Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Accidental Discovery of Atmospheric Lead Poisoning

Episode 7 of the new Cosmos series (watch it here: The Clean Room) was about a scientist, Clair Patterson, researching the decay of uranium and lead in pieces of a meteorite. In the process, he accidentally discovered that our atmosphere had far more lead in it than it did two hundred years ago.

Patterson tracked down the source of this atmospheric lead to leaded gasoline. Until 1987, lead was added to gasoline to prevent "knocking."

Unfortunately, the oil industry was funding Patterson's research, and, needless to say, they didn't like it. Patterson made a major discovery, but it was another 20 years before lead was made illegal as a fuel additive. The oil industry had already paid a highly credentialed scientist to testify with assurance that the amount of lead in the atmosphere was completely natural. Patterson's work showed it was not.

This Cosmos episode was a surprising place to learn about the reach and power of oil money, and the oil industry's determination to maintain its monopoly at all costs.

Read more:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Village Hub

Villager tapping a sugar palm.
We thought you might find this invention as interesting and inspiring as we did. The "Village Hub" is a mini factory that can completely change the well-being of local villages in Indonesia. It is all based on the sugar palm. First, villagers tap the juice from a living palm tree, just like getting maple syrup from a maple tree. So it doesn't kill the tree. The sugar palms are growing in a biodiverse forest rather than on a monoculture farm. The trees don't need any fertilizer.

The juice is brought to the Village Hub, which is a system of interconnected small facilities in one central location. The Village Hub turns the juice into two products: ethanol to use locally as fuel, and syrup to sell.

Many of these rural areas often experience fuel supply difficulties, so this ethanol production is important. They also use the ethanol for bright light (using a Coleman-lantern-like lamp) and for clean cooking fuel.

Fermentation of ethanol produces carbon dioxide, which is captured in the Village Hub and fed into an algae pond (when carbon dioxide is added to algae, it grows a lot faster). The algae is then harvested and used as a high-protein feed for cattle and goats.

The manure from the animals goes into a small biogas installation, which produces methane that they use as fuel to create heat for the ethanol distillation. The leftover from the biogas installation is used as fertilizer to grow crops.

The other product the Village Hub produces is palm syrup. The palm juice is heated to evaporate some of the water, and that steam is used to preheat the juice before it goes into the evaporator (making the process use less overall fuel) and the contact between the steam and the cool juice produces condensation, which is collected and made available as clean drinking water.

The whole Village Hub unit is compact and transportable, and could change the lives of millions of Indonesians. Everyone involved with the Village Hub earns more money, so they can afford to send their children to school.

If you'd like to see a Village Hub in action, watch this YouTube video: Village Hub.