27th September 2015
New battery technology will double EV range by 2020
German company Bosch – the world's largest supplier of automotive components – is developing a new battery technology that it claims will double the range of electric vehicles by 2020.
Bosch has announced a new battery technology for electric vehicles (EVs), based on solid-state cells, which could double their driving range while lowering costs and is likely to be production-ready in as little as five years. The recent acquisition of U.S. start-up Seeo Inc. – based near Silicon Valley – will make this possible. As well as its own experience in the area of battery technology, Bosch now has crucial know-how in innovative solid-state cells for lithium batteries, along with exclusive patents.
"Bosch is using its knowledge and considerable financial resources to achieve a breakthrough for electromobility," says Dr. Volkmar Denner, the firm's chairman of the board. "Solid-state cells could be a breakthrough technology. Disruptive start-up technology is meeting the broad systems knowledge and financial resources of a multinational company."
Using solid-state cells, Bosch sees the potential to more than double energy density – while at the same time reducing size requirements by 75% and improving safety with non-combustible materials. A comparable electric car that has a driving range of 150 kilometres today would be able to travel over 300 kilometres without recharging – and at a lower cost.
In current lithium-ion batteries, one of the major reasons energy capacity is limited is because the anode consists to a large degree of graphite. Using its new solid-state technology, Bosch will manufacture the anode out of pure lithium. In addition, the cells will function without the need for ionic liquid, meaning they are not flammable.
In 2014, Bosch joined Mitsubishi Corporation and GS Yuasa in establishing the joint venture Lithium Energy and Power, whose objective is to develop a more powerful generation of lithium-ion batteries. Seeo Inc.'s technology complements the work done thus far with Bosch's Japanese partners. The result will be a combination of groundbreaking start-up technology with Bosch's systems and technology know-how, GS Yuasa's cell competence, and Mitsubishi Corporation's broad industrial base.
"The pure lithium anode represents a huge innovative leap in battery cell construction," says Denner. By 2025, the company forecasts that 15 percent of all new cars built worldwide will have at least a hybrid powertrain. In Europe, more than one-third of all new cars will be electrically powered.
3rd September 2015
Plastic in 99 percent of seabirds by 2050
Researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Imperial College London have assessed how widespread the threat of plastic is for the world's seabirds and found the majority of species have plastic in their gut.
A red-footed booby on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean. © CSIRO, Britta Denise Hardesty
The study, led by Dr Chris Wilcox with co-authors Dr Denise Hardesty and Dr Erik van Sebille and published this week in the journal PNAS, found that nearly 60 per cent of all seabird species have plastic in their gut. Based on analysis of published studies since the early 1960s, the researchers found that plastic is increasingly common in seabird's stomachs. In terms of individuals (as opposed to species), plastic was found in the stomach of less than five per cent of birds in 1960, rising to 80 per cent by 2010. It is estimated that 90 per cent of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind.
The researchers predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99 per cent of the world's seabird species by 2050, based on current trends. These materials could remain in the biosphere until the year 2600 AD. This includes bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibres from synthetic clothes, which have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits. Birds mistake the brightly coloured items for food, or swallow them by accident, and this causes gut impaction, weight loss and sometimes even death.
"For the first time, we have a global prediction of how wide-reaching plastic impacts may be on marine species – and the results are striking," senior research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Dr Wilcox said. "We predict, using historical observations, that 90 per cent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution."
Dr Denise Hardesty from CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere said seabirds were excellent indicators of ecosystem health: "Finding such widespread estimates of plastic in seabirds is borne out by some of the fieldwork we've carried out where I've found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird."
Plastic fragments washing in the surf on Christmas Island, in the northeastern Indian Ocean. © CSIRO, Britta Denise Hardesty
The researchers found plastics will have the greatest impact on wildlife where they gather in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America. Dr van Sebille, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said the plastics had the most devastating impact in areas with greatest diversity of species.
"We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas," Erik van Sebille said. "While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have strikingly high densities of plastic, very few animals live here."
Dr Hardesty said there was still the opportunity to change the impact plastic had on seabirds: "Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife," she said. "Even simple measures can make a difference, such as reducing packaging, banning single-use plastic items or charging an extra fee to use them, and introducing deposits for recyclable items like drink containers. Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs within less than a decade, which suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time."
Chief Scientist at the US-based Ocean Conservancy, Dr George H. Leonard, said the study was highly important and demonstrated just how pervasive plastics were in the oceans: "Hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world come face-to-face with this problem during the annual Coastal Cleanup events," he said. "Scientists, the private sector and global citizens working together against the growing onslaught of plastic pollution can reduce plastic inputs to help protect marine biodiversity."
This follows a similar study earlier this year that estimated between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic are entering the oceans each year.
1st September 2015
Japan to open fully automated lettuce factory in 2017
Japanese factory operator SPREAD Co. has announced it will develop the world's first large-scale vegetable factory that is fully automated from seeding to harvest and capable of producing 30,000 heads of lettuce per day.
Credit: SPREAD Co.
SPREAD Co. was founded in 2006 and operates the world's largest vegetable factory using artificial lighting in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture. Four types of lettuce are currently produced, totalling 21,000 heads per day that are shipped to around 2,000 stores throughout the year.
As the company embarks on global expansion, it is now focussing on environmentally-friendly measures to be featured in the construction of a major next-generation vegetable factory. This new facility will be a vertical farm with total automation of the cultivation process from start to finish. It will cut labour costs by 50 percent, while energy costs will be reduced by 30 percent per head of lettuce through the use of artificial LED lighting specifically created for SPREAD, as well as the development of a unique air conditioning system. Up to 98 percent of water will be recycled onsite.
Thanks to indoor operations, this highly controlled environment will be unaffected by pests, temperature or weather conditions and will not require any chemical pesticides. Productivity per unit volume will be doubled in comparison to the company's existing factory in Kameoka, as a result of innovative efforts to save space in the cultivation area. Stacker machines will carry seedlings and hand them over to robots that will take care of transplanting them. Once fully grown, they will be harvested and delivered automatically to the packaging line.
The project will require up to 2 billion yen (US$16.7 million) of investment, which includes onsite R&D and testing facilities. The factory will have a total area of 4,400 square metres (47,400 sq ft) and be capable of producing 30,000 heads of lettuce per day. Construction is expected to start in spring 2016 with commercial operations beginning from summer 2017. The company is predicting annual sales of approximately 1 billion yen (US$8.4 million).
SPREAD Co. has plans for major expansion. They intend to increase the scale of production to 500,000 heads of lettuce per day within five years and will continue expanding their franchise both domestically and internationally.
29th August 2015
Breakthrough in fusion energy
U.S. physicists have achieved a breakthrough in fusion power by containing superheated hydrogen plasma for five milliseconds, far longer than any other effort before.
California-based Tri Alpha Energy reportedly held gas in a steady state at 10,000,000°C – only stopping when they ran out of fuel. Particle physicist and adviser to the secretive company, Burton Richter of Stanford University, comments: "They've succeeded finally in achieving a lifetime limited only by the power available to the system."
"Until you learn to control and tame [the hot gas], it's never going to work. In that regard, it's a big deal. They seem to have found a way to tame it," says Jaeyoung Park, head of rival fusion startup Energy/Matter Conversion Corporation in San Diego. "The next question is how well can you confine [heat in the gas]. I give them the benefit of the doubt. I want to watch them for the next 2 or 3 years."
Tri Alpha Energy's reactor is based on field-reversed configuration (FRC). This was first observed in the laboratory in the late 1950s. For decades, research on FRC was limited to plasma lasting for a maximum of only 0.3 milliseconds. In recent experiments, Tri Alpha Energy achieved a huge increase of up to two milliseconds. During their latest attempts, reported this week in the journal Science, angled beams at higher energies of 10 megawatts maintained stability for even longer – five milliseconds without decaying.
The company's goal is to scale their technique up to longer times and higher temperatures (3 billion degrees Celsius), such that atomic nuclei will collide with enough force to fuse and release energy. Tri Alpha Energy intends to dismantle their current machine and build a more powerful version in 2016. Houyang Guo, Chief Experimental Strategist, during a recent physics seminar at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, revealed that confinement times of 100 milliseconds to one second might be possible in the near future. Ultimately, fusion reactors could supply humanity with a practically limitless supply of clean energy.
27th August 2015
Studies highlight deforestation risk in the 21st century and beyond
Two separate studies highlight the need for major policy changes to protect the world's forests over the next century and beyond.
Forests cover an area of four billion hectares (15 million square miles) or about 30 percent of the world's land area. They are the dominant terrestrial ecosystem of Earth, accounting for 75% of the biosphere's gross primary productivity and containing 80% of the world's plant biomass. Forests provide crucial "ecosystem services" that benefit humanity in various ways. These include the sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere, regulation of the water cycle, soil formation, nutrient recycling, biodiversity and gene pool conservation. They also serve an aesthetic function by offering scenic and landscape beauty. The mere presence of trees has been shown to improve both physical and mental health for people living near them, particularly in urban areas.
Unfortunately, the world is losing forests at an alarming rate. As of today, more than three-quarters of the remaining tropical forests have now been degraded by human actions and this figure is likely to increase in the future. Research led by University College London (UCL) and published in the journal Science identifies a new and more dangerous phase of deforestation that is rapidly emerging.
According to the researchers, the first phase occurred when our ancestors moved into tropical forests, as hunter-gatherers. This was followed by a second phase around 6,000 years ago, with the emergence of tropical agriculture. Throughout this time, the overall health of forests was maintained. Today, however, we live in a third phase – characterised by much greater impacts, with distant decision-makers directing how land is used, including permanent intensive agriculture, often for soybeans or palm oil, frontier industrial logging for timber export, cross-continental species invasions, and the early impacts of climate change. The UCL researchers term this phase the era of "Global Integration", affecting even the most remote areas.
Lead author, tropical forest expert Dr Simon Lewis, comments as follows: "Earth has lost 100 million hectares of tropical forest over the last 30 years, mostly to agricultural developments. Few people think about how intertwined with tropical forests we all are. Many foodstuffs include palm oil which comes from once pristine Asian tropical forest, while remaining intact forests are buffering the rate of climate change by absorbing about a billion tonnes of carbon each year."
Current trends look set to intensify without major policy changes, as global food demand is projected to double, over 25 million kilometres of road are predicted to be built by 2050, and climate change intensifies, creating a new phase of human dominance of tropical forests. Having driven the world's highest deforestation rates in South East Asia, the palm oil industry is now gearing up to repeat this process across Africa.
Dr Lewis adds: "I fear a global simplification of the world's most complex forests. Deforestation, logging and road building all create fragmented patches of forest. However, as the climate rapidly changes, the plants and animals living in the rainforest will need to move to continue to live within their ecological tolerances. How will they move? This is a recipe for the mass extinction of tropical forest species this century."
"What is needed are unbroken areas of forest that link today's core tropical regions with forest areas about 4 degrees cooler – so as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, species have a better chance of surviving rapid 21st century climate change. We need to bring conservation in line with the reality of climate change," says Lewis.
In a separate paper, released by the Centre for Global Development (CGD) this week, researchers conclude that tropical forests will disappear faster than previously thought. Using the most sophisticated satellite imagery available from over 100 countries, CGD environmental economist Jonah Busch and research associate Jens Engelmann have projected a pattern of deforestation that will climb steadily through the 2020s and 2030s before accelerating around 2040.
On a business-as-usual scenario, they find:
• By 2050, an area of tropical forest the size of India will have been cleared – 289 million hectares, or roughly one-third the size of the U.S.
• By 2050, deforestation will have burned through one-sixth of our remaining "carbon budget" – the amount of emissions we have left in order to keep the average global temperature rise below 2° Celsius.
Longer term, the outlook is even worse. If humanity continues its pattern of endless consumption, their research indicates that less than one-fifth of Asia and Latin America's forest cover may remain by 2200.
In their report, Busch and Engelmann list three possible solutions that could reverse this trend. The first is an international payment system from rich countries to poor tropical countries, to keep forests standing. This is already beginning to happen – last year, Norway agreed a deal with Liberia and promised to pay the small African nation $150m (£91.4m) in development aid, to stop deforestation by 2020.
The second is for developing countries to introduce carbon pricing. With a charge of $20-per-ton of carbon dioxide on deforestation, emissions would drop by more than 20 percent by 2020; a $50-per-ton price would cut emissions nearly in half by 2050.
Their third solution is restrictive policies on deforestation. If developing countries introduce tighter regulation on deforestation, combined with better satellite monitoring and law enforcement, this would have a drastic impact.
"Conserving tropical forests is a bargain," explains Busch. "Reducing emissions from tropical deforestation costs about a fifth as much as reducing emissions in the European Union."
"The Paris climate agreement needs to provide funding and other resources to stop tropical deforestation," says Engelmann. "A climate agreement without robust action on forests will simply not be enough."
The other paper, by UCL, suggests giving forest dwellers formal collective legal rights over their land, which previous studies have shown is one of the best ways of preserving forests. A study of 292 protected areas in Amazonia showed that indigenous reserves were the most effective at avoiding deforestation in high pressure areas. Ensuring that local people are given collective long-term rights over their lands would mean that benefits flowing from forest lands accrue to the local people. This can provide the beginnings of "development without destruction" programs, tackling poverty while maintaining forest cover. This, the authors have argued, provides human rights and conservation win-wins.
Dr Lewis adds: "With long-term certainty of tenure people can plan, maintaining forests while investing in improving agricultural productivity without expanding into forested lands. Forest dwellers won't be perfect managers of forests – but they won't look for a quick profit and then move on, as big businesses often do."
"The Paris climate change talks in December are doubly important for forests and forest communities. The levels of emission cuts will be a critical factor in determining how many tropical forest plants and animals go extinct over the coming decades and centuries. The agreements on reducing deforestation, including durable finance, will be pivotal. The final test will be whether some funds for adaptation will include land-use planning to retain forest connectivity as the climate rapidly changes."
A new satellite – the BIOMASS Earth Observation mission – will help to improve the global monitoring of forest cover when launched in 2019. This will feature a radar powerful enough to sense both the height and wood content of individual trees. In the Amazon rainforest alone, there are an estimated 390 billion individual trees.
23rd August 2015
Sumatran rhino declared extinct in Malaysia
The Sumatran rhinoceros has been declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia – leaving only nine in captivity and 100 or fewer individuals in neighbouring Indonesia.
Credit: Rasmus Gren Havmøller
Leading scientists and experts in the field of rhino conservation have stated in a new paper that it is safe to consider the Sumatran rhinoceros extinct in the wild in Malaysia. The survival of this species now depends on the 100 remaining individuals in the wild in neighbouring Indonesia and the nine rhinos held in captivity.
Despite intensive survey efforts, there have been no signs of the wild Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in Malaysia since 2007, apart from two females that were captured for breeding purposes in 2011 and 2014. Scientists now consider the species extinct in the wild in Malaysia. The experts urge conservation efforts in Indonesia to pick up the pace.
The conclusions are published online in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation, led by the Centre for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen. Partners include WWF, the International Rhino Foundation, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains the global Red List of Threatened Species.
Only four Sumatran rhinos have been born in captivity so far. Three in the U.S. and one in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia, where this footage is from. Filmed by Rasmus Gren Havmøller.
“It is vital for the survival of the species that all remaining Sumatran rhinos are viewed as a metapopulation – meaning that all are managed in a single program across national and international borders, in order to maximise overall birth rate. This includes the individuals currently held in captivity”, says lead author and PhD student Rasmus Gren Havmøller from the Centre for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate.
The experts point to the creation of intensive management zones as a solution; areas with increased protection against poaching, where individual rhinos can be relocated to, in order to increase the number of potential and suitable mating partners.
As illustrated in the map below, the Sumatran rhino was once common in this part of the world – historically ranging across most of South-east Asia. Today, it is found only in a few small pockets of land. Here, less than 100 individuals are thought to live in three separate populations, one of which has seen a critical decline in distribution range of 70% over the last decade. This trend echoes how the population dropped from around 500 to extinction between 1980 and 2005 in Sumatra's largest protected area, the enormous 13,800 km2 Kerinci Seblat National Park.
Apart from the wild populations, nine Sumatran rhinos are in captivity – one in Cincinnati Zoo in the U.S. (soon to be moved to Indonesia), three held at facilities in Sabah, Malaysia for attempts to produce embryos by in vitro fertilisation, and five in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Sumatra, Indonesia.
“The tiger in India was saved from extinction due to the direct intervention of Mrs. Gandhi, the then prime minister, who set up Project Tiger. A similar high level intervention by President Joko Widodo of Indonesia could help pull the Sumatran rhinos back from the brink”, says Christy Williams, co-author.
Widodo Ramono, co-author and Director of the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia (YABI) elaborates: “Serious effort by the government of Indonesia should be put to strengthen rhino protection by creating Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ), intensive survey of the current known habitats, habitat management, captive breeding, and mobilising national resources and support from related local governments and other stakeholders.”
The conservation strategy so far has included the ongoing development of Rhino Protection Units at sites with remaining viable breeding populations. While this has been achieved, the authors highlight a need for strengthening the units against poaching efforts, especially in northern Sumatra. With a high demand for rhino horns in the black markets of Asia, poaching continues to be a major threat to the species.
Finally, captive breeding was identified as a key action back in 2013 at the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit in Singapore, and agreed upon that same year by the Indonesian government, in the Bandar Lampung Declaration. However, the necessary reproductive technology may still take years to develop, during which time we may lose the Sumatran rhino in the wild, the authors conclude.
18th August 2015
Butterfly wings offer clues to vastly improved
By studying the structure and temperature of butterfly wings, researchers have observed physical properties that could hugely improve the efficiency of solar energy.
The humble butterfly may hold the key to unlocking new techniques to make solar energy far cheaper and more efficient, pioneering new research has shown. Experts from the University of Exeter have studied new methods for generating photovoltaic (PV) energy – or ways to convert sunlight into power. They showed that by mimicking the v-shaped posture adopted by Cabbage White butterflies to heat up their flight muscles before take-off, the amount of energy produced by solar panels could increase by almost 50 per cent. Crucially, by replicating this 'wing-like' structure, the power-to-weight ratio of the overall solar energy structure is increased 17-fold, making it vastly more efficient.
Professor Tapas Mallick, lead author of the research said: "Biomimicry in engineering is not new. However, this truly multidisciplinary research shows pathways to develop low cost solar power that have not been done before."
Cabbage White butterflies are known to take flight before other butterflies on cloudy days – which limit how quickly the insects can use the energy from the Sun to heat their flight muscles. This ability is thought to be due to the v-shaped posturing, known as reflectance basking, they adopt on such days to maximise the concentration of solar energy onto their thorax, which allows for flight. Furthermore, specific sub-structures of the butterflies' wings allow the light from the Sun to be reflected most efficiently, ensuring the flight muscles are warmed to an optimal temperature as quickly as possible.
The scientists therefore investigated how to replicate the wings to develop a new, lightweight reflective material that could be used in solar energy production. They found that the optimal angle by which the butterfly should hold its wings to increase temperature to its body was around 17°, which increased the temperature by 7.3°C compared to when held flat. They also showed that by replicating the simple mono-layer of scale cells found in the butterfly wings in solar energy producers, this could vastly improve the power-to-weight rations of future solar concentrators, making them significantly lighter and so more efficient.
Professor Richard ffrench-Constant, who conducts world-leading research into butterfly mimicry at the University of Exeter, said: "This proves that the lowly Cabbage White is not just a pest of your cabbages, but actually an insect that is an expert at harvesting solar energy."
The paper – White butterflies as solar photovoltaic concentrators – was published in the journal Scientific Reports and is available online.