This weekend’s impending storm notwithstanding, 2015 is already looking like another bad year for the parched West. One rainstorm won’t change the fact that nobody’s getting enough rain or snow. But the region’s problems only begin with its mutant water cycle. The real dramas come from the difficulty in managing what water remains. From the tension between big ag and big oil to the irony of low precipitation in Oregon, here are five stories to watch while you’re waiting for rain.
Each page is its own little filter that can clean up to 100 liters of water (that’s around a 30-day supply).
In developing countries, clean drinking water is not a given. According to the World Health Organization, every year, around 3.4 million people die from water-related illnesses. To put it in perspective: That’s roughly equivalent to Los Angeles’ entire population. Accessing clean water often means waiting in line for a truck to haul it to you, boiling it (an energy-hungry option) or running it through a ceramic filter (expensive). But the truth is, more often than not people don’t clean it at all.
A new project from the Water Is Life organization is looking to simplify the purification process with a high-design solution. The Drinkable Book, as it’s called, looks like something you’d keep on your coffee table, but it’s actually a full-on water purification system.
Each page is its own little filter that can clean up to 100 liters of water (that’s around a 30-day supply). This means each book can provide a single person with up to four years of clean water. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and University of Virginia developed a special kind of paper that’s coated in silver nanoparticles, which kill bacteria. “Some socks use silver nanoparticles to prevent fungus from growing on athletes’ feet,” explains chemist Theresa Dankovich, the project’s lead scientist who has been researching this process since 2008.
While Australia’s rich stocks of raw mineral resources have contributed to the nation’s wealth and given us a competitive advantage we are also one of the highest waste producing nations in the world (on a per capita basis).
In 2009-10 we dumped 21.6 million tonnes of household and industrial waste in 918 landfill sites around Australia. Of all the waste we produced we recycled only about half (52%).
But can we do things differently? Can we change our production and consumption patterns to generate wealth from what we currently designate as waste?
The potential exists
Consider e-waste, which is the old TVs, DVDs, computers, household appliances and other electrical goods that we throw away. This type of waste has emerged as one of our fastest growing waste streams but only about 10% is recovered or recycled.
But e-waste devices also include valuable metals such as copper, silver, gold, palladium and other rare materials which means they are also ending up in landfill.
By 2008 we had already sent some 17 million televisions and 37 million computers to landfill, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
But if 75% of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually could be recycled we could save 23,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.
Another way of looking at this is to compare gold yielded from an open pit mine with that from discarded electrical goods. Mining yields 1 to 5 grams of gold for every one tonne of ore. From the same quantity of discarded mobile phones and computer circuit boards, you can extract 350 grams and 250 grams respectively.
Humans live on a water world, and yet, many of us still struggle to slake our thirst. Why is that? Earth’s oceans are salty. Just 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater, and of that, 60% is trapped in glaciers, 30% in groundwater (not all of which is accessible), and just 10% is on the surface in lakes and rivers.
There is, of course, great demand for freshwater, and it isn’t all for drinking. Freshwater is used for industrial and agricultural purposes too. Because current methods for removing the salt from ocean water (desalination) are energy intensive and expensive—there is increasing competition for a limited supply of freshwater.
Human emissions of carbon dioxide are increasing the levels of acidity in the oceans at rates not seen for millions of years, scientists say.
The world's oceans are becoming acidic at an "unprecedented rate" and may be souring more rapidly than at any time in the past 300 million years.
In their strongest statement yet on this issue, scientists say acidification could increase by 170% by 2100.
They say that some 30% of ocean species are unlikely to survive in these conditions.
The researchers conclude that human emissions of CO2 are clearly to blame.
The study will be presented at global climate talks in Poland next week.
In 2012, over 500 of the world's leading experts on ocean acidification gathered in California. Led by the International Biosphere-Geosphere Programme, a review of the state of the science has now been published.
This Summary for Policymakers states with "very high confidence" that increasing acidification is caused by human activities which are adding 24 million tonnes of CO2 to oceans every day.
Climate change combined with rapid population increases, economic growth and land subsidence could lead to a more than nine-fold increase in the global risk of floods in large port cities between now and 2050.
There is a certain curiosity about the way water is used in Phoenix, which gets barely eight inches of rain a year but is not necessarily parched.
The hiss of sprinklers serenades improbably green neighborhoods early in the morning and late at night, the moisture guarding against the oppressive heat. This is the time of year when temperatures soar, water consumption spikes and water bills skyrocket in this city, particularly for those whose idea of desert living includes cultivating a healthy expanse of grass.
Half of the water consumed in homes here is used to irrigate lawns, but there is a certain curiosity about the way water is used in Phoenix, which gets barely eight inches of rain a year but is not necessarily parched.
The per capita consumption here, 108 gallons a day, is less than in Los Angeles, where residents average 123 gallons a day. And though humid Southeastern cities like Atlanta have grappled with recurrent water shortages, there is no limit here to how many times someone can wash a car or water flowers in a yard.
“We’re often maligned as being an unsustainable place simply for existing in an arid climate,” said Colin Tetreault, senior policy adviser for sustainability for Mayor Greg Stanton. “But that’s just myopic.”
Experts call on governments to start conserving water in face of climate change, pollution and over-use
The majority of the 9 billion people on Earth will live with severe pressure on fresh water within the space of two generations as climate change, pollution and over-use of resources take their toll, 500 scientists have warned.
The world's water systems would soon reach a tipping point that "could trigger irreversible change with potentially catastrophic consequences", more than 500 water experts warned on Friday as they called on governments to start conserving the vital resource. They said it was wrong to see fresh water as an endlessly renewable resource because, in many cases, people are pumping out water from underground sources at such a rate that it will not be restored within several lifetimes.
"These are self-inflicted wounds," said Charles Vörösmarty, a professor at the Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Centre. "We have discovered tipping points in the system. Already, there are 1 billion people relying on ground water supplies that are simply not there as renewable water supplies."
A majority of the population – about 4.5 billion people globally – already live within 50km of an "impaired" water resource – one that is running dry, or polluted. If these trends continue, millions more will see the water on which they depend running out or so filthy that it no longer supports life.
Technology allows us to achieve great things – so many goods are made affordable, for example, by mass production. But when mass production is not responsibly planned out and regulated, trash starts piling up.
Oslo, where roughly half the city and most of its schools are heated by burning garbage, is forced to import garbage to supply its waste-to-energy incinerating plants.
This is a city that imports garbage. Some comes from England, some from Ireland. Some is from neighboring Sweden. It even has designs on the American market.
“I’d like to take some from the United States,” said Pal Mikkelsen, in his office at a huge plant on the edge of town that turns garbage into heat and electricity. “Sea transport is cheap.”
Oslo, a recycling-friendly place where roughly half the city and most of its schools are heated by burning garbage — household trash, industrial waste, even toxic and dangerous waste from hospitals and drug arrests — has a problem: it has literally run out of garbage to burn.
The problem is not unique to Oslo, a city of 1.4 million people. Across Northern Europe, where the practice of burning garbage to generate heat and electricity has exploded in recent decades, demand for trash far outstrips supply. “Northern Europe has a huge generating capacity,” said Mr. Mikkelsen, 50, a mechanical engineer who for the last year has been the managing director of Oslo’s waste-to-energy agency.
Yet the fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year, he said, far too little to supply incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons. “And the Swedes continue to build” more plants, he said, a look of exasperation on his face, “as do Austria and Germany.”
A hybrid farmland grass, developed by a team of UK researchers, could help reduce flooding by cutting the volume of run-off reaching rivers, a study suggests.
A team of plant and soil scientists said tests showed the new cultivar reduced run-off by 51%, compared with a variety widely used to feed livestock.
They added that rapid growth and well developed root systems meant that more moisture was retained within the soil rather than running into river systems.
The findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports.
The novel grass is a hybrid of perennial ryegrass (Lollium perenne) - which is widely planted by farmers for grazing livestock - and meadow fescue (Festuca pratensis), which has environmental stress-resistant characteristics.
Billboards could do more than just advertise, if scientists at the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Peru have their way. While UTEC's earlier billboard produced drinkable water, its latest creation scrubs the air free of pollutants. According to the team, a single billboard can do the work of 1,200 trees, purifying 100,000 cubic meters (3.5 million cubic feet) of air daily in crowded cities.
The University has installed its first air-purifying billboard near a construction zone in Lima, a city that's famous for having the worst air quality in all of South America. The billboard works by combining polluted air with water, using basic thermodynamic principles to actively dissolve the pollutants (such as bacteria, dust and germs) in water to release fresh air.
The scientists claim that their billboard filtered around 500,000 cubic meters of air within one week in March, scrubbing it free of 99 percent of its airborne bacteria. The effects of the billboard can be experienced, the team says, within a 5-block radius, benefiting both construction workers and the area's residents. The extracted pollutants are held for analysis, presumably with a view to creating more effective billboards in the future.
The purifying process is continuous, uses 100 percent recyclable water and consumes little energy, the team says – roughly 2.5 kW (2,500 watts) per hour. Ad agency FCB Mayo is helping the University promote the billboard.
"We seek to demonstrate that engineering is behind it all," says Jessica Rúas, Director of Promotion at UTEC. "And what better way to also show that than through advertising that changes the world, helps the community and cares for the environment."
The Blue Diversion toilet recently won the title of Most Innovative Project (Europe/West Asia), as bestowed by the International Water Association. Two years ago, an off-grid closed-system toilet known as the Diversion won an award at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's "Reinventing the Toilet" fair. Created by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) and now called the Blue Diversion, it recently also won the title of Most Innovative Project (Europe/West Asia), as bestowed by the International Water Association. So, what makes it so special? Well, for one thing, the same water that flushes it is subsequently used in its hand-washing sink.
In deciding how best to meet the world's growing needs for energy, the answers depend crucially on how the question is framed. Looking for the most cost-effective path provides one set of answers; including the need to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions gives a different picture. Adding the need to address looming shortages of fresh water, it turns out, leads to a very different set of choices.
That's one conclusion of a new study led by Mort Webster, an associate professor of engineering systems at MIT, published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study, he says, makes clear that it is crucial to examine these needs together before making decisions about investments in new energy infrastructure, where choices made today could continue to affect the water and energy landscape for decades to come.
The intersection of these issues is particularly critical because of the strong contribution of the electricity-generation industry to overall greenhouse-gas emissions, and the strong dependence of most present-day generating systems on abundant supplies of water. Furthermore, while power plants are a strong contributor to climate change, one expected result of that climate change is a significant change of rainfall patterns, likely leading to regional droughts and water shortages.
Surprisingly, Webster says, this nexus is a virtually unexplored area of research. "When we started this work," he says, "we assumed that the basic work had been done, and we were going to do something more sophisticated. But then we realized nobody had done the simple, dumb thing"—that is, looking at the fundamental question of whether assessing the three issues in tandem would produce the same set of decisions as looking at them in isolation.
The answer, they found, was a resounding no. "Would you build the same things, the same mix of technologies, to get low carbon emissions and to get low water use?" Webster asks. "No, you wouldn't."
Dutch scientists have a use for all the carbon dioxide that pours from the chimneys of fossil fuel-burning power stations: Harvest it for even more electricity
Power-generating stations worldwide release 12 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year as they burn coal, oil or natural gas; home and commercial heating plantsrelease another 11 billion tons. A team of Dutch scientists has a use for it.
Power plants could, they argue, pump the carbon dioxide through water or other liquids and produce a flow of electrons – and therefore more electricity.
This would be enough, they argue, to create 1,750 terawatt hours of extra electricity annually – about 400 times the output of the Hoover Dam in the Nevada – and all without adding an extra gasp of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The exhaust from one cycle of electricity production could be used immediately to deliver another flow of power to the grid.
Global water demand is projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050 - so what can we do to make sure there's enough to go round? Matthew Wall looks at tech to save water
Ever since Archimedes invented his screw for drawing water uphill and the Romans built their famous aqueducts, mankind has tried to manipulate the earth's most precious resource through the use of technology. Many have dreamed about making the deserts bloom.
Researchers combine an iPhone with optical filters to create a handheld analyzer for toxins, bacteria and other items of public health importance.
A virtual cottage industry has emerged around finding innovative uses for smartphones, well beyond basic calling, texting and Internet access. In particular, there’s been a lot of interest in turning iPhones into something like the <i>Star Trek</i> medical tricorder.
For example, University of Illinois researchers are developing an app and cradle-like device that makes the iPhone a biosensor. The key is the smartphone’s camera and processing power combined with the lenses and filters located in the cradle.
Just put a sample of what you want to study on a slide and insert it into the cradle. The iPhone screen indicates a shift in wavelength when the cradle’s photonic crystal detects toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses or other biological materials on the slide. The researchers published in the journal Lab on a Chip. [Dustin Gallegos et al., Label-free biodetection using a smartphone]
Imagine using a smartphone to tell if there are toxins in harvested corn and soybeans or pathogens in a water supply. That’s a handy tool that lowers the cost of medical fieldwork. Plus, when you’re done, it’s easy to call in the results.
E-waste is a growing toxic nightmare. And it’s not just a problem in developing countries.
AMERICANS replace their cellphones every 22 months, junking some 150 million old phones in 2010 alone. Ever wondered what happens to all these old phones? The answer isn’t pretty.
In far-flung, mostly impoverished places like Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Delhi, India; and Guiyu, China, children pile e-waste into giant mountains and burn it so they can extract the metals — copper wires, gold and silver threads — inside, which they sell to recycling merchants for only a few dollars. In India, young boys smash computer batteries with mallets to recover cadmium, toxic flecks of which cover their hands and feet as they work. Women spend their days bent over baths of hot lead, “cooking” circuit boards so they can remove slivers of gold inside. Greenpeace, the Basel Action Network and others have posted YouTube videos of young children inhaling the smoke that rises from burned phone casings as they identify and separate different kinds of plastics for recyclers. It is hard to imagine that good health is a by-product of their unregulated industry.
Indeed, most scientists agree that exposure poses serious health risks, especially to pregnant women and children. The World Health Organization reports that even a low level of exposure to lead, cadmium and mercury (all of which can be found in old phones) can cause irreversible neurological damage and threaten the development of a child.
(Credit: iStockphoto) Another innovative feature has been added to the world’s first practical “artificial leaf,” making the device even more suitable-
Another innovative feature has been added to the world’s first practical “artificial leaf,” making the device even more suitable for providing people in developing countries and remote areas with electricity, scientists reported here today.
It gives the leaf the ability to self-heal damage that occurs during production of energy.
Daniel G. Nocera, Ph.D., described the advance during the “Kavli Foundation Innovations in Chemistry Lecture” at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.
Nocera explained that the “leaf” — a catalyst-coated wafer of silicon — mimics the ability of real leaves to produce energy from sunlight and water. Dropped into a jar of water and exposed to sunlight, catalysts in the device break water down into hydrogen and oxygen. Those gases bubble up and can be collected and used as fuel to produce electricity in fuel cells.
“Surprisingly, some of the catalysts we’ve developed for use in the artificial leaf device actually heal themselves,” Nocera said. “They are a kind of ‘living catalyst.’ This is an important innovation that eases one of the concerns about initial use of the leaf in developing countries and other remote areas.”
Nocera, who is the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, explained that the artificial leaf likely would find its first uses in providing “personalized” electricity to individual homes in areas that lack traditional electric power generating stations and electric transmission lines.
Less than one quart of drinking water, for instance, would be enough to provide about 100 watts of electricity 24 hours a day. Earlier versions of the leaf required pure water, because bacteria eventually formed biofilms on the leaf’s surface, shutting down production.
However, the new self-healing featire “enables the artificial leaf to run on the impure, bacteria-contaminated water found in nature,” Nocera said. “We figured out a way to tweak the conditions so that part of the catalyst falls apart, denying bacteria the smooth surface needed to form a biofilm. Then the catalyst can heal and re-assemble.”
More people in India have access to cellphones than to basic sanitation. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 villages in the northwestern part of the country suffer drinking water shortages as the water table in this breadbasket region continues to drop. And the same story can be told all over the world, according to participants of a water conference at Columbia University on March 28.
This may be the “Blue Marble” with 70 percent of the planet’s surface covered in watery oceans, but the abundance is primarily made up of saltwater. Freshwater that’s clean enough for people to drink and plentiful enough to grow crops and other vital human activities is in increasingly short supply.
In the U.S., agriculture, industry and people combine to use more water than flows in the nation’s rivers. The difference is pulled up from beneath surface of the earth. “We depend on ground water, it’s going away,” noted economist Jeff Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, which convened the State of the Planet: Water conference. “This is a new geologic era where humanity has taken over key [planetary] drivers: the water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle.”
The obvious solution, at least to economists, is: if water has become a scarce good then it needs an appropriate price to properly allocate it. Water engineer John Briscoe of Harvard University noted that Australian farmers survived the recent crippling drought—which resulted in a 70 percent reduction in water flow in the Murray-Darling river basin—because of a water trading system that shifted water use from low-value, high-water use crops like rice to cities that needed the H2O more. “This is Econ 101 at work,” he said.
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