For years now, the plans for a high-speed rail network in California have been out there, inching forward slowly with occasional financial roadblocks along the way. But now it looks like the first phase will actually start construction soon as a measure to raise funding through a municipal bond sale has passed in the California state legislature.
A recent vote approved the bond sale that will raise $4.5 billion total, with $2.6 billion of that going toward the initial stretch of the rail network. That first phase will be a 130-mile section that connects Madera and Bakersfield in the state's Central Valley. The next phase for the network will be to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains traveling at 220 mph, and then ultimately span all the way from San Diego to Sacramento. The network will include major stops in between and connect into existing railway infrastructure.
The bond sale also includes $1.9 billion for improvements to regional rail networks like electrifying the Caltrain San Jose - San Francisco commuter line.
As part of a new study on wave power, the University of Exeter and Tel Aviv University have come up with a system that predicts the power of waves in order to maximize wave energy devices' ability to generate energy from the sea. The researchers found that this system could potentially double the amount of wave energy generated by a device.
Phys.org reports, "The research focused on point absorbers, commonly-used floating devices with parts that move in response to waves, generating energy which they feed back to the grid. Point absorbers are already known to be much more efficient in the amount of energy they produce if their response closely matches the force of the waves and previous research has looked at trying to increase this efficiency. However, this is the first study that has focused on increasing the device's efficiency by predicting and controlling internal forces of the device caused by forthcoming waves."
Wave energy potential is huge. It's been estimated that it could power the world twice over and the UK, where this study was conducted, could be powered twice over just by utilizing wave energy generators along its coastlines. So far, wave energy technologies haven't gained traction the way that solar and wind technologies have because the ocean is a very inhospitable place. Wave energy generators have to be able to withstand the force of each wave.
This new system predicts the power of the incoming wave, allowing the device to respond in a way that extracts the most amount of energy. This controlled reaction not only increases the efficiency of the device, but protects it from damage from rough seas. Where most current wave technologies would be shut off during a storm, a prediction system could allow the wave generator to keep operating effectively.
The University of Exeter is now working with Ocean Power Technologies, one of the largest wave energy companies, to further test the results and develop better technologies based on this research.
Swedish Designer Eddi Törnberg has designed the best human-powered work station we've seen yet because unlike other concepts that require you to do things like ride a bike while you're working, it doesn't require a person to do anything more than sit and work. The project, called "Unplugged," powers the various gadgets we use to work -- laptops, lamps, etc --through our small constant movements and body heat.
The desk chair is equipped with a metal seat that gets hot as a person emits body heat, but the underside stays cools through a pattern of metal fins. Electricity is produced through the Seebeck Effect where an electric charge is created when a material is hot or warm on one side, but cool on the other.
The other energy-harvesting part of this set up is a rug that lies under the desk that is outfitted with piezoelectric crystals that generate electricity when pressure is applied to them. Each random shuffle, stomp, and rolling back and forth of the chair is a source of electricity.
The final part of Unplugged is plant-powered rather than human-powered. A potted plant provides electrcity through a process similar to a potato battery.
Unplugged is definitely more of a concept than a working product, but if this set-up were put to use, it could generate a nice chunk, though probably not all, of the energy needed to get through the workday.
The new 2013 Chevy Volt, which goes on sale in August, will have added miles to its electric range and greater efficiency overall. GM tinkered with the chemistry of the lithium-ion battery pack as well as its size and composition to get it to an EPA rating of 38 all-electric miles, up from 35 for last year's Volt, getting the car ever closer to its own target of 40 miles of electric range.
The additional range has led to a nice jump in the electric fuel rating to 98 mpg-e from 94 mpg-e. The gas engine will deliver 340 miles of range once the battery has been depleted.
Avoiding specifics, GM's director of Global Battery Systems Engineering Bill Wallace compared the battery to a cake batter, saying, "We’ve done some work at the cell level to modify the ‘ingredients’ to make a better end result."
The downside of this slightly extended range is that the battery will take a smidgen more time to charge. Using a 120-volt outlet, the battery will charge in 10.5 hours up from 10 and if using a 240-volt charger, drivers will be looking at 4.25 hours up from 4 even.
The good news is that even with upgrades the price of the Volt will remain the same at $39,995.
One of the clearest examples of the effects of global warming and climate change is the receding of the Arctic ice cap. The NSIDC indicates that this year's sea ice is already slightly smaller than it was in 2010, which was the previous record for this time of year. It is also smaller than it was in 2007, which was the year that had the ice cap shrink to its smallest size in September of that year.
Starting the summer with the smallest Arctic cap on record is not an auspicious sign, for the Arctic or for the planet.
A single-seat, all-electric sea plane has successfully taken its first test flight. The FlyNano was originally designed as a hybrid electric/petrol engine "fun flyer" craft, but with advances in batteries and electric motors since its debut over a year ago, the FlyNano has instead gone all-electric.
The FlyNano features a lightweight carbon-fiber body and has a cruising speed of 87 mph. The rudders are controlled by pedals and the throttle and steering are controlled by a stick. The one thing it's lacking? A windshield. But the company is using this as a selling point with the philosophy of "feel the wind" and recommending helmet and goggles when flying.
Sea planes aren't exactly high priority on the list of transportation modes we'd like to see get an all-electric makeover -- it's pretty equal with electric jet skis -- but any transistion away from fossil fuels is welcome and, well, the sea plane is pretty cool.
The Finnish makers of FlyNano hope to get the plane on the market by the end of next year with a price tag of $40,000.
Insect cuticle is a pretty versatile material. Layers of chitin, a biopolymer, are built up to make strong, lightweight material that composes the exoskeleton and wings of insects. Now, scientists from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed an artificial version of insect cuticle called 'Shrilk' that is as strong as aluminum allow but with only half the weight.
The synthetic insect cuticle is made from chitin which is obtained from waste shrimp shells. By varying the level of moisture during the production process, the stiffness of the material can be varied, allowing flexible or very rigid products to be made with the same material.
Since it is biodegradable, Shrilk is also being investigated for a number of medical uses, including use for sutures that need to be particularly strong and as a scaffold for tissue regeneration. It is also being suggested as a low-cost and biodegradable alternative material for things like trash bags and packaging.
Inspecting wind turbine blades is a dangerous and expensive part of operating a wind farm. But now it may be possible to have robots do the dangerous climbing work, and allow the inspector to stay safely on the ground.
Turbine blades need to be regularly inspected as part of its regular maintenance. We've seen the (catastrophic) videos of what happens when a turbine blade fails. Inspection helps identify blades that need repair or replacement, before further damage occurs.
The robots for this task have been developed in partnership between International Climbing Machines and GE. The first tests of the robot were successfully carried out at a wind farm in Texas. In addition to the high-definition cameras the robots currently carry, GE is exploring the use of microwave scanners that could give inspectors an ability to "see inside" the blade and gather more information than a conventional visual inspection.
Comparisons of aerial images between lower- and higher-income neighborhoods show that income inequalities are demonstrated through the number of trees present. Higher income areas have more trees, while less affluent areas also have fewer trees.
"They found that for every 1 percent increase in per capita income, demand for forest cover increased by 1.76 percent. But when income dropped by the same amount, demand decreased by 1.26 percent. That’s a pretty tight correlation. The researchers reason that wealthier cities can afford more trees, both on private and public property. The well-to-do can afford larger lots, which in turn can support more trees."
Solar towers are again getting some notice. According to recent news, a company called Clean Wind Energy, Inc. is trying to build a 3,000 foot (914 meters) tall tower to produce electricity. When the tower is operational, the company expects to have, on an hourly basis, "1,100 to 1,500 megawatt hours available for sale to the power grid."
Solar power towers are one of the more unusual concepts we've come across at EcoGeek. More properly, we should be calling them something like 'thermal chimney towers' to differentiate them from the solar towers which are targets for fields of solar reflectors.
To further complicate the matter, there are two types of solar chimney towers: updraft and downdraft. Updraft towers require a large area covered with transparent material to heat the air at the base of the tower in order to make it rise through the chimney. Downdraft towers pump water to the top of the tower where it is sprayed as a fine mist to cool the air and induce it to fall. In both cases, wind turbines at the base of the tower are turned by the moving air to produce electricity.
The tower that Clean Wind Energy is proposing is of the downdraft type, which may be problematic in the American desert southwest, where water is already scarce. Treehugger's article on the project also notes one of the major drawbacks to this kind of power generator: "Of course, there's the problem of dedicating large amounts of water in a desert city to the tower, and the energy required to send it 3,000 feet up. One third of the energy produced by the tower goes to that pumping."
Several years ago, we first noted that Enviromission, an Australian company with an updraft tower design, was trying to get their first solar power tower built in Arizona. That company found Arizona more conducive to their business model than building a tower in the Australian desert, and their project also seems to be moving slowly forward. Whether either one of these towers (or both) gets built remains to be seen.
Every once in a while we hear of an unexpectedconsequence of pollution or climate change and this one is particularly interesting. Scientists at Loughborough University in England found that an increased level of nitrogen in rainfall over bogs in Northern Europe was causing carnivorous plant species to cut back or stop consuming insect prey because they were now getting more nitrogen through their roots.
Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels at power plants and from transportation is causing the uptick in nitrogen in the rain. By taking samples of plants in different bogs and analyzing the nitrogen they contained, the scientists found that plants in areas where the pollution was light got 57 percent of their nitrogen from insects, but in areas with heavy pollution that number fell to 22 percent.
The plants are responding to the extra nitrogen by making their leaves less sticky and changing their color to more green instead of insect-attracting red, making bogs where nitrogen pollution is high easy to spot.
This change is actually to the plants' detriment. The plants originally evolved to be carnivorous in order to survive in the low-nitrogen environments of the bogs, but now that the plants are switching their diet they will find it harder to compete with non-carnivorous plants that are equipped better for a high-nitrogen environment.
"In the sites with more nitrogen deposition, these plants now get much more of their nitrogen from their roots, but they still have to bear the residual costs of being carnivorous, and other plants without these will be better able to survive,"said Dr. Jonathan Millett, the report's lead author. "So it's quite likely we'll see less abundance and perhaps local extinctions from carnivorous species. The individual plants get bigger and fitter, but the species as a whole is less well adapted to high-nitrogen environments and will lose out over time."