Friday, October 24, 2008

World’s Largest Algae Biofuel Initiative

Written by Jerry James Stone

Great Britain hopes that algae-based biofuels can reduce automotive and aviation emissions by 2030, and cut overall emissions by 80% by 2050.

votesBuzz up!While food-based biofuels are taking the heat for rising food prices, other solutions - like algae - are gaining a more serious following. For example, the UK’s Carbon Trust has announced plans for a project to make algae bio-fuels a commercial reality by the year 2020

But the situation is much more than some “food vs fuel” finger pointing. The fact that transport accounts for one-quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions is major driving factor - pun intended: it’s also the fastest growing cause of carbon emissions in the UK. If the government’s target to reduce overall emissions by 80% by 2050 is to be met, then initiatives like this are crucial.

The UK isn’t the first country to try such a monumental undertaking. There have been major efforts in the past to develop algal biofuels on a commerical scale. Multilmillion-dollar projects funded by the US government during the 1980s found high biomass yields were definitely possible. The research fizzled out when no one found a way to make the product commercially competitive with the low petro prices for that era. One word - FAIL!

Large scale programs were also tried in Japan, but also to no avail.

The Carbon Trust forecasts that algae-based biofuels could replace more than 70 billion litres of oil every year. They hope to have the initiative in full effect by 2030. In carbon terms, this equates to an annual savings of more than 160m tonnes of CO2 globally!

The first stages of the project include investing in British companies involved in promising algae research.

“You can make algae with a very high oil content and you can make algae that grows very quickly and, at the moment, no one can do both,” said Robert Trezona, R&D director at the Carbon Trust.

It will take a multitude of approaches to fully realize the potential of algae. “There are many more different algae species than there are higher plant species so each algae will require specific effort. Each one will have its own peculiar requirements to figure out how to make them productive, how to get the right strains, how to harvest and process them. We cannot just depend on one or two companies.”

The second phase of the project starts around a year later and involves scaling up the algae-growing operation. The Carbon Trust will build multi-hectare open ponds to act as laboratories for the most promising algae technologies identified from the previous stage. Due to the UK’s gloomy weather, these will most likely be built abroad. This phase of the project could see the Carbon Trust, and interested partners from industry, investing up to £20m.

“If you I’ve got 12 months a year of warmth and sunshine, your algae farm just produces much more biomass. In a world where costs will be important, UK algae farms would have a real problem,” said Trezona.

Mark Williamson, innovations director at the Carbon Trust, said: “We must find a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to oil for our cars and planes if we are to deliver the deep cuts in carbon emissions necessary to tackle climate change. Algae could provide a significant part of the answer and represents a multibillion-pound opportunity.”

So no need to burn your autos just yet, folks. Well…unless of course McCain wins. I don’t think even algae can save us from Sarah Palin’s energy expertise.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Organic farming 'could feed Africa'

Traditional practices increase yield by 128 per cent in east Africa, says UN

By Daniel Howden in Nairobi

New evidence suggests that organic practices - derided by some as a Western lifestyle fad - are delivering sharp increases in yields, improvements in the soil and a boost in the income of Africa's small farmers

Organic farming offers Africa the best chance of breaking the cycle of poverty and malnutrition it has been locked in for decades, according to a major study from the United Nations to be presented today.

New evidence suggests that organic practices – derided by some as a Western lifestyle fad – are delivering sharp increases in yields, improvements in the soil and a boost in the income of Africa's small farmers who remain among the poorest people on earth. The head of the UN's Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, said the report "indicates that the potential contribution of organic farming to feeding the world maybe far higher than many had supposed".

The "green revolution" in agriculture in the 1960s – when the production of food caught and surpassed the needs of the global population for the first time – largely bypassed Africa. Whereas each person today has 25 per cent more food on average than they did in 1960, in Africa they have 10 per cent less.

A combination of increasing population, decreasing rainfall and soil fertility and a surge in food prices has left Africa uniquely vulnerable to famine. Climate change is expected to make a bad situation worse by increasing the frequency of droughts and floods.

It has been conventional wisdom among African governments that modern, mechanised agriculture was needed to close the gap but efforts in this direction have had little impact on food poverty and done nothing to create a sustainable approach. Now, the global food crisis has led to renewed calls for a massive modernisation of agriculture on the hungriest continent on the planet, with calls to push ahead with genetically modified crops and large industrial farms to avoid potentially disastrous starvation.

Last month the UK's former chief scientist Sir David King said anti-scientific attitudes among Western NGOs and the UN were responsible for holding back a much-needed green revolution in Africa. "The problem is that the Western world's move toward organic farming – a lifestyle choice for a community with surplus food – and against agricultural technology in general and GM in particular, has been adopted across the whole of Africa, with the exception of South Africa, with devastating consequences," he said.

The research conducted by the UN Environment Programme suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it.

An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa.

"Organic farming can often lead to polarised views," said Mr Steiner, a former economist. "With some viewing it as a saviour and others as a niche product or something of a luxury... this report suggests it could make a serious contribution to tackling poverty and food insecurity."

The study found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. It also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought. And the research highlighted the role that learning organic practices could have in improving local education. Backers of GM foods insist that a technological fix is needed to feed the world. But this form of agriculture requires cash to buy the patented seeds and herbicides – both at record high prices currently – needed to grow GM crops.

Regional farming experts have long called for "good farming", rather than exclusively GM or organic. Better seeds, crop rotation, irrigation and access to markets all help farmers. Organic certification in countries such as the UK and Australia still presents an insurmountable barrier to most African exporters, the report points out. It calls for greater access to markets so farmers can get the best prices for their products.

Kenyan farmer: 'I wanted to see how UK did it'

Henry Murage had to travel a long way to solve problems trying to farm a smallholding on the western slopes of Mount Kenya. He spent five months in the UK, studying with the experts at Garden Organic a charity in the Midlands. "I wanted to see how it was being done in the UK and was convinced we could do some of the same things here," he says.

On his return 10 years ago, he set up the Mt Kenya Organic Farm, aimed at aiding other small farmers fighting the semi-arid conditions. He believes organic soil management can help retain moisture and protect against crop failure. The true test came during the devastating drought of2000-02, when Mr Murage's vegetable gardens fared better than his neighbours'. At least 300 farmers have visited his gardens and taken up at least one of the practices he espouses. "Organic can feed the people in rural areas," he says. "It's sustainable and what we produce now we can go on producing."

Saving money on fertilisers and pesticides helps farmers afford better seeds, and composting and crop rotation are improving the soil. Traditional maize, beans and livestock farming in the area have been supplemented with new crops from borage seeds to cayenne peppers and honey, with buyers from the US to Europe. Now he is growing camomile for herbal tea, with buyers from the UK and Germany both interested.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


SOLAR REFRIGERATION: The sun can be used to power refrigerators rather than the electrical compressors common today.

Fishermen in the village of Maruata, which is located on the Mexican Pacific coast 18 degrees north of the equator, have no electricity. But for the past 16 years they have been able to store their fish on ice: Seven ice makers, powered by nothing but the scorching sun, churn out a half ton of ice every day.

There's a global scramble to drive down emissions of carbon dioxide: the electricity to power just refrigerators in the U.S. contributes 102 million tons annually. Solar refrigeration can also be inexpensive and it would give the electric grid much-needed relief. Electricity demand peaks on hot summer days—150 gigawatts more in summer than winter in the U.S. (A gigawatt equals on billion watts.) That's almost 1.5 times the generating capacity of all the coal-fired power plants west of the Mississippi River. Further, solar is plentiful. The solar energy hitting 54 square feet (five square meters) of land each year is the equivalent of all the electricity used by one American household, according to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Energy Information Administration, both part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Making cold out of hot is easier than one might think. A group of students last year at San Jose State University built a solar-powered ice maker with $100 worth of plumbing and a four-by-eight-foot (1.2-by-2.4-meter) sheet of reflecting steel. No moving parts, no electricity but give it a couple hours of sunshine and it can make a large bag of ice.

The key is the energy exchanged when liquids turn to vapor and vice versa—the process that cools you when you sweat. By far the most common approach, the one used by the refrigerator in your house, uses an electric motor to compress a refrigerant—say, Freon—turning it into liquid. When the pressure created by the compressor is released, the liquid evaporates, absorbing heat and lowering the temperature.

Absorptive chillers like solar refrigerators use a heat source rather than a compressor to change the refrigerant from vapor to liquid. The two most common combinations are water mixed with either lithium bromide or ammonia. In each case, the refrigerating gas is absorbed until heat is applied, which raises the temperature and pressure. At higher pressure, the refrigerant condenses into liquid. Turning off the heat lowers the pressure, causing that liquid to evaporate back into a gas, thereby creating the cooling effect.

As with most technologies, the efficiency of such absorptive refrigeration depends on the degree of engineering (and expense) brought to bear. Single-effect devices have a coefficient of performance of 0.6 to 0.7—that is, they create 60 to 70 Btus (British thermal units) of cooling for every 100 Btus of input heat. That low level of efficiency can be achieved with something as crude as some pipe, a bucket of water, some calcium chloride (as absorbant), ammonia (as refrigerant), and a sheet of shiny metal (the solar collector).

If what you want to do is heat or cool, using solar energy this way is probably more efficient—and certainly cheaper—than converting it first into electricity. "That approach ought to be comparable to photovoltaics, or a little better," said Tom Mancini, program manager for solar power at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.

It would take a fair-size collector—86 square feet (eight square meters), assuming 40 percent panel efficiency—just to deliver the cooling of a small (6,000 Btu per hour or half-ton) window air conditioner. And central air-conditioning units are often 30,000 Btu or more; few homeowners could spare the space for that.

But concerns over collector area depend on location. In the developing world, solar powered ice makers allow locals to store the village's food or medicine without any electricity. For example, in May charitable organization, Heifer International, set up three solar ice makers in remote areas of Kenya. Each will be able to keep 26.5 gallons (100 liters) of milk chilled. More than 500 members of two dairy cooperatives are expected to benefit directly.

Monday, October 20, 2008

every color of the rainbow

Scientists have created a new material that could dramatically increase the efficiency of solar cells, by literally capturing every color of the rainbow.

Whereas other materials only catch a small range of light frequencies, and therefore only a small fraction of the potential energy, the new invention is capable of absorbing all the energy contained in sunlight. According to team leader, Prof. Malcolm Chisolm, “There are other such hybrids out there, but the advantage of our material is that we can cover the entire range of the solar spectrum.”

The discovery, made by an elite team at Ohio State University, opens the door to the development of a new generation of hyper-efficient solar cells. Although at this point the material is said to be some years from commercial development, the university has enough confidence in its potential to commit a large slice of its $100 million ‘high impact’ research budget to the research team over the next five years.

Such long-term investment lends a great deal of credibility to the project, and is likely to increase the chances of the invention moving from the laboratory towards commercial development.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


The case for fuel- and energy-efficient vehicles gets more compelling every year, and the two most popular stories this week both focused on new ways of getting more out of existing technology. One story focused on how two companies were managing to burn less fuel with diesel engines by figuring out ways of ensuring they never get switched on in the first place.

Planetary science took center stage in upstate New York this week, as the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences held its annual meeting. Ars had a correspondent on hand, and he provided reports on some of the planetary happenings, including a discussion of how gravity fuels the geysers of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons.

Publishing drives the dissemination of scientific information, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a flawless system. One analysis of the publishing system, which suggested that the current system results in a systematic over-hyping of high-profile results (called a "winner's curse") appeared in the news section. Meanwhile, our own Chris Lee shared his thoughts on the scientific content of high-profile publications and concluded that, in some ways, they're less useful than their lower-profile peers.

Biology provided us with a couple of surprises this week. It turns out that ripe bananas don't only turn yellow; they glow blue. The ripening process results in a chlorophyll derivative that emits blue light when exposed to UV. Those of you with a black light are undoubtedly running off to check this.

Image © Wiley. Deep in a South African mine, researchers have discovered what's really involved in living on the edge. So few nutrients are available that only a single species can hack it. Despite the tough environment, the organism has a large genome and a full complement of genes, simply because it needs them all to make it in the prevailing conditions.

Some of the other highlights from the week:

Most young stars are surrounded by rings of dust. Researchers have now modeled what a planet lurking in that dust would look like.
More gecko-tech: a carbon nanotube-based gecko mimic is so resistant to shear forces that a 4mm square patch can support a bottle of Coke.
A new reactive metal coating will release chemicals that block corrosion when it gets damaged.
Science sees a Japanese import: manga comics that teach math and science are being translated for sale to the US audience.
Check out Nobel Intent for your fix of the latest science news.

HVAC boot cleared of Asbestos in Los Angeles