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Researchers Develop Wearable Device Powered Entirely by Body Heat

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.

Why Create a Self-Powered Wearable Device?

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.

Advances in Thermoelectric Generator Technology

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.

Is Canada’s Clean Energy Industry Falling Behind?

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.

Why?

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.

 

Living Off-the-Grid in a Sustainable Shipping Container Home

They Aren’t Just for Shipping Anymore.

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

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.

Why Build with Shipping Containers?

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.

Mini Power Plant Cuts Energy Bills and Eliminates Household Waste

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.

The HERU Prototype

 

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.

Tesla Could Turn Your Roof Into a Solar Panel

Tesla will begin taking pre-orders for its solar roof next month.

 

Want to turn your roof into a giant solar panel? Tesla’s solar-powered roof shingles are designed to do just that.

Tesla Unveils Solar Roof

Tesla, Inc. acquired the solar panel maker SolarCity Corporation back in November 2016. Since then, there had been little news from either Tesla or SolarCity about the company’s touted solar roof shingles – until last week.

On March 27th, Tesla CEO Elon Musk suddenly and casually announced via Twitter that the company will begin taking pre-orders for its solar shingles in April.

Casual as it may have been, the news immediately sparked massive interest in the product. After all, while traditionally solar panels are powerful and eco-friendly, they tend to be large and unsightly. Tesla’s solar shingles are designed to blend seamlessly onto an existing structure.

In fact, Musk claims they look better than a normal roof.

That’s an entirely subjective view, of course. But it’s typical of the confidence we’ve come to know from Elon Musk. And it’s not his only big claim about solar shingles – he also says they last twice as long and cost less to install than their old-fashioned counterparts.

 

Solar Shingle Technology

SolarCity makes its solar shingles from panels of quartz glass, which come in four different styles.

The tiles integrate into a roof in three layers. The top layer of impact-resistant glass is designed to protect the sensitive bits from weather. The solar cell lies at the very bottom layer, where it stores energy from the sun shining down from above. Sandwiched between them is a layer of film that makes the tiles nearly invisible from street level.

 

Will Solar Roofs Catch On?

Tesla and SolarCity are not the first to try their hand at solar roof technology. Whether they can succeed where others have failed will depend largely on cost. Cost is the main reason previous contenders struggled to market their product. Solar roofs have been a dream of solar enthusiasts for years, but the average person simply couldn’t afford to retrofit their entire roof.

Even if solar shingles cost less than the typical roof tile, installing them still means financing completely new roof. Traditional solar panels, on the other hand, can be installed one at a time based on the homeowner’s budget.

Consumer Reports estimates that a 3,000 square foot solar roof will cost an average of $73,500, whereas the average solar panel installation costs between $25,000 and $35,000.

Solar roofs could represent a technical and design breakthrough in the world of renewable energy. But that’s only if Tesla can get the product off the ground.

How the UK Reduced Carbon Emissions to the Lowest Levels in 100 Years

The collapse of the coal industry is a driving factor.

For the first time in history, the carbon emissions in the United Kingdom are as low as they have been in 1894 – the year the first car went into mass production.

How did the country accomplish this incredible feat? The change didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it was the result of several intertwining factors that, together, produced the right conditions for widespread reduction in carbon emissions.

Collapse of Coal

Ten years ago, the coal industry was responsible for a staggering 137 million tons of carbon emissions in the U.K. Today, that number has dropped to 37 million.

This is in large part due to the gradual decline of the coal industry that began decades ago. However, the numbers shifted sharply in 2016, with a 52% drop in demand for coal from the previous year.

Less coal means less carbon emissions.

Carbon Tax

In 2013, the U.K. became the first member of the European Union to institute a carbon tax. This was despite fierce lobbying from energy companies, who claimed the tax would kick up energy bills and reduce the U.K. competitiveness on the global market.

Regardless, the carbon tax made polluting fossil fuels more expensive to produce, encouraging growth and investment in renewable energy sources.

Of course, with the changing government and the impact of Brexit, many wonder if the carbon tax is long for this world.

Rise in Renewable Energy

2016 was the first year that wind farms in the U.K. generated more electricity than coal. Today, 24.6% of its energy comes from renewable energy sources. Wind and solar farms are springing up in fields across the U.K., following a global trend towards investment in renewable energy sources.

If the country stays the course, the U.K. is set to meet its target of being 15% renewable by 2021.

 

How Green is Your City? Treepedia Has An Answer

Toronto as seen on Treepedia.

Researchers from MIT Senseable Labs have partnered with the World Economic Forum to bring us Treepedia, an interactive map of green space in cities around the world.

The Treepedia project aims to catalog and compare tree density in world-class cities like New York and Boston. Since its launch in 2016, Treepedia has grown to include 13 major cities around the world, including Toronto and Vancouver.

Why Count Trees?

Because trees are awesome, and the World Economic Forum wants us to recognize it.

Not only are trees a welcome respite from the towers of glass and concrete lining our streets, they provide immeasurable health benefits and contribute to the growth of our cities. Trees shade us from the sun and block shortwave radiation to mitigate extreme temperatures. They naturally dampen the noise from traffic and congestion. Their absorbent roots help stem the tide of floods in severe rain and storm surges. And, of course, trees play an essential role in fighting air pollution.

By measuring and ranking tree density, the researchers hope cities will understand how far they’ve gone in greening their streets – and how much work is to be done.

As this image shows, Treepedia pegs Toronto at 19% green. Meanwhile, Vancouver ranks at 25%. So what does that mean?

The Green View Index

TreepediaRather than put on their hiking books and set out to count each individual tree, the researchers developed a method to measure tree density using Google Street View. They then used the data to develop the “Green View Index”, which can be applied to any city in any country across the globe.

See for yourself how your city ranks on Treepedia’s index.

And just for the record – while Vancouver (25%) trumps Toronto (19%) on the Green View Index, Toronto beats New York (13%) by a long shot.