases), but it is a simple operation to exchange the explosion for another form of inertia. We can in fact run a standard vehicle on air, as these plans show.

An air powered engine
Plans for an Air Engine

In 2010 for example the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology unveiled a prototype of a motorbike powered solely by compressed air. The project was created by lecturer Simon Curlis and carried out by a team of students. Curlis’s goal was to produce an emissions free motorbike capable of travelling at more than 100 miles per hour, a feat that went on to achieve on a dried up lake in Australia. Take a look at this report for further details.  

The motorbike is a standard Suzuki GP 100 frame fitted with a rotary engine and a couple of tanks of compressed air stored under the bodywork. A wonderful idea, but you just have to bear in mind that compressed air is highly explosive and doesn’t produce as much power as petrol, but is of course emissions free!

But we can address one of these problems as well as the cold hands in winter issue by investing in an AIR car.  In order to resolve the problem of having to store huge quantities of air the AIR car has a small petrol driven compressor that refills the tanks when they are low. The fuel required to maintain this system is incomparable, with the owners claiming at least 100 Km to two litres of fuel, with the advantage that you don’t need to use any petrol at all in town, you just run the compressors during out of town driving.

The development company that produce the cars above have signed a deal with TATA, and hope to produce production models soon, and they have several different models today including a small urban transport bus. Several US manufacturers are also following suit.

If a life on the ocean waves is more your scene take a look at the largest solar powered ship, currently sailing round the world. The 60 ton Planet Solar is an impressive looking catamaran, and can sail for 3 days without even seeing the sun due to its enormous production capacity and batteries. You can check it out via this video on YouTube.

The ship above may look like an expensive toy for boys, (as does this fuel free solar powered aeroplane), but solar powered sails do exist and are in use on commercial freighters. A company called Eco Marine Power produces rigid sails that not only harness the wind on large cargo ships but also produce electricity as they are in effect giant solar panel sails. Click here for a photo and description of their research. Ironically enough they are best suited to oil tankers, as they don’t have the problem of cranes for cargo that get in the way.

And talking about sailing ships another company called Sky Sails produces a large Kite that you attach to the front of your ship to harness the wind. On a 25000 ton ship the 320 square metre kite lowers fuel consumption by about 30%. Hardly new technology though, Sir Francis Drake knew how to do it!

Shipping may not strike you as particularly relevant to this argument but you might be surprised. Shipping is the main cause of sulphur emission into the atmosphere, and the problem is political in nature. At sea you can burn anything you want and so the shipping companies buy and burn something called heavy or bunker fuel, in short the dregs of the petroleum refining industry. Extremely polluting and damaging to the health. Had you ever noticed how much smoke a ship makes when it is steaming into the distance?

A schooner sailing vessel
Schooners are still in use across South East Asia

On a personal note I would just like to add that sailing ships are still used across South East Asia to transport goods. I saw lines of men and women carrying sacks of grain on their backs up planks on to wooden ships with my own eyes no more than 10 years ago. The photo above gives you an idea, although I did not take it. These wooden schooners are sailed to larger ports where they are unloaded by hand and their goods (sacks of foodstuffs) are left in piles that are then craned onto big ships and sent to Europe, unfortunately not by sail and producing a lot of smoke!

I haven’t addressed the related issue of bio fuels for use in transport in this article but will do so in a later post. Next week I will take a look at alternative forms of electricity production and new technological developments on that front.

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News Science Space Technology

The world’s most powerful radio telescope is now functioning!

One of the best places to put a telescope is in the Atacama Desert, which is on the boarder of Chile and Peru – currently there are around 20 telescopes (both radio and optical) functioning in the area.

The Alma telescope

In the last few days, the world’s largest radio telescope, the Alma telescope, has began to function. Currently the telescope is made up of around 20 massive antenna dishes, which work in harmony to produce amazingly detailed pictures of outer space.

The project has input from all around the world, with Europe, North America, East Asia and the Republic of Chile forming a partnership, all doing their bit to add more antenna dishes and improve the telescope.

The ALMA Telescope
The antenna dishes that currently make up the telescope ALMA Telescope

When the project is completed, (hopefully within the next 20 years if all goes to plan) the telescope will have a whopping 66 dishes at its disposal, all of which it can use to gaze at the stars in fantastic detail!

Why the Atacama Desert?

You are probably wondering why the Atacama Desert is such a hotspot for telescope activity. Well there are a number of reasons, but the main ones are that it has clear skies almost all the time, in addition to very dry air – meaning that its hard for humans to breath there due to low oxygen levels, but for the telescopes, that means very little interference from anything in the space above.

Furthermore, the desert has many high flat areas, meaning that telescopes can be closer to the atmosphere, meaning even less interference. In addition to this, because the Atacama is a desert, it has virtually no light pollution. Basically it is an astronomer’s dream location!

Is it working?

The project has only been live for less than a week now, but already some stunning high detailed pictures of space area already beginning to emerge. Below is one of these great pictures:

ALMA Telescope deep space picture
A picture of deep space made possible by the ALMA Telescope

Because the light we can see here on earth is often millions, if not billions of years old, we are able to see into the past when looking up at the sky, using super powerful telescopes like the Alma one.

Scientists believe that we will be able to see events that happened just 400 million years after the big bang, due to the light delay, hence enabling us to understand better than ever before the formation of the early universe.

The Alma telescope is just one small cog in our planets fascinating scientific road of discovery, however one thing’s for sure: this ‘small cog’ should be able to help us understand a lot more about the universe than ever before!