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May 11, 2013

GreenTech Week in Review



In green technology developments this week, America’s love affair with cars continues—whether they require fossil fuel or electricity, whether they are driven or driverless, whether they hit the road or take to the air, and whether they are made on the assembly line or on the computer printer.

Topping the bevy of today’s new-fangled vehicles, literally, is the Transition street-legal airplane created by Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia (terra-FOO-gee-ah) Inc. Soon, it will be joined by the TF-X, an even more sophisticated hybrid-electric flying car that offers the capabilities of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). Created in 2006 by alumni of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT (News - Alert)), the Transition can convert between flying and driving modes in under a minute—enabling a pilot to land and drive in bad weather, providing integrated ground transportation on both ends of the flight, and engineered to fit into a standard single-car garage at home.  

The Transition can fly in and out of over 5,000 public airports in the United States and is permitted to drive on public roads and highways. It is the only light aircraft designed to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, and it is also equipped with a full-vehicle parachute for additional safety.  Building on its experience with the Transition program, Terrafugia has begun feasibility studies of a four-seat, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) plug-in hybrid-electric flying car, the TF-X.  Incorporating state-of-the-art intelligence systems, fly-by-wire control and currently available technology, the TF-X will further increase the level of safety, simplicity and convenience of personal aviation.

But, if you don’t like the models already on the market, you soon will be able to just print your own, as the auto industry ushers in the 3D manufacturing revolution with a car called the Urbee. The Urbee , a “runabout” plastic vehicle with a hybrid engine, has three wheels and the ability to reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour; the 10-foot car can carry up to 1,200 pounds, and is environmentally sound from the workshop to the road.

The brain behind the Urbee is engineer Jim Kor and his team at KOR EcoLogic. The team’s prowess for this visionary vehicle shows “that anything really is possible,” and the Urbee is poised to change how the world approaches manufacturing, according to Jim Baretel, Stratasys (News - Alert), vice president of RedEye On Demand. The car takes about three months to print and assemble. What’s more, the Urbee is designed to be environmentally sustainable, because it can efficiently store and use exactly the amount of solar and wind energy a driver can collect in a one-car garage in one day. If one wants to travel farther in a given day, the ethanol-powered engine is used.

Interestingly enough, 3D cars are just the sort of products that will be made in one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s factories of the future. The Obama Administration has launched an open, competitive process to create three new manufacturing innovation institutes focused on Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation, Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing, and Next-Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing.

All three institutes would advance America’s technological lead in an increasingly competitive global marketplace: The first would focus on the development of novel model-based design methodologies, virtual manufacturing tools (think 3D cars) and sensor- and robotics-based manufacturing networks. The second and third categories hold particular promise in the areas of electric vehicle components/energy efficiency and renewable power generation.

The competition will offer a cumulative federal commitment of $200 million, sourced across five agencies—Defense, Energy, Commerce, NASA and the National Science Foundation.  Winning teams will be selected and announced later this year.  Federal funds will be matched by industry co-investment, support from state and local governments, and other sources.  The Institutes are expected to become financially self-sustaining, and the plan to achieve this objective will be a critical evaluation criterion in the selection process. 

And speaking of the Obama Administration, while there’s very little happening on the federal level in terms of energy legislation, there is a lot of action in America’s heartland. Today, U.S. state legislatures are considering more than 2,100 bills that could change the way Americans produce, buy and use energy. But with all of that disparate work progressing nationwide, it can be difficult to see the big picture. Now, Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy (CNEE) has announced the rollout of the Advanced Energy Legislation (AEL) Tracker – an online database of energy-related state legislation pending in all 50 states.  

This first-of-its-kind database was created in partnership with Advanced Energy Economy (AEE)—a Washington, DC-based association of business leaders representing the entire advanced energy industry. Based on information available only in AEL Tracker, nearly 25 percent of pending state energy legislation calls for new financing tools – including tax incentives – for the installation of energy facilities; roughly 21 percent of pending bills promote development of clean energy sources; and about 8 percent of national measures encourage adoption of energy-efficient appliances, building codes and practices – the “low-hanging fruit” in America’s energy supply chain. The Center’s first trend analysis is on energy efficiency, entitled “Rediscovering the First Fuel.” The Center expects to publish two to three trend analyses per month and will next publish a white paper on financing of advanced energy.

Finally, when a European lobster “hits rock bottom,” it has arrived home. In fact, thanks to researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Potsdam, Germany, 3,000 lobsters will be released next year to find a new habitat in the rock-strewn foundation of the 30-turbine Riffgat Offshore Windpark in the North Sea. The scientists wish to study whether lobsters— which are rocky bed dwellers that hide in crevices during the daytime and become active at night—will successfully settle down among the wind turbines. Before the construction of the windpark, sand and silt soils dominated the sea bed.

Now, the wind turbines are offering other ecosystems a new settlement area in the form of so-called hard substrate. The Land of Lower Saxony, a federal state in northwestern Germany, is financing the three-year pilot project under the aegis of the NLWKN (Lower Saxony Institute for Water Management, Coastal Protection and Nature Conservation).  The €700,000 ($921,000) in funding is being taken from compensation payments made under the Federal Nature Conservation Act for disturbing the ecosystem that existed prior to construction of the windpark.  

AWI scientist Dr. Isabel Schmalenbach will rear the baby lobsters at a station close to the windfarm. Once the lobsters have grown to a length of about 10 centimeters (four inches), they will be returned to the sea. In the coming years, the AWI biologists will study the lobster settlement grounds to determine how many of the young animals have become successfully established in the stony grounds; whether they remain at the original site at which they were released or seek out a crevice in a neighboring area; how accompanying fauna (large crabs and fish) develop; and whether wild lobsters migrate into the area.




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