Recently in Conservation Category

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(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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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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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.

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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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Oil refinery
Source : http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesknight/5160755225/
License: Attribution 2.0 Generic
Author: James Knight

As one Arab state after another convulses with revolution, the importance of the energy sector to countries in the region becomes starkly apparent. Tunisia and Egypt, countries with no oil exports, succumbed to revolution first. Syria and Yemen, which also export no oil, and Libya, which historically produced less oil than any other Arab member of OPEC, teeter on the brink. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates have managed to stave off successful revolt.

The link between survival and energy seems to have pushed those oil-rich Gulf States to hedge their bets with investments in alternative energy. After all, they very well can't maintain power if the rest of the world stops using the resource that funds their control.

To this end, Saudi Arabia has announced plans to produce solar power equal to the energy generated by its oil exports. Considering Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter, that's a lot of solar power. The UAE has also invested heavily in solar power, with its 10 MW solar plant reaching all its performance goals, and with a 100 MW concentrated solar plant on pace to begin operations next year.

These developments are clear signs that the nations who profit most from fossil fuels believe that both supply in, and demand for, oil will begin to decline sooner rather than later. Whether or not Saudi Arabia and the UAE meet their alternative energy goals remains to be seen, but the fact that they are even thinking about it shows how quickly the clock is ticking towards the end of oil.

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License: Attribution 2.0 Generic
Author: hinkelstone

Officials in China have announced that the country is expected to double its solar capacity from five to 10 gigawatts by 2015.

China is a leading producer of solar panels most of which are exported to other countries.

Currently, most of the country's power comes from coal, followed by crude oil and hydro power but the drop in the price of the solar energy, which is about 10 to 20 percent every year, could change this equation significantly.

"This is to say in 2015 the cost of supplying solar electricity is basically about the same as our electricity fees right now," says Hao Guoqiang, vice president of the Shanghai Solar Energy Research Center. "That will be an era whereby solar energy is used on a large scale."

Such shift in energy source could have a significant environmental impact by a country that is currently the largest consumer of coal and the largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world. And if the drop in the price of solar energy continues, clean energy sources will hopefully tip the scale in other large CO2 emitters, such as the United States, European Union and Russia.

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Image from SPIE.org
    Image from SPIE.org

The most common, most efficient, and most overlooked example of energy savings through solar power isn't a new machine or a new chemical. It's your window. However, the single settings of most office and home lights waste that free sunshine by pumping out the same luminosity regardless of the environment. By linking LED lights to a photo-sensor, engineers at MIT have created a system that modulates the output of overhead lights so as to complement, not overpower, the free lighting provided by the sun.

Writing for the the Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers, Joseph Paradiso, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and two students Matthew Aldrich and Nan Zhao, detail how such a system would work using off the shelf technology.

"Our research aims at minimizing the energy spent lighting while simultaneously maximizing the light source's usefulness," the paper reads.

By dimming the lights when the sun's rays come pouring into the office, this system can save money and energy. And since lighting consumes 22 percent of all electricity use in the U.S., that's a lot of energy and money saved.

From an aesthetic point, the system can also modulate by color, letting the artificial light from the office blend seamlessly with the natural light from the sun. For cubicle bound office workers, this might be as close as they get to working outside.

Obviously, at night, for much of the winter, and in office areas far away from windows, this system has limited effectiveness. However, since the system will ensure that an office isn't wastefully lit by an overabundance of artificial lights, it can make an office more efficient even without the help of the sun.

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