Water resources are quickly declining around the world and with the global population reaching 7 billion, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Desertification continues to diminish arable land and farmers are being put out of business as their crops dry up.
But Edward Linnacre, an Australian engineering student who recently won the James Dyson Award for creativity in engineering design, has a low-tech solution to the problem. The Airdrop, Linnacre’s brainchild, will harvest moisture that has evaporated into the air, feeding it into irrigation systems for farms in desperate need of water.
Using a turbine that sticks out from the earth, the Airdrop collects air, sending it down into the earth where it grows cool and condenses, forming liquid. The water is collected in a belowground tank and later sent up to the surface using a low-pressure irrigation system.
So how much water does this gadget generate? The small-scale prototype Linnacre installed in his Mom’s backyard harvested about 1L (about 4 cups) per day. That might not sound like much, but a large-scale system would vastly increase water outputs.
Linnacre explains in this Dyson Awards video, “There’s just an abundant resource of water in the air that surrounds us, even in places like the Negev desert in Israel, which is one of the driest deserts on the planet… All you need to do is reduce that air down to a certain temperature and you release that moisture.”
It’s the Airdrop’s simplicity that is especially intriguing. According to Linnacre, it doesn’t take an engineer to set up, meaning that a farmer living in the Imperial Valley wouldn’t have a problem with installation.
Let’s hope the Airdrop makes its way onto the market in the near future!
Imagine going to the supermarket and purchasing lettuce that was grown less than a mile away. Imagine if that lettuce was grown upstairs? Imagine how fresh that lettuce would be! New York based company BrightFarms LLC, a rooftop hydroponic greenhouse building company, aims to make those imaginings a reality.
The company is pitching their services to supermarket chains, hoping to convert vacant market rooftops into farm production. BrightFarms would handle the labor and farming expense, including greenhouse design, construction, planting, and harvest while supermarket partners would sign a 10-year contract agreeing to purchase the produce grown on their rooftops.
Because of the proximity of produce production to the place of purchase, crops will be chosen based upon taste and nutrient content rather than the ability to withstand travel across the country. BrightFarms plans to grow salad greens, herbs, and vine crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. The company’s hydroponic and greenhouse methods mean that plants will be grown year-round. Additionally these methods ensure less water, energy, and space usage than industrial agricultural systems.
Though the first greenhouses won’t be in production until 2012, BrightFarms has consulted on a demonstration greenhouse at Whole Foods.
Imagine growing food in a discoteque? Well, that’s what Netherlands-based company PlantLab is doing, minus the dancing and pulsing beats. PlantLab uses red and blue LED lights to grow their crops indoors. Plants only need a small percent of the full light spectrum and PlantLab makes use of this knowledge to the fullest. While too much light can cause dehydration, less light within limits can actually speed plant growth, leading to higher crop yield.
The PlantLab facility is certainly more than just disco lighting. The building is climate-controlled, allowing its owners to plant in any season, and uses constant plant data feedback to control light, temperature, carbon dioxide, humidity, and other environmental factors.
The most obvious fault of the PlantLab project is its high costs. LED lights and climate control sensors are not cheap, and setting up the entire system is certainly no dance in the dark (pun intended). Scaling this model would require a great deal of financial backing, not the easiest thing to come by in today’s economy.
Additionally, LED lights, like the plants they are growing, need energy too; perhaps not the most sustainable nor passive method of plant cultivation.
Still, PlantLab is looking to expand to a commercial growing center. And as for the taste of these disco plants, “They’re great,” says co-founder Gertjan Meeuws, “They’re better than we’re used to.”
Hopefully PlantLab can find a way to make this project commercially viable so that we all might partake of their groovy plants!
When the folks at SHIFTboston decided that they wanted to develop a synthetic urban tree to address urban pollution concerns, they called on Parisians Mario Caceres and Christian Canonico. The design, as described by SHIFTboston, should could serve the air filtering and de-carbonization functions of a tree without the necessity to provide soil and water to keep the system alive. The end-goal of the design is to enable cities to offer the environmental benefits of trees in areas that are otherwise unsuited to support tree growth. Mario and Christian have shown a knack for innovation and creative thinking in previous SHIFTboston competitions and the pair certainly did not disappoint with their newest conceptual design.
Know as Treepods, these giant glowing structures can help filter CO2 from the air while remaining independent from the city’s power grid. The energy required for the air purification process in provided by solar panels that cover the top and any energy generated by children playing on seesaws around the tree’s base. The CO2 filtration process would take place in the branches of the Treepods through a “humidity swing” process which would release oxygen as a biproduct.
The structure would be composed almost entirely of recycled plastic bottles. Given that the structure would be transparent, you would naturally have to install thousands of LED lights so that it would glow through the night.
It would appear that a good deal of thought went into the generation of the Treepod design, but like most similarly outlandish conceptual designs, it will probably never be built.
I recently spent a couple weeks as an intern with Earthship Biotecture in the mesa of Taos, New Mexico. Earthship Biotecture (or, as the builders refer to it, “the company”) is a group that builds environmentally friendly and off-the-grid homes and have been doing so for over 40 years now. The homes focus on innovative use of sunlight, water, and reused construction materials. While the project it based out of Taos, homes have been built in all 50 United States.
As an intern, I had the opportunity to get my hands dirt and actively take part in the construction of a home. During my time, we put in the grey water planters in the front of the home, built a retention wall out of glass bottles and cement, installed metal flashing on the corners of the roof, and applied adobe to the interior of the tire wall. All this work was more or less done without construction equipment, with the exception of a little cement mixer powered by the solar panels, a dump truck to haul dirt, and a backhoe to bury the back side of the house. The construction of the homes intentionally relies on manual labor so that the techniques can be replicated in places with limited access to power, heavy machinery, or developed infrastructure. One of the builders told me about a project in China where all the materials for the entire house had to be carried, by hand, a half-mile up a steep hill to the construction site. The road was too narrow for a truck and even too rocky for a mule.
The coolest part of the experience, aside from the mountain views and a 7-hour hike into the Rio Grande gorge, was the chance to see some of the different homes that have been built over the years and the unique character that each develops. While I do not see the Earthship model as the perfect solution to the energy and housing problems we face, the model does attempt to address the many questions of sustainability that the modern city and suburban sprawl continue to ignore. The homes use water and energy far more efficiently than most homes in the U.S. and at a comparable cost to the buyer. Though built in the desert mesa, not a single Earthship home has air conditioning, and they do not need it. Even when it was 90 degrees outside, it still felt like 70 in the interior room of the homes. The character and utility of the Earthships gives them lasting value. The Earthship design may not be able to eliminate utility bills around the world, but it will lessen the stress that human development places on the planet. At this point, that alone is a monumental achievement.
The Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development has created an air-conditioned greenhouse which uses alternative energies to reduce the costs of energy while also improving the energy efficiency and increasing crop yields. The greenhouse uses a biomass boiler and thermodynamic solar panels to reach an optimum temperature for crop growth without using fuels derived from petroleum oil or gas.
The boiler uses wood and other organic waste as fuel, along with thermodynamic panels to air condition the greenhouses used for intensive crop cultivation. By doing this, the Basque Institute has managed to reduce the costs while producing seasonal crops to be harvested throughout the year. The Institute seeks to find an alternative to the usual diesel or heating oil boilers, which emit a high amount of CO2 into the atmosphere and are costly to the farmer due to the high price of petroleum oil-derived fuels.
The project has been undertaken at a greenhouse in Neiker-Tecnalia located in Deniro, in the Basque province of Bizkaia and near Bilbao. A biomass boiler produces 400 kW power and is the largest boiler in Spain to use air-conditioning in greenhouses. The boiler also uses thermodynamic panels. The combination of both energies work together to heat the water which circulates in tubes located a few centimeters above the floor and below the crop in order to heat the roots.
The tubes are distributed throughout the entire surface of the greenhouse and transport water at an average temperature of 80 degrees centigrade. Once optimum air-conditioning for the greenhouses has been achieved, the plants grow in their natural production period. By producing seasonal crops all year round, the price of the final product is reduced. The thermodynamic panels generate energy due to the difference in temperature between the cold gas which circulates through a closed circuit and the ambient air temperature. These panels are able to function without sunlight, thus producing energy throughout the day and the night. Furthermore, the panels reduce the emissions of CO2 in the atmosphere, while heating the water to 45 degrees centigrade. The cost per kilowatt consumed is less than 60% less than the cost generated by conventional diesel or heating oil boilers. The expenditure in fuel for the biomass boiler is 55 cents per kilowatt use: a price well below the 92 cents of a euro needed for petroleum oil-derived fuels, natural gas, or propane boilers.
Neiker-Technalia also uses a technique known as ‘hydroponic soil’ which involves placing plants on substrate nearly ten centimeters above the hard floor of the greenhouse. The method enables the roots to be heated by pipes through which water circulates at an average of 45 degrees centigrade. Heating the roots reduces the overall temperature of the greenhouse and uses less energy overall. Furthermore, the system involves a network of sensors that regulates the temperature of the garden throughout the greenhouse. These sensors gather data in real time about the temperature and humidity of the crop zone, and this data is sent to the computer which uses software to increase or reduce the temperature of the greenhouse, while also fixing the most appropriate hours for heating the house.
Truly living art is a rare accomplishment, by branch-bending expert Partick Dougherty has made it a central part of his life’s work. I’ve collected a variety of pictures that represent just a sample of some of Dougherty’s many masterpieces. While sifting through pictures, I cannot help but image the childhood fantasies that might have inspired the works. He has fashioned human-sized nests houses by meticulously weaving living trees into the shapes he sees. The plants are carefully and thoughtfully shaped into huts, cocoons, water pitchers, and people. Describing the artwork as cool does not give justice to the years worth of time and attention that must go into each creation.
After decades of traveling the world and perfecting his craft, Dougherty’s portfolio now boasts over 200 beautiful and living sculptures. The world calls it art, but he merely calls in “stickwork.” Check out the natural creations and get a glimpse into this man’s imagination.
These low-impact Morerava Cabins are nestled on Easter Island and offer an environmentally-conscious retreat on the already remote island. The low-tech structures make good use of simple design strategies, sustainable construction practices, and some prefab techniques. Like any truly sustainable housing, the cabins function on little water and even less electricity, making the most of the surrounding natural resources without damaging the natural environment. While water taps are available, each cabins employs rain harvesters to provide the majority of the water needs. Solar batch water heaters offer a low-cost alternative to burning imported fuel.
Easter Island is a land of very scarce natural resources. To protect the islands local resources and to avoid damaging the native flora and fauna, the cabins are initially built on the Chilean mainland. The structures are then carefully placed on piers (any moisture damage to the floor system during transport can compromise the lifespan of the cabin) and transported to the island. Because of the moderate climate in the region, there is no need to insulate the cabin walls. This cuts down on construction costs and dramatically increases the eco-friendly character of the buildings. Plus the lightweight frame, the exposed scissor roof, and the zinc steel roof add a certain rustic elegance that all cabins should employ.
Nine cabins currently reside on Easter Island. Each is intended to accommodate six people and due to some clever design work, occupants can enjoy a comfortable level of privacy despite the small space. As an enthusiast of responsive design and a proponent of cookie-cutter solutions, one of the coolest characteristics to me is how the cabins work with their surrounding environment to provide light and control climate. Glass panels are intentionally positioned to eliminate direct lines of site into the residential space while still providing adequate indirect light. The windows provide cross-ventilation and maintain the livable interior climate. Offsets in the roof allow hot air to escape while preventing rain from entering the space.
These cabins are a beautiful example of sustainable design put into practice. They take advantage of the natural resources available (rain, sun, and warm temperatures) and curb the dependence on imported fuel and electricity generation: low-impact at its finest.
The use of plastic bottles, containers, and utensils has become a serious pet-peeve of mine because these products perpetuate the clearly flawed idea that we have an unlimited supply of plastics. The concept of disposable products, which is incredibly popular in the United States, is the absolute antithesis of sustainability. While SOME plastics CAN be recycled, as discuses in The Thing About Plastics…, the vast majority of plastic food products are used one time before ending up in landfills. Even when plastics are recycled, the chemical breakdown in the material means that every subsequent reuse produces a material of poorer quality. Our careless use and waste of plastics is a hallmark of the unsustainable lifestyle we have created for ourselves.
A product design student by the name of Andrew Kim came up with the redesigned plastic bottles shown here, called the Eco Coke Bottle. It would be foolishly Utopian of me to even hope that people will stop using disposable plastics before the end of the cheap energy age. So instead, it would be cool to see companies redesign the way they package and transport their products in order to reduce the carbon footprint (by that I mean the amount of fossil fuel used to get the product from the production location to the consumer).
The key features of Kim’s square bottle design are that the flattened sides should improve the efficiency of transport and the collapsible bottle, the efficiency of recycling. By making the bottles easier to stack, Kim believes he can decrease the carbon footprint of the plastic bottles. The square bottle design would require a massive redesigning of bottling and distribution centers. Also, the reason that bottles are cylindrically shaped is to allow for the even distribution of internal pressure (caused by the carbonation) and thus the least amount of material is needed. On top of that, the soda bottle is as iconic as it is functional. Basically what I am saying is that neither Coca-Cola nor Pepsi plans on changing the shape of their bottles any time soon. Nonetheless, Kim certainly did an impressive job in completing his product design, taking full advantage of Adobe Photoshop’s capabilities. I thought his design was the real deal when I first saw the square bottles.
A lot of environmentally conscious architects and designers find inspiration in the pursuit to repurpose and recycle old ideas. The Colombian firm Jaramillo-Azuero Architects (J-A) has come up with a concept design that could repurpose a series of archaic Italian viaducts into a series of beautiful parks all linked together. The particular stretch of highway, known as the Autostrada del Sole, is set to be decommissioned once a new modern route has been built. The design and layout of these parks will allow them to serve as educational models of sustainable energy as well as a location for research into future sustainable systems.
The design was featured (and won 3rd place) in an international design competition known as “Solar Park South”, a completion which sought to find a new use for the obsolete viaducts. The cost to demolish and remove the viaduct system would be nearly 40 million euros and the competition’s organizers asked designs to rethink the aging structure. The rules of the competition emphasized “ the creation of a space for testing the production of energy using renewable sources, the search for and successive application of new sustainable technologies, and the implementation of measures focused on integrating the Park within the surrounding territory through the upgrading, fruition and valorization of landscape.”
J-A’s proposal includes a wave-powered rail line, sustainable energy research facilities, and beautifully landscaped parks. The driving principle behind J-A’s design is the importance of public education in the formation and implementation of sustainable energy systems. Technology can reach greater and greater heights, but it won’t matter if people do not understand the importance of changing their lifestyles so that they respect and maintain the natural environment around them.
The Autostrada del Sole (A3 Salerno – Reggio Calabria Highway) is a relatively remote section of highway between Scilla and Bagnara and skirts along Italy’s Sicilian coast. The stretch of road consists of several remarkable viaducts built during the 60s and 70s and has been slated for decommission for over a decade now (of course the roadway will continue to be used until the new highway, composed largely of tunnels and designed to improve the safety of travel, has been completed). Until that time, designers have the opportunity to explore ways to repurpose the viaducts. The amazing views of the countryside and the dramatic Sicilian coast should make the viaducts a perfect destination for travelers.
According to J-A, “Among all known renewable energies the most efficient and the only one of its kind capable of regenerating infinitely producing “zero environmental harm” is EDUCATION. This type of energy is an inexhaustible supply of knowledge that spreads from person to person covering vast extensions of area resulting in massive social, environmental and economical progress.”
Read the competition’s rules for yourself and you’ll get the gist pretty clearly; be bold and creative, be sustainable and energy conscious, and be beautiful. What truly sets the J-A proposal apart is the importance of education in the pursuit of sustainable living and energy generation. Only through widespread public education can we hope to decrease our impact on the environment. Of course it is science and human development that has so devastated the world’s ecosystems and it will take decade’s worth of re-educating the public before we can hope to start heading in a sustainable direction. With the right focus and support, these old viaducts could become an important location for environmental research and education. I’m sure I’m not alone in believing that would be a far better outcome than watching the structure turn into a giant pile of rubble.
Here is an idea for an in-house paper recycling tool. Known as the P&P Office Waste Paper Processor (they could probably work on finding a catchier name), this compact design concept is intended to turn used office paper into a product that is always useful around the office: a pencil. Now all those worthless memos and letters can be put to good use again instead of just crowding your desk.
The act of turning an already processed material or product into a completely new product of better quality or a improved environmental value is refereed to as upcycling. For all intents and purposes, it is a form of recycling, but the distinction of upcycling is the emphasis on the improved quality from initial to final product. Turning tires into rubber mulch for playgrounds or melting varies types of plastic into one blend are easy examples of downcycling because the final products are of lesser longer term quality or value.
The internal functions of the paper to pencil device are kept under raps. While recycled paper composes the largest quantity of material used by the device, graphite, glue, and electricity would also need to be supplied for the pencils to be made.
This concept house from the University of Stuttgart is one of the most high tech off-the-grid homes I’ve come across. Designed by the Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design (ILEK), the design is covered with photovoltaic cells and solar thermal systems that generate power and hot water for the home. The ILEK home won First Prize in the architectural planning competition “Plus-Energy House with Electromobility” issued by the German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building, and Urban Development. The home showcases innovative and stylish implementation of sustainable design, energy use, and the recycling of materials when the home has reached the end of its life. The key feature of the concept home is that it will generate enough power for two electric cars, all the devices in the home, and enough extra energy to sell electricity back to the power company for a profit (hence the name Plus-Energy).Technically, a home that sells electricity to the power company isn’t off-the-grid, rather the home would make money by selling money into the power grid instead of paying for the electricity it uses. Also, since the design makes no mention of rainwater harvesting, the home owner would still need access to a well or city water.
The ILEK “demonstrates the potential of actively coupling energy flows between the emerging fleet of electric vehicles and our built environment. This concept is architecturally embodied through a striking glass showcase in which all of the core technical systems are laid out prominently to form a full-scale living display.” The interior of the ILEK home is designed to most efficiently use the energy available. “A glass-clad energy core serves as both an architectural interface and a building systems hub between the mobile and immobile living spaces of the occupants. Extending from the garden side of this core is a compact two-storey volume housing the private living areas, while on the street side a large open frame serves as a showcase for the public, providing real-time information about the house and its electric vehicles through a dynamic interactive display system.” By using natural light and extremely efficient insulation, the design eliminates the need to pay for gas or electricity. The entire home would be modular, which means that no foundation is needed and since the home generates more electricity than it needs, you can transport the home to any empty lot (as long as there is substantial sunlight) and live there. To power the entire home, it would need to be a lot of direct sunlight. Solar panels are easy to maintain, but individual cells don’t produce very much electricity. Most importantly, the panels will generate practically no electricity on a cloudy day.
It’s not very practical to try and live off-the-grid if you are still going to depend on two electric cars. There is a reason that most off-the-grid homes are built in the middle of nowhere. If you are going to live without depending on modern conveniences and energy consuming electronic devices, it is best to live in a utilitarian home that actually does so. The design of the ILEK is interesting but I’m curious how usable the home would be. A flat roof would have to be built pretty strong to hold a foot of snow (which would also cover the solar panels). Nonetheless, I’m impressed by the design. A research prototype of this futuristic and sustainable home is planned for exhibition in mid-2011.
Greenhouses provide a lush and controlled biosphere in which, under the right conditions, flora from all across the world can be nurtured into healthy and mature plants. For those less interested in the horticulture of exotic plants and more concerned with growing a garden that survives the cold winter or dry summer season, greenhouses can also play a role. One enormous limitation to the success of greenhouses around the globe is the availability of ample quantities of freshwater to sustain the plants. If you don’t have access, greenhouses are incapable of turning arid land into lush gardens. Naci Cenk Aytekin, a Turkish industrial product designer, has created an innovative solution to address this issue and in the process make greenhouses even more environmentally friendly to lessoning the dependence on freshwater sources.
Aytekin calls the device, pictured here, the Loop. The rounded container is made of aluminum and has aluminum leaves that are cool to the touch despite the warm and moist conditions that characterize a healthy greenhouse. This property of aluminum is critical to the function of the Loop. The cool leaves act as condensers and naturally convert the moisture in the air from vapor to water. The water droplets are then guided by the aluminum leaves into the main container. Finally, the water droplets are slowly released back into the greenhouse via engraved canals on the sides of the aluminum leaves. This process, in theory, would lessen the need to provide freshwater from an external source. The Loop certainly doesn’t eliminate the use of freshwater but I can see how the Loop might play a role in capturing and recycling the water that the plants are releasing into the air through their leaves. The Loop is a cool idea and an interesting design, though I’m not certain how greatly it will revolutionize the use of water in greenhouses.
The Nomadic Plant is a futuristic, water pollution fighting cyborg with an important message of environmentalism. Designed and built by Mexican artist Gilberto Espaza, this innovative robot carries a bed of plants and microorganisms on its back. The design is inspired by the interdependence of natural ecosystems.
Here is how it works: A microbial fuel cell supplies the electricity needed to power the cyborg’s mechanical functions and sensors. When the Nomadic Plant senses that it is running low on fuel, it begins searching for polluted water. The bot sucks up the dirty water and feeds it to the plants and microbes growing on the bed on its back. As the plants and microbes naturally filter and drink up the water, they provide nutrients to the Nomadic Plant’s microbial fuel cell, essentially recharging the cyborg’s batteries. This nutrient replenishing allows the fuel cell to continue to generate electricity and keep the Nomadic Plant alive, moving, and cleaning up the world’s polluted water sources.
Espaza reports that the purpose of his creation is not to solve water pollution problems but instead to show how thinking outside the box can lead to new and sustainable systems to address environmental issues.
The largest green roof in New York City now resides on top of the U.S. Postal Service’s Morgan Processing and Distribution facility in midtown Manhattan. Completed in December of 2008, the 2.5 acres of dense green vegetation have had a significant impact on the efficiency of the building as well as set an example for the country’s largest city. The advantageous characteristics of the green roof, also known as a living roof, have decreased the storm water runoff by 75 percent during the summer and 40 percent during the winter. This characteristic greatly reduces the impact of urban development on receiving waters and streams, lessening the strain on already threatened ecosystems.
The natural insulation created by the living roof has allowed the building to remain cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, saving the U.S. Postal Service $30,000 each year in otherwise wasted energy costs. This green roof remains the largest in New York but with these kinds of financial incentives one can expect this sustainable and energy efficient practice to gain popularity. Of course, green roofs require a greater initial investment as well as a stronger building frame to support the additional weight, but they are believed to last 50 years before substantial repairs are necessary. Traditional tar roofs usually have to be repaired or replaced in less than 25 years. Add on the energy costs of these roofs which act like ovens in the summer and heat vents in the winter, the logical choice should be apparent.
A 24-year-old architect in China has received a lot of media attention for his off-the-grid and completely rent free home. And no, he doesn’t live in a yurt in the middle of the woods. Dai Haifei lives and works in Beijing China, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. His innovative design comes in the form of a mobile egg-shaped home which relies on solar power for energy.
The entire structure only stands about 6 feet tall and is compact enough to fit on most city sidewalks. It would seem natural to compare this homemade home to a decked-out cardboard box, but Haifei has certainly put time and thought into his creation. The main frame is made from bamboo strips, wood chippings, and sack bags. A lamp inside the mobile pod is charged by a solar panel installed on the roof. A layer of grass seed adorns the roof and should form a green, insulating cover once the warmer spring weather arrives. “The seeds will grow in the natural environment and it’s cold-proof,” Dai told China Daily. He then added that it’s “a bit cold sometimes.”
Living on the street will have its downsides and no central heating is certainly the first thing to go. All the same, Haifei deserves some applause for taking the fight against high rents in a completely different (and sometimes drafty) direction.