A Graphene Revolution?

Figure 1 from http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/23/tech/innovation/tomorrow-transformed-graphene-battery/index.html

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 9.47.45 PM

As our supply of non-renewable energy sources becomes increasingly scarce, it is becoming more and more apparent that the survival of our planet is dependent almost solely on our ability to implement both efficient and conservational practices in our daily energy usage. Researchers at Manchester University in the United Kingdom have made a very progressive step towards this goal with the discovery of graphene––a newfound substance with the same atomic structure as the graphite found in a pencil. Figure 1 shows a graphene sample scaled next to the tip of a graphite pencil.

CNN’s Tomorrow Transformed column calls graphene “the most revolutionary advance in battery technology yet.” The substance earned this praise for its energy-efficient properties with regard to electrical power, such as its ability to conduct electricity even better than copper. In its simplest form, graphene is only one atom thick and more than 1 million times thinner than a human hair. Despite the fact that it is extremely thin and almost weightless (in fact it is the first two dimensional crystal known to science), graphene is harder than a diamond and 200 times stronger than steel, making it extremely durable and long-lasting. Manchester University’s Graham Templeton states, “No known material can approach this combination of abilities.” This makes graphene far superior to other substances (such as copper and steel), which are vital components of the electronic appliances that we use everyday such as smartphones, laptops, television sets, etc. This is because it lasts very long, does not need to be replenished frequently, and conducts electricity with minimal risk of wasted energy. Figure 2 displays the atomic makeup of graphene in its simplest form.

Figure 2 from http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/23/tech/innovation/tomorrow-transformed-graphene-battery/index.html

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 9.46.31 PM

Arguably the most groundbreaking discovery that Manchester University’s researchers made was a graphene membrane’s ability to literally harvest hydrogen from the atmosphere. The researchers claim that this harvesting “could be combined with fuel cells to create a mobile electric generator fueled simply by hydrogen present in air.” This method of hydrogen generation is far superior to our current method, in which hydrogen is obtained almost entirely from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

Sources consulted:

http://www.graphenea.com/pages/graphene-properties#.VRoE70virwI

http://www.geek.com/science/geek-answers-what-is-graphene-1575393/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/23/tech/innovation/tomorrow-transformed-graphene-battery/index.html

Pictures, Numbers, and Our Imagination

A previous post on How We See The Environment touched on the idea that if carbon emissions were visible to the naked eye, people would feel much more compelled to reduce the ugly sight of billows of black smoke that they are creating. As the post says, calculating one’s own carbon footprint is tedious and not likely to be very effective in convincing one to change his or her habits for the better. Perhaps some companies have noticed this; General Electric has a Data Visualization blog dedicated to giving its viewers a better sense of their how much energy they use.

For those interested in the number of Watts used or the toll their appliances have on their wallet, this page, as shown in Figure 1, gives an estimate of watts, gallons of gas, and cost in dollars to power common household appliances. A smart facet of this page is that each appliance listed applies to most American households and the energy used by each appliance can be compared to others. So even though it is not easy to visualize a Watt, using 100 Watts is certainly easier to put into perspective when you know what using 10 Watts is like.

Figure 1.

For the more carbon-conscious folks, this page, also shown in Figure 2, compares the carbon footprint of more than just appliances, but also that of objects like paper and food. Like the previously mentioned blog page, these numbers are estimates and generalizations, but it helps remind viewers that everything we enjoy had emitted quite a bit of carbon to be created and distributed. Buying local, anyone?

Figure 2.

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 2.19.15 PM

In my opinion, these pages are a great way to make people more conscious of the consequences of their actions, but as How We See the Environment blog post mentions, a mere number does not create the same sense of urgency as the sight of smog would. Perhaps, it helps one visualize such a sight, but it’s not like General Electric intended its viewers to consult their blog every time they do something like drive a car or buy a carton of milk. A great addition to their blog however, would be pictures of black smoke next to a phone left overnight to charge.

We Need to Steer in the Right Direction, towards Electric Vehicles

The number of cars on the roads worldwide has surpassed one billion, with the U.S. having the largest car population at about 239.8 million cars. It is estimated that by 2050 the worldwide car population will reach 2.5 billion. This would require a production of 120 million barrels of oil per day, which is 37 million more that we require today. Since transportation currently accounts for 23% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, increasing transportation will only make global warming increasingly worse. In order to compete with these rising emissions, we need to move towards alternative energy vehicles.

An excellent alternative to the regular “gas-guzzling” cars are the All-Electric Vehicles (EVs). EVs run on electricity only and are powered by rechargeable batteries that propel the electric motors in the car, allowing it to move. EVs are much more energy efficient, environmentally friendly, require less maintenance, have better performance, and have reduced energy dependence over vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICEs); which are the cars that require gasoline. EVs are very energy efficient in terms of how much energy they convert from their source to power the wheels. EVs convert about 59%-62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power the car, while ICE only convert 17%-21% of the energy from gasoline to power the car. EVs are much more environmentally friendly than ICEs because they emit no tailpipe pollutants and if the electricity is from nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, or wind power plants there are also no air pollutants. EV’s energy costs are also less than ICE’s energy costs. The cost to drive an EV 100 miles is significantly less than the cost to drive an ICE 100 miles (Figure 1.).

Additionally, as a bonus, EV’s motors are very quiet, have stronger accelerations, and require less maintenance than ICEs.

Yet, of course, there are some downsides to the EVs. Two of the main downsides that most people would worry about if deciding to buy an EV is it’s driving range abilities and recharge time. Most EVs can go only about 100-200 miles before needing to be recharged, while ICEs can drive for over 300 miles without needing to be refueled with gasoline. Also, fully recharging the battery can take from 4-8 hours. EVs can either be charged at the house or at a charging station (Figure 2.).

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 12.14.12 AM

Figure 2. shows an example of an EV at a charging station.

There are also other downsides to EVs, which are the high cost to replace a car battery (which may need to be replaced) and the heavy weight and consuming size of the battery packs.

As usual, whenever there is a technology that is an alternative to help save energy, there are usually downsides. Yet, with EVs, there aren’t downsides that are un-manageable or “not worth it.” I believe EVs are rare, but exciting, because they truly benefit the community, and more importantly, the environment. With technology advancing everyday, the small issues of the driving range, recharging time, and battery weight, size, and cost will eventually become irrelevant, and soon enough All-Electric Vehicles will be the obvious choice, not that they aren’t already!

For the First Time in 40 Years… Economic Growth Hasn’t Lead to an Increase in CO2 Emissions.

On an average, people tend to commonly associate CO2 emissions with the economy. So, what I am trying to get at is that many people think that if there is a global economic growth, in correlation, we expect to see an increase int he CO2 emissions as well. However, for the first time in over 40 years, we are seeing that this is not the case. This my friends is amazing news for all of us who care about the environment. While this is great news, the question still remains; what has triggered this trend to finally changed? Well, there are several factors and the International Energy Agency has evaluated all of the reasons that they believe that there hasn’t been an increase, but rather a decrease in the CO2 emissions, even though there was an increase in economic growth.

China is the worlds largest CO2 emitter and it is also the country where a majority of the worlds industrial work takes place. Over the past two years, China has taken an initiative to reduce the amount of CO2 that they emit by shifting towards using renewable sources of energy, rather than using non-renewable sources of energy. In China’s case, they have led the world in the amount of solar installations with the hope of cleaning up the countries polluted air. In figure 1, you will see that by the end of 2015, China hopes to add as much as 15 gigawatts of solar energy, which will power around 16 million houses. They want to accomplish this task by installing cheap solar panels on top of commercial buildings, rather than just confiding panels in the rural areas.

Figure 1.

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 3.07.23 PM

Additionally, the second factor that has attributed for there to be a decrease in the amount of energy used is the idea that awareness causes people to change their behaviors. People are greedy. Unfortunately,  this is the hard truth. If you tell them that they will save money by buying certain types of technology, they will be willing to do it. This has been happening all over the U.S. The more aware people become about the energy that they are using, the more willing they are to change their behaviors and their electronics. Over the past year, home energy efficiency has decreased drastically, causing there to be an overall decrease in energy. In figure 2, you will see that there is a decrease in the amount of energy in a per capita basis as well as a GDP basis. 

Figure 2.

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 3.25.06 PM

The third, which can be overruled, but it is still just as important. The IEA has reported that one of the reasons there is a decrease in CO2 emissions is because transportation has become more efficient. Cars are now being made in order to be more efficient.

Now, the final reason that CO2 emissions have decreased, while the economy prospers, is due to the fact that there was a natural gas boom, due to fracking. Robert Starvins, a leading environmental economist said, “This has, in turn, led to significant increases in dispatch of gas-fired electricity generation, relative to dispatch of coal-fired generation, as well as increased investment in new gas-fired electric generation capacity, and cessation of investment in new coal generation in the United States.” 

Now, lets rejoice. While the world still needs to make huge strides to bettering the environmental conditions, the progress we are making is incredible. China, the worlds leading CO2 emitter has come to its senses and so is the rest of the world.

Workouts to Watts

Becoming environmentally friendly is rewarding, yet it can also be a pain. Turning down the heat to face the cold, carpooling, unplugging your devices, and always remembering to turn off the lights are everyday “energy savers” that are beneficial, but not everyone does them. it could be because of laziness, lack of knowledge, lack of interest, or even forgetfulness, but either way, energy is still being wasted every day, and A LOT of it. So what if I were to tell you that there was a way of saving energy without even knowing you were? Too good to be true? Well clearly you haven’t been to the New York Sports Club on Eight Avenue, The Cadbury House Club, California Fitness in Hong Kong, The Great Outdoor Gym Company or to the other few human powered gyms around the world!

These gyms have invested a lot of money into new workout equipment that allows your sweat to power the machine your on, a T.V. in the gym, or even the gym itself! These companies have already converted several hundred machines at dozens of U.S. health clubs and university gyms. Each machine has a generator that converts the motion of the wheels into electricity, which is then fed into the power grid. In some pf these gyms, the generators ate noticeable, with each being attached to a black box with wires running out of it. (Figure 1.).

Figure 1. People at the gym working out on bikes that can generate electricity from the motion of the wheels due to the attached generators. The generators can be seen at the front-bottom of the bike, and wires (covered by the strip of black mat) can be seen running from each of the machines.

Figure 1. People at the gym working out on bikes that can generate electricity from the motion of the wheels due to the attached generators. The generators can be seen at the front-bottom of the bike, and wires (covered by the strip of black mat) can be seen running from each of the machines.

There are many positives to these gyms green initiative. The first, obviously being that the gyms are being more energy efficient by using the immediate energy generated by the exercise machines to power materials in the gym and less energy wasteful by not wasting all the energy that the gym-goers work so hard for. Second, it is great for business because the gyms are able to promote themselves as environmentally friendly, which is appealing to many people. Also, a lot of the equipment shows on the screen attached how much energy you are generating while working out, which is an extra motivation to work out for longer, faster, and harder (Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Screen on exercise machine that shows the amount of watts the person has generated.

Figure 2. Screen on exercise machine that shows the amount of watts the person has generated.

Lastly, this new equipment also helps the gyms cut down on their energy bills because of the gym goers producing their own energy needed to power their machines.

Sadly, this method of saving energy is not as perfect as it may sound. The energy output from each machine is quite small, and it takes decades to make up the money spent on all the new workout equipment through the energy being saved through the new machines. For example, The Canterbury House Club in England spent $981,120 in order to install the new machines in the gym. The new machines installed in this facility are capable of generating 100 watts of electricity, which is about enough to power an 18-inch standing fan at the highest setting, a desktop computer, a large stereo system, or two laptop computers. While this is not much energy, we still have to remember how this energy can add up. It is only a matter of time when the majority of exercise equipment will have attached generators. This could lead to thousands of gyms using this technology, and millions of machines, and with all produced energy from these machines added up, it becomes an appreciable amount of energy saved.

Overall, these new, innovative ways to save energy are just the beginning of an amazing energy efficient future. With these machines already using 30% less energy than regular exercise machines, the main problem is the economics, which can be fixed in the future. If all the gyms in the work used these machines, all our hard work, sweat, tears, and calories burned would not only be benefitting us, but it would be greatly benefitting our planet.

Wireless Energy Transmissions: Making the Seemingly Impossible Possible

 In 1901, Nikola Tesla began the creation of the Wardenclyffe, a “power tower”, foreseen to one day be able transfer energy wirelessly in all directions around it. But, soon after this project had begun it was scrapped, and the tower with it, due to low funding and lack of investors.

Fig. 1 Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower

One hundred and fourteen years later, scientists have finally taken Tesla’s work to the next step, and have succeeded in transmitting energy wirelessly. JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or the Japanese equivalent of NASA) has harnessed the power of microwaves, directed this power at pinpoint accuracy at a small target, and delivered 1.9 kilowatts of power 55 meters away for the very first time, no wires attached. Scientists aim to use this technology for the generation of solar power in outer space. But 55 meters is miniscule compared to the 22,300 miles away that scientists aim to place these solar stations. Yet, this could be a major breakthrough in renewable energy: humans may one day be able to harness a virtually undisturbable, inexhaustible source of energy. In space, there is never a time of day or type of weather that is unfit for the capture of solar rays. And we still have billion years, give or take a few, until our sun begins to die. 

Fig 2. What the solar panels in space may end up looking like

Technology like this has existed previous, but in different forms. First of all, typically, energy, or in it’s usable form, electricity, is transmitted via power or distribution lines or wires. In addition to wired transfer, there are also two different types of wireless energy transmission: near-field or non radiative, and far-field or radiative. Near-field is somewhat newly conventionalized, but nonetheless relatively commonly used for charging devices, such as phones, electric toothbrushes, and cardiac pacemakers. You may have see this method in your local technology store as a mat that you can place your phone on to wirelessly charge.

Fig. 3 An example of near-field non-radiative technology: the wireless charging mat

The type of wireless energy conveyance that JAXA has just now harnessed is far-field, or radiative transmission. Also known as “power beaming”, radiative transmission occurs via beams of electromagnetic radiation, such as microwaves or laser beams. The solar space stations would use the microwave technique to beam precisely pinpointed streams of energy down to earth.

Fig. 4 Another idea of what the wireless space solar panels may look like

Though inexhaustible radiative wireless energy seems to be faultless, as with any new innovation there are challenges as well as possible flaws. How will JAXA move this gigantic solar system into space? How will they choose to construct it? Maintain it? I assume that this process of but moving from the earth into space, and position will take years. And, what will it look like from earth? Will we be able to see it?

Will it be efficient, more so than existing solar panels? Though they will certainly generate a massive increase in amount, I hypothesize that there will be energy lost along the way, as 22,300 miles is an extremely long distance. And if the beam is concentrated and powered high enough not to be inefficient, what will become of the people, animals or objects that get in it’s way? After reading comments on what informed readers believe will occur, I have come to the conclusion that, because this beam will be incredibly hot, it could cook or vaporize anything in it’s way. Though a JAXA spokesman has said that this beam will not fry a bird or airplane in it’s path due to low-energy density, it is hard to make solid conclusions when this method has only been tested in the range of 55 meters and not yet an exponentially larger scale.

Fig. 5 A third layout of how these panels may be aligned, and how they function

The station itself is bound to cost millions, if not billions of dollars, which will either drive taxes or the cost of energy itself up. In addition, JAXA has been working on this Space Solar Power Systems idea for years, and has only made it to the first, vital step: transmission itself, and for only a short distance. A representative from the Agency has stated that it could take decades before the practical application of the technology becomes a reality. News providers and science enthusiasts have speculated no earlier than the year 2030 or 40.

Fig. 6 A group of JAXA Scientists

Though wirelessly transmitted energy will not be an innovation of the near future, I believe that when the Space Solar Power System is implemented, and the method is working, that it will change the way we think of energy altogether. In fifteen years, nonrenewable resources will begin to dwindle. There will be unrest, and slowly our beautiful earth will begin to be saturated with turbines and panels, streaking across the landscape. An alternate option will be desired, if not necessary. And what better option than putting these energy collectors outside of our world entirely, and making them infinite? It is unavoidable to state that wireless solar space energy could very well be our future. And if so, it will certainly be a bright one.

From Cotton Field to Vagina to Landfill: The Story of Tampons and Other Sanitary Products

Wait, My Menstrual Cycle Is Contributing to Environmental Degradation?

I know this not a topic that everyone wants to talk about. However, it has been a fact of life since the beginning of time. The average woman menstruates for 38 years in her lifetime. Unfortunately, in today’s world, 38 years’ worth of menstrual cycles translates into a lot of waste and energy. To be exact, there is approximately 62,415 pounds of sanitary products that end up in landfills[1]. Not to mention the countless tons of fuel that goes into producing these necessities. The truth of the matter is that sanitary items are one of the most unsustainable used products. In North America, over 20 billion pads and tampons are only used once before they are tossed. [2] But how exactly do sanitary items hurt our environment?

How the Waste Affects the Environment

 Cotton

Since most pads and tampons are made up of conventionally produced cotton, there has already been damage done before it even reaches the store self. Conventional cotton farmers usually treat the cotton with toxic pesticides such as aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan[3]. These chemicals are harmful to the people working with them and wildlife. Once sprayed, these toxins often move through the air to other nearby communities contaminating water sources, killing soil micro-organisms, bees, and other beneficial insects.[4]

This image displays all of the toxic chemicals that can be found in pads.

This image displays all of the toxic chemicals that can be found in pads.

Also, most of the cotton is then bleached with chlorine gas.[5] Once the cotton bleached chlorine enters a landfill, it becomes deadly to organisms living in water and the soil.[6] Another harmful chemical found in most sanitary products is called dioxin. Dioxin is a carcinogen that over time accumulates in the food chain. Within an organism it can trigger biological effects such as hormonal disturbances and alterations in cell functions[7] as well as adding to the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and liver damage in humans.[8]

Plastic

It’s not only the cotton that’s harmful, but it is also the plastic applicators and the plastic wrapping. The manufacturing process of producing these disposables consumes a lot of energy[9] and nonrenewable resources which contributes to global warming. Most disposable pads and tampons are made from 90 percent plastic derived from crude oil.[10] When crude oil based plastics reenter the environment it releases large amounts of toxic pollutants which ultimately leads to devastating damage to wildlife and the natural landscape.[11] Combined with other super absorbent materials, the manufacture of sanitary items releases greenhouse gases: nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and carbon dioxide which are causing our planet to heat up.[12]

Alternatives

I too was shocked to realize that not only are these feminine products not good for the environment, but they are also harmful to my own health. Fortunately, there are healthier and eco friendlier alternatives. Natracare is a company that produces organic chemical-free pads and tampon. These products are more eco-friendly because they are bio degradable and do less damage to the environment since they are bleached without harsh chemicals or sprayed with pesticides.[13]

However, the best alternatives are menstrual cups or reusable pads which have life uses of 15 years. Products such as the Keeper menstrual cup claims those 40 years’ worth of disposables can easily be converted into as few as four menstrual cups![14] Similar to The Keeper, Lunapads claim to divert more than 1 million disposable pads and tampons from landfills every month. Over the course of one year, that is more than 12 million less feminine products contributing to environmental issues. [15]

This image shows how 4 menstrual cups can replace a truck load's worth of sanitary waste.

This image shows how 4 menstrual cups can replace a truck load’s worth of sanitary waste.