Bio-Economy, and Other Green Ideas

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Oil is Outdated; New Concepts are Coming from Old Philosophies

As the phrase “energy independence” finds its way to everyone’s lips, scientists are revisiting the work of bygone innovators to help develop a greener society.

 

Biofuel from Corn

Nearly seventy years after Henry Ford built an automobile from plants and fueled it with vegetable oil, America’s quest for energy independence is forcing the re-examination of some of his philosophies. A new bio-economy is beginning to unfold, and fascinating developments are springing from previously tested—and often discarded—technologies.

 

From floor coverings to auto bodies to biofuels, functional products are once again being designed without resorting to the use of petrochemicals.

Biofuels-Sources and Problems

The US government recently passed an energy bill (Public Law No: 110-140) mandating the increased use of biofuels, many of which are manufactured from food crops. Almost simultaneously, the United Nations called for a five-year moratorium on any fuel production that required the use of food crops. These contradictory policies point out the complexities involved in the development of green commodities:

  • Ethanol: Ethanol can be made from nearly any fermentable biomass. Although an entire industry has sprung up around the production of corn-based ethanol, the technology has many critics who point out its shortcomings. Sugar cane may prove a better substrate for ethanol production, and other possibilities (e.g., straw, fruit and vegetable pulp) are being explored.
  • Biodiesel: Fuels made from petroleum and virgin vegetable oils are not the most profitable products that can be extracted from these commodities. It makes more economic sense to make biodiesel from recycled vegetable oils or to produce it on the same farms where it is used. Though commercialization is still years away, biodiesel can also be made from algae.

Textiles-Back to the Farm

Many textiles, such as rayon and polyester, are petroleum-based synthetics that supplanted natural fibers a few decades ago. As oil prices rise, manufacturers are turning once again to fabrics derived from agriculture:

  • Flax: Fibers made from this plant are stronger than fiberglass and only weigh one-third as much. Ford incorporated flax into the body of his car. BMW and Mercedes currently use flax in their door panels and dashboards. Linoleum, made from flax-based linseed oil and filler, is once more appearing on the floors of “green-construction” homes.
  • Cotton, hemp, and coconut: Utilized through the ages, fibers from these plants are finding increasing uses in the production of clothing and footwear, upholstery, and paper products.

Plastics and Rubber

The tires on Henry Ford’s vehicle were created from goldenrod-based latex; a combination of flax, soybean meal and resin produced a body that was impervious to attempts to dent it with an ax. Such innovations, abandoned when the petrochemical industry expanded, are now being resurrected in the pursuit of earth-friendly technologies:

  • At Oregon State University, investigators are developing a source of high-quality latex that is derived from Russian dandelions–a concept visited by a scientist of Stalin’s time. (Oregon’s Agricultural Progress, Summer 2008, Vol. 54, No.1, Oregon State University, pp 8-13)
  • Rather than being discarded, materials as mundane as straw and fruit pulp are now viewed as promising sources for ethanol and specialty solvents. These solvents can be used in lieu of petrochemicals in the production of certain plastics.

Although a truly sustainable bio-economy is years away, revisiting inventions from the past may show the way into the future. The replacement of petroleum-dependent manufacturing methods by greener approaches may lead to more reasonably-priced goods as well as a cleaner planet.

TransPod partners with IKOS on design of hyperloop pod

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TransPod, the two-year-old startup constructing a hyperloop system that will be redefining the commercial transportation, has partnered with IKOS to design and develop energy-efficient power supply technology. The company hopes to commercialize the Hyperloop system by 2020.

“Hyperloop transportation will make changes on how we commute, live, and do business, and we would like to introduce these changes worldwide. Adding IKOS‘ extensive experience on our side, we have a unique position for accelerating the  development of hyperloop technologies from the leading industries that will improve our life quality remarkably and financial prosperity,” said Sebastien Gendron, founder, and CEO at TransPod.

Toronto-based TransPod scored US$15 million in seed funding from Angelo Investments, an Italian venture capital firm focused on transportation technologies.

At InnoTrans in September 2016, TransPod presented its hyperloop pod concept, leading trade show in the world for technology in the rail transport. The company’s main focus was on proving and developing proprietary designs that will reduce long-term as well as immediate issues built-in proposed technology to date. Parts ranging from pod’s internal systems, tube pressure as well as the comfort of the passengers and whole operational performance to route design, are consistently proving to be much more above competitive designs. At a later date, will be released specific benchmark results.

The Hyperloop concept was developed by Elon Musk.

Energy Efficient or Eco Design

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Green Commercial Architecture that Fails Sustainability Test

It takes more than green construction materials to create a sustainable design. Apply three tests to verify the sustainability of green buildings.

Many organizations are joining the rush to be sustainable, using green building materials and eco-design principles for new commercial architecture. A closer look reveals some of this newfound sustainability is only a veneer.

Sustainable Building Design

Sustainable design is more than green architecture. It has three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. Selecting green construction materials addresses only one aspect of sustainability when it comes to building development. Other factors, such as the ethical construction of buildings and their accessibility via public transit, are also contributors to a building’s sustainable design.

Verifying a Building’s Sustainability

The Burj Dubai, on track for being the world’s tallest building at 164 stories when it opens in 2009, is lauded in marketing literature for its energy-efficient building systems. In an October 13th, 2007 Globe and Mail article entitled “The Next Very, Very Big Things,” architectural critic Lisa Rochon reflected on the downside of uber-big buildings. Referring to the Burj Dubai, she wrote that immigrant labor at the site is being exploited to help keep construction costs down. These underpaid, badly-housed construction workers have been called Dubai’s dirty secret. Is this sustainable design as the architects, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill LLP maintain, or just green-speak?

A building can meet the requirements of LEED, the rating system used by the US Green Building Council to recognize green architecture and interior design, yet still, fail the sustainability test on other metrics for social and economic factors. Here are three tests for verifying the extent of a building’s sustainable design.

1. Travel distance and accessibility by public transit:

A commercial building could win an award for its green construction practices, but if it is located far from where its employees or users live, and if it is poorly accessed by public transit routes, its claim to being a sustainable development is spurious at best. There is nothing sustainable about having to drive to a building site, in a personal vehicle, over a long distance.

2. Treatment of construction crews and displaced former site residents:

Any so-called green construction or renovation that displaces former residents without taking into consideration their relocation and rehousing, or which otherwise disrupts the fabric of a community, is doing a disservice to the sustainability cause. Similarly, if a building’s construction relies on the use of indentured or underpaid laborers, its sustainability is in question.

3. Conspicuous consumption versus sustainable design:

Monument building undermines the essence of sustainable design. A green building at the $1000/square foot is a monument with green features, as Bill Valentine, chair of international architectural and engineering giant HOK points out in his public presentations.

A prime example of conspicuous consumption is the Getty Center in Los Angeles, designed by Richard Meier. The museum has received a prestigious LEED Gold accreditation, but at a cost of $1 billion, it stands in stark contrast to poor neighborhoods nearby, where teachers must buy crayons out of their own pocketbooks because there is no public money for supplies. While an admirer of the edifice’s designer, Valentine regards the museum as building on a scale that is not sustainable in the long run.

Achieving the Goals of Sustainable Design

Before you accept a green commercial builder’s claim to sustainability, examine the building’s design and construction from all three perspectives. Ask: is this building environmentally and socially sound in every respect, or does some aspect of its realization impose a burden on the environment or society? Only when a building’s design has addressed environmental, economic and social factors can it be genuinely sustainable.

 

Pollution by BP Oil Spill Suggests Need for Stricter Controls

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BP’s history of environmental disasters suggests the need for stringent monitoring by government agencies.

Jad Mouawad’s article “For BP, a History of Spills and Safety Lapses”, 8 May 2010 in The New York Times highlights the negative side of a ‘well-respected’ oil giant. Mouawad exposes BP’s past, a history fraught with disasters around the world that have cost lives and caused serious damage to the planet’s ecosystem. The oil and gas industry poses significant hazards which players need to take seriously. The ongoing lack of compliance with regulation by BP suggests that extreme action needs to be taken by government agencies to protect society and the environment.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon Operations

The Deepwater Horizon rig is based in the Gulf of Mexico. A massive explosion occurred on the rig on 20 April 2010 and the rig subsequently sank. According to surviving workers, the alarm signals did not go off and 11 lives were lost in the disaster as reported on SBS news. Massive quantities of oil have since been gushing into the ocean making this a disaster far worse than the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989. BP has clearly demonstrated that it does not preempt any malfunction to take place within its spheres of operation; no strategy was in place for quick deployment to address the problem in a timely fashion.

BP’s History of Disasters

In 2005, BP’s Texas City Refinery blew up with the tragic loss of 15 workers and BP vowed at this stage to address its appalling safety record, says Mouawad. This should have marked a turning point for BP but sadly that has not been the case. Mouawad reports that among other accidents a BP Alaskan pipeline ruptured in 2006 causing a major spill and in 2009, the central processing plant in Alaska was found to have a leak that could have caused a serious explosion and subsequent environmental pollution. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP for an excess of 700 violations at the Texas City Refinery in 2009. Most of the violations were related to the use of faulty valves, noted as being a systemic problem with BP.

BP’s Response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill

Ashley Fantz’s article “Oil Clean up technologies ‘primitive,’ experts say”, of 13 May 2010 in edition.cnn.com is critical of BP’s many responses to curb the spill. Firstly, remote-controlled submarine devices were used repeatedly to try and close the valves; all attempts failed. The second risk management strategy was to use a huge containment dome to sit over the gushing well, capture a large part of the oil and siphon it to a tanker in the vicinity. It took BP more than two weeks to get the containment dome ready and when it was finally placed over the spewing oil, it developed problems with ice crystals. The third strategy was the use of a smaller dome called a top hat which again had to be made before it could be deployed. Problems were encountered with fitting the dome; it was later found that the specifications of the rig did not match the engineering documents as reported by Frank James on 14 May 2010, in the article “BP May Highlight Role (Or Lack) Of Engineering Docs” in www.npr.org

Further, the large amounts of the chemical dispersant, Corexit which has been used to break up the oil on the surface of the ocean is known to be extremely harmful to living organisms says Fantz. This poses a huge danger to marine life and those feeding on marine life. BP is also struggling with a shortage of skimmer boats and booms to contain the oil on the surface.

BP’s Risk Analysis

The ongoing disasters and the manner in which they are addressed seem to suggest that BP does not take its responsibility to society and the environment seriously enough. It has continuously downplayed the possibility of accidents with serious consequences. Further, it seems to have convinced government agencies that there was only a 3% chance of oil coming ashore in the event of a spill. No one seems to have questioned these statements.

Government Agencies Must Take Action

BP’s track record indicates that although it admits its shortcomings and pays the fines it is not taking safety seriously enough to prevent future disasters. Its newest rig, The Atlantis is currently under investigation for breaches similar to those at the Deepwater Horizon. To prevent further disasters, government agencies will need to stringently monitor BP’s operations and if necessary refuse them future permits until they clean up their act.