Category Archives: SOLUTIONS

Can disaster aid win hearts and minds?

A Friend in Need – By Charles Kenny | Foreign Policy.

BY CHARLES KENNY | OCTOBER 31, 2011

On Tuesday last week, Turkey reversed its previous stand and decided to accept aid from Israel to help deal with the tragic earthquake that had stricken the country’s east. Shipments of portable housing units began the next day. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quick to emphasize that accepting aid did not signal an improvement in diplomatic relations between the two countries, strained ever since Israel’s raid of a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza in 2010 — likely a response to the perception that aid can buy off recipient governments, even if it can’t change popular attitudes. The irony is that the humanitarian assistance that responds to disasters — unlike the majority of aid that goes to long-term development projects — might be the one case where that logic is sometimes reversed.

At a time when the United States’ aid budget is confronted by an army of hatchet-wielding deficit hawks among the Republican Party’s congressional majority and presidential candidates, some aid proponents are making the case that development and humanitarian assistance are powerful tools to buy friends and influence people. And it is true that aid has long been used to grease the often-rusty wheels of diplomacy. The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel were cemented with the help of an aid package worth an average of $2 billion a year to Egypt. Since 1985, U.S. law has mandated that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) take account of would-be aid recipients’ voting patterns at the United Nations — rewarding larger aid packages to those who vote with America. Political Scientists David Carter at Pennsylvania State and Randall Stone at the University of Rochester note that this kind of carrot-minded approach has been successful, influencing countries’ votes on decisions that the U.S. State Department declares as politically important.Watch movie online The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

Twisting politicians’ arms is one thing, but changing popular attitudes is another matter entirely. Look again at Egypt: Despite being one of the largest recipients of USAID financing over the past 30 years, Pew surveys suggest only 20 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the United States — considerably less than half of the U.S. favorability rating in former Cold War foe Russia. Popular opinion in Egypt is driven by other factors, not least broader U.S. foreign policy in the region. (A propensity to invade neighboring countries doesn’t help.) And development assistance just isn’t a major factor in the financial fortunes of the average citizen. Maybe that was true back in 1990, when net overseas development assistance to the country equaled 36 percent of government expenditures. But by 2008, that figure was just 3 percent — only a little more one-tenth the value of tourism and one-seventh that of manufacturing exports.

Aid’s limited impact on public opinion usually applies even when the aid is specifically focused on winning converts. A study by consultant Michael Kleinman and Mark Bradbury, a director at the Rift Valley Institute, looked at U.S. military aid for small projects in Kenya designed to improve popular support for the U.S. military presence there, and found that it didn’t. Attitudes were shaped by faith, the relationship between target populations and the Kenyan state, U.S. foreign policy, and events in Somalia — not by a U.S.-financed well or asphalt road. A German aid agency-financed 2010 study, using repeated surveys in Afghanistan’s Takhar and Kunduz provinces, found that in a comparatively peaceful period between 2005 and 2007, development aid did have a small, short-lived positive impact on the general attitudes of Afghan respondents towards foreign peace-building operations in their backyard. But this impact disappeared as threat perceptions rose between 2007 and 2009. Not surprisingly, other factors — in this case, how many people were getting shot — were just more important than who was cutting the checks.

But there is evidence of an exception to the rule that money can’t buy love, and it involves disaster assistance. Four years after a 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, economists Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College and Jishnu Das of the World Bank surveyed attitudes towards foreigners in the region. They found trust in foreigners was significantly higher in areas where humanitarian aid had been concentrated than in other areas — dropping off by six percentage points for each 10 kilometers of distance from the fault line.

Why might recipients react differently and more positively to disaster relief assistance than they do to other forms of aid? In part it is surely related to the simple gratitude felt by people who have just lost much of what they had in a flood or earthquake. But it is also more plausible that such aid is given without a broader political motive. Although U.S. food aid flows according to the size of the surplus domestic crop as much as recipient need, using humanitarian relief to reward or punish countries for U.N. voting records or other diplomatic policies presents a practical challenge — you can’t schedule a disaster. Recipients appear to understand that, and are more likely to view such aid as given in good faith. In the Pakistan case, for example, Andrabi and Das note that the positive impact on attitudes was related to a significant on-the-ground presence of foreigners who were assumed to have purely humanitarian motivations — aid distribution was not perceived to be (and wasn’t) linked to war-fighting efforts.

Aid is likely to be a more effective foreign policy tool when it comes to persuading governments to do things that lack popular support. Creating that popular support in the first place is much harder. Perhaps Turkey’s Davutoglu is right to say that even government relations won’t improve in the case of Israeli disaster aid — after all, U.S. humanitarian support in the aftermath of Iran’s Bam earthquake only temporarily thawed diplomatic tensions. On the other hand, maybe the assistance can play a small role in improving popular opinion towards Israel in Turkey. For good or ill, that’s one more reason for governments to respond with open hearts and open checkbooks whenever disaster strikes worldwide.

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.

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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Worst Food Additive Ever is in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Produces Collateral destruction and misery

Worst Food Additive Ever? It’s in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Destroys Rainforests and Enslaves Children | Food | AlterNet.

The production of this ingredient causes jaw-dropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.
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On August 10, police and security for the massive palm oil corporation Wilmar International (of which Archer Daniels Midland is the second largest shareholder) stormed a small, indigenous village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They came with bulldozers and guns, destroying up to 70 homes, evicting 82 families, and arresting 18 people. Then they blockaded the village, keeping the villagers in — and journalists out. (Wilmar claims it has done no wrong.)

The village, Suku Anak Dalam, was home to an indigenous group that observes their own traditional system of land rights on their ancestral land and, thus, lacks official legal titles to the land. This is common among indigenous peoples around the world — so common, in fact, that it is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indonesia, for the record, voted in favor of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Yet the government routinely sells indigenous peoples’ ancestral land to corporations. Often the land sold is Indonesia’s lowland rainforest, a biologically rich area home to endangered species like the orangutan, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger, and the plant Rafflesia arnoldii, which produces the world’s largest flower.

So why all this destruction? Chances are you’ll find the answer in your pantry. Or your refrigerator, your bathroom, or even under your sink. The palm oil industry is one of the largest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia. Palm oil and palm kernel oil, almost unheard of a decade or two ago, are now unbelievably found in half of all packaged foods in the grocery store (as well as body care and cleaning supplies). These oils, traditional in West Africa, now come overwhelmingly from Indonesia and Malaysia. They cause jawdropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.

“The recipe for palm oil expansion is cheap land, cheap labor, and a corrupt government, and unfortunately Indonesia fits that bill,” says Ashley Schaeffer of Rainforest Action Network.

The African oil palm provides two different oils with different properties: palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is made from the fruit of the tree, and palm kernel oil comes from the seed, or “nut,” inside the fruit. You can find it on ingredient lists under a number of names, including palmitate, palmate, sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate, glyceryl stearate, or stearic acid. Palm oil even turns up in so-called “natural,” “healthy,” or even “cruelty-free” products, like Earth Balance (vegan margarine) or Newman-O’s organic Oreo-like cookies. Palm oil is also used in “renewable” biofuels.

A hectare of land (2.47 acres) produces, on average, 3.7 metric tons of palm oil, 0.4 metric tons of palm kernel oil, and 0.6 tons of palm kernel cake. (Palm kernel cake is used as animal feed.) In 2009, Indonesia produced over 20.5 million metric tons, and Malaysia produced over 17.5 million metric tons. As of 2009, the U.S. was only the seventh largest importer of palm oil in the world, but as the second largest importer of palm kernel oil, it ranks third in the world as a driver of deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Indonesia has lost 46 percent of its forests since 1950, and the forests have recently disappeared at a rate of about 1.5 million hectares (an area larger than the state of Connecticut) per year. Of the 103.3 million hectares of remaining forests in 2000, only 88.2 million remained in 2009. At that time, an estimated 7.3 million hectares of oil palm plantations were already established, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Indonesia plans to continue the palm oil expansion, hoping to produce an additional 8.3 million metric tons by 2015 — this means a 71 percent expansion in area devoted to palm oil in the coming years.

At stake are not only endangered species and human lives, but carbon emissions. One of the ecosystems at risk is Indonesia’s peat swamps, where soil contains an astounding 65 percent organic matter. (Most soils contain only two to 10 percent organic matter.) Laurel Sutherlin of Rainforest Action Network describes the draining and often burning of these peat swamps as “a carbon bomb.” Destruction of its peat swamps as well as its rainforests makes Indonesia the world’s third largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China.

Among the horror stories coming out of Southeast Asian palm oil plantations are accounts of child slave labor. Ferdi and Volario, ages 14 and 21, respectively, were each met by representatives of the Malaysian company Kuala Lampur Kepong in their North Sumatra villages. They were offered high-paying jobs with good working conditions, and they jumped at the opportunity. According to an account by Rainforest Action Network: “The two worked grueling hours each day spraying oil palm trees with toxic chemical fertilizers, without any protection to shield their hands, face or lungs. After work, Ferdi and Volario were forced inside the camp where they’d stay overnight under lock and key, guarded by security. If they had to use the bathroom, they’d do their best to hold it until morning or relieve themselves in plastic bags or shoes.” They escaped after two months and were never paid for their work.

What is the industry doing about such horrific claims? It has established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Kuala Lampur Kepong, Wilmar International, and Archer Daniels Midland are all members, and so are their customers, Cargill, Nestlé and Unilever, as well as environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. But, according to Sutherlin, membership in RSPO means nothing — other than that an organization paid its dues. “That’s the first level of greenwash,” says Sutherlin.

RSPO certifies some products and companies, and Sutherlin says that does have some meaning, but leaves major loopholes open. For example, there are no carbon or climate standards, and there have been problems with the implementation of social safeguards. “It’s been a spotty record about their ability to enforce the standards for how people are treated and how communities are affected,” notes Sutherlin. Yet, he says, RSPO is “the best game in town.”

Rather than simply relying on RSPO’s certification, Rainforest Action Network has focused its campaign on the U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill, which has a hand in fully 25 percent of palm oil on the global market. Rainforest Action Network is asking Cargill to sign on to a set of social and environmental safeguards and to provide public transparency on its palm oil operations. If Cargill cleans up its act, perhaps it will help put pressure on other major multinationals like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, which also source palm oil from unethical suppliers like Wilmar International.

Journalists have also criticized environmental groups for “cozy relationships with corporate eco-nasties.” The World Wildlife Fund has come under attack for its partnership with Wilmar, the corporation that attacked a Sumatran village. Its involvement in RSPO serves as a reminder of the accusations in a 2010 Nation article, which claimed that “many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world’s worst polluters–and burying science-based environmentalism in return.” (WWF says it received no payment from Wilmar in this particular case.)

The ugly issue of palm oil even touches the beloved American icon, the Girl Scout cookie. When Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen began a project to save the orangutan for their Bronze Awards, they discovered the link between habitat loss and palm oil. Then they looked at a box of Girl Scout cookies and found palm oil on the list of ingredients. The two 11-year-olds — who are now ages 15 and 16 — began a campaign to get the Girl Scouts to remove palm oil from its cookies.

It took five years to get a response from the supposedly wholesome Girl Scouts USA (whose 2012 slogan is “Forever Green“). While the organization ignored its own members for several years, it was unable to ignore the coverage the girls received from Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and several major TV networks. Once the story was so well-covered by the media, Girl Scouts USA responded, promising it would try to move to a sustainable source of palm oil by 2015. In the meantime, it would continue buying palm oil that could have come from deforested lands or plantations that use child slave labor, but would also buy GreenPalm certificates, which fund a price premium that goes to producers following RSPO’s best practice guidelines.

So what should consumers do? For the time being, avoiding products containing palm oil is probably your best bet. Since palm oil is so ubiquitous this will likely mean opting to buy fewer processed foods overall. Don’t forget to check your beauty and cleaning products, too. In a handful of cases, such as Dr. Bronner’s soaps, palm oil comes from fair trade, organic sources. But this is hardly the norm, and with the immense amount of palm oil used in the U.S., it’s unlikely that sustainable sources could cover all of the current demand.

Extensible Wind turbine blades for better efficiency?

Wind turbine blades reach out to catch the breeze – tech – 24 October 2011 – New Scientist.

GO GO gadget arms! Turbines could soon sport blades that extend and retract to suit wind conditions.

Large turbines harvest more energy from the wind than small ones – provided the breeze doesn’t freshen too much. Then long blades become a disadvantage as they exert big stresses on the turbine’s mechanism, which can damage it. So turbine designers generally strike a compromise between efficiency and durability.

What about a wind turbine with telescopic arms? Rajnish Sharma of the University of Auckland in New Zealand calculated that such a turbine could generate twice as much power over a year as an ordinary one, and be safe to run at high wind speeds. To test the idea, he built a prototype based on a small 1.5-kilowatt turbine. In strong winds it generated the same power as a standard turbine, while in gentler conditions it easily beat its rival.

The extendable blades cost more to make, though Sharma calculates they would be cost-effective even if they were four times as expensive as ordinary ones. The blades could be deployed in areas once thought unsuitable for wind power, Sharma adds. And existing turbines could be retrofitted with the blades, though Sharma has not tested the idea on industrial-scale turbines.

Crop scientists now fret about heat not just water

NewsDaily: Crop scientists now fret about heat not just water.

By Christine StebbinsPosted 2011/10/24 at 10:49 am EDT

CHICAGO, Oct. 24, 2011 (Reuters) — Crop scientists in the United States, the world’s largest food exporter, are pondering an odd question: could the danger of global warming really be the heat?

Haze from forest fires engulfs La Paz city, August 23, 2010. REUTERS/David Mercado

For years, as scientists have assembled data on climate change and pointed with concern at melting glaciers and other visible changes in the life-giving water cycle, the impact on seasonal rains and irrigation has worried crop watchers most.

What would breadbaskets like the U.S. Midwest, the Central Asian steppes, the north China Plain or Argentine and Brazilian crop lands be like without normal rains or water tables?

Those were seen as longer-term issues of climate change.

But scientists now wonder if a more immediate issue is an unusual rise in day-time and, especially, night-time summer temperatures being seen in crop belts around the world.

Interviews with crop researchers at American universities paint the same picture: high temperatures have already shrunken output of many crops and vegetables.

“We don’t grow tomatoes in the deep South in the summer. Pollination fails,” said Ken Boote, a crop scientist with the University of Florida.

The same goes for snap beans which can no longer be grown in Florida during the summer, he added.

“As temperatures rise we are going to have trouble maintaining the yields of crops that we already have,” said Gerald Nelson, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) who is leading a global project initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify new crop varieties adapted to climate change.

“When I go around the world, people are much less skeptical, much more concerned about climate change,” said David Lobell, a Stanford University agricultural scientist.

Lobell was one of three authors of a much-discussed 2011 climate study of world corn, wheat, soybean and rice yields over the last three decades (1980-2008). It concluded that heat, not rainfall, was affecting yields the most.

“The magnitude of recent temperature trends is larger than those for precipitation in most situations,” the study said.

“We took a pretty conservative approach and still found sizable impacts. They certainly are happening already and not just something that will or might happen in the future,” Lobell told Reuters in an interview.

CONCERNS GROWING

Scientists at an annual meeting of U.S. agronomists last week in San Antonio said the focus was climate change.

“Its impact on agriculture systems, impacts on crops, mitigation strategies with soil management — a whole range of questions was being asked about climate change,” said Jerry Hatfield, Laboratory Director at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

“The biggest thing is high night-time temperatures have a negative impact on yield,” Hatfield added, noting that the heat affects evaporation and the life process of the crops.

“One of the consequences of rising temperatures … is to compress the life cycle of that plant. The other key consequence is that when the atmosphere gets warmer the atmospheric demand for water increases,” Hatfield said.

“These are simple things that can occur and have tremendous consequences on our ability to produce a stable supply of food or feed or fiber,” he said.

Boote at the University of Florida found that rice and sorghum plants failed to produce grain, something he calls “pollen viability,” when the average 24-hour temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius). That equates to highs of 104 F during the day and 86 F at night, he said.

The global seed industry has set a high bar to boost crop yields by 2050 to feed a hungry world. Scientists said that the impact of heat on plant growth needs more focus and study.

“If you look at a lot of crop insurance claims, farmers say it is the lack of water that caused the plant to die,” said Wolfram Schlenker, assistant professor at Columbia University.

“But I think it’s basically different sides of the same coin because the water requirement of the plant increases tremendously if it’s hot,” he said.

“The private sector understands the threats coming from climate change and have significant research programs in regards to drought tolerance. They focus less on higher temperatures, but that’s a tougher challenge,” Nelson said.

“We are responding with a number of initatives…the primary one is focusing on drought tolerance,” said John Soper, vice president in charge of global seed development for DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred, a top U.S. seed producer.

Pioneer launched a conventionally bred drought-tolerant corn hybrid seed in the western U.S. Corn Belt this spring, selected for its yield advantage over other varieties.

“We have some early results in from Texas that show that is exactly how they are behaving. They currently have a 6 percent advantage over normal products in those drought zones,” Soper said.

Roy Steiner, deputy director for agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the foundation is focused on current agricultural effects of climate change.

“It’s amazing that there are still people who think that it’s not changing. Everywhere we go we’re seeing greater variability, the rains are changing and the timing of the rains is creating a lot more vulnerability,” Steiner said.

“Agriculture is one of those things that needs long-term planning, and we are very short-cycled thinking,” he said. “There are going to be some real shocks to the system. Climate is the biggest challenge. Demand is not going away.”

Green sidewalk makes electricity

Green sidewalk makes electricity — one footstep at a time – CNN.com.

“PaveGen” pavement slabs convert the energy from footsteps into electricity.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Engineer has developed paving slab that transforms energy from footsteps into electricity
  • First commercial order expected to power half of outdoor lighting at vast London shopping mall
  • Sustainability expert says slabs encourage sense of collective participation
  • Hopes one day to export across developing world to provide source of “off-grid” energy

London, England (CNN) — Paving slabs that convert energy from people’s footsteps into electricity are set to help power Europe’s largest urban mall, at the 2012 London Olympics site.Watch movie online John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

The recycled rubber “PaveGen” paving slabs harvest kinetic energy from the impact of people stepping on them and instantly deliver tiny bursts of electricity to nearby appliances. The slabs can also store energy for up to three days in an on-board battery, according to its creator.

In their first commercial application, 20 tiles will be scattered along the central crossing between London’s Olympic stadium and the recently opened Westfield Stratford City mall — which expects an estimated 30 million customers in its first year.

“That should be enough feet to power about half its (the mall’s) outdoor lighting needs,” said Laurence Kemball-Cook, a 25-year-old engineering graduate who developed the prototype during his final year of university in 2009.

The green slabs are designed to compress five millimeters when someone steps on them, but PaveGen will not share the precise mechanism responsible for converting absorbed kinetic energy into electricity.

A computer generated image showing PaveGen slabs installed on a subway staircase
A computer generated image showing PaveGen slabs installed on a subway staircase

Although each step produces only enough electricity to keep an LED-powered street lamp lit for 30 seconds, Kemball-Cook says that the tiles are a real-world “crowdsourcing” application, harnessing small contributions from a large number of individuals.

“We recently came back from a big outdoor festival where we got over 250,000 footsteps — that was enough to charge 10,000 mobile phones,” said Kemball-Cook.

The young inventor envisages PaveGen systems being used to power off-grid appliances such as public lighting, illuminated street maps and advertising, and to be installed in areas of dense human traffic such as city centers, underground stations and school corridors.

“Our main test installation is at a school in Kent (southeast England) — where 1,100 kids have devoted their lives to stamping all over them for the last eight months,” said Kemball-Cook.

In its current form, the PaveGen paving slab contains a low-energy LED which lights up, expressing the energy transfer idea to the user but only consuming around 5% of the energy from each footstep.

“This is what I really enjoy about the design,” said Richard Miller, head of sustainability at the UK’s government-funded Technology Strategy Board.

“As much as it’s an effective, common-sense source of some sustainable electricity, it’s also a great way for people to engage with the issue of sustainability … to feel like they are part of the solution in a very immediate, fun and visual way that doesn’t make you do anything you wouldn’t already be doing,” said Miller.

However, although generally enthusiastic about the product, for the time being Miller withholds speculation about its far-reaching impact.

“As with all things of this nature, on a large scale and in the long term, its success will be determined by how cost-effective it is to produce … If it turns out to be expensive, then it will struggle to find a place as anything more than a niche application,” he said.

Kemball-Cook declines to comment on the cost of each slab, arguing that their current price is much higher than what it will be when they go into mass production.

As with all things of this nature…its success will be determined by how cost-effective it is to produce
Richard Miller, UK Technology Strategy Board

That said, the company has already won a spate of awards, including the Big Idea category at the UK’s Ethical Business Awards and the Shell LiveWire Grand Ideas Award. PaveGen has also recently received a round of financing from a group of London-based angel investors, although the sum is undisclosed.

Kemball-Cook is confident that the slab is durable. Over the course of a month it was subjected to a machine that replicates the pounding of footsteps, non-stop every day, he added.

“It’s also really easy to install as a retrofit on existing pavements, because they can be made to match their exact dimensions … you just replace one slab with another,” he said.

Looking to the future, Kemball-Cook would like to see the paving system introduced to the developing world, in areas that have a high footfall, but are off-grid, such as the slums in Mumbai.

“The average person takes 150 million steps in their lifetime, just imagine the potential,” he said.

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Release : March 8, 2017
Country : United States of America.
Production Company : Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment.
Language : English.
Runtime : 118 min.
Genre : Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Fantasy.

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geoengineers forced to proceed slowly

Would-be geoengineers must listen to the public – opinion – 03 October 2011 – New Scientist.

It is no surprise that a proposed test of a climate engineering technology has raised hackles despite being environmentally benign

The world’s first field test of a technology that might, one day, cool global temperatures has been put on hold for at least six months, amid disquiet.

In October, the skies above Norfolk in the UK were scheduled to host a giant balloon attached to a 1-kilometre pipe that would harmlessly spray water droplets into the air. The work could be the first practical step in combating the effects of climate change.

The test is part of a research programme that aims to evaluate the feasibility of Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE). This is just one of many proposals for technologies that could manipulate the climate through “solar radiation management” – if ever deployed, it would involve spraying reflective particles into the stratosphere to deflect a proportion of sunlight.

It is by no means clear that these ideas will ever become reality. The SPICE project has become a lightning rod for discussion and debate, however, because it is the first solar radiation management technology to be officially tested outside the lab.

Now the body overseeing all this, the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has decided it needs further consultation with “stakeholders”, such as environmental organisations, before going ahead.

Atmospheric liposuction

Writing in The Guardian, activist and writer George Monbiot described the project as a “complete waste of time” and geoengineering as “atmospheric liposuction”. The ETC group, an international technology watchdog, denounced the trial as an “unhelpful provocation” likely to undermine international climate negotiations.

The SPICE team are quick to point out that the test itself does not constitute geoengineering – they are simply testing a delivery mechanism for spraying particles, and observing the movements of the balloon. But although the process may be environmentally benign, it is proving somewhat toxic socially.

It may be tempting to dismiss opposition to SPICE as anti-scientific, but there are good reasons to scratch beneath the surface of these views. Experience with previous science-society controversies such as the genetically modified crops debate or the continuing concerns over nanotechnologies shows that public mistrust is only partly based on scientific grounds. When members of the public are given the opportunity to discuss emerging areas of science, they often bring perspectives to the table that the scientific community may have missed.

Beyond questions about the safety or unintended side effects of geoengineering, there are deeper issues outside the remit of a purely scientific investigation. Is the intentional manipulation of the climate acceptable in principle? Will geoengineering technologies be likely to cause international conflict? Whose voices will be represented in decision-making about research and deployment? These are questions that should not be restricted to scientific or political elites, and opposition to seemingly benign scientific tests must be seen against this backdrop. What the SPICE test represents is just as important as its physical effect.

Most people are not experts on the science of geoengineering, but we can all claim to have some expertise in making moral and social judgements. Opinions that may appear irrational from a scientific perspective often seem less so when considered through a social, political or ethical lens. Incorporating these broader public views into decision-making about research and development is essential when the stakes are so high and uncertainty so great.

Ideology and technology

Research by Dan Kahan and colleagues at Yale University has repeatedly demonstrated that public attitudes about science are coloured by an ideological filter. Risk perceptions are not simply a matter of weighing up the pros and cons of a particular technology: they are also judgements about the role of science in society. If you are generally predisposed – for entirely legitimate reasons – to be sceptical about the value of grand, high-tech solutions to societal problems, and dubious about the capacity of governments and industry to regulate them, then the SPICE test is likely to set alarm bells ringing.

This position is not irrational in any meaningful sense of the word. Whether or not to deploy geoengineering is clearly a value judgement. But so is the decision about whether to conduct research into it at all. Moreover, there are good reasons for taking these broader perspectives seriously. The lesson for scientists from the controversy over GM crop trials is that ignoring seemingly unscientific opposition is counterproductive. Public engagement should not be considered as an opportunity to “sell” new technologies. When the public perceives this to be the case, opposition is likely to harden.

Incorporating public perspectives is also unlikely to deliver easy answers. In research conducted recently by the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University, UK, members of the public expressed a range of views about SPICE. Most were willing to entertain the notion that the test should be pursued as a research opportunity. But very few were unconditionally positive about either the idea of solar radiation management or the test itself.

When such a critical issue is at stake it is perhaps inevitable that debates will be characterised by hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric. But it is vital to remember that public attitudes towards science are not simply read off from scientific risk assessments. The SPICE test is a deeply symbolic development, and opposition towards it must be understood in this context.

Adam Corner is a research associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, UK, focusing on the communication of climate change and public engagement with emerging technologies such as geoengineering.

New Oil Remediation Tech takes $1mil Xprize

Disc Spins Its Way to $1 Million Oil Spill Clean Up Prize: Scientific American Podcast.

When oil started spewing from BP’s Macondo well in April 2010, there weren’t too many options for cleaning it up. Concentrated slicks on the ocean surface could be set ablaze. Booms kept oil off the shores, as long as the waves stayed calm. And chemical dispersants of unknown toxicity could be sprayed to break up oil patches.

But thanks to the Wendy Schmidt X Prize that won’t be true next time. A company from Illinois known as Elastec / American Marine won the $1 million first prize by tripling previous clean up rates.

Over 10 weeks this summer, 10 finalists out of 350 entrants demonstrated their technology at the largest outdoor saltwater wave test facility in North America. Elastec’s Grooved Disc Skimmer scooped up 4,670 gallons of oil per minute and didn’t leave much behind.

The machine looks like a giant, thick, grooved vinyl record spinning at high speed to capture nearly 90 percent of the oil on the waters. And there’s no shortage of oil spills for it to work on. The latest is underway in New Zealand, as a stranded cargo ship leaks heavy oil onto a coral reef and local beaches.