Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Just in Time: Solutions for a tired planet

I wrote in an earlier blog, how pessimistic I feel about the impending environmental crisis, due to a twin pincer movement of over population and capitalism that is squashing the life out of the earth. Over fishing and pollution will mean our oceans become massive garbage tips, the countryside will be cemented over to create houses, offices, roads and factories. Species will disappear and people will be displaced, until the planet becomes one giant industrial zone.

The only way I see this disaster being averted is by incentivising people to actually change their habits. The recent failure to convince people that global warming would be a catastrophe for nature has shown that appealing to people’s consciences doesn’t always bring the required results; therefore, a more direct approach is needed, to secure a planet that is both healthy and sustainable.

I have become excited of late by some very interesting technologies that are starting to appear, and which offer some solutions to the disaster waiting to happen. Here are just three of them. All of which I see as playing major roles within the immediate future.

The product: Power Plastic
The manufacturer: Konarka Technologies
State of development: Being produced now

Imagine each and every surface under the sun covered with a film that captures light and transforms it into electricity; an office window that directly powers your computer, or a parasol that runs a laptop, allowing you to email from the beach. What about a sun roof that keeps your electronics ticking over while you drive, a canvas cover that recharges your electric car or a tent that turns a reading light on and warms up your sleeping bag after the sun goes down?

Rick Hess, who runs innovative solar company, Konarka, is justifiably proud of his company's latest creation, because it will do all of these things. Invented by the firm's co-founder and Nobel Prize winner, Dr Alan Heeger, 'Power Plastic' is a light, thin, flexible, energy-generating sheet. It converts both indoor and out-door light into direct electrical current - a solar panel that rolls up like camera film. "Soon, you might not even need batteries," Rick Hess says. "We can put this stuff anywhere!"

Power Plastic is made up of several thin components: a photo-reactive film, a transparent electrode layer, a plastic substrate and a protective skin, yet it is only five millimetres thick. The sheets can be 60 inches wide and any length, just like when a newspaper is printed on a continuous roll of paper. Its bendiness means that everyday items, even clothes, could be turned into power sources.

Unlike other photovoltaic technology, Power Plastic sheets are organic, free of toxic materials and therefore 'green'. Their easy application means they create complete energy independence wherever they go. Power will no longer be limited to rigid, outdoor, large-scale panels, nor will the consumer have to wait years to see a return on their solar investment.

Konarka, aptly named after the Hindu Sun God, recently teamed up with Arch Aluminium & Glass, to integrate Power Plastic into the development of light-harvesting windows. The idea is destined to become popular among homeowners who do not want to spoil the look of their roofs or who live in listed properties.

The product also comes in a range of colours to give architects free scope to design it into any type of glass surface, even laminated, security or sound proof. Of course, the process of installing new windows is much less intimidating for a homeowner than the idea of fitting an expensive solar rig on the roof. In fact, accessible power generation could soon be rolled out to an unlimited audience, especially remote or grid-less regions of the developing world. It could even, one day, turn every resident into a supplier of excess power to their national grid - an abundant renewable source of global energy, eradicating the demand for fossil fuel alternatives altogether.

"The burning question for all DIYers and eco-conscious geeks alike, is can we expect to see rolls of Power Plastic on the shelves of home improvement stores anytime soon?" Popular Mechanics asked Rick Hess. "Not exactly," he replied, "but check back in two years and we'll give you an update."

The product: Water from sewage
The manufacturer: Orange County Water Authority, California, USA.
State of development: In use now

The Orange County Water District is purifying waste water into drinking water at a $481 million recycling plant. The plant uses microfiltration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light, and hydrogen peroxide disinfection. 70 million gallons of sewer water is treated a day in Orange County, meeting the drinking needs of over 500,000 people, including visitors to Disneyland.
Some call the process “toilet to tap”, but officials prefer the term “Groundwater Replenishment System”. Thousands of microfilters, hollow fibres covered in holes one-three-hundredth the width of a human hair, strain out suspended solids, bacteria and other materials.

The water then passes to a reverse osmosis system, where it is forced through semi-permeable membranes that filter out smaller contaminants, including salts, viruses and pesticides. Reverse osmosis also is the main process used in desalination.
Finally, the water is disinfected with a mix of ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide.
The resulting product exceeds all U.S. drinking standards but gets additional filtration when it is allowed to percolate back into the ground to replenish the aquifer.

"These types of projects you will see springing up all over the place where there are severe water shortages,” said Michael R. Markus, the general manager of the Orange County district, whose plant, has been visited by water managers from across the globe.

The finished product, which managers say exceeds drinking water standards, does not flow directly into kitchen and bathroom taps; state regulations forbid that.
Instead it is injected underground, with half of it helping to form a barrier against seawater intruding on groundwater sources and the other half gradually filtering into aquifers that supply 2.3 million people, about three-quarters of the county. The recycling project will produce much more potable water and at a higher quality than did the mid-1970s-era plant it replaces.

The result, Mr. Markus said, “is as pure as distilled water” and about the same cost as buying water from wholesalers.

Recycled water, also called reclaimed or grey water, has been used for decades in agriculture, landscaping and by industrial plants.

And for years, treated sewage, known as effluent, has been discharged into oceans and rivers, including the Mississippi and the Colorado, which supply drinking water for millions.
But only about a dozen water agencies in the United States, and several more abroad, recycle treated sewage to replenish drinking water supplies, though none steer the water directly into household taps. They typically spray or inject the water into the ground and allow it to percolate down to aquifers.

Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, among the most arid places in Africa, is believed to be the only place in the world that practices “direct potable reuse” on a large-scale, with recycled water going directly into the tap water distribution system, said James Crook, a water industry consultant who has studied the issue.

The product: Compost and timber production from plastic waste
The manufacturer: WastAway, Tennessee, USA
State of development: Fully implemented now

WastAway, based in Tennessee, have a fascinating technique that takes unsorted household waste and converts it into a product called Fluff, which can then be used in a variety of other ways. Fluff is similar in consistency to wood pulp, and can be processed for use as a growing medium for plants and turf, can be gasified to generate steam, can be converted to synthetic fuels such as ethanol, diesel, and gasoline, or can be compressed and extruded to make products such as construction materials. Their aim is to have zero landfill waste. The idea of using compost

That is made from plastic, on my vegetables, doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm, but it is one of the more ingenious methods of dealing with plastic I’ve come across, and I feel this process is one of the more exciting schemes I've come across so far, for dealing with such a toxic product.
WastAway takes something the world doesn’t want and converts it into something the world can use. Apart from compost, the company are also converting garbage into electricity, synthetic fuels, steam and building materials. WastAway takes ordinary household garbage (also referred to as Municipal Solid Waste) and creates a product that can be converted into any one of these items, and more. We convert garbage into a useful commodity - and while we do it, we keep from filling our landfills! That’s the WastAway goal: Zero Landfill Growth.

One major problem with usual recycling programs is to do with the separation process. However WastAway’s process doesn’t require the user to pre sort recyclables from their ordinary trash. Instead councils can simply use their existing waste collection pick-up system (bins, bags, or boxes) and can collect waste with a single truck, which saves money and reduces emissions. The waste is taken to a WastAway facility where recyclables are separated automatically and the remaining refuse is processed into Fluff in about 20 minutes. This can eliminate the use of expensive and often subsidized recycling efforts, yet yield 100% recycling participation in your community. The company are at present also testing fluff to turn it into Synthetic liquid fuels such as ethanol, gasoline, and diesel. Wonderful!

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