Category Archives: Infrastructure

How to make green steel

CultureLab: How to make steel go green – with songs!.

Michael Marshall, environment reporter

greensteel2.jpg

This is something you don’t see every day: a substantial, carefully-researched book on how to reform our manufacturing industries, paired with an album of songs on the same theme.

Let’s start with the book. Sustainable Materials: With Both Eyes Open tackles a particularly thorny question: how can we cut our greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level, without shutting down essential industries? It focuses on steel and aluminium, which between them account for 28 per cent of all industrial emissions, although later chapters briefly consider cement, paper and plastics as well.

This is a follow-up book to David MacKay’s much-vaunted Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. Both feature academics from the University of Cambridge carefully working out how we can transform an emissions-heavy sector of the economy.

The eight authors, led by Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen, first take a close look at how steel and aluminium are produced from their respective ores, asking “how much can the metals industry do to clean up its act?” The answer they come up with: “plenty, but nowhere near enough”.

So they take a second approach, asking whether we can redesign the things we make to use less metal, use them for longer, and recycle their components when they wear out. This also offer plenty of options. Reassuringly, when the two approaches are combined the total emissions cuts are substantial.

 

Some of the ideas they come up with are so simple, I wondered why no one thought of them before. For instance, the average fridge lasts about 10 years, and gets thrown out when the compressor fails. This is a small part, but it takes a lot of work to replace so it’s cheaper to buy a new fridge. If fridges were redesigned so that the compressor was easy to replace, they would last far longer. “You shouldn’t have to buy two fridges in your lifetime,” they say.

Of course, this is another example of a solution for climate change that involves huge numbers of people taking concerted action. The problem is people’s disinclination to get off their backsides.

It’s quite a technical book, so it may not have much popular appeal, despite its nicely chatty style. But for policy-makers trying to cut emissions, and anyone in manufacturing, it should be required reading.

And so to the album, a collaboration between Allwood and soprano Adey Grummet, which is much better than it has any right to be. Worthy music on eco-conscious themes can sound like Spinal Tap’s Listen to the Flower People, but With Both Eyes Open actually contains a couple of good tunes.

The strongest songs get away from the details of materials science and become universal. The opening track, You Gotta Start, is an up-tempo number extolling the virtues of having a go, even when you don’t know exactly what you need to do. It’s not just about sustainability.

Similarly, the title track is a passionate call to arms, urging people to move away from blind consumerism. The closing line – “the stuff of life is life and not just stuff” – is better and more relevant than anything Coldplay will write next year.

Given how specialist the subject matter is, I’m not sure how many people the album will really appeal to. Of the 12 songs, I only expect to keep the two I’ve highlighted on my MP3 player. Unfortunately, the rest just restate ideas from the book in a slightly less clear way.

I worry that the album will give people, particularly policy-makers, the impression that the book is somehow flaky and not worth paying attention to. That would be a crying shame, because the book’s lessons are clear, well-supported, and vital.

Book information
Sustainable Materials: With Both Eyes Open
by Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen
UIT Cambridge
Free online or £31.82

Thailand: Super-canal may prevent floods

Thailand: Super-canal may prevent floods – CNN.

Thai authorities are considering the construction of a super-express waterway through Bangkok to prevent future floods similar to the one that has crippled the Thai capital and brought manufacturing in other parts of the country to a standstill.

A team of disaster experts from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok is now investigating permanent solutions to the disaster that has left hundreds dead.

“One of the urgent solutions is a super-express floodway,” Thanawat Jarupongsakul, from the university’s Unit for Disaster and Land Information Studies, told the Bangkok Post.

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Under the plan, existing natural canals — some of them more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) long — would be linked in a 200-km “super-highway” that would divert the course of floodwaters from the north.

The super-canal would hold 1.6 billion cubic meters of water and drain run-off at a rate of 6,000 cubic meters per second — the equivalent of two and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools a second.

“This idea is much cheaper than digging a new river as a floodway,” Thanawat said.

He said the proposed scheme would involve the construction of a kilometer-wide exclusion zone next to the floodway to prevent properties from being inundated, and a raised highway on both side of the canal.

The super-express floodway would then drain upstream run-off directly into the sea.

The university team is also looking at other flood-prevention measures such as a better early-warning system, improved water resource management, a flood tax, the use of a flood-risk map for urban development and groundwater-use controls.

“Now, the government must stop [trying to] solve flood problems with political methods,” Thanawat told the Bangkok Post. He said poor water management rather than excess rain had caused this year’s severe flooding, adding that natural swamps in the west of Thailand’s Central Plains, which once absorbed water flow, had been developed into industrial and residential areas, blocking the natural floodway.

While giant flood tunnels in the Bangkok metropolitan area could drain floodwater from the city, they could not cope with a massive inundation from the north.

“If there is no step forward, foreign investors will eventually disappear from the country and the next generation will be still worried whether flooding will happen or not,” he said.

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China's Hydropower

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China’s Hydropower: Scientific American.

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WATER FALL: Unusually low water levels in many Chinese rivers has contributed to a big drop in hydropower production. Image: Tomasz Dunn/Flickr

SHANGHAI — China has set ambitious goals for itself to develop hydropower to help mitigate the risks of climate change, but increasing extreme weather events likely rooted in climate change are now sabotaging the goals’ foundations.

The latest blow came in September, when many major rivers across China ran into an unusual shrinkage, with less than 20 percent water remaining at some stretches. As a result, the nation’s hydroelectric generation dropped by almost a quarter compared with last year. There has been an ever-widening decrease in power each month since July, according to a recent government statement.

As water stocks in key hydro stations decline, the regular dry season is approaching. The resulting stress on hydroelectric generation will last into next year, the statement said.

The Chinese government has yet to explain why the water flows slumped. But experts blamed it on climate change, warning of more future droughts in areas traditionally blessed with water.

If this expectation comes true, it will hamper China’s hydropower sector, which contributes most of the country’s carbon-free electricity. It will also threaten a national strategy in transmitting electricity from resource-rich western China to feed the country’s power-hungry manufacturing sector, most of which is in the east.

For Guangdong province, located on China’s east coast, this threat has already turned into a daily reality. Since its western neighbors this year failed to send as much electricity as usual, the manufacturing hub, with a capacity to produce more than half of the world’s desktops and toys, is forced to conserve electricity.

Turbines left high and dry
China Southern Power Grid, the region’s electricity distributor, attributed the energy shortage partly to the evaporation of hydropower.

As of July, on average, not even half of its installed hydropower capacity found water to turn turbines, the company’s statistics show. And several major hydro stations, built as part of the west-to-east electricity transmission plan, failed to do their jobs.

Goupitan, the largest hydroelectric generator in Guizhou province, reportedly produced only 10 percent of its normal output per day, due to shrinking water flows. And in another hydro station called Longtan, located in the Guangxi region, this year’s missing rain dropped its reservoir’s water level to a point dozens of meters lower than previous years.

“This will definitely negatively affect our hydroelectric production from now to next summer,” said Li Yanguang, who is in charge of public relations in the power station. Asked whether next summer — a regular rainy season — could make the situation better, Li answered in a cautious tone.

“This totally depends on weather,” he said. “We can’t predict that.”

Hydro growth plan sticks despite falling power output
But Lin Boqiang, one of China’s leading energy experts, is confident that the nation’s hydroelectric generation may just go in one direction: getting worse.

“If climate change caused this year’s water flow decreases, which I think it did, and then its impact [on rivers] will be a long term. It will take a toll on China’s hydroelectric output, and also push up the cost of using it,” explained Lin, who directs the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.

But still, from Lin’s point of view, such setbacks can’t compete with the Chinese desire for tapping more water power. China, already the world’s largest hydropower user, plans to add another 120 gigawatts by 2015 — a crucial step toward greening 15 percent of its power mix by the end of the decade.

Yang Fuqiang, a senior climate and energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that China’s hydropower plan will stand, though not primarily for energy supply concerns.

Although a climate-resilient approach is factored into the designs of hydro projects, China is still likely to suffer from hydroelectric output decline, says Yang. But the nation can seek more clean energy from the sun or wind, which won’t be affected by climate change, and get the electricity generated elsewhere via a smart grid, he said, referring to an advanced transmission infrastructure China has been building.

So what’s the point of keeping hydro?

“In the future, the importance of hydro projects won’t be on power generation, but on water management,” Yang explained. “It helps control floods, ensure ships transportation and reserve water — a function that [water-scarce] China needs badly.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

Will the Thailand floods drown the hard drive?

Will the Thailand floods drown the hard drive? | ExtremeTech.

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There’s fresh news on the imminent hard drive shortages the IT industry is facing, and it isn’t particularly good. Asus’s CFO, David Chang, has warned that the company’s supplies of HDDs will run out by the end of November.

“Substitutes for HDD are very few, so if the situation persists, not only notebook production will be affected but also desktops, and other component shipments will also drop,” Chang told Reuters. Retail prices on HDDs are already skyrocketing. The 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3?s price has risen to $79 at Newegg, up from $69 not two weeks ago. It’s now the only 1TB drive south of a Benjamin. WD’s Caviar Green series is now up to $109 with high performance drives like the Caviar Black all the way back to $169 for a 1TB model.

Hitachi’s Deskstar 7K3000, which debuted this spring at $180 for a 3TB drive, is now selling on Newegg for a cool $399. Consumer prices are being driven by speculation, though its impossible to say if Newegg or the drive manufacturers themselves are responsible. Between the two, Newegg seems the more likely suspect. Raising HDD prices immediately may win the HDD manufacturers greater profits in the short term, but it erodes the crucial cost/GB ratio between HDDs and SSDs. Even at current retail prices, there’s still no real subsitute for a hard drive. At a certain point, however, customers will stop preferring large capacity drives at purchase, and begin opting for smaller SSDs, possibly with plans to pick up a USB 3.0-powered external once HDD prices fall again.

WD Factory, Thailed

The best way to keep that from happening is for the HDD manufacturers to keep as tight a reign on OEM costs as possible. Thus far, the price spikes here have been more modest; Asus reports jumps of 20-40 percent on certain models. Drive sourcing could become a major problem in the months to come as this type of shortage provides explosively fertile ground for a gray market in HDDs and HDD components. OEMs on razor-thin margins are going to be under enormous pressure to keep costs low, and aren’t likely to ask too many questions when it comes to securing drives.

Thailand, meanwhile, has no quick relief to offer. The government has stated that it hopes to have factories up and running again in three months, though it will take still more time for swamped industrial complexes to return to full output.

Download Full Movie Power Rangers (2017) English Subtitle

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Space Junk Collision Could Set Off Catastrophic Chain Reaction, Disable Earth Communications

Pentagon: A Space Junk Collision Could Set Off Catastrophic Chain Reaction, Disable Earth Communications | Popular Science.

 

Orbital Debris The dots on this NASA-generated chart represent known pieces of large orbital debris. NASA

Every now and again someone raises a stern warning about the amount of space junk orbiting Earth. Those warnings are usually met with general indifference, as very few of us own satellites or travel regularly to low Earth orbit. But the DoD’s assessment of the space junk problem finds that perhaps we should be paying attention: space junk has reached a critical tipping point that could result in a cataclysmic chain reaction that brings everyday life on Earth to a grinding halt.

Our reliance on satellites goes beyond the obvious. We depend on them for television signals, the evening weather report, and to find our houses on Google Earth when we’re bored at work. But behind the scenes, they also inform our warfighting capabilities, keep track of the global shipping networks that keep our economies humming, and help us get to the places we need to get to via GPS.

According to the DoD’s interim Space Posture Review, that could all come crashing down. Literally. Our satellites are sorely outnumbered by space debris, to the tune of 370,000 pieces of junk up there versus 1,100 satellites. That junk ranges from nuts and bolts lost during spacewalks to pieces of older satellites to whole satellites that no longer function, and it’s all whipping around the Earth at a rate of about 4.8 miles per second.

The fear is that with so much junk already up there, a collision is numerically probable at some point. Two large pieces of junk colliding could theoretically send thousands more potential satellite killers into orbit, and those could in turn collide with other pieces of junk or with satellites, unleashing another swarm of debris. You get the idea.

To give an idea of how quickly a chain reaction could get out hand consider this: in February of last year a defunct Russian satellite collided with a communications satellite, turning 2 orbiting craft into 1,500 pieces of junk. The Chinese missile test that obliterated a satellite in 2007 spawned 100 times more than that, scattering 150,000 pieces of debris.

If a chain reaction got out of control up there, it could very quickly sever our communications, our GPS system (upon which the U.S. military heavily relies), and cripple the global economy (not to mention destroy the $250 billion space services industry), and whole orbits could be rendered unusable, potentially making some places on Earth technological dead zones.

What does 7 Billion People Mean?

Making Sense of 7 Billion People | Wired Science | Wired.com.

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On the last day of October 2011, the global population of an upstart branch of the primate order will reach 7 billion.review smartphone android

What does it mean?

In itself, not much: Seven billion is just a one-digit flicker from 6,999,999,999. But the number carries a deep existential weight, symbolizing themes central to humanity’s relationship with the rest of life on Earth.

For context, let’s consider a few other numbers. The first: 10,000. That’s approximately how many Homo sapiens existed 200,000 years ago, the date at which scientists mark the divergence of our species from the rest of Homo genus, of which we are the sole survivors.

From those humble origins, humans — thanks to our smarts, long-distance running skills, verbal ability and skill with plants — proliferated at an almost inconceivable rate.

 

Some may note that, in a big-picture biological sense, humanity has rivals: In total biomass, ants weigh as much as we do, oceanic krill weigh more than both of us combined, and bacteria dwarf us all. Those are interesting factoids, but they belie a larger point.

We are the .00018 percent, and we use 20 percent.

Ants and krill and bacteria occupy an entirely different ecological level. A more appropriate comparison can be made between humans and other apex predators, which is precisely the ecological role humans evolved to play, and which — beneath our civilized veneer — we still are.

According to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, there are about 1.7 million other top-level, land-dwelling, mammalian predators on Earth. Put another way: For every non-human mammal sharing our niche, there are more than 4,000 of us.

In short, humans are Earth’s great omnivore, and our omnivorous nature can only be understood at global scales. Scientists estimate that 83 percent of the terrestrial biosphere is under direct human influence. Crops cover some 12 percent of Earth’s land surface, and account for more than one-third of terrestrial biomass. One-third of all available fresh water is diverted to human use.

Altogether, roughly 20 percent of Earth’s net terrestrial primary production, the sheer volume of life produced on land on this planet every year, is harvested for human purposes — and, to return to the comparative factoids, it’s all for a species that accounts for .00018 percent of Earth’s non-marine biomass.

We are the .00018 percent, and we use 20 percent. The purpose of that number isn’t to induce guilt, or blame humanity. The point of that number is perspective. At this snapshot in life’s history, at — per the insights of James C. Rettie, who imagined life on Earth as a yearlong movie — a few minutes after 11:45 p.m. on December 31, we are big. Very big.

However, it must be noted that, as we’ve become big, much of life had to get out of the way. When modern Homo sapiens started scrambling out of East Africa, the average extinction rate of other mammals was, in scientific terms, one per million species years. It’s 100 times that now, a number that threatens to make non-human life on Earth collapse.

In regard to that number, environmentalists usually say that humanity’s fate depends on the life around us. That’s debatable. Humans are adaptable and perfectly capable of living in squalor, without clean air or clean water or birds in the trees. If not, there wouldn’t be 7 billion of us. Conservation is a moral question, and probably not a utilitarian imperative.

But the fact remains that, for all of humanity to experience a material standard of living now enjoyed by a tiny fraction, we’d need four more Earths. It’s just not possible. And that, in the end, is the significance of 7 billion. It’s a challenge.

In just a few minutes of evolutionary time, humanity has become a force to be measured in terms of the entirety of life itself. How do we, the God species, want to live? For the answer, check back at 8 billion.

High-Tech Hydroponic Farm Transforms Abandoned Bowling Alley

High-Tech Hydroponic Farm Transforms Abandoned Bowling Alley | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Gotham Greens

NEW YORK CITY — On top of an old bowling alley in industrial northern Brooklyn sits an expansive translucent greenhouse. Inside, a bounty of produce thrives under the supervision of a computer-controlled network of sensors, motors and plumbing.

The 15,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse facility, called Gotham Greens, is reputedly the first commercial-scale urban operation of its kind in the United States. Thousands of lettuce and basil seedlings were plopped into a soil-less farming system in May. Since then, three local entrepreneurs say their operation is on track to deliver 100 tons of produce by the one-year mark.

While that pales in comparison to about 1.5 million tons of soil-free produce trucked into the city each year, and is far less than the output of nearby soil rooftop farms, the $2 million startup can’t keep up with demand from the city’s top chefs and upscale grocery stores.

“On the first harvest day we had so much lettuce we almost didn’t know what to do with it all, but now we can’t grow it fast enough,” said greenhouse director Jennifer Nelkin.

Gotham Greens is already eyeing some of the the city’s more than 940 million square feet of rooftop space to expand their high-tech operation.

The hardest task, said co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri, is convincing landlords to entertain the idea of putting a watery business on their rooftops. After that it’s a matter of navigating zoning restrictions, building codes and figuring out how to engineer the plumbing.

“You can’t bury anything on a roof,” Puri said. “It requires some clever technology.”

Images: 1) Inside Gotham Greens at 810 Humboldt St. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Dave Mosher/Wired.com) 2) The outside of the greenhouse. (Copyright of Gotham Greens)

 

seedlings in basalt rock plugs

 

Plant Plugs

The greenhouse begins its work by germinating seeds of four lettuce types and one basil variety in plastic bins. Fibrous plugs, spun from a volcanic rock called basalt, draw water to the fledgling roots and provide a medium for them to grow in.

“Not just hydroponic growers use the plugs,” Nelkin said. “A lot of farmers try and get a head-start at their soil farms, usually about six weeks before they can plant, by germinating seedlings in them.”

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

irrigation system

 

Irrigating Gutters

Between 10 and 14 days after planting in the basalt plugs (above), the seeds sprout into seedlings and are ushered into hydroponic gutters (below). A series of pumps and drains constantly move nutrient-rich water through the gutters. Gotham Greens uses the nutrient film technique, which circulates a very shallow layer of water to supply roots with ample oxygen. Tight control over the nutrients and climate gives growers extreme control over their products.

“Many [hydroponic] tomatoes in the store, for example, taste like a swimming pool — and it’s too bad they’re giving hydroponics a bad name. It’s indicative of the grower, not the method,” Nelkin said. “You can really manipulate produce with hydroponics. You can choose to grow a tasteless tomato full of water, or grow the best, sweetest, juiciest tomato you’ve ever had.”

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

calcium iron micronutrient bucket

 

Produce Juice

Plants primarily need water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur to grow. Most of these  materials come from air and tap water, but some trace nutrients need to be supplemented.

Gotham Greens stores nutrient mixes in giant buckets (above). When low levels are detected by sensors or in human-collected samples, computer-controlled pumps move the fluid into a nearby lagoon. (For proprietary reasons, Wired.com was only allowed to photograph this part of the system.) From there the solution is delivered to the gutters, and runoff returns to the lagoon for recycling.

The irrigation system is less complex than those of other hydroponic greenhouses, but Nelkin said anything more would be cost-prohibitive. “For our scale, it doesn’t make practical sense to micromanage every nutrient,” she said. “We’re not that large.” Their water comes from the tap.

Image: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

weather station

 

Climate Control

Important to Gotham Greens’ farming efficiency is a computer controller that monitors environmental conditions, keeping the greenhouse climate as ideal as possible for each type of veggie.

A weather station (above) monitors outdoor conditions while a photometer (below) and other sensors help keep tabs inside.

“When it hits a certain climate, [the controller] can turn on the fans, draw the sun shades, open vents, turn on the lights, turn on the heaters and so on,” Nelkin said.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

fly paper

 

Shoo, Fly

But what of the pests found in abundance near any unprotected plant? Gotham Greens doesn’t use pesticides. They fight fire with bug-eating fire.

Colored plastic cards covered with sticky goo attract the pests, which Nelkin and others check each day. When a bothersome bug is identified, Nelkin shops online for its predator, orders it and releases hordes of them in the greenhouse.

For aphids (above), a tray of ladybugs (below) usually does the trick.

“About 1,000 ladybugs costs probably $20,” Nelkin said. “It’s more expensive than pesticides, but it works.”

Controlling other pests requires the introduction of predatory wasps.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

solar panels

 

Green Power

Intelligent, organic greenhouses require electricity for lamps, pumps, computers and more. Solar panels installed by Gotham Greens satisfy about half of the facility’s needs, roughly enough to power 12 New York City households.

“Over the summer, we generated a good amount of power,” Puri said. “We’re going to track that data so we’ll be able to say exactly how much they help per year.”

Image: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

Jennifer Nelkin and Viraj Puri

 

Co-founders

Jennifer Nelkin (above, left) and Viraj Puri dreamed up Gotham Greens in 2008 after collaborating on a greenhouse that floated on the Hudson River. They’re now spending 100 percent of their time to develop Gotham Greens along with co-founder Eric Haley.

Their local food business may cut back carbon emissions better than most farms by minimizing transportation and relying on solar energy, but Puri said their main focus is delivering good produce. “The green aspects are a great bonus, but we want to be known for the quality of our products,” he said.

After Gotham Greens’ trial year ends in 2012, the company hopes to expand its line of crops to include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, strawberries and even eggplant.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

20 Ways to Build a Cleaner, Healthier, Smarter World

World Changing Ideas: 20 Ways to Build a Cleaner, Healthier, Smarter World: Scientific American.

What would happen if solar panels were free? What if it were possible to know everything about the world—not the Internet, but the living, physical world—in real time? What if doctors could forecast a disease years before it strikes? This is the promise of the World Changing Idea: a vision so simple yet so ambitious that its full impact is impossible to predict. Scientific American’s editorial and advisory boards have chosen projects in five general categories—Energy, Transportation, Environment, Electronics and Robotics, and Health and Medicine—that highlight the power of science and technology to improve the world. Some are in use now; others are emerging from the lab. But all of them show that innovation is the most promising elixir for what ails us.  —The Editors

The No-Money-Down Solar Plan
A new wave of start-ups wants to install rooftop solar panels on your house. Upfront cost: nothing
By Christopher Mims

The biggest thing stopping the sun is money. Installing a rooftop array of solar panels large enough to produce all of the energy required by a building is the equivalent of prepaying its electricity bill for the next seven to 10 years—and that’s after federal and state incentives. A new innovation in financing, however, has opened up an additional possibility for homeowners who want to reduce their carbon footprint and lower their electric bills: get the panels for free, then pay for the power as you go.

The system works something like a home mortgage. Organizations and individuals looking for a steady return on their investment, typically banks or municipal bond holders, use a pool of cash to pay for the solar panels. Directly or indirectly, homeowners buy the electricity produced by their own rooftop at a rate that is less, per kilowatt-hour, than they would pay for electricity from the grid. Investors get a safe investment—the latest generation of solar-panel technology works dependably for years—and homeowners get a break on their monthly bills, not to mention the satisfaction of significantly reducing their carbon footprint. “This is a way to get solar without putting any money down and to start saving money from day one. That’s a first,” says SolarCity co-founder Peter Rive.

SolarCity is the largest installer of household solar panels to have adopted this strategy. Founded in 2006 by two brothers who are also Silicon Valley–based serial entrepreneurs, SolarCity leases its panels to homeowners but gives the electricity away for free. The net effect is a much reduced utility bill (customers still need utility-delivered power when the sun isn’t out) plus a monthly SolarCity bill. The total for both comes out to less than the old bill. SunRun in San Francisco offers consumers a similar package, except that the company sells customers the electricity instead of leasing them the panels.

Cities such as Berkeley and Boulder are pioneering their own version of solar-panel financing by loaning individuals the entire amount required to pay for solar panels and installation. The project is paid for by municipal bonds, and the homeowner pays back the loan over 20 years as a part of the property tax bill. The effect is the same whichever route a consumer takes: the new obligation, in the form of taxes, a lease or a long-term contract for electricity, ends up costing less than the existing utility bill.

“What we’re really seeing is a transition in how we think about buying energy goods and services,” says Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Kammen, who did the initial analysis on Berkeley’s financing model, believes that by turning to financing, consumers can overcome the inherent disadvantage renewables have when compared with existing energy sources: the infrastructure for power from the grid has already been paid for and, in many cases, has been subsidized for decades.

All three approaches are rapidly expanding across the country. Despite the Berkeley program being less than two years old, 10 different states have passed legislation allowing their cities to set up a Berkeley-style bond-financed loan program. With the passage of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, the option for cities to set up these programs would become federal law. SunEdison in Maryland is currently active in nine states. SolarCity, which has more than 4,000 customers, is active in California, Arizona and Oregon and has promised to announce additional states after the new year.

Right now it is not possible to lower the overall cost of rooftop solar to “grid parity,” that is, to the same price as electricity from local utility companies, without federal subsidies such as the investment tax credit, which lowers the tax bill of banks financing these projects. Those subsidies, which amount to 30 percent of the cost of a solar installation, are guaranteed for at least eight years. By then, SolarCity and its competitors claim they won’t need them.

“Grid parity is driven by multiple factors,” says Attila Toth, vice president of marketing at SunEdison, including the cost of capital, the cost of panels and their installation, and the intensity of sunlight in a given region. “It will occur in different states at different times, but, for example, we expect that California will be one of the first states in the U.S. to get to grid parity, sometime between three and five years from now.”

While the cost of electricity from fossil fuels has increased 3 to 5 percent a year for the past decade, the cost of solar panels has fallen on average 20 percent for every doubling of its installed base. Grid parity is where these trend lines cross—after that, solar has the potential to power more than just homes. It’s hardly a coincidence that Elon Musk, head of electric car company Tesla Motors, sits on SolarCity’s board of directors.

More Ideas to watch
by Christopher Mims

The Gasoline Garden
It is the next step for biofuels: genetically engineered plant life that produces hydrocarbons as a by-product of its normal metabolism. The result will be fuel—common gasoline, even—using nothing but sunlight and CO2. In July, Exxon Mobil announced plans to spend more than $600 million in pursuit of algae that can accomplish the task. Joule Biotechnologies claims to have already succeeded, although the company has yet to reveal any details of its proprietary system.

Hot Nukes
Uranium and plutonium are not the only fuels that can power a nuclear reactor. With an initial kick from more traditional fissile materials, thorium can set up a self-sustaining “breeder” reaction that produces uranium 233, which is well suited to nuclear power generation. The process has the added benefit of being resistant to nuclear proliferation, because its end products emit enough gamma rays to make the fuel dangerous to handle and easy to track.

Save Energy with Information
Studies show that simply making customers aware of their energy use lowers it
by 5 to 15 percent. Smart meters allow customers to track their energy consumption minute by minute and appliance by appliance. Countless start-ups are offering the devices, and Google and Microsoft are independently partnering with local utilities to allow individuals to monitor their power usage over the Web.

Wind Power from the Stratosphere
According to a Stanford University study released in July, the high-altitude winds that constantly blow tens of thousands of feet above the earth hold enough energy to supply all of human civilization 100 times over. California’s Sky WindPower has proposed harvesting this energy by building fleets of giant, airborne, ground-tethered windmills, while Italy’s Kite Gen proposes to accomplish the same feat using kites.

Delivering the U.S. from Oil
Plug-in hybrid trucks are improving the long view of the short haul
By Amanda Schupak

Cargo trucks gulp about 40 percent of the fuel pumped in the U.S. While most consumer attention focuses on improving the fuel economy of consumer vehicles, a major opportunity goes rumbling by. “Folks do not realize that the fuel use of even a small truck is equal to many, many cars,” says Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president of Calstart, a clean transportation technology nonprofit, and director of the Hybrid Truck Users Forum. “A utility truck as a hybrid would reduce more petroleum than nine Priuses.”

Some 1,300 commercial hybrids on the road today get up to twice the fuel efficiency of their conventional counterparts. But these traditional hybrids are inherently limited. They make more efficient use of petroleum-based fuel by capturing some of the energy lost during braking.

Plug-in hybrids, on the other hand, draw energy from the grid. They can drive for miles—in many cases, an entire day’s route—without using any fossil fuel at all. This shifts energy demand away from petroleum and toward grid-based sources. (Last year zero-carbon renewables and nuclear supplied 30 percent of all electric power in the U.S.)

In many ways, plug-in hybrid technology makes more sense for delivery trucks than for consumer sedans. A cargo truck runs a short daily route that includes many stops to aid in regenerative braking. Most of the U.S. Postal Service’s 200,000-plus mail trucks, for example, travel fewer than 20 miles a day. In addition, fleet vehicles return nightly to storage lots that have ready access to the 120- or 240-volt outlets required to charge them.

The Department of Energy recently launched the nation’s largest commercial plug-in hybrid program, a $45.4-million project to get 378 medium-duty vehicles on the road in early 2011. The trucks, which will go to 50 municipal and utility fleets, will feature a power system from Eaton, a large manufacturer of electrical components, on a Ford F-550 chassis. (For its part, Ford will wait for the market to prove itself before designing its own commercial plug-ins.) “These are going to start breaking free in 2011,” says Paul Scott, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Southern California.

Start-up company Bright Automotive has a more ambitious plan. It aims to replace at least 50,000 trucks with plug-in hybrids by 2014. Bright’s IDEA prototype travels 40 miles on battery power before switching to a four-cylinder engine that gets 40 miles to the gallon. The streamlined aluminum body has the payload of a postal truck yet is far more aerodynamic. The truck weighs as much as a midsize sedan.

John E. Waters, Bright Automotive’s founder and the former developer of the battery system for General Motors?’s groundbreaking EV1 electric car, says that each IDEA would save 1,500 gallons of fuel and 16 tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year over a standard utility truck. Waters says he is ready to begin assembly in his U.S. plant once a pending $450-million federal loan comes through.

Despite the appeal of the carbon savings, the fleet owners who are the trucks’ primary customers have more practical considerations. Bright’s executives are coy about the IDEA’s eventual price tag but assert that a customer with 2,000 trucks driving 80 miles a day five days a week could save $7.2 million a year. Right now that is probably not enough to justify large-scale purchases without additional rebates—or a price on carbon. Van Amburg estimates that going hybrid currently adds $30,000 to $50,000 in upfront costs per vehicle, although that figure should come down as production volumes increase.

Improved battery technology will also help. Today the IDEA’s 13-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack accounts for nearly a quarter of the vehicle’s total cost. Much of the research being done for the batteries going into the Chevy Volt? and other consumer plug-ins should also be applicable to commercial batteries. “For all the good we all want to do,” says David Lauzun, Bright’s vice president of product development, “these vehicles will not take over the world until it becomes the economic choice—‘I have to have them because it saves me money.’”

Bus Rapid Transit
Subwaylike bus lines mobilize the urban future
By Michael Moyer

For the first time in human civilization, more people now live in urban areas than in the countryside. This shift creates a number of dilemmas, not least of which is how to move people within the world’s rapidly growing metropolises. Pollution and traffic point away from car-based options, while light-rail systems are slow to construct and prohibitively expensive. One disarmingly simple—and cheap—possibility is Bus Rapid Transit, which is engineered to operate like a subway on wheels. In these systems, concrete dividers on existing roads separate high-capacity buses from the rest of traffic. Riders pay before boarding, then wait in enclosed stations. When a bus arrives, sliding partitions open to allow riders to board from a platform that is level with the bus floor. The traffic-free thoroughfares, quick boarding times, and modern, comfortable stations resemble light-rail systems more than the chaos of typical bus travel. In Bogotá, Colombia, which has had seven Bus Rapid Transit lines in operation since 2001, the buses handle 1.6 million trips a day. Its success has allowed the city to remove 7,000 private buses from the city, reducing consumption of bus fuel and its associated pollution by more than 59 percent.

Ocean Overhaul
Marine zoning is a bold remedy for sick seas
By Sarah Simpson

These days not even many politicians deny that the oceans are ill. Protecting the health of coastal waters is now a matter of national policy in dozens of countries, including the U.S., and world leaders are beginning to prescribe a revolutionary remedy that conservationists have been promoting for years: marine planning and zoning.

The idea is a natural extension of management policies that have guided the development of cities and landscapes for nearly a century. Porn shops aren’t next to preschools, after all, and drilling rigs aren’t the centerpieces of national parks. Similarly, zoning advocates envision a mosaic of regional maps in which every watery space on the planet is designated for a particular purpose. Drilling and mining would be allowed only in certain parts of the ocean; fishing in others. The most critically threatened areas would be virtually off-limits.

Whereas people can easily find maps telling them what they can do where on land, the marine realm is a hodgepodge of rules emanating from an army of agencies, each one managing a single use or symptom. In the U.S., for example, one body regulates commercial fishing, usually a single species at a time. Another group manages toxic substances, still another seabed mining, and so on—some 20 federal agencies in all. They tend to make decisions without regard to what the others are doing, explains Duke University? marine ecologist Larry B. Crowder. “Imagine all of the medical specialists visiting a patient in intensive care one at a time and never talking to one another,” he says. “It’s a wonder that the oceans aren’t in worse shape than they are now.”

Ocean advocates such as Crowder eagerly await the final recommendations of a special task force President Barack Obama charged with presenting a plan for overhauling management of U.S. waters, which extend 200 nautical miles offshore. The scope of such an undertaking is huge: the U.S. controls 4.4 million square miles of seascape, making the country’s underwater real estate 25 percent larger than its landmass. The committee’s preliminary report, released in September, suggests that the best way to minimize harmful human impacts on the oceans is to manage regions rather than symptoms.

Many environmentalists are hopeful that such plans will be implemented through the marine equivalent of municipal zoning, which would give them some influence in areas where they now have none. In zones where conservation is designated as the dominant activity, fishing and industrial activities such as mining would no longer have free rein. Under current rules, about the only way a conservation group can block a project it deems harmful—say, a new site for offshore drilling—is through expensive litigation.

So far, though, the president’s task force has been careful not to suggest that ocean zoning will be the only treatment plan, in great part because any effort to restrict commercial interests is bound to meet stiff opposition. “Zoning isn’t anybody’s favorite exercise,” notes John C. Ogden, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography at the University of South Florida at Tampa. “Someone’s ox is always getting gored.” Most resistant to such change will most likely be the traditional users of the open ocean—namely, commercial fisheries and the petroleum industry. “They’ve had the place to themselves for a long time,” Ogden says.

Ogden and others are quick to point out, however, that zoning practices can benefit commerce as much as conservation. By giving up access to certain areas, industries gain the security of knowing their activities would be licensed in a more predictable and less costly manner than they are today, explains Josh Eagle, associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Now an oil company can apply for permits to drill virtually anywhere, but it takes on a significant financial risk each time. The business may dump millions of dollars into researching a new facility only to have a lawsuit derail it at the last moment. When opposing parties have more or less equal voices early in the planning process, Eagle says, they are less inclined to block one another’s activities once zones are drawn on a map.

Whether the final report of the president’s task force will promote ocean zoning explicitly is uncertain. But the group has already promised to overhaul the structure of ocean governance by proposing the creation of a National Ocean Council, whose job it will be to coordinate efforts of the myriad federal agencies now in charge.

The move comes just in time. Just as society is beginning to appreciate the enormous efforts it will take to preserve the health of the oceans, it must ask more of them—more energy, more food, and better resilience to coastal development and climate change. The reason the oceans are in trouble is not what people put in and take out. It is a failure of governments to manage these activities properly. Says Crowder: “We have to treat the oceans holistically, not one symptom at a time.”

The Power of Garbage
Trapped lightning could help zap trash and generate electricity
By John Pavlus

Trash is loaded with the energy trapped in its chemical bonds. Plasma gasification, a technology that has been in development for decades, could finally be ready to extract it.

In theory, the process is simple. Torches pass an electric current through a gas (often ordinary air) in a chamber to create a superheated plasma—an ionized gas with a temperature upward of 7,000 degrees Celsius, hotter than the surface of the sun. When this occurs naturally we call it lightning, and plasma gasification is literally lightning in a bottle: the plasma’s tremendous heat dissociates the molecular bonds of any garbage placed inside the chamber, converting organic compounds into syngas (a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) and trapping everything else in an inert vitreous solid called slag. The syngas can be used as fuel in a turbine to generate electricity. It can also be used to create ethanol, methanol and biodiesel. The slag can be processed into materials suitable for use in construction.

In practice, the gasification idea has been unable to compete economically with traditional municipal waste processing. But the maturing technology has been coming down in cost, while energy prices have been on the rise. Now “the curves are finally crossing—it’s becoming cheaper to take the trash to a plasma plant than it is to dump it in a landfill,” says Louis Circeo, director of Plasma Research at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Earlier this summer garbage-disposal giant Waste Management partnered with InEnTec, an Oregon-based start-up, to begin commercializing the latter’s plasma-gasification processes. And major pilot plants capable of processing 1,000 daily tons of trash or more are under development in Florida, Louisiana and California.

Plasma isn’t perfect. The toxic heavy metals sequestered in slag pass the Environmental Protection Agency?’s leachability standards (and have been used in construction for years in Japan and France) but still give pause to communities considering building the plants. And although syngas-generated electricity has an undeniably smaller carbon footprint than coal—“For every ton of trash you process with plasma, you reduce the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere by about two tons,” Circeo says—it is still a net contributor of greenhouse gases.

“It is too good to be true,” Circeo admits, “but the EPA has estimated that if all the municipal solid waste in the U.S. were processed with plasma to make electricity, we could produce between 5 and 8 percent of our total electrical needs—equivalent to about 25 nuclear power plants or all of our current hydropower output.” With the U.S. expected to generate a million tons of garbage every day by 2020, using plasma to reclaim some of that energy could be too important to pass up.

More Ideas to watch
By John Pavlus

Cement as a Carbon Sponge
Traditional cement production creates at least 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, but new materials could create carbon-neutral cement. Start-up Novacem, supported by Imperial College London, uses magnesium oxide to make cement that naturally absorbs CO2 as it hardens. California-based Calera uses seawater to sequester carbon emissions from a nearby power plant in cement.

The New Honeybee
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) has killed more than a third of honeybee colonies since 2006. Farmers who depend on bees to pollinate such crops as almonds, peaches and apples are looking to the blue orchard bee to pick up the slack.

One efficient Osmia lignaria can pollinate as much territory as 50 honeybees, but the bees are harder to cultivate because of their solitary nature. These pinch hitters won’t completely replace honeybees, but as scientists continue to grapple with CCD, they could act as an agricultural safety net.

Saltwater Crops
As the world’s freshwater supply becomes scarcer and food production needs balloon, salt-tolerant crops could ease the burden. Researchers at Australia’s University of Adelaide used genetic engineering to enhance a model crop’s natural ability to prevent saline buildup in its leaves, allowing the plant to thrive in conditions that would typically wither it. If the same gene tweak works in cereal crops such as rice and wheat—the researchers are testing them now—fallow lands destroyed by drought or overirrigation could become new breadbaskets.

The Omnipotence Machines
Tiny, ubiquitous sensors will allow us to index the physical world the way the Web maps cyberspace
By Gregory Mone

Earlier this year Hewlett-Packard announced the launch of its Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) project, a 10-year effort to embed up to a trillion pushpin-size sensors across the planet. Technologists say that the information gathered by this kind of ubiquitous sensing network could change our knowledge of the world as profoundly as the Internet has changed business. “People had no idea the Web was coming,” says technology forecaster Paul Saffo?. “We are at that moment now with ubiquitous sensing. There is quite an astonishing revolution just around the corner.”

The spread of versatile sensors, or “motes,” and the ability of computers to analyze and either recommend or initiate responses to the data they generate, will not merely enhance our understanding of nature. It could lead to buildings that manage their own energy use, bridges that flag engineers when in need of repair, cars that track traffic patterns and detect potholes, and home security systems that distinguish between the footfalls of an intruder and the dog, to name a few.

CeNSE is the boldest project yet announced, but HP is not the only organization developing the technology to make ubiquitous sensing possible. Intel is also designing novel sensor packages, as are numerous university labs.

For all the momentum in the field, though, this sensor-filled future is by no means inevitable. These devices will need to generate rich, reliable data and be rugged enough to survive tough environments. The sensor packages themselves will be small, but the computing effort required will be enormous. All the information they gather will have to be transmitted, hosted on server farms, and analyzed. Finally, someone is going to have to pay for it all. “There is the fundamental question of economics,” notes computer scientist Deborah Estrin of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Every sensor is a nonzero cost. There is maintenance, power, keeping them calibrated. You don’t just strew them around.”

In fact, HP senior researcher Peter Hartwell acknowledges that for CeNSE to hit its goals, the sensors will need to be nearly free. That is one of the reasons why HP is designing a single, do-everything, pushpin-size package stacked with a variety of gauges—light, temperature, humidity, vibration and strain, among others—instead of a series of devices for different tasks. Hartwell says that focusing on one versatile device will drive up volume, reducing the cost for each unit, but it could also allow HP to serve several clients at once with the same sensors.

Consider his chief engineering project, an ultrasensitive accelerometer. Housed inside a chip, the sensor tracks the motion of a tiny, internal movable platform relative to the rest of the chip. It can measure changes in acceleration 1,000 times as accurately as the technology in the Nintendo Wii?.

Hartwell imagines situating one of these pins every 16 feet along a highway. Thanks to the temperature, humidity and light sensors, the motes could serve as mini weather stations. But the accelerometers’ vibration data could also be analyzed to determine traffic conditions—roughly how many cars are moving past and how quickly. The local highway department would be interested in this information, he guesses, but there are potential consumer applications, too. “Your wireless company might want to take that information and tell you how to get to the airport the fastest,” Hartwell says.

All of this gathering and transmission of data requires power, of course, and to guarantee an extended life, the HP pushpin will not rely solely on batteries. “It is going to have some sort of energy-scavenging ability,” Hartwell says. “Maybe a solar panel or a thermoelectric device to help keep the battery charged.”

With the power hurdle in mind, other groups are forgoing batteries altogether. At Intel Labs in Seattle, engineer Josh Smith? has developed a sensor package that runs on wireless power. Like the HP pushpin, Intel’s WISP, or Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform, will include a variety of gauges, but it will also draw energy from the radio waves emitted by long-range radio-frequency ID chip readers. Smith says a single reader, plugged into a wall outlet, can already power and communicate with a network of prototype WISPs five to 10 feet away—a distance that should increase.

Smith cites many of the same infrastructure-related possibilities as Hartwell, along with a number of other uses. If WISPs were placed on standard household items such as cups, these tags could inform doctors about the rehabilitation progress of stroke victims. If the cups the patient normally uses remain stationary, Smith explains, then the individual probably is not up and moving around.

The potential applications for ubiquitous sensing are so broad—a physicist recently contacted him about using WISPs to monitor the temperature outside a proposed neutrino detector—that, as with the Internet, Smith says it is impossible to foresee them all. “In terms of the impact it is going to have on our lives,” Hartwell adds, “you haven’t seen anything yet.”

The Do-Anything Robot
Your PC can accomplish any computing task you ask of it. Why isn’t the same true for robots
By Gregory Mone

Robots have proved to be valuable tools for soldiers, surgeons and homeowners hoping to keep the carpet clean. But in each case, they are designed and built specifically for the job. Now there is a movement under way to build multipurpose machines—robots that can navigate changing environments such as offices or living rooms and work with their hands.

All-purpose robots are not, of course, a new vision. “It’s been five or 10 years from happening for about 50 years,” says Eric Berger, co-director of the Personal Robotics Program at Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley start-up. The delay is in part because even simple tasks require a huge set of capabilities. For a robot to fetch a mug, for example, it needs to make sense of data gathered by a variety of sensors—laser scanners identifying potential obstacles, cameras searching for the target, force feedback in the fingers that grasp the mug, and more. Yet Berger and other experts are confident that real progress could be made in the next decade.

The problem, according to Willow Garage, is the lack of a common platform for all that computational effort. Instead of building on the capabilities of a single machine, everyone is designing robots, and the software to control them, from the ground up. To help change this, Willow Garage is currently producing 25 copies of its model PR2 (for “Personal Robot 2”), a two-armed, wheeled machine that can unplug an appliance, open doors and move through a room. Ten of the robots will stay in-house, but 10 more will go to outside research groups, and everyone will pool their advances. This way, Berger says, if you want to build the robotic equivalent of a Twitter, you won’t start by constructing a computer: “you build the thing that’s new.”

Pocket Translator
The military, short on linguists, is building smart phone–based devices to do the job
By Gregory Mone

Sakhr Software, a company that builds automatic language translators, recently unveiled a prototype smart phone application that transforms spoken English phrases into spoken Arabic, and vice versa, in near real time. The technology isn’t quite ready for your next trip to Cairo, but thanks to recent advances in machine-translation techniques, plus the advent of higher-fidelity microphones and increasing processing power in smart phones, this mobile technology could soon allow two people speaking different languages to have basic conversations.

Before the 1990s automatic translation meant programming in an endless list of linguistic rules, a technique that proved too labor-intensive and insufficiently accurate. Today’s leading programs—developed by BBN Technologies?, IBM, Sakhr and others as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort to eliminate the military’s need for human translators—rely on machine-learning techniques instead. The software works from a database of parallel texts—for example, War and Peace in two different languages, translated United Nations speeches, and documents pulled off the Web. Algorithms identify short matching phrases across sources, and the software uses them to build statistical models that link English phrases to Arabic ones.

John Makhoul, BBN’s chief scientist, says the current technology is at its best when confined to subject areas with specific phrases and terminology—translating a weather report from English into French, for example, or helping soldiers gather basic biographical information from people in the field. Makhoul envisions the first consumer applications, five years from now, being similarly constrained. A tourism-related translation app on a smart phone could help an American in Florence get directions from a non-English-speaking local, but they won’t chat about Renaissance art. “It is not going to work perfectly,” he says, “but it will do a pretty good job.”

Know if Disease Grows Inside You
Complex diseases have complex causes. Luckily, they also leave a multitude of traces
By Melinda Wenner

With the exception of certain infectious diseases, few of humanity’s ailments have cures. More than 560,000 Americans will die of cancer this year, and despite the 250,000 coronary bypass surgeries doctors perform annually, heart disease is still the country’s number-one killer.

The hardest diseases to cure are the ones that take the longest to develop. They are the end result of decades of complex molecular interactions inside your body. Yet this complexity also pre­sents an opportunity. Scientists have discovered that these interactions leave discernible fingerprints on the body. By unweaving the complex tapestry of molecular clues—changes in the body’s proteins, nucleic acids and metabolites, collectively called biomarkers—doctors hope they will soon be able to not only detect disease but predict a coming illness in time to take action.

Biomarkers are not new. Since 1986 doctors have monitor­ed prostate cancer by measuring blood levels of the protein known as prostate-specific antigen (PSA). But tests that rely on a single biomarker to detect disease are rare, because most disorders involve intricate changes in a collection of biomarkers.

Take schizophrenia: in January 2010 scientists will release a biomarker test that distinguishes schizophrenia from other psychiatric conditions. The test, which is being commercialized by Rules-Based Medicine, a laboratory in Austin, Tex., is based on the characteristics of about 40 blood-based proteins.

To find potentially useful biomarkers, researchers collect blood samples from thousands of healthy people and analyze them. Biomarker levels in these samples provide a baseline reading. Then they do the same for people with a specific condition such as diabetes or breast cancer. If reproducible differences emerge between the groups, scientists can use the patterns in the disease group to diagnose the same condition in others. By collecting samples over time, researchers can also go back and analyze early samples from individuals who later become ill to identify patterns indicative of early disease or high disease risk.

Biophysical Corporation, a sister company to Rules-Based Medicine, is one of several companies that has developed blood-based biomarker tests and marketed them to the public [see “The Ultimate Blood Test,” by Philip Yam; Scientific American, June 2006]. The company searches for up to 250 biomarkers suggestive of cancer, inflammatory conditions, heart disease and other illnesses. Mark Chandler, Biophysical’s chair and CEO, says that the real value of the tests lies in long-term monitoring. A person could “get a test monthly, just a finger stick, that would be able to say, we have had a serious change here that is indicative of an early-stage cancer,” he explains.

Yet not all experts are convinced that the age of biomarkers is at hand. Cheryl Barton, an independent U.K.-based pharmaceutical consultant who authored a Business Insights market analysis report on biomarkers in 2006, says she remains “a little bit skeptical about how clinically useful they are.” A study of 5,000 subjects published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July 2009 found that six cardiovascular biomarkers were only marginally better at predicting heart disease than were standard cardiovascular risk factors, such as whether the subjects smoked or had diabetes.

Adding to the overall difficulty, a person might suffer from two or more diseases—prostate cancer and heart disease, for example. No one knows how multiple diseases might affect overall biomarker signatures or how profiles will change as other diseases develop. “When you get to be 65 or 70, almost everybody has other conditions,” Chandler says. “We don’t know how to deal with that right now.” And scientists still need to discern which biomarkers are truly relevant to disease—a difficult task when working with blood, which contains tens of thousands of proteins at concentrations spanning more than 10 orders of magnitude.

Some companies have simplified the problem by avoiding blood altogether. LabCorp recently commercialized a biomarker test that analyzes colon cells in stool for the chemical signatures indicative of colorectal cancer. “The stool is in intimate contact with the lining of the colon, so it becomes much more highly populated with these rare molecules than would get into the bloodstream from colon cancer,” says Barry Berger, chief medical officer of Exact Sciences, a Madison, Wis.–based biotechnology company that developed the test technology.

In time, scientists are confident that they will eventually crack the more difficult problem of finding distinct disease signatures in the noisy data. “The evolutionary process, being complex and unknown, does not always give us an easy route,” Berger notes, “but it definitely gives us lots of opportunities.”

Satellites Diagnose Disease Outbreaks
Space-based data are helping to track and predict the spread of deadly diseases ?
By Katherine Harmon

Many contagious diseases spread through carriers such as birds and mosquitoes. These vectors in turn move with heat and rainfall. With this in mind, researchers have begun to use satellite data to monitor the environmental conditions that lead to disease. “Ideally, we could predict conditions that would result in some of these major outbreaks of cholera, malaria, even avian flu,” says Tim Ford of the University of New England at Biddeford and co-author of a paper on the subject published this past September in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Satellite data have already been used to map the advance of the H5N1 avian influenza in Asia. The domestic duck, a common inhabitant of Southeast Asia’s rice paddies, is one of the main carriers of the disease. Xiangming Xiao, associate director of the University of Oklahoma?’s Center for Spatial Analysis, uses satellite images to map agricultural patterns in the region. These maps show where the ducks are most likely to live and thus where the avian influenza is most likely to spread.

Migratory birds also carry the virus, but their travel patterns are more difficult to predict. Xiao and his colleagues combine the satellite imagery with satellite-gathered surface-temperature data to estimate the birds’—and thereby the virus’s—trajectory. Computer models then link these environmental drivers to the spread of the flu in human populations.

Of course, not all of the work can be outsourced to orbiting observatories. Xiao says that judging the severity of avian flu’s spread from satellite imaging required knowing details about the human populations as well—for instance, how likely certain communities were to raise ducks for poultry consumption. “Satellite monitoring has a capacity to provide consistent observation,” Xiao says. “On the other hand, the in situ observations are still very, very important, so the key is to combine those together. That is a real challenge.”

More Ideas to watch
By Melinda Wenner

Quick Clots
Emergency technicians could prevent up to 35 percent of prehospital trauma deaths if they had better and cheaper ways to prevent blood loss. Now a University of Maryland–affiliated start-up called Trauma Solutions has developed a synthetic hydrogel that can clot blood by prompting the body to make fibrin, a protein that seals wounds and stops bleeding. Future iterations could simultaneously release such medicines as antibiotics and painkillers. Each application will cost about $5, compared with some natural blood-clotting substances that cost upward of $500.

Lab-on-a-Stamp
Liver damage is a major side effect of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis drugs, yet few developing countries have enough trained scientists or equipment to monitor it. Nonprofit Cambridge, Mass.–based Diagnostics For All has developed an inexpensive fingernail-size device made almost entirely of paper that monitors liver damage using a single drop of blood. Channels in the paper guide blood to regions that change color depending on the levels of two damage-related liver enzymes.

Bacterial Toothpaste
Streptococcus mutans bacteria in the mouth decay teeth by converting sugars into enamel-eroding lactic acid. Florida-based Oragenics has genetically engineered a new strain of bacteria that converts sugars to trace amounts of alcohol instead. Because the new strain permanently displaces natural S. mutans, the therapy, which is currently in clinical trials, will be available as a one-time prescription that will protect teeth for life.

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'disturbing' levels of cyber-raids

Top GCHQ spook warns of ‘disturbing’ levels of cyber-raids • The Register.

With a crunch conference on government cyber-security starting tomorrow, the director of government spook den GCHQ, Iain Lobban, said Britain had faced a “disturbing” number of digital attacks in recent months.

Attackers had targeted citizens’ data, credit card numbers and industry secrets, Lobban said.

“I can attest to attempts to steal British ideas and designs – in the IT, technology, defence, engineering and energy sectors as well as other industries – to gain commercial advantage or to profit from secret knowledge of contractual arrangements,” the eavesdropping boss added in his article for The Times.

According to Foreign Secretary William Hague there were more than 600 “malicious” attacks on government systems every day, while criminals could snap up Brits’ stolen card details online for just 70 pence a throw.

The statement was paired with the announcement of a £650m investment in cyber-security over the next four years, with both Hague and Lobbman arguing that industry and government need to work together to pull off a safe, resilient system.

Countries that could not protect their banking systems and intellectual property will be at a serious disadvantage in future, Hague told The Times.

The government could have its work cut out, though: security software maker Symantec today suggests that businesses are cutting back on cyber-security and are less aware of and engaged with the big threats than they were last year. Symantec was specifically staring at industries integral to national security.

It found that only 82 percent of them participated in government protection programmes, down 18 points since last year.

Symantec reckoned that reduced manpower meant companies had less time to focus on big structural threats.

“The findings of this survey are somewhat alarming, given recent attacks like Nitro and Duqu that have targeted critical infrastructure providers,” said Dean Turner, a director at Symantec.

“Having said that, limitations on manpower and resources as mentioned by respondents help explain why critical infrastructure providers have had to prioritise and focus their efforts on more day-to-day cyber threats.” ®