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I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and blow your new straw house down

20 Mar

We all know the story of the three little pigs? In short there were three pigs, one greedy wolf, a house made of straw, a house made of sticks and a house made of bricks. The wolf blew houses down all but one…you can imagine which house survived and the fate of the three little pigs. Anyhow the reason behind this blog is that straw houses will no longer be the preserve of little pigs as the first straw houses are now being offered on the housing market.

A specialist architectural company called Modcell bumped heads with the University of Bath to research the project which led to the construction of seven houses. They were built on a street filled with traditional brick-built properties in Shirehampton, Bristol. Though, we must mention the seven houses are clad in brick to fit in with the area.  The houses have timber framed prefabricated walls and are filled with straw bales which are in cased in wooden boards. Someone’s been reading the three little pig’s story haven’t they?

The team have promised homeowners that they could see a 90% decrease in their fuel bills, much cheaper than the average brick home. They also boast a lower purchase price…what’s not to love? The project leader Professor Pete Walker said;

“The construction sector must reduce its energy consumption by 50% and its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, so radical changes are needed to the way we approach house building.

“As a construction material, straw is a low-cost and widely-available food co-product that offers real potential for ultra-low carbon housing throughout the UK.

“Building with straw could be a critical point in our trajectory towards a low-carbon future.”

The team behind the project insist that straw houses could help to meet housing demand in the UK sustainably. With so many young buyers struggling to get on the house market due to high purchase costs, could this be the answer? Or is some greedy wolf rubbing their hands together waiting for the house to fall down so they can have a tasty snack? Apparently not as Professor Walker continued;

 “Over the past three years of research we have looked at various aspects of the performance of straw,”

“Two that particularly come to mind as concerns or apprehension from potential users of straw are fire-resistance and weather-resistance.

 “In terms of durability, we have undertaken laboratory tests and undertaken monitoring of existing buildings and we have also done accelerated weather tests.

“The results of all these tests suggest that straw is a very durable construction solution.”

The team have thoroughly tired and tested the technology, working on its weight bearing properties and its thermal insulation. Straw houses have been on the increase especially in the USA, Australia and China who have been implementing straw bales in their housing construction.

Researchers have estimated that after wheat production and animal bedding, a remaining 3.8 million tonnes of straw is left. This is enough to build 500,000 new three bedroom homes that only require 7.2 tonnes of straw. Smashing.

Even though the big bad wolf blew the straw house down, we think we have learnt enough from research and short stories to learn from our mistakes. So let’s start the story again…three little pigs, one greedy wolf and one straw house. The greedy wolf kept trying to blow the house down for hours but the house was very strong and the little pigs were safe inside. He tried to enter through the chimney but the third little pig boiled a big pot of water and kept it below the chimney. The wolf fell into it and died.

The moral of the story? Technology wins.


Dyson plans to hoover up on the LED market!

26 Sep

Ah Dyson, the company that brought us the dual cyclone vacuum cleaners, the nifty hand dryers, blade-less fans and heaters. If you didn’t already know they sell their machines in over 70 countries and employ more than 4000 people worldwide. Pretty amazing stuff from a company set up to improve the conventional wheel barrow. The Dyson name is synonymous with inventions that do more with less.

Anyway enough about that as this article is about the future of Dyson, something Jake Dyson, the son of Dyson creator and legend James Dyson has been thinking about. As a teenager Jake would spend his summers contrasting vacuum cleaners along his father in their basement. Jake who is now 41 years old plans to expand the services that Dyson offers…wait for it…lighting!

He has recently divulged the latest addition to his high-end lighting units designed to save energy by slimming the number of lights required in the home and workplace. In 2004 Jake set up a design studio based in London in which he has mainly focused on light-emitting diodes (LEDs) widely known for their long lifespans.

Many LEDs have a rated life of up to 50,000 hours. This is approximately 50 times longer than a typical incandescent, 20-25 times longer than a typical halogen. But Jake wanted to go one step further; he wanted to create a light bulb for life. The difficultly was that the semiconductor chips that make the light also produce powerful heat, which harms the chip, decreasing the brightness and changing the light’s colour.

A cooling system was required to stop the chips overheating and therefore prolong their life span, Dyson said. The system he developed works much like technology in laptop computers removing the heat from the chip to “calm” it. Keeping the heat of the chip low allows more powerful LEDs to be used.

Just last week Jake revealed a new overhead light called ‘Ariel’, which is designed to illuminate long desks in offices, boardrooms and kitchens. The light has been priced at £1,300 on the high street or around £850 for trade customers. Dyson promoted that the fittings have a 37-year life span, saving on installation and efficiency.

“Our business model is to make and design lights which last for life, not to make lights which need to be ripped out and replaced every seven years,” he said.

The light gets a big area of even illumination from a single LED, cutting out the waste of numerous light sources. Equally James Dyson’s signature products do the same jobs as traditional appliances, but with something missing: the vacuum cleaner was bagless, the fan is blade-less, and the hand dryer uses no heat, whallah.

LED is digital light, and the advantages versus conventional ‘analog’ lighting are so huge and of major benefit to both the users of this “technology of digital light” as well as also to our planet. Other advantages include their durable quality, design flexibility, low voltage, energy efficiency, zero UV emissions and of course their long life!


Meet El Hierro…The first island powered 100% by wind!

11 Jul

Ahhh the Canary Islands the place of sun and sand…and the first place of 100% wind power! The smallest of the Canary Islands ‘El Hierro’ has become the first Island in the world to be 100% wind-powered. The island is owned by Spain and is located off the coast of Africa. They have built five wind turbines on the North Eastern tip of the Island for a capacity of 11.5 megawatts. The population of El Hierro is 10,162 as of 2003, therefore the 11.5 megawatts would be enough for all the people who live there.

According to the Ministry for Industry, Tourism and Commerce, El Hierro has become the first island in the world to be energy self-sufficient. They have achieved this through a €54 million project combining a greater than 11 megawatt wind farm and two hydroelectric projects.

They have even implemented a back-up plan for when the wind isn’t blowing! Back-up power will be provided from pumped water storage. The hybrid wind/pumped hydro storage system will store surplus wind power by pumping water up 700 meters (approximately 2,300 feet) to fill the crater of an extinct volcano. When winds are calm or when demand exceeds supply, water will be released from the crater to generate 11.3 MW of electricity, filling an artificial basin created at the bottom of the extinct volcano. Water in the lower basin is then pumped back up again to the upper reservoir when there is excess wind power.

In terms of their carbon footprint, the wind farm and pumped water storage will slash their CO2 emissions by around 18,700 tonnes per year. The project will also eliminate the islands annual consumption of 40,000 barrels of oil. This being said, as a back-up precaution El Hierro will maintain its fuel oil power station. Makes sense I guess?

The closed-loop hybrid wind/hydro system was tested at the end of 2013, and they expect to save approximately £2.5M per year (calculated with January 2011 oil prices).

Hopefully other island nations take encouragement from El Hierro. Many of the surrounding islands burn oil to produce their electricity. The alternative wind, hydro and solar options and much cleaner and potentially make fuel cost free after the initial set up costs.

As of May 2014, the island has become completely self-sufficient for electrical energy. Well done El Hierro!

Distinctive looking Dutch homes could see a solar-panel skin makeover!

14 Mar

In the Netherlands around 60 percent of their homes are row house terraces. These row homes where built after World War II as a quick and cost-efficient way to solve a housing shortage but as you can imagine have proved over time to not be terribly energy efficient. The architecture of these houses embodies the Dutch landscape so with energy efficiency in mind it’s important to not lose this attractive culture.

A group of students from Delft University have established an idea called Prêt-à-Loger, or ready to be lived in which involves a solar-powered skin being connected to the house to enhance energy usage, while at the same time preserve the characteristic Dutch architecture. The project’s name was chosen because people can still live in the home while changes are being made to create sustainability, according to the Prêt-à-Loger website.

The skin would be fitted to the exterior of the house sprawling from the front to the back. One side of the skin will contain insulation to trap the heat indoors, whilst the other will be fitted with glass and photovoltaic panels to reap energy from the sun.

“The insulated skin will provide a climatic buffer zone to the outside, generate its own power and reclaim the somewhat lost relationship to the public street thus tackling issues regarding ecological and in particular social sustainability,” the team said in a press statement.

Through the summer months the skin opens up to maximum potential to increase airflow using what is known as the ‘stack effect’. Stack effect is the movement of air into and out of buildings and is driven by buoyancy. Buoyancy occurs due to a difference in indoor-to-outdoor air density resulting from temperature and moisture differences. The greater the thermal difference and height of the structure, then the greater the buoyancy force will be, resulting in the stack effect.

In the months of winter, the skin will enclose the house entirely to contain the heat. Through the autumn and spring months the skin will open partially to provide ventilation. According to the team at Delft University, the theory shows how 1.4 million similarly built Dutch homes could become entirely energy neutral.

With Dutch towns being so distinctive is important to keep the ‘Dutch look and feel’.  The team have said that for the average Dutch family, improving the homes sustainability only is not an ample reason for implementation. If the house and garden area were to be visually enhanced, it would make the notion much more attractive.

The technology will be showcased by the team at the 2014 Solar Decathlon, a competition where universities around the world are asked to exhibit full-scale concepts of functional solar-powered homes. The team will fit the skin to a model home based on the distinguished Dutch dwelling. The showcase will take place in June and July in Versailles, France.


Iceland plans to get hot and steamy…

28 Feb

The Earths centre is around 6000 degrees Celsius and is hot enough to melt rock. At just a few kilometres down, the temperature can be over 250 degrees Celsius if the Earth’s crust is thin.

Geothermal energy works as follows; Hot rocks underground heat water to produce steam. We then drill holes down to the hot region; steam comes up, is purified and used to drive turbines, which drive electric generators. Walla we have energy.

Geothermal energy is not a recent development; it has been used for thousands of years. In some countries, they used this form of energy for cooking and heating. The name “geothermal” comes from two Greek words: “geo” means “Earth” and “thermal” means “heat”.

Iceland has decided to break records by becoming the first country to utilise the world’s magma as a source of power. The country has built a geothermal energy system to take advantage of the Earths heat to generate electricity.

Geothermal systems are currently well established in science which involves pumping water deep below the ground, which boils, turns to steam and pushes a turbine as it returns back to the surface. But Iceland has gone the extra mile. They have created a system which produces steam in a region of molten, rather than solid rock.

In Iceland the researchers fitted a valve where superheated steam could flow through in sufficient quantities to generate 36 megawatts of power. This will mark the second time researchers have effectively drilled into a magma bubble. The only country before this was Hawaii, who created a plug and installed it to the bottom of the hole for protection.

Iceland made precautions to connect the steam output to a nearby electrical plant in Krafla (Northeast Iceland), but the valve failed resulting in the hole needing to be closed. Regardless of this, the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) has confidence in that it can reopen the hole, 2.1 kilometres below the surface.

They also intend to drill an additional borehole in the Reykjanes peninsula in the southwest of the country. The IDDP said;

“The experiment at Krafla suffered various setbacks and tried personnel and equipment throughout. However, the process itself was very instructive, and… comprehensive reports on practical lessons learned are nearing completion.”

“The success of this drilling and research is amazing to say the least, and could in the near future lead to a revolution in energy efficiency in high-temperature geothermal areas of the world”

A major problem with geothermal energy is the cost of test drilling as approximately 50% of test drilling produces negative results with zero geothermal activity. This becomes difficult when commercial banks are involved as it is simply too high a risk to fund. Thus, countries must be confident on where this type of technology can and should be installed.

A number of countries around the world have some confidence when it comes to geothermal energy as they are located on what is known as ‘The ring of fire’.  This is an area where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur in the basin of the Pacific Ocean. In a 40,000 km (25,000 mi) horseshoe shape, it is associated with a nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs, and volcanic belts and/or plate movements. It has 452 volcanoes and is home to over 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes.

So, while all eyes are currently on Iceland…if successful we could see a huge jump in geothermal, utilising the natural resources the Earth has to offer.

Farm waste to create renewable energy

12 Dec

When we examine the development of renewable energy we automatically assume Solar, Wind, Hydro and Geothermal energies play their part in creating renewable energy. This is soon set to change as a new three year research project is currently in the works to see the agriculture, aquaculture and biogas sectors working together to develop renewable energy. The initiative establishes how refining sustainability, reducing waste and achieving operational efficiencies can be achieved simultaneously.

The EU led project is called BIFFiO and will prove important in contributing towards the EU goal of sourcing 20% of Europe’s energy demands from renewable energy sources by the year 2020.

At present, both agriculture and aquaculture sectors are producing a great deal of waste which is often unused or untreated. There has been impending pressure over the last few years for the farms to reduce their environmental footprint. A goal the BIFFiO project aims to achieve is to develop an advantageous method for both farmer and energy creator for handling the mixed wastes and turning them into usable renewable energy.

The project was launched in November 2013. Its first objective was to examine how waste can be treated and how used best to create renewable energy. They will also investigate what other nutrients are in the waste so they can be recovered for other processes. The secondary objective would be to replace existing technologies used in large scale waste treatments, with an economical biogas energy system which can be produced locally on or near a farm site.

In terms of wastes created it will be important to mix the waste so stock will be high. Generally, the waste will be used from fish farms and agricultural farming sites. The manure waste from farms will react well for the production of biogas, which in time can be used for renewable energy as well as supplying fertiliser to the agriculture industry.

Over the next three years, the project team plan to address the challenges faced by industry by looking at new ways to meet regulatory requirements, and to develop best practice for by-products.

Overall, the project aims to enhance hygienic and environmental standards in farming in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the project will have an overall positive impact on local social and economic conditions by tackling pollution problems from the agricultural sector.

Japan’s out of this world solar panel plan!

6 Dec

Over in Japan an architectural/engineering firm called Shimizu has proposed an out of this world solution. Now we know the Japanese are extremely forward thinking and have some brilliant ideas but this one is actually out of this world. They propose to build a solar panel array around the moons equator and send the electricity that it collects back to Earth. Would this solve our energy and climate crisis?

The project is called Luna Ring and will consist of building a giant strip of solar panels 249 miles wide all the way around the moons equator. A system of this size would be capable of sending 13,000 terawatts of power back to Earth. The energy would be sent back to Earth in the form of microwaves, which would then be converted on Earth into carbon free energy at stations on the ground. According to the Shimizu, construction could start as early as 2035.

This all sounds great but…how would you build all this on the moon? Have you seen the film ‘Gravity’? (A wonderful film by the way, I suggest you go see). Shimizu has a plan:

“Robots will perform various tasks on the lunar surface, including ground levelling and excavation of hard bottom strata,” says Shimizu.

Solar Moon

They will be tele-operated 24 hours a day from the Earth. The concrete would be covered with solar panels, which would be connected via cables to microwave and laser transmission stations. The cables will transfer the electric power from the lunar solar cells to the transmission plants. High-energy-density laser will send the energy to the receiving plants using 20km-diameter antennas.

A radio beacon brought from the Earth will be used to ensure accurate transmission. Materials needed for the construction and maintenance of the Solar Belt will be transported along this route. Electric power cables will be installed under the transportation route.

A huge advantage of the Luna Ring is that it will allow for a round-the-clock source of energy, as there are no clouds or other bad weather on the Moon. Which sounds very hunky dory?

In recent years Japan has been researching new ways to create energy. The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 led to a closure of the country’s nuclear power plants.

If the project takes off this could be an amazing feat for mankind. Though, what concerns me is that this plan is very wild, the stuff you see in movies…could this work? It is hard to imagine an idea so complex. So what this space…no pun intended!


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