Sunday, February 27, 2011

MIT Creates New Energy Source

artist's rendition of a carbon nanotube
This is some pretty exciting news. It seems that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most prestigious science and engineering schools in the United States, has created a new energy source -- and it's clean and renewable. The odd thing is that the only way you can see this energy source is with a very powerful microscope, because it is created by using nanotechnology.

For a few years now, we have been hearing about the possibilities offered by the new field of nanotechnology. Now it looks like the first usable breakthrough has been accomplished. MIT has devised a process to generate electricity using nanotechnology. And this new process may soon revolutionize batteries for all kind of devices.

The researchers built tiny wires out of carbon nanotubes. Then they coated these wires with a fuel and discovered it generated electricity -- a lot of electricity considering its tiny size. They believe they will be able to use this technology to create batteries at least 10 times smaller than current batteries, but produce the same amount of electricity.

The nanotechnology batteries will have a couple of other advantages over current batteries. First, they will not lose power while sitting and not being used (as you probably know, current batteries can lose their charge even if they are not being used). This will result in a huge energy savings.

Second, these batteries are non-toxic since they are made of carbon. Current batteries are made from very toxic heavy metals like lead, nickel and cadmium, and must be disposed of very carefully. The carbon nanotechnology batteries can simply be burned and produce no toxic fumes or waste.

Computers, cell phones and other electronic devices will be the first to benefit from the nanotechnology batteries. This is a marvelous breakthrough, and I hope it's not too long before the new nano-batteries hit the market.

Friday, February 25, 2011

CHEVRON Finally Found Guilty of Rainforest Destruction

Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network just announced a major victory for the Amazon rainforest. An Ecuadorean judge today found Chevron guilty of one of the largest environmental crimes in history and ordered the company to pay a whopping $8 billion to clean up its damage in the Amazon. 

Chevron immediately issued a statement condemning the judgment as "illegitimate and unenforceable" and announced plans to appeal.  This ruling clearly has Chevron riled up, as the statement suggests the ruling is "the product of fraud" and included this ominous line: "Chevron intends to see that the perpetrators of this fraud are held accountable for their misconduct."

Chevron apparently fails to see the irony of the phrase "held accountable for their misconduct" since today was a major slapdown of the company's destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

AmazonWatch and Rainforest Action Network have released the following statement in response to the verdict:
“As of today, Chevron’s guilt for extensive oil contamination in the Amazon rainforest is official. It is time Chevron takes responsibility for these environmental and public health damages, which they have fought for the past 18 years.

“Today’s ruling in Ecuador against Chevron proves overwhelmingly that the oil giant is responsible for billions gallons of highly toxic waste sludge deliberately dumped into local streams and rivers, which thousands depend on for drinking, bathing, and fishing.

“Chevron has spent the last 18 years waging unprecedented public relations and lobbying campaigns to avoid cleaning up the environmental and public health catastrophe it left in the Amazon rainforest. Today’s guilty verdict sends a loud and clear message: It is time Chevron clean up its disastrous mess in Ecuador.

“Today’s case is historic and unprecedented. It is the first time Indigenous people have sued a multinational corporation in the country where the crime was committed and won.

“Today’s historic ruling against Chevron is a testament to the strength of the Ecuadorian people who have spent 18 years bringing Chevron to justice while suffering the effects of the company’s extensive oil contamination.”
From 1964 to 1990 Chevron (formerly Texaco) operated a large oil concession in the northeastern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, reaping billions of dollars in profits before pulling out of Ecuador in 1992.

Chevron has admitted during the long-running trial in both US and Ecuadorian courts that it created a system of oil extraction that led to the deliberate discharge of approximately 18 billion gallons of chemical-laden "water of formation" into the streams and rivers of Ecuador's Amazon, home to six indigenous groups.

Over the course of more than two decades of operations, Chevron abandoned more than 900 unlined waste pits gouged out of the jungle floor that leech toxins into soils and streams; contaminated the air by burning the waste pits; dumped oil along roads; and spilled millions of gallons of pure crude from ruptured pipelines. Internal company documents demonstrate that Chevron officials ordered field workers to destroy records of oil spills. The company refused to develop an environmental response plan or pipeline maintenance program, and Chevron never conducted a single health evaluation or environmental impact study despite the obvious harm it was causing.

Small Steps to a Greener Future

We all want to do our part in reducing carbon emissions and saving money on the cost of daily living. Below is a short list of small steps we can all take to help realize these goals.

Rechargeable batteries. They have lower total cost of use and environmental impact than disposable batteries and are available in the same sizes as disposable types. Rechargeable batteries have higher initial cost, but can be recharged very cheaply and used many times. Disposable batteries leach toxic chemicals into the ground. A solution for what to do with used batteries – AAA, AA, C, D, watch, button, hearing aid, or car battery – can be found at Environment, Health and Safety Online.

solar bag charger
Solar-powered chargers. For those devices that don't use conventional batteries - cell phone, MP3 player and other portable devices - there are portable solar chargers in many shapes and sizes. Solar bag chargers and solar clothing chargers are now available. Also, if you feel inclined you can make your own solar chargers. The website Instructables shows step by step instructions on how to do so for iPad/iPhones but you can make them for any device.

Solar-powered LED flashlights. With solar cells for power and the brightness of low-energy LED bulbs these flashlights will outlast any conventional flashlight. Perfect for use in emergency situations. I keep one my car’s emergency pack in the trunk, two in the house and one for each person when we are out camping.

Home appliances have come a long way in energy savings with the ENERGY STAR-qualification program. Opting for these appliances will help reduce energy costs and greenhouse emissions by cutting down on energy production. Plus, many energy-star appliances offer tax credits.

Heating and Air Conditioning As much as half of the energy used in your home goes to heating and cooling so installing a programmable thermostat will save energy here as well.

Taking these small, individual steps will make a big difference in reducing carbon emissions and lead us into a greener future.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Produce Prices Expected to Skyrocket

The recent freeze in Northern Mexico and Southwestern U.S. is going to cost everyone at the supermarket. It is being called the worst freeze in 60 years, and it wiped out entire crops.

Peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, asparagus, the entire asparagus crop has been wiped out. Roma tomatoes have more than doubled in price since Thursday and very soon they may not be available at all.

Next week, lettuce and spinach prices are expected to rise.  Normal prices likely won't return until new crops in Mexico start producing again in late March and early April.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Does the soil cleanse wastewater well enough to use on food crops?

Using waste water on food crops in developed nations is something very few people do. Besides the ‘ick’ factor and prospect of poisoning ourselves with viral diseases, the smell is usually enough to keep us from doing it. Our government does do a fairly good job of treating our waste water so that contaminated food does not end up in supermarkets, farmers markets, etc. It’s the handling of food after treatment is where the issue of food safety is problematic.

But in developing nations, recent findings by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) found that 85% of cities discharged the water without any appropriate treatment. The root of the problem is pretty basic, cities are growing faster than waste water treatment plants can be built. In the conversion from a farming based society to an urban one, More and more farms are going to be needed to feed those people who don’t raise their own food. Since the flow of water is being directed more and more towards cities, those people who remain on farmland are being faced with waste water as their only water source.

A study, based on case studies from 53 cities in developing nations, examined where waste water was being generated, how much was being used in urban agriculture, and to what degree the water was being treated. "We know that there is an informal sector within many cities that is using [waste water] to grow vegetables, but there has been no data on how much of this water was being used or what the risks were," explained IWMI director general Colin Chartres.

The study’s authors highlighted a number of benefits of using wastewater to irrigate crops such as allowing food production in places where there was a lack of water, or where no alternative clean water sources were available, it also recycles nutrients, meaning that farmers did not have to buy expensive fertilizers.

The environmental benefit is that if the water just went straight into a river, it would cause a lot more eutrophication problems further downstream by increasing plant growth in lakes and streams that then die off and depletes the oxygen supply leading to the death of fish and other aquatic life. See ‘Dead Zones’ for an extreme example of this.

The real issue here is whether or not pouring waste water onto the soil surrounding food crops is healthy. Does the soil act as an effective filter to keep harmful human-based, disease-causing organism out of the food supply?

Allowing waste water to settle in a pond is a good sound alternative to chemically treating waste water and can therefore produce usable water. It still may not be clean enough to drink but for food crops I would say go for it. When the crop is harvested it stills needs to be washed with fresh, clean water. But if you don’t have access to fresh, clean water what are you to do?
 settle in a pond

Currently, farmers in developing nations conduct a smell test or a taste test and if the water tastes too foul or smells too bad, then they won't use it to irrigate their crops. Relying on smell and taste is not good enough.

IWMI is focusing on wetlands and pipelines to turn the tide on waste water usage in developing nations.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


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Energy Department Awards Contracts to Bring Cost of Solar Down

Energy secretary, Steven Chu, has been tirelessly working toward fulfilling President Obama’s priority of weaning America from dependence on fossil fuels. The success or failure of this effort depends heavily on America’s ability to bring the cost of solar energy in-line with the costs of electricity from fossil fuels. In his attempt to reach this goal, the Energy Department’s “SunShot” initiative has awarded $27 million to nine new solar projects.

Dr. Chu notes that solar companies have made strong progress in cutting the price of solar panels used in photovoltaic systems, but that this cut is not enough. The installed cost per watt is now about $4 and the panel is less than half of that, but if the panel became free, the rest of the system would still be far too expensive.

The department said it had spent $1 billion on solar in the last 10 years, and it took partial credit for the price of solar power falling 60 percent since 1995.