Category Archives: Eco tips

A lot of people would go vegan if it wasn’t for the money, taste, and convenience

A survey of British men and women found widescale support for veganism, most viewing a completely plant-based diet as more “ethical”, “better for the environment”, and “healthy”. However, despite the overwhelmingly positive attitude, the same people also found veganism very challenging and inconvenient. The main barriers that kept them away from forgoing meat and dairy products dealt with taste, price, and convenience.

Credit: Pixabay.

The analysis was published this week in the journal Sustainability by a team of researchers at the University of Bath in the UK.

Researchers surveyed 1,000 participants who were recruited online through Prolific, a surveying platform, about their beliefs about vegetarianism and vegan diets. All the participants were meat-eaters with an average age of 34.

According to the results, 73% of the surveyed participants thought veganism is “ethical”, 70% considered it was good for the environment, 60% found it “socially acceptable”, while 50% said it was “healthy”.

“At a time of year when many people are considering switching to plant-based diets with ‘Veganuary’, this study shows that most people already agree with the ethics of veganism and are aware of the benefits of vegan diets to the environment,” Chris Bryant, lead author of the new study and a psychologist at the University of Bath, said in a statement.

If that’s the case, why are they still eating meat? On follow-up, 80% of respondents said that they did not think transitioning was easy, 77% said it was “inconvenient”, and 60% thought it was not “enjoyable”. Perceptions of vegan diets were significantly more negative than perceptions of vegetarian diets on most aspects.

“That many people agree with the principles of veganism is one thing, but in terms of changing behaviours we need to acknowledge that for many it has been seen as too expensive, inconvenient and a sacrifice in terms of taste,” Bryant said.

Although most of the respondents perceived cutting meat out of their diets as overwhelmingly positive and considered it too hard to do, it’s actually never been easier than ever to be a vegetarian or vegan.

For instance, the common argument that a vegan diet is expensive is simply no longer true. While a vegan menu will be significantly more expensive than a conventional, meat-based menu in most restaurants, things are changing fast. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in the United States are now making plant-based products that not only taste and look like meat, they’re also similarly priced to meat-based products.

In the UK, fast food bakery Greggs just launched a vegan steak bake, right on the heels of Subway’s vegan Meatball Marinara sub and KFC’s vegan burger.

“Interestingly, in the time since this study was conducted, these things have all changed substantially. Supermarkets, restaurants, and even fast food outlets have developed numerous high quality and affordable vegan options. Having direct replacements for the foods people know and like makes it easier for everybody to consume fewer animal products. If we are to reduce animal product consumption in the UK and around the world, the development of high quality affordable alternatives to animal products is key,” Bryant concluded.

Five environmental consequences of Australia’s fires

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Australia’s road to recovery may be long: Here’s a developing list of how the fires are affecting glaciers, wildlife, water supplies, and global carbon emissions.

The bushfires in Australia are a never-ending story of loss, tragedy, and record-setting moments.

The fires have claimed the lives of at least 27 people and countless animals and destroyed 2,000 homes—and bushfire season still has 2 months to go.

Even as the fires rage on, the smoke is beginning to clear around the long-lasting environmental impacts of the blazes. Here’s a (nonexhaustive) list of their short- and long-term effects on the environment.

1. Scientists fear an immediate loss of biodiversity in Australia, because many species are endemic to the continent.

The fires are proving deadly for Australian wildlife.

An estimated 1 billion animals have been killed so far, according to scientist Chris Dickman at the University of Sydney. But this number doesn’t include frogs, invertebrates, or bats. Invertebrates, which include insects, earthworms, snails, could be dying by the trillions, according to Science News.

Relief efforts have just begun after fires on Kangaroo Island, whose landscape was called “apocalyptic” by the Humane Society International. The organization said that in a particularly hard-hit portion of the island, they found one living koala among thousands of carcasses of koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and birds, according to the Guardian.

Many species call Australia their only home, making the threat to their habitat particularly worrisome.

The Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo was rebounding from near extinction in Australia, up from about 150 individuals in 1995 to nearly 400 in 2019. But the fire on Kangaroo Island destroyed the majority of the bird’s habitat and singular food source, seeds from the drooping she-oak.

An endemic species of velvet worm may also be threatened. The New York Times reports that their home in one of Australia’s national parks has been badly affected by the fires. Ecologist Tanya Latty told the Times that she may use the specimens she has in her lab to begin a captive breeding program to save the species. “As an ecologist,” Latty said, “it’s a very tragic thing to find yourself having to think about, ‘What if my species is now extinct?’”

team of scientists said that the fires have pushed at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction. Threatened species in Australia sometimes number in the hundreds, and areas that rarely burn went up in flames this year.

Researchers are turning to GoFundMe to pay for lost survey equipment and other costs.

2. Debris from the fires could threaten water supplies.

Cheers broke out in Sydney last week as rain fell lightly on the capital. Rain and cooler temperatures could help tamp down the blazes.

But too much rain, falling too heavily, could spell disaster for Australia’s water supplies.

Ash, soot, and charred vegetation could clog up streams, dams, and beaches, leading to blooms of algae and threatening water quality.

Given the severity of the fires, pretty much everything [in burned landscapes] is gone, so one of the big issues is that when we do get some rain, a lot of that ash and crap, nothing is going to stop it running in our catchments,” conservationist and ecologist Ricky Spencer at Western Sydney University in New South Wales (NSW) told National Geographic. The effects could be felt for up to a decade because forests take years to grow back.

Warragamba Dam outside of Sydney is one cause for concern: The dam supplies water for 3.7 million people, but 80%–90% of the catchment area has burned, National Geographic reports. If heavy rains wash off burned forests in the areas, a torrent of sooty material could choke up its waters and lead to blooms of cyanobacteria.

Although public health won’t likely be at risk, the blooms may turn water in the Warragamba musty or earthy and exacerbate low water supplies that are already at less than half the dam’s capacity, according to Gizmodo Australia. Melinda Pavey, NSW’s minister for water, property and housing, announced in December that officials would try to intercept or isolate sooty flows headed into Warragamba by using booms and curtains.

Fish and other aquatic life will be more at the mercy of the rains, however. A massive influx of nutrients from runoff could bring algal blooms to rivers and beaches. Blooms suck up oxygen available in the water column, strangling fish and other life. Particles of ash could also lodge themselves in the gills of fish or gag filter feeders like mussels.

3. Animals are hungry and ecosystems may grow back differently.

Many animals couldn’t outrun the blazes because the wildfires moved quickly and burned hotter than normal. Drought and high temperatures fanned the flames.

The lucky animals that did survive face a new reality: Their food sources have gone up in smoke. As fire eradicated vegetation on the rocky habitat of brush-tailed rock wallabies in New South Wales, the government air-dropped thousands of carrots and sweet potatoes to supplement the marsupials’ diet.

Operation Rock Wallaby – #NPWS staff today dropped thousands of kgs of food (Mostly sweet potato and carrots) for our Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby colonies across NSW #bushfires

Hungry predators are also a risk to survivors: Cats can travel 20–30 kilometers to “mop up all the native animals that are left there over the next few months,” ecologist Sarah Legge told Vice.

Plant opportunists may take root in the burned landscape as well. As Wired reports, faster-growing and weedier species may dominate landscapes previously forested, and invasive species could move in. Although only time can tell what will appear in the scorched terrain, entomologist Nigel Andrew told Wired that “the diversity of our natural environments is going to change.”

4. Smoke from the fires is circumnavigating the planet and ratcheting up carbon dioxide emissions.

Smoke billowing from the fires is making its way around the planet, injecting aerosols in the upper atmosphere and increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Measurements of the ultraviolet aerosol index by NASA satellites last week showed aerosol values at some of the highest levels ever recorded. Larger aerosol values indicate that the smoke is sitting high up in the atmosphere in a layer called the stratosphere. Large pyrocumulonimbus storms above the fires in Australia are acting like chimneys, shooting smoke high into the air as if they were volcanic eruptions or nuclear explosions.

Atmospheric scientist Neil Lareau at the University of Nevada, Reno, told the Washington Post that the sheer number of aerosols reaching the stratosphere is remarkable. Apart from two large-scale events—one in Canada in 2017 and one in Australia in 2009—“I don’t think I’ve seen anything on this scale in the stratosphere caused by wildfires in the past 20 years as an atmospheric scientist,” Lareau said.

It’s not clear how the carbon-rich aerosols released by the fires could impact climate. The Washington Post reports that recent studies may indicate that it can lead to a warming effect.

Meanwhile, the fires are also spitting out vast amounts of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change.

The fires have already released enough carbon dioxide to rival Australia’s annual human-caused emissions: An estimated 400 million tons of carbon have been released from the fires, according to NPR. Last year, Australia emitted roughly 540 million tons from human sources.

But all the carbon dioxide emitted from the fires may not stay in the atmosphere: Fires are thought to be carbon neutral because forests suck in carbon to regrow. But climate change may limit how well forests can grow back.

5. The fires are raining soot on New Zealand’s glaciers, which could speed up melt.

A view of the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand revealed another consequence of the fires: “caramelized” snow darkened by soot. One Twitter post said that the snow was white just 1 day earlier.

White snow has a high albedo and reflects sunlight at a relatively high rate. The darker the color the snow is, however, the lower the albedo will dip, and the more heat the glacier absorbs.

The Australian reported ashy snowfields in New Zealand in early December. The country is in the middle of summer, so although the high glaciers may get a new coat of snow soon, the lower glaciers might not get one until March.

New Zealand’s glaciers are already dwindling because of warming temperatures: Last year, more than half of the largest glaciers in the country lost snow from the previous winter and previous years, in some cases. The glaciers have lost a third of their snow and ice volume since the 1970s.

Andrew Mackintosh, a researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, told the Guardian that the ash could increase glacier melt this season by 20%–30%, though he cautioned that the numbers were estimates. Fortunately, he said, the effects won’t last much longer than a year.

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow at Eos.

This article was originally published by Eos Magazine and re-posted here under a creative commons license.


Credit: Pixabay.

Microplastics found in the guts of all sea turtles across the oceans

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers examined the guts of sea turtles belonging to seven species from across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the Mediterranean. They found that each and every one of the 102 surveyed turtles had microplastics in their digestive system, highlighting the gruesome scale of marine plastic pollution.

“The effect of these particles on turtles is unknown,” said lead author Dr. Emily Duncan, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter. “Their small size means they can pass through the gut without causing a blockage, as is frequently reported with larger plastic fragments.”

“However, future work should focus on whether microplastics may be affecting aquatic organisms more subtly. For example, they may possibly carry contaminants, bacteria or viruses, or they may affect the turtle at a cellular or subcellular level. This requires further investigation,” she added.

Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic, ranging from 5 millimeters down to 100 nanometers in diameter. Since mass production of plastics began in the 1940s, microplastic contamination of the marine environment has been a growing problem.

Ultimately, microplastics travel up the food chain where they can even reach humans. A portion of consumer-grade mussels in Europe could contain about 90 microplastics, according to one study. Consumption is likely to vary greatly between nations and generations, but avid mussel eaters might ingest up to 11,000 microplastics a year, by one estimate. Microplastics have also been found in canned fish, and even in sea salt. One kilogram can contain over 600 microplastics,  meaning if you consume the maximum daily intake of 5 grams of salt, that’s equivalent to ingesting three microplastic particles a day.

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Microplastics can be categorized by their source. There are two main types, primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are purposefully made to be that size. They were created by the manufacturer to be tiny for a particular purpose. The one that you have probably heard about the most are microbeads — little plastic spheres used in face washes, cosmetics, and toothpaste to exfoliate or scrub.

Secondary microplastics are bits of plastic that break down from larger pieces. Weathering, such as from waves, sunlight, or other physical stress, breaks the plastic into smaller pieces. Usually, it originates from waste that wasn’t managed properly.


The new study shows that the scale of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans is huge. The authors found that all turtles on which they performed necropsies had synthetic particles in their guts, the most common being fibers. The sources of pollution include clothing, tires, cigarette filters, fishing nets, and other maritime equipment. In total, more than 800 synthetic particles were identified in 102 turtles. The researchers, however, only analyzed a portion of the turtles’ guts, which means that the actual microplastic content could be 20 times higher throughout the digestive system.

It’s unclear at this point what the health consequences are, since the turtles show little outside signs of adverse effects, despite ingesting copious amounts of microplastics. One major concern is that the microplastics and fibers may be exposing turtles, and other marine wildlife, to toxic chemicals, bacteria, and disease.

“It really is a great shame that many or even all of the world’s sea turtles have now ingested microplastics,” Professor Brendan Godley, senior author of the study, said in a statement.

“At the moment, this is not the main threat to this species group but it is a clear sign that we need to act to better govern global waste.”

The findings, which were published in the journal Global Change Biology, show that the scope of microplastic pollution is huge. In order to tackle this great threat to marine life, it’s important that no effort is spared in order to minimize the number of plastics that eventually get dumped into the oceans. Scientists estimate that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons of plastic waste could be entering the world’s oceans every year, contributing to trillions of tiny pieces of plastic waste.

“This important research demonstrates the breadth of our plastics pollution problem,” Louise Edge, plastics campaigner at Greenpeace, said in a statement. “Our society’s addiction to throwaway plastic is fuelling a global environmental crisis that must be tackled at source.”

Green Home.

How to reduce your home’s ecological footprint

Between climate change, pollution, and overconsumption, we’re not treating the planet very well. But what can us little actors on the world stage do?

Image credits: Jack Bulmer / Unsplash.

We may not have much sway over global matters, but we’re all kings and queens of our own castles. So, here’s a list of some of the quickest and most effective changes we can do to greenify our own little slice of the Earth.


Quality insulation is the most straight-forward approach to limiting your home’s energy use and environmental footprint. It’s also probably the single most effective energy-related measure on the list. Insulation is comprised of materials that can reflect heat or trap small pockets of air (a very poor thermal conductor) to slow down heat flow. The second type is more commonly seen (and, as a side-note, works pretty much like thick winter clothes).

One of the most traditional approaches is to insulate the walls. However, all parts of a building will benefit from insulation. Windows tend to be the prime drivers of heat exchange, according to a paper published by Jong-Jin Kim and Jin Woo Moon back in 2009. They reported that windows vent roughly 26% of the heat in a home in a cold climate (Detroit, Michigan). Walls only vented a bit over 25%. Keep in mind, however, that windows tend to have a tiny surface area compared to walls.

Wall insulation.

A building facade with outside insulator layers.
Image credits Alina Kuptsova.

Even something as simple as painting your roof white can help insulate your home in blistering environments.

It is estimated that improvements in the level of insulation of the existing buildings can reduce heating requirements by a factor of two to four. Houses built using the latest insulation technology and design in various cold-climate countries use only 10% of the energy for heating compared to their peers, the paper adds. If the house you live in is really old, perhaps selling your home fast to move into a more modern, energy-efficient one is worth considering.

Stop wasting water

Modern households use a huge amount of water — and we don’t even see it for the luxury that it is. Freshwater is in short supply. Our efforts to secure as much of this resource as possible is having nasty effects on ecosystems throughout the world — so don’t waste it! Lifestyle changes are a good place to start: turn off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth, for example. Take shorter showers. Fix any leaks you might find around the house, too. The biggest culprit, however, is your lawn.

Lawn Sprinkling.

“Aahhh, I can hear the planet dying already!”
Image credits Rudy Skitterians, Peter Skitterians.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one-third of all U.S. residential water is used for irrigation. Over 50% of that water is wasted by inefficient use, however. You don’t need to give up your lawn, but there are tricks and tweaks you can apply to reduce water use. Some of the simplest changes you can make are to monitor natural precipitation and reduce irrigation accordingly, water your lawn between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m (reduces water loss to wind and evaporation), and switching to water systems that stay close to the ground.

Actually, stop wasting anything

While they can be quite a hefty up-front investment, smart meters can help keep heating expenditures in check. They come in handy especially during winter.

Energy-efficient appliances are also pretty good — but they tend to be expensive. Bulbs, however, are pretty cheap. So change your aging bulbs with some crisp energy-efficient ones, i.e. LEDs. Bills go down, you get quality light, and the penguins get to keep their home. Everybody wins.

Produce more on-site

Vegetable balcony.

Image credits Marcel Oosterwijk / Flickr.

The first points were more of a case of waste not, want not. But one of the easiest ways to reduce emissions from power plants, or plastic waste from packaging, is to not use them in the first place.

There are several commercially-available energy production options to choose from out there. Solar is probably the least hassle-intensive, while wind or geothermal have their own selling points. The first can work around the clock, the latter is pretty install-and-forget, and both produce ample power. However, they’re both hampered by relatively high up-front costs, making them better suited for communities (or y’all richer folk out there).

All that energy will keep your house going, but what will fuel you? Well, people have been growing food around the house for as long as people have known how to grow stuff. Probably.

We’re much more space-constrained these days, but any space around the house you can fit a planter in will net you some tasty tomatoes, a handful of carrots, or whatever else you fancy. Even a meager harvest will still be a big win for you — gardening, and interacting with nature in general, has been shown to bring ample mental health and life quality improvements. The plants will also help freshen and clean up the air in your home.

Plus, think of all the bragging rights you’ll win when your friends come over for lunch next time.

If you do have the room for it, a compost bin will provide lots of quality fertilizers for your crops, and help reduce the amount of trash you sent to the landfill. Of course, for those who don’t have any growing space at all, buying local whenever possible should significantly reduce the carbon footprint of your groceries, while helping your local community at the same time.

Coradia iLint.

Germany rolls out the first hydrogen-powered trains in the world

Germany can boast running the first hydrogen-powered trains in the world.

Coradia iLint.

Image credits Frank Paukstat / Flickr.

As of this Monday, passengers from the towns of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervoerde, and Buxtehude (all of them just west of Hamburg) can embark on a unique experience — on a train. Two Coradia iLint locomotives — designed and built by Alstom, the same company behind the bullet train — will ‘burn’ through hydrogen fuel cells to take these passengers for a ride.


People like fast trains. At the time of their unveiling, trains such as Japan’s bullet train and the French TGV made headlines, set records, and captured the public’s imagination. But going fast isn’t the only desirable quality in a train. For example, the TGV imposed itself, along with its electric transmission, during the 1973 oil crisis in France.

As Europe works to decouple its economy from fossil fuels, French company Alstom wants to provide them with trains made to measure. The company is now working to replace Germany’s old diesel-powered trains with hydrogen ones. Alstom CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge inaugurated the first pair of such trains — christened Coradia iLint — at a ceremony in Bremervoerde, where the trains will undergo hydrogen refueling.

“The world’s first hydrogen train is entering into commercial service and is ready for serial production,” he said during the event.

The trains, painted bright blue, will run along a 100-kilometer (62-mile) long stretch of track. However, they can travel up to 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) on a single tank of hydrogen, the company reports.

Hydrogen engines draw on fuel cells to produce electricity. Hydrogen in these cells is combined with oxygen in the atmosphere to generate power, and their only exhaust product is pure water and steam. The engines in the Coradia iLints are very efficient, so the vehicles come equipped with banks of ion-lithium to make sure no charge is wasted.

They’re much quieter than their diesel-fueled counterparts, more eco-friendly, and have the upper hand on electric trains as they can run on any stretch of track, electrified or not. Their only down-side is a higher initial cost.

“Sure, buying a hydrogen train is somewhat more expensive than a diesel train, but it is cheaper to run,” says Stefan Schrank, Alstom’s project manager.

For their part, Germans seem to really dig the trains. Alstom reported that it has already signed a contract to deliver 14 trains in the Lower Saxony (northern Germany) region by 2021. The trains will be delivered to the local transport authority of Lower Saxony (LNVG), which will, in turn, lease them to a contracted train operator, the Eisenbahnen und Verkehrsbetriebe Elbe-Weser GmbH (EVB).

France is also working to acquire hydrogen-powered trains, which it plans to have ready by 2022. Other European countries, including the U.K, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and Italy, have also expressed an interest in such vehicles, as did Canada.

The Coradia iLint was first showcased at the rail industry trade fair InnoTrans in 2016, where the company boldly named it “train of the future”; we can only hope that their boast proves true.

The new material is made from crab shells and tree cellulose. Credit: Georgia Tech.

Renewable material made from crab shells and trees could replace plastic film packaging

The new material is made from crab shells and tree cellulose. Credit: Georgia Tech.

The new material is made from crab shells and tree cellulose. Credit: Georgia Tech.

Single-use food wrapping has created a rubbish problem that now pollutes every corner of the world. In an effort to address this kind of pollution, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed an environmentally-friendly alternative that could replace flexible plastic film packaging.

The new renewable and biodegradable material is a flexible film made from multiple layers of chitin from crab shells and cellulose from trees. Chitin and cellulose, whose chemical structure are incredibly similar, are the most abundant natural biopolymers on the planet. Researchers combined the two by suspending them in water, then sprayed the solution onto a surface in alternating layers. Once it dried, the material was found to be strong, flexible, transparent, and compostable.

While plastic packaging is often scorned, it does have its benefits. Thanks to some kinds of plastic packaging, for instance,  food waste is prevented, thereby reducing deforestation, fertilizer use, or vehicular emissions. However, this doesn’t balance out the inevitable litter problems associated with plastic wrapping, which is why having a material that can safely store food without putting too much strain on the environment is welcomed.

Most transparent plastic packagings around the world are made from PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. The new chitin-cellulose transparent film has “up to a 67 percent reduction in oxygen permeability over some forms of PET, which means it could in theory keep foods fresher longer,” said study co-author J. Carson Meredith is a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

The effectiveness of the new material in keeping food fresh is due to its crystal structure, which keeps gas molecules like oxygen from penetrating the material. PET, on the other hand, has significant amorphous or non-crystalline content, which enables paths that gases can take to reach the food the packing is supposed to protect from spoiling.

“We had been looking at cellulose nanocrystals for several years and exploring ways to improve those for use in lightweight composites as well as food packaging, because of the huge market opportunity for renewable and compostable packaging, and how important food packaging overall is going to be as the population continues to grow,” said Professor Meredith.

Chitin and cellulose are both very cheap and naturally-available materials. The only thing that keeps the new material from becoming commercially available in mass is finding a cost-effective manufacturing process. Mass producing chitin may also be problematic. Additionally, the team plan on improving their material’s ability to block water vapor.

The findings appeared in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering


Credit: Flickr, Diganta Talukdar.

How Buildings of the Future Will Conserve Water

Commercial, residential, and industrial buildings use a lot of water. It’s hard for them to conserve water when there are so many people and processes relying on the liquid. It’s even worse for industrial organizations where water use is constant.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), commercial buildings use about 88 percent of all drinkable water in the U.S. Facility managers who understand the need to conserve this water and use their resources to do so could significantly decrease water use throughout the world.

As things evolve, so will the future of water conservation. It will be about using technology, science, and more in the name of water-saving features. It will also save companies time and money.

Here are some of the key ways that commercial buildings can and will continue to decrease water usage in their facilities.

Low-Flow Plumbing Fixtures

One of the most incredible breakthroughs in water systems is low-flow water fixture systems. In 1992, low-flow plumbing fixtures became a requirement in commercial buildings, according to the National Energy Policy Act signed that year.

Since this mandate, industrial water usage has cut water use in industrial plants by a third. This means that everything from flushing a toilet to getting a glass of water reduces water usage in an organization, and the technology is only improving. There are now more low-flow water fixtures and applications than ever before.

Water Level Sensors

Mechanical floats tend to be used in industrial organizations to control liquid levels. However, water level sensor switches are the newest and most reliable tools for controlling the liquid level in a given application.

Although not generally acknowledged as a water conservation tool, water level sensors help conserve water because they’re significantly more reliable. They have a one percent failure rate in 15 years, significantly reducing the likelihood of water waste.

Separately Metering Irrigation and Cooling Towers

Separately metering applications like irrigation and cooling towers is not only beneficial for conserving water, but also for running a more efficient organization. It prevents you from paying extra sewer and electricity charges to the city.

The water conservation aspect comes with the knowledge of how much water and evaporation from your cooling towers you’re using. The information can be invaluable in helping you pinpoint areas in which water conservation efforts are greatly needed.

Pressure Reduction

Pressure booster pumps are often used in industrial settings to maintain water supply, but it requires more water to flow through the pipes. It’s easy for organizations to let this pressure get out of hand if it’s not metered properly.

Higher pressure not only wastes water, but can also cause pipe ruptures, slowing down production and maximizing water waste. Pressure-reducing valves minimize water usage and increase your efficiency.

Rainwater and Grey Water Harvesting

There’s more water at our disposal than we often realize. Rainwater has its purpose, soaking into the ground and feeding ecosystems, but a lot is wasted, particularly in areas where it rains frequently. Grey water, meaning water that has been used in the sink, tub, or other mild, non-hazardous applications, can also be utilized in many capacities in an organization.

Rainwater harvesting and gray water reclamation systems can help you recycle and reclaim water that was once lost. Modern systems can be expensive, but they’re efficient and significantly increase efficiencies.

Leak Proofing and Repair

Leaking pipes are often a hidden problem. It can take years to recognize a leak, and there’s often untold damage surrounding this issue, not to mention inefficient water practices. Water waste can be astronomical when leaks occur.

Leak proofing begins with tools to detect leaking behind walls, including cataloging weak points and reinforcing them. Through rapid leak detection methods, organizations can find leaks, repair them, and even prevent them in the future.

There are dozens of ways that industries can improve their water conservation tactics. Modern technologies and the sciences behind them have revolutionized both efficiencies in an organization and a more sustainable ecosystem.

The plasma rock -- a sustainable material made from landfill waste.

Eco-designer turns landfill waste into ‘plasma rock’ — a sustainable, all-purpose material

Dutch designer Inge Sluijs has found a creative solution that might partly solve our waste problems, all while providing us with a sustainable material. How so? Well, Sluijs has basically blasted waste collected from landfills with plasma hotter than the surface of the sun. What you end up with is a hard, rock-like material that can be used to fashion all sorts of eco-friendly goods. Plasma, waste removal, and sustainable materials all at the same time? Now that’s something that ZME Science loves!

The plasma rock -- a sustainable material made from landfill waste.

The plasma rock — a sustainable material made from landfill waste. Credit: Inge Sluijs

Where humans go, trash is never far behind — not even in space. Even remote, supposedly pristine locations, where humans haven’t set foot in decades, haven’t been spared. To find the epitome of modern-day consumerism and unlawful waste, one doesn’t need to roam too far. That’s landfills. These enormous stockpiles of human-sourced waste that we force-feed into the soil grow larger and larger by the moment. In some places, like close to coastlines, landfills can be likened to ticking time bombs waiting to unleash a fury of pollution onto marine life.

The designer turned coastal landfill waste into a rock-like sustainable material. Credit: Inge Sluijs

Coastline landfills are precisely where Sluijs decided to start sourcing material for her plasma rock. In a fully mechanized and automated plant, landfill waste is transported across a conveyer belt to a gasifier where all junk is heated at 800 degrees Celsius, turning everything into gas. Next in the loop is the pacifier where the gas is superheated to 1,500 degrees Celsius and blasted with plasma –– ionized gas that can generate a magnetic field and, also, the stuff lightnings are made of. The plasma torch itself can reach temperatures in excess of 5,500 degrees Celsius, or hotter than the sun’s corona.

Left to right: plasma rock, waste turned into powder for gassification, starting landfill waste. Credit: Inge Sluijs.

Left to right: plasma rock, waste turned into powder for gasification, starting landfill waste. Credit: Inge Sluijs.

The intense heat breaks down the gasified waste into atomic elements. At the end of the gasification process, you end up with a slag that Sluijs called the plasma rock. Once it cools, the slag is fully vitrified, taking on a rock-like appearance and sharp edges. Its chemical composition depends on the type of waste used but mainly, the rock is made of silica, lime, and alumina, with a mix of elements and compounds like titanium, magnesium, sodium oxide, iron oxide, phosphate, and potassium.

Tests run so far always render syngas (a potential fuel), heat (which can be recirculated to increase efficiency) and the plasma rock — that’s regardless of the waste material be it leftover food, plastic or baby diapers.  About 100 kg of landfill waste will result in 20 kg of plasma rock.

“While the coastal historic landfill waste was toxic the Plasma Rock is virtually un-bleachable that means that any hazardous materials are inert and will not dissolve out of the material,” Sluijs wrote on her website.

“The quality of this nearly undiscovered material is that it is mechanically strong, very dense and environmentally stable.”

To demonstrate the practicality of this durable, non-toxic material, Sluijs and collaborators have made all sorts of useful goods out of the plasma rock. For instance, waste from the East Tilbury landfill located in Essex, England, was turned into decorated Tilbury Tiles which currently sell as souvenirs around town.

plasma rock

Credit: Inge Sluijs

She’s also made glass vases decorated with plasma rock specks, showing landfill waste can have a second life in your living room.

Plasma Rock

Credit: Inge Suijs.


You shouldn’t forget about recycling bathroom items

When home recycling is concerned, the kitchen reigns supreme. Here is where most of the waste gets disposed and where all the recycling bins can be found, but there’s another important center filled with recyclable items in your home: the bathroom. Research shows that even among families that are consistent recyclers, only 20% of Americans recycle bathroom items. It’s not certain why most people overlook bathroom items, like containers and packaging and other materials that can usually be recycled, but what’s important to note is that these items comprise a healthy chunk of your entire recyclable waste.

What bathroom items can you recycle


Photo: Care to Recycle

1. Shampoo, bodywash and mouthwash bottles. These bottles are typically made of plastic of various quality, and can be either opaque, as most shampoo bottles are, or transparent, like bodywash bottles. Opaque bottles are usually made of #2 plastic (High Density Polyethylene, or HDPE), which is accepted by most recyclers. Number 2 plastics can be recycled into building materials like lumber or fencing, office supplies like pens, or more bottles. Clear bottles are made of #1 plastic, also known as PET, which is the most useful plastic for recycling. Number 3 plastics aren’t accepted by most recycling vendors.

2. Pill and Medicine containers. These come in many shapes and size, as well as different materials. Whether these containers are meant for prescription pills or liquid medicines, you’ll notice that manufacturers use a variety of materials, most common being: #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5 plastics. As read above, it’s best you only collect #1 and #2 plastics, but you might as well check the bottom of your containers, see what kind of plastic it’s made from and check with your local hauler. Also, don’t forget to take the caps off and dispose of them separately.

3. Cardboard packaging. Bathroom items, especially beauty-care products, are marketed extremely aggressively to consumers and most of the time come in much larger packaging than they have to. Consequently, you might find your 5″ soap wrapped in a 10″ cardboard box. Cardboard is cardboard, and any hauler will take them in. Aren’t you forgetting something? Yup, the tube that your toilet paper and paper towels came on – recycle those too!

4. Plastic films and wrappers. There’s packaging and there’s packaging for packaging. Remember to dispose of the plastic wrap that your cotton balls, toilet paper, diapers and other products come in a special container. Thing is, these will most likely be rejected by local curbside program, but chances have it you can find drop-off locations that accept plastic wraps by searching online.

5. Toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes. These are among the hardest to recycle products, but there are organizations that will collect hard-to-recycle household items like toothbrushes.

Get in the habit of recycling bathroom items

The hardest thing is starting, but once you’re in the habit of it, recycling household waste, be it from the kitchen or bathroom, becomes a breeze. Here are some tips to help you off:

1. Add a recycle-bin to your bathroom. I’m not saying you should litter your home with sorted recycle bins, but from experience having a recycle bin in your bathroom will cut you a lot of slack and will make recycling easier and handy. The more convenient, the easier it will be.

2. Post reminders. A simple post-it stuck to your bathroom bin or even on the corner of your bathroom mirror reminding you to use the bin whenever you want to throw something away will help you a lot. This way, you create mental anchors that aid in meeting your recycling goals.

3. Buy easy to recycle items. Check the back of the products you want to buy for your bathroom – are they easy disposable plastics? Once you find products you like, with packaging that’s recyclable, keep restocking with those specific products so that you won’t have to keep checking if they’re recyclable.

4. Involve friends and family. Most likely, you’re not living alone, so make sure your spouse, kids, relatives or roommates are aware of your recycling wishes.



Give ugly veggies and fruits a second chance – they’re just as tasty


According to the United Nations, 20 to 40 percent of fresh food is thrown away by farmers because they don’t look as appetizing as they should to sell. Besides looking a bit crooked, twisted or shrugged, these fruits and vegetables are perfectly edible and taste no different than the perfectly shaped ones you’re always on the lookout for in the supermarket.


Acknowledging this dreadful waste, the European Union has started a campaign to raise awareness and convince consumers eating unaesthetic veggies is perfectly fine. To this aim, they’ve teamed up with French retailer Intermarche for a pilot campaign called the “Inglorious Vegetables and Fruits”. Working together with farmers and retail stores, ugly vegetables and fruits were sold with a 30% discount, much to the delight of customers who flocked to the stands, proving they need not much convincing. Everybody seems to be happy: customers get tasty fresh food at a hefty discount, farmers earn more by selling products which would have otherwise been discarded, and retailers can benefit from a greater sales volume. The fresh food pie just got bigger!


The little town of Provins, outside Paris, where the first such Intermache experiment was made is not alone. In Portugal,  a food cooperative called Fruta Feia (Ugly Fruit) buys produce too gnarly for supermarkets and sells it to customers, reports the New York Times. A similar initiative is preparing to run in the United Kingdom.

The App that could fight food waste

According to the EPA, Americans waste some 30-40 percent of all the food they use. Even not considering the poorest areas such as Africa or SE Asia where food is almost a luxury, there are 50 million Americans who don’t have daily access to adequate food; reducing food waste could improve and save countless lives.

Wasted food is a huge problem throughout the entire digital world. Image via Wiki Commons.

Food waste is a huge problem throughout the entire developed world, but a simple app may go a long way to changing that. The PareUp app will be launched in New York City first, where, according to the PareUp website, 6.5 billion pounds of food are thrown away daily; 6.5 billion pounds of food wasted every day, and that’s just New York.

Ironically, the biggest food wasters are those who profit most from food: restaurants and supermarkets – and this is PareUp steps in. Their goal is to connect the individual consumer with these businesses, allowing both parties the opportunity to buy and sell food that would otherwise go to waste. Supermarkets and restaurants would get a chance to make an extra buck from something they would literally throw away, and consumers will get a chance to get good food at discounted prices. They created a simple yet effective win-win scenario for all parties involved.

A big part of the wasted food is food which doesn’t hit the shelves in the first place – like for example vegetables with a weird shape, or simply foods which are just as tasty the others but have some feature that deems them subpar. These would also be spared and end up in someone’s belly, instead of the garbage can. The clear and simple solution would be to directly donate these to local shelters or food banks, but unfortunately, food-safety regulations for many of these organizations disallow them from accepting it. Also, the costs of transportation outweigh the price of the food sometimes. Also, it raises a somewhat ethical discussion – if these foods aren’t good enough for the general consumer, why would they be good for orphanages or homeless shelters?

Personally, I think the simple system this app uses can work out really fine. It’s your choice if you want to eat cheaper food which would otherwise be thrown away. It’s sustainable, and I certainly don’t consider it shameful. Personally, if it comes to my area, I’ll definitely use the app – and proudly.

climate whirlpool

Giant 500 km wide ocean whirlpools affect climate

climate whirlpool

Image: Sergey Kryazhimskiy

Giant whirlpools or mesoscale eddies, as described in scientific literature, can grow between 100 km and 500 km in diameter, forming around islands where ocean currents become disrupted. These whirlpools carry immense amounts of water and heat, but up until now they’ve been largely ignored in climate models. A novel research, however, found that energy dispersed by the giant eddies shouldn’t be neglected, after measuring for the first time the extent of their effects.

The researchers from the University of Hawaii used satellite data collected between 1992 to 2010 to identify large eddies, then correlated their location with data pertaining to things like temperature, shape or volume retrieved from floating sensors. Interestingly enough, their findings suggest that the giant whirlpools move as much water around the world’s ocean as regular currents do, and because they’re forced in a westward motion by the spinning of the Earth, they’re delivering 30 million tonnes of sea water every second to the east coasts of the world’s continents.

“It’s not clear what this means for the weather, but it is likely to be significant,” says Slezak at New Scientist, calling mesoscale eddies the ocean equivalent of storms. “Some of the world’s biggest sources of climate variability, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, are powered by heat moving around the oceans, driven by wind and ocean currents.”

While it’s now certain that these eddies have a word to say when climate is concerned, it’s still unclear how significant their contribution is. Some of the world’s biggest sources of climate variability, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, are powered by heat moving around the oceans, driven by wind and ocean currents. It is possible, then, that the mesoscale eddies could power some of the world’s most powerful storms, considering the water they move is warmer than that discharged by currents.

A bigger, more important question that needs addressing is how does climate change effects eddies. It’s possible that a warmer world could make giant whirlpools bigger and more common. The findings appeared in the journal Science.

Silicon polymer and battery used for the research. Photo: University of California

Silly Putty ingredient helps improve batteries

silly putty


When you think about Silly Putty toys, the last thing that comes to mind is high-tech. A group of researchers, however, used a novel trick to incorporate  an ingredient in Silly Putty to improve lithium-ion battery life between charges by three times the industry standard.

For what’s it worth, Silly Putty is actually one of the most fascinating man-made materials. One of the most important resources needed for World War II war production was rubber. It was essential for tires (which kept the trucks moving) and boots (which kept the soldiers moving). Out of this need, scientists were charged with developing a synthetic version of rubber. In 1943, engineer James Wright combined boric acid and silicone oil, producing an interesting gob of goo.

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Upon testing the substance, Wright discovered it could bounce when dropped, stretch farther than regular rubber, didn’t collect mold, and had a very high melting temperature. A very peculiar and strange material, but unfortunately enough it didn’t pose the required practical characteristics to replace rubber. Instead, it became a source of entertainment when it was marketed as a children’s toy in the 1950’s. By then, it had grown very popular. Even Apollo astronauts can be seen in some rare footage quenching their boredom with this silly toy.

Silicon polymer and battery used for the research. Photo: University of California

Silicon polymer and battery used for the research. Photo: University of California

Researchers at University of California believe there are actually more uses to the Silly Putty than meets the eye. One of the main ingredients of the toy is silicon dioxide (SiO2), basically a powdered quartz that is extremely common to find, hence very cheap. Researchers used SiO2 to create a new battery anode, replacing the conventional carbon anode.

This isn’t the first time this sort of attempt has been made, but previous efforts have rendered very poor performance. The key this time was that the silicon dioxide was rolled into nanotubes which allowed them to produce three times the energy capacity compared to carbon-based anodes. In addition, the material is non-toxic and found in everything from children’s toys to fast foods.

More importantly, the Silly Putty-derived nanotube anodes can be cycled for hundreds of times beyond the tested limits, according to the University of California researchers. Next, they plan on scaling their findings for mass production.

Results appeared in the journal Nature.

Various measurements have captured the West Antarctic ice sheet changing very rapidly in the region where it flows into the Amundsen Sea. Credit Landsat

West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse is irreversible; to cause 10 feet sea level rise

Various measurements have captured the West Antarctic ice sheet changing very rapidly in the region where it flows into the Amundsen Sea. Credit Landsat

Various measurements have captured the West Antarctic ice sheet changing very rapidly in the region where it flows into the Amundsen Sea. Credit Landsat

The  West Antarctic Ice Sheet , a massive system of glaciers, is collapsing as a result of glacier melting (global warming). The process is most likely irreversible and cause a global sea lever rise of at least 10 feet, a pair of independent studies conclude.

A warmer planet gives way to rising oceans

Previously, the two-mile-thick (3.2 kilometers) glacier system was thought to last for at least a couple thousand years in the future, but new research reports faster melting times and more rapid displacement of ice into the ocean. Namely, NASA researchers found after shifting through 40 years worth of observational data that  six big glaciers in the Amundsen Sea “have passed the point of no return.”


The glaciers contain enough ice to raise global sea level by 4 feet (1.2 meters) and are melting faster than most scientists had expected, which will require adjusting estimates of sea-level rise. Their disappearance will most likely destabilize other sectors of the ice sheet, so the ultimate rise could be triple that.

“This retreat will have major implications for sea-level rise worldwide,” said Eric Rignot, a UC-Irvine Earth science professor and lead author of a study to be published in a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Another study made by a separate team led by Ian Joughin of the University of Washington studied one of the most important glaciers, Thwaites, using sophisticated computer modeling. The findings, expected to be published on May 16 in the journal Science, suggests that the Thwaites Glacier, a relatively fast-moving part of the ice sheet, will likely melt away into the ocean within several centuries, enough by itself to raise sea levels 2 feet.

Icebergs that appear to have broken off Thwaites glacier spread across Pine Island Bay. PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA

Icebergs that appear to have broken off Thwaites glacier spread across Pine Island Bay. PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA

Both studies seem to be conclude what world famous glaciologist John H. Mercer of the Ohio State University predicted way back in 1978: the rapid human-driven release of greenhouse gases pose a great threat to West Antarctic ice sheet, which is particularly vulnerable to such interventions.

Yet, this will happen in hundreds of years

These news are extremely startling since they mean that we have to prepare for a worse sea level rise scenario than initially thought, which could displace hundreds of millions living on the world’s coastlines. You shouldn’t panic though. Collapse is a term that in our minds is associated with an event that will happen very soon in the near future. In fact, these glaciers will retreat in about two hundred years, although estimates are yet to be fully refined. In a geological time frame, however, this is equivalent to a very sudden, unnatural event indeed.

Another, separate study that studied West Antarctic ice melt was released on Monday and reached the same conclusion: the major glacial system in the region that was previously thought stable is collapsing.

“What we have shown is this glacier is really in the early stages of collapse,” says Joughin, lead author of a study published separately in the journal Science on Monday.

Richard Alley, a professor of Earth sciences at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, who was not involved in either research project, says both are important. The data from Rignot’s group is consistent with the computer modeling by Joughin’s group, he says. Next, however, both works need to be confirmed by other independent models.

“But these results are sobering,” he says, “even the possibility that we have already committed to three-plus meters of sea-level rise from West Antarctica will be disquieting to many people, even if the rise waits centuries before arriving.”

It’s important to note that much of Antarctica’s ice sheet is in fact a system. As such, once the six glaciers near the coast melt, it is possible that the rest of the ice in West Antarctica could eventually follow like a domino string as a result of mechanical failure.

Joughin says that the collapse of the Thwaites glacier in particular could endanger much of the rest of the huge West Antarctic Ice Sheet, since the systems are connected.

“Imagine trying to take out part of a building and expecting the other half to keep on standing,” he says.


3D printer used to build 10 homes in one day in China


Photo: Winsun New Materials

Say what you will, but the Chinese are clearly the fastest builders in the world, though sometimes quick haste makes to waste. A while ago, I wrote about how a Chinese company wants to build the tallest skyscraper in the world in just 90 days. Really crazy stuff, but now another Chinese company, with many years of experience working with 3D printers, plan to revolutionize the way fast constructions are being made. To demonstrate their concept, the Suzhou-based construction materials firm Winsun built 10 homes, albeit modest looking, in only a day using a massive, specially design 3D printer.

Photon: Winsun New Materials

Photon: Winsun New Materials

Instead of a smooth polymer like in the case of conventional 3D printers used to manufacture small parts and such, the huge printer employed by the Chinese company uses a mix made out of recycled construction waste and cement. The head of the printer lays out a structure comprised of diagonal beams, in two layers with plenty of air gap to ensure sound proofing and heat insulation. These prefabricated walls are then transported to the site of construction and quickly assembled. Each of the 10 homes part of the demonstration requires little man power to assemble it and costs around $4,800.

As China rapidly urbanizes, the need for cheap and fast to build homes is acute. Solutions such as this seem to fair well in China, and the fact that it uses recycled materials comes at a plus. The video below details the production of these 3D printed prefabs.


Condensing towers could make water from thin air in the driest places on Earth


Artist impression of how two such tower might look like in a desert community. Photo: Architecture and Vision

The Namib desert is one of the vastest and driest deserts in the world. There is little water to be found here, so the few critters calling the desert home had to learn to adapt in order to survive. One particular beetle species stands out through the ingenuity with which it manages to quench its thirst – it doesn’t need to find water, it gathers it. Because temperature variations are very high in the Namib (the day time is scorching how, while nights can be freezing), the beetle condenses water on its back until drops roll down into the insect’s mouth. Remarkably simple and effective.

What can remote communities with little access to clean water learn from the Namib beetle? Clearly, humans need more than a few drops of water to survive, but Arturo Vittori, an industrial designer, and his colleague Andreas Vogle claim that they have designed a water condensing tower that is cheap, easy to build and potentially effective at gathering water. Called the Warka Tower, The 9 meter tall construction could potentially gather as much as 100 liters of water during the night, depending on temperature variations and humidity. Nothing less of a godsend for some of the one billion water-deprived people living in the world.

The invention doesn’t involve any complicated gadgetry. Heck, it doesn’t even need electricity to power anything inside. Instead, it lets nature do all the work for it, while the design, carefully chosen to the last curve and bit of material, ensures a steady collection of water.

The self condensing water tower

The rigid outer housing of each tower is comprised of lightweight and elastic juncus stalks, woven in a pattern that offers stability in the face of strong wind gusts while still allowing air to flow through. A mesh net made of nylon or  polypropylene, which calls to mind a large Chinese lantern, hangs inside, collecting droplets of dew that form along the surface. As cold air condenses, the droplets roll down into a container at the bottom of the tower. The water in the container then passes through a tube that functions as a faucet, carrying the water to those waiting on the ground.

Now, I don’t want to get any one’s hope up right away, since the project has yet to be practically proven and considering it’s not the first project to promise great results, only to perform poorly. Millions have poured into research and development in hopes that a solution or series of complementing solutions might help people living without access to clean water  in the world. Results have been mixed: some were effective, others less so. Matt Damon and Bill Gates are one of the many wealthy personalities currently pledging solid cash to such projects, like the “Re-invent the Toilet Challenge,” which we’ve written about in the past.

What most of these proposed solutions do, however, is either recycle, filter or improve extraction of water from readily available liquid sources. To drill for water, in places like Etiopia for instances – one of the driest countries on Earth – you need to go as deep as 1,600 feet, if you can find a water basin in the first place. This means money and, sometimes, technology that these people don’t have. This is why the Warka Tower may be a big deal, because it can collect water virtually anywhere, only at the cost of raising the structure.

In all, it costs about $500 to set up a tower—less than a quarter of the cost of something like the Gates toilet, which costs about $2,200 to install and more to maintain.  Vittori and Vogle hope to instal two Warka Towers in Ethiopia this year, but not until they can find a sponsor the financially aid this prospect. If you find interesting and would like to pledge your support, feel free to contact them.

Toyota confirms confirms fuel cell launch for 2015; zero local emissions and 500-mile range

Toyota has officially announced that it will launch a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car in 2015, but said sales volumes would be limited. The company announced they will use a high-density fuel stack which will have the potential to cover 500 miles on a single fuel tank.

Photo: Toyota

toyota fuel cell car

The technology will take a while to be implemented and accepted by the public, says European president, Didier Leroy.

“To help that happen we will bring a reasonable number of cars to Europe. The volume will be limited, but they will be visible on the streets,” he said.

However, while this sounds like a really awesome idea, I have some doubts. Converting fuels to hydrogen for fuel cells often creates more pollution than just burning the fuels. Sure, you could obtain hydrogen for fuel cells using any type of energy, including renewable, which is of course a good thing – but if you do this, why do hydrogen in the first place, and not just use electric cars?

I haven’t found any information regarding the efficiency and carbon footprint of this new technology, so I won’t make any more assumptions, but the good thing is that hydrogen fuel is easy to store, better at capturing renewable energies than batteries and can be produced anywhere – it’s also faster to recharge your car with it than electricity.

“Taking these facts into account reinforces how Toyota is convinced fuel cell can deliver our ultimate goal of zero emissions and sustainable transport,” he said.

This sounds like a lofty goal, but again – just moving the emissions from individual cars to the hydrogen producing facilities doesn’t do much. I guess we’ll have to wait until 2015 to see just how efficient this really is.

This sealed bottle garden hasn’t been opened since 1972 – still doing just fine

It’s 1960, a nice Sunday, Easter day. David Latimer decides to do something special to mark this day, and he starts a bottle garden in his ten gallon carboy.

He poured in some compost, a quarter pint of water and then, carefully added some spiderwort seedling (Tradescantia) using a piece of water. He then placed the bottle garden by a sun-filled window in his home leaving photosynthesis to do its thing.

12 years after that, he opened his garden and gave it another drink of water – and it’s been closed ever since – since 1972! So how does this work exactly, how come the plants are still fine? Is there something special about this particular bottle garden?

No, not really. Bottle gardens work if they are really well sealed. If this is the case, it becomes a self sustainable environment, and all it needs is sunlight. Plants survive by using photosynthesis to recycle nutrients, using cellular respiration to break down decaying material shed by the plant. Basically, the bacteria in the soil absorbs the plant oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, which is then used by the plant to grow, releasing oxygen, and so on; meanwhile, the water gets taken by the roots, is eliminated through transpiration where it condenses and drops down so the cycle can start again – truly a self sustainable ecosystem!


Middle school student shows the US government could save $400 million by switching fonts

How important are details, when it comes to saving money? Any accountant will tell you: really important. A middle school student in Pittsburg thought the same thing – he discovered that the government could save $400 million dollars just by change the typeface it uses. Inspired by a school project on saving ink, he calculated that his school could reduce ink use by a quarter simply by changing their typeface from Times New Roman to Garamond.

If his school could reduce ink use by 25% by dropping TNR, then so could every other school, right? The figure might vary a little, but that seems like a safe assumption. Apply that to the government, and you really start seeing the impact: this could slash its ink usage by a similar margin and save $400 million! Now we’re getting somewhere!

Ink is surprisingly expensive: pound for pound, it’s more expensive than perfume.

“Ink is two times more expensive than French perfume by volume,” Suvir says with a chuckle.

He’s right – Chanel No. 5 perfume costs $38 per ounce, while the equivalent amount of Hewlett-Packard printer ink can cost up to $75. So he decided to set out how ink could be saved; his methodology was simple, but to the point (I’m trying really hard to avoid puns, but alas, sometimes I fail). First, he charted how often each character was used in four different typefaces: Garamond, Times New Roman, Century Gothic and Comic Sans. Then, using a simple commercial software (APFill® Ink Coverage Software) he measured how much ink each font would require. To verify these findings, he printed enlarged versions of letters and weighed them – the results were consistent. Garamond, with its thinner strokes, reduces ink consumption by about 24%.

If his school would switch from TNR to Garamond, they would save $21.000 annually. If the entire government, which prints a huge amount of documents each day also did it, they would save $136 million on ink, and if state and local governments got in on the change, the entire country could save another $234 million. That adds up to $400 million in the US alone!

Of course, Suvir was not the first ever to suggest using a different typeface – several Universities are already using thinner fonts in their emails and documents for this specific purpose. But one can only wonder – if a sixth grader saw a simple way to save this much money and resources… why aren’t policymakers all over it already ? It’s as easy as changing fonts.


The solar char toilet developed at University of Boulder Colorado.

Solar powered toilet locks greenhouse gases and increases crop yields

One of the 16 teams involved in a collaborative project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to help some of the 2.5 billion people around the world lacking safe and sustainable sanitation recently unveiled their innovative design: a solar-powered toilet that treats solid waste by effectively carbonizing it. The concentrated solar power delivers high energy in the waste chamber, sterilizing it and transforming it into biochar – a highly porous charcoal used to both increase crop yields and sequester carbon dioxide.

Karl Linden, professor of environmental engineering at University of Colorado Boulder, and colleagues developed a next-generation toilet destined for poor and unaccessible areas where waste disposal isn’t effectively disposed of in a centralized manner.

The solar char  toilet developed at University of Boulder Colorado.

The solar char toilet developed at University of Boulder Colorado.

The high tech latrine consists of eight parabolic mirrors that focus concentrated sunlight to a spot no larger than a postage stamp on a quartz-glass rod connected to eight bundles of fiber-optic cables, each consisting of thousands of intertwined, fused fibers, said Linden. The energy generated by the sun and transferred to the fiber-optic cable system — similar in some ways to a data transmission line — can heat up the reaction chamber to over 600 degrees Fahrenheit to treat the waste material, disinfect pathogens in both feces and urine, and produce char.
Char is a very useful material because of its high water retaining properties. A soil mixture containing 10 percent biochar can hold up to 50 percent more water and increase the availability of plant nutrients, thus helping improve crop yields. Additionally the charcol has carbon mitigating properties, helping reduce greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Alternatively, you can release the trapped carbon back into the atmosphere by burning it to extract energy comparable to that of commercial charcoal.

“We are doing something that has never been done before,” said Linden. “While the idea of concentrating solar energy is not new, transmitting it flexibly to a customizable location via fiber-optic cables is the really unique aspect of this project.”

Tests have shown that each of the eight fiber-optic cables can produce between 80 and 90 watts of energy, meaning the whole system can deliver up to 700 watts of energy into the reaction chamber, said Linden. In its current form, the toilet was designed to meet the needs of six people a day, however larger facility that could serve several households simultaneously are currently being considered. The key here is cost, especially considering the toilet’s target group. The researchers claim a cost level of five cents a day per user can be reached.

The team of researchers involved in the project will travel to Delhi, where their invention along with 15 other produced by researchers from other University will be on display March 22. Other institutional winners of the Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” range from Caltech to Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the National University of Singapore.

“We have a lot of excitement and energy on our team, and the Gates Foundation values that,” Linden said.  “It is one thing to do research, another to screw on nuts and bolts and make something that can make a difference. To me, that’s the fun part, and the project is a nice fit for CU-Boulder because we have a high interest in developing countries and expertise in all of the renewable energy technologies as well as sanitation.”