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The Department of Labor Proposes a Pension Rule Change to Limit Environmental Activism

Posted by on Tuesday, 7 July, 2020

Pension funds often consider non-financial metrics when they pick stocks. These metrics include ESG, or environmental, social, and governance factors. For example, a wealth management firm may decide not to purchase stock from a coal company, or an oil company, if the company’s actions damage the environment.

ESG funds may place these factors above absolute returns on investment. For example, a coal company might pay a 5 percent dividend. A competing wind turbine maker or solar panel producer may not pay a dividend at all. And the coal company may trade at a lower price-to-book multiple than the clean power company. But an ESG investor will avoid the apparent bargain and consider factors besides value. It may even argue that the coal company is a value trap. Many countries are phasing out coal power, so paying a low price for the coal company’s stock may not be a bargain in the long run.

Now the Department of Labor (DOL) is proposing a rule change that would make it harder for pension fund managers to consider ESG metrics when they select stocks. The federal agency makes several arguments against ESG use. One argument is that ESG ratings are not standardized, unlike traditional financial metrics like the price-to-book ratio and the dividend yield. The ratings firm may use arbitrary or unclear guidelines to decide that one company is environmentally friendly and another one isn’t. And companies that cause environmental damage may receive high ESG scores anyway.

The agency also argues that monitoring ESG metrics increases costs for the pension fund manager. So the pension fund may charge higher fees to shareholders for providing this service. And fund managers may make unsupported claims about environmentally friendly investing to justify charging higher fees. So the DOL is investigating whether pension funds are misleading investors with ESG claims as well. Just because a fund says it’s an ESG fund doesn’t mean that it is one.

If the regulatory changes are adopted, pension funds regulated by the DOL will have to consider financial returns first. They will still be able to consider ESG factors when they buy stock, but the environmentally friendly stocks they purchase will need to have similar levels of projected returns and risk as their other investments. Federally regulated pension managers will not be allowed to accept higher risk levels or sacrifice pension performance to invest in clean power companies, for example. Their analysts will have to argue that the clean power companies will outperform petroleum stocks in the long run.

Analysts at Harvard Law School drew several conclusions from the regulatory proposal. They say that companies with high ESG ratings have recently outperformed companies with low ESG ratings, so using ESG ratings to pick stocks is a valid approach. Additionally, this rule change could make it costlier for wealth managers to offer ESG funds to investors. And if this rule passes, fund managers will not be allowed to invest employees’ money in an ESG fund by default. Employees will have to tell the fund manager to pick investments that meet these criteria. So employees will have to opt into an ESG fund rather than opting out of one. This extra step makes it less likely that employees will pick ESG stocks.

The Groom Law Group has provided some background for the rule change. In 2019, the president announced an executive order to encourage investment in oil and gas. This order directed the DOL to come up with new regulations, which is why the DOL is considering this rule change in July 2020. Environmental activism in the energy industry is becoming more common, and the government may believe that this is interfering with national energy policy.

The rule change has not been finalized yet. The proposal will remain open for comments until July 30, 2020. So if you want to tell the Employee Benefits Security Administration your opinion on this policy change, you have about three weeks to do so. The EBSA is a subsidiary of the Department of Labor and is the actual agency proposing the rule change.

Symbiotic Agriculture

Posted by on Wednesday, 2 September, 2015

Recently I was looking up plants that grew at high altitudes and learned about a moss that grew on Mt. Everest at an elevation of more than 6000 meters. It’s difficult to collect samples from plants that grow at these heights, but an organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation helped set up a project where a mountain climber collected the moss and brought it back down for scientists to study. Survival at high altitudes where the temperature is cold, ultraviolet radiation is more intense, and the environment is dry can be difficult for plants, but it looks like the moss has been getting some help.

Plants frequently have fungal symbiotes that help them grow, and these symbiotes can help plants survive in harsh environments as well. In addition to tall mountains, symbiotes can also help plants survive in deserts, hot springs, glaciers, and other environments where conditions are extreme. The partnership between the plant and fungal symbiote can also keep the symbiote alive in environments where it would not be able to survive by itself.

This research could open up another field of agriculture. Symbiotes could provide an alternative to genetic modification and chemical-based fertilizer. And the moss symbiote research has resulted in the creation of a startup. Rusty Rodriguez teaches biology classes at the University of Washington and is the founder of Symbiogenics.

Basically, fungal symbiotes could be added to crop plants that are facing environmental stresses such as high temperatures, high salt levels, and drought. Symbiotes from wild plants could be used in commercial agriculture to make domesticated plants more resilient. This could result in higher yields and might be less expensive than adding fertilizer as well. Symbiogenics already tested this theory with cassava, a root crop which is used to make tapioca, and the fungal symbiote helped the plant grow more roots. This could also be important for renewable energy, since researchers have been working on the production of biofuel from cassava.

As for updates on the work at Symbiogenics, it looks like researchers from the company will be presenting at an event in Pendleton, Oregon on September 23. The topics include habitat restoration and making agriculture more sustainable. In a Scientific American article back in February, the CEO also mentioned the planned launch of a product, Bioensure, later in 2015. It doesn’t look like this product is out on the market yet, but 2015 isn’t over either.

Far-Infrared Heating Panels Could Be a Much More Efficient Way to Heat Homes

Posted by on Thursday, 20 August, 2015

While looking up heating and cooling methods, I came across far-infrared heating panels. These panels could be significantly more effective than other types of home heaters because of the heating process they use, and could have timing advantages that help cut energy costs as well. Several manufacturers are making these panels, but they don’t seem like they’re well known to homeowners right now; however, it does look like the transportation industry is aware of their advantages.

The main benefit of far-infrared heating panels stems from the difference between conduction and convection. Typically, heaters use convection to heat up the air. But this results in heat losses because hot air rises, and hot air can also leak through gaps in insulation and open windows and doors. Conduction, on the other hand, involves direct heat transfer between two objects. The far-infrared heating panel beams infrared energy at couches, chairs, and other objects in the room, heating the objects instead of the air. Prestyl USA, a Simi Valley-based heating panel manufacturer, explained in a brochure that convection heating can result in losses of as much of 50%-70% of the heat energy in tall buildings.

In addition to this, a major issue for conservationists right now is peak electricity demand. When lots of people get off work at the same time, their cars jam the freeway and energy use spikes when they get back home and turn on their appliances. Dealing with the energy spike is challenging for power companies, so they charge higher rates for power during peak demand periods. Some consumers may find it worthwhile to pay higher rates for electricity to turn on the heater on a cold day. But far-infrared heating panels can help homeowners deal with demand-based pricing as well. The Prestyl brochure also explains that the panels can heat up furniture and other objects at night, when electricity rates are lower, so they’re warm in the morning.

ThermIQ, a Dutch heating panel manufacturer, explained a few other benefits of far-infrared heating panels. On its website, the company explained that the heating panels are good for stable owners because they can maintain a steady temperature for the horses, and since the panels heat the horse directly instead of heating up the air this limits the growth of harmful microorganisms as well. This benefit seems like it deserves much more attention – if far-infrared heating panels result in less growth of harmful microorganisms versus traditional heaters, the panels could appeal to homeowners as a health product in addition to reducing the electricity bill. ThermIQ also explains that the panels work well with solar panels and other home-based power generation equipment, since the panels can convert electricity to heat for other appliances, providing an alternative to selling electricity back to the power company.

The panels are also easy to set up and last a very long time; they don’t have moving parts and are often installed in train cars, some of which remain in service for several decades. Other mass transportation vehicles, such as passenger ships and airplanes, also use far-infrared heating panels. So widespread commercial adoption has already happened. Far-infrared heating panels also serve as room decorations; several manufacturers sell panels with overlays that look like paintings, and it’s possible to customize panels with artwork selected by the buyer. Deshine Technology Corporation, another panel manufacturer, has a variety of panel overlays on its website.

So what’s the catch? Far-infrared heating panels carry a significant upfront cost. After looking at price listings on several websites, the panels were frequently selling for $300-$500 each, with larger panels costing as much as $1000. So installing enough panels to heat up an entire house could cost several thousand dollars, while a low-end space heater might cost $15. Upfront costs might not be a big deal for airlines and passenger train operators, but for a homeowner paying several hundred dollars for each panel could be an issue. A search for rebates on far-infrared heating panels didn’t turn up anything, but going by the rationale for rebates on Energy Star appliances like washing machines and refrigerators, rebates could be justified here as well.

Even without rebates, it seems like far-infrared heating panels will pay off in the long term, although they do come with a sizable upfront cost. The decorative aspect also holds appeal, as wall paintings look much better than space heaters. And if the lack of air heating results in less harmful microorganism growth in the home, panels could gain significant attention as a health product.

Energy-Harvesting Shock Absorbers

Posted by on Monday, 10 August, 2015

While researchers have been working on ways to harvest small amounts of energy to power wearables, LEDs, and other devices, vibrational energy could provide much more power. Mechanical engineering professor Lei Zuo has been researching methods of harvesting vibrational energy and in August 2015 he got some more attention when Virginia Tech published an article about his research. He has been working on shock absorbers that could help cars and heavier vehicles reduce their fuel consumption.

Some vehicles already use energy-harvesting devices; regenerative brakes appear on hybrid vehicles and some electric bikes. They help hybrid vehicles get better city mileage since the car gains some energy when it stops at an intersection. Regenerative shock absorbers could complement regenerative brakes, making the vehicle even better at recapturing power. Researchers are working on heat recapture systems for vehicles as well.

Lei Zuo is an expert in energy recapture systems and he released two presentations in 2011 that provide some additional details about using shock absorbers to capture vibrational energy. The most striking thing I learned was that only about 10%-16% of the fuel a car uses actually pushes it forward. So cars could become much more efficient and there are opportunities to recapture energy at multiple points in the system.

A 2011 presentation describes the energy-harvesting shock absorber as a retrofit device. So it looks like the device could be sold as an aftermarket upgrade and it would not be necessary to redesign the entire vehicle to capture vibrational energy. As for the payback period, it looks like 3-4 years for cars and 1-2 years for trucks and big rigs, possibly even less time for very heavy vehicles. With oil prices below $50 in August 2015, the current payback period might be longer depending on how long the price of gasoline remains depressed. However, in certain places gasoline prices are still relatively high. California has relatively expensive gas, with a gallon near $4 right now while it costs about $2 in other states, and gas also remains relatively costly in Europe at around $7 per gallon. So the energy-harvesting shock absorber might sell better abroad.

It also appears that the energy-harvesting shock absorber could replace standard shock absorbers. This could potentially result in a smoother ride, especially on roads that are not well maintained. So drivers might buy these devices for reasons besides energy efficiency. Low quality roads can also damage vehicles, resulting in higher repair and maintenance costs, and the energy-harvesting shock absorber might be able to help here as well. So using a payback period alone here might not capture the full value of the device. The energy-harvesting shock absorber captures more energy on low-quality roads; at freeway speed, a car could capture 1600 watts on a bad road and 100 watts on a good one, or 400 watts on an average quality road. Fuel efficiency could increase by 1%-5%, depending on typical road quality. This may not only save consumers money, it could help auto manufacturers as well, since their fleets have to meet minimum gas mileage standards which are growing tougher over time. Other fuel efficiency solutions have involved expensive lightweight materials, and energy-harvesting shock absorbers could provide a cost-effective alternative to materials like carbon fiber; on the other hand, a car with a carbon fiber body and energy-harvesting shock absorbers might use even less fuel. Energy-harvesting devices might even work for airplanes as well because of turbulence. Exotic auto body materials can also pose challenges for auto repair shops.

Vibrational energy-harvesting devices don’t necessarily have to be attached to vehicles, either. Stationary devices could harvest energy from train tracks and speed bumps. Lei Zuo tested a vibrational energy-harvesting speed bump device and got much better results than piezoelectric devices and other alternatives, with the device capturing 200 watts at one point. The prototype device used springs and a metal speed bump cover, resulting in a relatively durable device. As with the train track energy-harvesting device, the speed bump energy-harvesting device could help road designers get around the limitations of the grid. To set up a traffic signal far away from cities and power plants, electricity would need to be transmitted over a long distance, which would not be efficient; energy-harvesting devices could be used to power traffic signals in remote locations, increasing safety while keeping costs and electricity use down.

Energy-harvesting shock absorbers look like a subject to watch. Even if the payback period is 3-4 years for a standard size car, many cars on the road are much older than that with a domestic average of around 11 years. Auto loans often last for longer than 3-4 years as well. The device could be even more attractive for big rigs and trucks because of the shorter payback period, and fleet owners may be able to buy multiple devices at bulk prices. With benefits for both auto manufacturers and consumers, adoption of energy-harvesting shock absorbers could be relatively fast as well.

Two-Dimensional Materials

Posted by on Monday, 10 August, 2015

Recently, it was reported that scientists had synthesized two-dimensional tin, or stanene, after theorizing that it could exist about two years ago. Like graphene, two-dimensional sheets of carbon, stanene could have different properties than three-dimensional forms of the element. Specifically, stanene could contribute to energy efficiency by reducing the power consumption of computer chips. Stanene is a topological insulator so a sheet of stanene only conducts electricity along its edges; stanene sheets may be able to conduct electricity without losses at room temperature, which could result in a room temperature superconductor. Previous superconductors required extremely low temperatures to function. Two-dimensional materials could become very important for efficient electronics and energy harvesting devices. Further investigation showed that researchers have been studying several other two-dimensional materials as well, and several of them are semiconductors.

Germanene is a two-dimensional form of the metal germanium. It also took several years for researchers to synthesize germanene; scientists predicted the material could exist in 2009 and it was first made in 2014. Like graphene, germanene forms a honeycomb-shaped two-dimensional lattice. The synthesis process used a precious metal substrate; two research teams, one in Europe and one in China, synthesized the material with the former team using gold and the latter team using platinum. The Chinese team won the race by about a month. Germanene could also be better for making transistors than graphene because of its natural band gap. While graphene transistors exist, the lack of a natural band gap requires some extra effort by electronics manufacturers.

Silicene, two-dimensional silicon, also has a natural band gap. The silicene synthesis process is similar to the process for germanene, and silicene was actually created first, in 2012; one of the researchers on the European team that synthesized germanene was also on the team that first synthesized silicene. Silicene synthesis also uses a vacuum and a precious metal substrate, in this case silver. Silicene has another advantage over graphene; electronics manufacturers are already very familiar with the properties of silicon, which could make adoption of the material faster. In fact, in early 2015 researchers created a silicene transistor, although the device was very sensitive to air so it could take some time before consumer products based on silicene transistors are ready.

Phosphorene, two-dimensional phosphorous, is manufactured from black phosphorous. Phosphorene also forms a hexagonal lattice and is also a semiconductor with a natural band gap. Specifically, phosphorene is a p-type semiconductor, with space to accept an extra electron. This is important because it has been easier for researchers to create two-dimensional n-type semiconductors, which can donate an electron, but both p-type and n-type semiconductors are necessary for creating a transistor. Researchers also discovered that adding more layers of phosphorene changed the size of the band gap.

Molybdenum can also be used to create two-dimensional materials, including molybdenum ditelluride, diselenide, and disulfide. All three materials can function as semiconductors with natural band gaps. A sheet of molybdenum disulfide is an n-type semiconductor, so it can work with phosphorene to create a transistor. Two-dimensional molybdenum disulfide could be used to manufacture more efficient solar panels because of the properties of its band gap as well.

Boron could be used to create the two-dimensional material borophene. However, borophene hasn’t actually been created yet. In 2014, researchers proposed the material after running computer simulations. Theoretically, borophene would also look a bit different than some other two-dimensional materials; since boron only has three atoms, it can’t form the full lattice structure associated with other materials so a borophene lattice would have gaps. However, if borophene was manufactured, it could be a very strong and conductive material.

Washing Machine Rebates in Oregon August 2015

Posted by on Sunday, 9 August, 2015

Washing machine rebate programs are not widespread in every state, but they are available in Oregon. Once again, many Oregon municipalities are using the Energy Star standards to determine which washing machines qualify for the rebates. Energy Star ratings are available for other types of appliances as well, such as refrigerators, and these devices may also qualify for rebates. After looking over a few city websites, it looks like washing machine rebates are available in several Oregon cities for 2015.

After looking at a few rebate programs, it looks like the typical size of a washing machine rebate in Oregon is around $50. Hillsboro, Beaverton, and Sherwood have all announced $50 rebates. Ashland created an extra incentive with its rebate program. A $50 rebate applies when the home uses gas to heat water, but a home with an electric water heater could qualify for a $80 washing machine rebate. Ashland’s program appears relatively unique as other cities with rebate programs in Oregon and Southern California did not offer this incentive. On the other hand, some Southern California cities pay out a slightly larger rebate of $75 for “more efficient” Energy Star washing machines, which doesn’t seem typical for cities in Oregon.

It’s important to check whether a washing machine rebate program is active, since cities may shut down their programs for the year when funds are depleted. The rebate may become available again when the next fiscal year starts, which may not be on January 1, 2016 as some cities use modified calendars. The Hillsboro program appears to be active, although the page does not list dates. The Ashland program also appears to be active right now. The Sherwood program appears active and originally started in July 2012. The date does matter for the Beaverton program; rebates became available for purchases starting in July 2015 and the program lasts for a year or until funds run out. While cities often renew their rebate programs, this isn’t guaranteed.

State-wide or regional washing machine rebate programs may also apply to cities that do not list rebate programs on their own websites. For Oregon, the Energy Trust of Oregon also offers a washing machine rebate program. This non-profit offers a two-tier rebate model, offering a $50 rebate for all Energy Star Appliances and a $70 rebate for very efficient washing machines. To qualify for the extra $20, the washing machine must have a modified energy factor of at least 2.6, indicating high energy efficiency. This program does not seem to be using the other washing machine efficiency standard, integrated water factor, used by rebate programs in Southern California; the integrated water factor measures water usage and a lower number is better. However, washing machines with high integrated modified energy factors were designed for efficiency so they may have low integrated water factors as well. If an appliance qualifies for multiple rebate programs, such as a highly efficient washing machine, applying for the largest rebate available is usually the best decision; some rebate programs are not available to customers who have collected other rebates on the same item.

So the Energy Trust of Oregon appears to be an attractive option for a washing machine rebate in Oregon, both because of the availability of the $70 rebate and because rebates may not be available in every city. As a side note, it appears that shoppers who buy an energy-efficient washing machine from certain Sears stores in Oregon can automatically get the rebate without taking any other steps; however, the Energy Trust website only lists four stores where the program is in effect. Watch for other retailers that offer similar deals. The Energy Trust of Oregon washing machine rebate program also has a 60-day time limit after purchase for eligibility.

Southern California Washing Machine Rebates August 2015

Posted by on Sunday, 9 August, 2015

Utilities in Southern California are offering rebates on a variety of energy-efficient Energy Star appliances. Many of the sites with the most up-to-date details on these programs are the utilities themselves, including Southern California Edison and the Southern California Gas Company. Some city governments also run their own rebate programs. I decided to focus on washing machine rebates to see which programs were currently active for August 2015.

The City of Malibu links to the SoCalGas site, which offers rebates for washing machines. An energy-efficient washing machine (Energy Star certified) is currently eligible for a $50 rebate, and very energy-efficient (most efficient) washing machines qualify for a $75 rebate. To qualify as most efficient, the washing machine needs an integrated modified energy factor of at least 2.74 and an integrated water factor of not more than 3.2. A $200 rebate for a cold water washing machine is also available from SoCalGas. In this case, SoCalGas offers the rebate for a specific Whirlpool model, the Cold Water Technology Washer.

The cold water washing machine is a top loading model with a capacity of 3.5 cubic feet. Whirlpool set a suggested retail price of $549 for this model, so the rebate provides a discount of around 36% from the sticker price.

The Energy Star site also provides statistics on washing machines that qualify for the $75 rebate. For comparison, the Whirlpool Duet Front-Load washer has an integrated modified energy factor of 2.75 and an integrated water factor of 3.2, meeting the most efficient standard. This washing machine has a capacity of 4.2 cubic feet and is available from Sears for $809. So the rebate only provides a discount of about 9% from the sticker price here. Many models qualify for the $50 rebate. About 173 washing machines meet at least one of the Energy Star standards as of August 2015.

As for the availability of the washing machine rebates, the suggested store list provided by SoCalGas shows a variety of locations stretching from Orange County to the Central Coast of California. So the rebates are available in many cities besides Malibu. The cold water washing machine is available at stores in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, as well as Irvine and Westminster. Cities between these locations, such as Los Angeles, Oxnard, and Santa Barbara, also sell energy-efficient washing machines that qualify for the rebates.

Water districts in Southern California may also provide rebates for efficient washing machines. The San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District has been offering a $150 rebate since mid-2013 for people who live in Alhambra, Sierra Madre, Monterey Park, and part of Azusa. The utility also made a more recent announcement that could indicate that the program will be around for a while. On June 24, 2015, the water district announced that it had received a $231,915 grant that will help it provide rebates, including rebates on water efficient washing machines, to more of its customers. This was one of 22 grants, so other municipal water districts may have received more cash for efficient washing machine rebates in June 2015 as well.

The Los Angeles County Department of Water and Power also offers energy-efficient washing machine rebates in several locations. Appliances qualifying under this program must have a water factor below 3.7, more than the 3.2 factor used by SoCalGas. So an appliance that does not meet the SoCalGas efficiency standard might still qualify for a rebate from LA County. The county is offering $100 rebates, which would provide about 12.5% off on a $800 washing machine. Washing machine buyers have to apply for rebates, and the process is different depending on where a buyer lives; the rebate application process occurs online for residents of Malibu, Marina Del Rey, and Topanga but involves mailing in an application for people who live in Acton, Antelope Valley, Kagel Canyon, and Val Verde.

Efficient washing machine rebates are also available in San Diego. The city website notes that SoCalWater$mart is offering washing machine rebates that start at $85. SoCalWater$mart is run by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesale water supplier that delivers water to a large number of municipal and city water districts in Southern California. This wholesaler handles water for utilities between Ventura County and San Diego, so it has a large operating range. The City of San Diego also explains that rebate funds for this program are limited, so to qualify for the SoCalWater$mart rebate a person must obtain a rebate reservation number before purchasing an energy-efficient washing machine. Because of the wide range of this wholesaler, rebate applications under this program could be coming from many locations in Southern California.

So as of August 2015, rebates for energy-efficient washing machines were available from water and gas utilities, as well as a regional water wholesaler. The SoCalGas $200 rebate appears to be the best deal, while the SoCalWater$mart rebate may have the widest availability while funds last.

Biomimicry and Atmospheric Water Harvesting

Posted by on Saturday, 8 August, 2015

Dew harvesting is ancient, and researchers are currently working on ways to improve it. Fog could also provide an important water source in areas with limited freshwater access. In addition to the fog-basking beetle covered in my last article, researchers are studying plants such as cacti and moss to learn how they harvest water in arid regions. One project that has received attention recently uses a metal mesh screen to collect water from fog; the metal mesh is more effective than the plastics that many fog collectors currently use. Researchers are studying other nature-inspired fog and dew collection methods as well.

Spiderwebs are good at collecting dew because their silk threads can change shape when exposed to water. This causes droplets to pool at points along the web. Studying the silk could be very helpful, since it could result in materials that attract water but quickly release it. A fog collector is more efficient when the water it collects rapidly falls down into the collection tank, allowing the collector to pull in more water. While the wind could shake a light mesh and release the droplets, the collector might not always have access to wind.

Another website illustrates how several types of plants collect water, including moss, horsetail, and cacti. The moss had an interesting water collection technique. Like the threads in the spiderweb, part of the moss structure changes shape when it collects enough water, automatically dumping it out onto the main body of the plant. The moss grows thin stalks with water collecting heads that collapse after collecting water, which can then rebound to collect more.

The moss and spider silk dew harvesting methods are very interesting, since it may be possible to incorporate them into mesh designs. A mesh with small projections, or stalks, could release water more effectively. A mesh that changed shape after collecting water and then returned to its original form could also be very useful. It might even be possible to combine both techniques in a dew harvesting device.

Velcro, the material that helps keep things in place, is another example of biomimicry. It was inspired by prickly burrs that effectively stick to clothing. But Velcro, or a similar material, might have a role to play in dew collection as well. Velcro is a plastic surface with very thin plastic loops attached. The thin loops seem similar to the moss stalks. A similar manufacturing process could create a material like the moss, a surface with thin plastic stalks and water collecting heads. So far it doesn’t seem like anyone has tried this, as manufacturing structures like moss stalks cost-effectively might be challenging, although a company like Velcro might know how to do it. A 3-D printer might also be useful here. Making the stalks and the water collecting heads out of the plastic that was similar to spider silk might also be effective. Of course, I haven’t tested this and don’t know if it would be as effective as a metal mesh screen. Either way, further research into biomimicry could result in better ways to collect dew and water from fog.

Beetles Inspire Water Collection From Air

Posted by on Thursday, 6 August, 2015

It has been a long time since my last post, and in the meantime a severe drought is occurring in the Southwest. Solutions such as desalinization plants could provide some help, but these large-scale plants require energy to operate. They also require saltwater, which is available here but is not available in other places. So I looked into devices that can collect water from air. Consumer products exist, but some of them cost $1000 or more and many of them require electricity to operate or expensive filters. But a desert beetle could illustrate another way to harvest water from the atmosphere.

Several types of beetles in the Namib Desert harvest water from fog. The beetles have different ways to do this; some beetles dig holes to collect water, but other beetles harvest water with their own bodies. The latter method got public attention, inspiring inventors to develop products based on the beetles. The theory is that studying the beetles’ bodies will allow scientists to develop new materials that will make atmospheric harvesting devices more effective.

A journal article from 2010 raises some questions about the original theory. The researchers studied several types of beetles and determined how well they collected water from the air. Instead of discovering that one beetle had a body surface that was more effective at collecting water, the researchers found out that beetles that positioned their bodies to bathe themselves in the fog had the most success. But the original reports still inspired inventors, and the concept of surfaces that can harvest water from the air more effectively remains relevant as well.

In Australia, a drought was affecting farmers. Edward Linacre came up with an atmospheric water harvesting system called the Airdrop after hearing about the Namib Desert beetle. The device is installed underground, where the temperature is lower, helping create condensation. It also uses pipes filled with copper wool, increasing the surface area for condensation. The Airdrop won an Edward Dyson award in 2011. The beetle has also inspired another water harvesting project.

NBD (Namib Beetle Design) Nanotechnologies was founded on the concept illustrated by the beetle. The company’s first project was a water bottle that can condense water from the air overnight. This is a great low-cost and low-energy solution to droughts and water shortages. It was based on the surface of the desert beetle, using a combination of materials that attract water and materials that repel water. While original reports on the water bottle came out in 2012. NBD Nanotechnologies is continuing its work in atmospheric water harvesting and materials science with support from the federal government. In 2015 the company announced that it had received a $750,000 SBIR Phase II grant.

So it does look like certain surfaces and materials can make atmospheric water harvesting more effective, and research in this area appears to be ongoing. And solutions that don’t require an external power source appear possible as well.

Design Advantages of LED Lights

Posted by on Sunday, 5 February, 2012

Environmental products often suffer from apparent comparative disadvantages. A manufacturer who does not care about energy conservation, pollution, or other negative consequences can make a cheap and effective product. The challenge for a manufacturer who makes an environmentally useful product is to design a product that remains competitive with the offerings of other companies. Careful design decisions can turn an apparent disadvantage into a new selling point, giving the environmentally friendly product an advantage over standard offerings.

Fast Company Design describes one way to address this issue. Consumers are familiar with incandescent light bulbs, which effectively light up a house or a yard, even though they consume a large amount of electricity and produce excess heat. LED lights consume much less power, but they have an unusual appearance. LED lighting appears unfamiliar to consumers, and it can look strange inside a lighting fixture that was designed to hold an incandescent light bulb.

Numero 111 addressed this problem by redesigning its lamps so that a visitor would not notice the LED inside the lamp. The large shade prevents a homeowner from seeing the LED strips that create the light, so the lamp looks similar to a lamp that contains a standard incandescent bulb. This design decision converts a disadvantage into a strength. The redesigned lampshade has a unique, attractive appearance that serves as an incentive to purchase a lamp that contains LED light bulbs.

LEDs have other advantages. They provide light at a lower temperature than incandescent bulbs, which reduces fire hazards. Inhabitat reports that an Italian company once decorated buildings with oil lamps, but these lamps could set buildings on fire, so the company needed to find an alternative. In 2012, the company used LED bulbs to illuminate a cathedral.

LEDs allow a manufacturer to conserve space, creating a major design advantage. For many years, science fiction writers talked about flat screen displays, and LED lighting eliminates the need for a bulky cathode ray tube. LED technology has not reached its full potential yet, so modular design creates another advantage for LED devices. LEDs Magazine reports that LED streetlights in New York include modular design to make upgrades more convenient. If manufacturers produce new LEDs that use less energy to produce light, New York authorities can simply remove the old LEDs.