March 13, 2013

What are urban heat islands?

Urban heat islands develop in cities when due to human activities the temperature is much higher than that of the surrounding environment. This is mainly caused by the type of materials used for buildings, roads, pavements – especially concrete and asphalt. Water cannot filter into the ground easily, and dark materials absorb light and then later in the day emit it as heat. Cars, air conditioners, and other equipment also release heat while operating, further increasing the temperature – and pollution.

Green Roof

Green Roof

This temperature difference can be quite high – up to 12C degrees in the night – and it has various effects.

According to the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency  heat island effect not only increases energy costs, but also air pollution grows, and in the summer heat-related illnesses and deaths are more frequent and also water quality can suffer.

Some of the solutions for easing the problem include adding more parks and green surfaces, as well as green roofs [rooftop gardens]. Buildings could be painted with lighter colours and pavements can also be built in a more efficient way, for example by using alternative materials [1].

Hence, there are ways to reduce the urban heat island effect but it cannot be totally eliminated. While many believe that it’s also driving climate change, it significantly affects the lives of the residents – both financially and personally.

Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse

Photo: sookie / Wikimedia

January 22, 2013

Energy co-operatives

Co-operatives are traditionally an efficient and successful way for communities that aim to live or work with certain benefits through co-operation. Co-operatives are usually created by people working, living together or by those consuming products or services as a group.

Utility co-operatives have been around in the US since the New Deal but recently there are more and more such co-operatives set up all around the world, which focus on green and alternative energy usage.

These co-ops provide an opportunity for local people to invest into various projects, for example setting up new solar panels or a wind turbine. Then, the co-operative provides interest for these investors from feed-in-tariffs or by selling electricity.

In Germany, the number of energy co-operatives has tripled to more than 600 in two years, with over 80,000 active members. The largest of these is EWS, where 99.2 per cent of the electricity comes from renewable sources and 0.8 per cent is from the co-generation of heat and power (CHP).

But Germany is not alone. In the UK, there are also an increasing number of such community initiatives.

Brixton Energy already has two existing solar projects in the Loughborough Estate with hundreds of square metres of solar panels, while Community Energy Warwick raised enough money for solar panels to be placed on the roofs of the Stratford upon Avon and Warwick hospitals. Meanwhile, the Brighton Energy Co-op recently set up “the largest solar system in Sussex”, with installations in Shoreham-by-sea, Portslade and Brighton.

But the list goes on: Leominster Community Solar, Ovesco, Bath & West Community Energy, Westmill Wind Farm, Baywind Energy, Hockerton Housing Project, Boyndie Wind Farm, and many others – with a total of 75 utility co-ops listed with Co-operatives UK.

Renewable energy co-operatives thus could mean the future for renewables with local communities joining forces to gain access to cheap (or free) energy sources by working together.

Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse 

January 15, 2013

Heated pavements – wasted heat or saving resources?

When talking about heated pavements, the first thought that would come to one’s mind would be – what a waste of energy and heat! However many existing schemes in Northern cities could show that these heated ‘roads’ could be beneficial and may even save resources.

A recent pilot project in the Netherlands for example is investigating the possibility to collect and store summer heat underground and release it in the winter months to keep the bicycle lanes ice-free. The benefits could mean less salt used and probably more cyclists on the roads.

In Northern countries, like Norway or Iceland, heated pavements are already well-established – in the latter one mainly fuelled by geothermal energy.

The company ICAX has developed its unique  ‘Solar Road Systems’, which collect the heat in the summer for road heating and de-icing in the winter. Their technology utilises the fact that black tarmac used on the road surfaces can heat up significantly in the sunshine, and by storing this heat – it can be used in colder months – for free. Their first successful trial in the UK took place under an access road to the M1 motorway at Toddington, Bedfordshire. Furthermore, the firm also claims to provide a solution for de-icing runways and parking stands at airports, potentially lowering disruption at busy terminals in snowy conditions.

Another company, Solar Roadways from Idaho, USA [4] has tested specially designed glass panels, with multiple features. These contain LED lights – which could display for instance road signs – , while the heating elements can help melt snow and ice, improving winter driving conditions.
This system is currently quite expensive due to the materials used, but there are also some cheaper alternative methods being investigated. One of these is using photovoltaic panels and cells on the roads, with embedded pipes for storing energy until colder times.

For a small town in Michigan, USA, this idea is nothing new. Here, waste heat from the local power station has been used in the underground pipes to melt the ice on the pavements since the installation of this system in 1988.

Also, there are already many commercially available personal under-driveway and under-pavement melting systems and mats, but these are costly and may not be very environmentally-friendly.

Hence, if cold winters continue to be harsh, heated pavements could be seriously considered as one of the long-term solutions for easing winter problems.
Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse


January 8, 2013

Oil for computers?

We all know that you should keep your computer away from any kind of liquid. However Intel has just recently conducted a trial by dipping their servers into mineral oil for a year, ultimately with great success.

The aim of this research project was to investigate how to make data centre cooling more efficient, perhaps even moving away from traditional air cooling. While some companies, like Google or Facebook are re-locating their whole data centres to Northern countries, the mineral oil bath could be an easier solution.

Intel conducted the experiment in New Mexico together with Green Revolution Cooling, and during the course of one year it turned out to be more efficient than fan-based air cooling. What’s more, none of the computer components were damaged while submerged, either.

Data centres consume enormous amounts of energy. According to some recent data, server management, power and cooling on unused systems inside data centres amount to USD 24.7 billion per year. These unused machines may even make up 15 per cent of all data centre servers, increasing the level of inefficiency and costs even more.

Intel is not the first company to investigate liquid cooling methods. A start-up called Iceotope has also achieved impressive results by using their own cooling liquid, called Novec.

Hence, with more and more research in this area, hopefully data centres could become more efficient, which is crucial in the ever-connected online world of today.

January 3, 2013


Have you ever thought about using photosynthesis to power your desktop lamp or your laptop? Biophotovoltaics researchers are just working on that now.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge  have created the so-called ‘Moss Table’, Moss Tablea table with an array of pots of moss, which can already generate enough electricity to power a digital clock. For the operation, the moss only needs access to light and water in order to perform photosynthesis, which can then lead to power generation. Although current power output is rather low, it has the potential to be much more significant in the future.

The operation is rather simple. The moss (or other plants, algae) photosynthesise, which allows some organic compounds to enter the soil. When these compounds are de-composed by the bacteria in the soil, by-products are created, including electrons. These are then collected by conductive fibres integrated into the table and then used for powering devices.

According to another biophotovoltaic research, photosynthetising cells can be isolated in grass cuttings or other plant material, and these cells could then be added to various surfaces to create solar cells. The efficiency of these at the moment is also rather low but the technology is being improved day by day.

Biophotovoltaics is another promising research area, which could allow solar energy to become a direct household energy resource for anyone.


November 6, 2012

Breakthrough – fuel from the air?

A British company, Air Fuel Synthesis recently announced that they managed to create five litres of synthetic petrol from air.

Their process uses carbon-dioxide from air, combines it with hydrogen (from split water molecules) and thanks to a catalyst it eventually turns it into methanol, and afterwards petrol.

In its current phase the process is quite expensive and low-scale but it could be stepped up for the future. Furthermore, it currently uses electricity from the National Grid, however if it’s supplied from only renewable source, it could be a completely ‘clean method’.

While it could be a great way for storing energy, there are some who doubt it’s efficiency and whether it can achieve a high-enough rate to provide a significant share as a fuel source.

The company is not the only one in this field. Icelandic Carbon Recycling International already captures carbon-dioxide for creating renewable methanol – so called RM. It can be blended with gasoline for cars or used for biodiesel.

Also, in 2009 the Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology announced that they were able to convert carbon-dioxide into methanol, while Isis Innovation also has a patent pending in this area.

Linc Energy‘s one key research area is the gas-to-liquid process, while the company UOP earlier teamed up with the University of California to focus on turning carbon-dioxide into methanol.

Therefore with so many companies working on how to solve two problems at once, in the future we may be using carbon-dioxide for running our vehicles.


October 1, 2012

Algae and Energy

Algae have been seen as a promising new source of energy, especially for biofuels. There are several companies who have various solutions on how to utilise algae to drive our engines. 

In general, algae species can be grown in either closed or open ponds, and are used for creating various types of biofuels, including biodiesel, ethanol or even jet fuel. Generally oils are extracted from the algae using various chemical and mechanical methods and later transformed into biofuels. This process also offers another benefit to the environment as algae use carbon-dioxide for photosynthesis and growth, thus can reduce CO2-levels in the atmosphere.

One of the companies in this field, Sapphire Energy has just announced the first phase of a giant algae farm, where the full output shall reach a hundred barrels of algae biofuel a day by 2014.

Another major player in this area is Solazyme, which uses biotechnology solutions to work with algae. The company works with large corporations, such as Chevron, and also delivered about 80,000 litres of algae-based diesel and jet fuel to the US Navy in the year 2010.

There are also various other applications for algae. A pilot project was recently started in Paris where algae are grown on the top and side of buildings. Here the algae clean waste water from the flats, during this process they use carbon-dioxide from the surrounding air and also produce heat while growing, which can be used in the heating system.

Algae thus seem to be a good ‘source’ for energy in the future, either in vehicles or in more innovative ways – for instance at urban heating.

Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse

Image: Wikipedia 

September 20, 2012

Biodiversity and Our Health

Do you think that the loss of biodiversity, the extinction of animals or the disappearance of plants won’t affect our everyday life significantly? Have you thought about how many things we use on a daily basis actually depend on these? Did you know that for example the most important everyday medicines are derived from plants, so you may not be able to get an aspirin if they disappear?

About 50,000 to 70,000 plant species are used for both traditional and modern medicine, and according to some sources half of all synthetic drugs are of natural origin. There are currently about 120 chemical substances from plants, which are used in various important drugs. Modern medicine made from plants are used for the treatment of diabetes, cancer and cardiac conditions, with about 42 per cent of anti-cancer ones coming from natural sources. Some common drugs derived from plants include aspirin, atropine, digoxin, ephedrine, morphine, and
quinine – amongst many others.

Traditional medicine is still used by about 60 per cent of the world’s population and it’s very significant in many local healthcare systems, like in China.

As an example, the drug zinconotide is developed from the peptides of cone snails, who live in the endangered South Asian coral reefs. This medicine is great for treating cancer patients’ pain, for whom the generally used opium is not effective any more. With the disappearance of their habitat, the coral reefs, these animals may also be in danger and so is the medicine.

The Australian southern gastric brooding frogs on the other hand have already become extinct. They would have been very useful for the research into stomach ulcer, as the female frogs raised their babies inside their stomach, but this opportunity is now gone.

And not only the frogs and cone snails but also many other animals, even bears, sharks, horseshoe crabs are threatened by the loss of biodiversity, which might hold secrets for combating various diseases.

Understanding what serious consequences biodiversity loss could hold for us may help us realise that we should take care of all plants and animals, as they may eventually save our lives.

Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse 

September 10, 2012

A New Way to ‘Recycle’ Paper

Traditional paper recycling may take weeks including collection, delivery to the plant as well as the process itself. Would it not be easier if we could just recycle the paper in our homes or in the office directly?

Researchers at Cambridge University are now investigating the options to erase ink from printed paper, so they can be re-used immediately on the spot. They have tested several lasers at removing or rather vapourising toner from the paper and successfully managed to do so without damaging the paper. What’s more, a paper can be used up to five times.

‘Unprinting’ can thus not only save time and money but also save fresh water, electricity and reduce carbon emissions, which would be generated by the recycling industry.

While the Cambridge-based scientists used conventional paper with conventional ink, Toshiba developed its erasable toner system in 2003, which may soon come to Europe. The e-Blue ink fades if heated to above 130 Celsius degrees, but is currently only available in blue. Japanese companies who already able to test the solution managed to save about 40-60 per cent on paper usage. According to some data it takes about two hours to erase about 200 pages with this system. Due to issues with high power consumption and being very expensive, Toshiba is now working on more favourable successors.

Disappearing ink has already been tested as well. A few years ago, Xerox was working on an ink that would disappear after 16-24 hours, which could be ideal for industries, where printed materials are not needed for longer than this. One of the best applications may be the printed daily menus of restaurants.

With so many different research projects on how to avoid the lengthy and energy-intensive process of paper recycling, hopefully in the near future we will be able to easily recycle our own paper. The best solution however still may be to think before printing.

Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse

September 1, 2012

Should We Be Burning Our Nuclear Waste?

GE-Hitachi have recently announced their plan to build a so-called Prism fast reactor, which could help in the disposal of nuclear waste – by burning it.

According to some statistics there are a hundred tonnes of plutonium waste in the UK, which is currently converted into mixed-oxide fuel (Mox). This fuel is burnt afterwards in a water-cooled reactor, this process is a bit more complicated and less efficient. Mox is widely used in France but the factory in Sellafield, UK, was ordered to close down last year.

The PRISM-type fast-breeder reactors were considered to only be available in the distant future, but GE-Hitachi have already drawn up a feasibility study, which is being reviewed right now. According to company experts, it could be ready in only five years after licensing, and this solution allows the extraction of rather large amounts of energy from the nuclear waste, and it’s cheaper than the Mox technology. Furthermore, this type of disposal would mean that there is no need to bury it deep underground.

Radioactive waste is created in many industries, and its treatment varies based on its half life. Some only need to be stored for hours or days but some have thousands of years of half life, thus it is important to find a good solution for their storage. Throughout the years there have been several options and ideas, which may not be appropriate any more. Many countries used to dispose of nuclear waste in oceans, which is now forbidden, but there were suggestions to keep them in the ice sheets or in outer space, as well.

Promising solutions, like the PRISM reactor, may help the treatment of dangerous nuclear waste but the question and controversy regarding nuclear energy still remains.

Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse 

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