Thursday, February 11, 2010

Solar Shingles Heat Up

Check out a recent story I wrote for Technology Review on a new plug 'n' play solar shingle from Dow Chemical.  Dow plans to release a small test batch of the solar embedded shingles later this year and while they haven't yet announced who will get them, I think they'd compliment my solar hot water system quite nicely.

My guess is this and other attempts to merge solar panels with conventional building materials will initially cost a premium and the technology will likely encounter some hiccups along the way.  But, eventually, I think solar embedded shingles will become a standard part of new roofs. Like one industry analyst told me, "two hundred years ago they didn't build buildings with electrical systems in the walls and wiring buildings was a really expensive retrofit.  Today, its standard practice."

Image Credit: The Dow Chemical Company Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sleeping With Swine Flu

"If this turns out to be swine flu, would you still sleep with me or would you sleep on the couch?" My wife had come home from work looking like death warmed over, with barely enough energy to finish her dinner. She'd heard rumors of students and teachers coming down with H1N1 at the school where she works, but nothing had been confirmed. I dismissed her question at the time, saying we'd take it as it comes, and though it wasn't yet 8 o'clock, I started coaxing her toward bed.   

A story I wrote in today's Boston Globe Magazine charts my thought process later in the evening as I weigh whether or not I should join Rachel in bed and why, if one of us is to be banished to the couch, she assumes it would be me.

Rachel and I are regular readers of the "Coupling" stories written by local writers on the back page of each week's Sunday magazine.  I didn't figure I'd ever have anything to contribute, but when I got to thinking about the swine flu question she'd posed to me, it seemed like such an obvious fit I just had to submit it. Click Here to Read More..

Vacuum Tube Solar Hot Water Comes to Cambridge

One of the first home improvements Rachel and I made when we purchased our condo here in Cambridge this spring was a solar hot water installation on our rooftop.

The system we had put in uses vacuum tubes, a newer, more efficient type of solar collector than the black box flat panels of old. As a writer covering energy and the environment in Cambridge and China, I'd spent the past three years tracing this new and exotic technology back to the factories and cities in China where they are surprisingly commonplace. 

I first read about the tubes three years ago in a story in the Boston Globe. A family in Newbury, MA was using a massive installation to provide hot water and heat for their giant barn of a house.  A photo that went with the story showed their installation covered in frost on a cold winter day. Somehow, despite the cold, the tubes were still kicking out 120 to 160 degree water.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

DOE Bets $150 Million on Clean Tech

If you had $150 million to spend on boundary-busting energy research, where would you put the cash? The US Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has committed that amount with one lofty aim: to transform the planet's energy future: But which technologies are its best bets?
To find the answers, check out a story I wrote this week in New Scientist.
This was an interesting story to write in that the Department of Energy had just dolled out millions of dollars for projects so risky that most were expected to fail, yet even if a few succeeded, they could have a transformative effect on the planet's energy future.
What made the story more interesting is the vast majority of recipients, from industry giants to little known start up companies, had such a strong financial interest in keeping their projects under wraps that few would divulge what they were working on, even after they received secured funding.
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Monday, November 9, 2009

Gore At Harvard

Former US Vice President Al Gore wasn't quite ready to give up telling inconvenient truths as he discussed his latest book Our Choice: A plan to solve the global climate crisis at Harvard this weekend.

Gore took the stage to a standing ovation before a capacity crowd at the First Parrish Church Meetinghouse in Harvard Square on 7 November to discuss his compilation of "all of the most effective solutions that are available now and that together will solve this crisis".
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Out of Guangxi

Check out the story I wrote for New Scientist this week on what Chinese paleontologists believe to be a 110,000 yr old human jaw bone (see photo on right).

If their claims about the fossil they found in China's southern Guangxi province prove true, it would raise some interesting questions about human origins.

Specifically it could challenge the widely held belief that modern humans are the direct descendents of Homo sapiens that migrated out of Africa around 100,000 years ago.

Click Here to Read More..

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Obama At MIT

Check out the story I wrote and filmed for New Scientist of President Obama's address at MIT on Friday.
Prior to his clean energy speech, the cynics had already written it off as a token "official" event to justify private funderaisers he would attend later in the day for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.
While there may be some truth to their claims, his arrival inside MIT's Kresge Auditorium created a buzz that was nothing short of flipping the switch on Alcator C-Mod, the University's nuclear fusion reactor.

Obama faces some tough challenges, increasing skepticism, and looming deadlines as he and others look to move climate legislation through Congress.  Here's hoping they succeed.  
image credit: Shepard Fairey & AP Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Clean Beams

Consumers may never hear of Advanced Electron Beams, but the technology the company has developed could fundamentally change the way everyday products are made in processes that could save millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Check out the following story I wrote about the company for Technology Review; Clean Tech's Hot New Tool

AEB replaces the heat and/or chemicals that are typically used to drive industrial reactions with electron beams.

For example, car manufacturers today use massive ovens to bake paint onto car bodies.  If you zap the paint pigment with a cloud of electrons instead, you can get the paint to stick to the body panels with no heat in a process that uses 90 percent less energy.  AEB isn't the first to make electron beams by a long shot, but if all works out, their smaller, cheaper beams may be the first to make it main stream.

Image Credit; Advanced Electron Beams

Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I recently co-authored the following feature for New Scientist profiling some of the hottest new technologies for a cleaner, less energy intensive world.

Better World: Top Tech For a Cleaner Planet 

It was a fun project to work on and one that got me scouring the planet for the best in Clean-Tech.   

Not every new development that I proposed made the cut, but, one in particular that deserves honorable mention is EcoRock; a new type of drywall (or sheet rock) that requires 80 percent less energy to manufacture than the conventional stuff.

Click Here to Read More..

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Love That Dirty Water

"Raw sewage flowed from outmoded wastewater treatment plants. Toxic discharges from industrial facilities colored the river pink and orange. Fish kills, submerged cars and appliances, leaching riverbank landfills, and noxious odors were routine occurrences." -Charles River History, Charles River Watershed Association

The river Charles has come a long way since the above description
from the 1960s. The EPA now gives it a B+ in its annual Charles River Report Card, up from a D just 14 years ago.

Rachel and I spent the afternoon with friends Ben and Heather paddling a section of the river in Newton, MA, about 10 miles west of Cambridge.

The river still has room for improvement--and additional cleanup efforts are underway--but I'd give our afternoon an A+.

Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dash for Green Cash

If you invested in green funds the past couple years, you likely lost your shirt--even more so than others--in the current recession according to an article in today's Boston Globe. But the smart money today, the article goes on to say, is in another type of green investing; eco-improvements on your home that will reduce your cost of living.

Nowhere does this seem to be more true than in Massachusetts. I've been looking into installing solar photovoltaic panels on our condo and with the combination of state and federal tax credits and rebates, they are practically giving the stuff away.

From what I can tell, a 5 kw, $50,000 system that would cover all of our electric needs and allow us to sell back to the grid would cost $12,000 after a $22,000 state rebate, a 30 % federal tax credit (with no cap), and a 15 % state tax credit (with a cap at $1000).

Unfortunately, it seems too many people have caught on to how good of a deal this is and starting tomorrow night at midnight the state is scaling back its rebate. The 50K system that currently goes for $12,000, will now come in at $15,500.

Anybody want to spot me 12K by midnight tomorrow?

image courtesy of Wikimedia

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Monday, September 28, 2009

21st Century Barnraising

For Centuries New Englanders have gathered to help their neighbors raise barns. This past Sunday my wife, Rachel, and I joined a group of our fellow Cantabrigian's in raising the energy efficiency of a neighbor's home.

For over a year the nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) has organized monthly weatherization parties for buildings here in Cambridge, MA. The hosting home provides the food, local weatherization companies donate insulation, caulk, foam, and other weatherizing essentials, and volunteers provide free labor in exchange for learning how to better insulate their own home.

Each barnraising starts and ends with a "blower door" test to determine how airtight or leaky the building is. I'd heard about blower doors before but I'd never seen one in action. It's essentially an airtight collapsible door with a large fan in the middle of it (see photo). To run a test you jam the blower door into the building's front entrance, shut all other doors and windows, and then fire up the fan which tries to pump additional air into the building. Air flow monitors connected to the fan tell you how much air is being pumped in, which in turn tells you how leaky the building is.

What I learned from the test is that even with all doors and windows closed, buildings, even well insulated buildings, still leak a massive amount of air. Based on Sunday's pre-weatherization test, all of the tiny cracks and gaps in the three story home's window frames, door frames, and various other joints throughout its walls added up to the equivalent of a gaping 40" by 10" hole.

The core HEET team, including some pro insulators, gave us our marching orders; seal up as many cracks as possible and reduce that gap!

Three hours and a half dozen boxes of pizza later, they ran a second blower test and air flow through the building had decreased by 25 percent! Not bad for an afternoon's work.

For anyone interested in joining in the fun, HEET is planning a massive weatherization blow out next month to coincide with the International Day of Climate Action on October 24.

Click Here to Read More..

Friday, April 17, 2009

First Sip

Check out a couple of white headed langurs in southern China as they come down out of the trees to drink from a recently built pond at the Chongzuo EcoPark in Guangxi Province, China.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

King Cobra III

A couple days after our recent run-in with a king cobra, Pan pulled the snake out of the freezer for a full dissection.

He and his assistants spent a couple hours weighing, measuring, counting rings, extracting venom, and IDing organs. The cobra was likely 2-3 years old—on the cusp of breeding age—was just shy of 2 meters long, weighed 900 g (2 lbs), and had 56 dark bands from head to tail.

Like all king cobras
, it likely fed exclusively on other snakes and may have limited its diet even further to a single species.

At one point Pan entertained thoughts of extracting the cobra's venom and injecting it, bit by bit, into a pig or water buffalo to cultivate antivenom. If someone was then bit on the reserve, they could simply withdraw some blood from the by-then-resistant animal and inject it into the stricken person.—Snake antivenom available in hospitals worldwide is obtained in more or less the same way, by slowly building up venom antibodies in a horse or sheep.

I figure Pan, who had a successful lab career before turning to conservation biology, would have as good a chance as anybody at hacking his own antivenom.

Still, I'm not sure I'd want the blood of a barnyard animal injected in me and hope I never have to choose between that and trying to hold out for an additional 2 hours to get to the nearest hospital. Then again, future bite victims may not have the luxury of weighing such options as Pan wasn’t able to extract enough venom for the experiment.

After the dissection was completed, Pan gave the gal bladder to Jintong, the park worker who accidentally ran over the snake. In Chinese medicine, snake gall bladder is thought to improve eyesight and Jintong said he would put it in alcohol and share it with his family and friends.

This being China, we then divvied up the snake meat with Jintong and his family, chopped it, fried it in oil, added a dash of salt and hot pepper, and ate it.

It was pretty bony, like a small fish, and I hate to say it, but it really did taste like chicken.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

King Cobra II

I started walking back to my room at the Chongzuo EcoPark the other evening after watching the langurs come down the mountain to their roost.
It was a warm evening and I'd stayed watching them settle into their cliff face caves a bit longer than usual. By the time I began the roughly 15 minute hike back to the reserve's headquarters, it was already quite dark.
I hadn't bothered to pack a flashlight as I knew the path fairly well and preferred to let the moonlight guide me.
Then, I started thinking about all the warnings I'd recently read about cobras. I flipped open my cell phone for what little light it offered and grabbed the first stick I could find.
After a couple minutes of fumbling around, Jintong, one of the reserve's staff, drove towards me driving an electric cart. He said he'd just run over a snake and proceeded to unfurl a very recently deceased, very large king cobra. He hit the snake on the path I was about to walk down, about 100 meters from my room.
Then, before I thought to ask for a ride, anywhere, he drove on. I froze, convinced every branch and twig I saw on the path before me was a king cobra.

Pan told me afterwards that I needed to be especially careful this time of year. The temperature here on the edge of the tropics was just starting to rise and snakes were beginning to come out in the evenings to lie in open paths warmed by the sun.

Rachel would later tell me it snowed again in Boston and that sounded pretty nice to me.

Click Here to Read More..