Archive for the ‘ Technology ’ Category

Zero emission houses available in Australia

One thing that Australia has in common with the USA is suburbia. The suburbs around Melbourne in particular stretch in all directions further than the eye can see. The city covers a staggering 8,806 square kilometres and most of the recent expansion has been on the fringes in the form of “estates” with names like Caroline Springs or Brookland Greens. These estates are generally filled with McMansions and surround manicured lakes and grounds and are billed as “the perfect family lifestyle”. All very nice, if you like that kind of thing…

However, all is not as idyllic as it seems. The environmental costs of these estates are huge partly due to the lack of public transport links and the sheer distance that people are forced to commute every day. But the main culprit is the amount of energy that these McMansions consume. Due to their large size (usually larger than 300 square metres), cheap, poorly insulated construction, and large arrays of electronic gadgetry, they consume electricity and gas like there’s no tomorrow (which there won’t be if this continues…).

However, I was happy to read today about a company taking the first step to changing this situation. Henley Properties Group in association with CSIRO, Delfin and Sustainability Victoria has built a zero emissions show home on the new Laurimar Estate outside Melbourne. Most homes in these estates are picked from a catalogue which is what creates the homogeneous look and the McMansion title but soon customers will be able to tick the ‘zero emissions’ option. This show home will be on display until September 2010 after which a family will live in it and their energy usage will be compared with other houses on the estate. Assuming it is successful (and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be), these features should then be made available as an option on all their standard house designs. Of course, if you are building a bespoke house there is nothing to stop you incorporating all these features yourself and many people do.

The show home has been designed to produce enough renewable power onsite to supply all it’s energy needs over the course of a year. It achieves this in a couple of ways, firstly by reducing the amount of energy used (70% less than a comparable standard home), and secondly by actively generating electricity. It also monitors energy use in real time which helps the occupants to manage and reduce the amount of energy they consume. The house reduces energy consumption through superior insulation, correct orientation to the sun, advanced sealing systems and energy efficient lighting and appliances. It has solar panels to generate electricity and a solar water-heating system and collects both rainwater and grey water for reuse. With all these factors combined it achieves an 8 star energy rating compared to the required 5 star rating for new houses in Australia.

The most innovative part of the whole equation is the energy management system, controlled via a touchscreen in the house or via the internet or smart phone. These systems can be retrofitted to most houses and are so effective because they make it clear exactly when the most electricity is being used and by what appliance giving the occupants much more information and incentive to change their behaviour. The system can also automatically switch appliances off at certain times of the day such as tv’s on stand-by when everyone is at work or school. It also (importantly for Australia) monitors and manages water use.

And, surprisingly, the price premium for all this energy efficiency isn’t as much as I expected. Around AU$20k on top of the standard price of AU$254k for the energy efficiency features and another AU$20k to add the solar panels. Sure, AU$40k isn’t a small amount of money but it still represents less than 14% of the total price of the house. And who wouldn’t want to be able to turn on the heating or lower their blinds from their iPhone? It’s the way of the future!

Source Article: http://news.domain.com.au/domain/design-and-living/clean-living-now-an-option-20100515-v50l.html

Bio-Hydrogen Airship Concept

Hydrogenase

Interesting concept for airship design by Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut called Hydrogenase. Could airships make a comeback? I hope so.

In this case the airship is powered by algal-based bio-hydrogen in conjunction with inflatable photovoltaic cells. The airship docks with a floating organic seaweed farm that is responsible for the production of the bio-hydrogen. In addition, the dock is covered with solar panels and includes tidal energy turbines as well.

But isn’t travelling by airship slow? Well yes, but not as slow as you might think. This concept would be capable of travelling up to 190kph (110mph) and, more importantly, can carry up to 200 tonnes of freight making it more relevant as a replacement for sea freight.

And it looks amazing – isn’t that the most important thing?

Click to read more: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/05/organic_seaweed_farm_powers_bio-hydrogen_airship.php

Geoengineering – should we or shouldn’t we?

If we, the population of the Earth, accept that climate change is happening, and not in a good way, then it stands to reason we would want to do something about it. The fact that very little is being done about it in a cohesive and collaborative way is a reflection of the fact that there are still many climate change sceptics out there scuttling any attempts to spend the vast sums on new clean infrastructure that we are going to need. The arguments against carbon-trading, capping of CO2 emissions, and reduction of dependence on fossil fuels seem to be never-ending. Most arguments relate to money and the reluctance to spend it on clean technology until man-made climate change is proven beyond all doubt. Unfortunately it is unlikely to ever be proven to their high standards and certainly not before it will be too late to do anything about it.

Climatologists talk about a tipping point in the global climate. A point where global temperatures rise high enough that the continual temperature increase becomes self-sustaining. This will happen when enough permafrost in the Arctic melts that methane stored there begins to be released causing further temperature increase and further melting and so on. If we get to that point then I believe it seriously will be too late to do anything about it.

Most of the sceptics’ arguments centre around an unwillingness to do anything which will impact on our lives directly, be it travelling less, replacing the car with the bus, replacing the bus with the bicycle, or consuming less energy at home or at work. Some of these things such as insulating one’s house receive a boost because they can save you money, but in most cases the payback period is very long creating more reluctance and indecision. And most governments appear unable to put in place consistent incentives which would encourage people to invest in such changes. For example, the Australian government was subsidising roof insulation but it was mismanaged and now it is cancelled. They were also subsidising solar panel installation, now they’re not. And there is no certainty or consistency around feed-in tariff legislation either so householders are unwilling to risk investing in solar panels when they can’t accurately predict what it is going to cost them.

So if we’re not going to do anything meaningful about reducing our climate change-causing activities, how about trying a new activity which could mitigate the impact of the activities we refuse to curtail? This activity is geoengineering – the concept of “deliberately manipulating the Earth’s climate to counteract the effects of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions” [Wikipedia].

A number of geoengineering concepts have been proposed and discussed and, in most cases, discounted on the basis that they would be too expensive, too uncertain, or simply impossible with our current technology. Examples are; releasing billions of tiny mirrors into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun’s rays away; releasing dust to mimic the cooling effects of a volcano (probably unlikely given the recent travel disruption in Europe!); or building artificial “trees” that can absorb CO2. Recently another more practical and achievable option has been discussed – cloud seeding.

Cloud seeding ship

In this case special cloud-generating solar-powered ships would criss-cross the world’s oceans sucking up seawater and projecting it into the atmosphere as a fine mist, thus seeding white clouds. Done on a large enough scale there is reasonable certainty that this could actually have a measurable effect on the Earth’s temperature by reflecting the sun’s rays back into space. Now don’t get me wrong, this is still not going to be a cheap exercise. Studies indicate that it will cost around US$7 billion dollars to build 1,900 of these ships, the number required to halt global temperature increases according to their calculations. But hang on… yes, that is a large sum of money, but we are talking about saving the world as we (and all other species) know it, surely a cause worth investing in (even gambling on) a little. And to provide some perspective, Melbourne in Australia has recently spent US1 billion on a fancy new public transport ticketing system that doesn’t even work properly! (You’ll be experiencing more rants about this in future blogs…)

So if one city in the world can afford to waste US$1 billion dollars, how easily could all the countries in the world afford to fund a project together that could very likely guarantee our very existence (or at least make it more difficult for us to wipe ourselves out), for the paltry sum of US$7 billion? The best part is that this concept is scalable. It doesn’t have to all be built and launched at once giving scientists a chance to measure its success on a regional scale before going global. It is estimated that US$25 – 30 million would be enough to set up a test area of 10,000 square kilometres. The research group that are proceeding with this idea are Silver Lining (get it?) and they have had a bounce in the media due to a $300k contribution indirectly from Bill Gates who has provided about $4.5m to investigate climate cooling technologies.

Critics of this idea say that we shouldn’t be interfering with the weather or climate in this way as we are not certain what, if any, side-effects there will be. I am of the opinion that through industrialisation and economic growth we have already interfered with the climate and are seeing significant changes in the world’s weather patterns. This project should be considered as an effort to halt or even reverse this damage. In addition, unlike other more ambitious geoengineering projects, these ships can be simply turned off and their effects would vanish within a day or two. So I think there is very little danger of irrevocably damaging the climate.

At the very least it is refreshing to hear about a project that offers hope of a solution and actually has some chance of practical application.

Source articles:
http://inhabitat.com/2010/05/10/bill-gates-announces-funding-for-seawater-spraying-cloud-machines/
http://news.globaltv.com/world/Plans+cool+planet+heat+geoengineering+debate/3014922/story.html

Autonomous car sliding into parking space

Knight Rider lives! I wish my car could do this…

BMW version is better though…

Can park better than you too…

Apple whinge

Wet iPhone

I have an iPhone 3G which I bought a year ago and it’s safe to say I love it dearly and can’t live without it. I am also extremely careful with it even to the extent of always having a napkin on my desk for it to rest on so that it doesn’t get scratched. Anally retentive you ask? Mais oui.

Recently though, the battery performance had become steadily worse to the point a few weeks back when it reached the point of being “officially crap”. So, given that is still under warranty and the official specs say standby time of 300 hours compared with the 5 hours I was actually getting, I thought it was worth trying for a warranty replacement.

I gave the phone to Mobistar, the retailer I bought it from, and they sent it away to the Apple designated repairer, Dynafix. I was quietly confident given the pristine condition of my phone and the truly crappy battery life. However, a couple of days later I was dumbfounded to receive notification that my phone warranty was void due to water damage. Water damage?! My phone had never been anywhere near water unless you count the sweat from my hand when holding it on a warm day (and no, I don’t sweat that much!).

Accordingly I replied with dissatisfaction and requested a second assessment and explanation as to how my iPhone could be water-damaged when it has never been wet. Some days later I received the same standard un-thinking reply – water damaged, warranty void. I was offered the options of purchasing a replacement (non-current model) 3G for 385€ (US$500), having it returned unrepaired, or (kindly I thought) they would dispose of my phone in an environmentally friendly way.

I was feeling distinctly litigious at this point and I replied confirming they should send it back unrepaired and also requesting contact details of Apple so I could make a formal complaint about how, if my phone really is water-damaged, it is not fit for purpose. A week later my phone was returned to Mobistar and I, tellingly, received no reply to my email. I’ve just sent them another email strongly requesting they provide a channel for complaint. I’m always very suspicious of companies that will only provide email contact details and no phone numbers so you can’t yell at them!

My phone is functioning as it was when I sent it, perfectly normally yet briefly due to impaired battery life. I am planning to replace it myself as there are several places where you can purchase fresh batteries. I’m hoping this will actually solve the problem.

Of course, during this saga (why is everything in my life a saga…?) I consulted the Oracle (Google) on whether there were any other cases of battery failure being blamed on water damage. It seems there are… thousands. Including lawsuits (in the US) and general whingeing everywhere else. I am not alone! I guess there is not a lot I can do about it although I do intend to continue emailing Dynafix every day for the rest of my life until they reply. Can I automate that? I will report back on the success or otherwise of my iPhone surgery once I have the new battery. For now I just have charging points available everywhere – desk at work, desk at home, car, and next to bed…

I’d like to say that I now hate Apple and I’ll never buy another Apple product and I did actually tell Mobistar and Dynafix that in a moment of petulance, but I was lying. I still find my iPhone incredibly useful and I’m looking forward to the next enhanced generation with excitement. Let’s just hope it doesn’t leak as much.