Yesterday, I saw a demo of the Homebiogas bioreactor: it's essentially an artificial stomach that uses colonies of microbes to digest your home food waste (it can do poop, too, but people tend to be squeamish about this), providing enough clean-burning biogas to cook your next meal, heat your house, or run a generator -- what's left behind is excellent fertilizer.
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Science fiction writer and ecologist Kim Stanley Robinson (previously) writes that we need to "empty half the Earth of its humans" to save the planet -- but not by the Green Left's usual (and potentially genocidal) tactic of reducing our population by 50%.
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Justin Rhodes profiles an urban market gardener who leases other people's residential yards for planting produce, which he harvests and sells up and down the east coast of the United States. He makes over $5,000 a month. Read the rest
There's really nothing not to love about vertical farms -- multi-story hydroponic operations, usually sited in dense urban areas -- they borrow their best tech from the space program, they're water-conserving, they don't have runoff, they're energy efficient, and they're super land-efficient, meaning we don't need to turn forests or wetlands into fields. Read the rest
Greg Greene writes, "Since directing The End of Suburbia in 2004 I've been exploring ways to popularize sustainable and resilient cities.
Playing with notions of urban apocalypse, we're crowdfunding development of Deepcity 2030, a real time strategy game set in a near future of strange beings,
megastorms, and scarcity where energy is as precious as life
itself. The game combines a gritty steampunk aesthetic and off-beat humour with ongoing opportunities for players to demonstrate strategic prowess by inventing possible world futures." I backed it. Read the rest
In an older post that I hadn't seen before, David Shiffman of the Southern Fried Science explains how the ostensible success of "dolphin-safe tuna" has actually led to tuna fishing methods that are a much bigger threat to ocean wildlife — from tuna, themselves, to endangered sea turtles and sharks. Read the rest
The average Iowa farm has the potential to feed 14 people per acre, writes Jon Foley at Ensia. But planted with nothing but corn — and with almost all of that corn going to ethanol production and the feeding of animals — the same land can only feed 3 people per acre. Corn isn't a bad plant. But the corn system is a big problem. Read the rest
Four billion tons of food are grown and raised worldwide every year. About 25% of that goes to waste. Read the rest
I wrote a story about the future of crop science that's printed in the June issue of Popular Science. When I was doing the research, the big question I wanted to ask was this: "How can we take the most important agricultural crops and make them more sustainable and adapted to climate change?"
I suppose there are a lot of ways to define "most important", but I went with the crops that feed the most people. Wheat, rice, and corn account for more than 50% of all the calories consumed on Earth. So those are the plants I looked at. And that's where I ran into a surprise. Scientists had some really interesting, concrete suggestions for how to prepare wheat and rice for a changing world. But with corn, they took a different tack. Basically, the scientists said the best thing to do with corn was use less corn.
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Large yields and high calorie content have made corn the most popular and most heavily subsidized crop in America. That’s an increasingly urgent problem. In 2010, corn production consumed nine million tons of fertilizer and led to greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 42 million tons of CO2—and corn isn’t even something we can easily eat. “The digestibility of unprocessed corn to humans isn’t very high,” says Jerry Hatfield, a plant physiologist with the USDA. “We have to put it through processing of some sort, whether that happens in a factory or an animal.” Set those problems aside, and a deal-breaker remains: modern corn is more sensitive to heat than any other major crop, and attempts to create drought- and heat-resistant corn through genetic modification are still unproven.
Ever since researching Before the Lights Go Out, my book on energy in the United States, I've been a little skeptical of the locavore movement. Sure, farmer's markets are a nice way to spend a weekend morning, and a good way to connect with other people from my neighborhood. There are arguments to be made about creating local jobs and contributions to local economies. But I see some holes in the idea, as well—particularly if you expect eating local to go beyond a niche market or a special-occasion thing.
Think about economies of scale—the cost benefits you get for making and moving things in bulk. That works not only for cost (making non-local food often cheaper food), but it also works for energy use. It takes less energy for a factory to can green beans for half the country than it would take for us all to buy green beans and lovingly can them at home. When our energy comes from limited, polluting sources—that discrepancy matters. Plus, you have to think about places like Minnesota, where I live. In winter, local food here would require hothouse farming—something that is extremely unsustainable, as far as energy use is concerned.
Basically, I think there are benefits to local food. And I don't think the problems with local food mean we shouldn't change anything about our food system. But we have to acknowledge that the locavore thing isn't perfect, and maybe isn't as sustainable as we'd like it to be. That's why I like this Grist interview with Pierre Desrochers, a University of Toronto geography professor and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. Read the rest
Bees need a certain amount of nearby green space in order to find enough pollen to survive. Without that, bees can starve. They can also end up subsisting on a diet of syrup that's about as healthy for them as a diet of burgers and fries would be for you and I. London has had die-offs of bees in the past, when beekeeping got more popular than the city's limited green space could support. Some people are now worried that New York City could be headed toward that problem. (Via Hannah Nordhaus) Read the rest
Between now and 2020, the greatest increases in population growth in the United States are projected to happen in the places that have the biggest problems with fresh water availability. This isn't just a drinking water problem, or even an agriculture problem. It's an energy issue, too. Most of our electricity is made by finding various ways to boil water, producing steam that turns a turbine in an electric generator. In 2000, we used as much fresh water to produce electricity as we used for irrigation—each sector represented 39% of our total water use. (From a poster at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.) Read the rest
The brilliant popular engineering Sustainable Materials - with Both Eyes Open: Future Buildings, Vehicles, Products and Equipment - Made Efficiently and Made with Less New Material has just been released in the USA. I reviewed this book last November, when it came out in the UK. Here's a brief excerpt from then:
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We review a lot of popular science books around here, but Sustainable Materials (like Sustainable Energy) is a popular engineering text, a rare and wonderful kind of book. Sustainable Materials is an engineer's audit of the materials that our world is made of, the processes by which those materials are extracted, refined, used, recycled and disposed of, and the theoretical and practical efficiencies that we could, as a society, realize.
Allwood and Cullen write about engineering with the elegance of the best pop-science writers -- say, James Gleick or Rebecca Skloot -- but while science is never far from their work, their focus is on engineering. They render lucid and comprehensible the processes and calculations needed to make things and improve things, touching on chemistry, physics, materials science, economics and logistics without slowing down or losing the reader.
The authors quickly demonstrate that any effort to improve the sustainability of our materials usage must focus on steel and aluminum, first because of the prominence of these materials in our construction and fabrication, and second because they are characteristic microcosms of our other material usage, and what works for them will be generalizable to other materials.
From there, the book progresses to a fascinating primer on the processes associated with these metals, from ore to finished product and back through recycling, and the history of efficiency gains in these processes, and the theoretical limits on efficiency at each stage.
I'm going to be speaking on Monday, February 20th, at the meeting of the British Columbia Sustainable Energy Association, starting at 7:00 pm. My presentation will focus on the North American electric grid—where it came from, how it works today, and how it affects what we can and can't do in the future. I'll be talking about a lot of the big themes that I cover in my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. Read the rest
There are too many malls in America, and too many vacancies in them. So city planners are looking for other ways to use all that square-footage. The New York Times has a neat story about some of the different ways derelict shopping malls are being repurposed: As deconstructed residential/retail centers catering to desires for a more "Main Street" environment; as churches and city government offices; and even as community gardens. (Via Dennis Dimick) Read the rest
One blazing hot afternoon in August of 2010, I stood on a mountain top in Alabama, staring at a styrofoam beer cooler upended over the top of a metal pole. Alongside me were a couple dozen sweaty engineers and geologists. That beer cooler was one of the few visible signs of the research project happening far below our feet.
Over the course of two months, scientists from the University of Alabama had injected 278 tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth. The goal was to keep it there forever, locked in geologic formations. The beer cooler was a key part of that plan. Beneath it sat the delicate electronic components of the monitoring system the scientists were using to make sure none of the captured carbon dioxide found its way out of the mountain. Beer coolers, it turns out, make great low-cost heat protection.
Carbon capture and storage—the process of removing carbon dioxide from factory and power plant emissions and trapping it where it can't reach the atmosphere—is an interesting idea. It has the potential to help us make our current energy systems cleaner as we work on building more sustainable systems for the future. With that in mind, the Department of Energy has seven regional research teams testing carbon capture and storage at sites around the United States.
So far, nobody in the United States has put this full process to the test at the scale that would be necessary in the real world. But, in the past couple of weeks, scientists at the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium began pumping carbon dioxide at a new site, one that is going to give us our best picture yet of what full-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be like. Read the rest
You are invited to participate in a design competition for development of sustainable technologies and their components for printing on open source 3-D printers!
The goal of the contest (organized by Queen's University Applied Sustainability Lab and Michigan Technological University) is to facilitate an open exchange of 3-D sustainable technology designs that can be printed to meet various needs in the context of sustainable and self directed development.
3-D printers such as RepRap and open sourced innovation hold great promise for development of technologies to help millions of world's poorest communities reach a better standard of living. Designs will be judged on the technical printing viability, feasibility and functionality of the innovation, as well as ecological, economic and social sustainability.
Anyone can enter the competition however the contestants must post their digital designs on Thingiverse under an open license (e.g. CC-BY-SA). The contest is funded by the Queen's Applied Sustainability Group and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Competition closes February 1st 2012.
Top prize is CAD1,000, second is CAD500, and there will be three runners up who get a satisfied glow. All winners also get a copy of my novel Makers, which is pretty flattering, if I do say so myself!
Open source sustainability 3-D printing design competition
(Thanks, Ivana!) Read the rest