The wily ways of the biggest petrochemical companies have been a concern since we started this platform, and when something seems like big news, but turns not to be so big, we share what we find. We have previously shared a story or two about sugar’s potential as an energy source, but in its recent edition The Economist weighs in on what may be sugar’s bigger than big potential:
Thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal for this very brief note from history demonstrating how the need for caffeine was the mother of invention:
The first patented invention made in space was a coffee cup.
In November 2008, Donald Pettit wanted to drink his tea and coffee from an open vessel.
While aboard the I.S.S., he tore out a plastic divider from his Flight Data File and used the magic of fluid dynamics to create an open cup. Until then, astronauts drank everything out of a plastic bag with a straw.
We interact with coffee through aroma as much as through taste. In a bag, half of the experience was gone; Dr. Pettit said that he wanted to add “back the dimension of what it’s like to be a human being.” Continue reading
The first time I saw upcycling in action, I did not know the word. It became part of my vocabulary in 2012. And then I started seeing it more frequently, but only years later before I would see it in relation to food. Now it is more mainstream, but this PBS news segment shocked me anyway, with the revelation of how much waste there is in the production of tofu. In my experience growing up in the USA, tofu was one of the first “green foods” on the market. Little did we know. Shock is sometimes followed by awe. Case in point: Renewal Mill is providing solutions to tofu production waste and other forms of food waste that seem obvious once you see them do it. But first, someone had to do it. I have not tasted their products yet but I am confident I would savor it on multiple dimensions.
When we started this platform, from a base in south India, we were surrounded by charismatic mega-fauna. Even the squirrels were unusually beautiful and large. The purpose of the platform being to highlight stories of creative, entrepreneurial approaches to conservation as much as to raise awareness of environmental issues more broadly, there is a new form of mega charisma worth noting today. It may make a difference to the issues we have been pointing to since the first post nine years ago:
Exclusive: project will store renewable energy and reduce climate-heating emissions
Construction is beginning on the world’s largest liquid air battery, which will store renewable electricity and reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fuel power plants.
The project near Manchester, UK, will use spare green energy to compress air into a liquid and store it. When demand is higher, the liquid air is released back into a gas, powering a turbine that puts the green energy back into the grid.
A big expansion of wind and solar energy is vital to tackle the climate emergency but they are not always available. Storage is therefore key and the new project will be the largest in the world outside of pumped hydro schemes, which require a mountain reservoir to store water. Continue reading
We’re always happy to give credit when due. While beer isn’t the first beverage that comes to mind when thinking about the scourge of plastics in the world, bottled soda and water certainly are. So it’s heartening to hear that a company like Coca-Cola, which has contributed to the proliferation of the world’s plastic problem, is backing a bioplastic project that could help to control it.
Carlsberg and Coca-Cola back pioneering project to make ‘all-plant’ drinks bottles
Beer and soft drinks could soon be sipped from “all-plant” bottles under new plans to turn sustainably grown crops into plastic in partnership with major beverage makers.
A biochemicals company in the Netherlands hopes to kickstart investment in a pioneering project that hopes to make plastics from plant sugars rather than fossil fuels.
The plans, devised by renewable chemicals company Avantium, have already won the support of beer-maker Carlsberg, which hopes to sell its pilsner in a cardboard bottle lined with an inner layer of plant plastic.
Avantium’s chief executive, Tom van Aken, says he hopes to greenlight a major investment in the world-leading bioplastics plant in the Netherlands by the end of the year. The project, which remains on track despite the coronavirus lockdown, is set to reveal partnerships with other food and drink companies later in the summer.
Although the exhibit highlighted here began in January (notably directly following the holiday honoring MLK), we have the CS Monitor to thank for bringing it to our attention. The museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus outbreaks, but the making of video on the MFA website shows some highlights, and we can only hope that there will be opportunity to visit it in person before the end date of June 20th.
“The teen curators—fellows from youth empowerment organizations Becoming a Man (BAM), The BASE, and the Bloomberg Arts Internship Boston program managed by EdVestors—used skills they developed as paid interns in a pilot internship program at the MFA to research, interpret, and design the exhibition. Their work highlights areas of excellence within the Museum’s collection and lays foundations for the future.”
Jadon Smith steps closer to his favorite painting by Archibald Motley, carefully examining the details he’s looked at many times before, a smile from ear to ear. At the center of the piece, five elegant women dressed in their Sunday best sit in a restaurant. One woman, hidden in the background, catches his attention.
“Women are the centerpiece of the whole entire painting,” says Jadon, a junior at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, during a visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in early March. “They’re supposed to be there to be seen. Don’t ignore them. Notice that they’re there, appreciate the fact that they’re there.”
Jadon is one of six local teens selected to craft “Black Histories, Black Futures” – the museum’s first exhibition curated entirely by high school students. The MFA’s exhibition, the culmination of a partnership with local youth empowerment organizations, reflects a growing trend, one that has museums working to engage and represent a more diverse population within the field of fine art. Including young people in the curation process not only trains the next generation of curators, say museum staffers, but it also helps aging institutions display refreshing and inclusive exhibitions inspired by the young curators’ own experiences.
“This institution is 150 years old. And so what does that mean for young people? Where do young people belong in such an old institution?” says Layla Bermeo, an associate curator at the MFA. “This project really tried to argue that young people belong in the center.”.. Continue reading
In addition to all the creative ways that people recycle and upcycle plastics, we appreciate when scientific collaboration is brought to the forefront, as in the example here. We thank Science Magazine for highlighting the story.
Recycling isn’t as guilt-free as it seems. Only about 30% of the plastic that goes into soda bottles gets turned into new plastic, and it often ends up as a lower strength version. Now, researchers report they’ve engineered an enzyme that can convert 90% of that same plastic back to its pristine starting materials. Work is underway to scale up the technology and open a demonstration plant next year.
“This is a huge step forward,” says John McGeehan, who directs the center for enzyme innovation at the University of Portsmouth and who was not involved with the work.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the world’s most commonly used plastics, with some 70 million tons produced annually. PET bottles are already recycled in many places. But the current approach has problems. For starters, recycling companies typically end up with a broad mix of different colors of the plastic. They then use high temperatures to melt those down, producing a gray or black plastic starting material that few companies want to use to package their products.
Instead, the material is typically turned into carpets or other low-grade plastic fibers that eventually end up in a landfill or get incinerated. “It’s not really recycling at all,” McGeehan says.
To get around this concern, scientists have searched for enzymes in microbes that break down PET and other plastics. In 2012, researchers at Osaka University found one such enzyme in a compost heap. Continue reading
On Earth Day, 2019, when New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed a bill banning single-use plastic bags, he said, “You see plastic bags hanging in trees, blowing down the streets, in landfills, and in our waterways, and there is no doubt they are doing tremendous damage.” It is true that nowadays people do see plastic bags in trees. But they didn’t used to—not because the bags weren’t there but because the people didn’t see them. I believe I am the first person who actually saw bags in trees—that is, noticed them in any official way. Twenty-seven years ago, I wrote a short article for this magazine about plastic bags and other debris in the trees of New York City. Once I started noticing the bags, I couldn’t stop, and I soon passed the affliction on to my friends Bill McClelland and Tim McClelland. Noticing bags in trees changed our lives. Continue reading
Thanks to the Guardian, and specifically to Francesc Badia i Dalmases in Kapawi, Ecuador, for this story:
Ecuadorian indigenous groups hope innovation will reduce amount of oil taken from forest only to be brought back as pollution
A canoe slides noiselessly upstream through a landscape of luminous bright clouds reflected in the water. A team of young indigenous people are onboard.
Such vessels are an essential and ubiquitous part of life in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but this one boasts a hugely symbolic difference from its predecessors. It is powered by the sun.
The nine members of the Achuar indigenous group on board are returning home after learning about solar power and installation. It is a technological development they hope to use in their battle with a more traditional power source that threatens their very existence. Oil. Continue reading
After nearly nine years of monitoring the mainstream and more scientific news for evidence that harnessing the sun is one of our highest potential solutions to climate change, and considering all the noise that comes from climate change skeptics and deniers, it is easy to lose track of whether solar has what it takes. Laura Mallonee shares this brief in Wired:
Software-driven systems can produce enough searing heat to power manufacturing processes that now gorge on fossil fuels.
Plenty of days, temperatures in California’s Mojave Desert climb above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A measly figure. These 400 silvered glass panels, tucked into the western edge of that hot, hot desert, are there to generate heat 15 times that amount. And, ideally, to help cool the planet too. Continue reading
Thanks to Katherine Kornei, who we are linking to for the first time, for some great science writing:
Researchers outfitted 169 seabirds with radar detectors to pinpoint vessels that had turned off their transponders.
There’s a lot of ocean out there, and boats engaging in illegal fishing or human trafficking have good reason to hide.
But even the stealthiest vessels — the ones that turn off their transponders — aren’t completely invisible: Albatrosses, outfitted with radar detectors, can spot them, new research has shown. And a lot of ships may be trying to disappear. Roughly a third of vessels in the Southern Indian Ocean were not broadcasting their whereabouts, the bird patrol revealed. Continue reading
Listening to it took me straight back, seven years, to when I first learned about the benefits elephants were deriving from new technology, at the same time we (family, and interns and employees) were spending large amounts of time in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Technology, broadly speaking, has gotten us into the mess we are in, so why not expect it to get us out of it?
Technology and nature used to reside at the opposite ends of the spectrum. But like our environment, that relationship has changed over the years and the two have a cyclical relationship of preservation and innovation. The commitment to conserve and heal our diverse ecosystems has pushed technology further and with urgency. Because there’s no time to waste. From the American Great Plains and the African Sahara to the furthest depths in the ocean, we’re talking to the trailblazers who are innovating everyday to save the planet.
Finding this story by Mike Ives, with Topher White getting up into the trees for a good purpose, brightens the day just a little bit:
PAKAN RABAA, Indonesia — This village in West Sumatra, a lush province of volcanoes and hilly rain forests, had a problem with illegal loggers.
They were stealing valuable hardwood with impunity. At first, a group of local people put a fence across the main road leading into the forest, but it was flimsy and proved no match for the interlopers. Continue reading
Thursday night in Costa Rica Amie and I attended an event at the oldest, yet freshest Marriott in this country. Fresh with actions around sustainability. Fresh with a renovation and landscape plan that enhances the property’s coffee hacienda origins. And fresh with ideas from other parts of the world in their ongoing series of TED events. The picture above was on the screen as the speaker explained one of her projects; she gave an extended version of the TED talk she first presented earlier this year. I found some additional information about it to share here:
Bangkok is sinking. Spilling out across the delta of the Chao Phraya River, the Thai capital was once known as the Venice of the East for its network of canals.Today, thanks to explosive development, many of those waterways have been filled with cement. With nowhere for water to go, Bangkok has become notorious for frequent, destructive floods, sometimes after as little as 30 minutes of rain. The reality is that this city of 20 million people, built on shifting river mud, is sinking at the rate of more than one centimeter a year and could be below sea level as soon as 2030.
Thai landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, a TED Fellow, watched firsthand as her city became a dense concrete jungle. “When I was young, there were rice fields and canals in the city,” she remembers. “I could hear boats from my house in central Bangkok. Now, all those fields and canals have been stopped with concrete and covered by highrises. All of the buildings and concrete become obstacles for water to drain, so the city floods.”
At her Bangkok firm Landprocess, Voraakhom designs parks, gardens, green roofs and bridges that address the city’s flooding problem while also reconnecting residents to their natural environment. “We’re so much in the buildings,” she says. “I think it’s very necessary for us, as urbanists, to have places where we can reconnect to our nature, to Mother Earth. Just to see the sky.”
The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” comes to mind when related to overcoming the obstacles of handling emergencies in remote or dangerous locations. But after listening to Zipline founder Keller Rinaudo’s TED talk, “entrepreneurship is the new philanthropy” seems more apropos. Our direct experience is more within the entrepreneurial conservation model in developing economies, but the energy with which many countries have leap frogged established technologies with 21st century models and solutions belies their assumed status of development. Continue reading
Yale e360, with news like this, titles it carefully:
Scientists Say They Have Found a Viable Replacement for Petroleum-Based Plastic
Scientists at Ohio State University say they have developed a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastic food packaging by using natural tree-based rubber. According to the researchers, the new biodegradable material holds promise for fighting the world’s growing plastic pollution problem, as well as for helping curb our reliance on fossil fuels.
The original source, with slightly more flowery language, titles it as if packaging can be friendly to the environment. The way we use packaging, not so. But we will take what we can get at this point:
New biodegradable ‘plastic’ is tough, flexible
The quest to keep plastic out of landfills and simultaneously satisfy the needs of the food industry is filled with obstacles.
A biodegradable replacement for petroleum-based products has to meet all sorts of standards and, so far, attempts at viable replacements from renewable sources have faced limited success due to processing and economic constraints. Among the obstacles, products to date have been too brittle for food packaging. Continue reading
Mass timber construction is on the rise, with advocates saying it could revolutionize the building industry and be part of a climate change solution. But some are questioning whether the logging and manufacturing required to produce the new material outweigh any benefits.
The eight-story Carbon 12 building in Portland, Oregon is the tallest commercial structure in the United States to be built from something called mass timber.
If the many fervent boosters of this new construction material are right, however, it is only one of the first mass timber buildings among many, the beginning of a construction revolution. “The design community in Portland is enthralled with the material,” said Emily Dawson, an architect at Kaiser + Path, the locally-based firm that designed Carbon 12.
The move to mass timber is even farther along in Europe. That’s because mass timber – large structural panels, posts, and beams glued under pressure or nailed together in layers, with the wood’s grain stacked perpendicular for extra strength – is not only prized as an innovative building material, superior to concrete and steel in many ways, it is also hoped it will come into its own as a significant part of a climate change solution. Continue reading
“We think humans are the best designers, but this is not really true,” a researcher said.
In the capital of Zimbabwe, a building called Eastgate Centre holds nearly 350,000 square-feet of office space and shops. It uses 90 percent less energy than a similar sized building next door.
What’s Eastgate Centre’s secret? Termites.
In the 1990s, Mick Pearce, the building’s architect, took his inspiration from mounds built by fungus-farming termites he saw on a nature show. The insects created their own air conditioning systems that circulated hot and cool air between the mound and the outside.
As architects and builders seek new and improved ways to cool buildings without using more energy in a warming world, a study of another type of termite mound suggests that Mr. Pearce won’t be the last human to take design tips from these cockroach cousins. Continue reading
When this platform started in 2011 it was two young men, one a senior at Amherst College and the other a sophomore at Cornell University, who thought it would be useful to share their experiences with other students. It continued beyond their summer internships. At some point, hard to pinpoint the date, it started serving as a daily exercise for me. It became an exercise in finding something in the world that is worthy of attention, as much as possible something that inspires hope rather than reinforces dread (though that has been unavoidable from time to time).
The title I give to today’s post is impossible to justify with any metrics, but read on and you may see my point. Jon Gertner, for this first time featured in our pages, and for what is likely the longest of any longform treatments of any topic in the New York Times, thank you for making it about this:
The illustrative video above is on its own worth a couple minutes of your time. But the innovative approach to one of the world’s most pressing problems is the thing to take note of. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for bringing Evelyn Wang and Omar Yaghi’s work to our attention in this story:
Researchers have come up with a new way to extract water from thin air. Literally.
This isn’t the first technology that can turn water vapor in the atmosphere into liquid water that people can drink, but researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, say their approach uses less power and works in drier environments. Continue reading