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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Back in September, The Verge recapped the Netflix documentary about the life of Bill Gates in the following manner:

“Each episode of Inside Bill’s Brain focuses on one of the foundation’s major initiatives: improving sewage conditions in developing countries, eradicating polio, and developing a cleaner, safer form of nuclear power. Each of the three parts shifts rapidly between interviews, biographical material, and fly-on-the-wall footage of the Gates team’s philanthropic missions. Guggenheim eschews traditional transitions, and instead jumps from subject to subject, even when there’s no clear connection between them. The point, apparently, is to replicate Bill Gates’ thought processes. Having spent most of his adult life (and even some of his teenage years) juggling multiple complicated projects, Gates doesn’t have the kind of mind that functions in neat, straight lines.”

Now, just two months later, it seems that Netflix may want to order a second season.  For Gates was apparently juggling another complicated project this whole time: a company that could revolutionize solar energy and make a significant impact in the fight against Climate Change.

According to CNN:

Heliogen, a clean energy company that emerged from stealth mode on Tuesday, said it has discovered a way to use artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to reflect so much sunlight that it generates extreme heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Essentially, Heliogen created a solar oven — one capable of reaching temperatures that are roughly a quarter of what you’d find on the surface of the sun.

The breakthrough means that, for the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes. In other words, carbon-free sunlight can replace fossil fuels in a heavy carbon-emitting corner of the economy that has been untouched by the clean energy revolution.”

This is a tremendous breakthrough.  One that further cements Gates legacy as the greatest technophilanthropist of our time and begs the question: what subject is he going to jump to next?

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Is Heliogen the Greatest Idea Ever?

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In a historic and unprecedented move the utility company PG&E has decided to proactively enact a power outage for multiple days in the Bay Area in order to avoid starting wildfires.  A drastic and startling action indicative of the new Climate Change infused reality that we find ourselves in.  Some people, especially those directly affected by the power outages, think this an abuse of power.  A private company should never be allowed to shut down an entire metropolis they say.  But others, like myself, think this a commendable action.  A far greater alternative to doing nothing and watching precious forest and homes burn to the ground.  But enacting proactive power outages isn’t our only option.  To counteract Climate Change and combat forest fires we may soon have another tool at our disposal, a newly designed environmentally friendly gel that could coat vegetation and prevent wildfires from spreading once they do break out.

As Wired reports:

“Stanford materials scientist Eric Appel didn’t set out to help save people from wildfire, but from disease. Usually he works on developing gels that can ferry drugs into the human body. So if you want to bestow a patient with, say, antibodies to fight off HIV infection, you’d inject them with a gel loaded with the stuff, where it might persist in the patient for perhaps a year. If used widely across an at-risk population, theoretically you can better face down an epidemic.

It wasn’t until Appel’s brother in law—Jesse Acosta, formerly a fire prevention forester for the state of Hawaii, now at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo—said hey, what about loading these gels with fire retardants and applying them to the body that is Mother Nature? That would be the same red stuff you see planes dropping on wildfires, which is effective but fleeting: The material will blow away in the wind or wash away in a rainstorm, meaning you can’t proactively treat an area long-term to be more resistant to fire.

But armed with a newfangled (and environmentally safe) gel, Appel and his colleagues have done just that. Writing today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they detail how their goo can act as a delivery medium to coat vegetation with flame retardant, and keep it there for the whole fire season. If adopted widely (Appel has founded a startup to commercialize it) the gel could become a sort of vaccine against wildfires, applied around the roads and utility infrastructure where 84 percent of California’s 300,000 fires in the last decade have ignited.”

If this material can be mass produced and safely applied it would be a real game-changer.  Of course there would be challenges associated with applying it everywhere it’s needed.  A lot of vulnerable lands are true wilderness, mostly inaccessible, if at all.  But that concern pales in comparison with the concerns we’re facing in the here and now.  Concerns about entire cities grinding to a halt due to rolling power outages.  Concerns over the power of a utility company to enact such a drastic plan of action in the first place.  And most importantly, concerns about the loss of infrastructure, property, and precocious natural resources if no action is taken at all.

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Is a Wildfire Vaccine the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I’m a hypocrite.  I say that I care about the environment.  Say that I am worried about Climate Change.  And yet I still eat meat as often as possible.  Still drive a gas guzzling car.  Still fly around the world, expanding my carbon footprint every chance I get.  Shouldn’t I put my money where my mouth is though?  Finally take the action that I so desperately want others to take?

Well, tomorrow I get my chance.  As do you.  For tomorrow we strike.  That’s right.  For the very first time, everyone, not just school children, will be going on strike to put pressure on governments around the world to take significant action towards curbing Climate Change.

To date there are 5,225 events taking place in 156 countries on all 7 continents.  Hundreds of companies are giving their employees time off to participate.  Thousands of websites are shutting down as well.  All while millions of people participate in what will be the largest climate protest in history.  In fact, events are already underway in Australia as the festivities kick off.

It’s all part of the global movement started by autistic teenager Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old Swedish climate activist who recently made headlines by sailing across the Atlantic to deliver speeches to the U.N. and U.S. Congress.  Unafraid to tell it like it is to powerful adults Thunberg has kick-started a global movement culminating in this historic global strike on the eve of a three day U.N. Climate Summit that could very well be a significant turning point in human history.

With roughly ten years left before the planet is ruined irreversibly it’s now or never to take a stand. Something that we all should be doing, even if we were hypocrites up until now.  So hopefully these protests show our politicians in power just how dire this situation is.  And just how important it is to us that they take this threat seriously.   So, whoever you are, wherever you are, please join me in going on strike tomorrow.  For our future, our children’s future, and the future of the planet.  

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Is a global climate strike the Greatest Idea Ever?!

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#1,549 – Dark Power

There are a lot of things that we can harness power from.  The wind.  Flowing water.  The sun’s rays.  Not to mention splitting atoms and burning hydrocarbons.  But that hasn’t stopped one man, Electrical engineer Aaswath Raman from the University of California in Los Angeles, from thinking of yet another potential source of power: darkness.  That’s right.  It may soon be possible to harness electricity from a pitch black night sky.

According to the New York Times:

“His prototype device employs radiative cooling, the phenomenon that makes buildings and parks feel cooler than the surrounding air after sunset.  As Dr. Raman’s device releases heat, it does so unevenly, the top side cooling more than the bottom. It then converts the difference in heat into electricity.  In the paper, Dr. Raman described how the device, when connected to a voltage converter, was able to power a white LED.”

A neat parlor trick.  One that we’ve employed before.  As the Times explains, “Humans have taken advantage of this effect for millenniums. Six thousand years ago, people in what are now Iran and Afghanistan constructed enormous beehive-shaped structures called yakhchal, which used this passive cooling effect to create and store ice in the desert.”

And now we may be using it turn on light bulbs.  An ingenious approach in my opinion as we utilize a naturally occurring phenomenon that we’ve long known about to solve a very modern problem.  From an innovation standpoint it just doesn’t get much better than that.

However, as innovative as this approach is it’s worth noting that the new technology will only be able to generate a tiny amount of power.  A fraction of what a solar cell can produce.  But since solar cells don’t work at night this could be a very useful alternative in certain situations.

At the very least it once again proves to us the importance of thinking outside the box.  Of seeing a solution in a place that doesn’t normally let us see very well at all: the night sky.

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Is generating electricity from darkness the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The creation of plastic in 1907 was a revolutionary breakthrough that changed society in the decades to come.  To appreciate just how big this impact was just think about how many things there are in our daily lives from silverware to toys that are made from plastic.  Modern airplanes include plastic.  About half of your car is made from plastic as well.  Tennis rackets include it.  So too do stents given to heart attack patients.  They even make up most pairs of eye glasses.  Suffice it to say plastics are everywhere.

This may not seem like a big deal on the surface.  A versatile material that can be used in a variety of ways would typically be seen as a good thing.  But there is an environmental impact to our excessive plastic consumption habit.  Especially when you consider that it takes 400 years for a piece of plastic to degrade and that a whopping 91% of plastic isn’t even recycled! That according to a recent scientific study that National Geographic reported on.  A statistic so mind-boggling that Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society named it as their statistic of the year in 2018.

As the New York Post puts it:

“We’re surrounded by plastics for much of our lives. Plastics are cheap and easy to make, they’re often incredibly durable and they last just about forever. Unfortunately, those upsides are also terrible news for the environment, as plastic waste continues to pile up despite recycling efforts and public awareness campaigns.

One of the biggest problems with the popular material is that even recyclable plastics aren’t always able to be broken down and used again. In fact, less than one-third of recyclable plastic is repurposed after the recycling process, with the rest being tossed along with other non-recyclable waste…”

Thankfully, there is some good news on the way.  A new kind of plastic that may be 100% recyclable and reusable in a variety of ways.

According to ABC News, “Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have designed a plastic that can be recycled over and over again, and turned into new materials of any color, shape, or form. They are calling it polydiketoenamine or PDK, and this new plastic can be disassembled all the way down to the molecular level.”

This is a potential game-changing technology that could revolutionize society (once again) and help us to clean up an environment that has been ravished by human activity, in particular our penchant for plastics.  PDK may even find a home in the future as a filament for 3D printing, giving that fledgling technology the boost that it needs to finally go mainstream.

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Is PDK Plastic the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,461 – Solgami

I want to protect the environment by making eco-friendly choices but there’s only so much that I can do.  As an apartment dweller I can’t even install solar panels despite the fact that I live in the middle of the Arizona desert.  But thanks to Solgami and their new origami-style blinds all that may be about to change.

As Fast Company puts it, “Solar on windows isn’t a new idea, and others have created coatings that can go directly on glass. But the alternatives have been inefficient and darken rooms. ‘Largely, it’s reducing the quality of your light–why would you put something in your window that’s going to cut your light by 50% just to gain a small amount of electricity?’ says [architect Ben] Berwick. Solgami’s design, by contrast, can make an apartment brighter as it works. ‘It’s a bit of a reconnection to the natural setting,’ he says. ‘It’s making your apartment a better place to be.’”

It does that by reflecting light against the folds of the panel in such a way as to let more natural light inside.  An ingenious concept that could finally make it so that everyone, regardless of whether they own their own home or not, can participate in the solar revolution.  Helping to reduce our planet destroying reliance on fossil fuels once and for all.

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Is Solgami the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

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I’ve never understood climate change deniers.  Are you denying the fact that the climate is changing at all?  Or are you just denying the fact that humans may be responsible for the change?  Either way if there’s even a chance that danger could be looming on the horizon shouldn’t you be doing everything in your power to prevent it?

In other words instead of just reacting to the news that the climate may be changing, why not take preventative measures and protect the environment, at all times, not because you have to, but rather because doing so is just something that one does?  And yet we don’t do that.

Instead we spend more time worrying about fake calamities than we do an actual ecological disaster staring us in the face.  With Y2K it was like the sky was falling.  In 2012 we literally thought the Earth was going to suddenly stop spinning on its axis because the Mayan calendar was ending.  The Large Hadron Collider? A means to opening up a wormhole that will wipe out all life on Earth.  North Korea developing nuclear weapons? The end of life as we know it.  And yet when we’re told repeatedly, by actual scientists mind you and not crack pot conspiracy theorists, that we are in actual danger, we take what we have for granted and turn a blind eye to the very real danger that our ignorance is causing.

I just don’t get it.  The dinosaurs got wiped out by an asteroid that they never saw coming.  We’re faced with an ecological asteroid that we do see coming and could do something about and we still ignore it?  Sadly, that’s a luxury that we just don’t have anymore.

According to a recent U.N. report we only have 12 years to counteract the effects of Climate Change before a global catastrophe unfolds that will wind up killing hundreds of millions of people.  We’re only talking about twelve years.  Barely over a decade.  In other words, the planet is going to be ruined beyond repair at this rate within our lifetimes.  Not our children’s lifetimes. Not our grandchildren’s lifetimes.  But within our own lifetimes.  Forget about having a mid-life crisis.  We’re all going to have a life or death crisis facing us on a daily basis in the near future.

This isn’t something that we can ignore.  We’ve already tried that and it didn’t’ work.  This problem isn’t going to go away on its own.  No miracle cure is coming.  No technological breakthrough is going to clean up our mess for us.  There’s no great idea for me to write about.  The only way to save ourselves is to adapt widespread societal changes on a global scale.  And yet not everyone is on board with this plan.

As Grist puts it, “This report is a rallying cry to save the basic functioning of human civilization, shouted into the din of a news cycle dominated by a media that pretends not to understand, in a world led by anti-democratic politicians that pretend to be doing enough, aimed at a populace that pretends not to care.”

It’s a sad but true commentary on life in 2018.  We’re all either so caught up in our own lives or just totally desensitized to the news at this point to pay any attention to the bigger picture.  If we are doomed it’s a fate that we deserve.  One that we sealed years ago with our iPhone addictions, me first attitudes, and celebrity culture.  Relying on technology hasn’t saved us.  It’s rendered us impotent.  Blinded us to the only truth that really matters: that we were dying a slow death of our own doing.

So if there is a great idea to be gleamed from all this it’s this: put away your phones.  Stop refreshing your Facebook feed, scrolling through Instagram, or browsing YouTube.  Stop building your brand.  Discontinue your side hustle.  Put your life on hold and live like there’s no tomorrow because soon there won’t be.  Rack up credit card debt like nobody’s business.  Attack that bucket list of yours with rigorous vigor.  Do everything you’ve always wanted to but never had the chance.  Do it all.  Carpe Diem and all that.  Because soon the only thing you’ll be doing is fighting for survival Mad Max style.

As a glass half-full futurist with an optimistic view of the future it pains me to say that.  I want to believe that greener pastures lie ahead.  That scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements will save the day and usher in a new era of great prosperity.  That gene editing, driverless cars, 3-D printing, clean energy, quantum computers, the blockchain, virtual reality, and all the rest will make our lives better.  After all it’s a rhetoric that I’ve been repeating for over five years now, every time I’ve written a blog post.  But I’m not so sure anymore.  This report from the U.N. is dire.  As dire as dire gets.  And I haven’t seen it get much attention since it came out last week.  No emergency sessions in Congress.  No newspaper editorials.  No buzz whatsoever on social media or in the workplace.  Even if we’re not all going to ban together to save the planet you would think that we would at least do what anyone with a terminal diagnosis would do and just go out with a bang.  And yet nothing has changed.  We are literally ignoring our own death sentence, neither taking the drastic steps necessary to change it, nor accepting our fate.  I guess what they say is true.  Ignorance is bliss.

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12 years is all we have left.

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