(photo credit: wikipedia.org)

It's a far cry from the Etsy store jewelry and fighting robots that typify the Maker movement, but homemade biofuels have become popular enough to gain attention from consumers beyond the DIY-fringe.

While the recipe for making homebrew biodiesel has been available for some time to anyone with the requisite curiosity and drive (Make Magazine has a 17 step process one can do at home), recently incorporated production collectives have changed the DIY fuel landscape. Groups such as the Baltimore Biodiesel Co-op take the process out of the home garage, producing enough of the stuff that they can sell it for a nominal profit.

According to the Economist, and entire industry has sprouted up around homemade biodiesel. Companies sell machines and kits to make it easier for individuals to brew their own fuel, while societies and coopts have brought likeminded people together in a way that allows them to benefit from an economy of scale.

The process is fairly simple, although it does require some chemical handling. Brewers use lye and methoxide (both strong alkaline chemicals) to separate the vegetable oil into diesel and glycerin. The diesel can then power a car, while the glycerin can get thrown out.

Homebrewing biofuels has risen in popularity, no doubt, but that rise has merely brought it from the hobby of millennial survivalists to the public profile of say, organic heritage pork. From a purely technical standpoint, even at an elevated level of prominence, DIY biofuels cannot have a significant impact on the world's energy economy. However, the message that everyone has power over their own fuel consumption habits could prove a more potent catalyst of wider change.

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The UN Climate Change conference in Durban, South Africa, may have ended with an agreement for major polluting countries to work at lowering their greenhouse gas output, but a less glamorous debate at the conference may hinder that goal in the long term. The delegates failed to resolve the issue of technology transfer, without which, advanced energy sources cannot reach the nations that need them most.

The conference, which concluded on December 11th, deadlocked as countries fought over legally binding limits to carbon emissions. In the scuffle, an urgently needed debate about how to preserve intellectual property while still disseminating climate-friendly technology got kicked down the road. According to Nature, the unresolved conflict pits developed nations, who generate energy innovations and want to see their patents respected by the international market, against developing nations, who claim that strict patent rules keep those innovations too expensive and difficult to come by.

As countries like India, Brazil, Turkey, Peru and Mexico continue to grow their economies at rapid paces, this kind of technology transfer becomes more critical. Without affordable options, these nations will almost definitely meet their growing energy demands with carbon-emitting technologies.

On positive side, the conference delegates did succeed in negotiating a beginning to the process of finding a location to base the "Climate Technology Center" intended to coordinate said technology transfers. So, you know, that's a start.

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At times, when I think of renewable energy I become a little disheartened.

It seems like there are so many obstacles to have these alternative sources of fuel make a dent in our usage—many aren’t cheap enough to use on larger scales, many are still in the research phase, there’s not enough funding, etc… But recently, I saw two maps on Grist that provided a visual of the progress we’ve made over the years.

The first map shows the number of non-hydro renewable energy projects installed or underway in 1970, while the second map shows the number of operational and planned non-hydro projects today.

The difference is promising.

Whereas, there was very little going on just 40 or so years ago, today, almost every state has some kind of renewable energy venture going on. And with technology continually advancing, we could only go forward.

before after

Images from Grist.com

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APA reptile was taken off the endangered species list, in part, because of a nuclear power plant. The Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant's 168 miles of cooling canals, located in southeast Florida, have provided an ideal breeding environment for the American crocodiles.

Sensitive to cold, the American crocodiles call Florida home.

However, development in the state destroyed much of this reptile's natural habitat, dwindling their number to fewer than 300 in the 1970's.

Currently, there are more than 1,500 American crocodiles in southern Florida and researchers indicate this is in part due to the cooling canals surrounding Turkey Point.

Channeling warm water into closed-loop canals, the recalculating water system, which works like a radiator, attracts hundreds of crocs.

Turkey Point has set up a monitoring program to ensure the animals are healthy. So far, the reptiles show no sign of radiation.

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Last March, a powerful earthquake shook the Fukushima province of Japan and sparked a tsunami that caused three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to shut down. Many followed the aftermath as these reactors experienced meltdowns and radiation was sent into the atmosphere, making it the second worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl. In the months that followed, I wondered what happened to all that radiation: Is it was safe to visit the area? Is radiation making its way towards the U.S.?

Recently, I completed an assignment for another publication on Fukushima and got to learn more about the aftermath.

The meltdowns sent radioactive forms of iodine and cesium into the air and nearby water. Radioactive iodine is generally absorbed through food and has a half-life of a week. Half-life is the amount of time it takes for a material to decrease by half. The worry was that nearby grass was contaminated; meaning the milk produced by local cows contained the radioactive form of this element. From what I learned, authorities quickly stopped the production of milk in the province to ensure little exposure to iodine.

What's left now is the cancer causing radioactive cesium, which has a half-life of 30 years. Through air and water cesium will slowly spread to other countries and eventually globally, exposing many. But it will get so diluted in the process, that the scientists I spoke to believe that on an individual level, the chances of having cesium induced illnesses will be low.

What could be done as far as cleanup? Well, in addition to removing contaminated topsoil in the province and making sure similar disasters don't happen, not much. But authorities do need to closely monitor food and water supply to make sure what we ingest isn't contaminated.

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solar lantern
Some rights reserved by Timothy Valentine, http://www.flickr.com/photos/el_ramon/159597623/

Recently, I saw an article in an online magazine on Kamworks, a solar energy company with the initiative to provide solar-powered lanterns for Cambodians off the power grid.

The product for this initiative is called MoonLight, and according to the company's site it's designed to replace kerosene lighting in rural areas.

MoonLight was developed in conjunction with rural Cambodians and is currently produced in the country—providing not just lighting but creating a job market within the local community. So far, these lanterns are serving more than 70 percent of Cambodians who have no access to a power grid.

MoonLight replaces kerosene lamps typically used at night and are much safer than the highly flammable alternative. Each unit could be rented for about $0.08 per day, which costs about the same as it does to run a kerosene lamp.

According to their website, "Kamworks hopes that solar power can be a 'leap technology,' bringing the benefits of power to the 25% of humanity that, according to the UN, have no current access to it."

It's nice to see companies investing in such initiatives. Hopefully, more ideas like this pop up, creating jobs for the local economy and serving the basic needs of many.

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The absence of debate about energy policy in the Republican primaries, a Quadrennial Technology Review that sparked little conversation, and the ongoing Solyndra drama may give some the impression that the U.S. has gotten out of the solar power game. In fact, U.S. companies and the U.S. government are in the midst of building a number of large-scale solar projects, it’s just that they’re building all of them outside of the United States.

In Namibia, a group of U.S. energy investment companies have begun building the largest solar plant in the Southern Hemisphere. The plant will cost between $1.5 and $2 billion to construct, take two years to finish, and turn out 500 megawatts of power.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, OPIC, the U.S. government’s foreign investment arm, recently approved $250 million for 51 solar plants in Thailand. Ranging in size from one megawatt to 50 megawatts, these plants would generate a total of 520 megawatts.

Also near the Equator, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency has put out a call for vendors to build a 20 megawatt hybrid wind/solar park in Columbia. While not nearly as large as the Namibia plant or as comprehensive as the Thailand plan, the Columbian park would almost double the renewable energy in the country, which currently only reaps 28 megawatts of power from non-hydropower renewable sources.

The message is clear: The U.S. government has fully and monetarily supports the expansion of solar power, just so long as that expansion occurs outside America’s borders.


With rebel forces routing out the final remnants of Qaddafi's regime, it appears as though the Libyan civil war has reached its end game. To avoid the violent chaos or return to autocracy that follows so many revolutions, Middle East professor Juan Cole has advocated that the new Free Libyan government turn to solar power. Cole argues that building up an alternative energy sector could put Libyans to work, utilize currently unprofitable stretches of Libya's vast desert, and help wean the country off of an undiversified petroleum economy.

Not only would this help Libya, but it could prove a useful model for Egypt and Tunisia, who also need increased employment and revenue to prevent their revolutions from devolving into chaos. For their part, European countries like Germany have both begun to shy away from nuclear power and faced problems with the importation of Russian oil and natural gas, making solar energy from across the Mediterranean a more attractive solution than ever before.

It's not the first time someone has proposed this. Before this year's tumult, the Libyan government had already unveiled plans for a $3 billion energy hub that would route solar power to Europe. Egypt has a similar program brewing 56 miles south of Cairo in Kuraymat.

If there's one thing Arab countries have in common, it's a lot of sun, and a lot of desert otherwise sitting around uselessly. By developing a solar power industry, the countries of the Arab Spring could help diversify their income, stabilize their political situations, generate revenue, work to reduce climate change, help Europe move to green energy, and put their newly free people to work. That's a lot of birds to kill with only one stone.


In any future that runs on alternative energy, battery technology must play an important role. Batteries have to replace the gas tanks in cars, store the power from intermittent energy sources like wind and solar, and become increasingly efficient to deal with new generations of more powerful electronic devices. That's a lot of weight for the humble copper top to bear, but researchers are well on their way to tackling the problem.

At MIT, researchers have redesigned the lithium-oxygen battery to a point where it can compete in size and efficiency with the more popular lithium ion battery. The redesigned battery uses a carpet of carbon nanofibers to store lithium oxide molecules at a much greater density than in the solid electrode found in lithium ion batteries. The overall setup uses less material, weighs less, but retains more energy, making for better rechargeable batteries.

That isn't the only case where carbon nanoparticles could give batteries a boost. Scientists from the Chinese company Wuhe have found that the addition of porous carbon nanoparticles to conventional lithium ion batteries doubles the storage capacity and reduces the cost. Like MIT's nanofiber carpet, the carbon nanoparticles in the Wuhe batteries for a matrix that provides additional surface area for trapping and storing errant lithium ions.

And at Sandia National Labs, the Battery Abuse Testing Laboratory will undergo a $4.2 million renovation that will allow the facility to test the robustness of the larger batteries used in electric vehicles. Considering that this lab does a good deal of testing for private companies, this expansion could give a shot in the arm to stateside battery development by generating the data needed to make car batteries tough enough for the road.

Finding alternatives to fossil fuels remains an important goal of energy technology, but advances like these provide a good reminder that it is equally vital to figure out how to store that energy once cleaner production ramps up.

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Earlier this year, Germany announced that it would phase out nuclear power by 2020 in favor of renewable sources of energy. The announcement came at the right time; less than two months after the world had watched the failure of Japan's Fukushima plants. While the news of the Germany's vow to end nuclear power excited some, many wondered, what becomes of the spent plants?

Here's one creative solution: turn it into an amusement park!

Germany's Wunderland Kalkar is one such project. Originally built in 1972, the plant was designed to output 327 megawatts of energy. However, safety concerns and accidents, such as the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, delayed and eventually ended operations. In 1991, the complex—whose area is about 80 soccer fields--was officially closed and remained unused until an investor purchased it and set up an amusement park.

Wunderland Kalkar's grounds offer 40 attractions that include a Ferris wheel and roller coaster. Making use of existing structure, a swing ride is mounted inside a cooling tower and a climbing wall is set up on the outside of the tower, giving the park's thousands of visitors each year a unique experience.

If Wunderland Kalkar is an indication, maybe there will be 17 nuclear-turned-amusement parks by 2020? Probably not, but it's a nice idea.

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