Tag Archives: Science

Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

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As an engineer, I’m always thinking of how to make the objects around me work better. After rereading Cradle to Cradle this year, I’ve also been considering how to balance the needs of the present and the end of an object’s life.

When I was an undergrad, I did research in energy materials, so my interest was piqued when I saw the Volta Battery concept by Koraldo Kajanaku that won the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge. Designed to be easily disassembled and made with materials that can easily be returned to technical or biological cycles, the battery is an excellent example of everyday objects that could be made better through thoughtful design.

The current ways in which we build batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines can’t get us all the way to a 100% renewable, solarpunk future. Elements such as the lithium used in cellphone batteries are rare and have some hurdles to true recyclability. Lead acid batteries, while more easily recycled, contain materials that are very hazardous to human health when not properly contained. Lithium batteries are an amazing technology, but we should be finding more readily recyclable alternatives for applications that don’t absolutely require the high energy density that a lithium chemistry affords. Aluminum, iron, nickel, and zinc could use a little more love when it comes to research and development. Nickel iron cells, for example, are likely the most robust chemistry available. They are quite heavy at the moment, but they might be one of the best options for grid backups since they don’t require the coddling that other technologies do. For the tidalpunks out there, you might want to check out ocean batteries.

More diversity of battery chemistries could lead to more energy democracy in energy storage. Communities could build the chemistry that uses the most local resources to back up their renewables. When paired with more sustainably designed windmills or solar thermal plants, we could do a lot more with a lot fewer rare earth minerals. Mechanical approaches to energy storage are also an attractive option. As is often the refrain with sustainable design, there is no silver bullet, we need many different solutions to fit the many different use-cases in existence. The 20th century was concerned with trying to shoehorn all our problems into a fossil fuel-shaped hole. The 21st will be defined by a diverse and beautiful ecosystem of solutions.

Is there an everyday object that you wish was designed more thoughtfully? Let us know below!

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Why speculative fiction matters

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When facing existential crises, it can be hard to see the point of things that aren’t directly related to the problem at hand. One thing that often comes under fire in times like these is fiction, both in books and other media. Even within fiction, scifi and fantasy have long been disparaged by “serious” academics since these realms of speculative fiction deal with fantastical elements that don’t exist. What these critics overlook, however, is the difference between truth and reality.

While elements of the political landscape are dedicated to obfuscating the truth, this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the ability of stories to separate all of our social and cultural baggage from important issues. Star Trek, for example, is known for holding up a mirror to the human condition and such important issues as racism, death, and war.

The other benefit of speculative fiction is stretching the imagination. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” Fiction lets us see problems in a different light, whether they be social or technological in nature. Love it or hate it, the cellphone has its roots in science fiction, along with innumerable other technologies that now make up the fabric of daily life.

Most engineers and scientists I’ve met trace their interest in the sciences to scifi or fantasy. One of the main reasons I became an engineer was growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dinotopia, and other works of fiction. Asking ourselves “What if…” is the underlying principle of the scientific method, and it feeds our innate human curiosity about the world around us. Something doesn’t have to be “real” to help us explore what is true. So, even though the world is burning, take this as an invitation to think differently about the problem. The solutions to climate change just might be a fictional account away.

Is there a book or other story that influenced how you think about the world? Let us know below!

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

woman reading a book

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[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

color conceptual creativity education

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Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 3: Rethinking Design

[This is Part 3 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here are links to Part 1: Repair and Part 2: Decentralize.]

There are essentially two extremes to technological design: the all-in-one device or the single-tasker. Take, for example, the knife. There are lots of single purpose knives – paring, cleaver, steak, etc. There are also several different types of multi-function knives, the best known being the Swiss Army knife. Depending on what task you have at hand, you would select the best knife for the job. Out and about, sometimes the best way to go is to carry the Swiss Army knife, but since it’s a multi-function device, it isn’t usually the best tool for the job, even though a lot of the time it is pretty decent at several different things. Unfortunately, the more functions you cram into a Swiss Army knife, the less useful it becomes at any single task. There’s a certain break-even point where it just gets ridiculous.

Image shows 8 Swiss Army knives from left to right with an increasinly large number of functions.

Victorinox pocket knives by quattroman76 under a CC BY-ND 2.0

While smartphones can do a great many things, since they aren’t really designed to do one specific task, they end up sacrificing the ability to do any one thing really well. I wonder if we’ve lost something by trying to unify all of our devices. Our mobile technology has become a monoculture compared to the wide variety of form factors of phones before a single slate of glass became the norm.

Before the consolidation of iPhone-esque design hit the scene, some people thought the future would be a cloud of wearable devices, the Personal Area Network (PAN). While carrying a number of single-focus gadgets on a common network may not be the best solution for everyone, it could be game changing for some. Also, broader acceptance of PANs might lead to more innovation in the smartphone space with regards to form factor. While there are rumblings of foldable phones, I can’t help but think those are merely an evolution of the current iPhone-centric design school.

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Random sketches I made of different hubs/accessories for a PAN-based device

Modular, open source electronics architectures would be a step in the right direction, allowing designers to select off-the-shelf components for inclusion in many different types of devices. The closest things I’ve seen on the market would be the Fairphone, which we’ve mentioned before, and the RePhone Kit, which is an Arduino-compatible phone kit from Seeed Studio. It’s a neat little phone hacking platform that lets people build their own phones. Unfortunately, Rephone is only 2G data capable, meaning no data connection in the US. Motorola gets an honorable mention for the Moto-mods system that lets you add different features to your phone through a special port on the back of their Z-series phones.

Of course it isn’t solarpunk if we aren’t designing with the impact of the device in mind from the beginning. Dominic Muren’s  Skin, Skeleton, and Guts model for product design is one approach to this design problem. When coupled with the Cradle to Cradle idea of separate biological and technical nutrient cycles, I can imagine future devices where the skin of the device is a compostable fabric that can be changed to suit the style of the user, while the metal skeleton and modular, electronic “guts” could be reused in further technical cycles.

TL;DR

In short, when approaching the design of a solarpunk phone, I would want modular components to be at the core to allow for more diversity of form factors like there once was in the mobile space. Also, devices should be designed for the circular economy using safe and reusable/recyclable materials.

Do you have any ideas for what should go into a solarpunk smarphone? Would a PAN be too cumbersome, or do you find that the “Jack of all trades, master of none” nature of the smartphone isn’t worth the trade-offs? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 1 : Repair

A cardboard box with a stylized art deco hand holding a wrench. Inside the box is a replacement screen kit for an iPhone 5.

My repair kit from iFixit

[This is Part 1 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 2: Decentralize and Part 3: Design.]

Smartphones are a major source of e-waste when disposed, and they have been one of the worst offenders when it comes to planned obsolescence, particularly after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 propelled the smartphone to widespread popularity. It seems that we may be entering a new phase of ennui in regards to new phone features, however, with 11 million iPhone users opting for battery replacements instead of new phones in 2018. Is it finally time for the Fixer Movement to takeover cellphones?

Why repair?

combination wrench screw bolt and pointed top hammer

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I grew up in a fixer household. My dad is a biomed tech who fixes the medical equipment at a hospital, and my mom has furniture repair and sewing skills. Up until recently, all of our cars were bought as salvage and a lot of the furniture and home electronics came to us in various states of disrepair. This was just how we did things because we could fix things and didn’t see the point in paying full price if we could get it a lot cheaper because of a minor problem.

When you start looking at the exploitation taking place both in the raw materials needed for smartphones as well as in their disposal, it quickly becomes clear that the true cost of electronics is not being taken into account when you can buy a cell phone for $25. The hidden costs of goods, or externalities as economists would say, are one of the main arguments for a carbon tax, as well as many other measures industry would call “over-regulation.”

Between the environmental, moral, and economic downsides of not repairing a mobile device, keeping the phone you have for as long as possible starts to look a lot more palatable. This is especially true as the most important functions of the smartphone have reached a point of technological maturity.

This week I’m embarking on my fourth smartphone repair. All of these have been screen replacements, as it is easily the most fragile part of the phone. Of the three phones I’ve repaired, I only had one where I successfully replaced just the glass and was able to reuse the screen underneath. Some of that might be my relative inexperience, and some of that is because the phones aren’t designed to be repaired. If you are planning on repair a phone, I would suggest checking out iFixit as they have a lot of different parts available as well as the most extensive repair database around. Youtube also has a lot of repair videos for things that aren’t in iFixit yet.

If you aren’t comfortable doing a repair yourself, there are a lot of smartphone repair places that have popped up around the country in response to the commonality of shattered screens. In some locales, there may still be repair shops for other goods as well, particularly sewing machines, vacuums, and shoes.

Many towns have Repair Cafes or Fix It Clinics that are run by volunteers on a varying basis. Boulder, CO has a very active repair community, and there is a periodic Repair Cafe run by the Time Bank here in Charlottesville, VA.

The future

While many current smartphones require a lot of time and “the knack” to repair, there is some hope that this won’t always be the case. The easiest way to make sure that smartphones are easy to repair is to design them that way to begin with.

One area where there has been a lot of interest, but not a lot of development is in the modular smartphone space. Google’s Project Ara, the Phonebloks project, and many others have shown concepts of LEGO-like modular phones with parts that the end user can swap out to customize or repair their phone. The only true contender in this space is the Fairphone. Designed with repairability and transparency in mind, the Fairphone was designed to do for electronics what Fair Trade has done for food and clothing. By evaluating every part of their supply chain and making the phone easily repairable by the end user with modular components, the Fairphone is the most ethically-sourced and repairable mobile device on the planet.

While the Fairphone is an impressive achievement, the fact that it is the only phone built to what should be basic-human-decency standards is telling of the state of the mobile device industry. As smartphones peak and differentiation wanes between vendors, hopefully we’ll see an emergence of a modular standard with many vendors making parts that are interoperable on a similar mobile platform. This was the original vision of Project Ara before its cancellation in 2016. The only ecosystems that approach this ideal in my mind are the desktop PC market and Raspberry Pi.

The Runcible, a round smartphone concept is shown with its circular wooden back removed exposing the circular circuit board and camera module.

The Runcible with its wooden back removed (from their Indiegogo campaign page)

One other interesting, but also unreleased, concept of a repairable phone was Runcible. Envisioned as an anti-smartphone, Runcible was designed to be a repairable, digital heirloom that would be a piece of tech you would want to grow old with. While its Indiegogo campaign was successful, as with many crowdfunded projects, the creators have gone dark without any backers getting their hardware. Some people might cry foul, but I think the problem with crowdfunded hardware is that making hardware devices is a lot harder than it looks.

In any case, I think that electronic devices built for a solarpunk future will need to be modular, repairable, and ethically-sourced as a first step. This is the first post in a series prompted by Solarpunk Druid’s “The Solarpunk Phone,” so I will be linking subsequent parts as they’re added.

Do you have any thoughts on what’s important for solarpunk electronics? Are there any features that current phones don’t have that would make your life easier? Let us know below!

The Green New Deal and Solarpunk

If you’ve been following US Politics, you may have heard rumblings of a Green New Deal. My first encounter with the term was during the 2012 Presidential Election when Jill Stein noted the necessity of mobilizing the nation to combat climate change and improve the economy at the same time. Seven years later, the US has made little progress at the federal level in addressing climate change. The few exceptions to this are being contested by the Trump administration including CAFE standard improvements and the Clean Power Plan. With the IPCC’s October 2018 report saying we have 12 years to get our act together, it’s time to declare war on climate change.

For a very in-depth look at the Green New Deal, check out David Roberts’ piece at Vox. There are three main criteria for the GND as outlined by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and reiterated by Sunrise Movement on Twitter:

As a solarpunk, it’s hard to argue with the goals of the Green New Deal. As a pragmatist, it’s hard to see much happening in the current political climate in regards to real climate action at the scale of the Green New Deal. It isn’t all gloom and doom though, as there does seem to be a glimmer of hope for the two biggest policy changes that I think will bring us closer to a solarpunk future: a price on carbon, and term limits for Congress.

panoramic shot of sky

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Pricing Carbon

As Sara E. Murphy points out in her piece at Green Biz, while the Green New Deal is the attention-getting piece of legislation, we’re likely to see significant push-back from the Republicans in Congress. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme is starting to see some traction on both sides of the aisle, however, such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018 with it’s mix of Republican and Democratic sponsors. Putting a price on carbon is the most straightforward way to get the private sector reducing emissions of carbon dioxide here in the US. Even many Libertarians see the logic in accounting for externalities, particularly when they impact people’s rights to the commons of the atmosphere.

While the federal government in the US has fallen behind in climate leadership, California has already enacted a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions, and there are many state and local initiatives working to stay on track with emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. One that is particularly exciting is the United States Climate Alliance, which will be adding even more members following the 2018 midterm elections.

Term limits for US Congress

Why am I including a possible Amendment to the US Constitution as something to help us reach a solarpunk future? This video from Term Limits for US Congress is a more detailed answer, but the long and short of it is that Congress no longer represents the people. With some recent polls showing that even the majority of Republicans support environmental protection and climate action, it’s increasingly clear that the old guard on Capitol Hill is out of touch with the majority of Americans. The newest members of Congress are a closer match to the actual demographics of the country, but we still have a long way to go to having true representation in DC.

architecture bright building capitol

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There are two mechanisms for passing a Constitutional Amendment in the United States. The first requires both the House and the Senate to approve the Amendment by a supermajority, at which point the Amendment must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states. Senator Ted Cruz has proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would limit Senators to two terms and Representatives to three terms, but getting career politicians on The Hill to fire themselves seems like a tough sell.

The second way to pass an Amendment, as laid out in Article 5 of the US Constitution, is for 34 states to call for a convention regarding a specific topic where they hammer out the proposed Amendment. Once ratified by 38 of the 50 states, it becomes part of the Constitution just like any of the other Amendments that have been enacted.

My wish list for 2019 would be that we get a price on carbon and term limits for Congress. It might be a tall order, but solarpunks are an optimistic lot, so there is still hope in the face of the strong institutional opposition to climate action.

Do you have any thoughts on what legislative pressure points might be best for affecting climate action in your area? Sound off below!