Category Archives: Columbia University

Hydrofracking in West Virginia

West Virginians upset about fracking on their farms

Image Courtesy: National Geographic, "Looking at Lives Affected by 'Fracking'"

In a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) video, titled “Battle for Wetzel County,” two West Virginians explain why their believe it is unfair for large gas companies (such as Shell, Exxon, and Chesapeake Energy) to have mineral rights on their land. The only compensation these farm owners have is that gas companies must pay them for “damages.” These farm owners are outraged because not only are they losing valuable land, but they also claim they are exposed to dangerous chemicals that have contaminated their water supply. Furthermore, one farm owner believes that toxic waste was buried on his property. Even though hydrofracking is an impressive technology, it interrupts farmers not only during the extraction process,  but also with the equipment that remain on the “pad” (the site where the natural gas is extracted).

There is currently legislation in West Virginia to address the problems associated with hydrofracking, yet according to several sources, the legislation insufficiently addresses the problems associated with drilling. Last Wednesday, Nov. 16, a special House-Senate committee endorsed proposed drilling rules in the Marcellus Shale, but a top aide to West Virginia’s Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s office says the bill isn’t ready for special session. Chief of Staff Rob Alsop told Business Week that his staff will work over the next few weeks with legislative leaders and stakeholders “to see what they’re comfortable with, and see what we’re comfortable work.” According to Alsop there are some issues that need to be worked out before the bill is presented during a special session.

Some of these issues include, the amount of leeway that is granted to the Department of Environmental Protection, the overseer of gas drilling. Advocating greater flexibility for DEP, industry groups have similar concerns. Surface owner and environmental groups, believe that there needs to be strong and detailed regulatory language in the books.

From Dec. 12-14 there will be a series of study meetings on the subject, during which time Governor Tomblin believes is a good time to convene a special session, if prior meetings can create a bill that could pass.

The draft of the bill includes many subjects which emerged from efforts to develop the natural gas reserve through hydrofracking, a controversial process which can potentially contaminate water supplies. Included in the bill are increased permit fees, which will fund more field inspectors and office staff; agreements between operators and surface property owners of drilling sites; lastly, buffer zones that would separate shale wells  from homes, livestock and drinking water. The bill would also allow the Department of Environmental Protection to hire their own inspectors.

For more information here is a report directly from the West Virginia Legislature.

Building a Better Future

As the 7 billionth person was born this week (or so we think), our planet continues moving closer to the point where it will no longer be able to sustain us. We are running out of room and resources. Pollution is causing global warming and freak snow storms. One way to address these issues is to change our interaction with our environment quite literally, through biomimetic architecture.

Mick Pearce

Pearce was born in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2003 he was awarded the Prince Claus Award for his work in creating sustainable and low-energy buildings. One of his most famous buildings is Eastgate Centre, a shopping center in Zimbabwe that utilizes a cooling system inspired by a termite mound.

A Termite Mound; CCizauskas/Flickr Creative Commons

Termites in Zimbabwe farm their own food. The fungus that they grow can only survive at a temperature between 86.0 and 89.6° F, but the temperatures in Zimbabwe can fluctuate between 37.4 °F and 107.6 °F degrees every day. Over time, termites have developed a remarkable passive cooling system that maintains the temperature right around 87 °F with very few fluctuations. The termites build a system of heating and cooling vents to funnel air through the mound effectively allowing air currents to act as air conditioning.

Eastgate Centre, Harare Zimbabwe; GBembridge/Flickr Creative Commons

Pearce, inspired by this system, decided to apply it to the complex he was designing in order to save costs. During the heat of the day, the material of the building itself absorbs the heat from the sun, machines, and people allowing the temperature inside to only increase minutely. As the day cools, the warm air rises and is vented out through the top of the building (this movement is assisted by fans though it does happen naturally). At night, the cool breezes are “caught” at the base of the building (through spaces in the floor) until the building has reached the ideal temperature to begin the next day. Thus, the building mimics the termite mound’s natural air conditioning.

Because of Mick Pearce’s innovations, the Eastgate Centre uses 10% less energy than a comparable building and the owners have saved over $3.5 million just because an air conditioning plant did not have to be imported. This allows them to rent space to tenants for 20 percent less than in a neighboring building that is newer.

Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson

There are too many biomimetic architects to mention them all, but both Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson have fascinating TED talks that express how important it is for architects to look at the world around them for inspiration.

Pawlyn was one of the architects that designed the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. These domes, which are in effect large greenhouses whose elaborate structures are inspired by nature, have completely transformed horticultural architecture. He has strong beliefs that if architects look at how in nature processes are efficient with their resources, utilize closed loops, and gain energy from the sun a better, more sustainable world can be built.

Larsson works with sand. Desertification is a major problem in today’s society, but Larsson is trying to look at this problem as an opportunity. He is working on using a bacteria, bacillus pasteurii, to turn sand into a solid building material. Not only would this provide more support to plants, but it could also potentially allow for living spaces to be carved into sand dunes. This would be in stark contrast to life in the desert today where people are often evacuated due to sand dune movement. This project is also cost efficient. As Larsson notes in his TED talk “for a cubic meter of concrete we would have to pay in the region of 90 dollars. And, after an initial cost of 60 bucks to buy the bacteria, which you’ll never have to pay again, one cubic meter of bacterial sand would be about 11 dollars.” (7:37-7:53) Larsson is embracing sand as a new building material and using bacteria as an inspiration for a better future.

Remember Context

Pearce, Pawlyn and Larsson are all architects who bring nature into their work on a grand scale, but architecture is an art form that is always taking into account its surroundings. Todd Rouhe, cofounder of common room and a professor of architecture at Barnard College, points out that in architecture, “context…is one of the most important things…Environment is everything, whether or not it’s even environmental. And I think that one thing that architects can do to acknowledge the environment…is to pay attention to that context and respond to it…That response can heighten the…sense of the environment.” Just as architects must keep in mind context, both natural and urban, when designing projects, so too must people remember our world and our surroundings as we build and grow.

Ultimately, regardless of scale, biomimetic architecture is a crucial way to continue working towards a sustainable future where nature is more than just an inspiration, but also a lifestyle.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

At my urban university where students are informed when they are allowed to sit on the lawn and when they are not, it is often difficult to remember nature. However nature, particularly in the form of trees, is never far. From pop culture (Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas) to folklore (Johnny Appleseed) trees are deeply embedded in our society.

Johnny Appleseed Surrounded by Trees SVadilfari/Flickr Creative Commons

Trees have become a symbol of nature at large, and an emblem for the green and environmental movements. Not only that, but trees have been of great inspiration for scientists who are looking to nature for solutions to environmental problems. This inspiration can be used to help us bring more sustainable and green technology to the Big Apple itself.

Returning to our Roots

Researchers at SolarBotanic have gone even further than being inspired by trees, they have created artificial trees that, among other things, harness solar, heat and wind energy and filter the air just as trees do. These biomimetic energy sources can be “planted” anywhere from the desert to urban environments and their realistic designs bring nature’s beauty along with nature’s power. SolarBotanic trees utilize nanoleaves that effectively absorb light waves in both the visible and invisible spectrum. This means that the nanoleaves cannot only transform light into energy like other solar cells, but they can also transform infrared rays (in other words, heat) into energy. This way electricity can be provided to a home or a car straight from a “tree” in your front yard.

SolarBotanic Trees, Rebuildingdemocracy/Flickr Creative Commons, Photo Courtesy of Solar Botanic

Nanoleaves are thin, like actual leaves, so they can blow in the wind while remaining attached to the tree. The movement of the leaf flapping back and forth is mechanical energy, which is harnessed by the SolarBotanic tree, providing even more energy and electricity.

Trees do not merely capture light as energy, they also provide us with cleaner air. The SolarBotanic tree does something similar by using a facilitated transport system modeled after our lungs, another inspiration from nature. In the tree there is an “agent” that separates out the CO2, effectively removing it from the air. SolarBotanic is truly paying homage to the tree, and using an already perfect design to provide a beautiful (and effective) form of alternative energy.

Mother Nature Knows Best

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and global warming are an extremely serious issue in the modern world. We need CO2 for everything from oil drilling to blood banks, but too much CO2 in our atmosphere is poisoning our planet at an alarming rate. The government is seriously looking at carbon sequestration, which involves collecting CO2 from the air (mostly from smoke stacks) and injecting it underground, as a method to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

ZScott-Singley/Flickr Creative Commons

However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, even if the carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques that are being explored today are 90% efficient, about half of the world’s carbon CO2 emissions will still be released into the environment. Therefore, it is extremely important to find other approaches as well.  Dr. Klaus Lackner and Dr. Allen Wright, researchers at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, have come up with a remarkable, biomimetic alterative—recycling CO2. They have developed a “tree” made of plastic that absorbs CO2, just as trees do, but 1000 times more efficiently. In addition to its efficiency, the plastic resin that absorbs CO2 when it is dry, releases that same CO2 when it is wet. This means that the industries that need CO2 (for oil drilling or carbonated drinks) can purchase recycled CO2. It is also a possibility that recycled CO2 can be converted into gasoline and then the gasoline emissions can be recollected as CO2. This would allow us to still use our cars but ensure that the net level of CO2 in the atmosphere stops rising so drastically.

Dr. Allen Wright, the Senior Staff Associate at the Lenfest Center, pointed out to me that “observing that plants do in fact perform ‘air capture’ did prove at the outset that it was possible” however he also says that the “pine branch shape” of the resin is “purely coincidence.” As he says, “A pine branch shape worked well for that because the ‘needles’ would compress nicely.  It is not a particularly useful geometry for many reasons.  The term ‘artificial tree’ is use to help people understand what we are doing.  A practical device deployed in the field for air capture will not likely look like anything found in nature…more perhaps like a carousel sitting on top of a shipping container.”

The Carbon Cycle timmeko/Flickr Creative Commons

Recycling carbon is exactly how nature works. CO2 is produced as a byproduct but it is recycled throughout nature (through the carbon cycle). This technology takes nature’s foolproof method or “recycling” carbon dioxide and applies it to the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. As Dr. Wright explained to me, “the goal of air capture is to remove roughly 10-30% of the CO2 in the air passing through the collector, not to produce CO­2 free air. That would put the air exiting collector at a pre-industrial level of CO2.” Therefore plants can still grow and participate in the carbon cycle without being affected by the CO2 emissions people are producing.

This video elaborates on how this plastic “tree” could dramatically change our world.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/27163710[/vimeo]

With sustainable technology like this we can continue to live our city lives while still changing how we interact with the environment.

Biomimicry in the City

New York is a large city with the majority of its greenery confined to parks. Yet the city is making an effort to incorporate green energy and biomimicry into its urban ways and Clean Energy Connections is making an effort to help provide the network to make this transformation possible. On November 3rd, there will be a fascinating panel called Biomimicry in the Big City: Can Nature Inspire Cleantech Solutions?

It is not always easy to remember the trees when you are surrounded by the bright lights and steel of New York City (or any urban environment). But the innovations and inspiration trees provide us can keep our cities—and our world—cleaner, more energy efficient and more sustainable.