Archive for January, 2011

North American native permaculture

North American native permaculture

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

by The Walden Effect,

Native Americans from the Archaic period preparing hickory nutsBefore eastern Native Americans domesticated the crops in the Eastern Agricultural Complex, they still relied heavily on plants for their nutrition.  Between 8000 BC and 2000 BC (the so-called Archaic period), Native Americans in our area ate a variety of un-domesticated native plants, including the fruits of sumac, blackberry, grape, hackberry, hawthorn, plum, pawpaw, cherry, mulberry, and persimmon; the nuts of hickory, oak, hazel, walnut, chestnut, beech, and pecan; and the sweet insides of honey locust pods.  They also ate the fruits, leaves, or tubers of Jerusalem artichoke, two wild beans, groundnut, maypop, black nightshade, amaranth, pokeweed, carpetweed, dock, chickweed, ground cherry, purslane, carpetweed, panicgrass, hog peanut, and a spurge.  Most of these plants continued to be important in the Native American diet for thousands of years thereafter.

Native Americans used fire to encourage edible plantsIf you’ve ever picked up a book on eastern North American edible plants, you’ll have noticed that most of the top edibles are listed above.  So the Native Americans just figured out what was edible and they wandered around all day looking for them, right?  In Cultivated Landscapes of Native North America, William E. Doolittle makes a strong case for the hypothesis that most or all of these “wild” plants were cultivated to some extent, even though they weren’t domesticated.  You’ll notice that nearly all of the woody plants listed aren’t old growth species and instead require some space and extra sunlight to produce plenty of fruits.  Native Americans cut the competition away from favored plants, burned out the undergrowth, pruned trees and vines to make fruits larger and easier to harvest, and transplanted edible-fruited trees to the edges of their fields after they began growing domesticated crops.  A great deal of evidence exists to suggest that grapes were propagated by cuttings and planted in vineyards, mulberry trees were planted near homes, and chickasaw plums and pecans were carried east from their natural range to plant throughout the South.

Indian gardenSmaller edibles were also encouraged in much the same way that a modern gardener might let a volunteer vegetable alone once he recognizes its worth.  A wide range of small plants weren’t completely dependent on the Native Americans for their care (like the Eastern Agricultural Complex was) but still benefited from a bit of encouragement and were then eaten.  Many of the plants listed in the last sentence of the first paragraph are weedy species that require some disturbance in order to grow, so they sprang up in the Native American’s cultivated fields.  At the time of European contact, it was common to see maypops, Jerusalem artichokes, and other “weeds” allowed to grow in the corn fields, to be harvested for food.

Although the native North American systems of encouraging wild plants weren’t as intricate as the forest gardens you see in the tropics, the widespread range and abundance of many of the species mentioned in this post can probably be linked back to the continent’s earliest human inhabitants.  It begs the question — are you really wildcrafting when you harvest the ubiquitous pokeweed growing behind your house, or are you just eating the remains of a Native American garden?


This post is part of our Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

“Mussel Gel” Will Give Muscle To Medical Implants And Tissue Repair

Mussel byssus enables mussel to surfaces even in water: Credit: Tara Fadenrecht, Niels Holten-Andersen, image via

“Mussel Gel” Will Give Muscle To Medical Implants And Tissue Repair





by T Goodman, Inventor Spot,

Mussel byssus enables mussel to surfaces even in water: Credit: Tara Fadenrecht, Niels Holten-Andersen, image via A new gel that the inventors say you can play with like Silly Putty, can repair torn skin, bond implants, or act as an adhesive for underwater machinery.  The invention, under development for several years, is now patent pending, and it’s all thanks to the biomimicry of a mussel’s byssus, the hair-size filaments that form a sticky foam enabling the mussel’s fierce attachment to rocks, substrates, and beds on the sea walls and floors.

Like the gecko, the mussel’s ‘sticktuitiveness’ has been admired by scientists from many disciplines, and several attempts have been made to biomimic the strength of the byssus, but prior agents have compromised either the strength or the brittleness of the glue.  Nevertheless, each experiment was built on the findings of the past, as was this accomplishment built on the finding that an amino acid known as ‘dopa’ was the key ingredient in the adhesive protein of the byssus.

The research chemists Neils Holten-Anderson and Ka Yee Lee from the University of Chicago, leading an international team of colleagues, dealt with the strength versus brittleness factors in their version of ‘Silly Putty,’ a gel that can be made firmer by changing the pH values, and less brittle by adding metals, such as iron, titanium, or aluminum, into the mix.

“Our aspiration is to learn some new design principles from nature that we haven’t yet actually been using in man-made materials that we can then apply to make man-made materials even better,” said Holten-Anderson.

That’s biomimicry! And that’s progress!

sources: Science Daily, Wikipedia The full paper appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Edition (1/24/11)

Gratzel Solar Cells

Gratzel solar cells

by TECHSTAR on JANUARY 29, 2011 , Off-Grid,

Cheap power for all

A mix of biomimicry and solar power offers the best hope for low cost off-grid energy in the near future.

The Gratzel solar cell imitates Nature’s way of converting sunlight to energy and is slowly making its debut in a variety of products.

The technology uses a photosensitive dye to start its energy production, the same way leaves use chlorophyll to begin photosynthesis. The dye-sensitized cells provide power for devices ranging from e-book readers to cellphones — and will take some interesting forms. For e-book readers, for example, the cells may be found in thin, flexible panels stitched into the reader’s cover.

German photonics expert Prof Michael Gratzel is the inventor of the dye-sensitised solar cells. often known as Gratzel cells or Gratzel solar cells. Because these are low-cost photovoltaics, they are largely being developed for use in Africa and India by G24 Innovations of California.

This means off-grid users in the West risk losing out on the earliest deployments although panels will also be housed in new lines of backpacks and sports bags, where they can recharge devices like cellphones and music players.

The technology, long in development, will work best in full, direct sunshine, said Gratzel, a chemist and professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. But the cells will also make good use of dappled and ambient light, including the indoor light of fluorescent bulbs, he said.

According to Gratzel, such technology will soon be helping people in Africa to connect to the internet.

‘I was in Tanzania last year, and everyone has a mobile phone; but there’s no grid to charge them,’ he said.

In Africa, mobiles are the primary way to connect to the internet for information such as where to obtain the best price for crops. ‘G24 Innovations is proposing to make lightweight chargers and give them away for free, in a business model where it would recoup the cost through call charges,’ explained Gratzel. ‘We need incentives such as this.’

He also said that the cells could be used to power fridges, to preserve food and pharmaceuticals and to drive ozone-generating water purifiers.

Most photovoltaic cells are based on silicon or related inorganic materials, not dyes. Dr. Gratzel and an American colleague, Brian O’Regan, first reported on the new type of cell in the journal Nature in 1991, and Dr. Gratzel said that he and other colleagues had been working since then to refine the technology. Now G24 Innovations, a company in Campbell, Calif., that has licensed the technology, is using it to make solar panels at its plant in Cardiff, Wales, said John Hartnett, G24′s chief executive.

Some of the panels will be placed on covers designed as an accessory for Sony e-book readers, costing about $99. The cover supplies the power via a plug in a cradle along its spine.

The panels will also be installed on tennis bags, backpacks and messenger bags that have battery chargers within, as well as on bicycle, golf, shopping and beach bags. Prices of the bags will typically range from $149 to $249, depending on the materials and size of the bag.

Some bags are already available, including messenger bags from Tonino Lamborghini.

The solar panels have 11 cells each, said Kevin Tabor, director of science and research at G24. Wiring goes from the panel to a battery pack in the bag, he said. It takes about six to eight sunny hours outside for the panel to fuel the recharger, he said, but longer indoors.

The performance of the dye-sensitized cells has improved steadily in the laboratory, Dr. Gratzel said. ”Our dyes and electrolytes have changed,” he said, and the cells have become more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity.
In a conventional silicon-based photovoltaic cell, sunlight strikes the crystalline silicon surface and displaces an electron, which can then diffuse through the structure of the semiconductor, creating a current. The silicon is ‘doped’ with elements to increase its conductivity, easing the path of the electron.

However, the efficiency is limited, and this is partly because the silicon meets the role of both energy harvesting and electron transport.

This isn’t the case in photosynthesis. Chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green, acts as the energy harvester; it absorbs the light and generates a free electron. Other mechanisms within the plant’s cells then handle the movement of the electron, carrying it into the processes where it reacts with carbon dioxide and water to make glucose and oxygen.

In the early 1970s, concerns about the price of oil triggered a wave of research into alternative energy sources, and Gratzel became interested in photosynthesis. ‘At the time I was educated, the detail on how photosynthesis worked was not well established,’ he said. ‘I was interested by the way that plants use their molecules to generate charges and separate those charges.’
Gratzel cells copy this process, using three essential ingredients: a conductive electrolyte solution, in which is dispersed nanocrystals of the white pigment titanium dioxide (TiO2) coated with an organic dye. The dye takes the place of the chlorophyll – in early versions, chlorophyll itself was used, but electrons couldn’t diffuse through it – and absorbs sunlight, which knocks electrons free from the organic molecular structure of the highly coloured material. These are knocked into the TiO2, which has semiconducting properties, and carries the charge through the electrolyte to an external circuit. Electrons flowing back into the cell through the other side of the circuit replace those that are displaced from the dye molecules.

Gratzel’s first cells were perfected in the 1980s, as a result of work with new nanoscale forms of TiO2 created at Lausanne. ‘This was a fundamental study, driven by our curiosity – no one had done it before,’ he said. The research came to fruition in 1988, using a porous film coated with TiO2 crystals, creating a very high surface roughness to absorb sunlight.
‘I asked my PhD student Hans Desilvestro how the experiment had gone,’ Gratzel remembered. ‘He did not seem too enthusiastic initially, adding that he had only measured a few milliamperes current. I knew it was a lot; other researchers had only measured micro- or nano-amps.’

The initial cells achieved efficiencies of around seven per cent – a thousand times better than original versions from the 1970s – and currently reach around 12 per cent.

Although not as efficient as silicon cells, whose efficiencies are generally around 15 per cent, Gratzel cells are cheaper. TiO2 is a readily available material, used widely in white paint and sunscreens; organic dyes are also inexpensive. Gratzel is fond of demonstrating the system in schools, asking pupils to make their own cells using blackberry juice as the organic dye.
Within the solar cell, the dye is painted in a thin layer on a porous titanium dioxide scaffold to collect light and, in a series of steps, create power.

An Australian company, Dyesol, supplies materials to G24 Innovations and other companies developing dye solar cell technology, said Marc Thomas, the chief executive of Dyesol’s North American operations in Sacramento. Dyesol provides the dye, titanium pastes and the electrolytes for the thin-film technology, he said. Titanium dioxide is a common, inexpensive ingredient that is used, for example, to whiten toothpaste.

Mr. Thomas noted that Dyesol customers were planning to use the technology to prolong battery life in devices like wireless sensors and keyboards.

Brazil Green Lights Amazon Dam Disregarding Environmental Laws and Local Opposition

Brazil Green Lights Amazon Dam Disregarding Environmental Laws and Local Opposition

New Dilma Government Approves Fast-Track Forest Clearance and Commencement of Controversial Belo Monte Construction Site

International Rivers, Friends of the Earth – Brazilian Amazonia.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | January 27, 2011
Amazon Watch,
For more information, contact:
Christian Poirier, Amazon Watch, + 1 510 666 7565,
Brent Millikan, International Rivers, + 55 61 8153 7009,
Renata Pinheiro, Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, +55 (93) 9172-9776,

Brazília, Brazil – The Brazilian government has issued a “partial” installation license allowing the Belo Monte Dam Complex to break ground on the margins of the Amazon’s Xingu River despite egregious disregard for human rights and environmental legislation, the unwavering protests of civil society and condemnations by its Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF). The license was approved by Brazil’s environmental agency IBAMA despite overwhelming evidence that the dam-building consortium Norte Energia (NESA) has failed to comply with dozens of social and environmental conditions required for an installation license.

The “partial” installation license, non-existent under Brazilian environmental legislation, will allow for NESA to open access roads and initiate forest clearing at dam construction sites in an area of 2,118 acres. “The partial installation license granted by IBAMA is intended to transform Belo Monte, a notoriously illegal and catastrophic dam project and a huge waste of taxpayers’ money, into a fait accompli,” said Christian Poirier, Brazil Program Coordinator at Amazon Watch.

The risky $17 billion Belo Monte Dam Complex will divert nearly the entire flow of the Xingu River along a 62-mile stretch. Its reservoirs will flood more than 100,000 acres of rainforest and local settlements, displace more than 40,000 people and generate vast quantities of methane – a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The decision follows the recent resignation of IBAMA’s president Abelardo Bayma, who allegedly departed amidst intense political pressures from the Ministry of Mines and Energy and President Dilma Rousseff.

The consortium also benefited from a subsidized $640 million start-up loan from the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES) for equipment purchases before a partial installation license was issued, countering legal procedures. The bank has come under increasing scrutiny from the Public Prosecutor’s office and NGOs due to alarming evidence that approval is based on political grounds, often downplaying problems of economic viability and compliance with social and environmental safeguards.

According to Public Prosecutor Ubiratan Cazetta, “IBAMA is putting the region at a high social and environmental risk by granting a license allowing installation of the construction site while not requiring compliance with legally-mandated safeguards. No effective preparations have been made to absorb the thousands of migrants who will be attracted to the region in search of employment in dam construction. We’re very concerned about what could happen here.”

Fierce opposition by local inhabitants to Belo Monte has not wavered. “For us, Belo Monte’s installation license is a sign of the government’s deepening authoritarianism, as it continues to steamroll over environmental legislation and human rights,” said Antônia Melo, a leader and spokeswoman for the Xingu Alive Forever Movement (MXVPS). “The government seeks to build this dam at any cost in order to benefit corporate interests at our expense. However, we will not stop fighting to preserve the Xingu, our national patrimony.”



Genetic Architecture: When Buildings Think With Their Surroundings

Genetic Architecture: When Buildings Think With Their Surroundings

by Alex Pasternack, New York, NY on 01.27.11
Design & Architecture , Tree Hugger,


Karl Chu knows he is a man way ahead of his time. It’s a time when, he posits, humans have transcended their bodies to exist on multiple planes, contribute to a global brain, and write apps with their genomes.

But it’s the implications for architecture that are really exciting, says Chu. The founder of the innovative architectural firm metaxy, he imagines “genetic architects” creating buildings and other objects that can build themselves, that are endowed with a certain kind of intelligence, and that make up a massive “self-aware” built ecosystem.

As George Dvorsky writes at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies blog,

Future “genetic buildings” could, for example, be self-assessing, self-healing and self-modifying, thus minimizing their need to be repaired or maintained by external sources. They will morph, process, and react. These buildings could even meet the needs of its inhabitants by sensing the moods or health of its occupants and act accordingly. Needless to say, the potential for sustainability is substantial.

Chu spoke about genetic architecture (not to be confused with the genomic term) at TEDxBrooklyn recently, showing two hundred and fifty slides in about 20 minutes. Watch it below, ponder it —, maybe giggle; just don’t expect to get it right away.

The TED Talk is located here:

Though it sounds like science-fiction (the connections Chu draws with quantum mechanics and the multiverse verge toward the poetic), his vision can trace some of its roots to the tenets of the organic architecture that Frank Lloyd Wright helped popularize, and to the 1960s, when architects around the world blended utopian ideals with the promise of new technologies.

The Japanese Metabolists, for instance, envisioned large scale, flexible, and expandable structures that echoed the processes of organic growth; in the U.S. Nicholas Negroponte coined the idea of a responsive architecture that was mechanically and dynamically integrated with its surroundings, an idea that lives on in projects like Columbia’s Living Architecture Lab, in design philosophies like biomimicry, and in concepts like the digitally-networked intelligent city.

Since ancient times, architecture has been linked closely with its surroundings. But in an era when our present-day engineering capacity proposes a less synchronous path, one not just of strip malls and parking lots and mountain-top removal, but also of entire landforms and climates being geo-engineered, the prospect of genetic architecture sounds like a tantalizing corrective. Or, at the very least, an exciting prompt for thinking about how we want to design our future.

Image: Seoul Commune 2026 by Mass Studies

Incredible Sahara Forest Project Moves From Concept To Reality With Major Development Deal

Incredible Sahara Forest Project Moves From Concept To Reality With Major Development Deal

by Leonora Oppenheim, London, UK on 01.18.11
Design & Architecture , Tree Hugger,

Sahara Forest Project original image
Images via Exploration Architecture – original visualisation of Sahara Forest Project

There’s great news for sustainable design innovation this week as the Sahara Forest Project gets backing from a development deal between Norway and Jordan. We wrote about this incredible proposal to create carbon neutral energy, fresh water, food and fuel crops through symbiotic technologies back in 2008. Now, after years of hard work and persistence from the collaborative Sahara Forest Project team, this large scale concept is going to become a big reality. Here is the new vision…

Sahara Forest Project Developed Project image
Latest visualisation for Sahara Forest Project demonstration centre in Aqaba Jordan by the Red Sea

A quick recap of the Sahara Forest Project
The Sahara Forest Project proposes to use two separate technologies together, Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and Seawater Greenhouses, to provide an array of sustainable energy and agricultural solutions, in the usually inhospitable desert environment, through the desalination of seawater into freshwater.

International Collaboration between Norway and Jordan
After joining forces with the Norwegian environmental group the Bellona Foundation in 2009 The Sahara Forest Project team, including biomimicry architect Michael Pawlyn, Seawater Greenhouse designer Charlie Paton and structural engineer Bill Watts, presented their proposal at COP15.

Having been well received in Copenhagen the fast rising profile of the project lead to an audience with Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan in Oslo in June 2010. The King was so impressed he invited the SFP team to visit Jordan in October 2010 to scope out a feasibility study. The result of these fast moving developments is the deal that was signed last week between Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority and The Sahara Forest Project in Amman, Jordan.

A Test and Demonstration Centre in Jordan
The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) is the catchy name for the Jordanian Government’s strategic development zone by the Red Sea. A perfect location for the Sahara Forest Project, which needs to be located very specifically near the coastline in order to pump seawater to the power plant.

With financial backing from Norway it has been agreed that ASEZA will:

“facilitate the necessary land area for The Sahara Forest Test and Demonstration Centre, including a corridor for the salt water pipe from the Red Sea. The area needed will be 20 hectares (200,000 sqm). ASEZA will also assist SFP in identifying and securing 200 hectares for possible later expansion.”

The SFP team are now committed to developing the project from concept to reality in Aqaba, Jordan. The plan is to conduct comprehensive feasibility studies in 2011, develop the Test and Demonstration Centre in 2012, and we are likely to see a large scale roll out of the project in 2015.

Speed is of the essence
It is exciting to see how this international collaboration between Norway and Jordan can produce the necessary land and funding for such an ambitiously innovative project. We look forward to following the speedy progress towards making these sustainable solutions a reality and then to a large scale roll out that will see many more countries benefitting from these symbiotic technologies.

Undoubtedly there will be trials, tribulations and all sorts of social and technical challenges along the way, but the good news is that the starter gun has gone off. As we so often hear, we don’t have any time to waste when it comes to developing and implementing renewable energy sources.

The President of the Bellona Foundation and founding partner of SFP, Frederic Hauge, says of the new deal.

“We are very happy with the strong support from both Jordanian and Norwegian authorities. It is encouraging to see that we share the vision of a more holistic approach towards solving challenges in the food, water and energy sector. The Sahara Forest Project has unfolded at a remarkable pace since first presented, and I am confident that the SFP facility in Jordan can be a reality within a very short time frame.”

City of Henderson Partners with Ameresco to Reduce Energy Costs and Environmental Impact while Saving Just Over $2 Million Annually

City of Henderson Partners with Ameresco to Reduce Energy Costs and Environmental Impact while Saving Just Over $2 Million Annually

January 27, 2011 07:05 PM Eastern Time, Business Wire,

Four-year project reduces emissions equivalent to removing 3,045 cars from the road

CORRECTION…by Ameresco, Inc.

FRAMINGHAM, Mass.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Please replace the release with the following corrected version due to multiple revisions.

“We trust that by taking a leadership role, we can foster an ethic of conservation and resource stewardship throughout our community.”

The corrected release reads:


Four-year project reduces emissions equivalent to removing 3,045 cars from the road

Ameresco, Inc. (NYSE:AMRC), a leading energy efficiency and renewable energy company, will soon complete the final phase of energy efficiency work under a multi-phase energy savings performance contract (ESPC) for the City of Henderson, NV that is expected to save the city just over $2 million annually in energy costs over the term of the contract, while also significantly reducing the city’s emissions.

“Implementing energy-saving programs that help preserve our community’s natural resources for future generations is a key component of our vision to be America’s Premier Community,” said City of Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen. “We trust that by taking a leadership role, we can foster an ethic of conservation and resource stewardship throughout our community.”

“Over the course of the last four years, we have developed a great working relationship with the City of Henderson,” said David J. Anderson, Executive Vice President, Ameresco. “This multi-phase project is a clear demonstration of how a comprehensive approach to energy efficiency can deliver significant savings and environmental benefits. It’s truly exciting to partner with a community that is committed to effective use of its energy resources and environmental stewardship.”

Named the fastest growing city in the U.S. by the Census Bureau in 2003, the City of Henderson contracted with Ameresco to help reduce energy costs city-wide. Ameresco used a combination of energy conservation and operational savings measures to achieve savings with appropriate energy planning strategies, retrofits and equipment replacements.

Ameresco began working with the City in 2006 on the first phase of energy efficiency measures, and is scheduled to complete the third and final phase in the first quarter of 2011. Upon completion of the final phase, annual savings to the city are expected to be just over $2 million, with anticipated emission reductions the environmental equivalent of removing 3,045 cars from the road or powering 2,253 houses a year.

The first phase of construction began in July 2006, and was completed in May 2007. The focus was on the Robert A. Swadell Justice Facility and city traffic signals. Improvements included traffic signal LED and control upgrades in 64 intersections, energy management control system upgrades, computer control power management software installation, boiler replacement and efficiency improvements, exterior lighting replacement, and plumbing maintenance improvements. The improvements are delivering approximately 26% energy savings at the Robert A. Swadell Justice Facility, and 79% from traffic signals and computers installed city-wide. This provided a guaranteed annual savings of $264,277.

Phase Two was completed at the Whitney Ranch Recreation Center. The project included improvements to the pool heating system. Outdated boilers were replaced with heat-pumps and variable frequency drives were added to the pumping system.

Phase Three construction began in March 2009, and addressed city-wide improvements. Measures include retrofitting or replacing over 4,000 building lighting fixtures, installing over 1,500 lighting occupancy sensors, installing or upgrading an energy management control system in eight facilities, replacing 15 boilers in six facilities, replacing chillers in two facilities, and retrofitting more than 310 plumbing fixtures. Additionally, UV water treatment was installed at two facilities with both indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and a third facility which has an outdoor splash pad.

This final phase also includes retrofitting up to 28,000 streetlights with induction lighting technology. The induction lighting is expected to reduce energy consumption of the systems by 30% to 60% depending on type of light fixture, and increase the lamp life by nearly four times current life expectancy. The new lighting also reduces light pollution into the night sky, making the City of Henderson a more comfortable place to live. The lighting upgrade is expected to generate 11,853,788 kW hours in electrical savings, which equates to $840,580 annually.

The projected savings from Phase Three is expected to be 18% city-wide, which is $1,714,586 annually. The savings for this phase of the project supports the project cost of $18,540,454.

Additional Phase Three projects include installing two 30kW photovoltaic arrays, providing rooftop HVAC replacements, and an energy management system at the Emergency Services Facility (ESF).

About Ameresco, Inc.

Ameresco, Inc. was incorporated in Delaware in April 2000 and is a leading independent provider of comprehensive energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions for facilities throughout North America. Ameresco’s solutions include upgrades to a facility’s energy infrastructure, and the development, construction, and operation of renewable energy plants. With corporate headquarters located in Framingham, MA, Ameresco has 55 offices in 29 states and four Canadian provinces. For more information, visit