Friday, 30 May 2008

Photosynth Prototype

Wow, is that impressive technology, really unbelievable

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Monday, 12 May 2008

Eco Tip #2: Don't use plastic bottles, and avoid canned food.

A second useful tip, this time via the fantastic Grist environmental news magazine.
Dear Umbra,

I've been hearing a lot in the news lately about the dangers of certain kinds of plastic bottles. What's the lowdown?

Littleton, Colo.

Dearest Ginger,

Always happy to be your source for the lowest lowdown around town. Today's lowdown: Don't use plastic bottles, and avoid canned food.

All the latest plastics hullabaloo is over bisphenol A, a component of many plastic products. Serious Gristoholic Readers have known for years now that BPA, in its role as an endocrine disruptor, probably poses threats to public health. These readers have been easy to spot at recent cocktail parties: they lounge about looking self-satisfied and say, "Oh, I knew that already," when the topic of toxic plastic bottles comes up. Hence our motto: "Read Grist today,woo untold strangers with your wisdom tomorrow."

The properties of BPA lend a hardness and durability to plastic products, and it is (or was) in many now infamous consumer items, including baby bottles and clear Nalgene bottles. (Nalgene has now forsworn BPA, as have Camelbak, Toys R Us, Playtex, and others.) It also lines food cans, such as might hold soup or beans. It leaches from all of these places into our food and then into our bodies; tests have found it lurking in our bodily fluids. In laboratory animals, low-dose exposure to BPA has been linked to cancer, diabetes, fertility problems, and behavior disorders.

Over the past decade, scientists have brought increasing pressure on the U.S. government to revisit its BPA-exposure standards, because said scientists keep finding probable harm at lower doses than the EPA safety level. The topic has been a continuing drama, especially over the past year. Some highlights: the U.S. government hired a firm to assess BPA toxicity, the firm ignored all the anti-BPA scientists and was later found to have links to the plastic industry, the FDA was forced to show its hand and found wanting in scientific rigor (shock!), and the National Toxicology Program came out with a tentatively anti-BPA draft. Then Health Canada opened a comment period on banning BPA, and major retailers and producers starting abandoning the BPA ship -- all within the last few months.

The Environmental Working Group has a detailed timeline of BPA studies and political developments, which you may enjoy reading. You can also find info by searching Grist for "bisphenol A" -- even just searching Ask Umbra for "bisphenol A" will get you scads of resources. I've put a few of the most relevant Grist links in this handy box for you:

Let me summarize a few of those resources and tips here, once again, so that we can all sleep easier at night. (Unless you have young babies -- even switching to glass bottles may not convince your child to sleep through the night.)

Avoid using plastic bottles, plastic food containers, and canned food. Find your own way to mitigate the loss of convenience this causes you. Glass, stainless steel, frozen foods, and fresh foods are all useful resources for a plastics- and BPA-free diet. BPA is not in every plastic, but each plastic has its own problems (cheery Grist article on chemicals may help you here) -- at least avoid vinyl, and any "Lexan" or No. 7 plastic that does not explicitly lack BPA. You would find such explicit lack of BPA via news from the manufacturer or, increasingly, on the packaging.

If you must use plastic, choose No. 1 PETE, No. 2 HDPE, No. 4 LDPE, or No. 5 PP, and eschew the rest. Tips on avoiding the nastiest plastics are found in handy guides such as those put out by Environment California, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and the Environmental Working Group.

Scientists are still debating the toxicity of BPA. I advocate making a change in your plastics use now, if you haven't already -- not because the science is definitive, but because it looks like it will become so, because it's not often that a potential toxin turns out to be safe, and because there are additional reasons to reduce plastic consumption and eat fresh foods over canned foods. I'm out of room, so if anyone needs to know the additional reasons, please write in.


Friday, 2 May 2008

Solar Power From Africa: The Best Investment the EU Can Make

"Big Solar" may take on a whole new meaning if Desertec, the most ambitious solar thermal plan ever conceived, gets funded.

Its architects claim they can build a supergrid of concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP) that can meet most of Europe's current electricity needs by using just 0.3 percent of the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – and at a cost less than oil.

The long-term prospects look even sunnier.

For an investment of $400 billion over 30 years, Desertec could eventually power Europe plus two-thirds of the MENA countries by 2050, while dramatically cutting C02 emissions and phasing out nuclear power at the same time.

That’s a sizeable chunk of the whole world’s energy needs. And for only $13 billion per year.

What a bargain, if you consider that building a single nuclear power plant in Europe carries a price tag of around $2.5 to $3.5 billion these days.

Desertec was developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation, the brain child of the Club of Rome, with support from the German Aerospace Bureau, among other influentials.

And it was created with this idea in mind: the solar energy available for harvest in the world’s deserts is 700 times the amount of energy needed to sustain the Earth’s population.

If the EU is charmed into supporting it, the desert lands of the MENA countries will bloom with hundreds, and eventually thousands, of arrays of solar mirrors that will generate an enormous 100 GW of exportable solar – with the potential for substantially more.

Too good to be true? Not anymore.

Skyrocketing fuel prices and the mounting reality of a peak oil future have made Desertec economically attractive for the first time since it was conceived back in 2003.

And it doesn’t hurt that the project carries a built-in bonus: drinking water. The plan aims to use the waste heat from the solar power plants for thermal desalination to create clean water for host countries.

The biggest snag is how to transmit the power to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea without losing mass amounts of energy during underwater transit. But Desertrec has already come up with the fix: clean electrical power via High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines that will cause reasonable losses of 10 to 15 percent from Africa to Europe.

Still, the EU hasn't bought into it -- not yet. And Desertec needs Europe to invest big and early.

The European Parliament has asked Desertec for more specifics, especially how it will protect investors from financial losses when political instability strikes the MENA region.

Valid question.

In the meantime, the EU would be wise to back a Desertec demonstration project that would create a favorable economic framework for public and private investment in the long term.

If not, Europe may miss a lucrative opportunity to shape the future of desert solar, and its own energy economy.

Prince Hassan bin Talal from Jordan, former President of The Club of Rome and one of Desertec's most prominent supporters, offers this reminder to Europe:

"Such a win-win cooperation between the European Union and its southern and eastern Mediterranean neighbours is reminiscent of the Union for Coal and Steel in Europe founded some 60 years ago, which led Europe into a prosperous and peaceful future."

And if not the EU, then somebody else.

In the next 12 years alone companies will spend between $80 billion and $200 billion on CSP installations, according to a new report by Prometheus Institute and Greentech Media.

That includes more than $30 billion worth of new plants that companies have announced just in the last six months.

(Source: Geotimes)