The worlds greatest green inventions
We all want the latest cars, the grooviest clothes and the shiniest gadgets. But what of the price to the planet? Is it possible to go shopping with a clear conscience? Can environmentally sound products still be objects of desire? The cutting-edge environmental website treehugger.com thinks so. Here, its editor, Michael Richard, shows Josh Sims how a new breed of inventors is coming up with the goods - and they don't cost the earth
Monday 04 September 2006
THE ECO KETTLE
It is estimated that, on average, we boil twice the volume of water needed every time we use our kettles. With a 3kW kettle that's the same as wasting the energy of around 50 light bulbs. And standard kettles are often highly inefficient - a stove-top kettle, for instance, requires energy to heat the handle and shell in addition to the water. But British designer Brian Hartley's Eco Kettle solves these problems at a stroke. You fill it up, and then use the measuring button to release the exact amount of water you require - from a single cup to a full jug - into a separate chamber for boiling. It is also insulated to keep the water hot. The result is an energy saving of up to 30 per cent.
Cities may be losing their green spaces to development, but all is not lost. Look up to the roofs of buildings, especially office blocks, and there, where once there was dead space, you could now find a "sky garden" (Barclays' HQ in Canary Wharf, London, has one). They could be used as community spaces, chill-out areas for hassled workers, or even to grow food. But there are other advantages for the bottom line, too: they reduce run-off in periods of heavy rain, and they cut back on the heat that gets trapped in built-up areas, thus reducing the need for air conditioning. They could even improve air quality in congested cities.
FRICTIONLESS WIND TURBINES
The problem with wind turbines? Often, it's just not windy enough to get them turning. It's not really the lack of wind that is the problem, but the friction in the turbines themselves. Chinese scientists may have cracked this problem with the first "magnetic levitation" (or MagLev) wind turbines, which replace ball-bearings with the technology used in advanced monorails, making a frictionless turbine that can generate electricity from winds as low as 1.5m per second. They're ideal for low wind areas, such as mountain regions and small islands. The MagLev wind turbines could also use the airflow caused by passing cars to generate roadside lighting.
Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, an alliance of 50 technology research organisations, is looking at how to integrate solar cells into mobile phones, allowing them to be powered continuously on just two hours of sunlight a day. The big manufacturers are interested, as the more software that's packed into mobiles, the bigger batteries they need.
Air conditioning can be a huge drain on electricity supplies. Enter Ice Energy's Ice Bear, which integrates with a standard AC unit. The water in the Ice Bear is frozen overnight when temperatures are lower and electricity, in many countries, is cheaper, and the ice then cools the AC unit's refridgerant during the day. This results in a 30 per cent saving in energy use. An AC unit should last 15 years, by which time the Ice Bear will have paid for itself several times.
Conventional airliners are heavy, thirsty, noisy and polluting, despite aeronautical designers' best efforts. But in the future we may be travelling in a flying wing or batwing (in which the entire fuselage becomes the means of lift) - an idea first suggested by Frederick Handley Page in 1961. Made of plastic and with areas of the surface punctured with tiny holes to reduce drag, the wings would be much lighter and so more fuel efficient, and the engines would be mounted on top to deflect noise away from the ground. And they would be flown differently, too: in formation perhaps, which would reduce fuel consumption, and at different altitudes to prevent the formation of polluting condensation trails. The result could bring aircraft emissions below today's levels by 2025, despite an expected doubling in the amount of passenger air traffic. Both Boeing and Airbus are already working on flying-wing projects.
It's ironic that in our bid to become healthier by drinking more water, our conviction that only bottled water will do is causing increasingly precious plastics to be thrown away (oil being an essential component in plastic's manufacture). Fashion designer Pierre Cardin may have the solution. He has just distributed 30,000 of his Eau de Paris designer carafes for free in a bid to convince Parisians that the local tap water is just as healthy. The idea is that many people buy bottled water in response to marketing, so getting them to drink tap water requires a similar strategy. It's a simple idea that, if it spread around the world, could keep millions of plastic bottles out of landfills.
THE SUPER-POWERED ELECTRIC CAR
Electric cars: they're rather slow, aren't they? They whir a bit and then run out of juice on the motorway? Not Tesla Motors' first car. This will be a clutchless, Lotus-inspired roadster capable of going from 0 to 60mph in just four seconds, with a top speed of 130mph. That's electricity with attitude. And it does the equivalent of 135mpg. The real benefit? This car (named after the electrical engineer Nikola Tesla) will generate one-third the CO 2 and one-tenth the pollution of hybrid cars - and, as Richard notes, as electricity supplies get cleaner, so will the car. It can drive for a respectable 250 miles before its lithium-ion battery needs recharging and will be available for delivery from autumn of next year. Tesla Motors is new in terms of its business model as well as engineering; it's backed by the founders of eBay, Google and PayPal. www.teslamotors.com
If ever you thought people wobbling around on in-line skates looked silly, you'll be tickled pink by the Poweriser. Essentially, these are springy stilts that strap on to your calves and, once you've got the hang of the correct rocking motion, allow you to leap forward around five metres with a single bound, leap vertically about two metres, and generally upset the animals. With practice, this mode of transport is just as green as skates, but faster. And a few stunts (of the kind used in The Lion King stage production) will impress the doubters: there is already a "scene" developing around the device in Germany, where the idea was first developed. "This one is a bit out there," admits Richard, "but as far as alternative transportation goes, this has got to be the coolest."
Picture a world in which the kids have to stop reading because the sun has set. Or where you have to burn dangerous, dirty and expensive kerosene to see what you're doing. The Indian government hopes to remedy this sutuation, which affects 112,000 rural villages across the country, over the next decade. The solution is a combination of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and solar power. The former are more efficient than lightbulbs - the power required to light one conventional 100w bulb can now light an entire village - and the latter allows electricity to be stored in batteries and provides lighting where there is no grid supply. Both LEDs and solar panels can also take the rough and tumble of village life: having few moving parts, they are very durable. "People in the West often take electricity for granted, but in some places just being able to see once the sun is gone is a big deal, " says Richard.
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