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.


Hey, they're stealing our idea!: SMM's Science House produces as much energy as it consumes.  Now some folks in Tennessee are trying to mass-market the idea.  Good for them!
Hey, they're stealing our idea!: SMM's Science House produces as much energy as it consumes. Now some folks in Tennessee are trying to mass-market the idea. Good for them!

Out back, along the river, the Science Museum operates Science House, a zero-emissions building that is designed to generate as much energy as it uses. (You can read a discussion of Science House on the Buzz site here.

The idea seems to be catching on. A consortium of community groups in Tennessee is offering plans for building homes designed to have energy costs of less than $1 a day. The homes cost less than $100,000 to build, use proven technology (heat pumps, solar cells, insulation), and use less than 20% the energy of an average home in the area.


Dear Readers,

Now, please raise a hand or two if I’m getting ahead of you, but I think it’s time we get down to business.

You’ve all heard of “the future,” correct? Flying cars, artificial intelligence, iPhones, and excremental fuel sources? I thought so. Or is there anything here that you are, as of yet, unfamiliar with?

Do your part to solve the energy crisis: A local man prepares to save the future, the only way he knows how.    (photo by Mimi K)
Do your part to solve the energy crisis: A local man prepares to save the future, the only way he knows how. (photo by Mimi K)

Ever since the release of Back to the Future Part II, flying cars have been, more or less, old news, and Tamagotchi has put to rest all fears of A.I. iPones will remain a mystery to all of us for another few hours, at least, but are we all clear on the matter of turning excrement, or “poop,” into sweet diesel fuel?

Oh. I see. We haven’t all been doing our assigned reading, have we?

Well, if the responsible among you would like to put your heads down on your desks for a few minutes, I’ll refresh the rest of the Science Buzz readers.

Chemists around the globe have been hard at work on various processes to convert organic, carbon-based waste products into something very much like crude oil. Examples of organic, carbon-based waste products include, but are not limited to, chicken and turkey guts, old tractor tires, Sega Genesis cartridges (in part), lawn compost, cookie dough, defective jewel cases, ramen noodle wrappers, my fingernail clippings, old magazines, new magazines, tennis shoes (right and left), twine, super glue, baseball hats, worn out VHS copies of “Biodome,” and, naturally, human fecal matter.

The method for turning carbon products back into something like petroleum is relatively new, although certainly not unheard of. By applying the right conditions (heat, pressure, and, uh, other stuff) to the contents of, say, a couple tons of landfill, you can end up with a crude oil like substance, and some left over minerals and metals. The trick is in refining this process so that the energy needed for the transformation is less than the potential energy of the fuel output. As scientists come closer to a workable method, government and industry have been taking a closer look at large-scale applications. This article mentions Britain’s interest in the technology needed to turn their organic waste – of all sorts – into transportation fuel.

As something that produces carbon-based fuels, this process wouldn’t exactly halt the output of global-warming CO2, but it’s not quite so harmful as burning fossil fuels because, as the article puts it, “the carbon produced when the fuel is burnt was absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants or trees used to make it.” That is to say, it wouldn’t create new CO2, because the organic components of the fuel had just been taking in carbon that was already in the atmosphere.

The facilities required for the process are, unfortunately, extremely expensive. Once everything is set up, however, the fuel produced could potentially be very cheap. And the ingredients aren’t generally difficult to produce.


Pond scum to the rescue: Researchers are looking at ways to produce fuel from algae. Photo from NOAA.
Pond scum to the rescue: Researchers are looking at ways to produce fuel from algae. Photo from NOAA.

If some researchers in Colorado have their way, you may one day be driving a car powered by pond scum. Solix Biofuels is one of a handful of companies trying to produce biodiesel from algae.

May people consider biodeisel fuels, like ethanol, a preferable alternative to gasoline for powering. It is renewable (we’ll never run out; we just grow some more); it pollutes less; it is non-toxic and biodegradable; and we can grow it in the US, and not have to import oil from overseas.

One of the big problems with biofuels, though, is they are made from plants. Some of those plants, like corn and soybeans, we eat. Turning those plants into fuel is already driving up the price of food. And replacing all our oil with biofuel would require more farmland than exists in the entire nation.

This is where algae comes in. Algae produces vegetable oil, which can be refined into biodiesel. It can grow anywhere you can set up water tanks. It thrives on sunshine, which is plentiful and free. And it pulls carbon dioxide out of the air. (You could, in fact, take the CO2 produced by a traditional power plant and pump it straight into an algae farm)

Algae researchers are a long way from producing any biofuel yet. But this could be a way of meeting our energy needs while being gentler to the environment.


A British design firm, Sheppard Robson, has unveiled a plan for a new house that produces zero emissions, making it carbon neutral. Their home is the first design to meet the highest level of energy efficiency set by the UK government for some new laws that go into effect in 2016.

The Science Museum of Minnesota has its own Zero Emissions Building right here by the Mississippi River, Science House. Next time your in our Big Backyard, make sure the check it out.


Wind farms produce clean energy, but some people consider them eyesores: Photo by fieldsbh at
Wind farms produce clean energy, but some people consider them eyesores: Photo by fieldsbh at

A new book, Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound, tells the story of efforts to build wind turbines off the coast of Cape Cod to provide clean, renewable energy for the state of Massachusetts. However, some of the wealthy people who live in the area – including some renowned environmentalists – object to the project located so close to their own homes.

This article from the Cape Cod Times describes some of the legal maneuvering that has thus far blocked the project. One objection is that wind turbines kill migrating birds. The reporter did some research and came up with the following statistics:

Human-caused bird deaths

• Domestic cats: Hundreds of millions a year
• Striking high-tension lines: 130 million - 1 billion a year
• Striking buildings: 97 million to 976 million a year
• Cars: 80 million a year
• Toxic chemicals: 72 million
• Striking communications towers: 4 to 50 million a year
• Wind turbines: 20,000 to 37,000

Source: National Research Council

Clearly, turbines are not a major threat to birds, while the clean energy they provide would be a major boost to the environment. So why are some environmentalists opposed? The authors of the book say it’s because the turbines, several miles off the coast, would still be visible from their beach-front property. (It is also interesting to note that some of the anti-turbine legislation has been proposed by congressmen from states that just happen to produce a lot of coal.)

For an overview of the issue, read this article from The Boston Phoenix.

Popular Mechanics has the answer, along with some tips for reducing energy use.

[UPDATE: link fixed. Sorry.]


To good to be true? Maybe not. India’s largest car company is planning to start production on a car that runs on compressed air. An on-board tank would store over 3,000 cubic feet of compressed air. Released in small, controlled bursts, the air would push pistons to make the car go. Nothing burns, so there is no pollution, no greenhouse gas emissions, no use of gasoline.

The car has a range of 120-180 miles, about double what the best electrics now offer. Drivers will fill up at special compressors installed at filling stations. (The car also comes equipped with a compressor that can refill the tank if plugged in overnight.) Thus, “fuel” costs will come down to about 2.2 cents per mile.

The car saves energy in other ways:

  • Because there is no internal combustion – no gasoline burns in the engine, and it stays relatively cool -- you only need to change the oil every 31,000 miles or so. (In fact, you can use vegetable oil.)
  • As air expands, its temperature drops – in this case, to somewhere between 0 and 15 below. This cool air could be recaptured for the air conditioning system, saving even more energy.

The car does have some drawbacks. The top speed is 68 mph -- fine for tooling around town, but pretty weak for the highway. Also, to save weight, the car is made entirely of fiberglass and is glued together, rather than bolted. This kind of construction is not considered safe enough in the US. But if the air car is successful, it’s a good bet that car companies will look for ways to adapt this technology to the American market.


It seems that everywhere I look, energy is in the news these days. Here are a few more stories that caught my eye recently.

Wind power

Delaware is considering building a massive windfarm in the waters off their Atlantic coast. Experts estimate this could generate enough energy to light 130,000 homes. But some people raise concerns about the damage this might do to migratory birds, ocean shipping, and the natural beauty of the view.

Nano solar panels

We’ve discussed how nanotechnology might revolutionize solar energy elsewhere on this blog. Now come word from Rice University of a breakthrough: an efficient means of creating molecular-sized semiconductors, an important component of high-efficiency solar panels.

Green fuel guide

Ethanol. Biodiesel. Hydrogen. Lots of new fuels are vying to replace gasoline as the automotive energy of the future. Popular Science magazine gives a run-down on the pros and cons of each.

All about CFLs

We’ve had a couple of threads here on Compact Fluorescent Bulbs and the advantages of replacing your regular bulbs with low-energy CFLs. For those who want to learn more, here’s a handy round-up, telling you everything you need to know about these bulbs.

Indy goes green

by Gene on May. 04th, 2007

All cars in this year's Indianapolis 500 will be powered by ethanol. The Wall Street Journal has a video discussing how this came to be.