FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Unintended Consequences of Biofuels

Biofuels, particluarly those derived from ethanol, have been heralded as an ideal way to wean us off of polluting and increasingly expensive fossil fuels. While we may have no choice but to rely on biofuels in the future, some futurists are sounding the alarm about the unintended consequences of biofuel reliance. In July, the futurist think tank Global Business Network noted that crop growth for biofuels could come at the expense of the world food supply. Others are citing the phenomenon of "agflation," or the increased price of all things agricultural, from produce to dairy products to real estate in rural areas. Indeed, manufacturers of all types are beginning to notice higher prices for animal by-products used in products such as soaps.

While market forces may eventually correct agflation-driven price increases, the time is now to understand that energy solutions such as biofuel are not "magic bullets" without impact in other areas, and to mitigate those impacts.

Source: Techdirt

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

MIT Demonstrates "Wireless Electricity"

The ability to direct and transmit electrical power through the air, without wires, took a further step from the theoretical to the practical in June when a group of MIT researchers demonstrated their "WiTricity" concept.

The technology works by transmitting electricity as a magnetic field oscillating at a specific frequency. Through "magnetically coupled resonance," the "receiver" can capture the electricity, making for an efficient and safe method of over-the-air transfer.

Wireless transmission of electricity has been understood in theory since the work of Nikolai Tesla in the 19th Century. Safe, efficient and cost-effective wireless electricity could hold countless beenfits, from eliminating the need to install costly copper wiring to lowered reliance on batteries for small devices. However, despite the success of WiTricity, the technology has a long way to go before it is deployed commercially... not to mention the need to better understand side effects such as interference and possible effects on health and the environment.

Source: Self Service World

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How to Stop -- Or Live With -- Global Warming

According to research at Princeton, current technologies are capable of stopping (or at least slowing) the rate of global warming by 2050 if properly applied. Using a mix-and-match approach, students who participated in a game-like experiment found that the current portfolio of energy-saving policies and technologies (flourescent bulbs, nuclear power, wind turbines, reducing deforestation, etc.) could indeed keep global greenhouse gases constant over the next 50 years. The trick is to apply these solutions to developing countries, where rapid industrial growth will put them on track to overtake the developed world in greenhouse gas output within the next several decades.

Meanwhile, Live Science has a top-10 list of side effects of global warming, such as more severe allergies, more sinkholes from permafrost melting, a less dense upper atmosphere that will affect how satellites orbit the earth, more forest fires and rapid deterioration of ancient ruins. Perhaps the strangest prediction of all: mountains that lose their glaciers and permanent snow caps will actually "grow" as the weight on them decreases.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The End of "Cheap Food"?

From the end of World War II until now, most nations have enjoyed plentiful and relatively inexpensive food supplies. But now, according to the well-known futurist think tank Global Business Network, that era may be ending.

GBN cites the near doubling of corn prices on the world market in the past year as evidence that this trend has already begun. Factors that are driving up prices include increased demand by the growing world population, as well as the growth of Asian economies. The latter is significant because, as economies prosper, meat consumption increases... and with it, the need for livestock feed. Increasing consumption of bio-fuels will stress grain supplies even further. Throw global warming into the mix (crop yields can fall by up to 5% for every 0.9 degree F rise in temperature) , and the stage is set for possibly much higher food prices worldwide, shortages, and ultimately, mass starvation in the poorest countries.

Writes GBN's Gwynne Dyer, PhD, "In the early stages of this process, higher food prices will help millions of farmers who have been scraping along on very poor returns for their effort because political power lies in the cities, but later it gets uglier. The price of food relative to average income is heading for levels that have not been seen since the early 19th century, and it will not come down again in our lifetimes." [Emphasis added]

Source: Arlington Institute

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The iPhone Revolution?

The iPhone, released to the public last Friday, is one of the most hyped devices in memory. But is all the excitement justified?

John McCormick of Baseline suggests that the iPhone could blow the market for handheld rich Internet applications wide open, even though the iPhone was designed for the consumer rather than the enterprise market. Om Malik concurs, noting the significance of the built-in Safari browser that brings the full Web experience to mobile phones for the first time. Smart Mobs opines that mobile phones (not just the iPhone) represent a mass medium unto themselves that are revolutionizing the fundamental ways in which we communicate.

UPDATE: Read a contrarian view...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bird Population Falls Over Past 40 Years

A recent study by the National Audubon Society has found that bird populations -- even those of common, robust species such as grackles -- have fallen drastically over the past 40 years. The populations of whiporwills and bobwhites have fallen by well over 80 percent, a drop so great that these once-common birds are now seldom seen or heard in the eastern US. Deforestation is partly to blame, as well as global warming, which appears to be affecting arctic birds especially hard. Because cold-climate birds must migrate farther north each year to reach their shrinking habitat, they rarely migrate below the northernmost regions of the US.

"These are not rare or exotic birds we're talking about -- these are the birds that visit our feeders and congregate at nearby lakes and seashores and yet they are disappearing day by day," said Carol Browner, Audubon board chairperson and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Clinton administration. "Their decline tells us we have serious work to do, from protecting local habitats to addressing the huge threats from global warming."

Source: Boston Globe

Friday, June 15, 2007

Self-Healing Plastic

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed a nanotechnology polymer that can "heal" itself by filling in cracks and tears automatically. Although self-healing plastic is not an entirely new concept, the UIUC material is different because it can repair itself multiple times without any intervention.

The material could have important uses where making repairs is difficult, where materials are under enormous stress and/or where material failure would be catastrophic -- such as in implanted medical devices, airplane and spacecraft components, and microprocessors. The UIUC researchers emphasize, however, that practical applications are years away, and that initial products will be highly expensive.

Source: MIT Technology Review

Britain Piloting First Biofueled Train

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group has embarked on yet another venture -- Virgin Trains, which seeks to replace traditional diesel trains with models run on biofuel.

Virgin Trains' pilot project will test a train running on 20% biological material (typically a type of vegetable oil) in Britain for six months. If the test is successful, Virgin Trains will use the 20% mix full-time, with an eye toward engines run purely on biofuel. Virgin Trains says that switching to biodiesel could cut emissions by 14%.

Source: MSNBC