Photo of the Week: the straw that saved a thousand lives (so far)

The original LifeStraw (photo: LifeStraw)

I have showcased quite some extraordinary innovations in the Photo of the Week series so far. Maybe you get the feeling that in order to save the world, we need complicated and expensive technology. But sometimes it are simple things that can have the biggest impact. Brought to the market in 2005, LifeStraw has saved thousands of lives with their innovative product. And it will keep doing so in the future.

Knowing that 1 in 5 deaths of young children is directly related to a water-related disease, the LifeStraw truly deserves its name.  It filters out 99.9% of waterborne bacteria and 99.9 of waterborne protozoa and has saved thousands of lives since it was invented. It was originally designed for people in developing countries who don’t have water piped in from municipal sources or other access to safe water. It also comes to help in emergency situations following natural disasters when water is contaminated. Backpackers, campers and travelers alike are thankful users as well.

The community version of Vestergaard's life-saving filter technology is bringing clean drinking water to schools in Kenya (photo: LifeStraw)

The community version of Vestergaard’s life-saving filter technology is bringing clean drinking water to schools in Kenya (photo: LifeStraw)

The product shines in its simplicity. The plastic straw contains a filter containing no chemicals whatsoever. It is able to turn 1000 liters of contaminated water into drinking water. No need for electricity, batteries or replacement parts. In fact, it’s such a simple product that chances are low that it will ever break down. No surprise it got Time Magazine’s award for best invention of the year in 2005.

After the successful introduction of the original LifeStraw, inventor Vestergaard came up with other variants. The lifestraw family can support a household and the LifeStraw Community was designed as a high-volume filter for schools and clinics with a lack of safe drinking water.

Are you a fervent hiker, backpacker or camper? Do consider buying a LifeStraw. For each straw sold in the Western world, the Follow the Litres campaign will provide clean drinking water to an African child for a whole school year. It will not only save you some nasty travel sickness, but also others’ lives.

Sources

LifeStraw’s website

The Water Project

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Photo of the Week: Belgium’s sail trains ride out

In a country that needed six years to reach an agreement in principle on the burden sharing of the efforts to be made to tackle climate change, you wouldn’t expect much inspiring climate change mitigation. The opposite is true. Where the Belgian governments linger, communities and businesses have taken initiatives to start limiting emissions themselves. Last week, such a project entered a new stage: the first sail train rode out.

What? A sail train? No, it is not some kind of cart on rails with a big sail on top of it. The so called sail train is a normal train but fully powered by wind energy, harvested by a wind park stretching along the trajectory between the cities of Liege and Leuven. The project is a collaboration between the railway infrastructure manager InfraBel, the city of Sint-Truiden, energy producer Electrabel and the Brussels electricity distribution company.

"Moving by the wind": the first sail train on the trajectory from Leuven to Liège rode out last week (photo: Electrabel)

“Moving by the wind”: the first sail train on the trajectory from Leuven to Liège rode out last week (photo: Electrabel)

 

The first seven wind turbines have now been taken into service, with another eighteen to be build in the near future. Together they will yield 34 000 MegaWatthour in clean energy and save 15 000 tons of CO2 per year. Two third of the generated electricity will be feeded directly to the trains, one third will be transmitted to the distribution system to be used by households and companies.

When fully operational, around 170 trains will be powered by wind daily. That makes up to around 5% of all train traffic in Belgium. Commuters don’t have to worry: there’s a backup connection with the national electricity grid to keep the trains going on a windless day. There was never more reason to let the car behind and take the train instead!

Sources (Dutch)

deredactie.be
HetLaatsteNieuws

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Photo of the Week: Grabbing power from the air

You’re probably not aware of it, but the air around you is a dense cloud of radio frequency signals. And you’d rather be happy about that: they provide your mobile phone with 3G, your laptop with wifi and your TV with digital broadcast. Without going into details –let’s leave that for a physics class — the signals are electromagnetic waves that carry energy from a sending antenna to a receiver. Imagine you could tap of a little bit of the energy of all the waves bouncing around. That’s exactly what Freevolt does.

According to developer Drayson, Freevolt is the first commercially available technology that extracts energy from the ambient radiosignals. It’s extremely efficient thanks to its simplicity: it consists of only three parts, being an antenna to pick up the power out of the air, a rectifier to turn the alternating current into direct current and a power management module to store and ouptut the electricity.

A demo of the Freevolt technology, powering a small speaker (photo: Sebastian Anthony)

A demo of the Freevolt technology, powering a small speaker (photo: Sebastian Anthony)

You are probably wondering how much energy this neat little device could harvest from the surrounding air. I’ll tell you: around 100 microWatts. That may sound little –it actually is, it would take ages to charge your smartphone with it– yet it is sufficient to power small devices such as smoke detectors, small security camera’s, sensors in fridges, parking lots… basically all small devices that could be part of the internet of things.

Imagine you would never have to worry about charging these devices or changing batteries. Freevolt branded it Perpetual Power for a reason. Yet as an engineer I want to get rid of some misunderstandings here. This technology is freewheeling on existing waves boucing around and since in the future we rather will have more than less of them, it may sound like an infinite power source. Too bad there’s the first law of thermodynamics, which tells us that energy cannot be created (nor destroyed). The Freevolt technology is doing nothing more than extracting some energy from the waves, energy that was invested by the sender to emit the wave in the first place.

A developers kit is available for the geeks to play around with the technology. Dryson also developed the Tag, a small sensor that keeps track of the air pollution around you and gathers the data on an the Cleanspace app on your mobile device. It rewards you when helping to improve the air quality, like leaving the car and taking the bike instead. It’s a nice showcase for their technology and hopes to build awareness on air pollution at the same time.

Sources
OffGridQuest
Freevolt website
CleanSpace app

 

 

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Photo of the Week: Washington’s biggest electricity consumer is now running on poo

Sometimes it does not take as much as fancy electrical SUVs to have a positive impact on the planet. Being the biggest electricity consumer in Washington D.C., the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment plant wanted to lower the environmental burden of their activities. And they didn’t have to look far.

The facility used to treat the wastewater stream in a classical way: it goes though a set of filters to shed the debris, then through a treatment process that seperates the biosolids — the political correct term for poo — from the water. It finally results in 60 truckloads of dump a day that go to landfill.

But since last September, an additional process developed by Norwegian company Cambi and that carries the name thermal hydrolysis is able to produce enough electricity to power 10 500 households or one third of the whole plant’s electricity demand.

View of the thermal hydrolysis installation during construction, with the pulper, reactors and flash tanks in front and the actual digestion silos in the back (photo: PC construction)

View of the thermal hydrolysis installation during construction, with the pulper, reactors and flash tanks in front and the actual digestion silos in the back (photo: PC construction)

 

Via a cooking step, the biosolids that used to go to landfill, are treated and sterilized. In eight-story high tanks they are then digested by microbes to form methane gas. This is burned to drive turbines that generate energy. The total installation has a capacity of 12MW. From poo to power, very nice. The final left-over biosolid is only half the amount it used to be and thanks to the additional processing it is safe to use as fertilizer in agriculture or gardening.

So next time you’re flushing in Washington D.C., bear in mind that you are generating power –kind of. And some of your biosolids could turn up on the shelves of a home garden store. Maybe you turn out to be buying it back. Think about that.

Sources

Washington Post
Cambi

Cover Photo by Dean Hochman 

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Photo of the week: Back to the Future with Elon Musk

Busy times for Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk. Last week he presented Model X, the companies latest feat of engineering. With a range of 250 miles (around 400 kilometers), speeding up to 100 km/h in less than 4 seconds and falcon wing doors that give the car a Back to the Future allure, Musk fulfilled the boldest expectations of enthusiasts around the world. Being the safest SUV ever built —  thanks to i.a. the batteries in the floor that lower the centre of mass and improve the balance — it even offers a bioweapon defense mode. Yes, you read that correct: a bioweapon defense mode. Just in case of a nuclear attack, you know.

There are many advantages of driving electric, but one that will probably attract dads and moms is the Model X’s large storage space and the easy access to the back seats. The electric motor takes up much less space than a classical combustion engine, making room for a trunk in the front of the car. And thanks to the falcon wings, it’s much easier to reach the back seats and install a child’s seat and reach the third row.

Elon Musk at the Model X launch (photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Elon Musk at the Model X launch (photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Yet, if Elon Musk really wants to target families with this SUV, he might be faced with disappointment. Price indicators predict a hole of 75 000$ (68 000 euro) in the family’s budget for the cheapest version of the car. Are families willing and able to put that amount of money on the table? Elon Musk founded Tesla Motors to make electric vehicles available for the large public. Nor the Model X, nor the Model S — a full-electric sedan starting from 71 000$ launched in 2012 — fulfill this promise.

But Elon Musk is fighting on many frontiers at the same time. His company SolarCity, which offers all-in-one solar energy solutions for residents and businesses, announced earlier this week that they developed the world’s most efficient rooftop panels in production. A third-party certification testing provider noted down an efficiency of 22.04%. The previous record holder was producer SunPower with an efficiency of 21.5%. SolarCities’ panels would also perform better in high temperatures than competitors. Overall, the company promises a price reduction of 20 eurocents per watt, making  solar energy even more competitive than it already is.

Sources
Watch the Model X launch
Model X specifications
SolarCity press release

 

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Analysis: a traveler’s footprint

If you’re only a bit like me, you love traveling. I love to explore new cities and cultures, meet new people, hear stories and challenge my view on the world. I believe traveling is one of the most effective and fun ways of self-enrichment. But what does our planet think about us flying/driving/sailing around? Now I got rid of the sand in my shoes, the backpack is stored away and I’m back at University, I thought it was the perfect time to present you the results of an experiment I undertook this summer. I wanted to find out what my travel footprint was and if I would be able to do better.

Living in the heart of Belgium, around 30 kilometers from the capital Brussels, I’ve always had the luxury of a broad range of options to go abroad. Brussels is a major international traffic hub, with a lot of international flights, high-speed train connections going in all wind directions and a lot of buses connecting cities all over Europe. Around 60 kilometers to the South, the airport of Chaleroi is the main hub for low-cost airlines — always tempting for the student with a small budget.

The idea to challenge myself to think more about the ecological impact of my journey arose from a discussion I had with one of the participants of a summer academy on sustainability I was attending in the beginning of August. Wasn’t it a bit ironic that a group of young people who are interested in sustainable living, came all the way to Istanbul, in most cases by plane? And many of us seemed to be fervent travellers. This got me thinking… what was my impact on the environment by attending this sustainability academy? And how could plan my travels in the future to limit that footprint?

So I did what you usually do when big life questions arise — I started googling. After half a day of searching the web, I ceased my attempt. Frustratingly enough, I didn’t find any satisfying calculator that could tell me how much greenhouse gases my trip had blewn into the atmosphere. The problem was this: or the available tools were too simple, or they were way too complicated. It was also difficult to track the data sources or to find out which assumptions were made to turn my input into the number the calculator spew out on the screen. My conclusion was clear: I would have to do the calculation myself.

After two days , mainly invested in digging for data on greenhouse gas emissions of different means of transport, I had a first version of the calculator ready in excel. Time for the test: how much did my trip from Belgium to Istanbul including local transport hurt the planet? The result was striking. I made an infographic to summarize the inputs and most important results.

Infographic of the travel footprint of my Istanbul trip

Infographic of the travel footprint of my Istanbul trip

It was quite shocking to learn that the transportation of this two-week trip alone took a bite of 20% out of my carbon budget. The carbon budget is what I can emit, according to the IPCC, to be on track for no more than 2°C global warming by 2100. I further found out that taking the taxi from the airport to the hotel was the most carbon intensive means of transportation, followed by the flight from Brussels to Istanbul. The difference is of course that I travelled around 4600 kilometers by plane and only 55 kilometers by taxi. The bus trips turned out to be the least carbon intensive way of moving around. But if Turkey would have had the same energy mix as France, the metro would have won that title — the carbon intensity of electricty is very low in France because of the nuclear power. During the research I made a graph of the carbon intensity per kilometer for some of the means of transport, which can serve has a first guiding tool in choosing your way of traveling.

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of typical means of travel (based on data from DEFRA and LIPASTO)

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of typical means of travel (based on data from DEFRA and LIPASTO)

The biggest lessons from playing around with the data were:

  • taking a taxi as a single passenger, or a car with only one person are most carbon intensive
  • taking a plane is devastating, since it is nearly as carbon intensive as being a single person in a car but you travel much longer distances
  • taking an electric train or metro is often a good idea, unless you are living in a country with a mainly coal-fired power generation (such as Poland)
  • taking a coach bus has a very low footprint

With this in mind, I started planning my next trip. I now wanted to travel with a minimal ecological footprint, but still fulfill the two remaining items on my bucket list for the summer of 2015: attending the Climate Launchpad competition in Amsterdam and doing a surf camp in France or Spain. To make things even more complicated, I had to remember my budget constraints. I used the Travel Carbon Footprint calculator to estimate the footprint of different ways to realize my plans. It was pretty clear that I had to avoid taking the plane. I finally choose to do everything by long-distance bus, because it had the lowest footprint, it was enormously cheap (especially because I was arranging everything last minute) and I didn’t have to worry about luggage restrictions. The final footprint is around 2,20% of my yearly carbon budget. If I would have chosen a less time-consuming alternative, e.g. taking the train to Amsterdam and a plane to the South of France, it was at least five times more carbon intensive. So for me it was worth the long hours on a bus.

If you are curious about your own travel footprint of last summer, I have good news for you. You can calculate your own footprint now as well, I made the first version of the calculator available for you on the Shift website! Be sure to first read the manual so you know what input is expected from you and what the results really mean. I plan to further upgrade the calculator in the future and keep the data up to date. You can always leave a suggestion for new functionalities as well, or leave a question.

And to assure you: I had an awesome time both in Amsterdam and during my surf trip in the South-West of France. For me, it was the proof that travelling and exploring can be cheap and good for the environment without compromising too much. I hope the calculator will help you choosing your transportation means during the planning of future trips! And don’t forget: transport often is a huge part of your travel footprint, but not the only one. Eat, shop, sleep and enjoy your destination without leaving traces…only good memories.

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