The Future is Here: Vertical Algae Farms

waterlilly1Walls may be the next frontier in in urban farming, allowing residents of large buildings to cultivate food for local consumption. Already, rooftop gardens are already fairly common, the use of exterior walls for growing spaces is still considered problematic. While certain strains of edible greens might grow in a “vertical farm”, root vegetables, tubers and fruits aren’t exactly practical options. However, a vertical algae farm just might work, and provide urban residents with a source of nutrition while it cleans the air.

That’s the idea behind Italian architect Cesare Griffa’s new concept, which is known as the WaterLilly system. Basically, this algae-filled structure, which can be attached to the façade of a building, is made up of a series of individual chambers that contain algae and water. After a few days or weeks, the algae can be harvested and used for energy, food, cosmetics, or pharmaceuticals, with a small amount left behind to start the next growing cycle.

waterlilly2In addition to being completely non-reliant on fossil fuels, these algae also take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen while growing. Compared to a tree, micro-algae are about 150 to 200 times more efficient at sucking carbon out of the air, making them far more useful in urban settings than either parks or green spaces. Unfortunately, public perception is a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to using microorganisms in the pursuit of combating Climate Change and pollution.

As Griffa himself remarked:

Micro-organisms like algae are like bacteria–it’s one of those things that in our culture people try to get rid of. But algae offer incredible potential because of their very intense photosynthetic activity.

waterlilly3Each system is custom designed for a specific wall, since it’s important to have the right conditions for the algae to thrive. Too little sun isn’t good for growth, but too much sun will cook the organisms. Griffa is working on his first large-scale application now, which will be installed in the Future Food District curated by Carlo Ratti Associates at Expo 2015 in Milan. And it won’t be the first project to incorporate algae-filled walls. A new building in Germany is entirely powered by algae growing outside.

But as Griffa indicates, there’s no lack of wall space to cover, and plenty of room for different approaches:

Urban facades and roofs represent billions of square meters that instead of being made of an inanimate material such as concrete, could become clever photosynthetic surfaces that respond to the current state of climate warming.

And in that, he’s correct. In today’s world, where urban sprawl, pollution, and the onset of Climate Change are all mounting, there’s simply no shortage of ideas, nor the space to test them. As such, it is not far-fetched at all to suspect that in the coming years, algae farms, artificial trees, coral webbing, and many other proposed solutions will be appearing in major cities all over the world.

Source: fastcoexist.com

The Future of Cities: eVolo’s 2014 Skyscraper Competition

3028400-slide-launchspireThe skyline of the future… Chances are, it’s something we’ve all wondered about at one time or another. Given the current rate of urban expansion, combined with population growth and environmental concerns, it’s essentially a given that cities of the future will look quite different from cities today. And when it comes time to break new ground and convert old centers, contracts will be given to those designs that can meet all of these challenges.

That’s the idea behind eVolo Magazine’s Skyscraper Competition, an annual event that for the past nine years has awarded architects and planners who create the problem-solving skyscrapers of the future. This year, over 600 entries were submitted from around the world, and top marks were given for those that addressed the problems or urban sprawl, pollution, sustainable living, and incorporated the latest in design technology.

These included the latest in renewable energy, carbon-capture technology, additive manufacturing (aka. 3D printing), and of course, the time honored concept of Paolo Soleri’s Arcology – a school of thought that merges architecture with ecology for smarter and more sustainable living. Here are just a few of the entries that received top marks in this year’s competition, which include the top three and numerous honorable mentions:

Winners:

Vernacular Versatility:
0302-0The winner of this year’s Skyscraper Competition, this entry was created of Korean-American designer Yong Ju Lee. who used the concepts of the “Hanok” and “Gagu” as his inspiration. In traditional Korean architecture, the Hanok refers to a type of house with an exposed wooden structure and tiled roof. Gagu refers to a special wooden structural element that is located directly beneath the main roof where the column meets the beam and girder and fastens them without the need for nails or additional parts.

Traditionally, this structural system has only ever been employed in the creation of single-story residences. However, modern modeling software allowed Lee to adapt this traditional system to complex high-rise structural planning to meet contemporary purposes and programs. Vernacular Versatility can open a new chapter of possibilities to bring this old construction and design tradition to the present day with efficiency and beauty.

Designed to be located within one of Korea’s busiest districts, Vernacular Versatility seeks to use a traditional design concept to combat the growing problem of urban sprawl, as well as associated health risks such as atopy and asthma, as well as addressing the destructive impacts urbanization has been having on traditional Korean culture and the environment.

Car and Shell Skyscraper:0697-0Also known as “Marinetti’s Monster” and created by Mark Talbot, Daniel Markiewicz, this concept for a “city in the sky” took home 2nd place at this year’s competition. As a solution for what to do about Detroit’s aging infrastructure, the project proposes a vertical suburban neighborhood equipped with recreational and commercial areas where three main grids (streets, pedestrian pathways, and structure) are intertwined to create a box-shaped wireframe.

Inspired by all the attempts to “save Detroit”, which is focused largely on preserving its dwindling suburban areas, Talbot and Markiewicz instead thought of building a new neighborhood within a single enormous skyscraper located in the core. Here, dozens of single-family homes are stacked into a vertical grid, new roads cross through the building, and traditional and contemporary living all plug into a framework to create a rich urban environment.

Propagate Skyscraper:
3028400-slide-propagateThis year’s third place went to Canadian designers YuHao Liu and Rui Wu for their concept of a building that would turn air pollution into construction materials and use it to gradually create the building. Relying on an alternative carbon-capture technique that employs philic resins and material processes to transform carbon dioxide into solid construction material, their building employs additional material that uses carbon dioxide as a means to self-propagate.

The building uses a simple vertical grid scaffold as a framework and takes all the ingredients it needs for material propagation from the surrounding environment. Individual living spaces are built within this gridwork, which creates open square spaces between lattices that can then be filled by tenements. Its pattern of growth is defined by environmental factors such as wind, weather, and the saturation of carbon dioxide within the immediate atmosphere.

Thus each building is a direct reflection of its environment, growing and adapting according to local conditions and cleaning as the air as it does so. Unlike conventional skyscrapers, which rely on steel frame and concrete casting, the proposed skyscraper suggests a more environmental conscious construction method, an alternative mode of occupation and ownership, and possibly a distinct organization of social relationships.

Honorable Mentions:

Climatology Tower:
??Designed by Yuan-Sung Hsiao, Yuko Ochiai, Jia-Wei Liu, Hung-Lin Hsieh and Japan and Taiwan, the Climatology Tower is a proposed skyscraper designed as a research center that evaluates urban meteorology and corrects the environment through mechanical engineering. This involves analyzing microclimates within cities as a result of the use of industrial materials, the accumulation of buildings, and the scarceness of open spaces. In order to maintain a healthy environment for the city, two main strategies are employed.

The first is Environmental Control Engineering, which consists of a system of evaluation and operational programs. Evaluation programs inspect city climates through a variety of factors such as insolation, radiation, and thermal coverage. Collected data is compared with humidity levels and then mechanical systems respond to reduce or increase the levels to optimal environmental conditions. The second is Information Expression, a system that is becoming increasingly common in East Asia.

Basically, in addition to automatically adjusting to optimal environmental conditions, data is transferred from a control center to different departments in this city. This can alert entire communities of present and upcoming environmental hazards and conditions, much as residents in major cities are currently given “smog alerts”. Climatic information is also displayed publicly, though digital networks, notifying the public on maintaining certain conditions, to preserve both energy and health.

Here-After:Here-AfterDesigned by Tsang Aron Wai Chun of Hong Kong, the Here-After project is a proposal to reuse the Ruashi copper mine located in Lubumbashi, Congo. The mine is predicted to stop production in 2020, at which time it would be abandoned, leaving as an enormous urban void surrounded by a rapidly expanding city. The Here-After projects seeks to make use of the left over space, waste soil, and sulfuric acid from the mine drainage and former copper production.

A machine will reuse the waste soil to neutralize the sulfuric acid, which in turn will be used to erode the land to be used as raw buildings blocks for the project. As the machine operates, starting from the South end, the remaining structures from the neutralization process would be reconfigured as a university campus. Throughout the building process the contour, the campus, and the public spaces would continuously change their relationships and form.

Hyper Filter Skyscraper:
hyper_filterDesigned by Umarov Alexey of Russia, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper recognizes the threat of environmental pollution and seeks to merge carbon capture technology with the building’s design. Under today’s levels of pollution, harmful substances spread over hundreds of kilometers and a whole region and even a country could represent a single pollution source. Hence the plan to place a air-scrubbing building at the heart of the problem – an urban core.

Consistent with CC technology and the principle of photosynthesis, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper is designed to inhale carbon dioxide and other harmful gases and exhale concentrated oxygen. The skin of the project is made out of long pipe filters that ensure the cleaning process. While clean air is released to the atmosphere, all the harmful substances are stored for use in the chemical industry for later use. These can include chemicals products, biofuels, and even manufactured goods.

Hyper-speed Vertical Train Hub:
Verticle_train_skyscraper1All around the world, nations from the USA, UK, Japan and China are again consolidating futuristic proposals for an advanced public transport network, to maximize the economic growth of their cities. The Hyper Speed Vertical Train Hub is an extension of this, aiming to resolve the inevitable challenges that cities will face by 2075, and offering a deliverable and sustainable solution for the future of the transport generation.

As the world’s population dramatically increases, the demand for goods, natural resources, foods, fuel and land would have increased significantly by 2075. By then, the world’s population will reach an estimated 10 or 11 million, and the majority of them (6 or 7 billion) will gravitate towards living in mega-cities. This will increase pressure and competition for adjacent suburban land, therefore forcing cities to explore more innovative forms of public transport.

Verticle_train_skyscraperConsistent with a key principle of arcology, this proposal seeks to take advantage of vertical space in order to use available land more efficiently. By flipping the traditional form and function of the current train design into a vertical, cylindrical mass, the Vertical Train Hub seeks to eliminate the current impact that traditional stations have on land use, therefore returning the remaining site mass back to the densely packed urban Mega City.

This remaining land will surround the base of the tower forming a large urban park, leading towards to the base of the Hyper-Speed Vertical Hub. The trains will create a dynamic and kinetic facade, one that will be continuously evolving and responsive to the workings of the vertical hub. Passengers will travel into the main lobby, allowing travelers to ascend through the atrium and through the platforms and onto the carriages. The high-speed trains will maximize time efficiency, able to traverse 482 km (300 miles) in just thirty minutes.

As the train travels and transitions from its horizontal formation, and ascends up the facade vertically, the carriages will pivot similar to that on a ‘Ferris wheel’, allowing the passengers within the carriage to remain in an upright position and facing towards the cityscape. The carriages will be supported by a magnetic structure located at either side, eliminating the need for rails beneath, and allowing the carriages and its passengers to connect to the tower.

Launchspire:
launchspireDesigned by Henry Smith, Adam Woodward, Paul Attkins of theUnited Kingdom, the Launchspire is an arcological design that also seeks to eliminate much of the CO2 emissions associated with air travel. This year, commercial air travel is celebrating its centenary; and looking ahead to 2050, aviation is predicted to fly 16 billion passengers and 400 million tones of cargo. This radical re-interpretation of the skyscraper would eliminate the hydrocarbon dependency of aircraft during takeoff through the use of an electromagnetic vertical accelerator.

On short flights, as much as 25% of the total fuel consumed is used during takeoff. The most fuel-efficient route length for airlines is 4,300 kilometers, but roughly half the flights taking place in the developed world cover less than 500 kilometers. An electromagnetic vertical accelerator, utilizing the technological principles developed at CERN’s LHC and maglev train propulsion, would provide a method for commercial aircraft to be accelerated to cruising speed using renewable electrical energy sources from ground-based infrastructure.

launchspire1This new design methodology envisions a ‘spiral tube’ structure that would reinvigorate the ‘core and floor plate’ model of high-rise buildings. Schools, hospitals, commercial, and residential properties would be interspersed throughout the tower with approximately one third of all Plots to be public green spaces, nature reserves and farm land. Due to the scale of the building, different climates would be experienced, with various wildlife and crop species, whilst also being natural devices for internal climate control.

The concept is essentially a helical version of the classic urban grid environment. This has the benefits of extreme high density, elevated living, mass transportation to different levels, pedestrian and cycle travel locally to enable healthy living. Community interaction and a unique and varied sense of place is achieved to each area of the tower. As the building ages specific areas develop to support an organic and culturally rich network of settlements within the matrix of the structure.

The towers can be built close to renewable energy infrastructures; hydropower in the mountains, tidal and offshore wind nearer the coast. The city is the building, the surrounding environment will remain natural thus the urban realm becomes a vertical entity within the wilderness. The building is effectively a confluence of road, rail, air and space transportation, and takes advantage of vertical spacing to reduce the impact on the local environment.

New Tower of Babel:
babelDesigned by Petko Stoevski of Germany, this perhaps unfortunately-named building seeks to invert the relationship between structures and their surrounding environment. Essentially, it is a steel construction built over a desert surface with multiple levels planned depending on the landscape’s topology. The top two panels are made of glass, and the air contained in between is warmed up by the sunlight. The structure is slightly tilted upwards, which leads the air to the middle of the tower into an inner cylindrical.

The updraft power channels the warm air into the chimney tower, propelling the wind turbines located in the base and converting the kinetic energy into electrical power. Under the glass panels, photovoltaic panels are placed to generate electricity while reflecting the sunrays, thereby offering more warming. Moreover, the photovoltaic panels cast a shadow, cooling down the land’s surface and creating a microclimate that allows the creation of residential and recreational areas as well as the development of agriculture.

The Tower of Babel establishes a new landscape, which makes use of the natural forces of an upwind power plant and therefore stretches from the horizontal to the vertical. The building is characterized by many different spaces and leaves their use open to improvisation. Therefore, life develops in different places with different intensity. The project reinforces the principles of sustainability, which allow long term economic, social, and ecological development.

PleXus Tower:
PieXus_towerDesigned by Chris Thackrey, Steven Ma, Bao An Nguyen Phuoc, Christos Koukis, Matus Nedecky, Stefan Turcovsky of the United States, the PleXus Tower is proposed development for the West Hong Kong Harbor. It was conceived as a segmented, but highly connected network of major transportation functions, as well as housing conventional program, that would merge the concepts of interconnectedness, renewable energy, and ecology into the same fabric.

The design starts out as a series of distributed pods reaching out to connect with the city’s transportation, accepting traffic in the form of boats, ferries, and other water vehicles. Bridged together by connected pipelines over the water, these pods work in harmony with the existing Macau Ferry Terminal. As people move inward from these pods, they travel through a series of different structures, beginning with  a horizontal parking structure that also connects to the highway network to efficiently receive car traffic.

PieXus_tower1Farther up, business and shopping space is available, all accessible by car to the highest level of the tower. The upper reaches of the towers are set aside for residential space, providing a living area that incorporates spectacular views of the dynamic city skyline. A heliport on top that can receive air traffic from above, and power is supplied by the south-facing side of the building that comes equipped with numerous solar panels.

The skin is also breathable, with numerous openings designed to overlap each other, undulating throughout, allowing carbon dioxide to easily filter out from the designated parking areas on the lower levels. Each parking level will also utilize foliage to further filter carbon dioxide from the air helping to reduce pollution in Hong Kong. At night, lights will glow from the panels, reminding people of the connections these segments share as well as blending in with Hong Kong’s unique night skyline.

Project Blue:
project_blueDesigned by Yang Siqi, Zhan Beidi, Zhao Renbo, Zhang Tianshuo of China, Project Blue is designed with China’s explosive growth in mind. On the one hand, the country’s “economic miracle” has left the world in awe. But on the other, the country is paying a big price for being the “factory of the world”, in the form of getting polluted at an alarming speed. Chinese cities are now characterized by an unhealthy hazy weather as the result of large amounts of suspended particles in the air.

The purpose of Project Blue is to transform suspended particles into green energy by creating an enormous upside down cooling tower with a multi-tubular cyclic desulfurization system that produces nitrogen and sulfur. When both elements are combined with the atmospheres surplus of carbon monoxide, the result is “water coal” that would later be transformed into methane through a low-pressure reaction called low pressure efficient mathanation.

This methane could then be converted into biofuel that would then be shipped to the surface, providing a clean alternative for China’s fast-growing supply of gasoline cars. Consistent with many modern designs that utilize carbon capture technology, Project Blue would therefore be combating the problem of emissions and air pollution at both ends.

Rainforest Guardian:
3028400-inline-rainforest-guardian
While most of the concepts were designed for cities, a few were made for more remote locations. The Rainforest Guardian, from Chinese architects Jie Huang, Jin Wei, Qiaowan Tang, Yiwei Yu, and Zhe Hao, was one such example. Designed to sit on the edge of the Amazon, capturing and storing rainwater in the rainy season to help fight fires in the dry season, the building also has labs located at the top for scientists studying and monitoring the local environment.

The lotus-shaped water tower is captures rainwater directly and then filters and stores it in its spare reservoirs. Using capillarity combined with active energy, the aerial roots with a distinct sponge-structure can absorb and store the excess water without disturbing the Amazon’s ecosystem. In the case of fire, firefighters fly to the scene and extinguish the fire with the collected water. In addition, the laboratories can act as exhibition spaces for tourists to create environmental awareness.

Sand Babel:
0656-1Produced by designers Qiu Song, Kang Pengfei, Bai Ying, Ren Nuoya, and Guo Shen of China, the Sand Babel uses an idea similar to that being proposed by NASA and the ESA to build settlements on the Moon. Basically, their plan is to use sintering and additive manufacturing to turn desert sand into a series of ecological skyscrapers.These structures would serve as scientific research and testing facilities, tourist attractions for the desert, and would be divided into two parts.

The first part, located above ground, consists of several independent structures for a desert community while the second part, located partially underground, would connect several different buildings together and create a multi-functional tube network system. The main portion of each building is constructed with sand, sintered through a solar-powered 3D printer to create walls of solid ceramic.

The top structures utilizes a spiral skeleton shape, inspired by desert phenomena like Tornadoes and mushroom rocks. These are tall, straight and have high tensile strength, and are thus able to withstand high winds. The net structure of the lower sections are similar to tree roots, effectively anchoring each building into the ground. The dual funnel model provides cooling through cross-ventilation, as well as ensuring that water can be collected through condensation.

Seawer:
seawerDesigned by Sung Jin Cho of South Korea, the Seawer was inspired by another major environmental issue – the problem of waste. Every year, millions of tons of trash enter the ocean, and between 60 and 80 percent of it is from land-based sources. Due to ocean currents, this waste collects in particular areas of the world, such as the one currently located in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Consisting of tiny particles of plastics, this area is commonly referred as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), or just “Garbage Island”.

The GPGP is twice the size of Texas and contains six times more plastic than plankton biomass. And since plastic is not biodegrade, it poses a threat to thousands of marine animals. Seawer proposes to install a huge drainage hole 550 meters in diameter and 300 meters in depth in the middle of the GPGP that would engulf all kinds of floating trash filled with seawater. Seawer consists of five layers of baleen filters, which separate particles and fluids and collected the particles together.

seawer1These collected plastics are then taken to a recycling plant atop of the structure while seawater is filtered and stored in a large sedimentation tank at the bottom to be further cleaned and released into the ocean. Much like skyscrapers that are energy-independent and turn air pollution into useable fuels, the Seawer concept is all about making a future city that can offer solutions, and placing it at the heart of the problem.

Skyvillage:
skyvillageDesigned by Ziwei Song of the United States, the Skyvillage concept was inspired by Los Angeles’s freeway system, which he claims segregates the city’s fabric and restricts urban activities to single locations. As a result, Song envisioned a vertical city that would encourage urban integration by providing a bridge over freeway interruptions and connect the four quadrants around the 101 and 110 freeways. This single architectural organism would also boost cultural exchanges, urban activities, and social interaction.

The interchange 101 and 110 breaks Los Angeles east urban fabric into four disconnected quadrants: Downtown, Chinatown, Echo Park, and Temple Beaudry. The four quadrants have distinct cultural and social differences, lacking a coherent urban tissue. Moreover, the leftover space around the freeways reaches over 27 acres. Skyvillage aims to reclaim this vague terrain and provide green filtering towers to clean the freeways and also articulate various programs to revitalize the disconnected urban fabric.

Urban Alloy Structure:
urban_alloyLast, but certainly not least, there is the design concept that was put forth this year by Matt Bowles and Chad Kellogg of the United States. Known as Urban Alloy, the concept was inspired by cities like New York and other dynamic cities of the 21st century – which they refer to as “anthropomorphic alloys”. In short, these cities act as engines for innovation and social cohesion which, combined with their continually evolving demographics, will forge the dynamic societies of the future.

Once again, the concept calls for smart growth – developments that promote innovation and renewal without disrupting current land use. Hence their proposal for a residential typology that surrounds the intersection of transportation hubs – such as elevated train lines and freeway interchanges – with a set of highly linked living environments that capture the air rights above these systems. The design and skin of the structure also reflects a blend of space types and a desire to optimized shading and day lighting.

urban_alloy2Composed of a series of different alloys and composites, the system is deployed on a grid that follows the geometric pattern of the surface. This grid is designed for integration with adjoining pieces of the structure, and to optimize shading and lighting so the building doesn’t cast a huge shadow over adjacent areas (which is a common problem for skyscrapers). The resulting architecture is a steel diagrid system that can efficiently be constructed with each unique member cut by an automated system (i.e. 3D metal printing)

The relatively light weight of each structural unit also means that it can be constructed with greater ease, cutting down on construction costs and the carbon foot involved. The wall systems are also built with a high content of recycled materials, making it a comparatively eco-friendly structure compared to most modern skyscrapers.

Summary:
An impressive collection, isn’t it? And this is not even the complete list of winners and runner-ups, just those that I felt I could squeeze in to this here humble post. Alas, it gives a pretty good idea what the great minds of the world are coming up with when they consider the needs of urban residents and cityscapes in the coming years and decades. In addition to providing housing, energy, transportation and basic services in ways that are sustainable, top marks go to those who can turn problems into solutions.

When Paolo Soleri first conceived of his Arcology concept, he was looking for a way to provide room for more people with less space, and in a way that did not further tax the environment. However, since the 1970’s, this challenge has been updated thanks to the advance of Climate Change. At this juncture, simply not adding to the problem is no longer sufficient. Future living solutions must also find ways to reduce and roll back the damage.

Hence concepts that now call for carbon capture, garbage processing, and pollution control in addition to the smart use of space, urban agriculture, and renewable energy. It is one of the paradoxes of the modern age that cities are both the cause, and solution to, the problems of modern living. While they may bring millions of people together in one place, producing tons of waste and pollution, they also bring together ideas for change and innovation that lead to better living.

In the end, ideas that expand upon this paradox – turning cities into pollution and garbage-eating factories – will not only determine the size and shape of future cities, they may very well ensure the survival of the natural environment and the human race itself. Much like all life on this planet, we remain permanently connected to space and place and are dependent on it for our livelihood and our very lives. The only way to keep living in to learn to live with it.

For more info on eVolo’s 2014 Skyscraper Competition, or to just check out some interesting design and architecture news, click on this link to go to their homepage.

Sources: fascoexist.com, (2), evolvo.us

Climate News: World’s Most Potent Greenhouse Gas Found

NASA_global_warming_predFor over a century now, scientists have understood the crucial link that lies between greenhouse gases and the effect known as “Global Warming”. For decades, scientists have been focused on the role played by carbon dioxide and methane gas, the two principle polluters that are tied to human behavior and the consequences of our activities.

But now, a long-lived greenhouse gas, more potent than any other, has been discovered in the upper atmosphere by chemists at the University of Toronto. It’s known as Perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA), a gas that has a radiative efficiency of 0.86 – which is one measure of a chemical’s effectiveness at warming the climate (expressed in parts per million).

upper_atmosphereAt present, the biggest contributor to climate change is carbon dioxide, mainly because its concentrations are so high — 393.1 parts per million in 2012 and growing, thanks to human activity. However, many other gases contribute to this trend – such as nitrogen trifluoride and various chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) – but are less involved in the overall warming effect because their concentrations are lower.

According to the research article, which appeared in a recent issue of Geophysics Research Letters, the concentrations of PFTBA are very small — about 0.18 parts per trillion by volume in the atmosphere (at least in Toronto, where it was detected). But even though the overall contribution of PFTBA is comparatively small, its effect is “on the same scale as some of the gases that the monitoring community is aware of.”

Toronto Skyline With SmogAccording to 3M, a producer of PFTBA, the chemical has been sold for more than 30 years for the purpose of cooling semiconductor processing equipment and specialized military equipment, much in the same way that CFCs have been used. It is effective at transferring heat away from electronic components, and is stable, non-flammable, non-toxic, and doesn’t conduct electricity.

The chemical has an average lifespan of about 500 years in the lower atmosphere, and also like CFC’s, it has long been known to have the potential to cause damage to the ozone layer. But up until now its ability to trap heat in the atmosphere had not been measured, nor had it been detected in the atmosphere. The reason PFTBA is so potent compared to other gases is that it absorbs heat that would normally escape from the atmosphere.

electromagnetic-spectrumHeat, or infrared radiation comes, in different colors, and each greenhouse gas is only able to absorb certain colors of heat. PFTBA is different in that it manages to absorb colors that other greenhouse gases don’t. It was after some was discovered on the university grounds by Professor Scott Mabury that his team began to consider whether any had made it into the atmosphere as well.

Shortly thereafter, they conducted a series of tests to measure the radiative efficiency of the chemical and then began looking for samples of it in the air. This involved deploying air pumps to three locations – including the University of Toronto campus, Mt. Pleasant Cemetery and Woodbine Beach. The samples were then condensed and concentrated, and the PFTBA separated by weight.

airpollution1The end result was that PFTBA was found in all samples, including those upwind from the University of Toronto, suggesting that it wasn’t just coming from the chemistry building. However, the measurements were local and therefore not representative of the global average concentrations of the chemical. Still, its discovery is an indication that dangers might exist.

According to Angela Hong, a PhD student at the UofT department of chemistry and the lead author of the paper, this danger lies in the combined effect PFTBA could have alongside other gases:

If you’re suddenly going to add a greenhouse gas and it absorbs in that region. it’s going to be very potent.

Its effect is far more intense if its effect per molecule is considered, since it is about 15 times heavier than carbon dioxide. What’s more, PFTBA survives hundreds of years in the atmosphere, which means its effects are long-lasting. Fortunately, its use has been regulated under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program that promotes alternatives to chemicals that deplete the ozone layer.

pftba-toronto-537x402In addition, chemicals that deplete the ozone layer are recognized by the Kyoto Protocols. As such, it should be an easy matter (from a legal standpoint anyway) to legislate against its continued use. As 3M indicated in a recent press statement:

That regulation stipulates that PFCs [the class of chemical that PFTBA belongs to] should be used only where there are no other alternatives on the basis of performance and safety. 3M adheres to that policy globally.

It added that the company “has worked to limit the use of these materials to non-emissive applications” and emphasized that the concentration of PFTBA found in the atmosphere is very low.

????????????????Nevertheless, this represents good news and bad news when it comes to the ongoing issue of Climate Change. On the one hand, early detection like this is a good way of ensuring that gases that contribute to the problem can be identified and brought under control before they become a problem. On the other, it shows us that when it comes to warming, there are more culprits than previously expected to contributing to it.

According to the most recent IPCC report, which was filed in 2012, the likelihood of us reaching a critical tipping point – i.e. the point of no return with warming – this century is highly unlikely. But that still leaves plenty of room for the problem to get worse before it gets better. One can only hope we get our acts together before it’s too late.

Sources: cbc.ca, IO9

Climate Crisis: The Ongoing Case of Big Subsidies

Pollution over Mexico CityOne of the most recurring talking points in the Climate Change debate is the issue of renewable energy. Particularly, those who take issue with proposed changes for dealing with the problem continue to cite how solar, wind and tidal power are not viable replacements at this juncture. While this talking point is a convenient way of dismissing needing reforms, it neglects two self-evident realities.

For one, it ignores the immense amount of progress being made in the fields of renewable energy. Whereas inefficiency and high costs remained as stumbling blocks in previous decades, an exponential drop in costs and a rise in efficiency has made solar increasingly attractive for power companies in recent years. Wind and tidal are in similar situations, with countries like Scotland and the United Arab Emirates leading the way in making them profitable.

airpollutionSecond, it ignores the fact that developed nations continue to stymie growth in renewables by the continued way in which they commit billions to subsidizing oil and coal. According to a new report from the Overseas Development Institute, public subsidies for fossil fuels totaled $523 billion in 2011. That’s six times the level of support for the renewable energy industry, despite those technologies being less mature than oil and coal.

Among richer countries, the top 11 heaviest carbon emitters spent $74 billion in subsidies in 2011, with Russia, the United States, Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom leading the way. In the U.S., these included a $1 billion fuel tax exemption for farmers, $1 billion for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and $500 million for fossil fuel R&D.

oil_slickIn so doing, these governments are:

…shooting themselves in both feet [by subsidizing] the very activities that are pushing the world towards dangerous climate change… [and] creating barriers to investment in low-carbon development.

According to the British think-tank, this works out a spending of $112 per adult in these nations. But of course, the richest nations are not the only offenders, which nations like Pakistan, Egypt, and Indonesia spending more than twice as much on fossil fuel subsidies as on health. The ODI says the poorest 20% of households typically receive just 7% of overall handouts.

pollution_powerplantBut the ODI may be underestimating the true size of the subsidies in the U.S., depending on how you look at it. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund calculated subsidies at $502 billion, a figure which includes the true cost of carbon emissions calculated at a price of $25 a ton. By that measure, global subsidies equal $1.9 trillion.

The report also advises that governments should cut handouts to oil and coal as soon as they can and begin looking after the genuinely poor:

Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies would create a win-win scenario. It would eliminate the perverse incentives that drive up carbon emissions, create price signals for investment in a low-carbon transition and reduce pressure on public finances.

solar_cell1A timely and sound recommendation, and one which cuts to the heart of the matter. In order to address the problem of Climate Change, we must not only adopt better methods for meeting our needs, we must acknowledge the truth of the issue. At the same time, we must acknowledge how ending these subsidies, or redistributing them, would alter the current balance of power on the whole issue of energy.

It’s one thing to claim that alternative methods are unviable when the playing field is level, but since it is not, the argument is essentially hypocrisy. By continuing to finance fossil fuels and coal, we are ensuring that clean energy will remain underdeveloped as an alternative, and hence undermining any chance it has at becoming a true alternative.

So the next time someone tells you that solar or other means of renewable energy are at least 50 years away, or that gas and coal are the only economical means of meeting our energy needs, be sure to ask them why we need to spend half a trillion dollars on them annually.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, odi.org.uk

Climate Crisis: “Carbon Buster” Bricks

carbon_busterReducing our “carbon footprint” as a society – i.e. finding ways to consume less energy and generate less pollution – is at an all time high in the industrialized world. But for researchers and scientists hoping to avert the worst effects of Climate Change, the real challenge is finding ways to meet human needs that will either be carbon-neutral, or that consume more than they create.

This is the logic behind process like Carbon Capture, the “Smog Vacuum” and now, carbon negative building materials such as the “Carbon Buster”. Basically, it’s a brick that’s partially composed  of wood from old doors and windows (35% to be exact). In addition, it contains nasty pollutants that used to go into the air. But most important of all, more CO2 is locked inside than was emitted during the brick’s production and transport.

carbon_buster1The block is manufactured by a company in the east of England known as Lignacite, a company that has been making products from wood for 65 years. Lignacite recently partnered with another company named Carbon 8, another Suffolk-based company that converts noxious fumes from waste incinerators and combined with CO2, cement and sand to create aggregate.

To create the bricks, this aggregate is mixed with wood shavings from Lignacite’s plant, and Carbon Busters are born. Each one is composed of 50% recycled material and locks in about 14 kg (31 pounds) of carbon dioxide, which includes the CO2 the original trees took in during photosynthesis, and the CO2 captured in the aggregate-making process.

Carbon_Negative_CementGranted, the bricks aren’t exactly aesthetically appealing. But they are relatively lightweight, suitable for even the biggest construction projects, and more fire-resistant than blocks made from stone, which crack and crumble at high temperatures. Since the wood inside these bricks is not exposed to oxygen, they will not burn, but simply calcify and blacken when exposed to fire.

Giles de Lotbiniere, Lignacite’s chairman, claims that so far, roughly 600 homes have been built in the Suffolk area near where the Lignacite plant is situated. He also indicated that they sell at a 5% premium compared to conventional bricks. And while there is currently resistance to using aggregate and wood-based materials on an international scale, de Lothbiniere believes the market will expand in coming years:

Over the years, we’ve wondered if we want to continue making blocks out of wood. Each time we’ve found another reason to do it. Now, with climate change, we’ve found another one.

carbon_buster2But of course, the market for carbon negative materials is already becoming an interesting and diversified place. Just two years ago, Material ConneXion unveiled its own carbon-negative product – a carbon-negative cement composed of magnesium silicate that not only requires less heating, but it is also able to absorb CO2 from the environment as it hardens.

And then there’s Hemcrete, a bio-composite, thermal walling material made from hemp, lime and water that represents an alternative to fiberglass as an insulating material. Much like these other carbon-negative materials, more CO2 is locked-up in the process of growing and harvesting the hemp than is released in the production, and the product is 100% recyclable.

Taken together, materials like these are likely to revolution the construction industry in the coming years, an industry which currently accounts for roughly 38% of the CO2 emissions in the industrialized world.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, inhabitat.com, (2), freshome.com

Climate Crisis: The Smog Vacuum

china smog 2013 TV bldgIn recent years, strategies aimed at combating Climate Change have evolved to become a two-pronged attack. In addition to finding ways to reduce how much we pollute, a number of methods are being devised to deal with the pollution we have already created. And one such device is being deployed to where it is needed the most: Beijing.

For many years now, China’s capitol has been notorious for its poor air quality. But last Tuesday, in the northeast city of Harbin, roads, schools and even the local airport were closed for two days straight due to a thick, choking haze that was due to unseasonably warm temperatures and very little wind coinciding with the smoke from local farmer’s burning straw and the initiation of Harbin’s coal-powered municipal heating system.

https://i1.wp.com/beijingcream.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Harbin-smog-5.jpgThe resulting haze measured 1000 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s three times the concentration deemed hazardous by the World Health Organization, and many dozen times what is considered safe. To remedy the situation, city authorities are now coordinating with Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde to launch what he calls an “electronic vacuum cleaner” to suck up 50 meter-high cylinders of polluted air.

Two weeks ago, Roosegarde successfully demonstrated his smog machine in a 25 square meter room, in which he used an electrostatic field from copper coils to magnetize and pull down pollution from the air above. The effect could be replicated, he says, if those coils were deployed in public spaces. Now, Roosegaarde is working with Bop Ursem, a professor at the Technical University of Delft, to scale up the technology in Beijing.

https://i0.wp.com/cdni.wired.co.uk/620x413/k_n/Lidi%20en%20Daan%20-%20testing%20smog.jpgRoosegaarde has had experience working with electrostatic fields in the past. Last year, he proposed using electromagnetic charging strips to charge cars on “smart,” communication-enabled highways, which won the designer an INDEX award in 2013. He also claims the project is safe, “pacemaker proof”, and really no different than the waves of WiFi downtown areas are already inundated with.

In addition, electrostatic air filtering is already used on a much smaller scale, in hospitals where clean air is a matter of hygiene and sanitation. But part of Roosegaarde’s challenge will be creating a clean 50-by-50 meter space, controlling for factors like wind. He also concedes that his smog machine won’t solve the problem of all of Beijing’s pollution, but is meant to serve as an awareness-raising exercise.

https://i0.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02709/harbin2_2709592b.jpgAs for the resulting particles that are collected from the air, Roosegaarde believes they could be refashioned into useable products, such as jewelry. But as he himself put it, the concept is about dealing with a serious problem in a practical, new way:

I think it’s quite feasible in a weird way. Every project has its beauty and bullshit, so to speak. Of course you’ll have influences like wind, how high is the smog, but these are the pragmatics. In principle, this is doable… It is a statement to show [that] this is the new world, why do we accept the old world? In a world which is changing, it’s all about finding the missing links between imagination and innovation, between science and art.

Given the historic problem of smog in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, London, and Southeast Asia, the concept is likely to catch on. While it is primarily intended on removing harmful particulates, like heavy metals and toxic chemicals, it stands to reason that such devices will be paired with Carbon Capture technology to ensure that all harmful pollutants are scrubbed for our cities air.

trafficReducing the amount of pollution we have to contend with while making sure we generate less. At this point in the game, it’s the only way the worst effects of Climate Change will be avoided in the coming decades. Stay tuned!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, cnn.com

Climate Crisis: Population Growth in Coming Years

trafficWhen it comes to populations and environmental problems, cities are at the very heart of the issue. Not only are they where the majority of humanity lives, a reality which will only get worse as time goes on, they are also the source of most of our pollution, waste, and land use. People require space to live and work, as well as food, water and

Last year, the world’s population increased to 7 billion, which represents a seven-fold increase in the space of the last two centuries. What’s more, the proportion of people living in urban centers (as opposed to rural) shot up from 3% to almost half of the world’s people. This rate of population growth and redistribution is unprecedented, and is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

urbanworld_50Consider the following series of infographics which were released by Unicef with the help of the design studio Periscopic. Titled “An Urban World”, they illustrate the issues of population growth and distribution. This interactive, HTML5 visualization of the world covers the years of 1950-2050. But rather than showing our geographic boundaries, every country* is depicted only by their population living in urban environments.

As you can see, each country is represented by a circle that depicts the number of people living in urban environments. As these populations grow, the circles get bigger. And as urban populations get more dense, the circles shift from green to blue to yellow to fuchsia. Immediately, a glaring fact is made clear: the problem is getting worse and at an alarming rate.

urbanworld_2000In addition, there are several nuggets of info which are staggering and particularly worrisome. For example, by 2050, both China and India will have about a billion people living in cities alone. In addition, since the 1990s, more than 75% of the U.S. population has lived in cities. At one time, the US was an outlier in this regard, but found ourselves joined over the next two decades by France, Spain, the U.K., Mexico, Korea, Australia, and Brazil.

But of course, this growth need not be a bad thing. When all is said and done, humanity has a choice. One the one hand, these megacities can take the form of smartly scaled communities of loosely populated expanses and efficient agriculture. On the other, they could easily take the form of urban slums and underdeveloped countrysides that are stricken by poverty and filthy.

urbanworld_2050It’s a complex issue, no doubt about it, especially when you consider the flip side to the whole equation. As the saying goes, every new life means a new mouth to feed, but also a pair of working hands. What’s more, studies have shown that people living in cities tend to be far more energy efficient, and that energy surplus is usually directed toward more and more technological growth and innovation.

Seen in this light, the massive cities of the future could be hubs for the ongoing development of new energies and creative living solutions. And with more people living in large, connected, interdependent environments, the more business startups, ideas, and contributions were likely to get. Part of the reason we have seen so much progress in solar, piezoelectric motors, and bio-electricity is because of this trend. More growth will conversely mean more clean energy.

overpopulation Quite the paradox, really. Who knew people could be both the cause and solution to the world’s worst problem! In the meantime, feel free to head on over to the Unicef site and watch this interactive infographic. Just press play, and watch the cities of the world swell at the edges, competing for room on the page as they compete for room on this planet.

Also, be sure to take a gander at this infographic from BBC Future that demonstrates the current population of the world’s major cities per square meter, the projected population per square meter by 2050, and the livability rating of the city in question. They even provide some context at the bottom by showing the size of relative spaces – from prison cells to Olympic swimming pools, and comparing that to the average space an urban dweller enjoys.

city_spaces
Sources:
bbc.com, fastcodesign.com
, unicef.org