(hey, type here for great stuff)

access to tools for the beginning of infinity

10 sustainable innovations: energy, transportation and more

Green collar jobs, or jobs with high added value in the emerging sector of cleantech, are being stimulated by the Obama administration and, following in his footsteps, by other governments worldwide.

We take a look at several of the technological advances that, although not directly related to the so-called green collar jobs, boost sustainability through their use.

1. Transparent solar cells that can be put into windows

The solar firm Konarka has developed a solar cell that can be embedded into windows. Konarka hopes that the windows will be capable of generating sufficient electricity during the day to provide nighttime lighting for a conventional home.

The company, based in Massachusetts, has partnered with the construction firm Arch Aluminum & Glass to integrated transparent photovoltaic cells in all types of construction materials, including windows.

Besides the transparent variety, the solar cells can be tinted with color. The Konarka product used in the Arch construction materials is the latest example of a trend in one of the sectors most impacted by the recession and with the biggest ecological footprint: construction: Building Integrated Photovoltaics (PIBV).

Other startups have been researching methods to create windows and other surfaces that don’t just insulate from weather and noise, but also actively participate in the generation of energy or the integration of services for a building’s inhabitants.

Universal Display has developed a transparent OLED (organic light emitting diodes) laminate that can be used in construction, the textile industry, electronics, furniture and decoration.

Their prototype of a “transparent window” is a laminate integrated into window glass that during the day remains transparent and, when the natural light disappears, illuminates and acts as a lamp, using the previously captured light as energy.

Konarka hopes to use their product in camping tents, portable chargers and electronics and sensors for many industries, including automobiles.

The technology, however, still needs improvement: it’s lifespan is still too short- 6 years compared to the 20 plus of solar panels- and it’s efficiency is just 6% compared to about 20% for PV.

2. Construction materials and surfaces that reduce our impact: Eco from Cosentino

Eco is a new countertop from the Spanish brand Cosentino. It is made of 75% recycled materials: glass (from window, windshields and bottles), salvaged mirrors, porcelain (from china, tiles, sinks and toilets) and industrial furnace residuals from factories.

Santiago Alfonso, a director of Cosentino, explained to faircompanies that the remaining 25% of the product is made of materials that, while not recycled, are in some way more sustainable than conventional: for example, quartz and silica remnants from other industries and salvaged stone.

Eco’s production process “is clean, according to the mandates of certifications like Cradle to Cradle, where we control emissions, consume the least energy possible and recycle up to 94% of the water used. Eco countertops are also a nutrient to make more of the same product without additional impact”.

Cosentino, which launched Eco in New York and Barcelona in April of 2009, has not yet marketed its range of Silestone countertops and surfaces worldwide.

Other basic construction products explore equally interesting methods of reducing the impact of this industry. The Italian company Italcementi, for example, has commercialized a coating for cement, exterior paints and prefabricated products capable of absorbing contaminating gasses generated by the traffic of urban environments.

The coating uses a mix of titanium (TX Active) that actively interacts with the contaminating particles and causes their crystallization, when the surface is activated by the sun’s rays. 

Their anti-smog cement is used on public buildings and infrastructures to reduce pollution levels.

3. Tires that are more effective against climate change

The debate over the future of the automobile currently is centered on the transition from the internal combustion motor toward the electric car, with a transition period with types of lower-consuming combustion motors like injection and hybrids to finally settle on entirely electric vehicles, if batteries become cheaper and longer ranged.

Despite having improved, the combustion engine hasn’t evolved in its fundamental mechanism so that it still depends on fossil fuels, or a substitute that imitates their behavior. It’s here that governments and industry have focused their resources.

There are, however, other areas of innovation in this highly polluting industry.

The European Union wants to stimulate with legislation the development of non-contaminating tires that are, besides, capable of reducing fuel use, accidents and sound pollution.

The focus is on tires that are technologically more sophisticated and that reduce the friction with the pavement and, of course, fuel consumption. Noise emissions are also reduced with the new prototypes, besides improving security.

The EU will launch the new models of tires with the imposition of a labeling system that, beginning in 2012, will specify energy consumption and classify tires in function of their efficiency, adherence to wet ground and generation of noise.

The labeling system will avoid, according to calculations by the European Commission, the emission of 20 million tons of CO2 in the 27 EU countries and will save 13 billion dollars of fuel.

4. “Green” applications for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile

The iPhone became the model to follow for the rest of the telephone industry for the smartphone range: devices with a large touch screen, accelerometer, processing capacity, multimedia functions and integrated Internet navigator.

The arrival of the App Store, a market where any company can sell their iPhone application (if it is approved by Apple) has experienced a success that is now being copies by Google, RIM, Microsoft, Nokia and other industry players.

At the moment, it’s just the iPhone users that will benefit from applications designed to help us cut our carbon footprint.

There are dozens of applications, some free and others for sale, to help us cut our carbon footprint, including services to provide detailed information about public transportation, to calculate the environmental impact of daily activities, to calculate the fuel consumption of our vehicle, to find people with whom to carpool, to find local food, to check the ethical quality of a product and many others.

Some of the applications help reduce consumption and improve the efficiency and convenience of our daily activities:

  • Greeenpeace Tissue Guide: the last big application to arrive. It offers information about the environmental impact of hundreds of paper products. It offers a detailed environmental study of more than 100 brands in 4 categories: toilet paper, paper napkins, tissues and facial wipes. Only in the United States, it could save 400,000 trees if every family replaced only a roll of conventional toilet paper for a roll of the recycled stuff.
  • Stanza: the best application to read books in the iPhone.  It avoids the purchase of heavy books, facilitates the reading of scores of titles from anywhere and the access to hundreds of books in the public domain, besides contemporary commercial titles.
  • GoodGuide: an interactive guide that helps the user compare information on a product before buying it. It includes products in the categories of cosmetics, food, cleaning and toys.
  • Locavore: an interactive guide to locate local vegetables and their suppliers, both guaranteeing support for the local community as well as reducing the environmental impact of the food, which don’t require pesticides nor travel to arrive at the table. They are, also, healthier.

There are many more examples for the iPhone, although the fifth application included in this small list was developed for Microsoft:

  • Vine: a multi-platform application designed to help the user in an emergency or natural disaster. The objective of this application is to allow the user to communicate with his network of contacts, including when one or several of the communication webs have been affected. Vine will work with Facebook, LinkedIn, SMS, email and the program’s own interface, with 3 basic functions: to send an alert, to publish a report and to investigate information related to what happened. To be truly useful, Vine must offer support for Twitter and a version of its interface both for computers and for telephones that don’t include Windows.

5. Amazon Kindle DX: the first step toward an electronic book with worldwide reach

The electronic book from Amazon has a new model, the Kindle DX, which with a bigger screen and more storage space is designed to be used with university textbooks and for reading the electronic editions of newspapers and magazines, at a moment of crisis for the written media in the U.S., which has seen a big cut in revenues from publicity and a vanished classifieds business.

The Kindle DX is expensive (489 dollars) and very proprietary: you can only buy Amazon titles and read a handful of magazines and newspapers. Also, if Amazon wants university students to use it in place of textbooks, they need to improve the interface to make activities like note-taking a simpler experience. 

The user doesn’t have free-ranging wifi connection nor do they enjoy the experience of navigation similar to that of an electronic tablet. The price of the books, above all new releases, are too similar to the paper versions so that dozens of users have criticized on the Amazon website what they are gaining from the change, expect an instantaneous purchase and the possibility of more easily carrying several heavy books and magazines.

But the Kindle DX, like the Kindle 2 and the predecessor to both, represents the right move in other ways: it includes a screen with e-Ink technology, or electronic ink, whose quality, contrast and level of energy consumption are decent; connection to telephone networks for which the user doesn’t pay (although they are charged at the beginning, the user doesn’t pay for data connections), with which to buy books securely, easily and instantaneously; the support is, also, comfortable; the quality of the experience is, finally, comparable to that of a book, with the advantage that the user can always carry with her a handful of titles.

An open source version, that allows the user to consult and edit their own text documents and serves as well as a substitute for a tablet PC, capable of purchasing worldwide and that offers an adequate library, would have clients worldwide.

The company PVI, the manufacturer of the e-Ink screens that are used by the Kindle and the Sony Reader, as well as the Pixel Qi http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/05/pixel-qi/ – a California startup founded by Mary Lou Jepsen, who was part of the project that created the laptop for children in poor countries XO, from the organization OLPC-, work with technologies to screens that are cheap, flexible, high contrast, in color and low consuming. These will be the screens that the new electronic books and networks use.

6. Advances to diminish the environmental impact of data processing centers.

The data processing centers are huge computing centers with hundreds, and sometimes thousands of servers that allow users and businesses to user web applications and services online which are increasingly secure and sophisticated, that don’t require downloading by the user, but that can be used in the Internet browser.

At the same time, the contents of users and businesses, as well as with their web applications, are placed in infrastructures that are called “cloud computing”: thanks to the virtualization, the data centers allow anyone to pay just for the use of the space, processing capacity and bandwidth used. This has allowed for a dramatic reduction in the cost of big infrastructures of the Internet and made the scalability something that can be achieved by any startup, however small.

These are also the infrastructure related to the information technologies that have most increased their environmental footprint. It’s been predicted that data centers will generate as much CO2 emissions as the entire aviation industry by 2020, if they don’t correct their current trajectory with regards to the environmental impact.

Therefore, innovations in this field are strategic in the coming years for businesses that have helped create the shape of the Internet’s infrastructure, among them Google and Amazon.

A global consortium, The Green Grid, that is made up of the main technology companies (listed), believes they have discovered a method to reduce both the electric bills and the environmental impact of the large data centers, as long as they are not installed in exceptionally hot places.

It involves using the air currents outside of the buildings that house the servers, reducing the need to rely just on cooling the systems with air conditioning or water.

Business like Google share the architecture and details of their data centers, as well as forming a part of the initiative Climate Savers Computing, a consortium formed by businesses and non-profits that are trying to improve the efficiency of the electrical connections of servers and electronic apparatuses, responsible for up to half of the lost energy.

In the same way, Google and General Electric are jointly researching to improve the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity to large infrastructures and data centers.

The businesses that one would assume use the most servers to function, among them Google, Microsoft, Amazon and eBay, as covered by Slashdot, don’t offer details about the number of machines or the exact environmental footprint needed to keep them running.

Providers of web housing services for businesses, with infrastructures much smaller than the aforementioned firms, exceed 50,000 servers in their data centers: among them, Rackspace, 1&1 Internet, The Planet and Akamai.

7. Electric motorcycles of the future: Zero Motorcycles Zero S electric

The model Zero S from the company Zero Motorcycles, based in Santa Cruz, California, has surprised the specialized critics in this country for their aggressive design, rapid acceleration and size, as well as for its power in relation with its weight: just 225 pounds (102 kilograms).

The Zero S has 31 horsepower and a maximum speed more than adequate for an urban environment: 70 mph (112 km/h). The range on its electric battery is 100km, sufficient for comfortable use.

Its price: 9,950 dollars, about 4,000 dollars more than a 250 cc motorcycle with similar specs, although, one that would be much more polluting.

Electric motorcycles are finally gaining traction, with the arrival of several models both viable and economical enough to be considered by an urban population concerned with the domestic economy and the environment.

The low cylinder motorcycle has become essential to cities with a benign climate, high urban density and even terrain, like the big cities of the Mediterranean. Rome is the European city with the most motorcycles and Barcelona is shortly behind (the Spanish city is much smaller, but boasts a greater density of motorcycles: 142 motorcycles for every 1000 inhabitants, 90 for Rome).

Their low fuel consumption and superior maneuverability are allowing scooters to gain followers even in societies that have traditionally been less inclined to opt for this mode of transport, like North America. Between 2001 and 2007, motorcycle sales in the U.S. jumped by 30%, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

While motorcycles and scooters are about twice as fuel efficient as cars, they produce much more smog-forming emissions like nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide and overall are 10 times more polluting per mile than cars and trucks, according to LA Times calculations.

Therefore, a switch to electric motorcycles could make a big difference.

8. Electric cars of the future: Tesla Model S

Until recently, Tesla was a California startup that was known for the importance of its Silicon Valley investors (among them the founders of Google) and the fabrication of a sportscar, the Tesla Roadster, as exclusive as the models with which it competes, and a pricetag of 109,000 dollars for the 2009 model, which was planning for annual sales of 1,500 cars.

But the Model S changed everything. It’s a sports sedan with a sportscar design that has had more than 1000 orders. It’s an entirely electric car whose basic model will sell for 49,900 dollars and will begin to be delivered in 2011.

Among its specs, we highlight: a range of up to 300 miles (490 kilometers) with just one battery charge; a method of rapid recharge of just 45 minutes; acceleration from 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds, seating for up to 7 people; double the efficiency of a hybrid vehicle; 17 inch tactile screen for information and entertainment.

Tesla has big plans for the Model S, which will compete as a completely electric, high design version of the new edition of the best-selling hybrid in the world, the Toyota Prius; and the hybrid vehicle from the late General Motors, the Chevrolet Volt.

The Tesla Model S has achieved, almost 2 years before behind delivered to consumers, what seemed impossible: that the car made and designed entirely in the United States is perceived by the specialized public as a vehicle capable of rivaling in design and specs the best European and Japanese sports sedans.

If someone has the power to bring prestige back to the U.S. automobile industry, it seems it’s not the Big Three of Detroit, but a small Silicon Valley startup, regarded by many as elitist. But it’s certain that the Model S won’t cost more than many of the best-selling SUVs in North America.

9. La distribution of Linux for the mass public: Ubuntu 9.04

Netbooks, a new range of portable computers with limited specs, has contributed to popularizing several Linux distributions among a public that isn’t necessarily technically experienced nor is part of an elite university crowd.

It has been awhile now that Linux, an open source operating system that can be personalized at whim, although the learning curve is higher than the commercial alternatives Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X, has been used by medium-sized and large businesses worldwide in their big databases.

Canonical, a small company founded by the young South African millionaire entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, has witnessed its principal free Linux distribution, Ubuntu, become the main alternative of weight to the traditional operating systems.

Ubuntu is based on the distribution Debian, which facilitates tasks until now too complicated for neophytes such as the installation of the operating system or the support of multimedia content. It incorporates in its latest version, the 9.04, whose common name is Jaunty Jackalope (following the tradition of the startup to baptize version of their operating system with names of African animals), an edition with rapid screen startup conceived of for users of netbooks.

Besides its success among specialized users and a new more mainstream public, Ubuntu has gained traction as well with businesses that use cloud computing services and conventional servers.

In January of 2009 The New York Times reported that Ubuntu had achieved the milestone of 10 million users worldwide.

10. The cement of a new automobile industry: a universal charger for electric cars

The Obama administration has made their stance clear, by cutting public aid to the research of hydrogen fuel cell technology for its use in automobiles, as too expensive and impractical for use in the short, or medium, term.

The automobile industry has bet definitively on electric cars and the coming years will be dominated as much by hybrid models like the Toyota Prius as by entirely electric vehicles that can incorporate a small gasoline motor for emergencies, like the Chevrolet Volt from General Motors.

From models like the Toyota Prius to the Chevrolet Volt there is no insurmountable technology. Tesla is already working to mass produce the next step in the industry: sports sedans and compact cars with at a relatively affordable price and with specs comparable to those of the current gasoline, diesel or hybrid models.

The Tesla Model S, that will begin to reach clients in 2011, will be capable of charging most of its battery in less than an hour with an autonomy of 300 miles per complete charge, figures that make this new technology viable.

The electric vehicles will be two times more efficient than hybrids that currently consume the least, and will be able to be charged both at home and in charging stations that governments and private initiatives (such as the project Better Place from Shai Agassi, in collaboration with Renault and the Israeli government) will install.

But the electric car can’t take off without the existence of a standard high capacity charger, secure for the user and allowing for a battery to be charged in minutes, and not in hours like currently.

From here the industry can take a giant step, if the main manufacturers of electric vehicles will use the charging system, based on an initial design by the firm Yazaki.