An Artificial Leaf Fueling Our Planet

artificial leaf

You’ve heard it in the news and you may have even felt it in the air: 2015 was the hottest year since the 19th century. Greenhouse gas levels were the highest on record, as were sea surface temperatures and the global sea level. The ever increasing amount of greenhouse gases making their way into our atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, is making an unfortunate impact on our planet.

But scientists are coming up with ways to capture CO2 and turn it into something that won’t warm the globe, like rock. Or, in this latest case: a burnable fuel.

The University of Illinois at Chicago and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have designed an artificial leaf that mimics the photosynthetic properties of the greenery decorating our real trees. This artificial leaf soaks up CO2 just like a regular leaf does, but instead of turning it into oxygen to pump back out into the atmosphere, the manufactured leaf actually turns the CO2 into another greenhouse gas: carbon monoxide.

Now the obvious question here is, why are we taking a greenhouse gas and turning it into another one? It’s because science has already figured out how to turn carbon monoxide into a burnable fuel. So this new leaf harvests CO2 from the atmosphere, and at a much lower cost than other innovations that purport to scrub the skies. (more…)

Two Birds with one Lego-Like Stone

conceptos plasticos

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If any company knows good design, it is Apple, which sold its one-billionth iPhone last month. So when Lego was called the Apple of toys, you can bet the Danish company was being lauded for its design skills.

And why shouldn’t it? Legos are an integral part of many peoples’ upbringing all over the planet; teaching us how shapes go together while encouraging us to use our creativity. At the very simplest, Legos are a way for minds young and old to create something out of a very basic structure – the plastic block.

It is with this bare-bones logic that Colombia-based company Conceptos Plásticos began to build homes out of plastic blocks, which are assembled quite like classic Lego pieces are. Pulling from the tons and tons of plastic littering landfills, Conceptos Plásticos is cleaning up the environment while tackling another very pressing issue: the housing crisis. All around the world, folks are moving to the cities in droves, and yet many are unable to afford housing.

This Unilever post (which gave Conceptos Plásticos founder Oscar Andres Mendez Gerardino a young entrepreneur award) says that in Latin America, Asia and Africa, 40 percent of people don’t have access to proper housing. The company teams up with communities to retrieve plastic and rubber from landfills to produce the building blocks. And as you can imagine, with the inspiration being all things Lego, these blocks go together pretty easily, so the company also trains community members how to assemble the structures. This way families can construct their own homes, saving them even more money – no experience necessary. (more…)

Bringing Biomimicry Full Circle

wind turbines

When it comes to design, nature is one of the smartest places to find inspiration. Want to reduce the spread of bacteria? Look to sharkskin – its ridges and grooves make it inhospitable for bacteria. Interested in a building that self-regulates its temperatures? Study anthills, which are climate-controlled by design. You can find genius solutions all over nature, and scientists and designers are picking up on this.

A scientist from Stanford named John Dabiri has spun a whole new story about wind turbines, and it started when he studied fish patterns. You know that fish swim in schools, right? But have you ever thought about why they do that? They arrange themselves in such a way that the turbulence created in the water actually propels them forward, making a school of fish faster than one single fish. Sound smart? Well, it is called a school, right?

It is that same exact thinking that brought Dabiri to this idea of schools of wind turbines, which is impossible with the standard design. Picture the gargantuan wind turbines you see in big open fields. They are skyscraper tall (this Smithsonian article says they are typically around 300 feet) and they rotate like a windmill. Dabiri’s turbines have a very different design: his 30-foot structures spin around like a top. So instead of giant spears slicing through the sky, these turbines spin around an axis point, making the designs easier to place close to one another. Can’t picture them? This YouTube video has great footage. (more…)

Breaking Down Plastic and Building a Loop


I have seen plenty of smart new ways to reuse plastic bottles so they don’t end up in landfills or contributing to the increasingly alarming ocean pollution. Many of these “upcycles” are pretty clever, too. But what if we could turn post-consumer plastic waste into something really useful? Like fuel, actually.

Before you start thinking “sure that sounds smart and useful,” pause for a moment to consider the fact that it takes fuel to make plastic in the first place. Yes …there’s a full circle emerging.

Chemist Zhibin Guan and collaborators at the University of California, Irvine, along with the lab of Zheng Huang at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, have found a way to break down the bonds of a very common plastic ingredient called polyethylene using molecules called alkanes, and now promise to turn plastic directly into fuel without any other treatments. And in fact, once broken down into separate compounds, the polyethylene is reduced to a liquid fuel and solid wax, as this Smithsonian article states.

And thankfully, their process also seems to work on other post-consumer plastic waste, such as soda bottles, which have additives beyond “pure” polyethylene. This means we’re looking at waste plastic being processed directly into fuel without any other treatments (more…)

Your Roadmap to Sustainability Literacy


For many longtime readers of my blog, you are aware that I use this space to write about great products and ideas people around the world are designing: designs with a social outcome that moves us forward rather than left or right. I’ve been able to keep this blog up every week for over five years because, as it turns out, there is a lot of good stuff happening!

There are few things that please me more than seeing the emerging marketplace of ideas and the people who want to purchase these more relevant goods and services. And there are some who want to get even more involved — these folks want to get in on the designing and production side. If you’re one of those, and in particular, if you’re interested in wielding those big corporate battleships into this new direction through the field of corporate social responsibility, I’m happy to tell you about something my friend Leo Raudys has done.

Leo is a sustainability and CSR strategist and he has recently released a book called The Cheap Guide to Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility. He wrote this book for folks who are curious about the corporate sustainability landscape but are interested in a little more literacy around it in order to make informed decisions.


Some Solid Thinking Around CO2 Emissions


You’d have to be living in a cave to avoid the battling voices surrounding climate change and the role that carbon emissions play in this global challenge. And while I won’t argue the value of discussing where to place blame, I’m much more interested in conversations that are forward-looking and explore what we can do about carbon dioxide. But even at that, the vast majority of what I hear has to do with lessening the amount of CO2 we put in the atmosphere. I’m cool with that, but what excites me even more is when I run into ideas that purport to tackle the carbon that’s already emitted.

I’ve run into a number of innovations that aim to gather CO2 and sequester it deep underground in caverns and even old oil wells (how’s that for irony?) But to date these solutions can’t put much of a guarantee forward that promises that there won’t be any leaks and all that expensive effort will be for naught.

Rather than capture and bury carbon, why not turn it into something truly benign? Sound crazy? Not really. A curious experiment in Iceland has done just that.

Studying carbon capture and storage (CCS) solutions led researchers from Southampton University in the United Kingdom to Iceland, where they injected 220 tons of carbon dioxide into the depths of the earth.

It turns out, if you pump a cocktail of carbon dioxide and water into underground volcanic basalt, the mixture turns into a solid rock. And once the CO2 turns into rock there is no risk of the greenhouse gas seeping out to warm the planet. What is exceptionally groundbreaking about this experiment is the amount of time the transformation requires. According to this BBC article, 95% of the 220 tons of CO2 injected into Iceland’s basalts was converted into limestone in less than two years. (more…)

Teaching Teachers How To Teach


When you reflect back to school, how much of what you learned do you actually apply to your daily life? And if you went to college, do you remember taking classes to fulfill credits even though they were far from being aligned with your degree? Surprisingly, students going to school to become educators go through similar experiences, where the focus is more on meeting requirements than it is on preparation for the intended job: to teach in a classroom.

The former president of the Teachers College at Columbia University and current president of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation, Arthur Levine, has partnered with MIT to create an education school that puts the old way of learning on its head. Called the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, this new graduate school is reinventing the way teachers learn to teach.

The Academy’s website calls itself an innovative education lab, where students obtain competency-based master’s degrees as opposed to teaching degrees that require all sorts of seemingly random classes. The curriculum will not focus on specific courses and credits like traditional schooling does. Instead, it will prepare students with the skills they need to thrive in the classroom once they graduate. And like the blog I wrote last week where the brewery that produced a biodegradable six-pack holder wants other breweries to follow suit, Levine also wants schools and educators to adopt the Academy’s ideas and practices. Nice. (more…)

Cheers to a Marine Life-Friendly Six-Pack Holder!


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You know the drill: When you pull the plastic holder off of a six-pack of soda or beer, you grab the scissors and slice it into little bits so that when it eventually ends up in the ocean, the rings won’t choke marine life. That’s a great precautionary measure and it undoubtedly lessens the number of sea creatures that choke on the plastic. Unfortunately, what I just described isn’t remotely a common enough practice from our fellow beverage imbibers. And even more unfortunately, although you may do that important ring slicing, that still doesn’t prevent animals from eating the plastic.

You may have seen pictures before of dead animals with bellies brimming with plastic. It isn’t a pretty site at all, but it’s worth paying attention to because even if you aren’t a big six-packer, we have all contributed to this problem in our plastic-laden society (sorry to break the news to you if you haven’t thought of that before).

And it was exactly because of my involvement in these environmental catastrophes that I was excited to read about a brewery creating a 100 percent biodegradable six-pack ring that is not only safe for animals, but they can actually eat the packaging. Say hello to Screamin’ Reels IPA, Saltwater Brewery‘s new six-pack with a biodegradable holder. It’s downright brilliant.

Saltwater Brewery’s primary target, unsurprisingly, are folks who love the sea: surfers and fishermen. This initiative speaks volumes to the brewery’s crowd with an alignment in values and empathy for those bigger questions that the best brands practice. And with help from what appears to be a very purposeful ad agency, We Believers, the brewery has created quite the campaign. (more…)

When You Turn a Practiced Concept On its Head


It has been just over six decades since the first kidney transplant was successfully performed, and with that groundbreaking surgery an entire arena of life-saving transplants for a variety of organs has become commonplace. Except it’s not common enough. Despite the millions of people who dutifully check the box that says “Yes, I’ll be a donor” on their drivers licenses, there are many more who are in a place of need than organs available. One of the barriers to transplants is urgency; organs have to be harvested and transported with extreme rapidity because they just can’t sit on ice forever. And yes, organs currently are transported in a plastic cooler just like you’d see at the beach, as this Washington Post article articulates.

So why the crude analogy? Because 62 years later there finally comes a new method for transferring human organs. It has been commonly thought that storing a transplanted organ – heart, lung, kidney or liver – with ice would be the best way to keep it fresh. But sometimes it is hours between the time an organ leaves one body and enters the next, and this old technique doesn’t always cut it.

But now there promises to be a new method and it accomplishes the critical transportation needs with quite the opposite approach. Produced by TransMedics, a Massachusetts-based medical device company, the new Organ Care System actually keeps the organs warm – much like they are while properly functioning inside the body. It is a portable device that maintains organs in a functioning state, which increases the amount of time they can be kept outside of a body before the transplant.

Through sensors that monitor and transmit information about the organs to doctors, the device maintains the organ’s natural temperature. Doctors can oversee it from afar and can dictate oxygen levels and even pressure in the veins, as the Washington Post article explains. Essentially, this device doesn’t just preserve organs like ice always has; it keeps the organs alive and working. (more…)

New Video Game a Treasure for Alzheimer’s Researchers

I am willing to bet that if you don’t personally know somebody battling Alzheimer’s disease, you know somebody who knows somebody. That is because there is a new case of this memory-eroding disease in the world every three seconds. Two new people have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s since you started reading this blog. It is a remarkably painful experience to watch those you love lose their ability to find the familiar in their life, and I cannot even fathom what it must be like to be the one experiencing the disease.

While many of us watch the progression of victims of this malady, Michael Hornberger, a professor and dementia researcher at Norwich Medical School in England, is taking action in an usual way. He has created a cutting-edge video game that provides scientists with coveted data on the way users’ brains work. Quite frankly, I’ve never seen large amounts of data collected in quite this way.

Hornberger teamed up with a neuroscientist at University College London named Hugo Spiers who specializes in spatial perception. The combination of those two, six other scientists, funding from Deutsche Telekom and developing by an app company called Glitchers equals a game that does a substantial amount of good.

Sea Hero Quest is the tale of a young boy and his father who went on sea voyages and captured the sea creatures they saw with pen and paper, archiving them in a book. Eventually, when the father grew grey, his brain stopped making the connection to his memories. As a user, you take the role of the explorer and the objective is to collect your father’s withering memories. As you navigate through mazes and icy channels, data is sent anonymously back to neuroscientists, who then study the way you orient yourself in space.

Loss of navigational skills is one of the first signs of dementia, and when you play this video game you lend very important information about your brain’s capabilities to these researchers – specifically, they try to figure out where those who get lost go wrong. (more…)