Aerogels are materials with amazingly good insulating properties. Images of a blowtorch heating the underside of a piece of aerogel with an unharmed ice cube or a pack of matches on top are familiar to many, and show how well the material insulates.
New ways of producing aerogels are being developed, and some aerogels are now hundreds of times stronger than earlier versions. Newer aerogels are also able to be made thinner and far more flexible than were previously available. Not only could there be better building insulation applications with this, but aerogel insulation could also be incorporated into sleeping bags or garments.
Two new methods for making aerogel are being used to create these improved aerogels. "One involved making changes in the innermost architecture of traditional silica aerogels. They used a polymer, a plastic-like material, to reinforce the networks of silica that extend throughout an aerogel's structure. Another involved making aerogels from polyimide, an incredibly strong and heat-resistant polymer, or plastic-like material, and then inserting brace-like cross-links to add further strength to the structure."
With the polar icecap shrinking so dramatically this year, the opportunity for ships to go through the Northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific has been so great this year that even a small sailboat has been able to make the crossing.
The Belzebub 2 is a small boat, only 31 feet long. More notably, it is a sailboat with only a 30 HP diesel engine for added power when needed. But, with a crew of 3, this small boat successfully crossed through the McClure Strait earlier this week to become the first sailboat to accomplish this feat.
Although the unprecedented melting of the Arctic ice made the journey possible, this journey was also facilitated by satellite data and assistance from the Canadian Ice Service to locate an open lead of water through which the passage was able to be completed. Other adventurers have made this passage over the past few years, as late summer conditions have melted the ice, and we expect that this will be more frequently done in the coming years.
Last month, the US Army carried out the first flight test of its Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), a new generation of airship that uses motors as well as aerodynamic lift from the shape of the vehicle to fly. Though equiped with several motors, once in position, it relies primarily on helium buoyancy to remain aloft for missions as long as 3 weeks.
Video of the test flight take-off shows the airship rising into the air with very little runway space needed. But the primary benefit offered by airships is the ability to stay airborne for long periods of time. The LEMV can stay in the air at altitudes of 22,000 feet (about 6,700 meters) for up to 21 days. For the military, this allows long-persistence surveilance missions without needing to swap vehicles as often as needed by current fixed-wing drones. Only a small ground crew would be needed to maintain a number of these vehicles in the air. Although this first test flight was carried out with a crew on board, the LEMV is designed to be operated without a crew.
While this is military R&D, and has immediate applications in that realm, there are obvious civilian applications this technology could be put to, as well. Acting as a low-level satellite, an LEMV with sensors could carry out surveys and scientific observation of wildlands, or be used for monitoring croplands. It could serve as a communications relay in the aftermath of a disaster, for example, as a cell-phone tower replacement with line-of-sight to an entire city. For aiding in access to remote regions, "the LEMV has enough buoyancy to haul seven tons of cargo 2,400 miles at 30 miles per hour," according to the manufacturer.
The Army isn't the only group working to develop airships, however. According to a recent LA Times article, a number of companies, ranging from small startups to aerospace giants, are all working on a variety of new airship designs to fulfill a range of needs. Airships may not become a replacement for contemporary modes of transport, but can offer an alternative in some cases that is cleaner and more cost-effective than current methods.
With global production and distribution of goods a reality of 21st Century life, cargo ships are ubiquitous. They bring goods to consumers all over the world, and more and more ships are transporting goods and raw materials, all while burning some of the most polluting fuels. A recent article about the rise of wind-powered designs for cargo vessels notes that, "If the world’s shipping fleet were a country, it would be the world’s sixth leading emitter of greenhouse gases." So there is lots of good to be done with improving the efficiency of cargo ships. And a number of companies are taking steps in that direction.
At the University of Tokyo, researchers are working on a design for a ship that uses rigid framework and fiber-reinforced plastic instead of canvas for sails. These high-tech sails can be flown, much more like an airplane wing, increasing the efficiency with which they propel the ship. And, when the vessel reaches port, the sails telescope down upon themselves, to allow free access to the decks and cargo without the interference of masts and sail rigging lines getting in the way.
Among the companies working to commercialize wind-powered cargo, B9 Shipping has recently tested a model of their 3,000 ton vessel. Although this is far smaller than the largest cargo freighters, which can have more than 100 times the cargo capacity, it is a first step in developing the technology and proving its financial viability.
Many of these vessels will not be solely wind powered, even at sea. Not unlike automobiles, where gas-electric hybrids first broke down boundaries and showed the workability of alternative systems, these ships will also be hybrids. B9 plans to use engines that burn bio-methane instead of fossil fuel as a secondary propulsion system.
To replace the older tubes, two styles of newer fluorescent bulbs, T-8 and T-5, are available (and have been around for many years). These are thinner (1" diameter for the T-8 and 5/8" for the T-5) and more energy efficient than the older T-12s. The newer bulbs are not compatible with older lamps, so owners of older fixtures will need to replace their lamps or install retrofit kits.
In addition to the energy savings, switching from T-12 to T-5 fluorescents also drastically reduces the amount of mercury in circulation. A T-5 fluorescent tube contains "3 milligrams of mercury compared to T12, older technology fluorescent tubes with 27-30 milligrams of mercury. That's 89% less mercury."
Some others may opt to install linear LEDs that match the configuration of fluorescent tubes. These retrofits have had some problems, but the industry continues to improve.
New obstacles with the limits of electron flow through semiconductors are one of the many problems engineers face as they continue to push for increased speed and power for electronic devices. But a team of researchers is looking back at the technology of the vacuum tube to develop a means to increase circuit and computational speed.
Once it was invented in the late 1940s, the transistor began to replace the vacuum tube, and led to an amazing range of uses for solid-state devices and the variety of electronic gadgets we have today. Transistors offered savings in both size and energy. But one of the things that vacuum tubes provided was an obstacle free path for unhindered electron flow through the vacuum. "Electrons traveling inside a semiconductor device frequently experience collisions or scattering in the solid-state medium." The problem with vacuum tubes, besides their large size, is that they require high voltages to operate.
Researchers at University of Pittsburgh have developed a method for electrons to travel through a nanoscale vacuum which could lead to advances in electronics with improvements in speed and transistor density. According to the project leader, Hong Koo Kim, "The emission of this electron system into vacuum channels could enable a new class of low-power, high-speed transistors, and it’s also compatible with current silicon electronics, complementing those electronics by adding new functions that are faster and more energy efficient due to the low voltage."
In mid-July, an astonishing, estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet covering Greenland was melting due to a high temperature dome of warm air. Scientists at NASA noticed this late in July, and were shocked at what they found.
Most of Greenland is a big ice sheet. In the summer, large areas of its surface melt, though much of the water quickly re-freezes. Under more normal conditions, 40 or 50 percent of the area can have melting, but virtually the entire ice sheet melting was unprecedented. The 97% area was so extraordinary that the scientists who first discovered this initially thought that there was a problem with the satellites providing the data, and they didn't release the information until they had checked their findings with two other instruments.
The melting took place exceptionally rapidly, as well. "The melting spread quickly. Melt maps derived from the three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet's surface had melted. By July 12, 97 percent had melted."
Scientists are not yet sure how much of an impact this event will have on sea level rise or how the ice sheet will be affected long term. But it is another unusual event that further shows evidence that the climate is not behaving in the ways it has in the past.
A couple weeks ago, Apple announced that it would no longer have its laptops certified under EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Asessment Tool), a voluntary industry standard that has been used to advance recyclability and reduce the use of toxic materials in electronic devices. But now, after enormous outcry against Apple's decision, the company has realized its mistake. On Friday, the company announced "all eligible Apple products are back on EPEAT."
EPEAT was developed in the early 2000s with a consortium of representatives from manufacturers, trade associations, government agencies, and other groups seeking to promote a more environmentally conscious lifecycle for electronic products. Apple was part of the EPEAT Development and Implementation Team, and 40 of its desktops, notebooks and displays have received EPEAT Gold certification.
Speculation has been that withdrawing from EPEAT was because the company's new latops were using glue instead of screws (which would prevent easy disassembly for repair or recycling) to attach batteries inside the case. The reversal may also be due to the requirement that 95% of federal electronics purchases be EPEAT certified.
For years now, the plans for a high-speed rail network in California have been out there, inching forward slowly with occasional financial roadblocks along the way. But now it looks like the first phase will actually start construction soon as a measure to raise funding through a municipal bond sale has passed in the California state legislature.
A recent vote approved the bond sale that will raise $4.5 billion total, with $2.6 billion of that going toward the initial stretch of the rail network. That first phase will be a 130-mile section that connects Madera and Bakersfield in the state's Central Valley. The next phase for the network will be to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains traveling at 220 mph, and then ultimately span all the way from San Diego to Sacramento. The network will include major stops in between and connect into existing railway infrastructure.
The bond sale also includes $1.9 billion for improvements to regional rail networks like electrifying the Caltrain San Jose - San Francisco commuter line.
As part of a new study on wave power, the University of Exeter and Tel Aviv University have come up with a system that predicts the power of waves in order to maximize wave energy devices' ability to generate energy from the sea. The researchers found that this system could potentially double the amount of wave energy generated by a device.
Phys.org reports, "The research focused on point absorbers, commonly-used floating devices with parts that move in response to waves, generating energy which they feed back to the grid. Point absorbers are already known to be much more efficient in the amount of energy they produce if their response closely matches the force of the waves and previous research has looked at trying to increase this efficiency. However, this is the first study that has focused on increasing the device's efficiency by predicting and controlling internal forces of the device caused by forthcoming waves."
Wave energy potential is huge. It's been estimated that it could power the world twice over and the UK, where this study was conducted, could be powered twice over just by utilizing wave energy generators along its coastlines. So far, wave energy technologies haven't gained traction the way that solar and wind technologies have because the ocean is a very inhospitable place. Wave energy generators have to be able to withstand the force of each wave.
This new system predicts the power of the incoming wave, allowing the device to respond in a way that extracts the most amount of energy. This controlled reaction not only increases the efficiency of the device, but protects it from damage from rough seas. Where most current wave technologies would be shut off during a storm, a prediction system could allow the wave generator to keep operating effectively.
The University of Exeter is now working with Ocean Power Technologies, one of the largest wave energy companies, to further test the results and develop better technologies based on this research.
Swedish Designer Eddi Törnberg has designed the best human-powered work station we've seen yet because unlike other concepts that require you to do things like ride a bike while you're working, it doesn't require a person to do anything more than sit and work. The project, called "Unplugged," powers the various gadgets we use to work -- laptops, lamps, etc --through our small constant movements and body heat.
The desk chair is equipped with a metal seat that gets hot as a person emits body heat, but the underside stays cools through a pattern of metal fins. Electricity is produced through the Seebeck Effect where an electric charge is created when a material is hot or warm on one side, but cool on the other.
The other energy-harvesting part of this set up is a rug that lies under the desk that is outfitted with piezoelectric crystals that generate electricity when pressure is applied to them. Each random shuffle, stomp, and rolling back and forth of the chair is a source of electricity.
The final part of Unplugged is plant-powered rather than human-powered. A potted plant provides electrcity through a process similar to a potato battery.
Unplugged is definitely more of a concept than a working product, but if this set-up were put to use, it could generate a nice chunk, though probably not all, of the energy needed to get through the workday.