SciTechBlog
April 22, 2010

The mobile phone that breathes

Posted: 12:16 PM ET

Researchers at Intel Labs in Berkeley, California, have designed a prototype mobile phone that slurps up air and spits out pollution measurements.

The researchers eventually hope to make everyone who carries a phone into a mobile air quality monitor, to supplement the 4,000 stationary monitors used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state partners.

It's the idea of "citizen science" taken to a new extreme.

The pollution readings would be useful for several reasons, said Allison Woodruff, a research scientist at Intel.

First, they would give regulators a sense of air quality trouble spots that might be missed by government monitors, which tend to have significant distances between them that millions of walking monitors could fill.

The moving air sensors also would enable a new level of social science, she said. If you wanted to learn more about asthma, for instance, you could look at the air quality experienced by asthma sufferers and see if that had any impact.

Currently, such evaluations aren't really possible, she said.

The measurements would be tied to a person's GPS location to create a real-time map of air quality readings. That info could be available to everyone on an app or a website, the researchers said.

The prototype air-quality phone developed by Woodruff and Alan Mainwaring is a bit clunky for now. It has big holes in its case, to let air in.  The sensors that pick up carbon monoxide, ozone and nitrogen oxide aren't small enough to let the phone fit in most pockets. That might be just as well, since the researchers aren't sure what would happen to the pollution measurements if a phone went inside a purse or pocket.

Woodruff said it might be equipped with light sensors that would tell it to stop taking and uploading measurements if it was inside a pocket.

But, they said, air quality sensors are getting better and smaller. They are confident the kinks will get worked out, and that this idea will make the air healthier. They hope their pollution-tracking phone will become reality in a matter of years.

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Filed under: environment • mobile phones


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April 9, 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane - really!

Posted: 10:51 AM ET
Global Hawk in flight
Global Hawk in flight

Flying higher, farther and without a pilot.

NASA's Global Hawk plane can fly to altitudes of 60,000 feet – way above normal flight paths – and as far as nearly half way around the world. It does this completely automatically, without the aid of a pilot or controller.

The plane follows a preprogrammed flight path and can stay aloft for nearly 30 hours while staying in contact with NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center via satellites. The Global Hawk maiden voyage took it over the Pacific and Arctic oceans to study the atmosphere over those bodies of water.

Researchers hope that the plane's range and endurance will make it ideal to sample and measure greenhouse gases, ozone and air quality over a wide area in a short period of time.

"We can go to regions we couldn't reach or go to previously explored regions and study them for extended periods that are impossible with conventional planes," said David Fahey, co-mission scientist and research physicist.

Scientists expect the high altitude flights to let them measure dust, smoke and pollution that cross the Pacific from Asia and Siberia and affect U.S. air quality. The Global Hawk is scheduled to make four more flights this month over the Pacific and Arctic areas.

Global Hawks – obviously not retro-fitted with scientific sensors – are also used by the U.S. Air Force for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They were recently used after the Haiti earthquakes to provide more than 3,600 images of affected areas to help with disaster relief.

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Filed under: Aviation • climate change • environment • greenhouse gas • NASA • Space


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April 5, 2010

Google: People need info to save energy

Posted: 06:00 PM ET

A coalition of tech companies, telecoms and environmental groups on Monday sent a letter to President Obama (PDF) on the subject of home energy efficiency.

The groups, which include Google, AT&T and 45 others, essentially make two points:

  • In order for people to save energy, they need to know more about how much energy they're currently using.
  • The U.S. government should, in some way, require that "timely, useful and actionable" data about energy use and pricing be made available to consumers over the Internet or mobile phone.

As for the info consumers should have access to, the groups say that to make smart decisions about how much energy to use and when to use it, people need to know the following:

  • How much energy their individual appliances use, in near-real-time
  • How much electricity costs at any given time
  • How the electricity is being generated (ie, by turning wind turbines or burning coal)

With all of this information, people could save an average of $360 per person per year on energy bills, the group says.

Google and The Climate Group will co-host a talk on this subject on Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Washington. A Google blog post says the White House energy adviser, Carol Browner, will give a keynote address.

For people to be able to get data about how much energy they're using at any given time, what appliances are sucking it in, and how much the electricity costs at the moment, the U.S. will have to deploy a "smart" electricity grid, capable of tracking and transmitting all of this information.

The White House has promised a $4 billion investment in the smart grid, but it has faced delays.

And a number of roadblocks remain.

Some say smart grid technology is too expensive, as the Wall Street Journal reports. The blog earth2tech says some electricity companies may not make energy data available fast enough to really be that useful for consumers.

What do you think? Would knowing more about your electricity consumption - in real-time - help you slash your power bill?

[via ReadWriteWeb]

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Filed under: Energy • environment • Google • greenhouse gas


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February 20, 2010

How to cool the planet

Posted: 08:35 PM ET

Most scientists agree that global warming is real, but disagreement abounds about what to do about it.

The idea of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it so that it can't warm the planet has been pretty widely discussed. Here are some techniques you might not know about; they involve large-scale geoengineering.

Basically, scientists are trying to figure out how to cool the planet by reflecting some of the sunlight back.

One idea is shooting sulfur particles into the stratosphere, which could decrease the temperature of the planet by about 2 degrees Celsius, said experts today at the American Association of the Advancement of Science meeting. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution says cooling methods like this are a little like chemotherapy for cancer patients - they solve problems, but have their own side effects.

A critic of this proposal, Martin Bunzl of Rutgers University, cautions that this approach could disrupt the monsoon cycle and potentially lead to famines. The dynamics of this on precipitation are also poorly understood, he said. In other words, it's like a doctor telling a patient "here’s something we can try" without knowing how it works.

"There’s a substantial risk of ecological effect," he said. "We don’t really know how long particles we put into the stratosphere remain in the stratosphere."

Another alternative is lightening clouds with sea salt. Philip Rasch of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory says the trade-off here is that you're getting brightening in local regions, whereas the sulfur method brightens the entire globe a little bit.

Right now a lot of what we know about these methods comes from computer modeling. Will they be feasible for the planet? More is yet to be learned.

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Filed under: environment • greenhouse gas


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January 8, 2010

It is not easy being green

Posted: 03:04 PM ET
Nintendo Wii
Nintendo Wii

Nintendo scored the worst in a new Greenpeace report on efforts by electronics companies to be ecologically responsible.

In the “Guide to Greener Electronics”, Nintendo’s score of 1.4 out of 10 rated it 18th out of 18 companies that produce cell phones, gaming consoles and computer equipment. Each company was rated in three categories - chemicals and chemical management, e-waste, and energy.

Nintendo scored zero on all e-waste criteria and received their most points in the chemical category. They have PVC-free internal wiring in their Wii consoles and banned the use of some chemicals. They are also attempting to eliminate the use of all PVCs, but have not set a timeline for its phaseout.

Cell phone manufacturer Nokia led all companies with a score of 7.3, down slightly from last year’s ranking. Greenpeace praised the company for its comprehensive voluntary take-back program, which attempts to educate cell phone users about the benefits of recycling old phones.

Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Phillips rounded out the top 4 companies in the report. Dell, Fujitsu, Lenovo and Microsoft joined Nintendo in the bottom 5.

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Filed under: cell phones • Energy • environment


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May 4, 2009

Future iPhone app may identify trees from photos

Posted: 03:16 PM ET

Nature lovers are known for stopping to take way too many pictures. I once got got completely lost in a rain forest, for example, when my group crossed a river while I was snapping pics of flowers.

But, if technology has anything to do with it, such trigger-happy photography could result in a boon of scientific information that will help researchers study climate change and biodiversity loss.

Scientists and computer gurus at the Smithsonian, the University and Maryland and Columbia University are developing an iPhone app that would automatically identify plant species from photos of leaves. The app then would shoot that data up to the Internet, where scientists could access it and use it for research.

If it works and catches on, researchers soon could have a robust, global database of plant information. Perhaps that sounds likes a yawner, but think about how much that would help us understand what's happening to the natural world, which is undergoing substantial change. (E.O. Wilson has said we're headed into the "age of loneliness" because so many species are going to die off.)

The app also would encourage everyone to learn more about the natural world, the researchers say.

"The first thing you need to know about any spec is what is its name," said John Kress, a botanist with the Smithsonian. "Once you know its name, it opens up a whole world of information about that organism."

Kress and others plan to start the app with plants from Central Park, and then the northeast U.S. Eventually, as cell phone technology continues to spread, he hopes the technology will spread to the tropics, where the biology is diverse, but where relatively little is known about plant life.

Check out CNN.com/tech today for more on citizen science efforts around the world.

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Filed under: citizen science • environment • iPhone • Scientists • technology


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April 24, 2009

Biofuel loses fight with California pollution regulators

Posted: 10:00 AM ET

The biofuel industry has lost its battle against California regulators over rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from various fuels, including corn-based ethanol.

artcorngi

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) late Thursday approved the controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which would force fuel producers to lower their “carbon intensity” of their products by 10 percent by 2020.

“They have made a huge mistake in demonizing first generation biofuels,” said Brooke Coleman of the New Fuels Alliance, a biofuel lobbying group. Coleman called the new rules a “biased regulation that drives investment away from all biofuels.”

Carbon intensity is what fueled the controversy. It’s a rating system meant to classify each fuel by how much greenhouse gases they produce for every unit of energy that they create.

CARB Chairman Mary Nichols touted the board’s decision, predicting that the new rules will reduce air pollution, create new jobs and “continue California’s leadership in the fight against global warming.”

Makers of ethanol said the rating system unfairly ties their U.S.-made corn-based fuel to mass deforestation – not in the United States – but in developing nations. Ethanol critics say the entire biofuel industry should bear global responsibility for clearing of trees to make farmland to grow crops that will be used to make the fuel.

The rules have taken on a pretty high profile since they were proposed. Several U.S. states are considering similar measures and even the European Union watching with interest.

In the months that the debate has been raging, people have been voicing a lot of strong opinions about this issue. So, what do you think about the ruling? Fire away!

In other news, CNN's iReport wants to know what you think of iPhone apps. How do you use them? What's your favorite? Tell us about your iPhone app experience!

Filed under: climate change • Energy • environment • Ethanol • Fuel • Uncategorized


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April 23, 2009

Tech trends: eco-data, spam pollution and Apple pulls an app

Posted: 01:28 PM ET

Here are a few stories CNN.com is watching today:

iPhone

ECO-DATA: Wired magazine writer Alexis Madrigal has a must-read piece on how data is the key to making environmentally conscious decisions. My inbox has been flooded lately with companies that claimed they were "going green" for Earth Day. Madrigal writes about how a few data crunchers are actually trying to figure out what works and doesn't (turns out: solar backpacks, not so helpful).

SPAM: An NYT blog raises conflict-of-interest questions about a study that says spam wastes a bunch energy. One strangely phrased statistic stuck out for me: one spam message produces the same amount of greenhouse gases as driving 3 feet.

IPHONE: You may have thought that nothing could spoil the day for Apple, since the billionth iPhone app likely will be downloaded today. But you're wrong. One iPhone application is diverting attention from that milestone because it let users shake a crying, digital baby until it dies. Apple reportedly decided to pull the Baby Shaker app after parenting groups expressed outrage.

The incident raises questions about Apple's quality control measures for iPhone apps, many of which are developed independently. Here's what some news orgs are saying on that:

From the Telegraph in the UK:

Apple has recently relaxed its rules on applications in the App Store. Bans on applications which made noises simulating breaking wind and allowed users to jiggle womens breasts have been lifted.

From MSNBC:

The company has been criticized by software developers for not allowing other kinds of programs, such as those that pass digital gas, into the App Store.

Such apps ultimately were approved, although the developer of one, "Whoopie Cushion," was first told by Apple that his program did not "comply with Community Standards,” programs that have “any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.) or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.”

And from Huffington:

Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris said "Baby Shaker" went on sale Monday, and confirmed that Apple removed it Wednesday. She would not comment on why the program was initially approved for sale nor about how many people downloaded the game. Apple itself screens each iPhone application, a process some prospective iPhone application developers have complained can take weeks or months. Others have said Apple gives little feedback when it accepts or rejects a program.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company has rejected apps that let iPhone users throw virtual shoes at President George W. Bush or watch clips from the "South Park" cartoon. It has accepted numerous programs that simulate flatulence.

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Filed under: Earth Day • environment • Internet • iPhone


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April 21, 2009

Green tech ideas for Earth Day

Posted: 11:26 AM ET

Earth Day is tomorrow, and several news sites have ideas about how you can use technology to save energy and help the environment. Here's a sample:

SAVE ENERGY: CNET has a good overview of how technology can gobble up energy, and another story on power-saving green technologies to watch. When it come to computer energy savings, screen savers don't cut it, one story says:

Screen saver software does not save energy. It's much better to turn off your monitor when you take a break. CO2 Saver, a free program for Windows XP and Vista, can help you manage your PC's sleep behavior.

DIY: On the DIY (do it yourself) side of things, NPR has a first-person story about a man who made a solar backpack that charges his iPod while he walks around Manhattan.

SMART GRID: Here's a Chicago Tribune blog about GE's "plug" on Monday of Miami's new smart grid, which an exec says is the largest project of its kind. Smart grids use automated meters to save energy. The technology is a government priority in the U.S. and in Europe these days.

ONLINE NEWS: The New York Times quotes experts who say ditching newspapers for online information may be the sustainable thing to do. The paper notes that Marriott hotels no longer will leave papers on their guests' doorsteps.

FINANCIAL CRUNCH: PC World reports on a survey that says investors are turning away from green technology because of the economic recession. But some still would like to see green tech be a priority, the site says.

AT SCHOOL: If you're a student or a parent, earthday.net has some ideas about greening your school. Among them: talk to administrators about switching to lower-energy LED "Exit" signs. One old-school "Exit" sign costs about $24 per year to operate, according to the EPA.

BICYCLE: Finally, it's worth noting that low-tech solutions can be green, too. The New York Times magazine recently interviewed the nation's energy secretary, Steven Chu (pictured above), who indicates he feels guilty that security officials won't let him ride his bike to work anymore. An excerpt:

Is it true you don’t drive a car?
My wife does, but I no longer own a car. Let me just say that in most of my jobs, I mostly rode my bicycle.

And now?
My security detail didn’t want me to be riding my bicycle or even taking the Metro. I have a security detail that drives me.

How do you feel about adding carbon emissions to the air?
I don’t feel good about it.

What technology helps you be green? Tell us about it in the comments. You also can share your views on local environmental issues on iReport.com.

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Filed under: computers • Earth Day • Energy • environment • Scientists • solar energy • technology


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April 2, 2009

Renewable energy could threaten wildlife

Posted: 12:27 PM ET

In a weird sort of environmental paradox, the Natural Resources Defense Council on Wednesday released maps of the American West showing areas that would be damaged if they're developed for renewable energy.

Renewable energy expansion is a priority of the Obama administration, but some of the land that could be used for wind or solar power also is home to endangered and threatened species.

It's an interesting example of environmental issues butting heads. Environmentalists generally support renewable energy projects because they reduce the amount of heat-trapping gases going into the atmosphere - and therefore help to slow global climate change. But this could be a sign they may oppose some wind and solar projects.

NRDC says the issues don't have to be in opposition. Careful planning could solve the conflict, the group says.

You can check out the maps on Google Earth.

Here's one example: a birding group mapped areas of Wyoming where the sage-grouse lives.

In my previous life as an environment reporter in Oklahoma, I wrote about how wind farms in that state are crossing paths with a funky bird called the lesser prairie chicken. The bird is so popular it even has YouTube videos.

What do you think? Can we ditch fossil fuels and protect wildlife? What should be the priorities?

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Filed under: Animals • Birds • climate change • endangered species • Energy • environment • Politics • solar energy


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About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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