Boing Boing 

Make Vol. 18 -- building a sustainable future at home


The theme for MAKE Vol. 18 (on newsstands and in bookstores on May 18) is about building a sustainable future at home. The articles include geeked-out gardening tips (like an Arduino-controlled automatic indoor garden called the Garduino, micro-irrigation, and worm composting) and lots of energy related projects (like how to make a Tweet-a-Watt so you can twitter your electricity usage, and other ways to measure and reduced power usage in your home).

Img 2024 One of the projects in the magazine I'm looking forward to making myself is the solar powered hot tub heater. Eric Muhs, the author, built a 3' x 3' plywood box, painted it black, drilled a couple of holes in a corner, and dropped a 100 foot coil of cheap black vinyl hose inside. The ends of the hoses go into the water, and a solar-powered pump moves water through the coils. The cool thing Eric's design is that the pump stays off when it's dark or cloudy, preventing the system from cooling the hot tub water.

Eric says, "On a sunny day, it works great, and the water returns to the tub 2 or 3 degrees hotter than it left. That may not sound like much, but it adds up. The basic rule of thumb of this system: if it's the kind of day when your parked car is hotter than the outside air when you get in, you'll get heat."

Make Vol. 18 -- building a sustainable future at home

HOWTO make edible circuit diagrams out of candy

Another gem from the Evil Mad Scientist lab: edible circuit diagrams that help you visualize the delicious results of your electronic experiments: "Any number of chocolate-bar-like foods can be made into edible versions of integrated circuits. Kit Kat, Twix, and Mini Charleston Chews are small components that make good models of integrated circuits in long, skinny packages. Chocolate covered graham crackers are another good option. The aspect ratio is good for doing large-scale models of (e.g.) 8-pin DIP packages; These are the ones that we made into 555s."

Circuitry Snacks (via IZ Reloaded)

Pedal powered electricity generator

The Professor would be proud of David Butcher of San Jose, California. He built his first pedal generator prototype in 1976. Every morning, he spends 45 minutes on the stationary bicycle generator to charge up a bank of salvaged batteries. Having mastered the machine, Butcher now sells plans so you can build your own. The cost of the parts is around $230, he says, or much less if you recycle an old bike. If you're interested in learning more, Butcher hangs out in a videochat room when he's pedaling away every morning. Apparently, he cranks out 1.8 kilowatt-hours a month. Of course, er, YMMV. Butcher has videos demonstrating the generator directly powering a blender (video above), washing machine, and breadmaker. His bike blender was even featured on a recent episode of MAKE: TV. From Butcher's site:
Pedalgenennn-1 My pedal generator is in the garage, hooked up through the Trace C12 controller in my Micro Solar Energy System to a recycled battery pack from my Sparrow Electric Car. I work out in the early morning, and it's dark. It would be pointless to use as much energy to light the workout area as I generated with the workout, so I light the area with the 12 volt LED Bar Light I put together several years ago. It uses white LED's to light the workout area. They require almost no power, so virtually everything I generate ends up in the batteries.
The San Francisco Chronicle profiled Butcher last year. Butcher digs alternative power tech in general, having installed solar panels on his roof and X10 modules throughout his house for intelligent control of appliances and other devices. From the SF Chronicle:
Butcher, who lives alone after a divorce, traces his environmental leanings to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which marred miles of coastline with 200,000 gallons of crude oil. Butcher was 14 at the time and witnessed it firsthand. He built his first pedal generator when he was in his early 20s.

"I was always interested in alternative energy and solar in particular," he says. "I was living in Portland, Ore., where solar is not as much of an option. So I thought, 'What else could I do?'

"I'd been on a swim team for years and I was in pretty good shape, and I thought there must be a way to get some power going."

Butcher's prototype bicycle was chain-driven and featured a welded steel frame. Today's version, with its simplified drivetrain and bolted frame, can be assembled with basic hand tools.

When he took up his pedaling regimen two years ago, Butcher tipped the scales at 180 pounds. Today, at age 53, he weighs a lean 150 and possesses a pair of legs that wouldn't look out of place on the Olympic cycling squad. Butcher's pedaling has become so efficient that he has pretty much abandoned his car (electric, incidentally) in favor of bicycling, reducing his carbon footprint still further.
David Butcher: Pedal Powered Generator (via BB Gadgets)

"Stationary bike designed to create electricity" (San Francisco Chronicle)

Solar cells that imitate plants

Every year, approximately 2.5 million exajoules of solar energy reach the Earth. That's about 5,000 times the amount of energy consumed by people each year. The trick is collecting it and converting it into electricity cheaply and efficiently. Plants do a good job of that. Turns out scientists have been working on ways to imitate nature's photosynthesis since 1912. And they're still at it. This week, the scientific journal Chemical & Engineering News posted two deep articles on the subject. The first is about the molecular mysteries of photosynthesis, including whether it's as efficient as one would expect from a process that has more than a couple billion years of evolution behind it. From the article, "Harnessing Light":
Water-splitting is key to the renewable production of hydrogen gas and other energy fuels, and doing so with inexpensive catalysts, as plants do a billion times per day, would be a huge step forward for solar power research. But the photosynthetic process has some other secrets, too, that scientists are only just figuring out, such as how photosynthetic organisms can tame light without suffering too much radiation damage, the plant equivalent of a sunburn...

(One) contentious area is the question of how efficient photosynthesis actually is..

One reason that plants don't store fuel efficiently is that "plants' goals are different than our goals," says (Devens Gust, a photochemist at Arizona State University). "The plant's goal is to live and reproduce, not to store energy for humans."

Even so, many researchers turn to photosynthesis for inspiration on how to achieve humanity's energy needs. They hope to mimic the early, energy-efficient light-harvesting steps of photosynthesis, but then direct the harnessed light energy entirely toward producing fuel instead of growing a plant.

"When we think about ways to harvest sunlight," Gust says, "it seems natural to look to photosynthesis for ideas. It has been around for the longest time, and it works on the largest scale."
That's where biomimicry comes in. The companion article in C&EN describes research by Gust and others to build small molecular systems that imitate what plants do using a biological "machine" consisting of 20 proteins. From the second article:
The overall efficiency of photosynthesis for making sugar fuels is low--only about 2-3%--because plants' primary goal is to live and reproduce, not store fuel. But the first steps performed by (the plant's photosynthesis system) are much more energy efficient, about 30%. So researchers want to "take the basic chemistry and the basic physics of the photosynthetic reaction center" and build a molecular version in the lab, says Devens Gust, a photochemist at Arizona State University. In effect, they want to produce a molecular photovoltaic that, like (the plant's version), produces a current of electrons that could be used to split water and thus drive the production of a fuel such as hydrogen gas.
Harnessing Light
Attempts To Mimic A Plant's Light-Harvesting And Water-Splitting Megamachinery

Neil Young's latest album is about his electric car


Neil Young's latest album, Fork in the Road, is entirely about his electric car, which he calls the Lincvolt.

The songs on the album are an emotional response to the current social and ecological questions facing the world’s population. Young has been an activist his entire career, and over the past few years has become involved in developing different fuel possibilities. Along with Johnathan Goodwin, their LINCVOLT project using alternative energy to power Young’s 1959 Lincoln Continental is now finished.

Steam powered iPod generator


Thomas built a steam powered iPod generator. From Jake von Slatt's Steampunk Workshop:

I coupled a Lego Technic Motor to a Jensen #75 steam engine to make a crude generator. From there I built a 5V regulator circuit and soldered in a female USB connection to power any USB device. Since I wanted to use it to charge my iPod, I put in a diode and a .5 amp fuse to provide some circuit protection. Attached are some pictures of it and here are some links to videos of it in action. Unfortunately you can't see the charge light on the ipod, But as you can hear, the iPod really loads the engine. I was somewhat surprise it could hack it.
What a cool idea. Just think if they could scale up this idea and use steam to generate electricity for entire cities!

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air: the Freakonomics of conservation, climate and energy

David JC MacKay's "Sustainable Energy -- Without the Hot Air" may be the best technical book about the environment that I've ever read. In fact, if I have any complaint about this book, it's in how it's presented, with its austere cover and spartan title, I assumed it would be a somewhat dry look at energy, climate, conservation and so on.

It's not. This is to energy and climate what Freakonomics is to economics: an accessible, meaty, by-the-numbers look at the physics and practicalities of energy. MacKay, a Cambridge Physics prof, approaches the subject of carbon and sustainability with a scientific, numeric eye. First, in a section called "Numbers, not adjectives," he looks at all the energy and carbon inputs and outputs in Britain and the rest of the world: this is how many kWh of energy are needed to power all of Britain's vehicles. This is how many kWh you would get if you covered the entire British shore with windmills, or wave-farms. This is Britain's geothermal potential. Here's how much carbon vegetarianism offsets. Here's how much carbon unplugging your idle appliances saves (0.25%, making the campaign to switch off energy vampires into a largely pointless exercise -- as MacKay says, "If everyone does a little bit, we'll get a little bit done"). This is the carbon-footprint of all of Britain's imports, gadgets, office towers, and so on.

Using a charming, educational style that teaches how to think about this kind of number, how to estimate with it, and what it means, MacKay explains these concepts beautifully, with accompanying charts that make them vivid and clear, and with exhaustive endnotes that are as interesting as the text they refer to (probably the best use of end-notes I've encountered in technical writing -- they act like hyperlinks, giving good background on the subjects that the reader wants to find out more about while allowing the main text to move forward without getting bogged down by details).

Next, in "Making a Difference," looks at what it would take to balance Britain's (and, eventually, the world's) energy budget so that the consumption is sustainable (that is, so that it uses only renewables or fuels that would last for 1000 years -- and emits so little carbon that we avert a 2C' rise in global temperature). He looks realistically at conservation, considering the theoretical limits on efficiency for rail, electric cars, air, as well as factories, home design and so forth, giving examples ranging from better insulation to tearing down all the housing in Britain and rebuilding it for maximum efficiency (factoring in the energy and carbon costs of the new building, of course).

This chapter also has a lot of sensible personal advice for things you can do to reduce your energy consumption -- especially identifying those few badly designed devices in your home whose idle power-draw really is punitive and replacing them (one Ikea lamp he cites draws nearly as much switched off as running, because of a transformer design that was one penny cheaper to manufacture than a more efficient one would have been).

Finally, in a long technical appendix, MacKay delves into the physics of maximal performance in transport, manufacturing, housing and energy generation, explaining it in a way that I -- who have not studied physics since I was 18 -- was able to follow.

This reminded me of nothing so much as Saul Griffith's wonderful talk on climate change as an engineering problem. Add up all the energy we can make if we harness every erg, every photon. Subtract all the energy we want to use. Examine this difference and come up with strategies for bringing the two into balance. Once you get this approach, it becomes a lot simpler to figure out what is and isn't worth doing.

My only complaint about this book is its packaging: if it were tarted up to look like the transformative, important popular science book that it really is, I think it would be at the center of the environmental debate today.

The entire book is available as a free 10MB PDF download so you can start reading immediately

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air (US)

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air (UK)

Without Hot Air -- MacKay's site for the book, including the whole book as a free download

Segway and GM's "car"

 Media Images 45641000 Jpg  45641120  Mg 5966
The PUMA is a Segway/car combination prototyped by Dean Kamen's company in collaboration with General Motors. More details and video at Boing Boing Gadgets.

Puma: GM and Segway take a swing at a small car (Thanks, Jim Leftwich!)

Tesla coils sing the Doctor Who theme in orgy of electric awesomesauce

All I can say is, it's about goddamned time:

Creators of the original Singing Tesla Coils, the crew of ArcAttack uses high tech wizardry to present music in a whole new light.

ArcAttack employs a unique DJ set up of their own creation (an HVDJ set up) to generate an 'electrifying' audio visual performance. The HVDJ pumps music through a PA System while two specially designed DRSSTC's (Dual-Resonant Solid State Tesla Coils) act as separate synchronized instruments.

These high tech machines produce an electrical arc similar to a continuous lightning bolt which put out a crisply distorted square wave sound reminiscent of the early days of synthesizers. The music consists of original highly dance-able electronic compositions that sometimes incorporates themes or dub of popular songs.

Joe DiPrima and Oliver Greaves are the masterminds behind the design and construction of the Tesla Coils while the music is developed by John DiPrima and Tony Smith.

ArcAttack! (Thanks, Mary!)

Solar cells inspired by moth eyes

Philips Research Laboratories engineers have taken inspiration from moth eyes to develop a coating for solar cells that increases their efficiency. Nanostructures, comparable to the tapered structures on the insects' eyes, reduce the amount of light that's reflected off the photovoltaic material. From Physics World:
 Objects Physicsweb News Thumb 13 2 8 Moth To maximize the amount of light entering (moths') eyes, to help them see at night, the insects' eyes are covered in tapered nanostructures. This creates an "effective medium" where the refractive index gradually increases as light travels from air through to the insects' optical nerve. The resulting effective index is close to one, which means that very little light is reflected out of the eye.

Inspired by these biostructures, Gomez Rivas and colleagues have mimicked the effect by growing nanowires of different lengths - creating a metamaterial with optical properties that change gradually as a function of distance.
"Moth eyes inspire more efficient solar cell" (via Daily Grail)

Stupid light switch can't be opened

Light Switch (click image for big)

In MAKE, Vol. 4, Mister Jalopy wrote a "Maker's Bill of Rights." In the introduction, he stated "If you can't open it, you don't own it."

Well, here's a light switch that I paid full price for, but don't really own. I learned this when the block plastic strap (the part attached to the chain you pull to turn the light off and on) broke off inside the housing. There was a screw on the housing, but when I removed it, the housing wouldn't come apart. That's because the metal socket (the part with the threads in it) has a dimple pressed into it, preventing its removal from the plastic housing.

In addition, the seam between the two halves of the plastic housing seem to be glued or melted together, violating one of Mr. Jalopy's tenets: "Screws better than glues."

So I had to throw it away instead of repairing it. Yes, I know it's dangerous to play with electricity, but I would have liked to have been able to peek inside, at least!

Here's an attractive PDF version of the Maker's Bill of Rights.

TED2009: Electric Fault Circuit Interrupter

200902051456 A description of Electric Fault Circuit Interrupter (EFCI) on stage at TED2009.

Smoke alarms are great -- they detect fires but don't prevent them. One of main causes of fires is electricity.

How does electricity ignite fires? Faulty, overloaded or misused outlets. 83% of all fires start at loads below circuit breakers (invented by Edison) trip.

By putting a 10-cent data tag (like RFID) in an appliance plug and a reader in the electrical outlet, you can prevent fires. The appliance's safe operating parameters are embedded in the plug. If there's an overload, the power shuts off. Also, outlets are off unless the appliance with the chip is plugged in. That means a kid can stick a fork in the outlet and not get shocked.

Can save thousands of lives and conserve energy.

HOWTO Convert your car to run on garbage

Stef sez, "Here's an Instructable explaining in 25 simple steps how to convert your car to run on household trash using a process called Gasification. As the site sez: 'Gasification is the use of heat to tranform solid biomass, or other carbonaceous solids, into a synthetic "natural gas like" flammable fuel.' Not only that, but as a benefit it pimps your car out with a fantastic steampunky contraption to impress your fellow road users with!"

Convert your Honda Accord to run on trash (Thanks, Stef!)

Jay Leno's wind turbine

Ed Begley, Jr, says:

Thought I would send along this video from my friend Jay Leno about a new wind turbine called the MagWind from Enviro-Energies that he and I will be installing soon. As many of you have asked about "vertical axis wind turbines," I thought you'd like to see the latest in this technology.
Jay Leno's wind turbine

Nuclear slide-rules from a time after nukes and before pocket-calculators

The Oak Ridge Associated Universities website has a splendid gallery of nuclear-age slide-rules (as Mr Jalopy notes, these are artifacts from an age after nukes but before pocket calculators) -- mostly circular cardboard calculators that help you compute the size of the crater generated by the nuke that touches off WWIII. Shown here, the 1960 Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer by EG&G.

As a convenience to those interested in the effects of nuclear weapons, this circular computer was designed to make data easily available on various weapon effects - some as functions of both yield and range and others on yield alone . . . The weapons data incorporated in this computer were taken from the very informative and useful text, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, edited by Samuel Glasstone for the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project of the Department of Defense.
Nuclear Slide Rules (via Dinosaurs and Robots)

Al Gore: The Climate for Change

In a New York Times op-ed today, Al Gore (or should we say, @al_gore) reprises some of the themes he spoke of at this week's Web 2.0 summit. Snip:

THE inspiring and transformative choice by the American people to elect Barack Obama as our 44th president lays the foundation for another fateful choice that he -- and we -- must make this January to begin an emergency rescue of human civilization from the imminent and rapidly growing threat posed by the climate crisis.

The electrifying redemption of America's revolutionary declaration that all human beings are born equal sets the stage for the renewal of United States leadership in a world that desperately needs to protect its primary endowment: the integrity and livability of the planet. The world authority on the climate crisis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after 20 years of detailed study and four unanimous reports, now says that the evidence is "unequivocal."

To those who are still tempted to dismiss the increasingly urgent alarms from scientists around the world, ignore the melting of the north polar ice cap and all of the other apocalyptic warnings from the planet itself, and who roll their eyes at the very mention of this existential threat to the future of the human species, please wake up. Our children and grandchildren need you to hear and recognize the truth of our situation, before it is too late.

Here is the good news: the bold steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the economic crisis and the energy security crisis.

The Climate for Change (NYT, via @timoreilly)

Previously: Web 2.0 Summit Videos: Lessig, Kelly, Al Gore, many more

Photo: "Treasure Island / The Island" by Aaron Escobar, Creative Commons licensed, on Flickr.

Sensors powered by trees

MIT researchers are developing a novel power scavenging systes for small wireless sensors that monitor for forest fires. The sensors are powered by the trees themselves. Each sensor's battery is trickle charged with the electricity generated by the imbalance in pH between the tree and the soil. From the MIT News Office:
 Newsoffice 2008 Trees-2-Enlarged A single tree doesn't generate a lot of power, but over time the "trickle charge" adds up, "just like a dripping faucet can fill a bucket over time," said Shuguang Zhang, one of the researchers on the project and the associate director of MIT's Center for Biomedical Engineering (CBE).

The system produces enough electricity to allow the temperature and humidity sensors to wirelessly transmit signals four times a day, or immediately if there's a fire. Each signal hops from one sensor to another, until it reaches an existing weather station that beams the data by satellite to a forestry command center in Boise, Idaho.
Preventing forest fires with tree power