Stories tagged sustainability


Bright news: Due to a variety of new technological advances, electrical use in the U.S. has declined for the third straight year.
Bright news: Due to a variety of new technological advances, electrical use in the U.S. has declined for the third straight year.Courtesy Ramjar
So often, the headlines are filled with gloom and doom when reporting on energy usage, climate change and such matters. But here's some bright news.

U.S. electrical consumption has dropped down to the lowest levels since 2001. And that comes as we're using more electrical devices than ever. Here are the full details. It's the third-straight year U.S. electrical consumption has gone down.

Quickly summarizing, there are several factors for this significant drop in power use. Many major appliances have been re-engineered to be more efficient and use less electricity. Homes and buildings are better insulated and designed to keep air conditioning inside in the summer and cold out in the winter. More people are using compact fluorescent bulbs and LED lighting that consume much less electricity than incandescent bulbs.

And the trend looks to continue this year with another 1 percent drop in electrical juice consumption.


Solar plane: The plane Solar Impulse is making a cross-country trek over the USA.
Solar plane: The plane Solar Impulse is making a cross-country trek over the USA.Courtesy © Solar Impulse | Revillard |
It's one flight down and four more to go for Solar Impulse, the completely solar airplane that's soaring its way across the USA. Solar Impulse flew from San Francisco to Phoenix on May 3, taking a shade over 18 hours to complete the trip. Over the next couple months, it will fly legs to Dallas, St. Louis, Washington D.C. and New York City with the New York trip scheduled to conclude in early July.

For the stat freaks, the solar plane averaged a speed of 40 miles an hour at an average altitude of 10,000 feet. It soared to a maximum altitude of 21,000 feet over the 650 mile trip. And yes, it took off and landed in the dark.

More information about the Solar Impulse project can be found at its website here and to follow its progress flying across the country.

So how does a solar airplane work exactly?

Made of carbon fiber, the plane has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 (208 feet) and the weight of a small car (3,527 lbs). It is the result of seven years of intense work by a team of about 80 people and 100 partners and advisors. The 12,000 solar cells built into the wing provide four 10 horsepower electric motors with renewable energy. By day the solar cells recharge lithium batteries which allow the plane to fly at night. Swiss pioneers Bertrand Piccard (chairman) and André Borschberg (CEO) are the founders, pilots and the driving forces behind Solar Impulse.

The plane made its first night flight in 2010 and has a record endurance flight of 26 hours, 10 minutes, 19 seconds.

Solar Impulse wants to inspire and motivate as many people as possible throughout its journey across America. “We want to show that with clean technologies, a passionate team and a fa-reaching pioneering vision one can achieve the impossible.” said Piccard, adding “If we all challenged certitudes by driving change and being pioneers in our everyday lives, we can create innovative solutions for society’s biggest challenges.”

Here's some more nitty gritty about the plane's specs and future:
• The electricity produced by the solar panels is about the same as needed to run a scooter for 24 hours.
• The light plane is sensitive to turbulence. Winds cannot exceed 11.5 miles per hour at take off and crosswinds at takeoff can be no more than 4.6 miles per hour.
* A second plane is now being constructed.
* Solar Impluse has a goal of making an around-the-world trip in 2015, with 2-3 day flights over continents and 4-6 day legs over oceans.

And just to prove it actually flies, here's video shot in the San Francisco skies before Solar Impulse began its USA journey.


Plastics!Courtesy IonE
This is a couple weeks old, but I just noticed that the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (one of the Science Museum's partners on the Future Earth exhibit) has posted another "Big Question" video. These are short, fun videos that cover some of the challenges humans will be facing in the coming decades. This one is about plastics, and whether we can make them sustainable.

Anyway, here you are:

(And for more on the subject, check out Science Buzz posts on plastics, plastic, and sustainability.)

Yup, it's Friday. Time for a new Science Friday video. Today: Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"The New York Department of Environmental Protection installed a prototype "algal turf scrubber" at once of its wastewater treatment plants in Queens. The scrubber--two 350-foot metal ramps coated with algae that grows naturally--is designed to use algae to remove nutrients and boost dissolved oxygen in the water that passes through it. John McLaughlin, Director of Ecological Services for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and Peter May, restoration ecologist for Biohabitats, explain how the scrubber works, and where the harvested algae goes."
You know, I deliberately DIDN'T post this one two weeks ago because I was sure John Gordon was on the case. But Buzzers and poop stories go together like, well, flies on poop, so this is a must-read. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"This toilet floats. It's an outhouse and sewage-treatment plant in one, processing human waste through a "constructed wetlands." Green builder Adam Katzman, the inventor and builder of the toilet-boat, says it's meant to be more inspirational than practical. His paddle-boat-toilet ("Poop and Paddle"), parked at a marina in Queens, demonstrates how sewage and rainwater can be converted to cattails and clean water. It's a zero-waste waste disposal system."
It's Friday, so let's get right to it. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

"A rooftop farm in Brooklyn grows vegetables and doubles as a green roof, insulating the warehouse below. Green roofs save money on cooling and heating costs and also retain water, reducing the load on sewer systems. Annie Novak, head farmer and co-founder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm gives us a tour and Lisa Goode, whose company installed the roof, talks about the process.

On top of a warehouse in Brooklyn vegetables are sprouting. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is a 6,000 square foot plot that sells produce to New Yorkers and local restaurants. The soil also helps regulate the temperature of the building below. Science Friday stopped by for a tour.

If the University of Minnesota had parents, they'd hang this on the fridge with pride:

The U of MN is one of only three schools (out of 322 nationwide) to score straight As in all nine categories on their College Sustainability Report Card!

You can read the U's press release here, or check out the report card itself here.

Way to go Gophers!!


Tasty fish & tomatoes
Tasty fish & tomatoesCourtesy Robert and Mihaela Vicol
Fish and tomatoes compete for resources.

Yep, they do, and that resource is water.

The authors of a new report out in this week's issue of the journal Science are reminding folks of that fact.

John Sabo, a biologist at Arizona State University and lead author of the report told NSF News that "Humans may need to make hard decisions about how to allocate water so that we grow the right food, but still leave enough in rivers to sustain fish populations."

His comments stem from the report's findings that human actions--agricultural irrigation, dam construction, and the collective activities that lead to climate change--alter the natural variability of river flows and in the process shorten river food chains, particularly eliminating top predators like many large-bodied fish.
A now dry Colorado River delta branches into the Baja/Sonoran Desert near the Sea of Cortez
A now dry Colorado River delta branches into the Baja/Sonoran Desert near the Sea of CortezCourtesy Pete McBride

"Floods and droughts shorten the food chain, but they do it in different ways," Sabo explained. "Floods simplify the food web by taking out some of the intermediate players so the big fish begin to eat lower on the chain," Sabo said. "With droughts, it's completely different: droughts eliminate the top predator altogether because many fish can't tolerate the low oxygen and high temperatures that result when a stream starts drying out."

Sabo and co-authors--Jacques Finlay, from the University of Minnesota, Theodore Kennedy from the U.S. Geological Survey Southwest Biological Science Center, and David Post from Yale University--suggest that the fate of large-bodied fishes should be more carefully factored into the management of water use, especially as growing human populations and climate change affect water availability.

According to Sabo, "The question becomes: can you have fish and tomatoes on the same table?"

The Role of Discharge Variation in Scaling of Drainage Area and Food Chain Length in Rivers
John L. Sabo, Jacques. C. Finlay, Theodore Kennedy, and David M. Post (14 October 2010)
Science [DOI: 10.1126/science.1196005]

[It's Blog Action Day 2010, and this year's theme is water.]

Perennial grain
Perennial grainCourtesy RaeA
In a paper titled Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains scientist state that perennial grains could be available in two decades and urge that research into perennial grains be accelerated by putting more personnel, land, and technology into breeding programs.

Perennial grains have roots that reach 10 feet or deeper, reduce erosion, build soil, need less herbicide, and best of all, survive over winter so there is no need to plow, cultivate, or replant.


Did you know that making bricks emits more carbon each year than air travel? It turns out that for each brick made in a kiln, 1.3 pounds of carbon dioxide are spewed into the atmosphere. With 1.23 trillion bricks made annually, those emissions add up.

Luckily, there's an architect-cum-chemist who has discovered how to make bricks out of sand, microbes, and urine. Ginger Krieg Dosier, an assistant architecture professor in the United Arab Emirates, had apparently been experimenting with growing bricks for years before she finally happened on the right combination. She still has some issues to work out in the design, but her technique could produce bricks as hard as marble!

According to Metropolis, which gave Ms. Dosier a Next Generation Design award for her work, "If Dosier's biomanufactured masonry replaced each new brick on the planet, it would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 800 million tons a year."