Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

IBM takes on the devil in the details

image via ibm.com

One of the greatest challenges to businesses pursuit of sustainability is understanding the vast interconnected supply chains that all products inevitably relay upon.  In truth a company can only claim they are environmentally responsible if they’ve taken into consideration the broader impact of all the individual components, materials, and packaging that contribute to the overall business.  The complexity of trying to measure one’s impact in terms of things like energy use, emissions, and waste is that those metrics exist not only for the company whose name is on the product but also for the myriad of supporting companies whose own products and services go into the making of that final entity.

In the last few years many organizations have attempted to address this challenge through the creation of standardized assessment tools that apply a scorecard approach to each individual product.  These assessments are often based on applying generalized values to various aspects of a product; such as the materials used.  But the utility of such tools is often limited because the amount of information needed to populate the equations is simply unknown or unavailable.  To contend with this issue many of the larger consumer product companies have had to take it upon themselves to organize this information, which means demanding their suppliers provide more accountability.  This is an approach pioneered by Wal-mart which has been able to extract mountains of environmental data from their suppliers by establishing sustainability guidelines for many of the products they sell.  Nothing seems more typically American then a major corporation leveraging its size and dominance in a market to pressure it’s suppliers into meeting demands, But using that power for good, well that’s a new twist.

The New York Times recently reported that IBM has launched a new supply chain initiative requiring all of its suppliers to employ some form of environmental management system and to begin tracking environmental data like energy, water, and greenhouse gas emissions.  The initiative is a first step in cleaning up IBMs global operations which involve suppliers in 90 different countries worldwide.  IBM has thus recognized the fundamental roll that data plays in any sustainability measures.  Once they have a picture of their global impact across the entire supply chain they will be able to create a far more strategic plan for improving their efficiency and reducing waste and emissions.

IBM has taken things a step further by requiring it’s suppliers to publicly publish all their environmental findings and to forward the mandate on to their own subcontractors and suppliers.  The goal to capture any and all environmental data contributing to the massive IBM supply chain will be critical to the companies future decision making with regard to sustainability.  To encourage compliance form it’s suppliers IBM has played that ultimate power-card; If you don’t have a data monitoring system in place  by 2011, you know longer do business with IBM.

link to NYtimes


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.

MIT’s trash tracker – shows where it goes

trashtrack

I recently came across an interesting story about a new project being conducted by a group at MIT dubbed the SENSEable City Lab.  The project, called TrashTrack is geared towards creating a kind of living map of our municipal waste system, with the goal of illuminating possible inefficiencies and of making people generally more conscious of their daily consumption.  Beginning in New York and Seattle, the lab will be tagging thousands of pieces of trash with wireless location markers, and will then map the tagged items’ actual journey through the waste stream. The resulting trash”migration patterns” will be made available online and in live exhibitions starting this September.

It’s probably not widely known, to most people, exactly how our trash gets to where it’s going.  Most, of course realize that the landfill is the most likely destination for their rubbish, but do they know where their landfill is located? Does the truck that picks it up off their stoop take it directly to the dump, or does it get sorted first, or transferred to another vehicle, a barge, or a train even?  Does it travel far, to another state perhaps, or is it interned right there in their own community? Understanding these things are important to raising the level of consciousness around our individual consumption and the resulting contribution it makes to waste systems which are not generally understood by the public.

According to the EPA’s 2007 figures, the United States, generated approximately 254 million tons of municipal solid waste, with a recovery rate for recycling and composting of around 85 million tons or 32.5 percent.  This comes down to about 4.62 pounds of trash per person per day.  This is a significant daily impact, the appropriate handling of which is a critical element of the infrastructure of our cities.  I’m excited to see what really happens to my new york trash.  Though I think of myself as being pretty on-top of this type of information, I’m fairly sure I will be surprised to see how things really go down.

electric avenue

dusk-interstate-trafficNew Energy Technologies, Inc. a company specializing in the the development of alternative energy solutions, recently announced the completion of a prototype device, designed to generate electricity form moving vehicles.  The technology, called MotionPower(tm), employs a mechanical system to capture energy created my moving vehicles and they come in contact with the device. While only in the prototype phase, the company reports that the final product, will be a portable, easy-to-install solution, suitable to a variety of roadway applications. Once in place it can produce enough electricity to power street lights, signals, adjacent buildings, or simply hold the energy in reserve for emergency use.  Sounds great!

I should mention however, that there is not a lot of details being released about MotionPower(tm), which more than warrants some degree of skepticism.  But I thought I’d include it on the blog anyways because I think the application of kinetic energy harvesting is kinda cool.  There has been a lot of attention in recent years to similar ‘kinetic’ concepts, most focusing on capturing energy from human motion.  Many of these concepts seem to prefer the use of piezoelectric technology for energy generation and have been proposed for everything from sidewalks, to dance floors, to baby rockers.

Regardless, the idea of high traffic areas generating a little extra juice has some merrit.  One could imagine that installing a bank of these devices at a large concentrations of toll booths, or extrmely busy intersections could have some actual impact, maybe even produce enough power to be self-sustaining.  But lets not get ahead of ourselves, I’ll reserve judgment for when some more facts on MotionPower(tm) become available.

building a hydrogen infrastructure

air_products_hydrogen_fueling_statin_300x199Las month, the small Long Island town of Hempstead began construction of the areas first hydrogen fueling station.  The project is a collaboration between the town of Hempsted, New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the electric utility National Grid. The initial goal of the station, other than providing fuel, will be to educate the local population about alternative fuels for transportation.  The station will utilize technology from Air Products to handle three fuel types; pure hydrogen, hydrogen with compressed natural gas, and natural gas.   Though there are only a few scattered facilities such as this in the region as a whole, the plan is to eventually link them all together under the New York State Hydrogen Energy Roadmap.

I’m always encouraged when I see hydrogen being put to greater task as an energy source because I feel it has  very strong long-term potential.  However, despite the slow but steady efforts by many governments and leading companies to continue investing in hydrogen research and technology development, it has been receiving growing criticism in recent years.  In fact, there seems to be a lot of people out there that have written-off hydrogen all together for use in transportation.  Some of the most commonly cited reasons for dismissing hydrogen are the limited production and distribution infrastructures currently available and the high cost of available fuel cell technology.  These are very good points, but they don’t seem to acknowledge that there is currently no demand for hydrogen as a transportation fuel, so why would there be an infrastructure to provide it? It’s the same “build it, and they will come” debate so often run into when advocating new technologies, and it has no good answer.

Those who support Hybrid and conventional electric solutions have had to deal with the same issues regarding batteries.  Though battery technology is improving daily, the capacity to produce large amounts of high-quality, vehicle-ready units is quite limited in total scale, and almost nonexistent as an industry in the U.S.  Additionally, batteries wear out after a certain period of use and require very significant amounts of raw material extraction and specialized disposal or recycling.  These issues seem to epitomize the battery’s role as a “temporary” transportation solution. This makes it difficult to compare such solutions directly to the still emergent use of hydrogen fuel-cell Technology.

The reality is that those who are willing to start making more sustainable lifestyle decisions have a tendency to want to do so immediately.  Thus a Hydrogen transportation infrastructure that may be 15-25 years down the road will invariably be brushed aside for the relatively cheap and easy alternative of a plug in hybrid or electric vehicle that is “theoretically” available right now.  But I for one am very skeptical of the battery becoming our next transportation backbone, especially with regard to EVs which contrary to the on going media frenzy will not be flooding the entry-level market anytime soon.  In the meantime however those companies already deeply invested in creating a variety of divergent technologies, will carry forward whatever plans they have in place, and we the public will be required to wade through the complex challenge of determining the best alternative to fossil fuel transportation.

energy generating shock absorbers

genshockprotA team of undergraduate students at MIT’s department of Materials Science and Engineering have pioneered a new technology allowing vehicle shock absorbers to generate electricity from the bumps in the road.  The prototype shocks function by using a hydraulic system to push fluid through a turbine attached to a generator. As a vehicle passes over a bump the resulting jolt sends a charge back into the vehicles electrical system that can be used to recharge batteries or power electrical devices.  The shocks are also designed to be controlled by an active electronic system that optimizes their dampening to provide an even smoother ride, further improving the vehicles overall efficiency.

This is a great example of how designers and engineers can create new levels of vehicle efficiency by focusing on the areas where energy is wasted.  These Regenerative solutions have received much attention as of recently, due primarily to the successful application of regenerative braking systems in hybrid electric automobiles. The concept itself however is nothing terribly new, electric vehicles such as trains have employed regenerative braking for decades.  But the MIT team sought to break new ground by taking on a somewhat over looked source of potential energy – vehicle suspension.

The team is already claiming they can achieve improved fuel efficiency of around 10%.  Testing has shown that when installed on a 6-shock heavy truck, each shock absorber could generate up to an average of 1 kW — enough power to completely displace the large alternator load in heavy vehicles.  The team has patented the shock absorbers, and formed a company, called Levant Power Corp., to develop and commercialize the product.

Full speed ahead.