Monday, June 13, 2011

10 Perspectives on the Future of Water

By Tilde Herrera

Water today is cheap, poorly managed and becoming increasingly scarce, and what is already a complex issue is only going to get more complicated as the global population continues to swell and the world's aging infrastructure gets older.

Similar to the challenges facing us with climate change, action on water scarcity is torturously slow. But unlike climate change, water shortages are a near-term life-or-death situation. The good news is that the battle isn't going unfought.

On Tuesday, Dow Chemical Co. brought together 60 of the world's leading water experts for a free, fast-moving virtual conference that explored the past, present and future of the global water challenge as part of its The Future We Create initiative. Sixty representatives from industry, academia, nonprofits and other thought leaders each offered back-to-back one-minute messages about water as it relates to people and businesses.

"The key to solving our biggest challenges lies at the intersection of science, collaboration and human ingenuity," Mary Jo Piper, Dow Chemical's public affairs manager, said in an email. "Collaboration is critical -- it requires human interactions and productive conversations based on mutual respect. That's why Dow created The Future We Create conference series -- to provide a meeting ground for leading-edge thinkers and curious minds to learn, share and act for a better future for us all."

We'd be remiss if we didn't ask the question: Is Dow the right company to talk about the future of water? The company has had its own water-related issues, including a dioxin clean-up near its headquarters and lawsuits alleging water contamination. While the company wouldn't comment on pending litigation, it did note that technology from its Water and Processing Solutions unit is being used to produce 22 million cubic meters of water daily around the world. It has also managed to reduce water consumption at its biggest production site by a billion gallons a year, which is fairly impressive by any measure.

In any case, the virtual conference included a wealth of interesting information. Below are some memorable quotes that caught my attention from the program, which is still available online:

• "Water is cheap right now, relatively speaking; it's not going to stay that way. It's not plentiful; it is not going to become more plentiful. The time for companies to act is when it's less expensive to act, versus more expensive to act. Companies that have invested in water technologies include Khosla, Kleiner, DMJ -- huge corporations out there. I think all of this activity bodes well for the future of water and our ability to handle our water challenges, though there is a long way to go." -- Lara Abrams, founder of Lara Abrams Communication

• "An average American uses more than twice as the amount of water as the average person uses in Hamburg, Germany; Rotterdam, Holland; and Barcelona, Spain. Similarly, from India to the Gulf countries, per capita water use is two to three times that of the cities which have more efficient water use." -- Asit Biswas, president, The Third World Center for Water Management

• "One of the things I've learned is that very few places know exactly how much water they've got with any accuracy. It's really difficult to make good investment decisions if you don't know how much water you've got to put into those investments. What we are seeing though is a massive change in the way people are engaging with their resources and their governments because of new technologies." -- Julia Bucknall, Water Unit manager, World Bank

• "An example of innovation could be Bolivia, where there's a village where they have these special mushrooms. They're sort of like a truffle that grows under pine trees. They found that if they add some fermented urine to them that the mushrooms will grow much faster. This is a great market, it's an existing market and this is an innovation that they developed locally. What we're trying to do is use that demand for urine as a reason to build a toilet. So we're finding some really interesting ways to build on local innovations to solve sanitation problems." -- Susan Davis, chief partnership officer, Water for People

• "I've found the biggest enemies of progress in the water sector are two things: turf and inertia. This leads to big anomalies in the water sector. For example, water is the biggest user of energy. That hasn't been widely known until recently ... What we need to do is step back and look at the opportunities created by these anomalies. -- F. Henry Habicht III, managing partner, SAIL Capital Partners


Seventh Gen, Whole Foods Top Green Brands Ranking

Seventh Generation and Whole Foods have topped survey respondents’ rankings of the greenest U.S. brands, even as consumer appetite for green products expands to include big-ticket items like cars and electronics.

Tom’s of Maine and Burt’s Bees came third and fourth in the rankings, compiled as part of the 2011 ImagePower Global Green Brands Study, carried out by Cohn & Wolfe, Landor Associates and Penn Schoen Berland Associates (PSB), as well as independent sustainability strategy consulting firm Esty Environmental Partners.

The full list includes:

1. Seventh Generation
2. Whole Foods
3. Tom’s of Maine
4. Burt’s Bees
5. Trader Joe’s
6. The Walt Disney Company
7. S.C. Johnson
8. Dove
9. Apple
10. Starbucks, Microsoft (tied)

“When we analyzed the approach of the top ten brands companies, using our Esty Environmental Scorecard, it was clear that the winners achieve a product-value-information trifecta,” said Amy Longsworth, partner at Esty Environmental Partners.

“The top brands offer clear price value through co-benefits: a great innovative product that meets my functional needs plus green attributes that meet my values needs,” Longsworth added. “These companies also tend to have robust life-cycle insight and complete sustainability strategies across their value chains, which enable them to draw from rich experience and data for their consumer communications.”

The survey found that consumer appetite for green products — in the past focused on personal care, food and household products — has expanded to include big-ticket purchases. Consumers worldwide intend to purchase more environmental products in the auto, energy and technology sectors compared to last year, the study found.

Consumers still buy the most green products in the grocery, household and personal-care categories, with roughly half of respondents making purchases in these categories, consistent with last year’s survey. But they are looking more closely at making green purchasing decisions on more expensive items. 22 percent of U.S. consumers said that they intend to purchase green tech products in the next year, up from 14 percent in 2010.

In the automotive sector, 12 percent of U.S. respondents said that they intend to go green, while 6 percent said that they purchased green vehicles last year. In energy, 27 percent of U.S. respondents intend to purchase green power, up from 24 percent in 2010.

In the survey, 73 percent said it is important to buy from green companies, but price perception remains a challenge — 62 percent see cost as the biggest barrier to buying green products. When evaluating what makes a brand a green leader, respondents mentioned their awareness of a brand’s corporate actions, values, recycling and packaging efforts, sustainability and supply chain decisions.

Overall, the report found that 54 percent of U.S. consumers think the environment is on the wrong track, up from previous polls: 47 percent of Americans thought so in 2010, while only 41 percent had this concern in 2009.

Meanwhile, around the globe, the poll found that only 43 percent of U.K. consumers feel the environment is off-track, down from 53 percent in 2009. In China, 39 percent reported environmental concerns, up from 29 percent last year. Germany, India and Brazil all had about 60 percent of respondents in 2011 indicating that they think the environment is on the wrong track.

The survey polled more than 9,000 people in eight countries.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

100 Leading Companies Measured on Actual vs. Perceived Sustainability Efforts

Full-service brand consulting firm, Brandlogic, in partnership with CRD Analytics, a leading provider of sustainability investment analytics that powers the NASDAQ CRD Global Sustainability Index (QCRD), today released the inaugural version of the "Sustainability Leadership Report: Measuring Perception vs. Reality." This report, Brandlogic's latest contribution to ideas that drive performance, is a quantitative analysis of actual vs. perceived performance around environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors for 100 leading companies. Supported by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), the report is available for immediate download at

Perceptual information was derived from a Brandlogic global research study conducted in 2011, which included an even mix from 2,400 of the three "most attentive" segments, supply chain managers, investment professionals and graduating college and university students located in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, India and China. CRD Analytics' SmartView(TM) platform was used to generate the actual performance data, using quantitative and qualitative data from 175 performance metrics and five key performance indicators within each ESG area.

One of the key findings from the report is the large number of firms -- 66 in total -- whose perceived performance exceeds their actual performance. Detailed scores for each company are included in the report, as well as the Sustainability IQ Matrix(TM), a visual framework that plots each of the 100 companies across four quadrants: "Challengers," "Leaders," "Laggards" and "Promoters."

Brandlogic's senior partner of strategy & research James Cerruti stated, "We want the 100 companies, as well as firms who were not analyzed, to look at the report and ask key questions about any reputational risks they may be facing and identify potential opportunities for improvement. Our goal is to help companies achieve results by better aligning their branding, communications, reporting and stakeholder engagement processes around these emerging priorities."

The report also sheds light on opportunities for improvement and unrealized return on investment. Hampton Bridwell, Brandlogic's managing partner and CEO, noted, "At its heart, the report is a leadership tool that frames sustainability in an objective, fact-based context. Ready or not, sustainability is an important component of corporate reputation, and audiences are constantly forming opinions about corporate behavior in this arena. This study utilizes the best sustainability data and takes into account thoughts from the companies' most attentive stakeholders -- individuals who are in unique positions to make investment decisions, see things through the supply chain or contemplate and compare employment opportunities."

[Click on picture to enlarge]


Monday, June 6, 2011

First Polymer Solar-Thermal Device Heats Home, Saves Money

A new polymer-based solar-thermal device is the first to generate power from both heat and visible sunlight -- an advance that could shave the cost of heating a home by as much as 40 percent.

Geothermal add-ons for heat pumps on the market today collect heat from the air or the ground. This new device uses a fluid that flows through a roof-mounted module to collect heat from the sun while an integrated solar cell generates electricity from the sun's visible light.

"It's a systems approach to making your home ultra-efficient because the device collects both solar energy and heat," said David Carroll, Ph.D., director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at Wake Forest University. "Our solar-thermal device takes better advantage of the broad range of power delivered from the sun each day."

Research showing the effectiveness of the device appears in the March issue of the peer-reviewed journal Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells.

A standard, rooftop solar cell will miss about 75 percent of the energy provided by the sun at any given time because it can't collect the longest wavelengths of light -- infrared heat. Such cells miss an even greater amount of the available daily solar power because they collect sunlight most efficiently between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

"On a rooftop, you have a lot of visible sunlight and heat from the infrared radiation," Carroll said. "The solar-cell industry has for the most part ignored the heat."

The design of the new solar-thermal device takes advantage of this heat through an integrated array of clear tubes, five millimeters in diameter. They lie flat, and an oil blended with a proprietary dye flows through them. The visible sunlight shines into the clear tube and the oil inside, and is converted to electricity by a spray-on polymer photovoltaic on the back of the tubes. This process superheats the oil, which would then flow into the heat pump, for example, to transfer the heat inside a home.

Unlike the flat solar cells used today, the curve of the tubes inside the new device allows for the collection of both visible light and infrared heat from nearly sunrise to sunset. This means it provides power for a much greater part of the day than does a normal solar cell.

Because of the general structure and the ability to capture light at oblique angles, this is also the first solar-thermal device that can be truly building-integrated -- it can be made to look nearly identical to roofing tiles used today.

Tests of the solar-thermal device have shown 30 percent efficiency in converting solar energy to power. By comparison, a standard solar cell with a polymer absorber has shown no greater than 8 percent conversion efficiency.

The research team will build the first square-meter-size solar-thermal cell this summer, a key step in getting the technology ready for market.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

First Macro-Scale Thin-Film Solid-Oxide Fuel Cell: Strong, Nanostructured Membrane Enables Scaling for Clean-Energy Applications

Materials scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and SiEnergy Systems LLC have demonstrated the first macro-scale thin-film solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC).

While SOFCs have previously worked at the micro-scale, this is the first time any research group has overcome the structural challenges of scaling the technology up to a practical size with a proportionally higher power output.

Reported online April 3 in Nature Nanotechnology, the demonstration of this fully functional SOFC indicates the potential of electrochemical fuel cells to be a viable source of clean energy.

"The breakthrough in this work is that we have demonstrated power density comparable to what you can get with tiny membranes, but with membranes that are a factor of a hundred or so larger, demonstrating that the technology is scalable," says principal investigator Shriram Ramanathan, Associate Professor of Materials Science at SEAS.

SOFCs create electrical energy via an electrochemical reaction that takes place across an ultra-thin membrane. This 100-nanometer membrane, comprising the electrolyte and electrodes, has to be thin enough to allow ions to pass through it at a relatively low temperature (which, for ceramic fuel cells, lies in the range of 300 to 500 degrees Celsius). These low temperatures allow for a quick start-up, a more compact design, and less use of rare-earth materials.

So far, however, thin films have been successfully implemented only in micro-SOFCs, where each chip in the fuel cell wafer is about 100 microns wide. For practical applications, such as use in compact power sources, SOFCs need to be about 50 times wider.

The electrochemical membranes are so thin that creating one on that scale is roughly equivalent to making a 16-foot-wide sheet of paper. Naturally, the structural issues are significant.

"If you make a conventional thin membrane on that scale without a support structure, you can't do anything—it will just break," says co-author Bo-Kuai Lai, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS. "You make the membrane in the lab, but you can't even take it out. It will just shatter."

With lead author Masaru Tsuchiya (Ph.D. '09), a former member of Ramanathan's lab who is now at SiEnergy, Ramanathan and Lai fortified the thin film membrane using a metallic grid that looks like nanoscale chicken wire.

The tiny metal honeycomb provides the critical structural element for the large membrane while also serving as a current collector. Ramanathan's team was able to manufacture membrane chips that were 5 mm wide, combining hundreds of these chips into palm-sized SOFC wafers.

While other researchers' earlier attempts at implementing the metallic grid showed structural success, Ramanathan's team is the first to demonstrate a fully functional SOFC on this scale. Their fuel cell's power density of 155 milliwatts per square centimeter (at 510 degrees Celsius) is comparable to the power density of micro-SOFCs.

When multiplied by the much larger active area of this new fuel cell, that power density translates into an output high enough for relevance to portable power.

Previous work in Ramanathan's lab has developed micro-SOFCs that are all-ceramic or that use methane as the fuel source instead of hydrogen. The researchers hope that future work on SOFCs will incorporate these technologies into the large-scale fuel cells, improving their affordability.

In the coming months, they will explore the design of novel nanostructured anodes for hydrogen-alternative fuels that are operable at these low temperatures and work to enhance the microstructural stability of the electrodes.

The research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and performed in part at the Harvard University Center for Nanoscale Systems, a member of the NSF-funded National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network.

Source: [link]