Category: Photo of the week

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)


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.

Freevolt website
CleanSpace app




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.


Washington Post

Cover Photo by Dean Hochman 


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.

Watch the Model X launch
Model X specifications
SolarCity press release



Photo of the week: Shell freezes Arctic exploration (pun intended)

The beginning of the week started with a major victory for environmentalists: fossil fuel company Shell announced it will freeze its Artcic drilling activities for “the forseeable future”. Shell itself blames the disappointing outcome from the explorations this summer in the Alaskan Arctic for the halt in its search for oil and gas in the basin. After three years of strong opposition, environmental groups applaud the decision and called it “an unmitigated defeat” for big oil.

After years of protest and public outrage, Shell put its Arctic explorations on a hold (photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

Protest at one of Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs parked in Seattle bay. After years of public outrage, Shell put its Arctic explorations on a hold this week (photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

For sure public opinion and rising concerns about Shell’s plans for Arctic oil and gas exploration played an important role. Critics said that it would endanger one of the last pristine areas on earth and that the operations in such harsh environments would just be too costly. Plus, when something goes wrong at a drilling site in the Arctic, it is very difficult to react fast to limit the damage. Even the former president of BP questioned Shell’s plans for Arctic drilling.

Despite Shell’s effort to portray itself as a progressive company in the climate change debate, it looks that they lost a lot of credit with their drilling plans for the Arctic. And not only their image got a serious blow; they spent more than 6 million euros so far on the hunt for fossil fuel in the region. That would have been enough to install around 1700 1MegaWatt wind turbines, 5.4 carbon capture and storage facilities or 46 000 years of heat for a eco-house, according to a calculation of the Guardian.

The Guardian


Photo of the week: running your car on beer, sort of

The New Zealanders just found the perfect excuse to drink a few more beers in the bar. Beer brewer DB Breweries teamed up with bio-fuel producer Gull to produce what they claim to be the first commercial gasoline made from a beer by-product. They gave it the apt name Brewtrolium. It’s a mixture of 90% 98-octane gasoline and 10% bio-ethanol distilled from yeast left-overs. “We’re helping Kiwis save the world by doing what they enjoy best—drinking beer,” DB breweries spokesperson Sean O’Donnell told the NZ Herald.

Compatible with most modern cars that run on 98-gasoline, Brewtrolium is more sustainable than classic gasoline. The ethanol part is renewable — just keep drinking guys! — and DB Breweries claims a reduction in greenhouse gases with 8% because of a more efficient burning of the bio-fuel. When using 30 liters of Brewtrolium every week, it saves up to 250 kg of carbon dioxide a year in comparison with a traditional fuel. Until now, yeast left-overs were usually used for animal food or went to landfill.

DB Breweries teamed up with bio-fuel producer Gull to create the world's first fuel running on a beer by-product (photo: DB Export)

DB Breweries teamed up with bio-fuel producer Gull to create the world’s first fuel based on a beer by-product (photo: DB Export)

According to DB Breweries, everyone can now save the world by drinking beer. But is Brewtrolium really going to make a difference? The product in itself probably not. But the tendency of using left-overs for bio-fuel production is a good one, since until now often corn is used as base product. And corn can better be used to feed people than cars, right? That being said, it’s still way better to stop burning fuels altogether.


Digital Trends
DB Breweries