Wednesday, December 21, 2011

ARPA-E's PETRO Program Plans to Create Better Biofuel Crops, Cutting Costs in Half, By Clay Dillow

Rapeseed, Grown for Biofuel Production Mark Walton via Wikimedia
The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency--Energy) has just doled out its fourth round of funding, and $30 million is going toward the ambitious goal of trimming the cost of biofuels by 50 percent. PETRO, or Plants Engineered to Replace Oil, looks to breed or genetically modify plants that boost energy-per-acre by boosting their abilities to capture and convert solar energy.
The problem with biofuels is that they can actually cost more in energy to produce than they end up yielding in BTUs, delivering a poor return (sometimes a negative return) on energy investment over the course of a given acre’s life cycle. Then there’s food prices that must be taken into consideration; crops like corn, when used to make ethanol, are removed from the food supply. That can cause price spikes, which tend to cause problems ranging from famine to civil unrest.

PETRO will try to optimize plants for energy capture and conversion, so more energy is absorbed, stored, and converted to final fuel products than is being extracted from current biomass crops. To quote ARPA-E:

ARPA-E seeks to fund technologies that optimize the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop robust, farm-ready crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump. If successful, PETRO will create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil.

If it works, new breeds of plants (and GM biofuel crops) could help the U.S. meet its mandate to manufacture 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 (up from about a third of that today).
[IEEE Spectrum]

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Burning Waste From Whisky Production, a Scottish Energy Project Will Power 9,000 Homes, By Clay Dillow

Whisky Pot Stills at the Glendronach Distillery Akela NDE via Wikimedia
Regretting having that “one more” scotch last night? This might make you feel a little better: your tipple of choice may soon be providing sustainable energy
The project, slated to begin operating in 2013, will be located in Rothes in Speyside, the famed whisky producing region that is home to such recognizable labels as the Famous Grouse, Chivas Regal, and Glenfiddich (all of which will contribute biomass to the plant). The plant will burn a blend of wood chips and draff, the spent grains used in the whisky-making process. Additionally, pot ale--another residual product of the process--will be donated from distilleries and turned into organic fertilizer and animal feed for local farmers.

Of Scotland’s 100 distilleries, 50 are in Speyside and 16 of those will ship their draff to the site, which will burn nothing that comes from more than 25 miles away. That makes this a pretty sustainable and very locally-sourced energy project--it’s even drawn a bit of praise from the local World Wildlife Fund folks. And it’s a model that could feasibly be replicated across other regions if successful.

This is not Scotland’s first foray into whiskey-fueled energy projects, but it is the first that will provide power to a public utility. Scotland’s largest distillery, Fife, has nearly completed its own on-site bioenergy plant that will feed energy back into the distillery. And researchers at Scotland’s Napier University last year announced that they had devised a means to turn scotch-making residuals like pot ale and draff into biofuels that could burn in ordinary automobile engines.
So raise a glass, for your scotch habit is now contributing to the renewable energy revolution.

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'Concrete Canvas' Makes Erecting Permanent Buildings As Easy as Pitching a Tent, Drapeable fabric turns into solid concrete when it gets wet , By Clay Dillow

Concrete Canvas A concrete shelter in just 24 hours. via BBC
When disaster strikes and permanent structures are leveled, as they were recently by earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand (and more distantly in Haiti), they are usually replaced in the short term by tent cities. Two engineering students thought they could do better and invented Concrete Canvas, a fabric impregnated with concrete that can turn a tent into a hardy, permanent structure in 24 hours. Just add water.
Fundamentally, Concrete Canvas is a clever means to erect a sturdy, permanent structure anywhere. Packed in a crate, the entire building comes ready to erect with a minimum of infrastructure or extra tools. The exterior fabric, the Concrete Canvas, is basically like normal tent canvas loaded with dry cement particles. That fabric is bound to an interior airtight bladder.

When deployed at a site, the shelter is simply unpacked, unfolded, and attached to an air pump that fills it with compressed air like a balloon. Once rigid, the exterior simply needs to be thoroughly hosed down--dirty water works just fine--to hydrate all that concrete embedded in the Concrete Canvas. By the next day, the concrete is hardened and you’re left with nearly 600 square feet of interior space sheltered by a rigid concrete shell.

Since the interior is already lined with the airtight bladder, it’s sterilizable for an easily deployable triage facility. And like any concrete structure the walls can be drilled to install electricity, light fixtures, surfaces, or whatever the situation calls for. All said, two people can put the thing up in an hour (plus drying time), and the units can be organized end to end to create larger interior spaces. When the clock is ticking and manpower is at a premium, it’s a clever way to quickly put a roof over peoples’ heads.
To see an impressive video of a Concrete Canvas tent going up, click through the BBC link below.

Citizens in Flood Zone Build Homemade Levees to Protect Their Homes, By Clay Dillow

All of that water pouring out of spillways and topping levees up and down the Mississippi River has to go somewhere, and many living in those areas prone to flooding have taken drastic action to keep from being inundated. In what could be called a testament to the human instinct to protect hearth and home, some in the disaster zone are holding out by taking civil engineering into their own hands, building makeshift levees to keep the rising waters at bay. Click through the gallery to see how far some homeowners have gone to protect their properties.

Click to launch the photo gallery

Many residents of low-lying areas can't rely on government infrastructure to protect their homes--in fact, in some cases it's the government that's flooding them. In an effort to spare population centers like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the Army Corps of Engineers have opened the Mississippi's three major spillways--the Birds Point-New Madrid spillway in Missouri, the Morganza spillway near Morganza, La., and the Bonnet Carre just north of New Orleans--the first time all three have been opened up at the same time.
In other places, the overflowing Mississippi has left local rivers with no place to put their overflow. Floodwaters claimed their first victim today as a 69-year-old man was pulled form the waters by firefighters in Vicksburg, Miss., which is today buried beneath the levee-topping Yazoo river. The destruction in Vicksburg--where the water is expected to crest at 57.1 feet today--and along the Yazoo River (where the images in the gallery above were taken) is just a microcosm of the larger devastation stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf.


Airdrop, Which Harvests Moisture Directly From Desert Air, Wins James Dyson Award, By Clay Dillow

Edward Linacre and Airdrop James Dyson Foundation
The James Dyson Award winners for 2011 have been announced, and the grand prize winner is a piece of clever biomimicry that sits so perfectly in our wheelhouse that we couldn’t resist the urge to write about it. Edward Linacre of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne has tapped the Namib beetle--a desert dwelling species that survives in the most arid conditions on Earth--to create an irrigation system that can pull liquid moisture straight out of dry desert air.
Airdrop, as the system is known, borrows a trick from the Namib beetle, which can live in areas that receive just half an inch of rain per year by harvesting the moisture from the air that condenses on its back during the early morning hours. A hydrophilic skin helps to snare water molecules passing on the breeze, which then accumulate into droplets of consumable liquid water.

Airdrop mimics this idea, though on a larger scale. The self-powering device pumps water into a network of underground pipes, where it cools enough for water to condensate. From there the moisture is delivered to the roots of nearby plants. Linacre’s math shows that about 11.5 milliliters can be harvested from every cubic meter of air, and further development could raise that number even higher.

Such a system could provide regular moisture to plants being grown in the world’s driest regions. And because it is low cost and self-powered, there’s not a lot of investment or maintenance involved in deploying Airdrop. The $14,000 award from Dyson (Linacre’s university also gets an additional $14,000) should help speed that along.

This year’s runners up included a quickly deployable divider for medical settings that lets healthcare professionals make the most of available space and an aide for the blind that uses a special cane and location-based social networking apps to help the visually impaired locate their friends. All of this year's entries can be seen here.

Invention Awards: A Box That Keeps Plants Hydrated in the Desert, By Corey Binns

Thinking Inside the Box Pieter Hoff is testing the Groasis Waterboxx on grapevines at Robert Mondavi’s Napa Valley, California, vineyard. If successful, it could save the winery more than 145,000 gallons of water per acre a year. John B. Carnett
Today's featured Invention Award winner is the Groasis Waterboxx, which waters plants without irrigation.
Dutch flower exporter Pieter Hoff often spent nights in his beloved lily fields to monitor them. One evening, he noticed that the first droplets of morning condensation were collecting on the leaves of his lilies well before midnight.
Invention: Groasis Waterboxx
Inventor: Pieter Hoff
Cost: $7.1 million
Time: 7 years
Is It Ready Yet? 1 2 3 4 5
The plants lost heat to the air at night, and the cool surface of the leaves sucked water droplets from the warm, humid air. Nature’s watering system, Hoff thought, is incredibly efficient. So in 2003, he sold his business and began developing a planter that could capture water the same way plants do and foster saplings in the harshest conditions.
Today, one third of the world’s population lives where water is scarce or of poor quality, a number that’s expected to jump to two thirds by 2025. Making matters worse, in some areas deforestation and overfarming have led to eroded soil that can no longer support many crops. Hoff designed his Groasis Waterboxx with this in mind—it’s a plant incubator that’s made from plastic or a biodegradable material and designed to cool faster than the night air, like his lilies. The box is coolest at its top, the part that has the most contact with the open air. Water condenses on the cover and flows down into a small holding tank, where it’s trapped, along with any rainwater. The collected water and the box itself keep the plant and its roots hydrated and protected.

How the Groasis Waterboxx Works: Water condenses on the box's cool top, collects in a tank, and drips into the soil to hydrate the plant.  Paul Wootton

At the same time, a candle-like wick on the bottom of the box slowly drips small doses of the water into the soil and root system underneath, providing enough for the plant’s first year of life but still leaving the roots thirsty enough to grow strong and deep. The box can easily be lifted up off the ground, over the top of the plant, and reused.
In 2006 Hoff took 25 Waterboxxes to Morocco’s Sahara desert, and after a year, 88 percent of the trees he treated had green leaves, while 90 percent of those watered weekly (the traditional local method) died under the scorching sun. He is conducting more experiments with 20,000 Waterboxxes in difficult terrains in places like Pakistan and Ecuador this year.

Hoff is hoping to recruit people to buy a few Waterboxxes from his Web site ( to see how the invention works in other regions he hasn’t reached. “Everywhere you look, there’s space to plant,” he says. “But I can’t do this alone.”

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