London Olympic Games feature numerous energy-saving initiatives

The millions of people converging upon London for this year's Summer Olympic Games will test the United Kingdom's pledge to make its event the most energy efficient one to date. To this end, the government has deployed numerous technologies and programs that Games officials say will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 58 percent.

At the heart of the effort is the Olympic Park, a sprawling complex that will play host to the major events of the Games. The centerpiece of this area is the Olympic Stadium, which, according to the Alliance to Save Energy, a green power advocacy group, was constructed out of recycled materials including discarded waste pipes and granite blocks. The official Games website reports that nearly 800,000 tons of dirt were removed during the construction and reused elsewhere in the Park.

The Velodrome, a facility that will house the bicycle events, utilizes windows rather than electric fixtures to provide lighting during the daytime and a natural ventilation system in place of air conditioning units to keep things cool, further reducing the environmental impact.

Another initiative for the Games is the Kinetic Sidewalk, a temporary crossing placed at the West Ham train station for Games spectators to easily access transit heading towards the festivities. The surface of the walkway is made of a special power-absorbing material that captures the energy of passing footsteps, and is expected to create 21 kilowatt hours of power over the course of the Olympics. Despite the relatively small amount of electricity generated, it helps to showcase day-to-day efforts to foster green power sources.

Other efforts to make this the greenest Olympics yet include utilizing existing spaces around London to reduce construction needs, cutting down on traffic in the area to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide emissions and serving organically-grown food products in the Park.

New aquatic drone designed to collect plastic waste from oceans

Scientists have long argued that the increasing amount of plastic, both in particulate form and in larger pieces, will have an adverse effect on the ocean's ecosystem. The discovery of large "garbage islands" and underwater streams of plastic have spurred the efforts of several students from the French International School of Design to devise a system to combat this growing threat.

The result of their research is the Marine Drone, a seafaring robot programmed to coast through the oceans and pick up trash. Larger than a person, it is designed to operate without human controllers, plying the waters on a waterproof electric motor and batteries. Once its net is filled with debris, larger ships with cranes will then scoop the machine out of the water for cleaning.

In addition to its near-silent batteries and autonomous nature, the drone is equipped with a small beacon that emits a signal that bothers nearby aquatic life, driving them away from the net in an effort to prevent anything from getting caught.

The designers sought to make a machine that could complete the task but also require relatively little maintenance. To this end, the School of Design researchers called for lightweight materials to be used in the hull of the drone, as well as easily-accessed mechanical ports. Three propeller pods allow the robot to move seamlessly through the water, and these features, combined with a system of six ballasts, enable it to cut down on energy consumption and environmental impact.

While it is difficult to predict the final outcome of this program, it stands to reason that the Marine Drone, if realized, could represent a huge step toward the goal of cleaning up the world's oceans.

General Electric announces water purification breakthrough

A technological development from General Electric (GE) may change the water purification industry, as the company announced on July 2 that it had created a system that successfully processed drinking water without producing waste.

Current water purification mechanisms, according to the company's press release, utilize approximately 75 to 85 percent of the supplied liquid, with the rest being discarded after the process is complete. With the AquaSel non-thermal brine concentrator (NTBC) system, GE estimates that companies that treat drinking water can achieve 99 percent efficiency while producing minimal amounts of waste byproduct. The program began testing in September 2011, and was designed and built through a partnership between the technology giant's GE Power and Water and GE Global Research divisions.

"Billions of gallons of usable water are lost every day because today’s water treatment technologies have techno-economic limits on how much water can be treated and reused," Heiner Markhoff, president and CEO of GE's water management department, said in the release. "GE's NTBC technology can turn billions of gallons of lost water into clean, usable water by virtually eliminating the wastewater streams in a variety of industrial and municipal treatment processes."

During the test phase, GE built a prototype that, over the course of 1,000 hours converted 1.5 million gallons of water that would have been classified as unusable by current purification standards. The company claimed in its release that if bottling firms utilized its system, water manufacturers could save nearly 30 million gallons of discarded water per day, the equivalent of 11 billion gallons a year. With that much extra capacity, GE said, roughly 150 million people a day could have access to clean drinking sources.

IEA predicts substantial growth in renewable energy over the next five years

In response to government promises to double-down on renewable energy investment, the International Energy Agency released a report on July 5 that predicted spending on solar, wind and other green sources of power will increase by roughly 40 percent over the course of five years.

The study, entitled Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2012, examines the current state of green energy production and offers estimates for future growth. According to the report, hydroelectric power is a major source of clean energy, and is expected to expand by approximately 730 terrawatt hours (TWh) between 2011 and 2017. For the industry as a whole, IEA researchers forecasted that total energy capacity should rise by approximately 1,840 TWh in the next five years, a substantial boost in production compared to the 1,160 TWh growth seen between 2005 and 2011. The organization expects China, a leader in global green energy technology manufacturing, to account for roughly 40 percent of this development.

"Clean energy is expanding rapidly as technologies mature, with deployment transitioning from support-driven markets to new and potentially more competitive segments in many countries," Maria van der Hoeven, IEA's executive director, said in a press statement. "Given the emergence of a portfolio of renewable sources as a crucial pillar of the global energy mix, market stakeholders need a clear understanding of the major drivers and barriers to deployment."

The aim of the study, according to the agency's website, is to bring together disparate information to form a definitive picture of the current state of green energy. It draws attention to government efforts to subsidize clean energy sources, identify new ways to generate power and ease certain industries through the economic growing pains associated with, as the IEA writes, supply chain restructuring and shifting geopolitics. However the industry ultimately develops, this report highlights the increasing importance of green power sources in our society.

U.S. Interior Secretary announces progress in nation’s first offshore wind farms

On July 2, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar, announced that two renewable energy projects – wind farms based in Wyoming and off the coast of Massachusetts – had passed their preliminary environmental impact reviews and, pending public comment and final review procedures, are on their way to the construction phase.

The two initiatives, while not without their share of controversy, would dramatically alter the renewable energy landscape in America. The Wyoming project is estimated to be capable of producing up to 3,000 megawatts of power, a measurement that would rank it among the largest developments of its kind in the world. The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Farm, proposed to be built in Carbon County, will operate approximately 1,000 turbines and have the operational capacity to power 1 million homes.

"Wyoming has incredible wind resources and this proposed wind energy project has potential to generate jobs and bring a record amount of clean power to market throughout the West," Mike Pool, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, said in the department's press release.

The proposed Rhode Island/Massachuetts Wind Energy Area (WEA), a 164,750 acre plot of water centered in the region off the coasts of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard between the two states, also passed the initial regulatory muster. Despite fierce criticism from environmentalists, including the possible danger posed to sea birds flying near the development, the program is serving as a bellwether for future offshore energy projects.

The origins of these wind energy efforts trace back to November 2011, when Secretary Salazar announced the "Smart from the Start" initiative, which aimed to identify other WEAs for public usage as part of the Obama administration's bid to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil consumption.

Researchers create battery capable of absorbing electricity from the human body

Do you use your smart phone or portable music player often? If so, you may one day be free from the inconvenience of plugging it in to recharge the battery.

Researchers from Georgia Tech University reported recently that they had discovered a means to absorb and contain triboelectric energy – the type created, for example, when you shuffle across a carpet in your socks or rub a balloon against your hair. In their particular study, scientists used two transparent pieces of plastic material and successfully captured the energy created when they were rubbed together.

"The fact that an electric charge can be produced through this principle is well known," Zhong Lin Wang, a professor in the School of Materials Science & Engineering at the university, told green energy website EarthTechling. "What we have introduced is a gap separation technique that produces a voltage drop, which leads to a current flow, allowing the charge to be used. This generator can convert random mechanical energy from our environment into electric energy."

While still in the research and development phase, researchers conjectured that someday this technology – especially if they can perfect their current mode of energy capture – may be installed in the faces of smartphones to absorb the tiny amounts of triboelectric charges created by various finger strokes.

Wang told the source that his team of researchers had begun alternating the structures of the transparent materials, utilizing various pattern systems in a bid to create more energy. In one instance, creating pyramid shapes as opposed to a smooth surface for the plastic pieces enabled the scientists to capture more charges.

The research, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force, could one day change the face of power production and reinvent the phrase "renewable energy."

University researchers and NASA team up to create space produce cultivation plan

While it may seem straight out of a science fiction novel, scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of Lund have created a method of growing plants in space in order to reduce reliance on vacuum-sealed foods and provide astronauts with a healthier, more energy-efficient source of food.

Known as the PLANT system, it involves the use of small packets of soil and nutrient that can be ergonomically placed near artificial lighting sources on spacecrafts. Once placed, astronauts would be responsible for ensuring that the "pillows" receive enough moisture. All they do after that is wait to reap the spoils.

"The system uses the capillary force of water traveling through sponge-like material," head designer Piotr Szpryngwald explained to green technology website EarthTechling. "The 'pillows' which contain a granulate-like filling suck the water through a membrane in the bottom of the silver packaging. Each pillow contains a seed, and can be reused."

The work fits into a larger narrative supported by NASA of a future that envisions space-based farms that could produce food for needy countries or the basic materials for large-scale biofuel production. One study conducted by the space agency looked into whether or not low-gravity environments had a positive or negative effect on growth patterns. According to its website, NASA has not released the results of this experiment.

Regardless of the outcome, the PLANT system has enormous implications for the future of space travel, not only from a purely economic perspective, but a psychological one as well. Szpryngwald envisioned circular growth habitats that could ring travel passageways on a space station or craft, through which astronauts could move freely through.

"Floating through it should bring a bit back of a walk through a forest and be a reminder to mother earth," he said.

U.S. government launches major biofuel initiative aimed to increase use in private sector

As part of the Obama administration's efforts to decrease American dependence on oil imports, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy, in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, have announced that $30 million in government funding will go toward matching private investments aimed at bringing the biofuel industry from the testing phase to full-scale commercial production.

The most recent program, funded by the Defense Production Act (DPA), is a continuation of the Obama administration's desire to cut foreign oil use by one-third before the year 2025 as stated in the "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" report published in March 2011. While domestic oil and natural gas production has increased, especially through the controversial practice known as fracking, government officials stress that renewable energies remain at the top of their priority list.

"By pursuing new processes and technologies for producing next-generation biofuels, we are working to accelerate innovation in a critical and growing sector that will help to improve U.S. energy security and protect our air and water," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in the statement.

The plan is divided into two parts. The first step involves private industries submitting business plans and designs for a commercial-scale biorefinery, including site placement and company logistics, to the Obama administration. The government will then review the applicants, choose the most viable options and ask those designers for additional plans about the construction of a possible biofuel processing facility.

One of the goals of the program is to increase production of biofuels for use in the U.S. Navy's ships and planes, with the hope that, eventually, biofuels will account for the majority of the armed forces' energy consumption.

“Green shoes” project takes a big step forward for sustainability movement

Americans hoping to leave less of an ecological "footprint" may be in luck, thanks to the efforts of a green-focused North Carolina entrepreneur.

The "Remyxx," created by Gary Gagnon, is the world's first 100 percent recyclable shoe. By creating a product made from a mix of plastics, polyresin canvas and rubber, the maker of the Remyxx hopes to stem the tide of footwear heading to landfills worldwide. According to charity organization Soles4Souls, over 300 million pairs of shoes were thrown away in 2011.

In an interview with green fashion website Ecouterre, Gagnon said that the project began after he took his family's trash and recyclables outside one day. Upon discovering the shoes of his wife and two children, he lamented the fact that footwear was not easily recyclable. Once the idea began to germinate, he knew that it could only thrive with an equally compelling message.

"Once I decided I was going to make Remyxx cool sneakers, I wanted to make a sneaker that is like no other in footwear, a sneaker that is completely 100 percent recyclable," he said in the interview. "So, as I began in 2009, I started with the message first and the look later. My message, 'keep it out of the earth,' was the basis for developing Remyxx."

Emblazoned across the shoe is "#5," a typographical symbol meaning that it can be recycled alongside plastic food containers and other items that fit inside that recycling category. Gagnon went on to caution that most trash services won't recognize the effort yet, and will more than likely throw a pair of Remyxxes in the trash. To entice people to send their footwear in, Gagnon is offering a $5 purchase credit towards a new pair of shoes for anyone who sends in a used set. From there, he and his organization will make sure it all ends up in the right place.

The Remyxx shoes, announced this month, are set to be distributed sometime this fall.

Green roof projects could fundamentally alter Californian cities, experts say

Sustainable living, thought by some to be limited to communes and isolated areas, may be coming to a major metropolitan area near you, according to experts from the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law.

In a report released last month, researchers, focusing on the Southern California region for their study, estimated that taking steps to introduce "green roof" technology and practices could save consumers hundreds of millions of dollars in utility bills while also helping to limit humanity's environmental impact.

The report, "Looking Up: How Green Roofs and Cool Roofs Can Reduce Energy Use, Address Climate Change and Protect Water Resources in Southern California," proposes that green roof technologies are the best path forward to making American cities more sustainable. For example, a layer of soil and drought-resistant flora planted on the roof can help absorb moisture while consuming carbon dioxide thrown off by cars. Sun-reflecting paint coatings can help reduce the heat absorbed into the building and lessen reliance on air conditioning units, while also working to lower the impact of heat islands, a phenomena that results in heightened temperatures in metropolitan areas.

"The scale of these benefits is truly impressive, and justifies a much more aggressive set of policies and incentives to help advance the adoption of green roofs and cool roofs in our region," Cara Horowitz, an executive director of the Emmett Center, said in a statement published by the environmental advocacy groups.

The authors of the study estimated that converting just 50 percent of the roofs in South California could lower stormwater runoff by over 35 billion gallons each year, a reduction that could help prevent local water supply pollution as well as weather erosion.