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5th-May-2015 04:37 pm - "Breathe Austria" at Milan Expo
The Austrian pavilion designed by team.breathe.austria presents the air as planet’s staple food, combining the structure and the environment into an integrated contribution.

By planting a forest on an area of 560 square metre, the Austrian pavilion breathe.austria creates a multi-faceted network of relationships between mankind, the environment and the climate.

The pavilion forms a frame around a generous vegetation zone and acts as a vessel for the performance of the indoor landscape. With technical support (but without air-conditioning) the framed form actively generates the micro-climatic conditions of an Austrian forest. Where light enters the built structure, there is growth and ecological metabolism.

The vegetation of the miniature forest has a foliar surface or evaporation area of approx. 43,200 sqm and produces 62.5 kg fresh oxygen per hour – enough for 1,800 people – a “photo-synthesis collector”, which contributes to the global production of oxygen. Inside the pavilion this effect is technically supported by evaporative cooling – but without air-conditioning systems. This replicates an atmosphere that feels like a thick forest in Austria with comparatively natural means using the cooling effect of the evapo-transpiration of the plants. The result that is achieved differs significantly on a number of sensory levels from the air and climate in Milan and can thus actually be felt by visitors.

The planting of trees over the entire exhibition area is an exemplary contribution to action in an urban setting, as the integrated use of a landscape can supply urban areas with sufficient oxygen and cooling air, which in turn provides an opportunity to draw attention to Austria’s policy of sustainable reforestation or conversely to the decline in the global tree population.
With the release of the third edition of the World Happiness Report today, experts in areas including economics, psychology and survey analysis delivered new possibilities for improving happiness on a global level.

“Happiness is a critical indicator for both individuals and societies,” says Jeffrey Sachs, professor at The Earth Institute at Columbia University and one of the report’s authors. “We should measure subjective well-being and report on it regularly with the aim of raising well-being.”

To be released today

The report, released online today, will be the topic of a public meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Jeffrey will be joined by report co-authors John Helliwell and Richard Layard to discuss their findings and their implications for the future.

The first report, released in 2012, reported on the role public policy could play in a country’s happiness. The second and third reports have combined the analysis of the most recent happiness data with chapters that delve into specific issues.

New today: Gender and Global issues

New areas of focus for 2015 include showing how happiness measures differ by age, gender and global region. It also dedicates an entire chapter on happiness in children.

The report notes that one-third of the world population is under the age of 18, and suggests that improving the well-being of children could have positive, lasting effects on communities as a whole. It offers areas to consider that could improve happiness among children, and spells out the positive effect such changes could have on society.

A focus on children

“Children’s well-being and health is vitally important, and there are high levels of untreated problems,” the report concludes. “We have good evidence-based ways to improve this.” Those methods include making well-being as important an initiative for student development in schools as intellectual growth, and creating community well-being initiatives for children. The report also states that the cost of implementing such changes is manageable, since so many other costs will be saved.

Social capital and mental health

In addition to increasing its focus on how social values, social capital and mental health conditions affect national happiness, the new report also delivers new information on neuroscience and happiness. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the world’s leading experts on how contemplative practices such as meditation affect the brain. He contributed a paper to the report that raises exciting possibilities about how mindfulness and compassion training may help increase happiness in entire populations.

Jeffrey says he is encouraged by the reaction on both a governmental and grassroots level.

“The main message of the report is that improvements in happiness are feasible and depend heavily on societal measures and good governance,” he says. “
A team of microbiologists and designers wants our future food to pull double duty by breaking down man-made trash while growing tasty treats.

The Fungi Mu​tarium is a prototype device that uses fungi to safely break down plastic and grow edible, fluffy biomass in its place.

Here’s how it works: small bits of thin plastic—like the kind that make up shopping bags—are doused in UV light to sterilize them and start to break the plastic down. The plastic is then placed in a small pod made of agar, an edible, algae-based gelatin. The pods are placed in the “growth sphere”, a dome-like incubator.

Next, liquified fungi sprouts are dribbled into the agar pods. After just a few weeks, edible fungi begin to grow and cover the pod. After several months, the fungi will completely decompose the plastic, leaving you with nothing but a natural, edible growth.

Two Vienna-based industrial designers created the mutarium in collaboration with microbiologists from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Katharina Unger, one of the designers, said she and her colleague were interested in working with ingredients that are not usually considered food. They were paired up with Han Wösten, the head of the biology department at Utrecht, through the Bio Art & Design award, a grant that connects scientists with designers.

“We were both really inspired about the idea that something digests plastic but then still creates edible biomass,” Unger told me over the phone from Vienna.

The fungi used come from the mycelium, or roots, of oyster mushrooms and split gill mushrooms, two of the most popular mushrooms in the world.

“We worked with fungi named Schizophyllum Commune and Pleurotus Ostreatus. They are found throughout the world and can be seen on a wide range of timbers and many other plant-based substrates virtually anywhere in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia.

They digest toxic waste materials, and are also commonly eaten,” Unger explained.

Once the plastic has fully degraded, the harvested pods can be eaten whole and have a mild taste, Unger said.

“It starts off being very neutral, but it can also get a bit nutty and spicy in taste. It really depends on the strain, actually.”

But the neutral taste makes the pods versatile. The team also crafted recipes for serving the pods that ranged from a savoury version with seaweed and caviar to a sweet dish with peaches and yogurt.

After several months of experiments, the team revealed their prototype online earlier this month. Unger and her design studio, Li​vin, have made hea​dlines in the past for future-thinking devices like a countertop incubator that grows edible maggots. She said the aim is to create singular solutions to a range of problems from food waste to pollution.

But don’t expect to be growing plastic-destroying mushrooms on your kitchen countertop any time soon; the mutarium is still in the research phase. The multiple-months-long process to break down the tiny bits of plastic is a major roadblock to mass use, Unger said.

“We know that there’s potential to speed up this process simply by optimizing the processes around it: temperature, humidity, the perfect microclimate for this fungi to colonize the plastic material,” she said.

“Also, though it’s more controversial, there is genetic modification. What happens if you modify the organism so that it can process the materials more quickly?”

For now, they’re seeking more funding to continue to develop the mutarium and are hopeful the design itself will inspire people to start challenging ideas about what we expect from our food.

“We were mainly there in the lab to ask questions that designers ask and stimulate our researchers to think differently about the work that they’re doing and also about the possible applications of it,” Unger said.

Currently the digestion of the plastic is a relatively slow process, taking up to a few months for a set of cultures to fully mature - but still a lot faster than the time it takes for plastic to biodegrade in nature.

The Fungi Mutarium is a conceptual device that presents ongoing research and is currently not a commercially available product.

Unger and Kaisinger are currently looking for collaborators who will help fund the next steps for their research - which will look at how to make the process faster and more efficient.

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Lead from old car batteries can be recycled to create renewable energy. Proposal could divert a dangerous waste stream while producing low-cost photovoltaics.

This could be a classic win-win solution: A system proposed by researchers at MIT recycles materials from discarded car batteries — a potential source of lead pollution — into new, long-lasting solar panels that provide emissions-free power.

The system is described in a paper in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, co-authored by professors Angela M. Belcher and Paula T. Hammond, graduate student Po-Yen Chen, and three others. It is based on a recent development in solar cells that makes use of a compound called perovskite — specifically, organolead halide perovskite — a technology that has rapidly progressed from initial experiments to a point where its efficiency is nearly competitive with that of other types of solar cells.

“It went from initial demonstrations to good efficiency in less than two years,” says Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT. Already, perovskite-based photovoltaic cells have achieved power-conversion efficiency of more than 19 percent, which is close to that of many commercial silicon-based solar cells.

Initial descriptions of the perovskite technology identified its use of lead, whose production from raw ores can produce toxic residues, as a drawback. But by using recycled lead from old car batteries, the manufacturing process can instead be used to divert toxic material from landfills and reuse it in photovoltaic panels that could go on producing power for decades.
Amazingly, because the perovskite photovoltaic material takes the form of a thin film just half a micrometer thick, the team’s analysis shows that the lead from a single car battery could produce enough solar panels to provide power for 30 households.

As an added advantage, the production of perovskite solar cells is a relatively simple and benign process. “It has the advantage of being a low-temperature process, and the number of steps is reduced” compared with the manufacture of conventional solar cells, Belcher says.
Those factors will help to make it “easy to get to large scale cheaply,” Chen adds.

Battery Pileup Ahead

One motivation for using the lead in old car batteries is that battery technology is undergoing rapid change, with new, more efficient types, such as lithium-ion batteries, swiftly taking over the market. “Once the battery technology evolves, over 200 million lead-acid batteries will potentially be retired in the United States, and that could cause a lot of environmental issues,” Belcher says.

Today, she says, 90 percent of the lead recovered from the recycling of old batteries is used to produce new batteries, but over time the market for new lead-acid batteries is likely to decline, potentially leaving a large stockpile of lead with no obvious application.

In a finished solar panel, the lead-containing layer would be fully encapsulated by other materials, as many solar panels are today, limiting the risk of lead contamination of the environment. When the panels are eventually retired, the lead can simply be recycled into new solar panels.

“The process to encapsulate them will be the same as for polymer cells today,” Chen says. “That technology can be easily translated.”

“It is important that we consider the life cycles of the materials in large-scale energy systems,” Hammond says. “And here we believe the sheer simplicity of the approach bodes well for its commercial implementation.”

Old Lead Is As Good As New

Belcher believes that the recycled perovskite solar cells will be embraced by other photovoltaics researchers, who can now fine-tune the technology for maximum efficiency. The team’s work clearly demonstrates that lead recovered from old batteries is just as good for the production of perovskite solar cells as freshly produced metal.

Some companies are already gearing up for commercial production of perovskite photovoltaic panels, which could otherwise require new sources of lead. Since this could expose miners and smelters to toxic fumes, the introduction of recycling instead could provide immediate benefits, the team says.

Yang Yang, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles who was not involved in this research, says, “Wow, what an interesting paper, that turns the waste of one system into a valuable resource for another! I think the work demonstrated here … can resolve a major issue of industrial waste, and provide a solution for future renewable energy.”

The work, which also included research scientist Jifa Qi, graduate student Matthew Klug and postdoc Xiangnan Dang, was supported by Italian energy company Eni through the MIT Energy Initiative.

Google has announced the finalists of this year’s Google Science Fair and the line-up is impressive. But among the 15 inventions designed to make the world a better place, Cynthia Sin Nga Lam’s submission is definitely a major standout. Concerned about the millions of people living without energy and water, the 17-year-old student scientist from Australia built H2Pro – a Portable Photocatalytic Electricity Generation and Water Purification Unit that produces both clean energy and fresh water at the same time.

With the H2Pro, Cynthia aims to tackle two problems at once: how to provide clean water and electricty to the many people around the world who have neither. Currently 780 million people lack access to clean water, while 1.2 billion live without electricity. The H2Pro could change that using photocatalytic technology, which simultaneously purifies water and generates electricity using only sunlight.

In her application, Cynthia explains that while investigating photocatalysis, she stumbled upon the idea of the H2Pro.

“In photocatalysis, not only water is purified and sterilized, but hydrogen is also produced through water-splitting, which can be used to generate electricity,” says Cynthia.

“The entire process only needs titania and light — no additional power source is required. However, hydrogen production is generally low since photoexcited electrons tend to fall back to the hole (i.e. photoinduced electron-hole combination.) Fortunately, it can be overcome by adding reductants, while some organic pollutants serve such purpose. Hence, I propose to combine the two mechanisms together to enhance the yield and lower the cost of hydrogen generation, meanwhile efficient water purification can also be achieved.”

While there are other designs that have proposed a similiar method, they often require an external power source, which means they can’t be used in remote locations. Cynthia aims to change that via photocatalysis, which can be applied in a manageable scale that allows water purification and electricity production to be economically and sustainably performed. It’s an excellent humanitarian design and a strong contender for the top prize. Good luck Cynthia!

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Bacteria have morphed into resistant superbugs, and pharmaceutical companies are practically helpless. But, a group of researchers from the Ethiopia’s College of Medicine proved that you do not need Big Pharma as an ally in the fight against diseases that, ironically, it created.

When combined, ginger powder extract and honey inhibit the growth of superbugs like MRSA, E Coli, and bacteria that causes pneumonia. MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), Escherichia coli, and Klebsiella pneumoniae are just some of the most dangerous superbugs.

When the group of researchers compared Ethiopian honey-ginger combination and three different antibiotics in the aspect of killing superbugs, the natural combination won considerably. (The researchers also tested a ginger-water solution.) Here is an abstract of the study:

“Conclusion. The result of this study showed that honey-ginger powder extract mixtures have the potential to serve as cheap source of antibacterial agents especially for the drug resistant bacteria strains.”

The superbugs were exposed to these “broths,” and each of them was cultured for 20-24 hours. The researchers tested the most “powerful” antibiotics created by the pharmaceutical industry: methicillin, amoxicillin, and penicillin.

They conducted 5 tests for each treatment of the bacteria:

-Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA and non-MRSA)
-Escherichia coli (two different strains)
-Klebsiella pneumoniae

The ginger-honey combination proved to be more effective in inhibiting the bacteria growth than any of the antibiotics. Amoxicillin was the only antibiotic that came close to these results.

The duo averaged an inhibition level of 25.62, which ranged from 19 to 30 – this won over every pharmaceutical solution.

The ginger extract did not require any complex process either. The researchers dried some sliced ginger root pieces at 37 degrees for 24 hours. The pieces were later grounded and blended with some methanol and ethanol, and the result was a 50% solution. The solution was later blended with equal part of honey.

The water solution of ginger did not give the same results. This was tested in other research, which showed that alcohol actually extracts the powerful antibiotic substances contained in ginger.

The choice is yours. You can either keep taking life-threatening antibiotics and destroy your natural immunity, or trust this ginger-honey combination and improve your health. It is simple as that.

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Looks like IKEA's heart may actually be the only thing bigger than its massive stores. The low-cost company's solar-powered disaster shelters, which have been used in Ethiopia and Iraq, have just received an honorary award from the Swedish Design Awards. The flat-pack shelters are a collaborative labor of love between the IKEA Foundation and the Refugee Housing Unit (RHU) and were designed to offer a durable, comfortable and energy-capable alternative to traditional canvas tents that commonly house refugees during times of crisis.

In 2013, the formidable team sought to design easily deployable shelters that not only provided for the basic needs of those requiring emergency housing, but that could also provide more than a simple modicum of privacy, comfort and dignity. The shed-like shelters are made from polymer panels that are laminated with a thermal insulation. The flat-pack design allows for rapid transportation, and thanks to the efficient clip-on design it takes under four hours to connect the panels to the steel frame. The 188-square-foot, shed-like shelters can house up to five people, double the amount generally assigned to typical refugee tents in dire situations.

What’s also brilliant about the IKEA shelters is the solar panel roofing, which allows inhabitants to generate electricity for basic living needs as well as communication. The roof is also designed to deflect solar radiation by 70 percent, cooling the shelters during the day and insulating warmth within the interior at night.

The recent Swedish Design Awards were judged by design specialists Ross Lovegrove, Li Edelkoort and Giulio Cappellini, as well as design critic Alice Rawsthorn, who highlighted the importance of design in humanitarian issues. Rawsthorn noted, “The realisation that the people who need design ingenuity the most, the poorest 90 per cent of the global population, have historically been deprived of it, and the determination to address that, have been one of the most important design developments of the past decade.”

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The world is rapidly reaching global water crisis mode with nearly one billion people lacking access to clean potable water. But a new solar-powered invention by award-winning British company Desolenator can turn seawater into drinking water – and may turn this dire situation around in a hurry.

Desolenator’s machine uses patented technology that can transform salt water and other un-potable water sources into pure, distilled water fit for human consumption. Capable of producing 15 liters of water per day, using no power supply other than the sun and with no moving parts or filters – this invention is hard to break and easy to maintain. To make things even better, after the initial purchase the machine needs no extra input of money or consumables – and can provide clean water for a household for a period of up to 20 years.

"Climate change and population growth are setting the stage for a global water crisis,” says Desolenator CEO, William Janssen in a press release. “A massive 97 percent of the world’s water is salt water and our plan to tap into this valuable and available resource to disrupt the global water crisis in an unprecedented way. The process is called desalination and today whilst 0.7 percent of the world’s water comes from desalination, existing technology is expensive, inefficient and disproportionally drains 0.5% of the world’s global energy supply. Desolenator is different from existing desalination and home water technologies. It harnesses solar power in an elegant way, maximizing the amount of solar radiation that hits the technologies surface area through a combination of thermal, electrical and heat exchange...”

While Desolenator is still in development, with a fully working prototype available and an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in process to back it up, the invention has already taken second place in the recent Climate-KIC Accelerator program that also won the company a development grant. Desolenator is a quarter of the way towards its $150,000 Indiegogo funding goal, and is hoping you’ll donate to help bring clean water to the world.

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Buck Rogers surely couldn’t have seen this one coming, but at NASA’s request, University of Florida researchers have figured out how to turn human waste—yes, that kind—into rocket fuel.

Adolescent jokes aside, the process finally makes useful something that until now has been collected to burn up on re-entry. What’s more, like so many other things developed for the space program, the process could well turn up on Earth, said Pratap Pullammanappallil, a UF associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering.

“It could be used on campus or around town, or anywhere, to convert waste into fuel,” Pullammanappallil said.

In 2006, NASA began making plans to build an inhabited facility on the moon’s surface between 2019 and 2024. As part of NASA’s moon-base goal, the agency wanted to reduce the weight of spacecraft leaving Earth. Historically, waste generated during spaceflight would not be used further. NASA stores it in containers until it’s loaded into space cargo vehicles that burn as they pass back through the Earth’s atmosphere. For future long-term missions, though, it would be impractical to bring all the stored waste back to Earth.

Dumping it on the moon’s surface is not an option, so the space agency entered into an agreement with UF to develop test ideas.

Pullammanappallil and then-graduate student Abhishek Dhoble accepted the challenge.

“We were trying to find out how much methane can be produced from uneaten food, food packaging and human waste,” said Pullammanappallil, a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences faculty member and Dhoble’s adviser. “The idea was to see whether we could make enough fuel to launch rockets and not carry all the fuel and its weight from Earth for the return journey. Methane can be used to fuel the rockets. Enough methane can be produced to come back from the moon.”

NASA started by supplying the UF scientists with a packaged form of chemically produced human waste that also included simulated food waste, towels, wash cloths, clothing and packaging materials, Pullammanappallil said. He and Dhoble, now a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, ran laboratory tests to find out how much methane could be produced from the waste and how quickly.

They found the process could produce 290 liters of methane per crew per day, all produced in a week, Pullammanappallil said.

Their results led to the creation of an anaerobic digester process, which kills pathogens from human waste, and produces biogas -- a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide by breaking down organic matter in waste.

In earth-bound applications, that fuel could be used for heating, electricity generation or transportation.

The digestion process also would produce about 200 gallons of non-potable water annually from all the waste. That is water held within the organic matter, which is released as organic matter decomposes. Through electrolysis, the water can then be split into hydrogen and oxygen, and the astronauts can breathe oxygen as a back-up system. The exhaled carbon dioxide and hydrogen can be converted to methane and water in the process, he said.

The study was published last month in the journal Advances in Space Research.

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A Spanish inventor hopes to replace abandoned "ghost nets" that kill marine mammals and other sea life.

A biodegradable fishing net lined with radio frequency identification chips promises to dramatically reduce the number of abandoned “ghost nets” that kill thousands of marine mammals and account for an estimated 10 percent of ocean plastic pollution.

Alejandro Plasencia, a Barcelona, Spain–based product engineer who grew up in the Canary Islands, calls his fishing net project Remora, inspired by the symbiotic relationship of the remora fish that attaches itself to sharks.

The net is treated with the biodegradable additive d2w, which the manufacturer claims would cause the polymer to begin to break down after four years. The net is studded with ultrathin RFID transmitters to pinpoint its location so it can be quickly repaired rather than abandoned.

A smartphone app would let fishing boat captains keep track of their nets. Plasencia’s main target is the commercial tuna operators who use the “purse seining” method of fishing, which deploys gigantic nets—some measuring more than a mile wide and 700 feet deep—around entire schools of fish.

“We wanted to find a cheap, simple, unobtrusive piece of technology that would work with the existing systems and cause less negative impact,” said Plasencia. “It wasn’t until we started working with printed electronics to embed the chips into the material that our prototypes went from very chunky to much lighter RFID devices.”

The idea is to encourage fishers not to discard their nets at sea, where they can continue to kill fish, dolphins, and whales for decades.

“In Belgium you get paid to turn in your nets, for instance, but in the Netherlands you have to pay because it’s considered industrial waste,” said Plasencia. “That’s why some fishermen dump them in the sea.”

It’s mostly an invisible problem, say conservation advocates, and there’s been little pressure on industry to innovate.

“Six hundred thousand tons of fishing equipment is lost yearly, according to the U.N., and if you walk on any beach, the majority of debris is fragments of net,” said John Hourston, director of Blue Planet Society, a U.K.-based commercial fishing watchdog group.

The nonprofit organization Healthy Seas, for instance, removed some 32 tons of netting from the North Sea this year. “It’s like picking up a cigarette packet in London—it’s a minuscule amount.”

Innovations like Remora, says Hourston, are long overdue, though the commercial viability and the effectiveness of the biodegradable additive need further scrutiny.

Plasencia estimates his production cost to be 15 percent to 20 percent higher than nets currently in use, but fishers would save money by being able to easily locate the nets for repair.

“We wanted to develop a product that would directly link sustainability to a driver of profit,” said Plasencia. “I hope there’s a company that sees that social and environmental responsibility is an issue to invest in.”

Innovation in fishing, says Hourston, is generally aimed at how to catch more fish while keeping the costs down.

“It’s one of the industries most set in its way,” he said. “We’re not going to stop commercial fishing at this stage, but the huge difference a biodegradable net and net trackers in conjunction would have, it could transform the industry overnight.”

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