Imagine never having to charge your smart watch again.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have created a wearable device that produces electricity from body heat using a flexible thermoelectric generator. This breakthrough technology could not only make wearable devices more convenient, but save on the energy required to charge them.
If you don’t already own a piece of wearable technology, you’ve probably shaken hands with someone who does. Smart watches and fitness trackers are catching up to smart phones as a must-have technology. But these nifty devices aren’t without disadvantages, like the need to charge them at least a few times a week.
With thermoelectric generator technology, your Fitbit or Apple Watch could run continuously without needing to be plugged in. Such convenience has the potential to further integrate this technology into our daily lives.
But it’s not all about fun toys like smart watches and fitness trackers. The team at North Carolina University has its eyes on the market for medical devices, like heart monitors and environmental sensors. Thermoelectric generators would eliminate the need to remove these devices to charge them, making the technology safer and more reliable for patients.
Last year, North Carolina University produced its first experimental prototype for a wearable thermoelectric generator. It was a small, body-conforming patch that generated the most heat when worn on the upper arm.
Though it was lightweight, the patch was rigid and uncomfortable to wear. That’s why researchers began working on a flexible device instead.
“We wanted to design a flexible thermoelectric harvester that does not compromise on the material quality of rigid devices yet provides similar or better efficiency,” said Mehmet Ozturk, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university. “Using rigid devices is not the best option when you consider a number of different factors.”
The new design uses a non-toxic metal alloy called EGaln to connect the thermoelectric elements in the device. The allow has lower resistance and allows for greater power generation. It also makes the device “self-healing”, as Professor Ozturk explains.
“Using liquid metal also adds a self-healing function: If a connection is broken, the liquid metal will reconnect to make the device work efficiently again. Rigid devices are not able to heal themselves.”
As wearable devices grow in popularity, we will continue to consume more and more energy charging them. Having a built-in body heat generator could substantially reduce the carbon footprint of these devices.
It’s slimy. It’s green. And one day, it could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.
Since 2009, researchers from Synthetic Genomes, Inc. and ExxonMobile have collaborated in a quest to convert algae into a sustainable, commercially-viable biofuels. Now, the joint venture has announced a breakthrough that allows algae to produce two times as much lipid oil — the key ingredient that could one day replace fossil fuels.
It’s still a proof of concept, but researcher Imad Ajjawi calls it, “a significant milestone in establishing the foundation for a path that leads to eventual commercialization of algal biofuels.”
Algae is a family of plant-like organisms that comes in all shapes, sizes, and colours. When you think of algae, you’re probably picturing the slippery stuff that collects on river rocks. But the algae family also includes funguses, mosses, and giant, leafy kelp. It comes in shades of red, green, brown, and even purple.
It doesn’t take much to take algae grow. Most species feed on carbon dioxide and release oxygen via photosynthesis. All it takes is water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. Unlike the fuels we’re trying to replace, these resources are in all abundance here on planet earth.
About half of algae is imposed of something called lipid oil. Scientists have been working since the 1970s to use algae-produced lipid oil as a fuel alternative. Previously, it was difficult to get enough lipid oil out of the algae to make it a commercially viable venture.
That’s where this new breakthrough comes in. Together, Synthetic Genomes, Inc. and ExxonMobile have used gene editing technology to genetically modify strains of algae to produce twice as much lipid oil as they do in the wild. Most importantly, the change doesn’t impact the algae’s growth in any other way, giving it potential to become a wide-scale biofuel source.
Today, more than 20 countries, including the United States and China, are investing in algal biofuel research. Leading airlines and aviation companies are also optimistic about its potential for a cleaner, greener fuel.
Science writer Julian Cribb predicts that algal biofuels could become a $50 billion industry in the future. “Fossil oil comes from algae that died millions of years ago. Today it makes far better sense to grow the oil fresh, using living water plants,” he writes.
The advantages of algae are numerous. To start, it grows naturally in just about every climate around the world. Sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide are abundant and (except for water in some cases) free. In the best conditions, algae can grow almost limitlessly.
With fossil fuels being depleted worldwide, we know we can’t rely on a petro-based fuel products forever. Algae-derived biofuel is a promising alternative green energy source.
Sustainability isn’t a fringe issue anymore.
Thanks to heightened awareness and public education efforts, more and more people recognize the importance of reducing carbon emissions and shifting to clean energy sources. Climate change deniers are in the minority.
Luckily, big companies are catching on when it comes to climate change.
According to Fast Company, Apple, Bank of America, Facebook, Google, and Walmart are among the major corporations that have committed to moving to 100% renewable power. Hundreds of others have adopted internationally-agreed clean energy targets to reducing greenhouse gasses. Half of the 2016 Fortune 500 companies have set targets to reduce greenhouse gases, increase energy efficiency, or make greater use of renewable energy sources.
In total, 72% of consumer-facing companies have set targets for clean energy. Other industries are also doing well, with 60% of real estate and 57% of IT companies setting at least one target.
Lance Pierce, president of CDP North America (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), says public pressure is a factor in this change. “There is a lot of awareness among consumers and a lot of demand, and companies are responsive to that,” he told Fast Company.
For these companies, fighting climate change is becoming a vital part of their corporate responsibility.
But not all industries are on board. Energy companies are notably lagging when it comes to setting targets. In fact, the number of companies with one or more energy target has fallen from 25% three years ago to a dismal 11% today.
Pierce says many energy companies claim there needs to be a “level playing field”, such as a national or international climate agreement, that holds all energy companies to the same standard. In other words, they’re waiting for the government to step in and force their hand before they change how they do business.
Unfortunately, with the current administration, fighting climate change is not a priority.
Still, this report is a bright spot over overall. While the Trump Administration is working to undo much of its predecessor’s clean energy and climate regulations, American corporations are moving in the opposite direction.
Solar power is on the rise, and countries around the world are catching on.
More governments are investing in the production of solar energy than ever before. Solar tech has advanced in recent years, causing a massive decline in the price of solar energy. Now, solar power is cost-competitive and reliable. There is promising data suggesting that solar can someday match or even outperform traditional sources like coal and gas.
Of course, some countries are ahead of the game. Can you guess which five countries produced the most solar energy in 2016? The answer may surprise you — especially number one.
Let’s look at the top 5 countries for solar energy.
When it came to solar energy, Germany used to be on top. It once produced more gigawatts (GW) of solar power than any other country in the world — until 2015. Now, other nations have caught up and pushed Germany back to the number five position.
Regardless, Germany is still a world leader in renewables and one of the top countries for solar energy. The country’s Energiewende strategy has it aiming obtain at least 60% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Last year, Germany broke its own records for the production of solar energy.
India is at the cusp of a solar energy boom. Since 2011, India has made massive strides in is renewable energy production thanks in part to investment from the World Bank. India’s total solar energy capacity is expected to grow from 5 GW in 2015 to a whopping 57 GW by 2020. The nation is on target to produce 100 GW of solar energy by 2022.
Japan was an early adopter of solar generation, and it continues to be an innovator in this sector. It is home to the Solar Ark, one of the world’s largest solar buildings, which boasts over 5,000 solar panels. The country aims to meet at least 10% of its energy demands with solar by 2050.
Yes, it’s true — the USA misses the top spot on this list. Surprised? After all, the country has an abundance of tech, talent, and just the right environmental conditions for wide-scale adoption of solar energy. Why shouldn’t it be number one?
Unfortunately, there has always been a sharp political divide when it comes to renewable energy in the USA. And with the Trump administration threatening to withdraw from the global action plan on climate change, solar faces an uncertain future in America.
Still, the United States produces the second-most solar energy of any country in the world. It is home to some of the world’s largest solar installations, and many states have set high renewable energy goals. Whatever happens in the political realm, the United States is likely to remain one of the top countries for solar energy and has the potential to claim that number one spot someday.
Given China’s notorious environmental record, you may be surprised to learn that China produces the most solar energy in the world. In fact, it leaves the other countries on the list in the dust! China produces a massive 130.5 GW to the USA’s 85.3 GW.
China bumped Germany from the top spot on the list in 2015, when it expanded its solar capacity by 81%. Now, it has set the ambitious goal of generating 20% of its power using renewable sources by 2030.
How do you find eco-friendly appliances? Easy: just look for the blue and white Energy Star sticker.
But look fast, because the Energy Star program could come to an end in President Trump’s upcoming budget.
If you’ve ever shopped for a new appliance, you’re probably familiar with Energy Star. But you may not have realized that Energy Star is actually a program under the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Energy Star started back in the year 1992. It was originally launched to rate the efficiency of computer monitors (if you’re using one now, take glance at the bottom-right corner — you’ll probably find a sticker). Since then, the program has expanded to cover everything from dishwashers to electronics and even entire homes.
The EPA’s Energy Star standards are completely voluntary. So why do manufacturers choose to comply with the standards? It’s because they want to use the Energy Star label and market the product as Energy Star-approved. Energy Star products catch the eyes of eco-friendly consumers, leading to higher sales and bigger earnings. In short, Energy Star makes sustainability good for business.
This is an example of what’s called voluntary regulation — encouraging businesses to adopt sustainable practices beyond the regulatory requirements.
Now, Energy Star is one of 50 EPA programs that would be cut under President Trump’s budget.
Energy Star costs the United States government $50 million each year. In turn, it saves American consumers and businesses $34 billion and prevents more than $300 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Some commentators speculate that the latter benefit is exactly the reason Trump wants Energy Star gone. They point to other proposed budget cuts, like the Clean Power Plan and fuel economy standards on cars, which are also meant to reduce emissions and combat climate change. The President expressed skepticism of climate change during the 2016 campaign.
Energy Star is widely regarded as a success. It has been a win-win for businesses, consumers, and of course the environment for 25 years. For now, we can only hope this energy efficiency program survives the upcoming budget.
When it comes to renewable energy, Canada should be on top of the world.
Canadians are gifted with substantial natural resources that can be used to produce clean energy, from rivers to wind, biomass to solar, geothermal to ocean energy. Several Canadian cities have become a hotbed of innovation technology start-ups. And Canada is mostly free from the skepticism surrounding climate change and greenhouse gases that pervades American politics. Simply put, Canada is in a perfect position to harness these resources and be a world leader in renewable energy.
However, renewable energy sources only provide about 18.9% of Canada’s total energy supply. And according to a new report, Canada is falling behind in the world of clean energy tech.
Christopher Barrington-Leigh, an assistant professor at the School of Environment at McGill University, says Canada is in a renewable energy paradox.
Though the land is rife with valuable resources, most of it lies in distant territories that are not connected to the electrical grid or near population centres. Keep in mind that 90% of Canadians live within one hour of the United States/Canada border. In other words, much of Canada’s potential renewable energy sources are out of sight and, for many, out of mind.
At the same time, Canada is what the assistant professor describes as an “energy hog.” We consume the most energy heating our homes throughout the winter months. This is an inevitable fact of living in Canada, and it puts a great deal of pressure on our electrical grid. The argument for shifting away from powerful-but-polluting energy sources to lighter renewable resources is difficult in this context.
That’s the world within which Canada’s clean tech sector operators. On top of that, this sector is having its own problems right now.
The heart of the problem is this: researching and developing innovative green technology is expensive.
According to Analytica Advisors, most Canadian green energy firms are stuck in unprofitable markets without access to financing that would enable them to meet demand. This industry pays comparatively high interest rates. Debt markets, including Canada’s big banks, are not open to most clean-tech firms.
While the government committed to investing in clean energy tech in the 2017 federal budget, the money won’t start flowing until 2019. This cleans Canadian clean energy firms in a tough spot.
The report concludes with the suggestion that the government focus not only on attracting centure capital to Canada’s clean energy sector, but to ensure that the government sets the stage for a successful clean energy market and supports infrastructure that takes full advantage of these innovations.
What has three blades and floats?
A Norweigian company called Statoil is set to build the first floating wind warm in the world. If the construction goes according to schedule, the revolutionary Hywind Pilot Park should be up and running off the coast of Scotland by the end of 2017.
Statoil has been working on floating turbine technology for years. It built its first prototype in Norway in 2009. Following successful tests, it made plans to grow the tech into a full-scale commercial wind farm. Scotland leased the ocean land to Statoil in 2016.
The Scotland project will consist of five six-megawatt wind turbines. The turbines will be tethered together, sharing infrastructure like power cables and transmission facilities. Once its up and running, the project should power about 56,000 Scottish homes each year.
Offshore wind energy is one of the fastest growing areas of renewable energy. It is particularly big in the UK, where shallow shorelines and powerful coastal winds make for perfect conditions for offshore turbines. Recently, New York State also announced plans to auction 33,000 hectares of ocean land for an offshore wind project.
The benefits of offshore wind turbines are many. Offshore turbines are more than double the size of their landlocked cousins. With nothing around to slow them down, sea winds are far stronger and more consistent than on-shore winds, so harnessing their power can generate even more energy. Offshore turbines also solve the NIMBY problem that plagues wind advocates.
However, putting up a wind turbine in the ocean is no simple task. The turbines are huge, and bolting one to the seafloor is no easy task. It’s costly and time-consuming. Since seafloor mounted wind turbines can only go as deep as 260 feet, they aren’t suitable everywhere.
Floating wind farms would solve many of the challenges that come with traditional offshore wind farms.
The floating wind turbines can be installed in waters up to 1,000 feet deep – more than double that of regular offshore turbines. This means they can be used in areas surrounded by deeper ocean waters, like much of Japan and the eastern United States. This could help countries meet their renewable energy goals.
Rather than anchoring the turbines to the ocean floor, Statoil will tether them together to an anchor and stabilize them with floating steel tubes. Since the eliminates the need to build a large foundation, floating wind turbines will likely be easier and more economical to install.
Countries all over the world are embracing solar power as a clean, renewable energy source. But despite its awesome potential, the traditional solar panel has its flaws. Most solar panels are big, heavy, and easily breakable, which limits where they can be used.
Solar glitter could be the solution.
Murat Okadan, CEO of mPower Technology, has developed a new kind of solar cell called Dragon SCALEs – aka solar glitter.
“Our technology makes it virtually unbreakable while keeping all the benefits of high efficiency, high reliability silicon PV,” Okadon explains. “It allows us to integrate PV in ways that weren’t possible before, such as in flexible materials, and deploy it faster in lighter-weight, larger-area modules.”
Made from high-efficiency silicon, these tiny solar cells can be printed onto just about any surface like an ink. The cells are lightweight, portable, and extremely flexible. This means they can stick to objects of all shapes and sizes, and come out of harsh conditions without a scratch. They’ll bend, but not break.
“By making our cells small and then interconnecting them we’re able to make them almost unbreakable,” says Okadon.
Try flexing a traditional solar panel. You can’t – it’ll simply shatter under the pressure.
If solar glitter works as Okadon describes, the applications are nearly limitless. To start, who wouldn’t want a personal solar panel to charge their devices on-the-go? But the potential reaches far beyond consumer use.
Drones could use the cells to recharge its batteries literally on the fly. Solar glitter could lighten the load on star-bound satellites. Not only could it be used on wearable electronics like smart watches, but solar glitter could be integrated into clothing and accessories.
Okadon’s invention could have old-school applications as well. Since solar glitter is lighter and easier to transport than traditional solar panels, it could also be used on rooftop and large-scale solar systems on buildings.
Solar power is on the rise, with large-scale operations taking place in countries across the globe. Solar glitter could take that progress to the next level.
In a few short years, shipping containers have become the basis of a new, ultra-sustainable style of architecture (aka cargotecture, a portmanteau of cargo and architecture.) It’s not hard to see why.
Shipping containers are tough, durable, and widely available for very reasonable cost. Used shipping containers sell for as little as $1,000. And repurposing an old shipping container saves over 7,000 pounds of steel from landfills.
There are other benefits to using a shipping container as building blocks. Since all containers have the same width, and come in standardized lengths and heights, you can easily apply a design across multiple homes. Builders can easily stack and combine them into a larger structure.
These homes are also easy to move from place to place. This gives homeowners the freedom to live just about anywhere – in the deep woods shrouded by trees, at the edge of an ocean-side cliff, or nestled in a valley.
Designers are already doing amazing things with shipping containers. Now, one group of builders is taking this form of architecture to the next level with a sustainable, ultra-green, off-the-grid home.
Sustainer Homes, a start-up company from the Netherlands, has developed a prototype for an innovative shipping container home that runs exclusively on environmentally-friendly resources.
The completely self-sufficient house fits a bedroom, bathroom, full kitchen and living room into just 323 square feet of space. The interior is lined with wood-free ECOboard panels, which are made from recycled farm waste like grass and straw. All the walls and ceilings use a non-toxic, plant-based paint.
What makes the Sustainer Homes model remarkable is the fact that it is completely self-reliant. There is no need to connect to the energy grid, water, or sewer system. Instead, miniature wind turbines and solar panels power the entire house from top to bottom, and a series gutters gather rainwater. Wastewater from the sink, shower, and toilet runs through a plant-based filter six times before being sent back into the ground, where it dissolves naturally.
It may exist off-the-grid, but the home is far from being low-tech. Sustainer Homes plans to rig their houses with an onboard computer, smart thermostat, and 4G LTE modem for high speed internet.
A single home, complete with all the amenities, costs just $112,700 CDN.
Sustainer Homes sees their sustainable shipping container homes as the answer to the housing crisis. Like young Canadians, young people in the Netherlands are struggling to pay rising rents or enter an exorbitant housing market. Shipping container homes could provide an affordable and environmentally-alternative.
Not only are they less expensive to build, but the homes save the homeowner money. After all, a self-sustaining home has no water, electricity, or heating bills.
“Independence and sustainability define the home of tomorrow,” say the Sustainer Homes team. “We’re pioneering in all aspects of future living: modular, mobile, smart.”
Currently, the Sustainer Homes are only available in the Netherlands, as they’re built to match the Dutch climate and comply with Dutch building codes.
It’s only the size of a waste bin, but this mini power plant has the potential to turn household waste into ready-to-use fuel.
The Home Energy Recovery Unit (HERU) was developed by researchers at the Brunel University in London, England. Using a process called pyrolysis, HERU turns household waste into energy-rich liquid, char, or synthesized gas fuel. The unit connects to the water and drainage system of a house and uses the fuel to heat water. The resulting gas is then cleaned before being vented into the atmosphere, creating a sustainable renewable energy source.
Not only can HERU eliminate waste, it can help the homeowner cut energy bills. The unit uses just 1 kWh of power for every 2.5 kWh of energy it produces. According to the inventors, this could save families up to 15% in fuel.
What makes this tech truly green is its potential to address two pressing environmental problems at once: waste management and fuel production.
“Waste management is one of the most crucial challenges developed countries face,” said co-inventor, Dr. Hassam Jouhara. “Rising fuel costs leave so many households with the difficult decision of whether to eat or to heat their home and countries worldwide are being urged to cut carbon consumption. The vision is to solve this global problem and slash energy bills while producing energy for heating from waste that is otherwise a burden on local authorities and households.”
Installing a waste-powered generator would cut down on landfill waste and reduce reliance on other energy sources. The creators, who are based in the U.K., believe it could cut the U.K.’s carbon footprint for waste disposal by over 70%. While the tech hasn’t hit the consumer market, HERU could be a hero for green energy.