Category Archives: Green Living

Green walls can reduce heat lost by buildings by over 30% in temperate climates

Plants can help keep buildings warm in the winter, and cool in summer, according to new research. The trick is to plaster walls in them.

The Sustainability Hub at the University of Plymouth retrofitted with an exterior living wall facade. Image credits University of Plymouth.

Retrofitting cavity walls (double masonry walls with an air gap in between) with green or living walls goes a long way to reducing heating bills, according to new research. Such an improvement can slash the amount of heat a structure loses by over one-third (30%), the authors report.

The study was conducted at the University of Plymouth campus on its Sustainability Hub, a pre-1970 building. While the findings have practical applications for individual users, wide-scale adoption of such measures would also bring a significant and positive contribution to our efforts to combat the climate crisis.

Green for warmth

“Within England, approximately 57% of all buildings were built before 1964. While regulations have changed more recently to improve the thermal performance of new constructions, it is our existing buildings that require the most energy to heat and are a significant contributor to carbon emissions,” says Dr. Matthew Fox, a researcher in sustainable architecture and the study’s lead author.

“It is therefore essential that we begin to improve the thermal performance of these existing buildings, if the UK is to reach its target of net zero carbon emission by 2050, and help to reduce the likelihood of fuel poverty from rising energy prices.”

The study compared the insulating properties of two sections of the building’s walls with green walls providing extra insulation, using uncovered walls as a control. The green wall consisted of a flexible felt fabric sheet with a system of pockets to hold soil, in which various species of plants were planted. These included sedges, ferns, rushes, and flowering shrubs. The living wall was fitted to the exterior of the masonry wall. Due to the internal layout of the building, only one of the green-walled areas was monitored, as per the diagram below.

The performance of these two wall sections was monitored over a five-week period. By the end, the authors report, the one with the living wall facade showed a 31.4% reduction in lost heat compared to its bare counterpart.

Apart from better heat retention, the living wall also improved the thermal stability of the structure. Daytime temperatures in the two green-walled sections of the building fluctuated less than in the uninsulated ones — meaning it was easier for the buildings’ heating systems to maintain the desired temperature range.

The two monitoring locations in the building. Image credits Matthew Fox et al., (2021), Building and Environment.
A building’s U-value (thermal transmittance) showcases how much heat it transfers (loses) with its environment. Image credits Matthew Fox et al., (2021), Building and Environment.

They also discovered daytime temperatures within the newly-covered section remained more stable than the area with exposed masonry, meaning less energy was required to heat it.

Building energy use directly accounts for 17% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, the authors explain. Heating alone makes up over 60% of all the energy usage in buildings, so green walls could put a significant dent in a country’s emissions if employed on a wide scale. They can also bring other benefits to the table, such as offering a way to increase biodiversity in city environments, which they sorely lack. They also provide a modest but important contribution to air filtration in cityscapes, help with our mental health, and keep temperatures in cities bearable.

On a personal note, I also find green walls to look quite cool.

This study is one of the first to look at the merits of living walls as insulation systems in temperate climates, the team adds, giving us reliable data on their effectiveness. Such data can serve both private and public actors such as homeowners, corporations, and policy-makers when deciding on what insulation systems to apply to buildings.

“With an expanding urban population, ‘green infrastructure’ is a potential nature-based solution which provides an opportunity to tackle climate change, air pollution and biodiversity loss, whilst facilitating low carbon economic growth,” adds Dr. Thomas Murphy, one of the study’s authors.

“Living walls can offer improved air quality, noise reduction and elevated health and well-being. Our research suggests living walls can also provide significant energy savings to help reduce the carbon footprint of existing buildings. Further optimizing these living wall systems, however, is now needed to help maximize the environmental benefits and reduce some of the sustainability costs.”

The paper “Living wall systems for improved thermal performance of existing buildings” has been published in the journal Building and Environment.

Waterlamp generates light and electricity for 45 days with just half a liter of seawater

Credit: Asociacion RUVID

For Colombian designer Miguel Mojica, design is supposed to transform the world in a disruptive way, while also being committed to sustainability. This mission is embodied by the WaterLight lamp, an amazing invention that can generate light for 45 days straight using only half a liter of saltwater. His creation was awarded a Silver Cannes in the design category and two bronzes in innovation and social responsibility, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2021 held in France.

Electricity is just a given in any Western home, so it’s easy to forget that there are still hundreds of millions of people across the world who lack access to electricity, condemning them to a life of poverty and poor health. Thankfully, progress is being made. Globally, the number of people without access to electricity declined from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 759 million in 2019, according to the World Bank. Where power lines haven’t yet been able to reach households, mini-grids consisting of solar panels or diesel generators came in to fill the gaps, with the number of people connected to mini-grids more than doubling between 2010 and 2019, growing from 5 to 11 million people.

Credit: WaterLight.

But for some remote households, even a few solar panels are unaffordable. That’s where the WaterLight project comes in, which Mojica was inspired to design after visiting poor indigenous communities in La Guajira, Colombia that lacked electricity.

“The WaterLight project emerged to brighten up the life of the Wayúu community in Colombia, to take light to La Guajira, but also to reach any home that needs light but has no access to electricity, so that people can continue with their chores at night, such as adults with their craftwork or fishing, or children with their studies. Being far from my country, Colombia, I felt it was an opportunity to be a promoter of this new revolution for clean energy,” Mojica said.

The device generates a small electrical current through the ionization of saltwater. An electrolyte from the saltwater chemically reacts with magnesium. The generated energy powers a LED lamp or can be used to charge small devices such as mobile phones or tablets.

Credit: WaterLight.
Credit: WaterLight.

WaterLight is made from recyclable materials, is waterproof, and has a lifespan of 5,600 hours, which should be good for a few years of use. The design of the product features indigenous symbols and a colorful strap that was handmade by native artisans from La Guajira.

“I am convinced that we are increasingly aware of the impact we have on the planet, and I believe in the change that we, the new generations of designers, are creating, as we are committed to sustainable and responsible design. Today it is a reality; sustainability has become an essential requirement when designing, which will surely help solve the new challenges that appear in the future. Furthermore, interdisciplinarity with professionals from the biological, medical and technological fields will be key to take sustainability to our day-to-day surroundings, by designing innovative products,” Mojica said.

Why transparent solar cells could replace windows in the near future

No matter how sustainable, eco-friendly, and clean sources of energy they are, conventional solar panels require a large setup area and heavy initial investment. Due to these limitations, it’s hard to introduce them in urban areas (especially neighborhoods with lots of apartment blocks or shops). But thanks to the work of ingenious engineers at the University of Michigan, that may soon no longer be the case.

The researchers have created transparent solar panels which they claim could be used as power generating windows in our homes, buildings, and even rented apartments.

Image credits: Djim Loic/Unsplash

If these transparent panels are indeed capable of generating electricity cost-efficiently, the days of regular windows may be passing as we speak. Soon, we could have access to cheap solar energy regardless of where we live — and to make it even better, we could be rid of those horrific power cuts that happen every once in a while because, with transparent glass-like solar panels, every house and every tall skyscraper will be able to generate its own power independently.

An overview of the transparent solar panels

In order to generate power from sunlight, solar cells embedded on a solar panel are required to absorb radiation from the sun. Therefore, they cannot allow sunlight to completely pass through them (in the way that a glass window can). So at first, the idea of transparent solar panels might seem preposterous and completely illogical because a transparent panel should be unable to absorb radiation. 

But that’s not necessarily the case, researchers have found. In fact, that’s not the case at all.

Professor R. Lunt at MSU showing the transparent luminescent solar concentrator. Image credits: Michigan State University

The solar panels created by engineers at the University of Michigan consist of transparent luminescent solar concentrators (TLSC). Composed of cyanine, the TLSC is capable of selectively absorbing invisible solar radiation including infrared and UV lights, and letting the rest of the visible rays pass through them. So in other words, these devices are transparent to the human eye (very much like a window) but still absorb a fraction of the solar light which they can then convert into electricity. It’s a relatively new technology, only first developed in 2013, but it’s already seeing some impressive developments.

Panels equipped with TLSC can be molded in the form of thin transparent sheets that can be used further to create windows, smartphone screens, car roofs, etc. Unlike, traditional panels, transparent solar panels do not use silicone; instead they consist of a zinc oxide layer covered with a carbon-based IC-SAM layer and a fullerene layer. The IC-SAM and fullerene layers not only increase the efficiency of the panel but also prevent the radiation-absorbing regions of the solar cells from breaking down.

Surprisingly, the researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) also claim that their transparent solar panels can last for 30 years, making them more durable than most regular solar panels. Basically, you could fit your windows with these transparent solar cells and get free electricity without much hassle for decades. Unsurprisingly, this prospect has a lot of people excited.

According to Professor Richard Lunt (who headed the transparent solar cell experiment at MSU), “highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications”. He further adds that these devices in the future can provide a similar electricity-generation potential as rooftop solar systems plus, they can also equip our buildings, automobiles, and gadgets with self-charging abilities.

“That is what we are working towards,” he said. “Traditional solar applications have been actively researched for over five decades, yet we have only been working on these highly transparent solar cells for about five years. Ultimately, this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible.”

Recent developments in the field of transparent solar cell technology

Apart from the research work conducted by Professor Richard Lunt and his team at MSU, there are some other research groups and companies working on developing advanced solar-powered glass windows. Earlier this year, a team from ITMO University in Russia developed a cheaper method of producing transparent solar cells. The researchers found a way to produce transparent solar panels much cheaper than ever before.

“Regular thin-film solar cells have a non-transparent metal back contact that allows them to trap more light. Transparent solar cells use a light-permeating back electrode. In that case, some of the photons are inevitably lost when passing through, thus reducing the devices’ performance. Besides, producing a back electrode with the right properties can be quite expensive,” says Pavel Voroshilov, a researcher at ITMO University’s Faculty of Physics and Engineering.

“For our experiments, we took a solar cell based on small molecules and attached nanotubes to it. Next, we doped nanotubes using an ion gate. We also processed the transport layer, which is responsible for allowing a charge from the active layer to successfully reach the electrode. We were able to do this without vacuum chambers and working in ambient conditions. All we had to do was dribble some ionic liquid and apply a slight voltage in order to create the necessary properties,” adds co-author Pavel Voroshilov.

Image credits: Kenrick Baksh/Unsplash

PHYSEE, a technology company from the Netherlands has successfully installed their solar energy-based “PowerWindow” in a 300 square feet area of a bank building in The Netherlands. Though at present, the transparent PowerWindows are not efficient enough to meet the energy demands of the whole building, PHYSEE claims that with some more effort, soon they will be able to increase the feasibility and power generation capacity of their solar windows.   

California-based Ubiquitous Energy is also working on a “ClearView Power” system that aims to create a solar coating that can turn the glass used in windows into transparent solar panels. This solar coating will allow transparent glass windows to absorb high-energy infrared radiations, the company claims to have achieved an efficiency of 9.8% with ClearView solar cells during their initial tests.

In September 2021, the Nippon Sheet Glass (NSG) Corporation facility located in Chiba City became Japan’s first solar window-equipped building. The transparent solar panels installed by NSG in their facility are developed by Ubiquitous Energy.  Recently, as a part of their association with Morgan Creek Ventures, Ubiquitous Energy has also installed transparent solar windows on Boulder Commons II, an under-construction commercial building in Colorado.

All these exciting developments indicate that sooner or later, we also might be able to install transparent power-generating solar windows in our homes. Such a small change in the way we produce energy, on a global scale could turn out to be a great step towards living in a more energy-efficient world.

Not there just yet

If this almost sounds too good to be true, well sort of is. The efficiency of these fully transparent solar panels is around 1%, though the technology has the potential to reach around 10% efficiency — this is compared to the 15% we already have for conventional solar panels (some efficient ones can reach 22% or even a bit higher).

So the efficiency isn’t quite there yet to make transparent solar cells efficient yet, but it may get there in the not-too-distant future. Furthermore, the appeal of this system is that it can be deployed on a small scale, in areas where regular solar panels are not possible. They don’t have to replace regular solar panels, they just have to complement them.

When you think about it, solar energy wasn’t regarded as competitive up to about a decade ago — and a recent report found that now, it’s the cheapest form of electricity available so far in human history. Although transparent solar cells haven’t been truly used yet, we’ve seen how fast this type of technology can develop, and the prospects are there for great results.

The mere idea that we may soon be able to power our buildings through our windows shows how far we’ve come. An energy revolution is in sight, and we’d be wise to take it seriously.

Future Homes

What’s in a futuristic house? 3D printing, automation, among many others

Futuristic houses will hopefully be more energy-efficient — like the Passive House presented here. Image via Wikipedia.

When it comes to futuristic technology, people tend to think about things like flying cars, robots, or virtual reality but the technological advancement that is likely to affect our future lifestyle the most is related to our homes.

No matter how far you’d travel in your flying car or how much time you’d spend in a virtual environment, you will still spend a big chunk of your time inside your home sweet home. Fortunately, our houses are also starting to embrace futuristic tech.

The advent of 3D printing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and sustainable energy has given birth to numerous exciting prospects for a futuristic house — and many of such ideas are already in the early stages of development. However, technological development is not the only reason behind the various new futuristic homes and city concepts that we’ve come across. Things like climate change, increasing carbon footprint, pandemics,  population growth, desertification, global warming, work from home culture, and many more, are also forcing humans to transform the way in which we live and manage the space around us.  

Interior designers, architects, and inventors are already taking strides towards numerous future home technologies that would not only provide comfort and safety but also reduce the negative impact that our homes have on the environment. Here are just some of the most fascinating future home innovations.

Arcology Habitat, New Orleans.
New Orleans Arcology Habitat. Image credits: Ahearn Shopfer/Wikimedia Commons

Home automation

You’ve probably heard about the Internet of Things (IoT), a system that enables wireless collection and exchange of data between various devices that are connected to each other via the internet. Home automation (also known as smart home or smart living technology) is also based on IoT, equipping your home with a powerful central unit that controls every aspect of your home.

Electric appliances, light settings, temperature, water supply, door locks, and everything else inside your home can function in an automated fashion under the supervision of a centralized system, which can be accessed remotely. You can turn the heat on and off with a click on your smartphone, or set up automated routines to help you through your day. Sensors can pick up on potentially dangerous leaks, while your smart fridge could let you know when you’re running low on fruits.

We’re already starting to see this happen. Things like Samsung SmartThings Hub, Amazon Echo Dot, Adobe Iota, Apple Homepod are already popular smart home devices used in millions of households. In the US, 39 million people own a smart speaker, and 80% of American families own at least one smart TV in their homes — and we’re only scratching the surface of what home automation can do.

Smart home gadgets.
Image credits: Brandon Romanchuk/Unsplash

People do not buy smart home devices only for comfort and entertainment, but also for safety purposes, as smart home technology offers real-time video surveillance, medical emergency alerts, automated pet care, and many other options that promise to keep homes friendlier and safer than ever. For people with mobility problems, automated cabinets, doors, or home elevators could help them navigate their house with less effort, offering much-needed independence. Automated secure systems could also help, as opening and closing the door can be quite annoying when you’re in a wheelchair.

Routine medical scans could also become a part of our futuristic houses. If you think about it, we flush a good deal of medical information every day. Researchers believe that not long into the future, smart toilets could monitor our urine and poo, scanning for markers or signs of any disease.

Floating homes to lessen the burden on land

A floating house in Lake Cumberland. Image credits: Sealle / Wikimedia Commons

Over 200 million people worldwide live along coastlines less than five meters above sea level — and rising sea levels are a major problem for many of the families living in these areas. Michael Saavedra, a home developer from Hollywood, witnessed this challenge first-hand in Miami, Florida. His solution was to create a budget-friendly floating home solution called Hauser boat (although there are floating homes in Florida, they cost millions of dollars). Capable of providing protection against fluctuating sea levels, heavy rainfall, and even hurricanes, the Hauser boat is an ingenious innovation that can solve the housing problems faced by many communities living in coastal regions. 

Maldives Floating City.

The Maldives, an island nation in the Indian subcontinent, is also working on a similar solution — but they’re taking it to the next level. The country has recently hired Dutch Docklands (an international floating infrastructure developer) to build a floating city. The government of Maldives is worried about the effects of climate change that the island nation could face in the coming years, as over 80% of the country’s 1,000 plus islands are less than 1 meter above sea level and very vulnerable to sea-level rise. So through this initiative, they are planning to establish a network of floating buildings and structures that could withstand the rising sea levels and house thousands of families.

Planned to be built on a large lagoon, the floating city of Maldives will have markets, schools, grocery stores — everything you’d expect from a regular city. According to the local authorities, renewable energy sources such as solar power will be used to meet the energy demands of the city. 

Earthquakes, tides, storms, hurricanes cause a lot of destruction, and every year thousands of people die and millions of families have to leave their homes due to such disasters. Therefore, floating home technologies similar to what has been undertaken by Michael Saavedra and the Maldives Government could turn out to be a great solution to mitigate the losses that occur due to climate change-driven tragedies.

So the future house should be able to protect you from the elements — and with climate change, in particular, that is set to become more and more challenging.

Vertical farms and gardens

Mankind’s expansion is taking a big toll on the environment. Among the problems caused by our relentless urbanization is deforestation. Deforestation is happening in many parts of the world on a large scale, and this further leads to several environmental risks such as water scarcity, pollution, extinction of species, loss of biodiversity, global warming, limited availability of natural resources, etc.

But cities, one of the main drivers of deforestation, may soon be part of the solution — and your house could also help.

A green building. Image credits: Danist Soh/Unsplash

In 1969, Italian architect Paolo Soleri introduced arcology, a remarkable construction concept that combines the elements of a city and a forest to create an ecologically balanced modern space. 

Soleri envisioned scattered forests and lush green areas within large buildings such as malls and offices, farmlands operating on roofs, residential areas creatively designed around dense vegetation, and many other arcological themes, which if implemented in the real world, might mitigate the harmful consequences of deforestation. Arcosanti city in Arizona is an experimental township that was designed by Paolo Soleri in the 70s to demonstrate the application of arcology in the real world.

Recently, Milan city in Italy has launched Forestami, a tree plantation project that aims to grow three million trees by the year 2030. Under this ambitious reforestation initiative, new trees will be planted not just in the city’s streets, gardens, and open spaces but also on skyscrapers. Architect Stefan Boeri, who is heading the project Forestami, has previously designed Bosco Verticale, a pair of tall residential buildings in Milan which also function as a vertical urban forest supporting 900 trees. From LA’s community garden to Berlin’s flower meadows and Sydney’s city farms, there are numerous green housing and green city projects going on in different parts of the world that resembles Soleri’s visionary arcology concept.   

Vertical farming is also emerging as an important option for our cities. The idea with vertical farming is you grow crops indoors, vertically instead of horizontally. This would use up fewer resources and would offer cities a way to grow their own food, rather than bringing it from farther away (which could help reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions).

Image via Wiki Commons.

Several vertical farming projects are already underway in several parts of the world. In theory, it all sounds good, so there’s a good chance future homes will get their food from a skyscraper nearby — or maybe even grow it themselves.

3D printed houses

In January 2021, for the first time, a 3D printed house was put on sale. The futuristic house features three bedrooms, a garage, two bathrooms, and a kitchen. Moreover, 3D printed homes built using the same technology are being provided to poor families in Mexico by a nonprofit organization — and it was already cost-competitive with other houses in the area. 

3D housing is a growing sector with the potential to simplify the construction process and overcome budget-related issues often faced by developers and buyers. To 3D print a durable house, you don’t need as much heavy machinery as in a conventional concrete building assembled by humans — you just need a specialized 3D printer and some basic raw materials such as concrete and polymers. This could also make it more sustainable than current building practices.

According to real estate experts, the 3D house market may double in the next five years and 3D-printed houses could become more and more common.   

Image credits: Joel Filipe/Unsplash

Future of futuristic homes

A recent report suggests that NASA is working with LSU engineering on a 3D printing-based construction technology that would be used for building structures on the Moon. NASA sees 3D printing as a fast, efficient, and low-budget technology to boost infrastructure activities on both the Moon and Mars.

Moreover, the smart home market is believed to cross the mark of $130 billion by 2026. For the future, our cities and homes need to be designed in a thoughtful manner so that they could make the best use of smart and green home technologies. Such an architectural approach is essential for reducing the carbon footprint, promoting sustainability, and living a balanced lifestyle.

A startup proposes using autonomous microreactors fueled by nuclear waste to produce energy

Nuclear reactors are definitely powerful, but they also produce quite a lot of problematic, radioactive waste. A new Silicon Valley startup plans to change that through the introduction of small-scale reactors that run on waste from their conventional peers.

Rendering of the Aurora powerhouse, a concept developed by Oklo to test their reactor design currently ongoing in Idaho. Image credits Gensler / Wikimedia.

The startup Oklo plans to give us a reliable and cost-effective source of power while also solving the issue of radioactive waste, which needs to be stored and managed in particular conditions for hundreds of thousands of years. Their solution is to reuse the waste in autonomous reactors that don’t try to slow down the nuclear decay of the material. Effectively, such a reactor would be able to extract more power from fuel that has already been spent, giving us a use for the processes that happen naturally in a radioactive fuel dump, instead of letting them waste away as radioactive pollution.

No wasting power

“What we’ve done is take waste that you have to think about managing for 100,000 or a million years … and now changed it into a form where you think about it for a few hundred, maybe thousands of years,” Oklo’s co-founder Jacob DeWitte told CNBC.

If you’ve read our piece about nuclear reactors, you’ll know that their main purpose is to draw out the physical processes taking place within them as much as possible. This prevents the fuel from turning into a bomb — very nice — but also limits how much power can be extracted from it — not so nice.

Oklo’s plan is to use small-scale reactors that don’t use water or any other medium around the reaction chamber, mediums which work to slow down the neutrons released from the fuel. This would make them overall more efficient and allow the reactors to extract energy even from spent fuel rods. This approach wouldn’t work in a traditional reactor, however, because fresh fuel is too energetic, and would explode.

In order to keep everything cost-effective, the startup envisions their design to be autonomous, require no human supervision, and be quite small-scale. They would not provide nearly as much energy as a traditional reactor, but would still be enough to power an industrial site, a campus, or a whole company.

Their project started in 2013, with the company spending the last seven years trying to get access to nuclear waste to demonstrate their technology. Oklo was established in 2013 and spent the next seven years getting access to nuclear waste to demonstrate its technology. In 2019, the startup unveiled its plans for its microreactor with integrated solar panels, churning out 1.5 megawatts (MW) of power. Each one, it says, can be built in a year’s time.

The reactors run on spent fuel that’s meant for disposal, and each batch of radioactive waste can power the small-scale reactor for 20 years, according to the startup. In the end, the material they output is still radioactive, but to a much lesser extent than what goes in. This double-spent material will then be vitrified (turned to glass) and buried underground, just like typical nuclear waste.

Oklo is still awaiting a license to build its first microreactor, but the idea of an unsupervised nuclear device is definitely not something regulators will be keen on, no matter how cost-efficient it might be. Exactly where this story will go is still quite undecided, but it is exciting that we have this technology on hand.

Even if the microreactors don’t end up the way Oklo envisaged them initially, they could provide a great way for us to handle nuclear waste going forward. We could significantly slash the radiation our waste produces and the time it remains active after churning it through such a microreactor, and we’d get some energy out of it to boot.

Not ‘if’, but ‘when’: city planners need to design for flooding. These examples show the way

As the current New South Wales flooding highlights, it’s not enough to continue to build cities and towns based on business-as-usual planning principles — especially as these disasters tend to disproportionately affect disadvantaged populations, increasing social inequality.

We need to design our urban spaces around the idea that flooding is inevitable. That means not building on flood plains, and thinking creatively about what can be done to create urban “sinks” to hold water when floods strike.

Examples from overseas show what’s possible when the political will is there.


Flooding in Bingley, UK.

Keeping people out of harm’s way

It beggars belief this needs to be said, but it is a government responsibility to keep citizens out of harm’s way. The ongoing plans for new housing in flood-prone areas such as the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley directly contravene that.

Understanding urban flooding requires us to contend with the underlying natural systems over which we have built our cities and towns.

We have learned the hard way we cannot effectively “design out” flooding. Instead, we must find ways to work with the natural systems of drainage and catchments. We must create urban systems to accommodate flood waters. That reduces risk to houses, schools, hospitals, businesses and other key infrastructure.

We have tried channelling rivers with levees and flood walls and it does not work – when these constructions fail (and they usually eventually do), the danger is immense. We need to find ways to safely allow rivers to expand in times of flood and to contract when the rains subside. This cycle of expansion and contraction is normal and natural for rivers — it is we humans who need to change.

The cities of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and New Orleans in the United States are built on river deltas and are at a very high risk of flooding. The design strategies used by planners in these cities provide effective models for reducing flooding harm elsewhere.

Rotterdam: rethinking its relationship with water

Since 2001, Rotterdam has been transitioning to become a resilient delta city by rethinking its relationship with water.

The city has developed a series of sophisticated plans to address flooding, as well as other climate impacts such as drought and extreme heat.

Some plans are enormous in scope, involving city-wide strategies. Others are much more targeted, small-scale projects that can be undertaken by communities and individual households. You need both.

These plans are informed by the idea that it’s not just about applying a technical solution. A cultural change is also needed, so communities understand the urgency of the climate crisis and why the way we build towns and cities has to evolve.

The goal is to make the city a better place for all and to promote social cohesion (a necessary ingredient in any effort to build climate change resilience).

Rotterdam Centraal Station. Image credits: Jurriaan Snikkers.

Water management and climate adaptation should be factored into every urban plan and every project, small or large.

Rotterdam’s plans include a range of different approaches. There are “water squares” that use public open spaces to store flood waters during times of heavy rain. These urban sinks can be used as hangout spaces on dry days, and can hold vast amounts of water in heavy rain, keeping flood water away from properties. https://www.youtube.com/embed/kujf4BTL3pE?wmode=transparent&start=0

This is very similar to the approach taken in Sydney’s Victoria Park, where parks are all at a lower elevation than surrounding streets. This allows the temporary storage of stormwater.

The Rotterdam program also includes other strategies for alternative water storage, the removal of hard surfaces and creation of more green space, and the proliferation of green roofs and roof landscapes. The goal is to create spaces that can hold and absorb rainwater when it falls.

Rotterdam’s investment in innovation and development in urban water management has led to a new knowledge industry for the city, with businesses and research institutes disseminating their expertise worldwide.

New Orleans: after Katrina, a new way of doing things

A submerged truck in New Orleans in 2018. Image credits: Bart Everson.

Following the devastation of the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans has gradually moved to a regime of urban development in which every project addresses the need to deal with stormwater and flooding on site.

In the Lakeview neighbourhood, for example, the street system is being re-engineered to use all of its alleyways as green infrastructure. They will have permeable paving and special vegetated channels called bioswales over large gravel storage beds to absorb and store stormwater. This will take the pressure off the street drainage.

The campus of Tulane University in uptown New Orleans has a stormwater masterplan. This has led to the development of a series of “stormwater gardens” that can filter and store large volumes of water, protecting the rest of the site from flooding.

The campus of Tulane University in uptown New Orleans has a series of ‘stormwater gardens’ that can filter and store large volumes of water. Spackman Mossop Michaels, Author provided

In downtown New Orleans, where there is little natural ground, new buildings have to find architectural solutions for water management.

Underneath the tiny alley that leads into Bar Marilou at the Ace Hotel, massive underground storage tanks manage all of the stormwater for the entire hotel.

On the roof deck of the Standard Apartments, a “blue roof” filters stormwater through carefully selected plants. Water is then stored below the paving and above the parking deck.

At the Paul Habans Charter School on New Orleans Westbank, the entire school grounds have been converted to clean and store water. Students are taught onsite about water management and natural systems. https://www.youtube.com/embed/t47q5htEiPk?wmode=transparent&start=0

In the Green Schoolyard, a formerly flooded area has been redesigned to accommodate planted swales and water storage.

In the Habans Stormwater and Nature Centre, a workforce development program for Greencorps youth is building an extensive artificial wetland that will cleanse and store water as well as provide environmental education.

In the Habans Stormwater and Nature Centre, a workforce development program for Greencorps youth is building an extensive artificial wetland.
In the Habans Stormwater and Nature Centre, a workforce development program for Greencorps youth is building an extensive artificial wetland. Spackman Mossop Michaels, Author provided

Change is clearly possible. It might not be easy, but as the devastation under way in NSW this week shows, it is better than the alternative.



This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.

Elizabeth Mossop, Dean of Design, Architecture and Building, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Paris seeks to revamp Champs Élysées by turning it into an urban garden

The Champs-Élysées, one of the most famous avenues in Paris, is set to be given a full makeover to transform it into what Mayor Anne Hidalgo says will be an extraordinary garden. The project will cost over €250 million (USD300 million) and comes after years of complaints by Parisians over the growing crowds and noise pollution in the area.

Image credit: Flickr / Eerko Vissering

One of the world’s most famous shopping streets, the Champs-Élysées has eight lanes of traffic running between the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde. Its name is French for the mythical Greek paradise, the Elysian Fields. It was originally a mixture of swamp and kitchen gardens but it has been gradually transforming.

It is on Champs-Élysées that Parisians celebrated the 1944 liberation from Nazi occupation and World Cup victories, but the charm of the avenue has slowly faded away. Nowadays the avenue is packed with expensive cafes, luxury shops, and high-end car salesrooms. Except for tourists, most locals avoid it and have long been asking for a transformation.

“The mythical avenue has lost its splendor over the last 30 years. It has been progressively abandoned by Parisians and has suffered a number of crises: the gilets jaunes, strikes, the health and economic crisis,” the Champs-Élysées Committee, which has been working on ideas to change the avenue for the past three years, said in a statement.

Last year, the gilets jaunes or yellow-vest protesters broke the windows of several luxury stores on the boulevard. They also set fire to Le Fouquet’s restaurant, a spot seen as a symbol of political elitism. The avenue has also suffered from a lack of maintenance over the years and has been a usual spot for strikes.

Hidalgo just announced the approval of the renovation project, which will include reducing space for vehicles by half, turning roads into pedestrian and green areas, and creating tunnels of trees to improve air quality. While It won’t be fully done until after the Olympic Games in 2024, the first stage, revamping of the Place de la Concorde at the avenue’s west end, will take place in time for the event.

Architect Philippe Chiambaretta and his agency, PCA-STREAM, created the plans. In an interview with The Guardian, Chiambaretta said an average of 3,000 vehicles drives on the street each hour, mostly just passing through on their way somewhere else. He told The Guardian that the avenue faces problems due to “pollution, the place of the car, tourism, and consumerism.”

The plan for the famous avenue is actually part of a wide array of initiatives by Hidalgo to revamp the densely populated French capital, where elegant squares and tree-lined boulevards are often overwhelmed by vehicles. She has already closed two main roads that ran along the river Seine and built a lot of infrastructure for bikes and scooters.

Hidalgo, who was re-elected last year, said Paris needs to become a “15-minute city” so that residents can have all their needs met —be they for work, shopping, health, or culture— within 15 minutes of their own doorstep. This, she said, would reduce pollution and stress and create socially and economically mixed districts.

Veganuary 2021: Everything you need to know to meet the challenge

It’s the start of the new year and you probably set yourself a list of goals to meet through the next 12 months, from doing more exercise to learning a new language. Veganuary, a global NGO, is encouraging people to take on a specific goal – adopting a plant-based lifestyle throughout the entire month of January.

Image credit: Veganuary.

The organizers have been running the campaign since 2014, and the number of people that take on the challenge has kept on growing. So far, more than 440,000 from around the world have registered this year, breaking last year’s record of 400,000. Still, they predict even more people will join, likely reaching 500,000.

The Vegan Society, a UK charity promoting a plant-based lifestyle, defines veganism as a “way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. This is mean it’s not just about diet, it’s a much broader concept that ties into different lifestyle choices.

Animal products and products tested on animals are found in more places than you might expect, from accessories and clothing to makeup and bathroom items. Even beers and wines aren’t (usually) vegetarian. But nowadays there are affordable and easily-sourced alternatives to just about everything, as supermarkets and shops are expanding their offering year by year.

Carrying out a vegan diet can also have significant health benefits if you do it carefully. Researchers reviewed eleven studies that looked at the effects of a plant-based diet on adults with type 2 diabetes. They found an overall reduction in risk factors associated with diabetes in almost all of them. At the same time, studies have shown greenhouse gas emissions would significantly drop if more people went vegan.

“Veganuary offers people a way to take positive action to protect our health and our planet, as well as help prevent future pandemics. The huge response we’ve had this year shows it’s exactly what many people need right now,” Toni Vernelli, international head of communications at Veganuary, said in a statement.

More than one million people have already completed Veganuary’s one-month pledge since it began in 2014. This has saved 103,840 tons of CO2 equivalent, equivalent to driving around the world 15,000 times, and 6.2 million liters of water, the same as flushing the toilet half a million times, Veganuary estimates.

The NGO published an open letter last week, urging consumers to consider changing their diets for a month to protect the planet. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney, primatologist Jade Goodall, naturalist Chris Packham, Greenpeace, and plant-based companies Quorn and Meatless have already joined the campaign.

“Catastrophic climate breakdown and global pandemics could not be more serious, but they are not inevitable,” the letter states. “If we act now, the future can be better. So, let’s go into 2021 with positivity and a determination to do all we can to protect our planet, its wild spaces and the health and wellbeing of all its inhabitants.”

Hundreds of reports have warned over the years of the environmental and health consequences of an excessive intake of meat and dairy. These are actually the two main reasons listed by the individuals who are joining the Veganuary campaign. The third one is to stop animal suffering, the NGO explained.

Food producers and retailers are replying to the changes in consumers’ demand. Just to name a few, pizza giant Domino’s announced a plan to expand its vegan offering, including alternative-meat pizzas, while Mcdonald’s is reportedly developing a vegan burger. Unilever also set targets to increase their plant-based products.

If you are interested in joining the campaign, Veganuary’s site has all the information you might need, including a free online book with vegan recipes and nutritional advice. But if you feel this is too much, there are other alternatives out there, such as the Meatless Monday campaign, to cut your meat consumption once a week.

People are increasingly turning to nature to cope with the pandemic and improve their wellbeing

As social activity is reduced and stress is running high, nature seems to be offer valuable support for mental wellbeing, a new Canadian study finds. This was especially the case among women and unemployed workers, who spent more time, taking walks, doing outdoors activities, and watching wildlife.

Image credit: University of Vermont

Human-nature relationships benefit people in many ways. Such benefits can be material (such as food and flood protection) or nonmaterial (such as mental health and spiritual fulfillment) and can occur through a diverse range of human-nature interactions, from subsistence practices to recreation.

A study from last year found that spending time with nature produced a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol, with the duration of the nature experience contributing to the amount of stress reduction. Another research from 2004 showed having access to a garden has a significant positive impact on stress. Now, researchers have begun to review the effects of COVID-19 on nature experiences.

Preliminary evidence shows that both visits to and the value of natural areas have increased during the pandemic and that compared to time spent indoors, time spent outdoors was associated with greater psychological well-being.

A study led by Rachelle Gould from the University of Vermont asked local residents about the impact of the pandemic on their engagement with nature-based activities and how time outside affected their mental health. To do so, Gould and her team carried an online survey with over 3,200 people during the lockdown in May.

Speaking with VTDigger, Gould said that during the pandemic even people who don’t normally engage with nature were going outside more. “There were a lot of people saying, ‘I’m looking at my bird feeder, I’m looking at the tulips coming up in my front yard.’ It was very much not like conquering mountaintops,” she added.

Turns out, that’s exactly what the study found: people are spending more time in nature. Compared to the same time last year, participants in the survey said to spend more time watching wildlife (up 64%), gardening (57%), taking photos or doing other art in nature (54%), relaxing alone outside (58%), and making their masked and distanced way on walks (70%).

People also experienced a shift in the way they value nature. During the pandemic, respondents said in nature they cherished a greater sense of mental health and wellbeing (59%), exercise (29%), appreciating nature’s beauty (29%), sense of identity (23%), and spirituality (22%), along with other less common values.

The study also found significant socio-demographic trends associated with increased activity engagement. Female respondents were the only demographic who reported increased activity across all six of the most engaged-in activities we surveyed, suggesting that women more than men are turning to nature in this challenging time.

Although research on the gender equity implications of COVID-19 is presently limited, the pandemic has likely increased professional and household burdens on women much more than men. How this finding interacts with our gender-related findings is a rich area for future study, the researchers believe.

“Our preliminary analysis suggests that, during the pandemic, women are more likely than men to report increased importance of values that includes mental well-being, beauty, exercise, familiarity with landscape, and fun,” says Gould. “Our next step is to explore the qualitative data to explore this result deeper.”

At the same time, the odds of reporting increased gardening, relaxing socially, walking, and wildlife watching were higher for respondents who had lost their jobs during the pandemic than those who retained them. Unemployment results in less structured time and outdoor activities provide a well-documented source of stress relief.

The researchers believe that this finding offers a potential rebuttal to arguments that nonmaterial benefits from engagement with nature, such as stress reduction and social connection, are “luxury goods.” The fact that people who lost their job prioritize nature activities suggests the many benefits they can bring.

With this in mind, Gould and her team urged policymakers to ensure that the most widely accessible outdoor activities receive the support needed to meet demand, for both frequent participants and marginalized populations for whom the benefits of such participation might be especially important in times of crisis.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Why is recycling so important? The dirty truth behind our trash

Recycling is much more than just reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill, with a long list of benefits that aren’t limited to the environment — there are economic and social advantages to recycling.

Even as we live in a consumer-driven world, with a growing appetite for new things, if we begin to look at the waste created by this level of consumption in a different light, we might turn our problem into an opportunity.

Credit Flickr

What is recycling

Whether it’s plastic, paper, or aluminum, the products and materials that can be used after they fulfill their original purpose are far from worthless. In fact, most materials have great recycling value. It is estimated that up to 75% of all the waste can be recycled or repurposed, a figure that how impactful the process can be if done right. Almost everything we see around us can be recycled, although different materials require different techniques when they are recycled. Most of the commonly recyclable materials include batteries, biodegradable waste, clothing, electronics, garments, glass, metals, paper, plastics, and a lot more.

Recycling the process of separating, collecting, and remanufacturing or converting used or waste products into new materials. But if we want to truly focus on recycling, it’s important to change the way we address it both on a personal and on a societal level.

Recycling helps extend the life and usefulness of something that has already served its initial purpose by returning it to its raw materials and then using those materials to produce something that is useable. It’s part of the three golden rules of sustainability (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) and has a lot of benefits both to us humans and to the environment. Virtually all the planet is impacted by how much we recycle.

Benefits of recycling

The world’s natural resources are finite, and some are in very short supply. At a fundamental level, recycling paper and wood can save trees and forests, recycling plastic means creating less new plastic, recycling metals means there’s less need for mining and recycling glass reduces the use of new raw materials like sand. Of course, the reality of it is much more complex, but the fundamental process is valid nonetheless. Metals, for instance, are repeatedly recyclable, while maintaining most or all of their properties.

Recycling reduces the need to grow, harvest, or extract new raw materials from the Earth. That, in turn, reduces the harmful disruption and damage being done to the natural world, which means fewer forests cut down, rivers diverted, wild animals harmed or displaced, and less pollution.

It’s also much better to recycle existing products than to damage someone else’s community or land in the search for new raw materials. The demand for new goods has led to more of the poorest and most vulnerable people being displaced from their homes or otherwise exploited.

Making products from recycled materials typically requires less energy than making them from new raw materials — sometimes it’s a huge difference in energy. For example, producing new aluminum from old products uses 95% less energy than making it from scratch. For steel, it’s about a 70% energy saving. While not always, manufacturing something the second time around usually consumes far less energy.

Because recycling means you need to use less energy on sourcing and processing new raw materials, it produces lower carbon emissions, which means it can help with global warming. It also keeps potentially methane-releasing waste out of landfill sites. Overall, reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere is vital to stop climate change.

Recycling also makes economic sense. As a rule of thumb, it’s six times cheaper to dispose of recycled waste than general refuse. So, the more you recycle, and the less you put in the bin, the more money is saved — which should be good for households, businesses, and local public services. Recycling food waste and green waste is a great idea too, often generating lots of valuable compost.

Recycling can stimulate the economy in multiple ways. The EPA has shown recycling helps to create jobs in both the recycling and manufacturing industries. A 2016 study said recycling activities account in a single year for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenues.

The steps of recycling

Recycling includes three essential steps, which create a continuous loop, represented by the familiar recycling symbol. The first one is to actually collect the recyclables, which can be done in different ways (for example, they can be collected from the curbside, dropped-off at centers or gathered through deposit or refund programs),.

Following the collection, recyclables are sent to a recovery facility. They are classified, cleaned and processed into materials that can be used in manufacturing. Recyclables are then bought and sold just like raw materials would be, and prices go up and down depending on supply and demand.

A growing number of products are being manufactured with recycled content. Common household items that contain recycled materials are newspapers, steel cans, plastic laundry detergents and soft drink containers. Recycled materials are also used in new ways such as recovered glass in asphalt to pave roads.

Consumers can help close the recycling loop by buying new products made from recycled materials. There are thousands of products that contain recycled content. When you go shopping, look for products that can be easily recycled and products that contain recycled content.

Types of recycled materials

It’s important to recycle any materials possible, but one of the most relevant are plastics, as they are such a big part of the solid waste that we make. When plastic is sent to a landfill, it does not break down as it’s not biodegradable, and even in the oceanwater, plastic stays around forever, breaking down to smaller and smaller pieces (microplastics). Most plastics are used only once before they are discarded, known as single-use plastics — this type of single-use plastic is already being banned in many parts of the world.

Recycling metal is also very important as it saves energy, reduces emissions and creates jobs. Using recycled metal, known as scrap metal, instead of new metal reduces mining waste by 97% and saves more than 90% on energy, depending on the material. Recycling metals creates six times more jobs than sending the metals to a landfill.

The same applies to paper recycling. One ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water. It also saves energy, about 4,000 kilowatts of it, enough t power an average American home for six months. Paper takes up a lot of space in landfills, so the more is recycled the better the landfills operate.

Like paper, cardboard recycling uses less water, cuts back on emissions, saves prime real estate in landfills for materials that are not recyclable, and prevents deforestation. It is estimated that recycling one ton of cardboard can save 17 trees from harm, 7,000 gallons of water

Reduce and reuse

You may have heard of “The 3 R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. While recycling is important, the most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place. Making a new product requires a lot of materials and energy and then the product has to be transported to wherever it will be sold. That means to reduce and reuse are also important ways to protect the environment.

Image via Wikipedia Commons

Some of the ways to reduce and reuse include looking for products that use less packaging, which means less raw materials, buying reusable over disposable items, maintaining and repairing products like clothing so they don’t have to be thrown away and borrowing, renting or sharing items that are used infrequently like tools. Reducing our consumption should be the first step, and reusing also tends to be far more sustainable than recycling. Recycling means turning an item into raw materials which can be used again, either for the same product or a new one, while reusing means using an object as it is, without treatment.

The reason why recycling is so important is that it prevents pollution, reduces the need to harvest new raw materials, saves energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, saves money, reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, and allows products to be used to their fullest extent. Sounds like a no-brainer, eh? If our society wants to truly reach some level of sustainability, recycling needs to play a core role in that, there’s just no alternative.

The US could supply 90% of its electrical power with clean energy by 2035 – and it wouldn’t cost more

Renewable energy could power 90% of the country’s demand for electricity by 2035, at no extra cost to consumer bills, according to a new report. Doing so would avoid important environmental and health costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and give a boost to the economy.

Credit Flickr

The report “2035 Report: Plummeting Solar, Wind, and Battery Costs Can Accelerate Our Clean Energy Future” by the University of California showed how consistent reductions in cost for solar, wind, and battery storage could allow the US to curtail fossil fuels usage.

Retaining existing hydropower and nuclear capacity, as well as much of the existing natural gas capacity, and in combination with new battery storage would be enough to meet US electricity demand with a 90% clean grid by 2035, the study concluded. Under this scenario, the researchers assume all existing coal plants have been retired by 2035 and no new ones have been built.

Doing so would mean a $1.7 trillion injection into the country’s economy, increasing energy-related jobs by up to 530,000 per year through 2035, across all regions of the U.S. — and all without raising consumers’ bills. What’s more, a 90% renewable energy matrix would avoid $1.2 trillion in environmental and health costs through 2050.

It won’t be easy, though. This scenario advances state and national energy policy proposals by 15 years. But that level of ambition is what’s actually needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. In 2018, the UN warned the world only has twelve years to cut emissions in order to limit warming to 1.5ºC.

“We’re talking about the ability to achieve near-100 percent clean electricity by 2035, in half the time most people are talking about,” said in a statement David Wooley, director of the Center for Environmental Public Policy, which authored the report. “This is exciting, because the 2035 timeframe is actually compatible with climate realities.”

A 90% clean grid reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 88% through 2035, the report showed. It also reduces exposure to fine particulate matter by reducing nitrogen oxide emissions by 96% and sulfur dioxide emissions by 99%. As a result, a 90% clean grid would prevent 85,000 premature deaths through 2050.

The target year of 2035 gives sufficient time for most fossil fuel energy plants to recover their fixed costs, avoiding the risk of stranded investments, according to the report. Wind, solar, and battery storage can provide the bulk of the clean electricity and new fossil fuel generators aren’t needed. In periods of low demand for renewables, existing gas plants, hydropower, and nuclear plants could be used.

The report was published alongside a set of recommendations for policymakers by the nonpartisan policy firm Energy Innovation. The US should establish a technology-neutral national clean energy standard targeting 90% by 2035 and 100% by 2045, the authors of the report proposed.

“What an incredible opportunity for economic stimulus. A federal clean energy standard, supported by government investments in deployment and American manufacturing, could put us back on track for a healthier economy. Meanwhile, continued policy leadership from the states can bolster progress,” said in a statement Sonia Aggarwal, Vice President at Energy Innovation.

Tesla is now the world’s most valuable automaker

The pandemic hasn’t altered Tesla’s capacity of breaking records. The company’s stock price reached $1,000 for the first time in its history, surpassing Toyota in market capitalization and making it the most valuable automaker in the world according to that metric.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Tesla now holds an over $185 billion market capitalization, meaning the total value of all of the automaker’s shares of stock is worth more than any other carmaker on Earth. Toyota now sits in second place, with its $178 billion market cap, with Volkswagen ranking third with a $85.5 billion market cap.

The news is eye-opening for all carmakers simply because Tesla does so much more than just build sustainable vehicles. The company has spread its activity to also cover energy storage and solar energy, something other carmakers are only now trying to achieve.

Tesla had already surpassed Volkswagen in February, becoming the second-most valuable carmaker. Its stocks have been growing since then amid a rise in its production rates and sales in China, the largest automobile market in the world. New developments in batteries have made stocks soar in the last few months.

It’s also not out of the question that the stock price has been bolstered by the milestone that Musk’s other company, SpaceX, just accomplished when it sent humans to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time. Its success opens the doors for human spaceflight through a government-private partnership, and some of that success may have spilled over to Tesla.

As with other vehicle makers, the coronavirus epidemic has affected the company. But this doesn’t seem to have had an overall negative effect on the costs of shares or on its annual plans.

With six employees testing positive with COVID-19 in California, Tesla CEO Elon Musk reordered to open the company’s facilities there last month — first in violation of stay-at-home orders and then getting the green light by local authorities. Tesla employs about 48,000, according to its 2019 figures.

Musk fought to keep the company’s California factory open in March, claiming Tesla was considered part of the “national critical infrastructure” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security. The company had just started deliveries of its fifth vehicle, the Model Y SUV, which is expected to become highly popular.

Tesla’s CEO initially used his Twitter account to spread misinformation about the virus, downplaying the threat and calling stay-at-home orders unconstitutional and fascists. He then seemed to have changed his mind, repurposing some of the factories into assembly lines for hospital ventilators.

Despite the disruptions, Musk is still hopeful to keep on schedule the company’s biggest projects of the year. This includes launching one million vehicles for a self-driving ride-sharing network and the production of its first electric truck, which is soon to start after a two-year period of successful tests.

‘Terminator’ rubber tires made from industrial waste can repair themselves on the go

Credit: Pixabay.

Few things are as annoying as a flat tire with no spare in the trunk. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just snap your fingers and have the flat tire magically fix itself? Researchers in Australia and the UK have thought long and hard to develop tires with a novel composition that enables them to be repaired on the go.

No magic though — just good old chemistry

The tire is made of 50% sulfur mixed with canola cooking oil and a chemical called dicyclopentadiene (DCPD). All three main ingredients are byproducts of industrial activity and are generally discarded. For instance, DCPD is a waste product from petroleum refining.

However, what’s appealing about this new rubber material isn’t necessarily its environmental friendliness. Instead, where it shines is in its ability to self-repair in the presence of a catalyst.

A diagram of the new rubber polymer. Credit: Flinders University.

When an amine catalyst is applied to a flat tire, a chemical reaction is triggered that completely repairs the damage and returns the tire to its original strength within minutes — even at room temperature. Take that, super glue!

Essentially, the new rubber material is a “latent adhesive” that is resistant to water and corrosion. Once the catalyst is applied, the polymers in the rubber join together.

“The rubber bonds to itself when the amine catalyst is applied to the surface. The adhesion is stronger than many commercial glues,” said Dr. Tom Hasell, University of Liverpool researcher and co-author of the new study.

If the tire is torn to shreds beyond repair or has reached the end of its life cycle, it can be easily recycled, according to Justin Chalker of Flinders University.

“This study reveals a new concept in the repair, adhesion and recycling of sustainable rubber,” Chalker, who is the team lead for the new study, said in a statement.

Most rubbers, as well as ceramics and plastics, are not recyclable. In Australia alone, 48 million tires are discarded but only 16% are recycled — the rest flood landfills or are illegally dumped across the country or, even worse, in the ocean.

 “It is exciting to see how the underlying chemistry of these materials has such wide potential in recycling, next-generation adhesives, and additive manufacturing,” Chalker concluded.

The findings were reported in the journal Chemical Science.

More green spaces could mean fewer deaths every year, study shows

From parks to sports fields, green spaces are an essential component of urban ecosystems. They are a refuge from the noise of the city, they filter harmful pollution, provide routes for walking, and even prevent many premature deaths per year, according to a new study.

Credit Flickr

US and Spanish researchers concluded that by increasing tree coverage to 30% of the land area in Philadelphia, United States, over 400 premature deaths could be prevented every year — leaving the city with an economic benefit of $4 billion.

“Achieving this goal does not come without challenges. Large tree planting initiatives are faced with many problems, including losses from climate change, tree pests and invasive species, and urban development”, explained Michelle Kondo, first author of the study, in a statement.

The team led by members of the US Forest Service and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health carried out a health impact assessment, estimating the number of all-cause deaths that could be prevented if green spaces in a whole city were increased.

Three scenarios were identified for the city of Philadelphia for 2025. The most ambitious was based on the current goal as set by the City Council for an increase in tree coverage to 30% of land area in each of the city’s neighborhoods. The current coverage is 20% for the city as a whole.

The researchers obtained data of the existing canopy from aerial and satellite images, which allowed them to measure tree coverage. They concluded that the 30% target for the city would prevent 403 premature deaths, highlighting that even lower increases in the canopy would also bring benefits.

“Although every city has its own characteristics, this study provides an example for all the cities in the world: many lives can be saved by increasing trees and greening urban environments, even at modest levels,” said Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, the study coordinator.

The study also showed that neighborhoods with a low socioeconomic level would benefit most from any increase in green spaces. Many of the deaths prevented would be in the poorest areas of Philadelphia, even with a moderate increase in the number of trees.

Previous research has shown that green spaces in urban settings are associated with benefits for the physical and mental health of the city’s residents. A recent review showed that residential green spaces can protect against premature all-cause mortality.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every city is recommended to provide a minimum of 9 square meters of urban green space for each person, that it should be accessible, safe, and functional. The WHO also suggests that an ideal amount of urban green space can be generously provided as much as 50 square meters per person.

The study was published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health.

Cork: what is the material we stuff our wine bottles with?

Did you ever stop to think where your wine bottle stopper originates? If you have a decent bottle of wine and you thought that it comes from a tree, you guessed right.

More specifically, cork is an inner layer in the bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber). The cork acts as an insulating layer that allows the tree to survive fires, which are common where it lives. This oak species can be found in areas with a dry warm climate and regular but not intense precipitation, mainly Portugal and Spain in southwest Europe and Morocco in northwest Africa. Due to its widespread cultivation, it can now also be found in other Mediterranean areas, such as France, Italy, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Cross-section of the cork tree. Image credits: Plantsurfer.

It takes a long time before cork can be harvested from a tree: the tree needs to be between 25 and 30 years old! The cork can then be removed every nine to thirteen years, according to Portuguese law, as the cork needs to reach an acceptable thickness before it can be harvested. These trees can live up to 300 years; that’s a lot of harvests! The bark is stripped off by an axe and the workers are skilled so that they cut just deep enough to take the bark off but not deep enough to damage the tree itself. The tree is not fazed by the extraction, as it regrows this protective bark. After the harvest, the strips of removed cork, called planks, are stacked together in piles and left to dry. An older tree can produce up to 60 kg of cork when harvested. 

Additionally, the cork forests support a high amount of forest biodiversity, including native plants and endangered animals such as the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle, and the Barbary Deer. The forests also provide the environmental benefits of absorbing millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year and acting as a barrier against desertification.

Harvesting cork. Image credits: Cazalla Montijano, Juan Carlos – Instituto Andaluz del Patrimonio Histórico.

In total, the annual production of cork can exceed 200, 000 tons! Only in Portugal, more than 500 factories that employ over 20, 000 workers process cork.Worldwide, cork production value is rated at over 1.5 billion euros per year. Of this, wine cork stoppers represent 15 % of the total production, but over 65 % of total revenues.

Not only is cork popular now, but it also has been popular for a long time! The first man-made objects out of cork were already produced in ancient Egypt. They used the porous substance for items that we still use cork for today: sandals, bottle stoppers, and buoys for fishing nets. The first time cork was used to seal wine bottles in France was in the 17th century.  Before then, oil-soaked rags were used for this purpose, which, as you can imagine, were not ideal. Nowadays, more than 60 % of all the wine bottles are stoppered with cork, mainly because of its remarkable ability to compress and expand. Cork wine stoppers also allow oxygen to transfer between the bottle and the atmosphere, which allows the wine in the bottle to age properly.

Image credits: Pxhere.

Cork is also the most environmentally friendly type of bottle stopper as it is a renewable resource. Its alternatives are energy-demanding aluminum screw caps or plastic stoppers, which generate up to 26 times more CO2 per produced piece than a cork stopper. Not to mention that cork can either be composted or even recycled as in the case of the new Mazda electric car, where several surfaces will be covered with recycled cork from wine bottles.

Fishing rods often have cork handles. Image credits: Kate Bk.

And where are other places where you might stumble across cork? At home, you might have a cork bulletin board to which you regularly pin notes. You might also have dabbled in baseball or cricket. In that case, you threw a ball with a cork core. And you can forget about a proper badminton shuttlecock without cork, as the porous material that gives it its springiness and feather-like lightness. Fishing aficionados also encounter cork regularly in their fishing floats and fishing rod handles. Even in fashion, cork is a trendy material used in shoe soles and wallets. In fact, you might find yourself relaxing on a mattress with a cork cushion or you might even have bought a carton of fruit or eggs that is protected by cork. Its special properties make it useful for all of these purposes.

So what properties actually make cork useful for so many different products? Cork is made of a substance called suberin, which is basically plant cell walls produced from long chains of fatty acids and glycerol. Therefore, it is a highly hydrophobic,  elastic, and rubbery material that prevents water from exiting the plant. It is also fire resistant and extremely light. Its bubble micro-formations even make it suitable for acoustic and thermal insulation of walls and floors.

Robert Hooke’s drawing of cork cell structure. Image credits: Robert Hooke.

Interestingly enough, cork has also played a critical scientific role. In 1665, a scientist called Robert Hooke was investigating cork slivers under his microscope. He observed small chambers that he named cells from Latin “cella”, meaning small room He drew a famous picture of their structure and published the results in his Micrographia. He went on to observe cells in living plant tissue. Therefore, the building block of living organisms was first seen in cork!

So, now you know what kind of stopper is going to fly out of your fine bottle of champagne as you pop it open at your next celebration.

Can recycle help the environment? Not for half of UK adults

Despite its key role in conserving energy, reducing landfills and even saving money, half of the adults in the UK don’t believe recycling is good for the planet, according to a recent survey by Smart Energy GB.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The study, carried among 4.000 adults, showed just 49% believing that removing single-use plastics will make a difference and that just three in 10 think energy efficiency would have the biggest impact on protecting the environment.

In association with the University of Salford, Smart Energy GB carried the study to highlight the effect of energy efficiency and smart meter installation in the battle against the climate crisis.

Only 20% of those surveyed were aware of the smart meter’s (an electricity network system that uses data technology to make the UK more energy efficient) contribution in helping make the country more sustainable. If each house installed a smart meter, the country could achieve 11 percent of its 2050 carbon targets.

The research company stressed that Brits underestimated the importance of energy efficiency in the battle against the climate crisis, and measures were needed to raise awareness in the general public.

Sacha Deshmukh, CEO of Smart Energy GB, said: “We are facing a climate crisis. The UK wants to lead the world with our commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But we have a lot to do if we really want to meet that goal.”

The role of recycling

As with many things, it just takes more — more resources, more energy — to make new things than to recycle old things. Consider that 20 recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce just one single can using virgin materials

Glass is one of the most popular materials recycled, because of its raw material composition — mostly sand — and because it can be recycled over and over again without degrading in quality. In fact, recycled glass is the main ingredient in making “new” glass.

In 2016, the UK generated 222.9 million tons of waste, up 4% from 2014. England was responsible for 85% of the total. Construction and demolition generate the most – about 136 million tons a year. Mineral waste accounts for 36% of the total and includes anything that’s leftover from mining or quarrying and can’t be used again.

The recycling rate for UK households’ waste was 45.7% in 2017, a small increase on the previous year. Wales had the highest recycling rate in 2017 at 57.6%. It’s the only UK country to exceed the EU’s target to recycle at least 50% of waste from households by 2020. England and Scotland followed with 45.2% and 43.5% respectively.

How urban agriculture could help Phoenix and other cities be more sustainable

The use of urban agriculture in cities like Phoenix could help them achieve their sustainability goals and become more environmentally friendly, according to research by Arizona State University (ASU).

Phoenix city center. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A group of researchers looked at the sustainability goals set by the city council in 2016, which involve transportation, water stewardship, air quality, and food, and assessed how urban agriculture could help. The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“Our analysis found that if Phoenix used only about 5% of its urban spaces (2% of its land, and about 10% of its building surfaces) for urban agriculture, the city could meet its sustainability goal concerning local food systems,” said Matei Georgescu, associate professor in the ASU.

Using public records and high-resolution satellite images, the team analyzed the potential benefits of growing crops in three types of urban areas in Phoenix: vacant lots, rooftops, and building facades.

The results showed that 71% of Phoenix’s available areas for urban agriculture would come from existing buildings as opposed to vacant lots. Overall, the study estimates that 5.4% of city space is available for urban agriculture. This can supply the city with nearly 183,000 tons of fresh produce per year, allowing for the delivery of an assortment of fruits and vegetables to all of Phoenix’s existing food deserts.

That means the city’s own urban-agriculture output could meet 90% of the current annual fresh produce consumed by the Phoenicians. The use of vacant lots would also increase green space by 17% and reduce the number of areas lacking public parks by 60%.

This brings the added benefit of more open green spaces accessible to locals. The study identifies “walkability zones” around open green spaces that are expanded by 25% to cover 55% of the study area through the use of vacant lots for urban agriculture. The use of rooftop agriculture could also reduce energy use in buildings by 3% per building per year and potentially displace more than 50,000 (metric) tons of CO2 annually. This is the equivalent of nearly 6,000 homes’ energy use for one year.

“Our work demonstrates the multitude of ways that urban agriculture can serve cities, beyond merely the somewhat limited focus on food production,” said Georgescu, also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

Why urban agriculture?

Urban farming has grown by more than 30% in the United States in the past 30 years. Although it has been estimated that urban agriculture can meet 15 to 20% of global food demand, it remains to be seen what level of food self-sufficiency it can realistically ensure for cities.

A recent survey found that 51 countries do not have enough urban area to meet a recommended nutritional target of 300 grams per person per day of fresh vegetables. Moreover, it estimated, urban agriculture would require 30% of the total urban area of those countries to meet global demand for vegetables. Land tenure issues and urban sprawl could make it hard to free up this much land for food production.

Other studies suggest that urban agriculture could help cities achieve self-sufficiency. For example, researchers have calculated that Cleveland, with a population of 400,000, has the potential to meet 100% of its urban dwellers’ fresh vegetable needs, 50% of their poultry and egg requirements and 100% of their demand for honey.

Although urban agriculture has promise, a small proportion of the food produced in cities is consumed by food-insecure, low-income communities. Many of the most vulnerable people have little access to land and lack the skills needed to design and tend productive gardens.

This fashionable ski jacket is made from spider silk grown by bacteria

In the future, synthetic biology is poised to change not only the way we treat diseases or handle waste but also the way we dress. Case in point: a Japanese biotech company just announced the world’s first jacket made with spider silk sourced from genetically modified bacteria.

Credit: Spiber.

Although seemingly fragile, spider silk is one of the toughest materials in nature. Pound per pound protein fiber is five times stronger than steel, three times tougher than Kevlar, and lighter than carbon fiber — with such amazing properties, it’s no wonder why so many are interested in commercializing it.

These extraordinary properties of spider silk have long been recognized. In 1709, the Sun King, Louis XIV, was offered as a gift a pair of silvery spider-silk stockings, woven from hundreds of painstakingly collected egg sacs. A year later, in a letter to Britain’s Royal Society praising spider silk, the gift bearer, François Xavier Bon, wrote: “The only difficulty now lies in procuring a sufficient quantity of Spiders Bags to make any considerable work of it.”

Spiber, a Japanese biotech company, is betting a lot of resources on spider silk. But instead of farming spider eggs, the company is growing it sustainably using bacteria.

Closeup of spider silk.

As a demonstration, Spiber teamed up with The North Face Japan to design a spider silk-based ski jacket called Moon Parka.

Moon Parka is waterproof, breathable, and very warm. The jacket’s designers say that the performance biomaterials might one day become incorporated into astronaut clothing living on a moon base.

Credit: Spiber.

Besides its extraordinary properties, the spider silk jacket is a great example of “growing materials”, a novel manufacturing method that might soon replace polyester and nylon. Unlike these petroleum-based products, spider silk is sustainable because it is grown by bacteria that are genetically modified to produce the silk protein. For food, the bacteria uses sugar from agricultural waste products. Towards the end of the production line, the proteins are purified, spun into threads, and finally woven into fabrics.

Moon Parka will become commercially available for a limited release on December 12, 2019. And there are plans to scale production heavily. Spiber recently announced the construction of a new production facility in Thailand worth $44 million.

Cool roofs could help to deal with heatwaves in California

As global heating continues to take its toll, one of its more direct consequences has been the longer and more intense heatwaves across the globe and its health consequences. Looking for palliatives, researchers have highlighted the potential of so-called cool roofs in California — one of the areas that’s more vulnerable to urban heatwaves.

Credit: Flickr

The study, carried out by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, showed that if every building in California sported “cool” roofs by 2050, these roofs would help contribute to protecting people from the consequences of heatwaves.

A cool roof is a roof designed to reflect more sunlight and thus, absorb less heat than a standard roof. They can be made of highly reflective tiles or shingles or be coated in a highly reflective type of paint. Nearly any type of building can benefit from a cool roof, the EPA says.

Researchers estimate heatwaves are likely to become two to 10 times more frequent across the state by mid-century — but if cool roofs were adopted throughout California’s most populous areas by 2050, they would bring heatwave exposures by 35 million, compared to an estimated 80 million cases in 2050 with no increase in cool roofs.

“Urban spaces are a small fraction of the globe, but they are where most people live,” said Pouya Vahmani, a postdoctoral research fellow in Berkeley Lab’s Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division and lead author of the study. “If we’re able to cool those areas even a little bit, it can have a huge impact on health and roll back significant impacts of climate change.”

The study wanted to predict heat wave occurrences across California’s 29 major urban counties between now and 2050. They used regional climate conditions between 2001 and 2015 as a starting point to simulate mid-century climate under two global warming scenarios.

They combined the climate conditions with high-resolution satellite images, which allowed them to incorporate urban features like buildings, which absorb and release heat. Then, the researchers used county-level population estimates for 2050 to assess population exposure to future heat waves.

“We wanted to gain a better picture of future climate change risks for California’s urban environments and adaptation options,” said Andrew Jones, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division and co-author of the study. “Making such refined and realistic predictions can help urban planners and citizens prepare for heat events in an increasingly warming future.”

The study found that heatwaves with air temperatures exceeding 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and lasting at least three consecutive days become two to 10 times more frequent under future global warming scenarios. With the added burden of urban centers getting more populous, the researchers expect that by 2050 there will be 80 million heatwave exposure cases in California each year, compared to an average of 37 million cases annually under current climate conditions.

Following this finding, the study looked at the effectiveness of cool roofs in mitigating heatwave impacts. They repeated the same high-resolution regional climate simulations, only this time replacing all existing building roofs with cool roofs.

They found that if every building in California sported cool roofs by 2050, it could bring down the annual number of heatwave exposures in California to 45 million, from 80 million. This mitigation potential surprised even the research team, which wasn’t expecting such strong results.

Nevertheless, the 100% conversion to cool roofs by 2050 will be very challenging. While cities like Los Angeles mandate cool roofs for new constructions, retrofitting existing buildings will also be expensive.

At the same time, the positive effect of cool roofs will be limited to reducing day time temperatures when the roofs reflect sunlight. At night, when roads and packed buildings slowly release heat, these roofs aren’t capable of directly providing cooling benefits.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic medals will be made from old gadgets

Set to begin on July 2020, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games will hand the winning athletes medals made from recycled electronic gadgets, the organizing committee revealed.

The three medals to be given at Tokyo 2020. Credit: Tokyo 2020

 

The newly-unveiled design comes after a two-year campaign called “Everyone’s Medal”, through which the committee collected electronic devices donated from the public. It received about 80,000 tons of gadgets total, including 6.21 million cellphones.

From the donations, the organizers extracted 32 kg of gold, 3,500 kg of silver and 2,200 kg of bronze for the approximately 5,000 medals needed. The materials were used by the designer Junichi Kawanishi, chosen among 400 professional designers and design students.

The chosen design for the medals shows the Tokyo Olympic emblem on the front and the Greek goddess of victory at the back. The guidelines of the International Olympic Committee say the design has to include the Olympic symbol featuring the five rings, as well as the official name of the games.

“My first impression was that they are very shiny,” Takuya Haneda, a Japanese slalom canoeist who won the bronze at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, said at a ceremony in Tokyo to reveal the medals. “They achieve a gradation of light and shadow. The designs are wonderful.”

The gold medals are made from pure silver plated with about six grams of gold, while the silver ones are made from pure silver and the bronze ones from gunmetal. The side of each medal will be inscribed with the name of the event for which it is presented.

The gold and silver ones will be the heaviest ever used at a Summer Games, weighing in at 556 and 550 grams, respectively, with a diameter of 85 millimeters, the organizing committee said.

The medals were designed to “resemble rough stones that have been repeatedly polished and now shine brightly, reflecting the athlete’s journey from beginner to Olympic champion,” according to a statement by the organizing committee.

Alongside the medals, the ribbons from which they will be hung are made from recycled polyester and employ traditional Japanese design motifs while incorporating the checked pattern of the Tokyo 2020 logo.

“We hope that our project to recycle small consumer electronics and our efforts to contribute to an environmentally friendly and sustainable society will become a legacy of the Tokyo 2020 Games,” Tokyo 2020 said.