Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

No matter the industry new ideas are often met with swift resistance.  Rather than embrace change our default reaction, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution, is to greet change with anger, to reject it, to cling to what is known and familiar, to what is safe.  History is littered with examples of innovations that were simply ahead of their time, rejected outright by those in power, fearful of the revolution that a controversial new idea would bring about.

Climate change deniers are proof of this phenomenon which makes it really hard to bring about vital change in the energy sector.  Thanks to this reality our move away from a reliance on fossil fuels is going to be a slow burn, not a quick fix.

Luckily, there’s a new biofuel on the horizon that could help with the transition since it’s essentially a renewable version of an existing product.  Instead of replacing coal with something else, we’d just replace it with a better version of coal.  Everyone wins, those open to change and even those among us who are more close-minded, desperate to hold onto what they’ve always been told to believe.

According to Science Alert, “This ‘instant coal’ biofuel brings the high energy efficiency of coal without the usual damaging side-effects – such as deep mining to collect it, and resulting pollution from burning it and releasing impurities. What’s more, it doesn’t take eons to form underground, and is instead made from agricultural waste including wood and plants. That means we’ve potentially got a never-ending source of the stuff, according to the team developing it at the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), part of the University of Minnesota Duluth.”

In other words, we’re talking about creating an abundant artificial coal made out of plants that would replace existing coal, thereby eliminating mining operations and saving the planet in the process.  Hopefully, as this research continues to develop it will be met with less and less resistance once everyone realizes how much of a no-brainer decision it is to switch.

Image result for instant coal biofuelIs Instant Coal the Greatest Idea Ever?



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As wildfires continue to devastate thousands of acres in California it’s become increasingly clear that we need better firefighting tools.  Something that we could use to put out dangerous fires or even prevent them from forming in the first place.  The latter is where the Firesound drone comes in.

As the BBC puts it, “The Firesound is a firefighting flying saucer. The bright yellow, meter wide, autonomous disc is designed to patrol parks and forests, constantly looking for danger using smoke sensors and thermal cameras. Unlike UFOs from 50s B-movies, however, it won’t shoot out the kind of laser beams that might spark a forest fire.  Instead the Firesound will blast low frequency sound waves to extinguish small fires before they can spread.”

Essentially what Firesound does is use sound waves to move oxygen away from the fire, thereby removing its fuel source, and effectively starving it.  It’s an effective, low-cost method, that could wind up saving lives, property, and the environment and it comes to us from Charles Bombardier, the same designer behind the Antipode, the high speed airliner capable of traveling at Mach 24 and traveling from New York to London in just 11 minutes.

The Firesound can do a lot more than just put out fires though as it can also be used as a surveillance tool to help locate people who are missing.  Or, as Bombardier suggests, it could also be configured to provide wi-fi connectivity to a stranded camper so that they can signal for help.

Unfortunately, the Firesound wouldn’t be much help in fighting a large scale fire that is already burning out of control.  It also, may not be much help in preventing them either, considering that it’s just a prototype for now.  Hopefully it does wind up becoming a real product because the people of California can use all the help they can get.

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Is Firesound the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The Next Big Thing in clean energy might actually be really tiny.  Miniscule droplets of water to be precise.  And it’s all thanks to the “Evaporation Engine” and a new theoretical approach to energy collection.  That’s right.  In the future, we may be able to collect energy from the process of water evaporating from lakes.  Move over solar and wind power.  There’s a new clean energy kid on the block.

According to the Verge:

“If we were able to harvest evaporation energy from the existing lakes and reservoirs in the US — excluding the Great Lakes in the Midwest — we could generate 325 gigawatts (2.85 million megawatt hours per year). That’s about 70 percent of the total US electrical energy generation in 2015. Energy from evaporation, unlike solar or wind, is less dependent on the weather. Of course, it’s not likely that we’d be able to use the water from every lake, and the authors do note that this could affect freshwater resources. But the paper suggests that evaporation-based energy could have a big impact.”

Creating an additional energy source would indeed have a big impact.  But it also could have a big negative impact.  If the entire surface of every lake is taken up with evaporation collecting technology that means that those lakes are no longer available for other activities.  No more boating.  No more fishing.  No more swimming.  That’s a ton of valuable recreational real estate that we’d be losing.  At that point is the juice worth the squeeze?

Perhaps.  Answering that question would depend on just how desperate we are for additional energy sources.  But assuming that we decide to move forward with this plan, there’s another obvious question that remains: how exactly does it work?!

As the Verge explains:

“Study author and Columbia University biophysicist Ozgur Sahin first developed the ‘evaporation engine’ in a 2015 paper. Imagine you have a material that changes size when there’s a lot of water inside it. (In Sahin’s case, the material were tiny spores.) The spores absorb water and get bigger. When it’s hot, the water evaporates and the spores shrink.

Now, if you think of the spores as a muscle that contracts and elongates, says Sahin, you can connect it to a generator that produces electricity from motion, and then harvest energy from that process.”

For now this concept is still just theoretical and won’t be commercially viable for a while.  But it is an interesting thought experiment nonetheless.  One that could have far reaching implications for what our future societies will look like.

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Is the Evaporation Engine the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Aren’t we getting to the point where we care more about our health and well-being than about trivial things? We count calories, put warning labels on almost every product, rate everything from books to movies, check Yelp for the latest reviews before we do anything, and make a dedicated effort to eat more kale, whatever that is.  Even football is valuing player safety more as the truth about traumatic brain injuries comes to light.

So why is it that we are so cavalier about the safety of weather channel correspondents, storm chasers, and CNN anchors? I get that there’s a certain voyeuristic aspect to watching massive destruction during hurricane coverage and that these reporters are essential to telling the story of a storm.  I’m sure the ratings for cable news networks is higher during natural disasters than during any other time.  But let’s be honest.  There is absolutely no need for people to be standing outside during a hurricane to report about said hurricane.  Ratings be damned.

I mean, let’s think about this logically for a second.  It’s a hurricane.  I can tell that it’s raining and that it’s really windy just by looking at the feed coming from a traffic cam.  I don’t need a reporter torturing themselves for hours on end as the wind and driving rain beats down on them just to get Pulitzer prize award-winning commentary like, “it feels like you’re standing next to a jet engine”, or “it feels like you’re going through a car wash, which by the way, I’ve done, so I know that’s what it feels like.”  A duh.  Of course it feels like you’re going through a car wash or standing next to a jet engine.  It’s a freaking hurricane!

Other reporters this past weekend complained about getting pelted in the face with sand from Miami Beach, about being able to taste salt water in their mouth, about not being able to breathe, about having zero visibility, about standing in the cold rain for so long that they could feel the chill down to their bones and about being at risk of getting hit by projectiles while (I should point out) examining a projectile (a roof tile with a pointed edge that looked like it could have impaled somebody).  Tell me again why this is normal behavior?

Is it because it’s tradition?  Because this is the way it’s always been done?  As the New York Times puts it, “the tradition of television crews standing in the middle of a dangerous storm goes back decades, reflecting the hunger to be on the scene for a nationally significant event.  But the news value of dangerous stand-ups – in which a correspondent is seen in the field talking to the camera – is increasingly being questioned, particularly with the rise of social media.  Some critics wondered whether they are unnecessary and overly sensational spectacles, especially in cases where correspondents are struggling to deliver information.”

The reporters themselves seem to think it’s important work though.  That by surveying the damage as it’s occurring they are better positioned to help first responders figure out which areas to address first.  That if they are out there, braving the elements, nobody else has to.  That in a way, they are eliminating everyone else’s sense of curiosity, saving lives in the process.  And to be sure, there is value to be gleamed from their efforts. But there’s just one problem.  We don’t need them to do that anymore.  It’s the year 2017.  We now have cameras, sensors, and robots that can do that same job.  Want a killer live shot of a reporter getting blown away?  Stick a Go Pro on a mannequin.  Want to know how widespread the damage is?  Check the feed from the thousands of sensors you could have installed around the city before the storm hit.

I can’t possibly be the only person who thinks live hurricane reporting is an outdated practice, can I?!?! Is everyone else really okay with watching somebody risk their life to report, “I’m standing here in the middle of the evacuation zone and you can’t believe how eerily quiet it is down here.  It’s like a ghost town.”  No shit, Sherlock.  Everyone else evacuated!  What the hell are you still doing there!?

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Is banning hurricane reporting the Greatest Idea Ever?


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Climate change is real.  There’s no denying it.  Hurricane Harvey, a devastating 1 in 500 year event, just dumped so much water onto Houston that it actually lowered the crust of the Earth in the region by 2 cm.  Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, with sustained winds of over 185 mph for a record thirty consecutive hours, barrels towards South Florida after wrecking havoc in the Caribbean.  Hurricane Andrew which destroyed Homestead, Florida back in 1992 was about half the size of Irma.  The historic storm heading towards Key West right now is so large that it could literally engulf the entire state of Florida.  East Coast.  West Coast.  It doesn’t matter.  There’s no where to hide from Irma.

But that’s not all.  Irma is just one of three active hurricanes in the Atlantic right now with Katia forming in the Gulf and Jose, now a Category 3 with sustained winds of over 150 mph, coming on strong right behind it in the Atlantic.  And oh by the way, we haven’t even entered peak Hurricane season yet.  More storms could be forth coming over the next three months.  Welcome to our new normal where historic once in a generation storms occur every year, forever testing our resolve as a nation.

So is there anything we can do about it?  We are increasingly becoming more adept at playing God, at controlling our own destiny.  We create artificial intelligence, genetically modify crops, grow meat in a lab, use the CRISPR gene editing technique to alter our DNA and eradicate diseases.  We’re getting closing to curing cancer, reversing the aging process, finding life on other planets, and figuring out the secrets of the Universe from determining what dark matter is to understanding consciousness.  We can do anything we put our minds to.

It’s with that in mind that I’m confident that we could engineer a solution to climate change.  To figure out a way to stop hurricanes from ever forming in the first place.  And thankfully there’s a group of scientists working on doing just that.

The team of Chinese researchers is currently studying the feasibility of injecting sulfate into the atmosphere in an attempt to cool the planet and counteract the effects of climate change.  In theory, the sulfate aerosol particles would reflect sunlight back into space and thereby lower the temperature of water in the ocean.  Without warmer waters to serve as fuel, the quantity and intensity of hurricanes would decrease over time.  In fact, the plan would be to reduce the impact of hurricanes by 50% over 50 years.

As Futurism notes:

“In their current research model, in which the scientists tested a scenario where the sulfate injection is doubled over time, the team found that incidences of Katrina-level hurricanes could be maintained (they would be kept at the same rate that we currently see) and that storm surges, which is the rise in seawater level that is caused solely by a storm, could be mitigated by half. The researchers noted that  the volcanic eruption in 1912 of Katmai in Alaska ‘loaded the Northern Hemisphere with aerosol [sulfates], and [was] followed by the least active hurricane season on record.’”

Obviously, this plan isn’t full proof.  By trying to protect ourselves against hurricanes we could inadvertently cause other environmental impacts such as a weakening of Earth’s atmosphere.  Further research is going to be required.  New materials are going to have to be invented.  But despite the challenges it’s abundantly clear that we’re going to have to do something and soon.  Because the alternative, doing nothing, isn’t a viable option either.  This is our new normal and we have to do something about it.  The sooner we accept that, the better.

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Is a plan to prevent the formation of hurricanes the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Plants are pretty amazing.  On a practical level they generate oxygen, heal our wounds, give us shelter, and provide us with subsistence.  They even spruce up our living quarters aesthetically, help us relax and give us wonderful fragrances to smell.  But that’s not all that plants are good for.  Thanks to new research they suddenly have some remarkable new abilities.  Such as being able to turn into a light source.

According to The Next Web, “Dutch product designer Ermi van Oers created Living Light: plants that double as lights. Or lights that double as plants – whichever way you prefer looking at it. The lights run on electricity generated by bacteria in the soil. Here’s how it works: during the process of photosynthesis plants release organic compounds in the soil. This causes bacteria to generate electrons and protons, which are then used in a similar way to a traditional battery.  And here’s the fun part: healthier plants produce more energy. If you take care of it properly, the Living Light will produce up to 0.1 mW. Enough to use it as a night lamp…”

They also might become our new personal trainers as Jen-Hsien Chiu from the Royal College of Art created a goal setting app that connects to a device with a plant inside of it.  If you don’t meet your goals the plant will die.  Talk about motivation.  Check out this video clip from I Fucking Love Science to learn more about this invention and many others from the university.

And last but not least plants have even inspired a new design for a soft robot capable of shape shifting until it makes its way to hard to reach places.  Such as those that you might encounter when searching for survivors after an Earthquake.

As Popular Science puts it, “In a new study in the journal Science Robotics, researchers Elliot W. Hawkes, Laura H. Blumenschein, Joseph D. Greer, and Allison M. Okamura demonstrate a robot that travels through space like a living thing, but that is perhaps best thought of as a fast-growing, useful, mechanical plant, which unfurls from a single immobile foot. The robot’s design is explicitly plant-inspired.”

All of these new plant based or plant inspired innovations goes to show that there is still much we can learn from our planetary neighbors.  In fact, there may even be some things that we can still learn about them.  Including the fact that they may have feelings.  And even a “brain”.  Only time will tell what else we can learn from them or about them.

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Is Living Light the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,117 – Glamping

I just went camping…in the woods…in a tent…for the first time.  Well, to be fair it was more like glamping (glamorous camping).  There were flush toilets, showers, camp hosts who could hook you up with a can opener if need be, firewood available for sale, and an entire town five minutes away if you needed to pick up some Land O’ Lakes yellow American cheese sliced thin.  We were not roughin’ it.  Not in the least.

And yet, it was still a rough experience.  The hassle of building and taking down the tent, the inclement weather, the threat of bears and other wildlife, the annoying bugs and creepy crawlers, the loud music playing and otherwise annoying campers at other nearby campsites that were stationed way too close together.  Would I do it all over again?  Yes.  Absolutely.  Could the experience have been better?  Yes.  Absolutely.

What I’m imagining then is a campsite that’s more of a hotel than a campgrounds.  On-site staff would help you put together and take apart your tents, help you start a fire, and help you unload/load your car.  During the day you could go on a guided hike.  At night you could borrow telescopes for some star gazing.  “Room” service to your tent would be available if you get the munchies.  All of the bathroom facilities would be inside of a secure lodge instead of an outhouse so as to limit the chance of a scorpion or spider attacking you while you’re doing your business.  Anything you could think of to further enhance your experience from hammocks to sporting goods would be available for rent.  And best of all there would be a fenced in perimeter that would severely limit the threat of a bear wandering into your tent.

When you think of rough and tough individuals you aren’t likely to think of the French so it should come as no surprise that a similar glamping hotel concept, known as Bubble Hotels, already exists in France.  Essentially, each bubble is a pimped out see-through tent that comes with most of the accommodations you’d expect to find in a modern hotel.

As Road Trippers describes, “You can make the most of your bubble by checking out the telescopes and star maps they offer, or get into full relaxation mode by visiting the hot tub or getting a massage. They also offer breakfast, which you can enjoy in your king-sized bed in the temperature-controlled comfort of your private bubble while taking in the full glory of Mother Nature at sunrise. I’d like to see a tent try and do that!”

There are plenty of other glamping experiences out there as well if you know where to look.  There’s arooftop camping experience in the middle of Manhattan, hotels with indoor campsites for kids, and even an entire website dedicated to finding the best fit for your camping needs.  It’s no wonder that glamping is now the #1 travel trend in the world.

Some of you may think that this all sounds a little bit ridiculous.  That glamping with all its bells and whistles cheapens the camping experience.  That Wi-Fi, electricity, air mattresses and appliances, and all the rest, have no business at a campsite.  After all, the whole point of going out into the woods to be in nature is to actually be out in the woods in nature.  Not inside a secure, climate controlled, hermetically sealed bunker capable of surviving a nuclear blast.

But to criticize glamping is to miss the point of glamping.  It’s not about creating a purely authentic camping experience.  It’s about finding a way for yuppies, millennials, girlie girls and city slickers to enjoy mother nature and all its glory.  It’s a gateway drug to the addicting power of the great outdoors.  A stepping stone on the way to stepping over stones, rocks, boulders, and other obstacles on the more adventurous backpacking trips to far flung locales that you one day may find yourself on.  For once you break the seal and try glamping there’s no going back.  Once you’ve slept under millions of stars, the five stars of even the best of hotels just won’t cut it anymore.

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Is glamping the Greatest Idea Ever?

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