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How can we better use technology to preserve the environment? Answered

I'm part of a "Technology Battle Royale" that will be hosted by the Ninja from "Ask A Ninja." One of the questions for this event is "How can we better use technology to preserve the environment?"

Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous, and it is. More links once the website is live.

In the meantime, what do you think? Help me answer the question.

This is the second of two questions for this week, the first is here.

The battle site is now live here: http://www.fmbattleroyale.com
Disclosure: The FM site is being sponsored by Toshiba, who is also an advertiser on Instructables.


More rockets flying into the sun for safe disposal of nuclear waste. Let's use that fusion-powered trash can of light!

Just an FYI, it's more energy efficient to send nuclear waste to an infinite orbit (ie, a parabolic orbit where the waste has 0 velocity relative to earth) than it is to send it into the sun. Eric, I don't think the issue is to get technology to help the enviroment - that already happens in that engineers and designers have a (albeit nonaltruistic) motivation to make their products more efficient: efficiency sells. The real issue is how do we get that new technology into the hands of the people. It makes no difference if you can create a car that gets 100 mpg if no one drives it.

100 mpg i would drive it in a heartbeat!!!

It's about thoughtful application of a range of technologies, with less emphasis on profits.

"People" (the mass-media-led-sheep) tend to expect "Them" (the lab-coated scientists portrayed in the media) to invent a single cure-all invention in the nick of time to cure global warming, lower sea levels and wash whiter-then-white all at the flick of a single switch.

Take my favourite big-bear, energy:

"People" know that we need to use less fossil fuels (GW debate aside, we know they're running out). However, they only ever see one cure at a time to the problem. Ask a random passer-by how to use less fossil fuels, and they will say "wind power", because it's visible, in the press, in the landscape, wind turbines are an iconic image.

But wind power doesn't work without the wind, same as PV doesn't work at night. The best answer is to use a range of energy resources, most of which use proven technologies, each to fill a niche, each to help a little bit -

  • wind
  • off-shore wave (eg Pelamis)
  • on-shore wave (eg Limpet)
  • tidal barrage
  • deep-ocean turbine
  • hydroelectric dams
  • tap landill for methane
  • ferment methane from sewage (animal and human)
  • I found out recently that some people in Africa collect poo sticks - animal dung on sticks - as fuel for home fires and stoves. Having sat around an elephant dung campfire, I know that works.
  • solar electric
  • solar thermal - water heaters, green houses, solar chimneys
  • geothermal
  • biomass (burning food-crop wastes - stems etc)

Plus increasing efficiency of existing technologies.

Why do we never hear about all of these at once, though? Business. Even though the purveyors of these alternative resources are genuinely trying to help, they also need to turn a profit, which means they need to promote their own scheme at the expense of others.

"People" need to be told about all the possibilities, and shown how to exploit them easily and cheaply, in order for technology to preserve the environment.

The problem with wind power is that it can only supply a maximum of 10% of the grid without adversely effecting its quality. That is, if there were enough practical wind zones to supply that much.

See what I mean? That could easily be read as "we shouldn't bother with wind because it's not up to the job", when it should be read as "wind can do part of the job, and these other things can do the rest".

It also depends on context - hydroelectric is probably a waste of time in Texas, but a huge part of the solution in Scandinavian countries.

In the UK, wind (esp offshore) and wave between them could provide the whole of the UK's requirements, until a spell of calm weather.

So, use wind for 10%, surround the country in Pelamis snakes, cover the desert in solar chimneys, cover the roofs in PV, put lids on all the landfills to trap the methane, ferment all the shed-bred livestock manure for more methane, incinerate waste for more energy and bury a huge geotheral plant under Yellowstone (which cool down the megavolcano a bit as well).

I didn't mean it that way. Wind power is great, but it could never find itself on the top of the list. Wind could not supply the whole of the UKs requirement for the very reason I mentioned. Wind cannot supply a constant supply even in the most ideal locations like Hawaii, where it's used more than anywhere else.

hawii wind only? geothermal wave tidal hmmm make hawii a powerplant all in one place.

I knew that, but my point was that the less-than-scientifically-literate tabloid-public could easily be led to believe you did. The answer is, and always will be, to use a broad mix of resources.

tap kansas windy as hell here all the time

Apart from the technical drawbacks (I learned something new there, Las Vegas), there are four main objections to wind turbines: 1. They're noisy. 2. They spoil the view. 3. They kill birds. 4. Their construction can have a negative environmental impact. Answers? 1. Early ones were, modern ones aren't. I've been up one of Europe's largest land turbines, and I could barely hear it unless I leaned my head on the structure. 2. A subjective point. I find them elegant. 3. I work near another of the large turbines, and my parents live near a farm of 20 - none of us have seen dead birds under turbines. 4. The impact is short-term, and much more more dispersed than a traditional power station.

Even the early ones weren't that noisy. But I've never lived next to a wind farm. I imagine it could get to you. Most farms in the US are far from resident zones. Most of Hawaii's wind plants are on the main island away from the populace. I love the view of a large wind farm. It's like a shiny forest. I've also never seen a bird hit by the blades. I've seen a number of birds die flying into my picture window. Perhaps we should rethink out use of glass... I suspect the environmental impact is similar to that of the Alaska oil line. It was found to actually benefit the environment!

This is as I understand it. It's how it was explained to me when I worked for Jacobs Wind Electric (AKA Earth Energy Systems) back in the '80s The grid is carefully regulated so that it produces the exact cycles every second (60 in North America). If at any time a cycle is somehow skipped, it has to be made up ASAP. If you were to somehow monitor the sine wave of the grid on the east coast and simultaneously monitor the grid on the west coast, they would be exactly the same. Because It has to be put through an Inverter that syncs it with the grid and feeds it into the grid 360 degrees out of phase (back into phase). The process of producing a simulated sine wave isn't perfect. Any more than 10% would adversely effect the quality of the grid. Other techniques of producing power, such as hydo and turbines (anything that produces heat) are run at the exact speed to produce the correct sine wave. Wind and solar-electric can't sync in the same fashion. I imagine wind power could be used to produce heat and run a turbine generator as well, but there would be a tremendous loss in the process.

well, i think that the only negative effects on the environment would be a couple of dead birds every now and then.

You SAY 10%, but R. Buckminster Fuller said 300%!!! Pick a number... any number!

A link would help. I don't see anything on The Buckminster Fuller Institute site to support your statement. I explained my statement below. Now if you're refering to R. Buckminster Fuller himself, the statement would be a little dated.


10 years ago

Part of preserving the environment is reporting to everyone what damage is being done to the local environment in time to prevent future damage. Technology could be used to produce small, cheap sensors that could be read out manually or integrated into a net to report infringements. Immediate questions include: 1) To whom should such reports be sent? The infringer? The local media? 2) What should be the standards that apply? Who decides? How does one change them if inappropriate? 3) Who pays? Here’s a case study (real): A new youth soccer field (a good thing?) is constructed of grass (also good) that is being fertilized with excess (not so good) phosphate and nitrogen containing fertilizers that run off into local ponds (bad). This increase in nutrients could promote growth of large numbers of previously unknown plants in the pond (bad), altering the environment so that various amphibians and fish can no longer survive (really bad). This could interfere with the food chain for local wildlife, causing raccoons, otters, and beavers to migrate, leaving behind the wasted pond. At present, documenting the excess P and N requires hand sampling and costly testing. If cheap sensors were put in place, the run-off could be monitored 24/7 and storms that flood the area and are responsible for much of the run-off could be monitored during the night and winter. So – the questions above now are directly relevant. As is another one - Should the water in the ponds be maintained at levels of P and N safe for human consumption or at lower levels to prevent excess plant growth and protect the frogs and fish? Who decides? And who assures that the levels stay at whatever level is chosen? Same types of arguments apply for groundwater or soils almost everywhere…technology can help!

why not change the fertilizer or find hardier grass seed?

you assume we are damaging the environment. You assume we can DO something to alter it. A volcano spews out more co2 and well, basically FUNK in one eruption than all human works in history combined. Seen the animals near Mt St helens? They're dead. then life recovers and recycles the FUNK into the ecosystem. Climate has never been steady. It always has changed all through human history. Even without SUV's. Now, I'm going outside to burn a truck tire. The wind is calm and one can see the smoke column go straight up to 5000 ft before it gets clipped off by upper level winds.

Remind me to put my sewage plant upstream of your house, and my pig farm upwind. Then I can use your own words to claim that I'm not harming your environment : )

actually, my dad threatened to do that to a builder one time. The guy promised to sell the land , but then decided to build on it. It seems to be an effective tactic!

and, I know a pig rancher in Cuero Texas. He sez pig waste is some of the best fertilizer there is. Tomatoes do well in it.

and, we actually used sewage sludge in our garden. all this is true, as god is my witness!

'I was a little rough with you guys about the tire thing, but it is what happens every day all over the world. especially third world. China is the 1 to watch, not USA. We are the most productive for the amount of energy and natural materials we use.
There are so many examples of horrible practices in china, like people heating old circuit boards over open fires to get the lead and gold off.
These people have no knowledge of lead dangers what-so-ever.

Cholera, disentary and typhus are, what, imaginary? Lead poisoning doesn't exist? Yes, sewage in moderation and preferably aged makes good fertilizer-but the people down-wind don't appreciate it, especially fresh or worse nearly so. There are reasons that chinese food is thoroughly cooked and european cities take august off. Mt St Helens' wildlife had somewhere to recover from, and time to do so. Mankind is wide spread enough to prevent reseeding and persistent enough (chemically and personally) to be more thorough. Just because somewhere is worse doesn't excuse you from being better. That's like saying that since charles manson is still alive that you can torture small animals because someone somewhere is worse. CO2 isn't the only long term danger, as Love Canal, Minamata Bay (mercury) and Gruinard island (anthrax) easily show.

solution. more cholera, more disentary and typhus and lead. That would lead to lower human populations and the new god "mother earth" could rule agian. you compare the prosperity that lets you sit in a/c luxury and argue on the internet, hate man, watch your kids grow up without, rickets, polio, whooping cough, malnutrition, scurvy, tapeworm, mumps, measles with crimes commited by Manson? A few pollution setbacks are a small price to pay. We clean most of what we do up fairly well. not perfect, but not the end of the world either. anyway, my point i want to leave is the media and science spasm going on is not able to report any real science cuz too much emotion, politics and finger pointing is gumming up the system.

this thread took an ugly turn eh?

yes it did. the question went to finger pointing QUICK! the answer i keep coming to is education and COOPERATION. china has a problem,ok how do we help them/help us. this can be said for everywhere in this world not just china.

You just seem to be saying "ignore it, Nietzsche was right." That's ok if you don't have children. Tell the parents of children with leukemia, mercury poisoning or other 'small' problems that it's for the best-then duck, 'cause them's fighting words.

Yes. And acid rain is mostly caused by cow flatulence. The thing is, it's our contribution that makes it a problem. We can either kill off all the cows, or clean up our act. Which is the better solution? I don't think we'll have much luck plugging up the volcanoes. It just makes a little more sense to stop or reduce the production of the added greenhouse gases that we're contributing.

bovine flatulence, aren't buffalo kina related? didn't they cover north america once? Do they not "outgass"? You continue to assume we must do something. I contend there is not a problem. Give me the earth's worldwide "normal" temperature. You can't. Not for today, or yesterday or 5000b.c. We don't know what is the norm. The climate has constantly changed all through human history. The base of the spynx is water eroded. Used to rain in the Sahara. Whole cultures in south america just gone cuz it don't rain anymore. Dinosaur extinction by asteroid and life has recovered. Seems the climate and life system is more robust than we have been lead to believe.

I wholly agree about global warming. Looking a the cycles the earth has gone through long before man had influence shows that global warming and cooling is entirely a natural cycle. Contrary to the alertists, our forests on on an increase in most of the Americas as well as Europe. We do have effect in other ways though. For instance, while we were blatantly using chlorofluorocarbons, it caused marked damage to the ozone layer. Since correcting that problem, it appears the ozone layer is well on it's way to recovery. Our production of some other gases are also causing an marked increase in acid rain. This is something that's been known since the 60's and something we can correct.

Unless the methane can be capped somehow... (but not to be used in cars)

Stop worrying about Natural gas for a minute to think about Artificial poisons and carcinogenic pollutants in the air and water. Because forever, life has thrived in the same natural gasses. "Fossil fuels" were once dinosaurs and plants, right?

There are natural poisons and carcinogens too.

Forget about your SUVs, the pollution they emit is equivalent to the coal fires burning in China. What is of big concern is the use of coal for electricity. America in this case is not at the forefront. The plants used for burning coal to produce electricity are old and new, and like an old car and a new one they pollute the environment respectively.
Coal burning releases lovely things into the environment like arsenic, mercury, lead and sulfur dioxide which combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to become sulfuric acid, and later to fall as "acid rain".
Coal is used because it is the cheapest, and I think because of its high pollution ratio to energy output, should suffer regulations to use the latest "filtering" technology. This was implemented in the 1970's, but loop holes remain. The government can make these companies accountable, through taxing their pollution to energy ratio, not by insisting the technology be there, that in affect gives a pretext for companies to compete to be the most efficient not just, the most profitable. But this can only happen if we, likewise make our governments accountable.
Here's a cool link: http://www.energyjustice.net/

The question doesn't ring true for me. There's an insinuation that a technological solution will emerge to solve all of our problems. As an engineer, I desperately want that to be true, and want to take part in creating that technological solution (considering my current line of work, I will most likely do this through education); however, I know that a planet-wide issue will require technology only as part of a bigger solution.

Take energy as an example: Humanity consumes somewhere around 18 TW (18 x 1012 watts) of power. There's enough incoming solar radiation and wind motion in the atmosphere that solar or wind energy alone could satisfy our needs. However, these forms of energy are not appropriate everywhere we live, and shipping energy is often expensive and difficult. So, even though the total available power from geothermal, tidal, hydro, biomass and many other forms can't provide for our total consumption, they will play a role in a multi-faceted solution. Just listing these resources together makes it obvious that technology is not the only factor: Governments, individual behavior, and a whole host of other things need to be considered.

To answer the question, technology should be used to better inform. Preserving the environment will require action from multiple directions, and the more people that know and understand the various issues, the better.
A very lively discussion of this question on the Instructables forums:


10 years ago

Speaking of White LEDs... Walmart has apparently discovered that they can save a whopping 92% by replacing their always-on fluorescent freezer case lighting with "smart" LED lighting. There are a number of synergistic factors that contribute to this: fluorescents don't like cold and LEDs do, and the efficiency improvement of the LEDs over fluorescents is multiplied by not having to pump the waste heat out of the freezers. Probably WAY safer too...
Here's the original article

. From the URL given: "... also contributed to customer satisfaction." . If I'm not mistaken, that's retail-ese for "bought more stuff." I wonder if that's a temporary, gee-whiz effect or something more substantial? Does the spectrum of LEDs reduce impulse control? OMG, has WalMart figured out yet another way to make us buy more?!?!?


10 years ago

OK, getting back to the topic... Improve telecommuting technology to the point where the number of people who telecommute can be drastically increased. Not that there aren't problems with telecommuting...

I would so like to be able to telecommute to school. Lessons by email, no nit-ridden children to avoid...

. I think your question is wrong. It should be "How can we limit the damage our technology does to the environment?" Mankind has a very poor track record when it comes to using technology to make the environment "better." Eg, dams and channelization, shoreline preservation and "restoration," etc. We just don't understand well enough how the environment works to go around messing with it. . Ie, the best way to preserve the environment is to keep technology away from it. Since that is not feasible, do the least amount of damage possible and let Mother Nature heal herself.

Except that technology in general DOES go to improve the environment. I've heard that Europe was choking in a cloud of wood smoke before fossil fuels were discovered (not to mention denuding forests at a furious rate.) The air in Los Angeles today is much cleaner than it was 20 years ago due to advances in air pollution control; cleaner cars and fuels and stuff. There may be too many "always-on" computers in the world, but they do more work per Watt than the computers of yore (not to mention that the power supplies are about three times as efficient as they used to be.) Technology permits MORE people to live with the same environmental impact. Unfortunately, it simultaneously permits MORE people to live "adequately" than would maintain a stable environment. It's not technology that's the problem, it's too many people. And that's a much more complex problem than mere technology can solve.

. You're just using today's technology to "fix" the problems caused by yesterday's technology. And we'll try to use tomorrow's technology, to "fix" what we're screwing up with the technology du jour.
. Not that technology is inherently bad (or good), it's just that we humans don't seem to have the foggiest idea of how Mother Nature really works. But that doesn't stop us from trying to "help" Her out.
. Technology, when properly applied, can be a marvelous thing - but technology alone will not solve our problems. As you pointed out, when we find a way to make ppl less polluting, all we do is cram more ppl into the same area. What does that accomplish?
> It's not technology that's the problem, it's too many people. And that's a much more complex problem than mere technology can solve.
. Now that I can agree with without qualification. All you big-city ppl are mucking everything up. :)

<< How can we better use technology to preserve the environment? >> It's hard to find just ONE miraculous solution. There must be a global plan. As stated by ToolUsingAnimal, we're in a world of consumer societies. So, my first and only "miraculous" solution would be : - less technology. To better use technology to preserve the environment, we should use it less ... My global plan : 1) we could learn (or at least teach to the youth) to use it (the technology) only when required. 2) our governments should create taxes on "entertaining devices" (mainly related to video games, sound and movies) according to their power consumption ... (about 400 Wh for a computer used just to play video games or for a PS3, it's too much !! and i don't count the consumption of the screen !!) ... 3) tax cars according to their fuel consumption ... 4) more tax over fuel (Here, a liter of gasoline (about 0.26 US gallons) is about 1.3 euros (US$1.75, or US$6.6 for 1 gallon), so, when you fill your tank (about 40 liters or 10 US gallons), you're happy to have a car with low consumption (and who pollute less then), and when you buy a new one, you look at the more economical (and, thus, indirectly, at the less polluting) 5) make public transport more available and free (that's not the case where i live) 6) make secure places where you could leave your bicycle without being afraid of thieves 7) replace eavily polluting coal and gaz power plants by nuclear power plants (new generations are more efficient and produce less wastes). 8) increase the use of renewable energy sources (at least to make ecologists happy). ... Good luck for your battle royale ;-)

So raising taxes is going to save the environment? Hmm... The Brits should have used that argument back in 1776!

If you compare Europeans and USAians behaviors related to cars, i'd say : yes, it would have a great impact. How much liters per 100km for an average USAian car ? Mine uses about 7 liters per 100km ( 2.98 US gallon per 100 miles ). A full tank cost me about 50 euros ( US$ 67.5 ) and i can make up to 600km ( 373 miles) max if i don't press the accelerator too much. As it is quite expensive, i usually take my car only when required (less pollution). As petroleum is going rare, GWB should take this occasion to rise taxes over it (and encourage general-motors and co to make economical cars instead of these mini trucks and wheeled boats ...)

I get about the same mileage on on my car. I'm very opposed to the American practice of buying and using these wasteful SUVs. They are no safer than any over vehicle and in most cases, much less. The problem is American consumers buy all the bull they're fed by the auto industry. I agree that your fuel taxes are outragous. Taxes are not going to stop the waste though. They will just produce a larger welfare system. BTW: There's no such thing as a USAian.

Taxes would help, the higher gas prices are raised, the less people use their cars, the more they carpool. Although, just raising the price would be better than feeding the money to the gov. If the gas stations could all just raise the price (they barely make any money from selling gas...a few cents per customer) then the money would go into the economy. ..The problem is, the govt can't raise the taxes, it just wouldn't go over with everyone. And the has stations can't raise the prices because their only excuse for them being so high is that they aren't making money off it, and they would compete to have the lowest price, until it's the same as before.

All that raising taxes on fuel would do is make the poor poorer, reduce the already dwindling middle class and allow the wealthy exclusive use of the public roads. The answer isn't to tax fossil fuels, but to eliminate our dependence on it. BTW: Hydrogen is not a solution. All hydrogen currently produced is from fossil fuels. It's just moving the exhaust pipe.

About "poor poorer", here, the governement redistributes the money to the poorers. So, they usually get back (and usually a little more) what they over-payed.