latest in LED tech: ECORE lightbulbs from toshiba

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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 high-speed rail enigma

Last year, the government designated $8 billion for the development of high-speed rail lines in the US, adding another $2.5 billion this past December.  This was welcome news to those who have long hoped to see a rail revival in this country, especially one with modern trains like those in europe and asia that can travel in excess of 200mph. This however, may just be wishful thinking given the actual challenges to creating such an infrastructure in the US.  The problems are numerous, and compounded by one overarching issue, cost.  Modern rail, apparently, is one of the most expensive forms of infrastructure there is.

This past week, The gov announced they would be allotting the first big chunk of that money, $2.5 billion to the state of Florida, which has completed plans for a high-speed link-up between Tampa and Orlando.  This is just the 1st phase of a state-wide network which will eventually connect with other major cities like Miami.  However, the estimated cost of just this 1st phase is about $3.5 billion! That’s pretty steep considering the route is only 85 miles across the pancake-flat I-40 corridor. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s great, I’m just not holding out hope for anyone to announce my dream line from New York to Chicago any time soon. At over $41 million per mile, even more if there’s any significant terrain to cross, that’s gonna be tough sell in this economy.

But Kudos to Florida for getting their act together.  Most states have completely forsaken whatever potential there is left for rail in their regions, and at this rate don’t stand much of a chance of getting their hands on any of that high-speed cheese.  With two major airports and destinations like Disney World, maybe shorter routes like this make the most sense.  It’s tough to say, but I will remain optimistic, mostly because I just love trains.

the apple ipad: just a begining

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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.

best of 09: greener electronics rankings

Earlier this month at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Greenpeace announced their most recent “Guide to Greener Electronics”.  The guide is meant to compare and rank the leading electronics manufacturers  regarding the use of hazardous materials within their products.  Greenpeace takes its judging criteria a step further by assigning points for those companies who not only reduce their use of certain substances like PVC plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFR’s), but who also support current legislation to ban and control such substances. The guide also looks at the recycling and reuse of a company’s production waste as well as all their discarded, obsolete products already in the waste stream. Many companies such as Dell have set up special programs that allow their customers to recycle they’re old PCs and monitors.  This is a relatively new business model for most manufacturers, and it has spread to many other industries. Though much of the reasoning behind companies that attempt to take responsibility for post consumer waste has to do with boosting their brand image and answering a generally raising popular expectation, there have been a few to actually create new business opportunities out of the waste they are reinvesting in. We’ve seen a lot of this in the packaging sector, with companies like terracycle, however it’s still a tough scenario to achieve within the consumer electronics industry.  With rapidly emergent technologies, and fast changing trends, electronics brands deal with a special problem regarding the almost unavoidable obsolescence, real or perceived, of their cell phones and computers within a few years of purchase.  There have been efforts to create strategies that would reuse such products by creating sub markets of “refurbished” products, that are sold as low cost alternatives or provided them to emergent markets in the third world.  This approach may have some merit but have yet to show a more compelling business or even social case (a topic for a later post).

While GreenPeace is well known for their environmental advocacy around the world, it was interesting to see them delve into the tech-mess that is CES.

Here are the top ranking companies:

1. Nokia – 7.3/10
2. Sony Ericsson – 6.9/10
3. Toshiba – 5.3/10
4. Philips – 5.3/10
5. Apple – 5.1/10

best of the 09: green building products

Each year Environmental Design + Construction magazine publishes a list of the top 15 products from their New+Notable, and Products Focus sections.  The final selections are actually determined by the number of reader requests they received, and thus should represent some idea of what those who work in the industry consider most important in green building.  The movement for sustainability in construction and building design is in many ways far more developed than that in product, packaging, and even service design.  There are several reasons for this, just one being the development of LEED standards over the last decade and a half.  The advancement of LEED has created very comprehensive set of metrics with which a buildings “greeness” can be thoroughly tested throughout it’s planning, construction, and use phases.  One of the other pressures that has contributed to the green building push has been the consistent hike in construction and utility costs.  Unlike products, which have a comparatively short life-span, a building incurs these costs over an extended period of time.  This is the reason why higher efficiency with regard to water and energy use are at the very core of the LEED criteria.

With the development of better standards such as LEED and a growing awareness of a future of higher costs and shrinking resources, their has been a boom in new building technologies and products that can achieve greater efficiencies. This past spring I myself became a LEED accredited professional so I am always very interested to see just what can be achieved with the latest innovations.  This years list of finalists seems to weigh heavily on products affecting water efficiency and conservation. This is not surprising given that a buildings’ water use can be easily affected by the use of newer appliances, and better plumbing system approaches.  However, it got me thinking that a lot of the products on this list don’t seem to have the stand-alone appeal that one would expect from a “best of” list.  This is mostly because what this list shows are actual practical, usable solutions.  So much of what is written about in today’s mania over “green” are either untested, uneconomical or in some cases ineffective.  Missing from this list are the glut of solar arrays, home wind generators, and adaptively reused objects like shipping containers, that seem to flood most other forums on creating sustainability in the built environment. Regardless, here are the top 15 from ED+C:

1. Sloan AQUS Greywater System

2. The Silva Cell Tree and Stormwater System

3. Gravelpave2 Porous Pavement System

4. Tierra Rapidly Renewable Ceiling Panels

5. Tumbled Landscape Glass Mulch Alternative

6. Senior Series Water-source Heat Pump w/ Energy Recovery

7. Terreon RE Recycled Content Solid Surface

8. WaterSense Flapperless Toilet

9. Versa low-VOC Designer Wallcovering

10. EcoBatt Glasswool Insulation

11. eSolution Water Conserving Program

12. HALO Recessed LED Luminaire

13. MeTechno Insulated Standing Seam Roof

14. Turffalo Low Maintenance Low Water Grass

15. WoodWorks FSC-Certified Wood Ceiling Panels

(images via JetsOn Green)

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


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.