Monday, August 27, 2007

Energy Orb - Hacking Your Perception


Energy Orb - Hacking Your Perception

Energy Orb - Nabeel H, Flickr

The energy orb is a simple globular light that changes color depending on how much energy you are using, or how much energy is available.

On NPR Bob Garfield had an interview with Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine.

Here is a transcript of On the Media:

BOB GARFIELD: Environmental responsibility is an issue on everybody’s radar these days, and this month in Wired Magazine, Clive Thompson describes a new way for energy consumers to be aware of their consumption. It is an orb. It is awesome. Clive [LAUGHS], welcome back.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Good to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is about ambient technology. Tell me what that means.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, ambient technology is a way of delivering information in a more calming way. The idea arose about 10 years ago in response to the fact that computers, particularly computers, were becoming much more stressful because they had so many sources of information that they’re forcing you to stare at. There’s email and there’s browsers, and now there’s YouTube and all this stuff. And so people were getting sort of drowned in all the information that they had to stare at.

And the idea was, well, maybe we should try and take some information and just sort of put it in the periphery of your eye span, as it were, you know, so that something you sort of glance at every once in a while, you don’t have to stare at it.

BOB GARFIELD: Like a wall clock or a thermometer?

CLIVE THOMPSON: Precisely. A wall clock is a classic piece of ambient information, because even though you’re not really aware of ever looking at it, you always generally know what time it is. And so it’s a non-stressful source of information.

And it turns out that when they do studies, they find that ambient information, people actually retain it, sometimes even better than they do the stuff that they’re staring at.

BOB GARFIELD: Now comes the orb, which is a new medium. Tell me about the history of the orb and then we can talk about this current application.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, the orb is the invention of a guy named David Rose. He’s got a company called Ambient Devices. And his idea was okay, let’s try taking the important information off the computer screen and into the periphery of your attention. And he wanted a little, beautiful thing that would be sort of pleasant to have sitting in the corner of your desk. And so he thought of a glowing orb.

And his first application, and everyone loved this, was that you would set it to monitor [LAUGHING] your stock portfolio so that it would glow green or whatever if â€" and you could pick the color - it would glow green if things were going well and sort of it would slowly darken to purple or whatever if your stock portfolio was going down, and so the idea being that you would sort of generally know whether or not your financial health was being taken care of without having to go to E*Trade, you know, five times a day or whatever and look at your portfolio.

And it really worked. It turned out when they did studies they found that people were about - like I’m sketchy on the exact amount - but it was around like 30 or 40 percent more likely to do active trading, you know, once every month or so, if they had an orb because they could see, wait a minute, something’s wrong with my portfolio.

BOB GARFIELD: It’s a way to synthesize a lot of information just with a color spectrum.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.

BOB GARFIELD: So how did the orb come to be embraced for energy consumption?

CLIVE THOMPSON: What happened was that an engineer at a Californian energy firm decided to see if he could hack people’s perceptions to make them a little more aware of their energy usage by using orbs. And what he did was he basically bought about a thousand of these orbs and put them in people’s houses and configured them so that they would glow different colors based on whether or not the grid was being really stressed.

If it was really being overused, at total capacity, you know, it would glow red or whatever, and if the grid was actually not being used, it would glow green or whatever, and the idea being that people would sort of have a sense of what the energy environment around them is like and they would react accordingly. They would turn things off when energy was getting overstressed and too expensive, and they would save themselves money, and they would save, you know, their energy usage for when it was, you know, glowing green and things were less stressed.

And sure enough, the same thing happened. People actually very effortlessly started changing their energy usage habits and they actually, they conserved a lot more energy because they had - suddenly they had information on what was going on around them.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, in your piece in Wired, you actually wrote about a second stage of awareness, and that is when your awareness isn’t a closely-held secret but your own energy consumption is made available to a larger audience. Tell me how that works.

CLIVE THOMPSON: It’s called the sentinel effect. If you let other people know what you’re doing, their scrutiny will sort of freak out you out and you’ll try and do better, as it were.

So if everyone were able to - imagine like a word where, like, I’ve got my energy orb or whatever, and it broadcasts, you know, through my blog or my website to all my friends, Clive’s energy usage over the last week was, you know, up 20 percent or down 10 percent. You can sort of imagine this would very quickly take on, like, almost like a social virus type of effect where people would be almost actively reducing even more of their energy usage so they won’t look like a complete energy glutton in front of their friends. You know, it would have a really wonderful social effect.

There’s already a little experiment like this happening. Over in Britain there’s this cool company that have created this thing called the Watson, and it’s sort of like a little glowing brick. It does the same thing as the orb. It glows different colors based on your energy usage.

But the really cool thing is it’s networked to the Internet, so it feeds that information online, if you want it to, and you can go online and you can see, you can compare yourself with other Watson users and see who’s reduced the most energy.

And the other cool thing is you can see sort of how much in total all the Watson users have saved. That to me is really interesting, because one of the problems with personal conservation is that it feels like it’s just a drop in the bucket. Like why am I bothering to turn off this light? It’s not going to do anything.

Whereas, if you could go online and see that a million people had all turned off a light and you just saved [LAUGHING] 100 megawatts or the equivalent of 24 hours functioning of one coal-fired plant, that would really start to feel much more exciting and you’d be more likely to turn off that light.

BOB GARFIELD: Way cool. Clive, thank you so much for joining us.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Glad to be here.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Green Chemistry: Changing an Industry


You can't do green design without green materials, and material innovations tend to come from chemists. Chemists also produce many products in their own right: paints, adhesives, cleaning products, whole industries. So what are chemists doing to save the world?

There's currently one famous green chemist in the world: Michael Braungart (founder of EPEA, co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and co-author of Cradle to Cradle). The world needs about a hundred more.

World Changing has written before about legislation (mostly in the EU) tightening standards for toxics, and about the huge strides needed to close today's three critical gaps: knowledge (not only in the general public and governments, but in the chemical industry itself), safety (prioritizing hazards and enacting limits), and technology (developing safer, greener alternatives). But legislation can be slow and fickle, and the industry has a huge amount of inertia; many well-funded groups such as the American Chemistry Council lobby for the status-quo. What are chemists doing to lead?

They're doing a lot of things, as it turns out. Some researchers are developing alternative plastics that don't use petrochemicals, some associations are prioritizing green within their members, whole green-chem institutes are being founded, and groups are trying to teach chemists to green their processes. Sustainable chemistry is a baby, born thirty years ago but just now starting to crawl; let's help it get up on its feet.

Greener Plastics

What if that "new car smell" were the smell of fresh-baked potatoes or toasted corn? In the last five years, several bio-plastics manufacturers have come to market, and more are in the lab. Rodenburg Biopolymers in the Netherlands makes potato-starch plastic for disposable cutlery and packaging, and several companies in China sell corn-starch or potato-starch cutlery; enough that it has a buzzword, "spudware". NatureWorks PLA has a solid enough toe-hold in the market to be old news to many. A less-well-known competitor is PHA by Mechabolix. PHA has much better engineering properties than PLA (you can't make a cell phone case out of pure PLA, but you could make it out of PHA); however, it has two serious downsides. According to this excellent year 2000 Scientific American article (re-posted on, manufacturing PHA "would consume even more fossil resources than most petrochemical manufacturing routes." The second downside is that manufacturing it cheaply requires genetic modification of the corn crops.

Last year, Richard Wool at the University of Delaware created chicken feather and soy composite circuit boards. Not only do they replace the non-recyclable, energy-intensive fiberglass and epoxy materials, they are "a lighter, stronger, cheaper product with high-speed electronic properties." This is especially relevant because the circuit board often has the highest ecological impact of any part in a computer or other consumer electronics device--more than the plastic case, and sometimes more than the electronic components on the board. The chicken feather / soy composite could also be used as a structural material for other applications. For years, the university's ACRES team (Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources) has been researching different chemical pathways and feedstocks to determine the highest-performance and lowest-cost ways of making plastic out of soy.

Perhaps the most exciting is making plastic that sequesters CO2. Two years ago, Geoff Coates's lab at Cornell University developed a polystyrene-like plastic made out of CO2 and orange peels. Now he has a small startup company, Novomer, to commercialize it. As his Cornell group website says, "Although it is estimated that Nature uses CO2 to make over 200 billion tons of glucose by photosynthesis each year, synthetic chemists have had embarrassing little success in developing efficient catalytic processes that exploit this attractive raw material." The pages go on to describe the catalysts they found, which allowed them to achieve their breakthroughs. Keep an eye out in the next couple years for PLC (Polylimonene Carbonate), as well as the other polymers and catalysts that Novomer is making.

Associations and Institutions

Some big-name organizations are starting to push green chemistry. There are green chemistry institutions and networks in over 20 countries around the world; the ACS Green Chemistry Institute in the US has a decent list of them. The British government's Chemistry Innovation Network has a strong sustainability initiative called the "Crystal Faraday partnership". They make the importance of their mission clear:

"In the developed world, it is recognised that only 7% of production materials used in a process end up in the final product and that 80% of products are discarded after a single use. It is essential, therefore, that we seek to reduce material resources and ensure that any materials released to the environment are not toxic, harmful or persistent."
One of the largest and most respected groups of chemists, the UK's Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), is celebrating its 50th year, and its 2007 Jubilee report "is not merely a report of past successes. It is much more a call to arms". The IchemE's chief executive said, "Over the next decade, chemical engineers' work will be crucial as we tackle global issues such as climate change, waste reduction and access to clean water." The report is all about the progress being made in environmental safety, energy, water, and other sustainability issues. Aimed at laypeople, it's sprinkled with success stories and challenges. For instance, produce bags that allow the fruits or vegetables to 'breathe', increasing shelf life; this doesn't sound exciting until they point out that "Longer life means produce can be transported by sea rather than road transport (which produces 228 times more CO2 emissions) and air freight (which produces 90 times more)." Another nugget: "Cafeteria food waste has a biogas production potential nearly ten times that of animal manure, making it an interesting potential source of renewable energy." And even some biomimicry: they mentioned a new, safer method of industrial bleaching, based on an enzyme from a microbe discovered in Yellowstone National Park.

Training and Guidance

Currently there is little more than a trickle-down of green chemistry knowledge between companies, governments, NGOs, and universities. Companies' chemical information is proprietary, and many environmental impacts have never been measured, much less publicized. Some universities and government agencies have data on a few specific chemicals, but lack a centralized clearinghouse of information. MBDC may have the best database of chemical environmental data, but it is private and expensive information. Opening up the faucets of these knowledge flows, and getting them all in one tub big enough to splash in, may be the most important step for the industry right now. Several groups are trying to crank the taps.

Britain's Chemistry Innovation Network has a roadmap for sustainable technologies, including trends and drivers, specific needs of the industry, the business case, a review of technologies, and case studies. These are aimed at everyone in the chemical industry. UC Berkeley's Framework for California Leadership in Green Chemistry Policy recommends policy directions for lawmakers. For consumers, the Ecology Center put together a consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars, The site ranks over 200 vehicles in terms of indoor air quality, as well as rating child car seats for brominated flame retardants, and explaining what chemicals to be concerned with and why.

Chemists looking to learn should check out the EPA's 2002 textbook, Green Engineering: Environmentally Conscious Design of Chemical Processes. There's also a newer EPA tool, the downloadable Green Chemistry Expert System. It's a piece of software that "allows users to build a green chemical process, design a green chemical, or survey the field of green chemistry." For a less technical introduction, they have a web page listing their Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry:
1. Prevent waste
2. Design safer chemicals and products
3. Design less hazardous chemical syntheses
4. Use renewable feedstocks
5. Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents
6. Avoid chemical derivatives
7. Maximize atom economy
8. Use safer solvents and reaction conditions:
9. Increase energy efficiency
10. Design chemicals and products to degrade after use
11. Analyze in real time to prevent pollution
12. Minimize the potential for accidents
Most of these principles are aimed at being less bad. Michael Braungart argues convincingly that we need to shoot higher than that, we need to aim to be good. Zero is not a positive outcome. But some of them are positive goals, and for those that aren't, even if less-bad is as good as we can do for now, we need to keep a longer-term positive goal in mind.

Some awards are even being given for green chemistry: Britain's Green Chemistry Network has had awards for seven years under various names with the IchemE. The US EPA has a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award. The Royal Australian Chemical Institute also has a Green Chemistry Challenge Award.

The Future of Chemistry

Will the chemical market start to go green by itself, as a few industries are starting to do? Not yet. Michael Wilson, a researcher at UC Berkeley, told me that "green chemistry entrepreneurs have a difficult time breaking into the market because there are fundamental data gaps in chemical toxicity that prevent buyers from choosing safer chemicals... The market is therefore operating very inefficiently and will require corrections through public policy." He said "by requiring that producers generate and distribute standardized, robust information on chemical toxicity (for use by downstream industry, business, consumers, workers) we will open new markets for green chemistry entrepreneurs." This is the knowledge gap mentioned at the beginning, which the groups described above are working to close.

Wilson was hopeful about green chemistry entrepreneurs he knows, which "have some brilliant products supported by solid data - that reduce costs significantly and also make a substantial environmental contribution." (For instance, Advanced Biocatalytics, and Novozyme.)

But before the market will steer itself towards green, we need to also close the safety gap: "regulations (such as RoHS, WEEE and the REACH) [need] to force clean technology change (that won't happen any other way)." And finally, he argues "state investment in green chemistry research, education, technical assistance, and training will be essential." Such a combination -- new regulations, targeted research and bold commitments to innovation -- will close the technology gap, giving us alternatives and kick-starting new industries on the right path to a bright green future.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Making Gasoline from Bacteria


The biofuel of the future could well be gasoline. That's the hope of one biotech startup that on Monday described for the first time how it is coaxing bacteria into producing hydrocarbons that could be processed into fuels like those made from petroleum.

LS9, a company based in San Carlos, CA, and founded by geneticist George Church, of Harvard Medical School, and plant biologist Chris Somerville, of Stanford University, had previously said that it was working on what it calls "renewable petroleum." But at a Society for Industrial Microbiology conference on Monday, the company began speaking more openly about what it has accomplished: it has genetically engineered various bacteria, including E. coli, to custom-produce hydrocarbon chains.

To do this, the company is employing tools from the field of synthetic biology to modify the genetic pathways that bacteria, plants, and animals use to make fatty acids, one of the main ways that organisms store energy. Fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms strung together in a particular arrangement, with a carboxylic acid group made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen attached at one end. Take away the acid, and you're left with a hydrocarbon that can be made into fuel.

"I am very impressed with what they're doing," says James Collins, codirector of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology at Boston University. He calls the company's use of synthetic biology and systems biology to engineer hydrocarbon-producing bacteria "cutting edge."

In some cases, LS9's researchers used standard recombinant DNA techniques to insert genes into the microbes. In other cases, they redesigned known genes with a computer and synthesized them. The resulting modified bacteria make and excrete hydrocarbon molecules that are the length and molecular structure the company desires.

Stephen del Cardayre, a biochemist and LS9's vice president for research and development, says the company can make hundreds of different hydrocarbon molecules. The process can yield crude oil without the contaminating sulfur that much petroleum out of the ground contains. The crude, in turn, would go to a standard refinery to be processed into automotive fuel, jet fuel, diesel fuel, or any other petroleum product that someone wanted to make.

Next year LS9 will build a pilot plant in California to test and perfect the process, and the company hopes to be selling improved biodiesel and providing synthetic biocrudes to refineries for further processing within three to five years. (See "Building Better Biofuels.")

But LS9 isn't the only company in this game. Amyris Biotechnologies, of Emeryville, CA, is also using genes from plants and animals to make microbes produce designer fuels. Neil Renninger, senior vice president of development and one of the company's cofounders, says that Amyris has also created bacteria capable of supplying renewable hydrocarbon-based fuels. The main difference between the companies, Renninger says, is that while LS9 is working on a biocrude that would be processed in a refinery, Amyris is working on directly producing fuels that would need little or no further processing.

Amyris is also working on a pilot production plant that it expects to complete by the end of next year, and it also hopes to have commercial products available within three or four years. (See "A Better Biofuel.") Both companies say they want to further engineer their bacteria to be more efficient, and they're working to optimize the overall production process. "The potential for biofuels is huge, and I think theirs [LS9's] is one possible solution," Renninger says.

Indeed, many technology approaches are needed, says Craig Venter, cofounder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics, of Rockland, MD, which is also applying biotechnology to fuel production. "We need a hundred, a thousand solutions, not just one," he says. "I know at least a dozen groups and labs trying to make biofuels from bacteria with sugar."

Venter's company is also working on engineering microbes to produce fuel. The company recently received a large investment from the oil giant BP to study the microbes that live on underground oil supplies; the idea is to see if the microbes can be engineered to provide cleaner fuel. Another project aims to tinker with the genome of palm trees--the most productive source of oil for biodiesel--to make them a less environmentally damaging crop.

LS9's current work uses sugar derived from corn kernels as the food source for the bacteria--the same source used by ethanol-producing yeast. To produce greater volumes of fuel, and to not have energy competing with food, both approaches will need to use cellulosic biomass, such as switchgrass, as the feedstock. Del Cardayre estimates that cellulosic biomass could produce about 2,000 gallons of renewable petroleum per acre.

Producing hydrocarbon fuels is more efficient than producing ethanol, del Cardayre adds, because the former packs about 30 percent more energy per gallon. And it takes less energy to produce, too. The ethanol produced by yeast needs to be distilled to remove the water, so ethanol production requires 65 percent more energy than hydrocarbon production does.

The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of replacing 30 percent of current petroleum use with fuels from renewable biological sources by 2030, and del Cardayre says he feels that's easily achievable.