Category Archives: Technology

ford and microsoft partner for a better electric car

As auto producers continue to unveil plans for developing all-electric (EV) and plug-in-hybrid vehicles (PHEV) for the near-future market, there are still many questions regarding the broader implications of building a larger EV infrastructure.  Many of the use models for electric cars involve some form of recharging strategy relying on a direct interface with our current energy grid. This is no simple proposition.  Though it is improving, much of our energy grid is quite antiquated.  Just this week, as the summer temperatures started setting in here in New York, we had small scale brown outs and power shortages in several highly populated portions of north Brooklyn.

In order to prepare for the impeding influx of electric vehicles on US streets, solutions for managing their use of the power grid will need to be implemented.  We’ve already seen a lot of these “smart grid” technologies hit the market for home energy management.  Google among other companies have developed energy management tools that help users understand their home energy use and make changes to improve their efficiency.  Recharging a car would add an immense load to the average household energy needs making the need for such technologies that much more important.  To be successful, energy management tools will need to not only monitor the use of your appliances and heating and cooling systems but also your new electric car.

The Ford Motor Co. has already got a jump on this need by partnering with Microsoft to integrate energy management software into it’s future line of electric vehicles. Ford is planning on releasing a all-electric version of their popular Focus model as soon as 2011.  Microsoft’s Hohm software will assist owners in determining how to  to recharge their vehicle’s batteries in the most efficient, responsible, and affordable way.  The primary goal of the software will be to lessen the strain of car charging on the power grid during peak hours, and to help utilities better manage the rising need.  To accomplish this Ford and Microsoft will also be working directly with individual cities and utilities to bring them into the development process creating a true “systems” approach.

IT has been an increasingly important part of auto design, most recently in the form of integrating the myriad of mobile technologies we have come to rely on. Ford’s partnership with Microsoft takes this relationship a step further by involving the still emerging field of smart grid technology into the future automobile.  Regardless of weather  Electric vehicles represent the best long-term solution to the countries car-dependency, the EVs are certainly here and are going to be a influential part of the future energy needs.

Advertisements

New LED bulbs hit the market

A few months back I wrote about the new E-Core LED lightbulb developed by Toshiba.  At that time the E-Core had received a lot of fanfare coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show, and seemed poised to be the first LED bulb to be made widely available on the US market.  Well as it turns out the other big players in the light bulb industry where not far behind with their own LED bulbs.  GE, Panasonic, Philips and Osram Sylvania, amongst others have all jumped in the race to provided their own LED light bulb by the end of the year.  It seems all but decided that Light Emitting Diodes will shortly become the new standard of luminescence, however at a price of $30-$40 a piece, any mass transition may not occur for some time.

The reason these manufacturers are focused primarily on 60-watt equivalent bulbs is because the standard 60 watt incandescent bulb represents the highest proportion of replacement bulbs sold today.  By taking on the mainstream market bulb makers are actively seeking to rapidly distribute this new technology with the end goal of driving down the purchasing cost.  The price of a 60 watt equivalent LED bulb has already dropped considerably, from around $90 2 years ago, down to about $30 per bulb.  The problem is that standard incandescent bulbs are extremely inexpensive, around $0.50.

So here lies the challenge; how to convince a consumer to pay $30 when they can meet the same immediate need for just 50 cents.  The new LED bulbs are far and away more efficient than their Incandescent and compact florescent predecessors, using only 9 watts of electricity and lasting up to 12 times as long as standard bulbs.  As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s difficult to sell a consumer on a product with superior efficiency when over-time savings are reflected in decades rather than individual months or years.  Light bulbs are considered a disposable product, in some cases nothing more than a chore or a nuisance, something you HAVE to take time to replace every so often.  Can you really turn that into a $30 – $40 proposition to the average consumer? Well maybe…if you make it free!

Earlier this month, in an article posted on GreenTech:Media, it was mentioned that once these LED bulbs approach a $20 price point it is feasible that utility providers my begin providing them to their customers for free.  The rational for this argument is that once you get bellow a certain price per unit the efficiency savings in energy usage outweigh the cost.  If utilities can take measures to reduce energy usage (a counter-intuitive point, I agree) they inevitably reduce the need to bring new power plants online in the future.  Next to delivery infrastructure, new power plants are by far the highest costs facing most energy utilities.  Several years ago when Compact Florescent bulbs where flooding the market we saw several utilities implement similar strategies of providing vouchers for free CFL bulbs.  Though CFLs are far less expensive it remains a relevant precedent because it also reveals the marketing potential for such a program.  Energy utilities have spent millions in trying to make their brands appear more environmentally responsible, some have even set up entirely new subsidiary brands to cater to a rising eco-audience amongst consumers.  While actual supply and production metrics tell a strong story, marketing may add an even more compelling element to the future rise of LED bulbs. It would be very interesting to explore how this business logic could be applied to other energy efficient products.  In the mean time get ready for a new kid on the block when it comes to light bulbs.

latest in LED tech: ECORE lightbulbs from toshiba

image via gizmag.com

One of the heroes from last months CES expo was the super efficient ECORE LED lightbulb developed by Toshiba.  The introduction of the bulbs to the US market are part of Toshiba’s “Vision 2050” initiative, a long-term sustainability plan aimed at increasing the companies overall eco-efficiency.  The performance lightbulbs produce a 265 lumen output (similar to a 40 watt incandescent) getting 50 lumen per watt and using only 5.3 total watts.  In other words, a bulb that will last 40 times longer than traditional incandescent lightbulb (about 40,000 hours), is compatible with existing commercial and residential uses, and reduces CO2 emissions by 85 percent.

Though off-the-shelf LED technology like ECORE has been available in other countries like Japan for several years they have only begun to pop-up state-side.  This has had a lot to do with cost, LED lighting remains a very expensive alternative to incandescent and fluorescent alternatives.  A cost-benefit analysis of LED lights may have to cover many years to show any kind of compelling advantage to the average consumer. This is why factors such as CO2 emissions are crucial to understanding the true impact of such efficiency products, and to the conversion of more consumers to accept them.  The advantages of energy efficient technologies have traditionally been expressed in terms of cost, which is certainly important.  However, growing awareness of the environmental issues and the acceptance of sustainability principles by many has opened the door to greater considerations when it comes to adopting new technologies.  By placing a greater value on long-term impacts such as CO2 emissions and potential maintenance/replacement liabilities, I think we will soon see a greater shift towards the advantages of  LED and other still emerging technologies.

the apple ipad: just a begining

image via apple.com

Wow! I can’t believe how much debate is flying around about Apple’s new product, the iPad, which they officially introduced yesterday. People expect a lot from Apple these days, and apparently they get really upset when the newest  apple product just isn’t something they instantly want. Though I do understand some of the criticism, I feel much of the feedback is a little misplaced. Interestingly enough, much of the most vehement negative commentary is coming directly form some of apple’s biggest devotees; creatives.  It’s widely known that many of apple’s most ardent followers lean heavily on the creative side of things, i.e. designers, artists, etc.  They are upset because they expect apple products to be ‘tools’ for their creation of work and expression, and the ipad is clearly NOT intended for producing any type of content, but rather for consuming it.  And that’s fine. If the recent success of e-readers like the Kindle has taught us anything its that there is a momentous shift underway to bring every last shred of existing media, art, and entertainment content to a digital audience. Creating an attractive and well designed product with which people can experience this transition of content, is certainly a legitimate cause for a new entry form apple. I think it’s pretty clear that, in typical apple fashion, this a preemptive entry into a still developing market, just as the now iconic iPod was nearly a decade ago.

The one thing I will agree on with the dissenters is that the name “iPad” is absolutely horrible.  Can’t win em’ all apple, try again.

turning garbage into green

Earlier this fall the Montgomery County Solid Waste Transfer Station in Derwood, Maryland was host to the first public performance of the Envion Oil Generator (EOG). What makes this new technology so intriguing is that the EOG can actually make usable oil product directly out of our own plastic garbage that would otherwise be buried it in a landfill or incinerated. Envion also claims that it can create this light to medium grade synthetic oil at an operational cost of around USD$10 per barrel. The concept of recapturing some of the energy that is trapped in the approximately 60 million tons of plastic waste produced each year could mean a whole new way of looking at the countries solid waste stream.

In my experience as a designer there has been hardly a single product or package I have dealt with that wasn’t composed of one or several types of plastic. Plastics have innumerable advantages in both manufacturing and performance which has led to their rise to become a truly ubiquitous aspect of our built environment and the objects that fill it.  It is therefore very frustrating that plastic also presents on of the greatest challenges to managing our solid waste reality.  Much of the problem has to do with plastic’s ability to far outlast the intended life of the products and packaging for which it is used. Not only does it degrade extremely slowly, but it can also release harmful chemicals in the process.  Even more troubling is the fact that most plastic is derived directly from the limited, costly, and non-renewable resource of oil and natural gas, two carbon-intensive fuels at the very core of the current fight for improved sustainability.

In my past posts I have addressed some of the issues concerning plastics by examining stories of improved or expanded recycling.  The last few years have seen an absolute explosion in consumer products containing recycled content.  Riding a tide of consumer demand, or at least expectation of “green”,  the use of recycled content has become a standard strategy for boosting a products’ green credentials.  However, designing something that is recyclable or made from some portion of recycled material remains a somewhat limited solution to improving overall sustainability.  This is because each time something plastic is recycled the performance and appearance attributes of the resulting material is significantly diminished, limiting the amount of times a given type of material can be reused and what types of new products it can be used for.

This conundrum surrounding how we handle our mounting reliance on plastic illustrates just how exciting the new Envion Oil Generator technology is for the future of plastic waste handling.  What Envion has created is a way to reconstitute bulk, unsorted plastic waste back into a usable petroleum product from which commercial fuels or even new plastic can be derived. This suggest that what was previously considered garbage can actually be turned into a source of renewable energy.  This is the type of solution that could actually shift consumers and producers’ perspectives on how we look at waste in general – as a potential resource.

The EOG works by using a reactor that converts waste plastic into oil through low temperature thermal cracking in a vacuum, extracting the hydrocarbons embedded in petroleum-based plastic waste. Each EOG unit is assembled on 47ft x 13ft mobile platform and can process up to 10,000 tons of plastic waste annually. The system converts roughly 62 percent of the plastic (by weight) into usable oil – three to five barrels of refined oil per ton of plastic waste.  The remaining by-product consists of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ash.  Envion even re-uses some of these by-products in the conversion process, utilizing vent gas to provide electricity and recirculating excess oil residue back into the system to improve efficiency.

Envion has been working on this technology for almost 15 years, and is now confidently promoting what they claim is a fully scalable, carbon negative oil production system.  They have already begun work on similar reactors to handle other forms of petroleum based waste, such as used tires.  Time will tell weather this new technology will prove a sustainable new boom amongst the world of waste. Regardless, seeing someone bold enough to snatch new sources of energy right out of the garbage bin sure is exciting.

unwiring the future of device charging

powermatcharging_450x275

Since it was first previewed at CES last winter, the Powermat wireless charging system has definitely been raising some buzz.  Now officially available to the retail public, Powermat’s new line of products have proved an attractive ambassador for the future of wireless charging. The relatively simple system consists of a plug-in charging mat and a receiver coil embedded in a back cover for your portable device.  The main advantage of the system is that it can simultaneously charge up to three devices while eliminating the need for that tangle of multiple charging cords and adapters.  The low-profile receiver coils are available in the form of a protective add-on sheath for the Nintendo DS, Apple iPhone 3G,  and iPod Touch, and as a replacement rear battery door for Blackberry products (Bold, Pearl, Curve 8300 and 8900).   For those devices which receivers are not yet available Powermat is offering the “Powercube Universal Receiver” which will connect devices via a small box with interchangeable tips like the common mini & micro usb format.

wireless charging stand for the Latitude Z desktop

wireless charging stand for the Latitude Z desktop

While Powermat may be the leading solution for wireless charging currently on the market, the technology it uses is certainly not new to the world of consumer electronics Palm Inc. has released the Touchstone wireless charging system for it’s Palm Pre phones.  Philips is using it for its products, such as the Sonicare toothbrush. Even more notable is the new high end business laptop from Dell the Latitude Z, which boasts an integrated wireless charging capability.

The release of the Powermat system has also added an intriguing new dynamic to the current fervor surrounding wireless and induction power. While many of the other technology players are focusing on establishing industry standards and forging alliances with device manufacturers, Powermat is taking the “first to market” approach.  Such a strategy is common in the volatile consumer electronics market, and can bring either great reward or major failure.  The idea behind it is portrayed best by the Apple i-archetype of establishing industry standards and peripheral sub-markets through sheer consumer popularity and market control.  Time will tell whether Powermat will last out, but they’re certainly off to an interesting start.

apple iphone with "receiver coil" case for the Powermat system

apple iphone with "receiver coil" case for the Powermat system

The challenge facing companies like Powermat who are seeking to address the consumer need for multiple device charging, is how to best integrate with the myriad of devices out there.  Many in the industry are predicting that it is simply a matter of time before device producers will begin to incorporate induction charging coils directly into their product’s designs.  In the mean time it is up to the charging pad producers to provide their own secondary solutions.  While Powermat has been able to produce interchangeable parts for the Blackberry line, they can offer only external cases for most others, and are still stuck in the limbo of having to sell these as secondary components at additional entry-level cost to their customer.  This may prove to turn some off despite the perceived convenience they would gain.

Beyond simple recharging for handhelds, it’s not hard to imagine some other exciting potential applications for this type of technology.  Chief among these is the role wireless power might play if it where to be integrated directly into the surfaces that make up our living and working environments.  So its to no surprise that Powerpad is already collaborating with the office design company Teknion, to demonstrate how wireless powering could be used in the walls, partitions, and desktops that make-up the modern office space. The effort earned the company the Best of Competition Award at this years NeoCon conference in Chicago.  By concealing the powermat technology within existing surfaces, a very compelling image of an invisibly powered office emerges, powering thinks like task lamps and computer monitors with out the need for cords and outlets.

I’m writing a lot about this topic because I feel it has real potential to be a “game changing” technology.  Now I know its easy to get wrapped up in the buzz around new technologies, but “unwiring” our environments is an increasingly worthy challange as we continue to become more tied to portable electronic devices.  I’ve been following the various companies involved in wireless powering for several years now, since back when I was a product design student. I’m very excited to see this new surge in momentum behind magnetic induction applications and interested to see how consumers will respond to new products like the Powermat.

wal-mart sustainability index – free market sustainability?

wal-mart-storesmallerEarlier this month Wal-Mart announced a bold new plan to create a comprehensive “sustainability index” for every product it sells.  The index is intended to capture the full impact of each product and “effectively quantify the sustainable attributes of a product by examining the energy & climate, material efficiency, natural resources, and people & community aspects of a manufactured product throughout its life cycle”.  The following link is to Wal-Mart’s 16 sustainability questions, on which the index is based. The end goal will not be to apply a simple score, or ranking to each product, but rather to force Wal-Mart’s suppliers to analyze their products and processes, and then release real information, and benchmarking concerning their respective practices.  This will then create greater transparency amongst suppliers in the hopes that they will begin competing with one another to create more sustainable products.  Though Wal-Mart will be giving preference to those suppliers whom provide the “greenest” options, the full scope of this preference will remain ambiguous, leaving it up to the suppliers themselves to determine the highest standards.

This approach is typical for many of Wal-Marts past initiatives, which have employed their global market influence to encourage others to make certain changes to their businesses without direct involvement or funding from Wal-mart themselves.  Wal-Mart’s authority comes from the fact that they are the worlds single largest retailer.  Previously, this power was used to force lower prices, but the same leverage is now serving a grander scheme of using free-market pressures to produce more sustainable products – a very provocative and increasingly buzzed about concept.

sustainable-wal-martThe immense challenge of creating an index complex enough to cover the tens of thousands of products sold by Wal-Mart, has lead to their creation of the Sustainability Consortium – “a group comprised of leading academic researchers and companies, working collaboratively to design and develop the Sustainable Index”.  The consortium includes institutions like Arizona State University and University of Arkansas, and is being expanded to include other leading retailers such as BestBuy and Target.  The index will no doubt see considerable iteration in years to come, but for the time being it represents a very compelling starting point.

It’s always exciting to see Wal-Mart continue to push the envelope in the realm of sustainable products and packaging.  Though many progressives, will continue to “love to hate” the mega retailer, they will have a harder time keeping up if Wal-Mart continues raising the stakes the way they are.  We’ll be watching closely as the the”index” begins being applied, to see from where the most measurable changes come from. Exciting stuff.