Cutting Fuel Emissions from Transport Systems

In this the second post of my series about environmental conservation issues, I look at technology whose use could contribute to lessening the planet’s dependency on fossil fuels.

One of the major concerns for the environmental lobby is, and has for a long time been, the environmental cost of transport systems. As we know the vast majority of goods and people use petrol as a propellant, produce lots of pollutants and don’t do the planet any good whatsoever.

There are various option however that are readily available today for cutting down on petrol use, and in this post I would like to introduce a few.

The internal combustion engine is a simple machine, an explosion in a chamber forces a piston out and that is attached to a rod that drives a wheel (or 4 in most cases), but it is a simple operation to exchange the explosion for another form of inertia. We can in fact run a standard vehicle on air, as these plans show.

An air powered engine

Plans for an Air Engine

In 2010 for example the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology unveiled a prototype of a motorbike powered solely by compressed air. The project was created by lecturer Simon Curlis and carried out by a team of students. Curlis’s goal was to produce an emissions free motorbike capable of travelling at more than 100 miles per hour, a feat that went on to achieve on a dried up lake in Australia. Take a look at this report for further details.  

The motorbike is a standard Suzuki GP 100 frame fitted with a rotary engine and a couple of tanks of compressed air stored under the bodywork. A wonderful idea, but you just have to bear in mind that compressed air is highly explosive and doesn’t produce as much power as petrol, but is of course emissions free!

But we can address one of these problems as well as the cold hands in winter issue by investing in an AIR car.  In order to resolve the problem of having to store huge quantities of air the AIR car has a small petrol driven compressor that refills the tanks when they are low. The fuel required to maintain this system is incomparable, with the owners claiming at least 100 Km to two litres of fuel, with the advantage that you don’t need to use any petrol at all in town, you just run the compressors during out of town driving.

The development company that produce the cars above have signed a deal with TATA, and hope to produce production models soon, and they have several different models today including a small urban transport bus. Several US manufacturers are also following suit.

If a life on the ocean waves is more your scene take a look at the largest solar powered ship, currently sailing round the world. The 60 ton Planet Solar is an impressive looking catamaran, and can sail for 3 days without even seeing the sun due to its enormous production capacity and batteries. You can check it out via this video on YouTube.

The ship above may look like an expensive toy for boys, (as does this fuel free solar powered aeroplane), but solar powered sails do exist and are in use on commercial freighters. A company called Eco Marine Power produces rigid sails that not only harness the wind on large cargo ships but also produce electricity as they are in effect giant solar panel sails. Click here for a photo and description of their research. Ironically enough they are best suited to oil tankers, as they don’t have the problem of cranes for cargo that get in the way.

And talking about sailing ships another company called Sky Sails produces a large Kite that you attach to the front of your ship to harness the wind. On a 25000 ton ship the 320 square metre kite lowers fuel consumption by about 30%. Hardly new technology though, Sir Francis Drake knew how to do it!

Shipping may not strike you as particularly relevant to this argument but you might be surprised. Shipping is the main cause of sulphur emission into the atmosphere, and the problem is political in nature. At sea you can burn anything you want and so the shipping companies buy and burn something called heavy or bunker fuel, in short the dregs of the petroleum refining industry. Extremely polluting and damaging to the health. Had you ever noticed how much smoke a ship makes when it is steaming into the distance?

A schooner sailing vessel

Schooners are still in use across South East Asia

On a personal note I would just like to add that sailing ships are still used across South East Asia to transport goods. I saw lines of men and women carrying sacks of grain on their backs up planks on to wooden ships with my own eyes no more than 10 years ago. The photo above gives you an idea, although I did not take it. These wooden schooners are sailed to larger ports where they are unloaded by hand and their goods (sacks of foodstuffs) are left in piles that are then craned onto big ships and sent to Europe, unfortunately not by sail and producing a lot of smoke!

I haven’t addressed the related issue of bio fuels for use in transport in this article but will do so in a later post. Next week I will take a look at alternative forms of electricity production and new technological developments on that front.

Can We Improve the Health of the Planet? A Series.

“Have a bias towards action – let’s see something happen now. You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away.” – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

A couple of weeks ago I read Christopher’s article on this blog entitled ‘We Need to Act on Climate Change For The Sake Of Others’ and it started me thinking about green technology.

Scientists are in general agreement that the Earth is warming, there is plenty of debate as to why however. A large proportion claims that this warming factor is caused (or at least worsened) by human actions such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation.

Members of this group therefore believe that we need to produce energy without burning fossil fuels and that we should take other steps to avoid releasing carbon into the atmosphere such as stopping deforestation (incidentally this is cause number 1, burning fossil fuels is secondary in comparison). I should say I count myself amongst them.

An unhealthy planet

Every Thursday over the next month or so I am going to post one of a series of articles that will look at different aspects of these problems. I want to propose an argument that I borrow from the sociological study of science and is directly drawn from an economic analysis. It is simple, and should be borne in mind when reading the posts.

When we think about costs we only think about money. How much for example does a litre of petrol cost? Or a flight to Boston from London? “Oh $3.50 a litre” or “$1200 dollars” we might say. But this excludes social and environmental costs that should be added on, a bit like governments add on VAT.

The real cost of my litre of petrol should include various other factors. How did the raw materials come out of the ground? Did the company leave a mess and pollute the local drinking water in the process? How was it refined, and transported? How much did the local people who live nearby suffer or benefit from its production? And finally how much pollution will it cause when I burn it?

And here we have a sliding scale, LPG is environmentally less damaging and therefore environmentally cheaper than petrol. By this logic natural gas might be cheaper than wood to heat your house too (unless produced through fracking some would argue), and taking the train might be cheaper than taking the bus. I hope this is a little clearer than a bland phrase about ‘going green’  and offers a slightly more defined point of view.

The series will be structured something like the following:

  • Environmentally cost efficient transport
  • Electricity production
  • Engineering climate change
  • Problems faced and the miracle cure
  • Conclusions and a review of comments

I hope to present you with some interesting new technologies that really offer a much ‘greener’ future, as well as looking at some of the ways that different institutions view and approach the problems that I will address.

I am certainly not pessimistic about the future but I don’t believe that ‘technology will save the day’ on its own, but a little thought and a few small actions from a lot a people can make an enormous difference (as someone once said).

I hope you will follow and comment, and don’t hold back on your criticisms, that is what I am here for.

The State of the Blogosphere

Technocrati.com have recently published their State of the Bolgosphere 2011 report and it raises some interesting questions. The report is based upon a survey of 4114 bloggers around the world, and presents various statistics in easily readable graph format explaining who blogs and their stated reasons why and purposes.
A chalkboard expression of what a blog might be
I am one of the 30% over 44 year olds, with the majority being considerably younger than me and much more experienced. A small percentage treat blogging as their job, make an income from their posts or run a blog for their own business or employer. The vast majority do it as a hobby, in the main to express their expertise or interests. A major sector say that they just blog in order to speak their mind freely.
I am most interested in the professional category, and I in fact find myself somewhere within that group. I am not however paid to promote something, but to provoke discussion about the ethical implications and responsibility issues brought about by technological development, and one of my tools is blogging. My employer is also a non-profit research foundation, so the aim of making money is out of the equation.

Blogging is generally perceived as a pier to pier action, and the report cited above demonstrates that people trust blogs and bloggers, in many cases more that they trust other publishers. But what if we find people publishing reviews about services or products that they have a vested interest in? If I am paid by a company to review or promote their products can I be really honest in my views? And what about the breech of trust implied?

In the US the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) made a ruling in 2009 determining that bloggers have to state if they are paid for posts by an interested third party. If a blogger in the US does not state that they either receive the product to keep or are paid by someone to write the review they risk an 11000 dollar fine. In the UK the Office of Fair Trading also has extensive blogging disclosure rules. All well and good, but the report above states however that only 60% of people that find themselves in this position actually adhere to the rules, and the statistics are very likely to be skewed, as when a person is asked if they have respected the rules that almost always say yes.

How could this problem be addressed? The Technology Bloggers site refuses to publish anything that may be deemed promotion, the author guidelines are clear. But would it be possible for all blogs make this statement and enforce it, and if it were possible would they do it? The implications for trust and the spreading of reliable information are obvious.

Another issue I wish to raise involves advertising. The report offers various statistics about how many blogs have advertisement placings, before going on to analyze the reasons given either for not carrying or carrying advertising, the issue of control over who advertises and the possible financial rewards.

Here again we step into the issue of trust. If a blog has a reputation as offering reliable and quality information this reflects upon the company advertising. The placing is a two way endorsement. If advertising is not offered (as some may feel that it affects independent status or may not reflect the blogger’s ideals), how can a blog not only make money (if that is the aim) or even cover its expenses? Most bloggers sink their own money into setting up and running their blog, and if you add up the time spent in maintenance (and the administrators are undoubtedly experts in their field) each blog should be seen as a real investment in terms of many different forms of capital. You pay $120 an hour for such expertise in other fields!