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Google Mapping Gas Leaks

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Google Earth Outreach have partnered to find natural gas leaks in our cities. Google has attached sensors to their mapping vehicles so they can sense leaks while driving all of the roads in a city.

The goal of the partnership is to stop the leaks by bringing awareness to and working with the natural gas utilities and political leaders. Natural gas, which consists mostly of methane, is a valuable energy resource that we need to conserve but it can also affect the climate if leaked. Check out the leak results plotted on maps.

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Micro-Insurance for Crops in Africa

To insure a farmer’s crop in the United States, someone has to visit the land at the beginning of the season and again if a claim needs to be assessed. This adds to the cost and complexity of offering crop insurance in a place like Africa.

Providing crop insurance on a small scale like this is similar to micro-credit, which offers small loans to people so they can start a business. A farmer can insure a 1/2 acre of crops for about two Euros. Although it sounds cheap enough and beneficial, convincing the African farmers to buy insurance initially proved to be difficult. In the first couple months, Rose Goslinda was able to sign up only 185 people for crop insurance. This was not the outcome she hoped for.

Rose came up with a simple way to solve all of the aforementioned obstacles. The cost of insurance is now included in the cost of a seed bag. In the bag there is an ID number that the farmer sends to the insurance company by text message. That location, where the text is sent from, is then monitored by satellite to see if it rains or not in the next three weeks. If it does not rain, they replace the seed so the farmer can start again.

Therefore, the costs are kept low because there are no visits to the farms and historical satellite data of rain in the area makes it easier to place a price on the risk of rain or drought. Depending on the crop they want to grow, which in this case is maize, the amount of water the crop needs is also considered in the equation.

After six years Rose and her team have insured over 185,000 farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. To learn more about her project visit the Kilimo Salama page on the Syngenta Foundation website.

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Samsung Taking Jabs at Apple

Over the last month, Samsung has released a few creative advertising campaigns calling out Apple’s iPhone. The first campaign focused on the iPhone’s battery life by placing posters near power outlets in airports and an accompanying video ad.

The second campaign plays off of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and focuses on the Galaxy S5’s water resistance. Despite how you feel about Samsung piggy-backing on a health campaign like this, it is a creative jab.

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Hyperlapse from Instagram

Because they put it so well in the video’s description,

With Instagram’s video stabilization technology built-in, Hyperlapse lets you create moving, handheld time lapses that result in a cinematic look, quality and feel—a feat that has previously only been possible with expensive equipment.

This first video shows video recorded without and then with the stabilization applied.

The next video shows many more examples of this effect.

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The American Legacy Foundation, as part of its Truth campaign, has been using the Internet, television, and print advertising to combat the influence of Tobacco companies on teens. Over the years I’ve thought that their advertising has been very creative to get their message across. The latest ad calls out celebrities as unpaid tobacco spokespeople when a photo of them is taken while they are smoking. I wouldn’t want my face in such a video.

According to the truth campaign website, “only 9% of teens smoke. That’s down from 23% in 2000. We can get it to 0%.” That’s progress.

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Google has announced the 15 global finalists of the Google Science Fair 2014. One of these finalists is 17-year-old Cynthia Sin Nga Lam. This Australian high school student has invented a device that purifies water and generates electricity. To learn more, watch the video below or visit her H2Pro project page.

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Can Humans Regrow Limbs Like A Lizard?

Some scientists are researching how lizards regenerate their tails. Salamanders and fish can regenerate too, but they do it differently from lizards. Their growth focuses at the tip while the lizard’s growth is throughout the tail. This isn’t the only reason researchers are focusing on lizards. They are more closely related to humans than the others. Mammals share 302 of the 326 genes activated by lizards to regenerate.

Scientists will continue with this research so that one day we may be able to regrow important body tissue and parts. To learn more, read their findings in the PLOS ONE journal.

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Stephen Hawking

A man of great adversity and achievement, Stephen Hawking has always sought to answer some of the toughest questions about the universe. As a theoretical physicist and cosmologist his topics of expertise include the big bang, relativity, black holes, and quantum gravity.

He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease or ALS at the age of 21 and was told that he had about two years to live. Stephen Hawking found the will to survive with the help of his wife Jane and his research. He excelled in his field with his brilliant mind while he was losing control of his body. Several times during his life he was unable to communication effectively but he currently uses a speech generating device that responds to signals from his body. At age 71 he continues to stun the world with his ideas and research.

In his own words, his “proudest achievement has been to inspire people to think about the cosmos and our place in it.” An example of this was writing a book to help everybody understand the science of the universe and his ideas. A Brief History of Time has sold over 10 million copies since it was published in 1988 and stayed on the Sunday Times best-seller list for over four years.

To learn more about Stephen Hawking, read his recent memoir, My Brief History.

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I recently watched Discovery Channel’s four-part miniseries titled Powering the Future to learn about promising forms of renewable energy. Here’s what I learned:

Fossil Fuels

Most of our energy consumption comes from fossil fuels (e.g. coal, natural gas, and oil). It took about 300 million years to make it, and we are burning through it quickly in a few centuries. Oil is getting more difficult to obtain and therefore more costly. Some scientists estimate that we have already burned through more than half of the easily-accessible oil in the planet and we are consuming it at a faster pace each year. Environmental concerns and global climate change are other reasons we need to seek renewable sources of energy.

Oil used to be inexpensive. A century ago it required only one barrel to get 100 barrels out of the ground. Today in Saudi Arabia it takes one barrel to get 20 barrels. We need to find solutions to get to other inaccessible oil reserves at lower costs or we may be done with it for good.

Current Energy Use

We love our energy and we use more than 15 trillion watts at any given moment. It takes 100 watts to power a single light bulb. The average American uses about 11,000 watts, Europeans use about 5500 watts, Asians use about 1600 watts, and Africans 800 watts. Our homes and workplaces (buildings) account for 41% of American energy use.

At the time of the show’s making (2010), more than 80% of our energy was coming from fossil fuels (about 33% oil, 25% coal, and 20% natural gas). Nuclear (9%), hydro, wind, solar (less than 0.1%), geothermal, and other smaller sources make up the rest.

Sources of Renewable Energy

All of our energy comes from the sun. Directly, we eat what it creates. Even oil is the remains of prehistoric organisms that got their energy from the sun, were later covered with sediment, and baked by the earth over millions of years. The sun is the ultimate energy resource if we can tap into it. Here are several renewable sources we are currently researching:

Solar
For solar panels to be the most effective on a large scale, they will be placed where the sun’s rays hit the earth most directly and with the most intensity. In some places the sun can provide about 1,000 watts of energy per meter squared but we need technology capable of capture, transport, and store it.

Wind
The sun is the source of the wind. When the rays of the sun hit the earth the air expands and rises. Colder air then moves in underneath the warm air, which leads to wind. We also need to find the areas on the planet where the wind blows strong and consistent. Currently each wind turbine can power about 700 homes.

Water
Hydroelectric power provides about 16% of the earth’s energy. We generate this energy from damming a river or from the ocean tides.

Geothermal
About two miles under the earth’s crust there is enough heat to boil water. The heat comes from the earth’s core, which can reach temperatures of 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. One upside to geothermal energy is that it is reliable. However, it can be very expensive to get to it. Geothermal currently generates less than 1% of our total energy.

Biofuel
We can extract energy from plants like corn and convert it into ethanol. The microbes that cause plants to rot is what scientists are trying to duplicate efficiently in the lab. One downside to ethanol is that it only has 80% of the energy density of gasoline.

Nuclear
Existing nuclear power comes from fission, which occurs when the nucleus of an atom is split and energy in the form of heat is produced. A cooling system then uses the energy to make steam and that moves a turbine to generate electricity. What we really want is nuclear fusion. Fusion is an extremely powerful and clean source of energy that we have been working on for decades. The sun creates energy this way when its intense gravity smashes hydrogen atoms together creating huge amounts of energy. Hopefully we can figure it out in the next decade.

Other Important Energy Technologies

Batteries
I mention batteries because it is extremely important to be able to store all types of renewable energy during the times when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

Electric Cars
For every mile that an average-sized car drives, a pound of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere. SUVs emit two pounds per mile. Big trucks emit about 10 pounds per mile. Major companies are making progress here but costs need to come down. Over the years I have become very interested in what Tesla Motors is working on in this space.

Let’s Get Creative

There are a bunch of other innovative inventions in the show such as artificial leaves that create hydrogen, underwater turbines, solar panels in space that beam down energy, power-generating kites, solar-mirror farms that boil water, solar energy stored in molten salt tanks, photo-voltaic fabric, solar paint, and more!

We need to continue finding more efficient ways to use energy. This will come from technologies that require less energy and new forms of fuels that we create. We need to first begin by being aware of our personal energy use and make adjustments where we can. Some of the ideas are simple such as turning off lights not in use, carpooling, etc. New efficient designs and stronger but lighter structures can be inspired by nature, which has crafted organisms over millions of years. As a country we need to make clean technology initiatives a priority. China is investing almost double the amount that the United States is into renewable energy solutions. Nearly 95% of solar thermal tubes are made in China. China makes about 50% of the world’s solar panels. Time to get to work!

Check out Powering the Future on Netflix.

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One of the most amazing (and controversial) things we have been doing for years is altering the genetics of organisms. This had led to breakthroughs in medicine (e.g. mass production of insulin, vaccines, etc.), agriculture (e.g. increase in food production, pest-resistant crops, etc.), energy (e.g. biofuels), and more.

Bacteria were the first to be modified in 1973. In the past decade, scientists at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center have taken a toxic and possibly fatal bacteria (Clostridium novyi) and altered it to only devour tumors while leaving healthy tissue alone. To learn more check out Discover’s post titled Toxic Bacteria Devours Tumors With Precision.

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