Hydroponics at Home


A vertical hydroponic system that also serves a artistic window decor by Michael Doherty.
Source: Washington Post

Hydroponics is far from a new subject on our blog (read on Milo’s experimentation with hydroponics), and while the sustainable benefits of this gardening method have been shared before, there is still one aspect we haven’t covered: appearance.

Just to cover the basics once again, hydroponics is a system of growing plants without soil and using mineral nutrient solutions in water. It’s water efficient and can be done easily in tight quarters, which means anyone can create a hydroponic system – in theory.

“If you understand the fundamentals, what the plants need, and you have some practical use of tools, it can be just a kiddie pool filled with water and a floating piece of Styrofoam board with holes cut in it,” believes Gene Giacomelli, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona and director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

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Merdacotta from Castelbosco

Merdacotta (baked processed cow dung mixed with clay and hay) products. Credit Alex Majoli

I’ve shared some thoughts on dung in the past, and also experienced first-hand the use of methane collected as an alternative energy source at a coffee farm in Nicaragua. There, the gas was used for cooking fuel, but in the case of Castelbosco farm in Piacenza, Italy, dairy farmers who make Grana Padano cheese also generate electricity from their dung’s methane, and run a museum that showcases poop in part of a medieval castle. They also make the beautiful pots, tableware, and tiles shown in the photo above. Christine Smallwood writes for the New York Times Style Magazine:

THE DAIRY FARMER Gianantonio Locatelli climbed up the steel ladder and peered over the brim of a large corrugated vat, about the size of a very deep above-ground swimming pool. “It’s full!” he exclaimed, with warbling joy. “It’s beautiful!”

The vat was full of liquid cow dung. I handed my phone to Locatelli’s friend, the architect Luca Cipelletti, and climbed the ladder to the top, disembarking on a viewing dock. Beneath my feet the manure bubbled and gurgled, forming foamy peaks and crests. It was a topographical map, a primordial stew. A rich and beautiful shade of brown.

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Interview with Creator of Segway and More Important Technologies

Dean Kamen. Credit: DEKA Research

It is a somewhat morbid urban legend that the inventor of the Segway drove off a cliff in a fatal freak accident, but is founded in some truth: the man who purchased the company from inventor/entrepreneur Dean Kamen did indeed pass away in such a manner, a year after acquiring the tech manufacturer and nine years after the creation of the two-wheeled transportation tool. Mr. Kamen being alive and well, with hundreds of patents and plenty of ideas for inventions that particularly help in the medical world, spoke with Chau Tu from Science Friday about his company DEKA Research and Development and his history of prolific invention:

How did you first get interested in engineering?
I think I got started in a much more unusual way than most people I know. I sort of got into it as a kid, because I wanted to make things that weren’t available at the time, and in order to make them, I had to learn some engineering. I learned a little bit of electronics, I learned a little bit about mechanics, and I learned a little bit about how to make things and run machines—a lathe and a mill and a machine shop. I did that long before I academically studied any engineering or math or physics.

When I was in college, I had an older brother in med school who was a pediatric hematologist, and he needed ways to deliver very, very tiny amounts of drugs to very, very tiny babies. The equipment in the hospital was pretty much made for adults. So he asked if I could find a way to make a drug delivery system do what he needed. That was one of my first businesses and projects. [This was the AutoSyringe.]

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Comic Heroes Promote STEAM


Moon girl and Spiderman. Image from Marvel

Comic superheroes is a curious topic to cover here, but relevant with the development of Marvel’s new comic series of STEAM Variants. Five of Marvel’s heroes are stepping to into a new role and tackling new challenges in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (hence STEAM, sometimes referred to as STEM, which lacks the art component) with the intent of inspire young readers to explore their passions in those disciplines.

“We plan to continue to motivate our fans to explore their passions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and math and present these disciplines through some of our favorite young heroes who are doing just that — following their dreams and preparing for the challenges that await them ahead,” David Gabriel, Senior VP for Sales & Marketing of Marvel Comics said in a statement.

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Air, Water, Land

"This was somewhere over Meghna river, most probably over Narshingdi. I was looking for a shot when I noticed the boat splitting the waves and heading strong like an arrow. I was smiling while pressing the shutter – this is one of my favourite pictures." Photo credit: Shamim Shorif Susom

“This was somewhere over Meghna river, most probably over Narshingdi. I was looking for a shot when I noticed the boat splitting the waves and heading strong like an arrow. I was smiling while pressing the shutter – this is one of my favourite pictures.” – All photographs and captions by Shamim Shorif Susom.

Shamin Shorif Susom is a man of many talents. A pilot by vocation and a passionate photographer by hobby,  he grabs his aerial opportunities with amazing results. His photos over the waters of his home country Bangladesh are particularly inspiring. Thanks to the Guardian for sharing this set.  Continue reading

Guilty As Charged


The Austrian performance artists Sonja Stummerer and Martin Hablesreiter, a.k.a. Honey and Bunny, want to make us reëxamine the culinary mores that we take for granted. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SONJA STUMMERER AND MARTIN HABLESREITER

I have been on the road for most of the last six weeks and have been consumer of the posts on this site, rather than contributor, for the entire stretch since we got distracted by a hurricane. That’s okay. Other contributors have carried the ball forward well, and before I forget I want to share one recent item I read elsewhere that seems a fitting counterpoint to Jocelyn’s most recent post.

That topic has a kind of ick factor I cannot articulate while at the same time is clearly a topic we are going to need to deal with more and more. I am certainly guilty of avoiding the topic, and must overcome the ick thing. Clearly linked to the lab/food topic is the issue of food waste, which we address on a regular basis here.

We need more diversity in our approach to these tough topics to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed; antidotes to the ick/tough factor to make the topic more palatable, so to speak. We are so serious in our earnestness that we no doubt add to the weight of the topic, and I speak guilty as charged on that too. It may be that “playful” is an appropriate alternate approach from time to time, as this item suggests:


Many of us reflect, at least occasionally, on how our gastronomic habits affect the health of the planet. We regret that our takeout dinners come in a Styrofoam container inside a paper bag inside a plastic bag, with white plastic utensils in their very own plastic sheaths. We feel guilty when we order too much food at a restaurant and resign half an entrée to be scraped into the trash. But the pull of convention is most often stronger than these feelings. We eat in the manner we’ve grown accustomed to eating.

The sly and playful Austrian performance artists Sonja Stummerer and Martin Hablesreiter want to make us reëxamine the culinary mores that we take for granted. Continue reading

Who Will Regulate Lab-grown Meat and Milk?

David Parry/PA Wire via Science Magazine

Like most people, we hold reservations about the idea of putting meat, milk, and egg whites made from laboratory cellular agriculture on the market. Will the proteins be safe for humans to consume? Might there be some unforeseen environmental impact even worse than that of raising cattle where rainforests once stood? Are there ethical considerations that outweigh the hope of freeing the chickens that are kept in cages their whole lives just to harvest their eggs?

We don’t have any answers, but are learning more about the whole process this week from Elizabeth Devitt at Science Magazine, where she writes about the fledgling industry and its potential regulators:

The first hamburger cooked with labmade meat didn’t get rave reviews for taste. But the test tube burger, rolled out to the press in 2013, has helped put a spotlight on the question of how the U.S. government will regulate the emerging field of cellular agriculture, which uses biotechnology instead of animals to make products such as meat, milk, and egg whites.

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59 Parks in 59 Weeks


All images from: Darius Nabors

We continuously incentivize our readers to go out and explore the nature that abounds in the great outdoors. Well, Darius Nabors (although not a follower of ours – that we know of) raises our proposition to a whole new level by visiting all fifty-nine National Parks in fifty-nine weeks. In order to begin the pursuit of his goal, Nabors quit his job when he realized that it would take him forty-two years to see the ones he had not yet visited if he only traveled to one park per year. Therefore, he set himself this challenge while he is still young and active and can explore everywhere without worrying about physical limitations.

So far, Nabors and his friend and travel companion Trevor Kemp, who recently finished his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, have visited 34 parks, including Glacier, Gates of the Arctic, Crater Lake, Haleakala and Joshua Tree.

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Making Barrels High-tech

Kyle Guyer prepared to flip a barrel during toasting at the Missouri Cooperage operation of Independent Stave in Lebanon, Missouri. Lasers and infrared cameras have refined the toasting process to give the customer a desired flavor profile.
Credit August Kryger for The New York Times

Every now and then we find interesting stories from the world of distilleries. Maybe it’s a small mescal brewer, or a giant liquor corporation giving back in some way, or the history of traditional London gin, or people making beer out of wasted bread. In the world of wine and certain spirits, oak barrels are imperative to the process of aging the drink, and the technology involved in cooperage has changed a lot in the last couple years, even as barrels look exactly as they did hundreds of years ago. Clay Risen reports for the New York Times:

SALEM, Mo. — Standing on a wooded hillside in the Ozarks, about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis, Brad Boswell watches a chain-saw-wielding logger make several deft cuts at the base of a 100-foot white oak. The logger points to a clearing down the slope and, with one final, quick slash, sends the tree falling, exactly where he pointed.

Mr. Boswell scrambles over to look at the swirls and loops that make up the tree’s cross section. If they’re consistent, and the wood doesn’t show scars from fire damage or disease, it will most likely end up in some of the hundreds of thousands of barrels that his 1,500-person company, Independent Stave, turns out every year.

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Price of Solar Continues to Decline

Precisely two months ago we shared a great function by Google for investigating the potential for installing solar power in your neighborhood (mostly if you’re in the US). Last week, one of our most successful Instagram posts was of three shades of blue at Villa del Faro (see above), where photovoltaics are key. Panels are becoming less and less expensive, so hopefully the alternative energy will keep spreading!  Continue reading

National Park of the Week: Acadia National Park, Maine, U.S.A


Source: ouracadia.com

I am happy to introduce Acadia National Park in Maine, U.S. as the first feature on our new weekly segment – shout out to Justin for the recommendation! This park is one of many firsts: it was founded as the first national park east of the Mississippi River by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (so yes, it is celebrating its centennial along with the National Park Service). In addition, it is famed for being the first place to see the sunrise in the U.S. when standing at the top of Cadillac Mountain during certain times of the year (part of the fall and winter seasons). Continue reading

Warm and Wooly Homes


All images from triplepundit.com

Sheep’s wool has long been proclaimed as one of nature’s best insulators, and San Francisco startup Havelock Wool, LLC has taken advantage of this property of wool to use it as a sustainable insulation product to meet the growing demand of higher efficiency buildings and homes. Although wool is typically known for keeping things warm, the company is also using the material for homes in warm and sunny environments:

The company recently tried out its products on a 17,000 foot mansion in Newport Beach, a destination harbor town in the middle of Southern California’s coastline. As with most insulating products, the material’s ability to lock out cold temps also gives it the ability to insulate homes during hotter weather. It absorbs moisture, drys out naturally and doesn’t become moldy.

But its most appealing quality is its environmental benefits.

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Russkaya Arktika National Park Expanded

Big sky can be seen above Tegetthoff Island.
Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic Creative

We have lots of land conservation news going on right now (just scroll down), which can only be a good thing, and is perfect timing given the US National Park Service centennial. Jocelyn will be posting a close-up feature of a park later today, but first I invite you to imagine a new arms race between Russia and the United States – not of weapons, but rather in the sphere of conservation through protected national park expansion. President Obama just quadrupled the area of marine national monument Papahānaumokuākea, and now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia expanded the island region of Russian Arctic National Park by over eighty percent. In this case, I say, the more friendly competition the better! Brian Howard reports on the Russian expansion:

Made up of more than 190 islands, Franz Josef Land is a mostly uninhabited area that is encased in sea ice for much of the year. Yet the rocky, glaciated islands are home to stunning biodiversity. The newly expanded park will protect habitat for such species as the Atlantic walrus, bowhead whale, polar bear, narwhal, and white gull.

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Novel and Efficient Mosquito Control

The predator cues emitted by the Backswimmer, a mosquito larvae predator, trigger a stress response in the mosquitoes, which impairs their immune system.
Photo © E. Van Herk

Two weeks ago we saw a chemically-baited, solar-powered trap for mosquitos implemented in Kenya. New research – conducted only in the laboratory so far – has shown the potential for another chemical cocktail to be used in a very different way for mosquito control, hopefully in a manner that can reduce quantities of pesticide applied in eradication efforts. From the EurekAlert press release by the Belgian University of Leuven:

Existing strategies for mosquito control often involve the use of pesticides that harm the environment. These pesticides are increasingly less effective as well, as insects can become resistant to existing products relatively quickly.

Biopesticides are a possible alternative. The most commonly used biological pesticide is the Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) bacteria. Unfortunately, mosquitoes are already developing a resistance to this pesticide as well. This means we have to keep increasing the dose of Bti to kill mosquitoes, so that this biological substance, too, is beginning to harm the environment.

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Renewable Energy = Renewed Job Market

Workers with Bella Energy install solar panels on a rooftop in Boulder on July 25, 2014. Photo © Denver Post

The energy that is generated from coal needs to keep decreasing relative to alternative energy sources if we want to reduce the release of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and rely on renewables instead. But for many people working in the coal industry, this change represents unemployment and poverty. In Colorado, a plan to train coal workers for solar energy jobs may be able to ameliorate the situation. Lea Terhune reports for Share America:

What does greater use of green energy mean for workers in more traditional energy sectors? A Colorado initiative may have the answer: put the workers where the jobs are. Consider the findings of Michigan Technological University professor Joshua M. Pearce and associates: There are nearly 209,000 solar workers in the United States, compared to about 150,000 remaining jobs in the coal industry. Hence Colorado’s plan: train unemployed coal workers to install solar panels.

“Our results show that there is a wide variety of employment opportunities in the solar industry, and that the annual pay is attractive at all levels of education,” Pearce writes in the Harvard Business Review.

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A Milky Package


Source: American Chemical Society

On numerous occasions we have written about the need to reduce consumption of plastics and the need for alternative, sustainable food packaging. Fortunately, researchers have developed a food packaging that is much better at keeping food fresh than regular plastics – it’s also biodegradable and edible. Yes, you read correctly, edible! This new packaging is made of casein from milk proteins, which are clear and fairly pliable, and has little flavor. This material has other unique applications  in addition to being used as plastic pouches and cling-style wrap. Continue reading

Podcast: The Magic of Salt

Yuya Shino / Reuters via The Atlantic

Almost exactly five years ago, I quoted Mark Kurlansky’s book focused on the history of an Atlantic fish species, Cod. I knew he’d written another book on the history of salt, but haven’t read it yet. With a podcast episode from Gastropod that was featured in The Atlantic recently, I got a nice summary of the subject and learned even more about the current issues revolving around sodium.

Salt is a magical substance. It reduces bitterness, enhances sweetness, boosts flavor, and preserves perishable foods. Without it, we would die: The human body can’t make sodium, but our nerves and muscles don’t work without it. It was considered rare until quite recently, so it’s hardly surprising that, throughout history, salt has been the engine behind empires and revolutions. Today, there’s a new battle in the salt wars, between those who think that we eat too much of it and it’s killing us—and those who think most of us are just fine. Join us for a serving of salt, seasoned with science, history, and a little politics.

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