Friday, October 17, 2014

ReInventing The Refrigerator

The story goes that Ian Tansley was walking in the cold country of Wales over a decade ago and observed a frozen sheet of ice along the lake.  As he tells Rebecca Burn-Callander of the Telegraph, “I thought, 'If hot water rises, why is the top of the lake frozen and not the bottom?’ That’s what gave me the idea. It’s just so simple and works with the density of water.”

The idea in question was a refrigerating system that uses physics to beat the efficiency of standard commercial refrigerators, and it soon became the heart of Tansley's Welsh-based firm, Sure Chill.   Innovation in this area is worth examination, as climate change, overpopulation, and other 21st century issues are forcing infrastructures around the world to reassess what takes up their respective energy grids.  The average US household has a refrigerator taking up around 13 percent of overall consumption (only the air conditioner uses more energy) and spends 600kw annually.  While these figures are an improvement from older models before 2001 that could use a whopping 1400 kilowatts a year, there's still room for improvement.

So how can Sure Chill's version of refrigeration help?  For one, it doesn't need to be plugged into the grid all the time.  On the contrary, a Sure Chill refrigerator can stay at optimal cooling levels for up to 12 days.  How?  By using the simple rules of physics applying to water circulation.  Water is at its heaviest at precisely 4 degrees C.  Any other temperature and it begins to rise, but if maintained at 4 degrees, it sinks, bringing heat with it (hence the frozen top of a lake).  This temperature is achieved through the power system of a Sure Chill fridge, which creates a top layer of ice in a reservoir frame around the unit with water staying below at the magic 4 degrees number.  But the design relies on nature once its turned off; as the water rises with the temperature, it mixes with the water sinking from the melted ice.  This creates a perfect stasis that can remarkably last days without renewed power to establish cooling again: 

Sure Chill chairman Peter Saunders (left) and chief executive
Keith Bartlett with the new Sure Chill technology.
While the design is ingenious, its detractors point out some obvious problems that may arise in competing with the commercial refrigeration market.  For one, using water to circulate around the fridge instead of air (as standard fridges use) could make the Sure Chill vulnerable to outside heating factors, as water absorbs heat more so than air would.  However, Sure Chill fridges are finding an immediate application on the edges of global energy grids, most notably in the Philippines, where UNICEF has ordered 200 of Tansley's models for much-needed vaccination storage in the wake of the damage from Haiyan. Additionally, the Bill Gates Foundation recently made a huge investment in Sure Chill with a $1.4 million grant donated for the purposes of improving the design's cooling endurance to 30 days off the grid

 A hearty challenge, but if met, one that could revolutionize food, medical, and storage industries around the world.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Goodyear Makes a Move In Green-based Industry; Plans To Recycle Rice Husks For Tire Production

Who would think that one of the staple side dishes of a regular American meal could also be a source of  the world's pollution?  But the next time you're shopping for rice in your local grocery, you should consider this: in Asia alone, rice production produces over 770 million tons of rice husks a year that up until recently were dumped in rivers and landfills or burned into the atmosphere.  That number doesn't even take into account markets in North America or the Middle East, also major hubs of rice as a mass commodity.

The waste of rice husks is doubly tragic, considering research is showing more and more by-products of rice production can serve a multitude of uses and has much more value than western industry has given it.  In India, a company funnels the gas from burning husks into turbines that create electricity that runs 30 percent cheaper than diesel-based turbines.  In Taiwan, researchers successfully showed how rice husk "biochar" can integrate with soil to grow heartier green vegetables than char based from wood.   Despite these small victories of  cyclical use, any true sustainable manufacturing that can yield impressive profits and positively contribute to the environment has to be on a much larger scale, and would involve convincing a giant market force to take a risk on a new approach to cost-efficiency.

Enter Goodyear, which certainly qualifies as one of those giant forces. It seems the company has caught green-lit plans to use silica in ash leftover from burnt husks as an environmentally friendly form of traction-control and fuel efficiency for its tires.  While it's not clear yet whether Goodyear can buy ash from power plant contractors that minimize the air pollution from burning husks, it's a much-needed improvement from the tons of silica filling up landfills.  The move also helps Goodyear fulfill its 2008 mandate to have zero waste to landfill from its facilities.

It may be a small step, but it's being made by a giant of American tire manufacturing.  And if tangible savings are measured, this move could serve as a template for all companies to pursue cyclical, sustainable industry.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Manufacturing Hub Bill Clears Senate

Senators Tom Reed (R) of New York and Joseph Kennedy III (D) of Massachusetts have gone against the recent narrative of a do-nothing Congress by securing passage of the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act  (RAMI).  The bill passed the House with overwhelming approval, and only awaits a vote by the Senate to begin changing the manufacturing landscape across the country.

The RAMI Act secures earmarks of $300 million spread over ten years to foster and support community centers, or "hubs", where local private companies can access public funding to work together, not just on creating new manufacturing products, but training a new generation of labor to create those products as well.

Although one part of the greater puzzle in making the United States more competitive with foreign manufacturing advantages such as cheaper labor and less legal restrictions, the bill goes a long way in helping to fill a crucial gap in the US.  The disconnect between national factory chains and local city/state communities that thrive with their own unique contributions to those chains is a clear hindrance.  Previous collaborative pilot programs where government entities such as NASA provide criteria and benchmarks for private groups to develop new products and methods have proven very successful in the past few years (3D Printing owes its success to this).

Senators Reed and Kennedy should be commended for recognizing these public/private efforts and taking a step to provide a much more stable network within which they can continue.  You can go here to learn more about the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act, as well as the Regional Innovation Program it's based on.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Can Mining Change In The 21st Century?

As traditional energy sources are being reevaluated more and more under the context of overall costs versus benefits, ideas that had previously never been able to get out of R&D labs are now being closely analyzed.  Innovation has clearly been regarded as key for businesses moving forward into the century, but with environmental issues becoming more and more relevant to the discussion, there's an even greater incentive not only to discover, but to refine new ways of doing old things.

On this point, there's no better place to start than mining.  Traditional methods of mineral extraction are simply not going to be sustainable on long-term scales, and risk permanent damage to natural landscapes.  But with so much of the US depending on fossil fuel infrastructures, cleaning up mining methods may be a far more efficient choice than eliminating them.  Damien Palin's 2012 TED talk on this subject highlights the potential for combining bacterial manipulation and reverse osmosis desalination to harvest minerals out of sea brine.  While he freely admitted how expensive the process is, there is definitely room to refine it:

Looking at on-the-ground developments, the US Department of Energy just awarded $1.5 million to a start-up company founded by University of Alabama researchers that is developing a clean way of harvesting uranium from the oceans.  The company, 525 Solutions, plans to build bio-degradable nets made of chitin; a material derived from shrimp shells.  The tiny chitin fibers are excellent at amassing uranium on the microscopic level.  While the nets are being developed for nuclear plant clean-ups, UA Chemistry Chair Dr. Robin Rogers points out the logical next step will be the floors of the sea.  From Fish Information & Services:

 "The oceans are estimated to contain more than a thousand times the amount of uranium found in total in any known land deposit,” Rogers said. “Fortunately, the concentration of uranium in the ocean is very, very low, but the volume of the oceans is, of course, very, very high. Assuming we could recover only half of this resource, this much uranium could support 6,500 years of nuclear capacity.”      

Clean, sustainable methods like 525 Solutions' are the major solution for transforming industries like mining to stay safe, relevant, and enduring.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, September 19, 2014

South Korean Shipbuilders Make Cyber-Suits a Reality

With each passing day, there's more news from the world of cybernetics that continue to defy our imaginations. Ever since Arnold (aka "Ahhnold") stepped out of an explosion stripped down to his T-100 bones, the cinematic portrayal of human anatomy in robotic frames have been rooted in our minds.  And while movies like Edge of Tomorrow usually frame the growing trend of merging man and machine in the context of war and military might, the actual application of this tech could have alternative purposes.

South Korean-based Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Exploration, one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world, in an effort to find new ways to maximize efficiency, has developed their own exo-skeleton that assists existing workers with heavy multi-purpose lifting.  The prototype can fit a laborer from roughly 5 to 6 feet tall, and help with heavy components weighing up 66 lbs.  While it's far from ideal in the day-to-day tasks- workers have already complained it slows them down and doesn't account for enough weight- the suit's basic concept has proved a resounding success.  Its combination of hydraulics and servomotors actually work to complement the laborer's own strength without hindering natural limb movement. From Daily Tech:

"The exoskeleton is made of a complex mix of carbon fiber, aluminum alloys, and steel alloys.  It weighs 28 kg (61.7 lb.) and is capable of 3 hours of operation via lithium-ion batteries that accompany the control circuitry in the backpack of the suit.  The suit is capable of walking at a "normal" human pace while carrying the 30 kg objects." 

While not the first prototype of its kind (MIT recently unveiled an "Octopus arm" apparatus), Daewoo's in-house exo-suit is the first to be used in an industry setting.  Already, US contractors such as Raytheon are taking notes for their own in-process projects.  There's also a lot more to see before the design is considered a real paradigm shift; it's one thing for an exoskeleton to work, it's another for its application to translate into measurable efficiency.  Still, Daewoo has taken a major step in robotics in the workplace, and the US industrial world should pay close attention to just how heavy this lifting will be.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Exit Coal/Enter Wind

The accelerating decline of coal has been in the cards for some time, now.  With long-term projections showing the costs in pollution and emissions far outweighing the benefits, the energy sector has clearly shifted to natural gas as its leading resource.

However, the US's distinct advantages in wind resources shouldn't be underestimated.  What wind has been lacking to compete with more traditional resources is infrastructure.  As efficient as an energy source can be, it's useless if it can't be efficiently integrated into the existing grid around it.  While incentives have been set in motion such as the EPA's demand that power plant emissions be cut by 30 percent in the next 15 years, the kind of large-scale system needed to show how powerful an impact wind can have on assuaging the nation's energy grids has been lacking; until now.

Wind Farm off the town of White Deer, TX
The Texas Panhandle, with winds so fast, locals consider them a hindrance more than a help, is now fully connected to the traditional energy landscape of the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin residencies with power lines capable of transmitting up to 18,000 Megawatts of power.  The project is daring on many levels, none more so perhaps than the fact that the infrastructure lines weren't exactly being made to meet existing demand.  The project is one giant $7 billion gamble that wind developers will take advantage of the gaping potential of servicing Texas' major cities under Texas' low taxes and regulations.  So far it seems to be working, as two wind farms have already entered operation this summer, producing power equivalent to a traditional coal plant.

While Texas is a unique situation, other regions of the country are following suit.  Detroit's largest supplier, DTE, recently forcasted $8 billion of their own investments will be spent retooling and renewing Michigan's energy grid.  While natural gas will always be on the table, Michigan's local winds are similar in proportional abundance to Texas.  In addition, when taken with DTE's recent plans to close six of the state's coal plants, it's safe to assume utilities are preparing for a major push into wind power.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, August 29, 2014

California's Biggest Obstacle To Clean Manufacturing--Its Environmental Laws?

Tesla's steady surge into the fabric of American manufacturing is poised for a milestone in its plan to build a giant lithium battery plant-a "gigafactory" that they claim would guarantee homegrown creation of at least 6500 new jobs.  Naturally numbers like that will have states bidding like crazy for the project, and Musk's group has narrowed their choices for the site down to five states: Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California.

While taxes are always going to be a factor, that doesn't seem to be the primary hurdle Tesla is looking at for which state is suitable for the project.  Musk seems to have time on his mind:

"Timing for the gigafactory is very important,” Tesla spokesman Simon Sproule said Monday. “So all five states in the running for the gigafactory need to demonstrate, among other factors, that they can help us deliver the factory on time.” (Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2014)

Lithium ion batteries similar to the one above will be
manufactured at Tesla's proposed factory.
This may have very well been a direct message to California, which among the states, has the greatest California Environmental Quality Act- signed into law by Ronald Reagan- that state and municipal boards review any project sites for environmental impact before construction is allowed to begin.  While CEQA's intention was to preserve California's unique and fragile environment, its critics point out it may be hindering environmental efforts more than helping.  Because it vastly empowers local government, many neighborhoods have used it to turn down projects that could help the state ween itself off fossil fuels, such as wind farms and solar fields.  CEQA has become a tool of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) sentiments, instead of green business expansion.

The Governor's administration is considering waiving the requirements of the regulation hurdles to clear.

However, there's an understandable concern in relaxing regulations around what is essentially, despite Tesla's green reputation, a battery plant.  While it's true there is precedent for CEQA being waived for large-scale projects (it was suspended when the NFL had proposed a football stadium in Los Angeles), lithium batteries and the risks their manufacturing could have in damaging the local environment with excess hazardous material is precisely the kind of project it was designed to regulate in the first place.  

With Tesla's determination to meet the deadline of 2017, the rush to cut through bureaucracy has created in California an all too common conflict between public and private incentive. Yet seeing how it will play out in the alternative fuel market may test everyone's assumptions of clean vs. dirty and what will really help this industry grow into the 21st century.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.