Best of Fish & Bicycles: Stuff We Need: Electric Roadways

Originally Published: November 4, 2010


I read some great, hope-inspiring stuff on the automotive front today.

While I’m a big fan of mass transit, I tend to think that sustainable transportation plans that aim to eliminate cars altogether face way too much resistance. Car culture is just so firmly embedded in the human psyche, and not just in the U.S.

And so I like to watch the trends in electric car technologies, and I came across the following items making my regular rounds at Inhabitat.

First up:

Sweden-based architect Mans Tham went halfway around the world with this design for a serpent-shaped solar skin for the Sana Monica Freeway…

From afar the solar structure looks like a long scaly serpent winding its way through the stucco and palm tree studded neighborhoods. Inside is a shaded tunnel-like roadway. Outside is a massive array of solar panels that produce a peak of 150 mWhs of clean energy for the local population.

An intriguing idea for sure, and the computer mock-ups are incredibly cool-looking:

And yet, I don’t really see much chance of L.A. residents supporting the idea. With the amount of time the average person spends stuck in traffic during their commutes on the Santa Monica Freeway, I can see folks complaining that they can’t at least enjoy unhindered scenery while they creep along. Others might complain of claustrophobia, since even the longest road tunnel to-date is only 15.2 miles long.

So, one of the commenters at Inhabitat, possibly thinking about these issues or others, provided a link to an article on what seems to be a better solution:

Putting the solar panels on the road itself:

“Julie turned to me and said, ‘Can’t you make those electric roads you’ve always dreamed of out of solar panels?’ At first I said, ‘No. Solar panels are very fragile and you can’t even step on them, let alone drive on them.’ So we started batting this idea back and forth and thinking of things like a black box on an airplane. That’s a little case that houses sensitive electronics through the worst of airplane crashes and protects them. If we could make a bigger version of that—a structurally engineered compartment for solar cells that would withstand the beating of an 18-wheeler—then, yeah, we could make a solar panel that you could actually drive on…

On the visit to the University of Dayton, Scott found them working on what was called bomb-resistant glass; for vehicles in war scenarios, a bomb could go off at point-blank range and the glass wouldn’t blow inward creating shrapnel for the vehicle’s occupants. One researcher on that project looked over Scott’s specs. “He said we could take that formula, tweak it a little bit, lay it down on the road and it would take anything an 18-wheeler could do to it,” Scott recalled. “That was exactly what I wanted to hear.”

The project began progressing from there. “I knew then that we could take this glass surface and put solar cells underneath it,” said Scott. “They wouldn’t be touched by the traffic and they would just collect power from the roads that are baking in the sun anyway.

To sum up the rest of the article, they got funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, determined that the roads could actually pay for themselves over a projected 20-year lifespan (they generate very valuable electricity, after all!), they’ve built a prototype, and now they’re in search of more funding in order to move the idea forward.

Now, in that article, Scott Brusaw relates that his idea grew out of childhood memories (memories I have too) of a toy racing car track that had electrified grooves in it. The toy cars, then, had small metal pieces that protruded out from the bottom, the cars would be placed on the track with the metal piece in the electrified groove, and a handheld controller with a trigger allowed the “driver” to control the flow of electricity, making the car move, and the more you pulled the trigger the faster the car went.

Well, back at Inhabitat, there’s this news that electrified roadways may soon be a reality for more than toy cars:

World’s First Wireless Electric Car Charger Launched In UK

The company (HaloIPT) is planning to electrify parts of England’s M25 motorway by using magnetic induction, a principle that was first discovered in the 1800s. The Inductive Power Transfer system allows a car fitted with a simple integrated receiver pad to be charged automatically when parked or driven on roads with HaloIPT’s special charging pads beneath their surface. If major road routes such as the M25 are ‘electrified’, then it will greatly increase the range and the appeal of electric vehicles.

The IPT is designed to be compatible with all vehicles (including eBikes and heavy goods vehicles), and it has been designed to function under any weather conditions — even if the driver doesn’t align the car properly with the pads embedded in the asphalt. The system was tested by HaloIPT on a Citroen C1, named Evie, to see the charging performance of the IPT. It took six hours to fully charge Evie from 20 percent capacity, with the energy sourced from a regular household socket. The company also says their system can charge even at distances of up to 40 centimeters.

“We’re using IPT to break down the barriers to mass-market adoption of electric cars,” says HaloIPT’s CEO, Anthony Thomson. “Keeping electric vehicle costs down is a key priority for us.”

Now THAT is exciting!

Stuff We Need: Cardboard Bike Helmets!

kraniumToday’s Stuff We Need installment is a great story.

I mean any story involving bicycles, head injuries, woodpeckers and cardboard HAS to be good, right?

Via Good.is:

When Anirudha Surabhi was a grad student at the Royal College of Art in London, he was in a bike accident. Even though it was a minor crash, and Surabhi was wearing an expensive helmet, the next day he learned that he had a concussion. He spent three days in the hospital. He wondered why the helmet hadn’t worked—and decided to explore the problem for his thesis project.

It turns out that bike helmets are not as safe as they’re portrayed to be. Over the last few decades, Surabhi says, some helmets have gotten more aerodynamic and better-looking, but they haven’t gotten any better at protecting us from injuries.

As he began working on his design, Surabhi looked at the anatomy of a woodpecker for inspiration. When a woodpecker slams its beak into the trunk of a tree, the impact is cushioned by a special micro-structure between the beak and head. By mirroring that structure—after testing 150 different materials—Surabhi was able to create a helmet that can withstand three times greater impact than a standard helmet.

I’ve often pondered how woodpeckers do what they do! Seriously, the damage to the head and neck, you’d think, would be substantial. (Or, is there just not that much up there in those woodpecker skulls to protect?)

Anyway, questionable woodpecker technology aside, there’s the environmental impact angle of this bike helmet:

It’s also greener than the ubiquitous polystyrene foam liners. Foam, unsurprisingly, is not great for the environment; the manufacturing process is a health hazard, and it also creates hazardous waste. It’s also more energy-intensive to produce than cardboard. Surabhi used 100 percent recycled cardboard, which he says takes no electricity to produce at all.

kranium2

VERY exciting that this helmet is already in production, and will be available here in the U.S. next year.

I.WILL.BUY.ONE!!!

Check out this cool video on Anirudha Surabhi and his awesome design:

Stuff We Need: Better Wind Turbines, Part II

Back in May 2010, I wrote about the conflict between conventional windmill turbines and avian wildlife.

And while my research into the issue revealed that wind turbine blades don’t actually harm that many birds and bats, way fewer, in fact, than are harmed by automobiles and by birds flying into building windows, any harm, in my view is too much.

It’s now been over two years since I read at Inhabitat about a Nikola Tesla-inspired blade-less wind turbine that seemed to be a good solution, but I’ve not heard any news since on that technology.

Today, however, Inhabitat reports on yet another new turbine design, the Saphonian, this one by Tunisian company Saphon Energy, also a blade-less device, but modeled after sails rather than a Tesla concept.

This design shares three features with the previously reported Fuller Wind Turbine. Not only is it a considerably more efficient technololgy, harnessing MUCH more wind energy, 80% compared to the 30% captured by conventional windmills, it also cheaper to manufacture and it’s safer for birds.

Additionally, the Saphonian is reportedly a silent device, addressing a common complaint by opponents of windmill-based wind farms.

It’s been two years between the reports on these two technologies, so let’s just hope that two years from now we finally see installations of expansive wind farms utilizing these designs, rather than just another report on just another new alternative.

Judging just by Saphon’s much fancier website, compared to the one for the Fuller, and the fact that Saphon’s backer was featured in the 2012 TED Talk below, perhaps Saphon does have the kind of momentum needed to make the leap from concept to implementation.

Stuff We Need: $20 Cardboard Bicycles

Image Source: SpokeNwheels

Yesterday, I posted the first new installment in my Stuff We Don’t Need series since December 2011. That post was bicycle-related, in that it was a critique of a $3,600 bookshelf that doubles as a bike rack.

But then, as for every right there’s a wrong, every left a right, north a south, black a white, yin a yang…

Today, I bring you the first new installment in my Stuff We Need series since March of this year.

And, it’s bicycle-related.

Via Engadget, ladies and gentlement, Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni’s $20 cardboard bicycle:

Now THAT is Stuff We Need. I would buy one in a second!

It’s cheap, durable, made with recycled materials, an eco-friendly alternative to the single occupancy fossil fuel powered vehicle, and it actually works! (See video below.)

Beyond the environmental angle, Gafni and his business partner, Nimrod Elmish, are truly a couple of philanthropy-minded menschen.

Via Reuters:

Elmish said the cardboard bikes would be made on largely automated production lines and would be supplemented by a workforce comprising pensioners and the disabled…

Elmish said the business model they had created meant that rebates for using “green” materials would entirely cancel out production costs and this could allow for bicycles to be given away for free in poor countries…

“In six months we will have completed planning the first production lines for an urban bike which will be assisted by an electric motor, a youth bike which will be a 2/3 size model for children in Africa, a balance bike for youngsters learning to ride, and a wheelchair that a non-profit organisation wants to build with our technology for Africa,” he said.

This is one of the best stories I’ve read lately, a positive, hopeful piece in a sea of news dominated by everything from the depressing to the horrific.

Check out this video on Izhar Gafni and his work. He’s quite an endearing fellow.

Stuff We Need: Plastic-eating Fungus

Just about a year ago, I blogged about an article that prompted me to reconsider my just-say-no-to-plastics mantra.

No, it didn’t convert me into a lobbyist for the plastics industry. Heck, I still believe that the absolute best thing would be for humans to end the production of plastics. Rather, I just haven’t ruled out the possibility that plastic could someday become a renewable resource. We’ve already made great strides in recycling (how cool is fleece made from recycled plastic bottles?!), and there are a number of different plant-derived plastics already on the market.

However, one problem that isn’t going away anytime soon, thanks to the fact that plastic takes forever to biodegrade, is waste: landfills overflowing with plastic, waterways polluted with it, animals dying from ingesting it, etc.

Well, thanks to a team of Yale University students with a passion for fungus, we have a good subject for a long-overdue Stuff We Need installment!

Via Fast Company:

[A] group of students, part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, ventured to the jungles of Ecuador. The mission was to allow “students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way.” The group searched for plants, and then cultured the microorganisms within the plant tissue. As it turns out, they brought back a fungus new to science with a voracious appetite for a global waste problem: polyurethane…

The fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first anyone has found to survive on a steady diet of polyurethane alone and–even more surprising–do this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment that is close to the condition at the bottom of a landfill.

How frickin’ cool is that?!

Now, knowing how careless humans can be while tampering with the natural order, it’s not hard to imagine this going very, very badly.

Here’s the synopsis of a sci-fi/action/thriller movie that would almost certainly be made based on one possible outcome:

The Fungus Among Us
A global environmental crisis is mounting, stemming from humanity’s lust for plastic. Landfills are full, toxic chemicals are leaching and poisoning ground water, humans may have switched to electric cars, but oil is still fought over, as the plastics industry tries to keep up with worldwidee consumers’ insatiable demands for cheap, disposable products of all shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, in a small village in the Amazon, living amongst a tribe of indigenous people who have been spared contact with the outside world, a reclusive biologist (played by Brad Pitt) discovers a fungus that eats plastic. Despite his disdain for the developed world, knowing that even his oasis in the jungle will eventually be destroyed if the plastics problem isn’t addressed, the scientist reluctantly returns to the U.S., where his discovery is at first shunned by environmental bureaucrats. Turning to the private sector, a plastics manufacturer realizes they can insure their future billions in profit while earning billions more by selling the fungus that will clear up the landfills so that they can be filled again, over and over and over again. Only, after initial success, the fungus, which they genetically altered in order to boost its consumption rate and capacity, starts to reproduce at an alarming rate, it becomes airborne, and soon it starts consuming plastic everywhere it’s found. Personal property, modes of transportation, infrastructure everywhere starts crumbling apart, and it’s up to the reclusive biologist to find some way to kill the fungus. Will he succeed?

So, hopefully they can figure out how to use this fungus responsibly, perhaps by cultivating it in massive containers, into which they add the plastic waste, where it can be eaten in a controlled, sealed environment.

See, they just have to consult me!

Stuff We Need: More U in EV SUVs

My wife and I own an old Toyota Previa van, like the one pictured here, it has over 200,000 miles on it, it squeals loudly driving around town, it hums loudly at highway speeds, it probably needs around $1,000 worth of work right now to keep it truly road worthy, and yet I can’t imagine living without it.

There are very few things that we can’t fit inside it or strap to the roof rack, including this year’s 10-foot Christmas tree, it’s amazingly comfortable on long road trips, and you can sleep in the back in a pinch.

That’s one long-winded scenic route on the way to stressing that the operative letter in SUV is “U” for utility. (For purposes of this blog post, I’m defining Sport Utility Vehicles to include vans, pick-ups and other trucks.)

Back in July 2011, I wrote about the Suzuki Every Van and how it was doomed, because, as an EV (Electric Vehicle) it failed the U Test in a big, big way, offering a pathetic maximum range of 62 miles.

Well, today, via Inhabitat, there’s news from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, MI, about this:

Via Motors unveil[ed] the company’s first extended-range electric vehicle, a full-size light duty pickup truck called the eREV VTRUX. [The] 100-mpg VTRUX attempts to replace a full V8 engine with a hugely powerful 402-horsepower electric motor (with 300 lb-ft of torque), a larger version of the same system that allows the Chevy Volt to beat EV range anxiety.

Now, the downside is that, like the Chevy Volt, the VTRUK is NOT a true EV, as Inhabitat mistakenly refers to it. It still utilizes a gasoline engine, hence the “100-mpg” rating, which clearly makes it a hybrid in my eyes.

That said, since SUVs are such notorious gas guzzlers, a 100-mpg pickup is nothing to laugh at, and the fact that Via Motors will also be producing a van and something that looks like a Chevy Suburban, might just win my seal of approval anyway, for how soundly they are winning the U Test.

If we are ever to completely replace gasoline-powered automobiles, automakers MUST make them affordable (who knows how much these Via trucks will cost), and they must pass the U Test. The average family must be able to drive their family members, their dogs, their stuff and their home and garden improvement supplies around, and they have to have good range, especially since charging stations are only just starting to pop up in a relative handful of places.

Stuff We Need: Scrapblasters!

I haven’t posted a Stuff We Need installment in a while, maybe because I’ve been too overwhelmed with stuff lately, like moving 20 years of accumulated stuff from one house to another, and having been immersed in those stuff-filled days we call the holiday season.

But when I saw this, I knew I had to have one:

Scrapblasters are two guys from Seattle, Brian Westcott and John Brink, who do upcycling with great retro taste.

It’s not that I have a thing for vacuum cleaners, it’s just that a vintage vacuum cleaner repurposed as a boom box TOTALLY works for me.

And yet, looking around the Scrapblasters website and checking other things they’ve made, I came up with an idea I’d like more than a boom box.

Back in April, they posted this:

That right there is a speaker and sub-woofer in a 1910 suitcase, and what I’d really like is to commission them to construct a home theater sound system inside a collection various retro items that would sit around the TV room.

THAT would be so rad!

Stuff We Need: Solar Blimps

Call ‘em blimps. Call ‘em zeppelins. Call ‘em dirigibles (if you can pronounce it). Call ‘em airships.

Whatever, if they are are solar and zero emissions and can carry cargo, we need ‘em!

Carbon emissions from cargo planes, ships, trains, and trucks is significant.

That a solar blimp can look really cool — always a plus for me — is yummy icing on the cake, but the fact that, according to Inhabitat, the makers of the SolarShip plan to demonstrate their vessels soon, in 2012 and 2013, is really exciting.

[SolarShip]…has taken the steps to bring its vision of a green shipping future to life, recently completing the initial test flights for its solar helium plane. The prototype blends the concepts of blimp and airplane by placing a blimp lined with solar panels over an airplane cockpit and landing gear, and using solar power to propel the plane into the air. SolarShip plans to build three sizes of this ship: the small Caracal, the mid-size Chui, and the 30-tonne cargo hauler Nanuq.

Now, sadly, these things won’t be replacing cargo ships and trains anytime soon. The largest of the three, after all, the 30-ton Nanuq, can only carry the equivalent of one 20-foot shipping container.

But it’s a step in the right direction, and in the meantime we get some great CGI eye candy to watch.

Stuff We Need: Solar Bridges

Apropos my post from July, where I assert that green energy and infrastructure projects, and the millions of jobs they could provide, are painfully obvious no-brainers, no-brainers that we ignore at our own peril, today I came across this, via CNN:

World’s largest solar bridge project gets underway

A CGI image of how the new solar panels will look on the roof of the new Blackfriars rail station in London

What a brilliant idea…and how very sad that the U.S. isn’t doing projects like this on a grand scale, all over the country, simply because we’re so paralyzed by political and governmental corruption and dysfunction.

When legendarily foggy and rainy London decides to invest in a solar project like this, you know the technology has advanced radically, that despite their sunshine deficit, as the article says, the solar panels will help reduce annual CO2 emissions by more than 500 tons!

Instead, here in the U.S., lobbyists for the dirtiest fossil fuel known to man might be successful in building a pipeline to pump the toxic sludge from Alberta, Canada, through the heartland of America, to the U.S. Gulf Coast, because they have a cozy relationship with the State Department.

Tragically sad.

Stuff We Need: OdeWire

I’ve been a reader of Ode Magazine for years, and I regularly feel grateful for such a consistent source of positive news stories in a world dominated by negative-focused media.

All the more reason, then, to celebrate the launch of a new project from Ode, a news aggregator called OdeWire, that uses semantic search technology to cull news stories from all over the world that focus on positive developments; on people and organizations who are finding and implementing solutions to the problems that face humanity and our planet.

Now, I don’t agree with every single thing I read in Ode, but do I need to? Hell no! I don’t agree with everything I read in the New York Times, or in any other publication for that matter, so why should Ode be held to that standard?

Rather, there’s no denying that the stories on the whole provide proof that we all desperately seek, that good things happen everywhere, everyday.

And so now Ode brings us OdeWire, a kind of Google News for what Ode calls Intelligent Optimists. Divided into six major topic sections — Business, Energy, Food, Health, Technology, Life — I’m very impressed so far with the selection of articles and the variety of publications they originate from. I look forward to visiting the site often.

Here’s Ode Editor-in-Chief, Jurriaan Kamp, and Tim Musgrove, the mad scientist behind the semantic technology, talking about OdeWire: