Stories tagged environment

This page lists stories about the environment, energy, climate change, and global warming from Science Buzz, a website devoted to science in the news, emerging research, and seasonal phenomena.


Making the world a better place

A philanthropic arm of the Google Foundation called drawing upon its nearly $2 billion in Google stock will invest "hundreds of millions" in companies specializing in renewable energy, co-founder Larry Page said.

"If we achieve these goals, we are going to be in the (electricity) business in a very big way," Page said. "We should be able to make a lot of money from this."

One gigawatt of renewable energy

Google's plan, known as RE< C, is to develop a gigawatt of electricity from renewable energy sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from burning coal. Google is betting its R&D dollars on advanced solar thermal power, wind power, and enhanced geothermal technologies. Google's headquarters already draws some of its power from one of the country's biggest solar power installations.

"Cheap renewable energy is not only critical for the environment but also vital for economic development in many places where there is limited affordable energy of any kind," added Sergey Brin, Google Co-founder and President of Technology. grants and investments

Two companies is working with are eSolar Inc. and Makani Power Inc. By focusing sunlight with mirrors, eSolar Inc. hopes to generate utility-scale power cheaper than with coal. Makani Power Inc. is developing high-altitude wind energy extraction technologies (Get more information via pdf downloads by clicking the company names).

"'s hope is that by funding research on promising technologies, investing in promising new companies, and doing a lot of R&D ourselves, we may help spark a green electricity revolution that will deliver breakthrough technologies priced lower than coal." (Nov 27 Google press release)

Sources & resources: Yahoo News and and FAQ


The fuel of the future?: Termite guts break down cellulose into a form that could be used for fuel.
The fuel of the future?: Termite guts break down cellulose into a form that could be used for fuel.Courtesy Velo Steve

Scientists for the US Department of Energy are studying termites in hopes of developing new sources of fuel.

Termites eat wood. Wood is made of a tough material called cellulose. There’s an awful lot of cellulose in the world, and its easy to grow, making it an ideal raw material for making ethanol. Except – it’s really, really hard to turn cellulose into ethane (natural gas). It’s much easier to make ethanol out of food crops like corn – but that creates problems of its own.

Termites, however, have microbes in their stomachs which break down cellulose quickly and efficiently, as anyone who’s ever had a termite infestation in their house knows. Scientists hope to figure out how the microbes do their job, and then duplicate the process to help fill the nation’s energy needs.

The incomparable Cecil Adams weighs in with his thoughts on cellulose-based ethanol.

It’s a little early, but Popular Science has issued their list of the top innovations of 2007. Their grand prize winner are nanosolar powersheets, thin flexible films that use nanotechnology to harness solar energy -- and allowing me to tag this post as both "nanotechnology" and "energy." The health innovations section allows me to use the "health" tag, and a new toilet that uses 40% less fresh water allows me to tag this as "water." It's a win-win-win!

Researchers at Penn State University have developed a fuel cell in which common bacteria produce copious amounts of hydrogen. Some experts believe hydrogen will replace oil as the fuel of the future, if we can find a way to produce it cheaply. The new apparatus uses waste water, plant material and bugs to produce hydrogen.


We couldn’t get the rights to a photo of a nano-ultra-capacitor, so here’s a picture of some cute baby ducks.: Photo by Mattay from
We couldn’t get the rights to a photo of a nano-ultra-capacitor, so here’s a picture of some cute baby ducks.: Photo by Mattay from

Many devices need to use stored energy. The most common storage devices are batteries and capacitors.

Batteries produce energy through chemical reactions in their mass, and release it at a slow and steady rate. Batteries can store a lot of energy, but they’re difficult to recharge.

Capacitors store energy on their surface, release it all in a burst, and then can be easily recharged. Many devices use capacitors – cellphones, computer memory, even some trucks and buses. But the amount of energy capacitors can store is limited – only one-millionth the power in a battery of the same size.

But perhaps not for long. A team of researchers at MIT is using nanotechnology to improve the storage capacity of capacitors. Working with materials just a few atoms thick, they can build very complicated shapes with lots of surface area to hold electrical charge. Test show these devices can hold up to 50% of the energy a battery holds, and yet still maintain the advantages of quick release and easy recharge. The researchers predict this next generation of capacitors could someday help power electric cars or store energy from renewable sources.


A computer in a cube land: Image courtesy tigerplish via Flickr.
Working in an office cube-land as I do, I often go home for the night and walk by coworkers cubes and see computers or monitors that are left on overnight. Now, I know why this is in a lot of cases – convenience – but I have also heard the explanation that it takes more power to turn on the computer in the morning than it does to power it overnight, so leaving it on is the “greener” thing to do. I’ve wondered if that is true, and so today I did some digging around on the subject.

According to Evan Mills in the Energy Analysis Department of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Environmental Energy Technologies Division,

The small surge of power created when some devices are turned on is vastly smaller than the energy used by running the device when it is not needed. While it used to be the case that cycling appliances and lighting on and off drastically reduced their useful lifetimes, these problems have been largely overcome through better design.

And, turning your computer and monitor on and off is not bad for it. That may have been the case in the past, but today computers are designed to handle 40,000 power cycles before a failure. That’s 100+ years of turning your computer on and off once a year every day. It’ll be an object in a museum long before turning it on and off has any effect on it.

So, it is better to turn your monitor and computer off at night, but that does not address the primary reason why most folks don’t – convenience. Many find it bothersome to wait for the computer to start up after being turned off. (Oh the crosses computer-users must bear!) Well, there’s an energy efficient way around that as well.

If you are a Mac user you can put your computer to “sleep”, while PC users can tell their computers to “hibernate”. The hibernate feature significantly lowers your computer’s energy consumption overnight while at the same time allows for quick restarts in the morning. Monitors should still be turned completely off - and running a screen-saver does not save any energy – in fact it consumes significantly more power than if the computer is turned off or placed in hibernation.

And remember, like many other appliances such as your Playstation, DVR or TV, even when off your computer still uses some power running to either an AC adaptor, to maintain local-area network connectivity or other things. The only time many of our modern electronic devices consume no power is when they are turned off.

Do you turn your computer off at night? Why or why not?

Relevant articles here and here.


Q-drum: credit: P.J. Hendrikse
Q-drum: credit: P.J. Hendrikse
Ninety per cent of Earth's population does not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum currently has an exhibit titled "Design for the other 90%".

Design away poverty.

“The No. 1 need that poor people have is a way to make more cash,” says Martin Fisher.

Martin Fisher, an engineer who founded KickStart, says Kickstart's mission is to help millions of people out of poverty. Pumping water can help a farmer grow grain in the dry season, when it fetches triple the normal price. Dr. Fisher described customers who had skipped meals for weeks to buy a pump and then earned $1,000 the next year selling vegetables.
Another successful pump is the bamboo-treadle pump. Over 1.7 million have been sold in Bangladesh and elsewhere, generating $1.4 billion in net farmer income in Bangladesh alone.

Design and transporting water.

How can a child transport over 100 pounds of water more than a mile? The Q-Drum is a durable container designed to roll easily. With a Q-Drum even children can carry more than 100 pounds of water more than a mile.

Read about dozens of designs that make a big difference.

The Design for the other 90% exhibit is divided into categories. By clicking on each you will be able to learn more about these life-changing designs.

Source: New York Times

John Kanzius discovered that salt water when bombarded with radio waves burns. You can learn more and see salt water burn in this video(You Tube).


A wild tornado searches for prey: If only we could tame them!  (image courtesy of the NOAA photo library)
A wild tornado searches for prey: If only we could tame them! (image courtesy of the NOAA photo library)
Techno-magician Louis Michaud believes that he can summon a tornado, “tame” it, and use the entity to generate electricity. And he intends not to simply summon a miniature steam vortex, such as can be seen in the Science Museum of Magisota’s Experiment Gallery, but a full-sized wind monster, as featured in the documentary “Twister.”

As bizarre as the idea might seem, councils of air and wind magicians at learning institutions across the country say the theory is sound. It would simply require a sorcerer of the most audacious kind. Perhaps the wizard Michaud is just that person.

The idea is based on the simple and well-known principle that tornado beasts feed and grow off of warm air. Michaud proposes summoning the tornado into a “vortex engine” using a source of hot air such as the waste heat from a nearby nuclear generator (or even, depending on geography, heat from warm tropical water). The hot air would be directed up from the vortex engine’s base in a spinning motion, and would gather momentum as it rose, eventually becoming a tornado several kilometers high. The air sucked into the tornado would spin turbines and generate electricity. The normally chaotic and destructive tornado beast would be content to stay above the vortex engine, feeding off the hot air provided. The wizard Michaud also claims that the stationary, summoned tornados could have the added benefit of combating, in some small way, the powers of That-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named (Global Warming, as it likes to be called). The vortex engines would propel hot air high into the atmosphere, where it could more easily radiate energy back into space – an interesting idea, although it seems like there would have to be countless such tornado summoning stations to have any measurable effect. Who’s to say?

However, there is a price to pay for all this, as is always the case with magic. While universities have been experimenting with the summoning spell on a small scale – luring tornados not larger that a meter or two into this realm – the facilities for commercial-scale summoning would cost somewhere on the order of $60 million. This price would be offset somewhat if the generator were built in conjunction with a nuclear power station, as the station would no longer need a $20 million cooling tower. Michaud has formed the corporation AVEtec to seek investor funding. High wizards from Oxford, Cambridge, and MIT have joined AVEtec’s advisory board.

Those of you less experienced in the magical arts might be well served by this article, or this one, both of which offer a more scientific perspective.

We've discussed energy-saving compact fluorescent lightbulbs elsewhere on this blog. Now, Popular Science magazine has a round up of the next generation in low-energy lighting technology.