Tag archive for sustainability

Biomass to ethanol with a twist

A new refinery outside Pittsburgh uses a different approach to convert biomass to ethanol. Instead of using bacteria to break down biomass/cellulosic material that is then fermented and distilled to give ethanol, the biomass is incompletely oxidized to hydrogen gas and CO, which are then fed to ‘proprietary microorganisms’ that produce the ethanol as a waste product.

“Coskata says its ability to use a wide variety of feedstock to produce ethanol sets it apart from competitors locked into feedstock such as corn or sugar cane. The company, which is backed by General Motors, is focused on using waste materials instead of food crops, thereby side-stepping the whole food-for-fuel debate.”

The company also suggests that their primary goal is to license the technology rather than put it into large scale production themselves.

[via wired.com]

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Lithium-Ion Car Batteries

LiIonBattA current worry amongst environmentalists is that the Lithium-Ion batteries that are being integrated into newer car models (specifically hybrids) won’t be recycled. This is an interesting thought, considering:

Car batteries actually have the highest recycling rate of any waste product in the world.

But traditional car batteries have a reason to be recycled: even though they don’t hold a charge anymore they still contain lead and nickel, which can be re-used. Lithium-Ion batteries essentially don’t cost a lot to make and it would cost more in the end to recover the lithium.

I found this article interesting for two reasons.

  1. I cannot believe car batteries are the most recycled waste product! Think of all the plastic products that we use on a daily basis. We use our cars on a daily basis too, but I’m certainly not buying a new car battery every day. A relatively recent statistic says that 80% of water bottles end up in the trash! (The Gazette). This just seems absurd to me, and it’s indicative that our recycling recycling habits seem not to rely on improving our environment, but rather on the value of the recyclable product.
  2. Secondly, I think it’s fascinating that we’re slowly switching our cars over to Lithium-Ion batteries. This was a battery that, I believe, originally started in digital cameras as an alternative to AA batteries. Although initially expensive, their longer battery life and “rechargeability” were luring to customers.

Clearly there will be an interesting debate over the “environmentally friendly” aspect of Lithium-Ion batteries in the future, especially if they don’t believe consumers/manufacturers will place the dead batteries in the proper recycle bin. It’s a major concern if they make it into our landfills and the chemicals contained in the batteries start leaching into our water…

[via Yahoo! Green]

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Prisoners Making Solar Panels instead of License Plates

solar panelSpire Corporation invested millions of dollars in a solar cell module factory at the prison in Otisville, NY. The company made this decision after they received a letter from Nasdaq saying they would be delisted if they did not increase their revenues to $50 million by the end of the 2008. Better solar cells than license plates, in my opinion. The inmates can receive training for emerging renewable technologies that can give them a fresh start once they have been released. Some people may complain, however, saying that this training gives them a job that lets them into people’s homes. The article also said that environmental groups may have a problem with it, but I’m not sure why. Renewable energy is the step we have to take after oil, and investments like these in training and manufacturing of these technologies is necessary if we are to make the switch.

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The Empire State Building is Going Green

empire state buildingRenovations should start this summer in an effort to reduce the amount of energy being consumed by the skyscraper. Reduction is aimed at 38% a year by 2013. Although costing a bit upfront ($20 million), they will see savings of $4.4 million a year… so the renovations will be sure to pay for themselves in no time. It’s great to see energy guzzlers are making efforts to reduce consumption! [New York Times]

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Rechargeable Fuels Cells Looming in the Future, but are They Safe?

batteryBetween all the posts about fluorescent light bulbs, nuclear energy, and decreasing green house gases, I thought it was only appropriate to add to the conglomeration of environmentally-friendly technology.  Just like CFLs, a major problem with conventional batteries used in laptops, ipods, cell phones, etc. is that they are difficult to recycle.  As a matter of fact, of the 3 billion batteries Americans purchase each year, 179,000 tons of those end up in landfills contributing to the toxic metal waste build-up in this country and around the world.

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel though!  Researchers at the technology company Lilliputian have just revealed that they are in the final stages of making portable fuel cell batteries available to the public.  These batteries allow a small amount of fuel such as methanol, butane, or formic acid into the system’s chip which produces electricity without any combustion, thus negating the release of any greenhouse gases.  Although the product Lilliputian is planning on releasing in the next year or two uses butane and can only be used on devices that charge via USB port such as digital cameras or cell phones, this would open the door for bigger, and more efficient fuel cells in the future.  However, there is an economic concern; the company is projecting a $100-150 price tag for their cigarette lighter sized fuel cell system.

Although I’m all about saving the environment by trying my best to recycle paper and soda cans, I’m a little concerned about the presence of butane, methanol, and formic acid present in fuel cells.  Because methanol and butane are flammable and formic acid is corrosive, it took research companies a while to convince the U.S. Department of Transportation and the International Civil Aviation Organization to allow the transport and use of the fuel cells on board aircraft.  I completely agree that fuel cells should eventually replace conventional batteries so our electronics not only last longer but drastically decrease the magnitude of battery waste, but is it worth the risk of people carrying around flammable and corrosive materials from day to day?

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A Greener MacBook

enviroappleI don’t know if many of you have seen the new Macbook commercials yet, but Apple has released a new “greener” laptop. The new notebook is free (less than 900ppm Br and Cl, as defined by Apple) of brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are present in many industrial products.  The toxicity of many of these compounds has not yet been extensively studied and BFRs are currently showing up increasingly in the environment and in humans (Birnbaum, L; Staskal, D. Brominated Flame Retardants: Cause for Concern? Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol 112, 1, January 2004).  In addition, all internal cables in the laptop are free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the LED glass display is free of arsenic and mercury and uses 30% less power than traditional laptop displays, the computer is encased in less packaging, and the battery is free of lead, cadmium, and mercury.  (A more detailed analysis can be found here.)

The notebook has been rated at the highest level by the EPEAT, an agency that helps electronics manufacturers environmentally evaluate their products.  Apple seems to explain a lot of the information regarding the new Macbook’s environmental safety well to the average consumer, but I think the sales pitch of environmentalism still comes into play a bit.  Although the notebook can’t be free of all harmful materials whatsoever, it seems like a better (and cooler) option than most of the other notebook computers on the market.

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Genetically Modified Foods

A recent article reports that countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, specifically China, are relaxing previous restrictions on the importation and research of genetically modified crops.   This is because of the increasing demand for food from growing populations, which often results in hunger epidemics.  Genetic engineering has focused on producing plants which thrive in cold weather, droughts, nitrogen poor soils, among other desirable characteristics like herbicide and insect resistance.  On the one hand, genetic engineering does (more efficiently) what farmers have been doing for centuries-artificial selection through crossbreeding.  These developed traits allow for less fertilization (less chemical sprays in the environment and chemical residue on the foods) and higher yields to feed the public.  On the other hand, the public has voiced concern about the health effects of GM crops, or “Fraken-foods.”

GM crops are already in widespread use, especially in the US.  According to this article from C&EN,

In 2007 GM crops were planted in 23 countries across 281 million acres, a larger area than all the farmland in Europe.

Rice, corn, cotton, and soybeans are the major targets.  There is talk about requiring products made with GM crops to be labeled, and some companies are voluntarily labeling already.  Companies like Silk who use soybeans (the most GM crop) gladly label that they do not use GM beans.

I think the question here as in many of our debates is how much science should interfere with nature.  I’m actually not sure where I stand on the issue:  I see both sides.  It is the purpose of science to find a way to keep up with the growing needs of the world, and food is the most basic of these demands.  But at the same time, it is often difficult for scientists to accurately predict the full repercussions of their developments.  Are the risks worth it?  Both for our bodies and the environment?

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Environmental (and Human Health) Protection vs. Industry Interests – Who Will Prevail?

Last Thursday the EPA strengthened its standards on lead pollution, updating the law that was 30 years old. “The new standards set the limits for exposure at 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from 1.5 micrograms, and well within the outer limit of 0.2 micrograms recommended by the advisers.” For me this was great news, as I am concerned about particulate pollution and industry standards for what they are allowed to dump, how much, and where. However, two days after this article was published, the NY Times printed another article stating that the Interior Department wants to relax the laws on mine waste dumping. Two government positions that are in complete conflict with each other, not a surprise.

The Union of Concerned Scientists states that in an average year, a coal plant burns 114 pounds of lead and other toxic heavy metals. If all of that goes into the air when the coal is burned, who knows how much drifts into nearby streams and valleys near the mountains where the coal is actually mined? The liquid waste generated by mountain top removal is dumped into a nearby valley, where the current law is that it must be at least 100 feet away from any stream (the new law states that this requirement can be skirted if “compliance is determined to be impossible” — how is that determined?). The solid waste is carted away into nearby valleys, usually in unlined and unmonitored landfills. How can the industries ask for a relaxation that would impede them from following the new, stricter lead concentration allowed in air? The qualification may be that the sources of pollution are different (water vs. air particulates), but once the waste has been dumped, some of it will be buried and some of the mine tailings can be kicked up into the air.

From this another problem arises – how far ahead are the companies required to plan to keep the dumping sites safe from leaching? This article states that mining pollution and the waste at the dumping sites stick around for quite awhile, affecting wildlife in the are. This means once the companies have stripped all the mountains, they have no long-term abandonment plan and instead leave the mess for the communities to clean up. If we are at all concerned about the quality of our streams or our air, the government cannot have double standards and pander to industries like surface mining.

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Seeing Green…. Buildings

We have been hearing a lot about alternative energy sources, such as wind power, solar power, ethanol, and hydrogen fuel cells; however, there are tons of other green technologies out there.

One such technology, green roofing, has been growing in popularity over the past few decades. This environmentally friendly building technique takes advantage of normally wasted roof space to grow vegetation. The plants also have the added benefit of collecting rainwater and preventing it from washing human pollutants into nearby rivers and streams. A new movement gaining popularity is the green wall. A green wall can be as simple as vines and other fast growing plants held against the facade of a building by a metal scaffold. Newer techniques use small modular panels which are made of small polypropylene containers that the plants can grow from or a geotextile. The geotextile is a woven material formed into small pouches which contain soil or some other growing medium. These modular panels allow sections of the green wall to be easily replaced.

Besides from the obvious benefit the plants have in capturing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen; green walls have a host of other benefits. The plants act as insulation, reducing the heating and cooling costs of the building. In the summer, the plants have the added advantage of evaporative cooling as water transpires from the leaves of the plants. Irrigation systems collect rainwater and deliver it to the plants, preventing rainwater runoff from polluting water sources. These green walls and roofs can even be used to grow edible crops. Creating a more environmentally friendly future is going to take more than just alternative energy sources. Green roofs and walls are just one way to tap into, what is currently, a wasted resource.

For more information and images see this article on Verdant Surfaces.

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From Handle Bars to Energy Storage?

I’m all for wind and solar power, but the main obstacle to moving away from fossil fuels and toward these renewable energies is the ability to store the energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. There are two ways to store energy: rechargeable batteries and ultracapacitors. Research is being done at the University of Texas at Austin on the possibility of using graphene as an ultracapacitor. Graphene’s high surface area and high number of ions allow a very high level of charge to be stored.

The amount of electrical charge stored per weight of the graphene material has already rivaled the values available in existing ultracapacitors, and modeling suggests the possibility of doubling the capacity.

The pros of using ultracapacitors include longer life, higher energy storage, and lower maintenance. This new technology can be applied to the electrical grid of cities so that renewable technologies can begin to be installed nearby, as well as the powering of electric and hybrid cars.

The question, however, is which should be implemented or invested in first – the technology that will supply the clean power, or the ability of a city to incorporate the new flow of energy through its grid? The problem of energy transmission also arises, as wind farms are usually located far away from cities. It’s interesting how a string of molecules can have so many uses, from harmful gas sensors, to mountain bike handle bars, and now a way to store renewable energy.

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Are you ready for a backyard reactor?


It looks like these may be ready in the next 5 years or so. Now if I only had the $100 million to put one in my backyard. I may have to ask for a raise…

Hyperion Power generation is trying to make a factory mass produced uranium hydride molten core reactor which will generate 70 MWt and 27-30MWe. [via nextbigfuture]

The reactor uses a low (10%) enriched Uranium Hydride, is no-maintenance and completely self contained, runs for 8-10 years powering approximately 20,000 homes, produces a football sized mass of waste, and can be fully refurbished and redeployed. What’s not to love? In contrast, using electricity from a traditional coal fired plant, an INDIVIDUAL would account for enough waste, including CO2, to fill Mile-High Stadium! Could this be the future of power generation?

see also

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Could this be my next car?

2011 Chevrolet Volt Production Show Car

Unlike the Prius, Civic hybrid, and upcoming Honda Insight, the Chevy Volt uses its gasoline engine to charge the batteries and is never used to directly drive the wheels (serial hybrid vs. parallel hybrid). That, and you actually plug it in! I wonder if there will be a waiting list? I am really interested in ultra-efficient diesels and potentially diesel hybrids, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The Volt, which General Motors finally unveiled Tuesday, is a series hybrid, also called a range-extended electric vehicle. Like the Prius, it’s got an electric motor and a gasoline engine, but the engine merely charges the battery as it approaches depletion. Electricity alone turns the 17-inch wheels. The Volt is designed to travel 40 miles on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery, meaning most drivers will never burn a drop of gasoline.

[via wired Photo by General Motors]

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Golf and the environment: how green is golf?

I’m about as big of a golf fan as there is and love the lush fairways and greens that we see (in high def no less) at Augusta National each April, but is it sustainable? Consider the Old Course at St. Andrews where green is the exception and brown is the rule. The Old Course (and its play) was a strong influence of both Jones and MacKenzie and I’m sure the current lush conditions of their course were not part of their original intentions.

In January 1995, 81 people got together in a conference room at Pebble Beach for three days to discuss what could be done to make golf more eco-friendly. Present were representatives from all the major golfing bodies, and all the leading national and local environmental groups, too. There had never been such a meeting before.

[via golfdigest.com]

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