Archive for the ‘Express 184’ Category

Wind in the willows & sweet tidings for non-fossil fuels

Posted by Ken on February 7, 2013
Posted under Express 184

Things are looking sweet now for non-fossil fuels. Researchers at the University of Michigan have pioneered a method of manufacturing high-grade silicon for use in solar cells cheaply, using a concept familiar to making rock candy at home. UK researchers have also found a way of growing willow, used as feedstock for biomass and biofuel production, which increases its sugar yield – making the process more efficient and cheaper. Read more

“Rock candy” silicon could make ultra-cheap solar power

By Tina Casey in Cleantechnica (28 January 2013):

Researchers at the University of Michigan have come up with a low-cost way to manufacture high-grade silicon, based on a concept familiar to anyone who has tried to make rock candy at home. If the breakthrough can be translated into a commercially viable process, it would make ultra-cheap solar tech like V3Solar’s Spin Cell (which we were just raving about the other day) even cheaper.

Ironically, funding for the research project came from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, but maybe they know something we don’t.

Cooking Up a Batch of Low-Cost Silicon

Silicon is the key component of conventional solar cells. It comes from silicon dioxide, aka sand, which is one of the cheapest and most abundant materials on Earth, but converting sand into high grade silicon is a high cost, energy intensive process with a pretty significant carbon footprint.

As described by U Mich writer Kate McAlpine, the new process works at just 180 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a far cry from the 2,000 degrees needed for conventional silicon manufacturing.

The method basically consists of covering a liquid gallium electrode (gallium is a soft whitish metal that has a melting point around room temperature) with a layer of a solution based on silicon tetrachloride (a colorless, flammable liquid).

As in conventional silicon processing, electrons from the metal convert the silicon tetrachloride into raw silicon. The new twist is that by using soft metal with a low melting point, the research team was able to get the raw silicon to form crystals without exposing the solution to additional heat.

A Ways to Go for Low Cost Silicon

The team has observed films of silicon crystals forming on the liquid gallium electrodes, but so far the individual crystals are only about 1/2000th (yes that’s 1/2000th) of a millimeter in diameter.

There is still a long way to go before the process jumps from the lab into commercial viability, and the next steps include experimenting with other metal alloys that have low melting points.

Meanwhile, other routes to low-cost silicon based solar power are at or near commercial development, and they could go even lower if the U Mich research pans out.

One approach, illustrated by the aforementioned V3Solar Spin Cell (which by the way began life as Solarphasec), is to squeeze more power out of conventional solar cells by reconfiguring the solar module.

The Spin Cell reboots the typical flat solar panel into a 3-D cone. Along similar lines, MIT researchers have come up with a solar “tower of power” that takes advantage of 3-D angles.

The 3-D concept can also be internalized, as demonstrated by a company called (what else) Solar3D.

On a completely different note, the Obama Administration is also focusing on lowering the “soft costs” of solar power, which typically account for half the cost of a completed solar installation.

The Petroleum Research Fund

Well, here’s hoping. In any case, the really interesting part of the story is the involvement of the Petroleum Research Fund, which states at the top of its home page that its mission is to support “fundamental research directly related to petroleum or fossil fuels.”

In its vision statement following that declaration, the Fund waxes a little more expansive, describing itself as dedicated to “significantly increasing the world’s energy options,” though directly after the following note appears: “Proposals will no longer be considered in solar power, which includes photovoltaics and solar cells.”

Apparently the U Mich project got in under the wire, but it shouldn’t be surprising that a grant-making organization with roots in the petroleum industry was at least once open to solar power research.

Solar power has long been used as an economical way to provide energy to remote oil fields, where grid connections would be difficult if not impossible.

Given the energy intensity of harvesting unconventional oil, most notably from Canada’s tar sands, low-cost power in any form would be a welcome development for the petroleum industry.

This article was originally posted on Cleantechnica. Re-posted with permission.


Sugar-rich willow can boost biofuels’ green credentials

By Mark Kinver for BBC News (25 January 2013):

Willow is widely grown as a feedstock for biomass and biofuel industries

Scientists have identified willow trees that yield five times as much sugar as ordinary varieties, “drastically reducing” the impact of biofuels.

UK researchers found that if the trees grew at an angle, they produced a special kind of wood that resulted in the higher sugar content.

Willow, a short rotation coppice crop, is widely grown as a source for the biofuel and biomass industries.

The findings appear in the Biotechnology for Biofuels journal.

“It would drastically reduce [the environmental impact of biofuels] because you would not need such a severe pre-treatment in the conversion process, which is currently one of the highest energy consumption steps in the process of converting woody biomass to biofuels,” explained co-author Michael Ray, a researcher at Imperial College London.

Energy intensive pre-treatment processes are used to soften the wood before it goes through an enzymatic stage to break down the woody matter in order to produce biofuel.

“Our feeling is that these varieties that we know yield more sugar will need a much less severe pre-treatment process,” Dr Ray told BBC News.

“Ultimately, we will work towards producing varieties that actually will not need any pre-treatment at all and will be able to dissolve them in enzymes without undergoing any pre-treatment processes.”

He added that the findings could also improve the environmental performance of biofuels by increasing sugar yields, making the whole process more productive and cost effective.

“What we are really working towards here is sustainability, reducing the energy inputs and improving the energy and carbon balances, and reducing the competition for land that you could use for food production,” he said.

We hopefully will be able to… generate new varieties that will be easier to break down and use the sugars to produce biofuels”

Dr Ray and his colleague Dr Nicholas Brereton said the latest work built on previous work involving a wider study on willow varieties at the national collection at Rothamsted Research, which is the longest running agricultural research station in the world.

“We found in that study that certain varieties released more sugar than others, and in that same study we discovered that it had nothing to do with the total amount of sugars that were there, so we knew that it had to be something else that was causing the differences that we were seeing,” Dr Ray recalled.

“The phenomenon we are investigating is a natural phenomenon that is observed in most trees. You get a special type of wood (known as reaction wood) laid down in response to environmental stimuli, such as tipping or wind, which induces these special woods to be formed.”

“We found that the trees we tipped, compared with control trees that were not tipped, the different genotypes responded differently. Some of them did not release any additional sugar, even if you tipped them. Yet in others, there were very big differences.”

Reaction wood has a different cellular characteristic to normal wood and is formed when branches or stems have been disturbed and the tree attempts to return to its original position. It is also known as tension wood in deciduous trees and compression wood in conifers.

Working alongside colleagues from the University of Highlands and Islands, Scotland, the pair found the same results in the environment as well, allowing them to conclude that it was the effect of tipping that was triggering the response in the trees.

Dr Ray said that more research was needed in order to understand the underlying mechanism and identify what advantages the production of “reaction wood” offered to naturally growing tree.

“We just know that it is a natural response that we hopefully will be able to utilise that in order to generate new varieties that will be easier to break down and use the sugars to produce biofuels,” he observed.


Top sustainable businesses recognised in Yearbook

Posted by Ken on February 7, 2013
Posted under Express 184

The Sustainability Yearbook 2013 has published its list of top companies for sustainable business. The results act as a guide to investors on which companies are doing the most to address the risk and opportunities of sustainability. In this year’s list, companies from the USA, Germany and South Korea are top gold medal winners, with strong representation from European nations and increasing presence from Asian nations. Read more

22 January 2013:

Companies from the USA, Germany and South Korea are top gold medal winners for sustainable business according to The Sustainability Yearbook 2013

 Europe no longer the exclusive bastion of CSR: leading Asian and North American companies also perform strongly

 Unilever the first and only company to achieve “Sector Leader” status for 10 consecutive years

 Samsung Life Insurance Co shows biggest improvement in one year

Companies from the USA, Germany and South Korea are at the top of the 2013 international gold medal-table for sustainable business, according to The Sustainability Yearbook 2013.

The 10th edition of The Sustainability Yearbook will be published by RobecoSAM, the investment specialist focused exclusively on Sustainability Investing and KPMG International at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland on 23 January 2013.

Every year RobecoSAM rigorously assesses the sustainability performance of more than 2,000 companies across 58 sectors. Based on an in-depth analysis, each company is scored on up to 120 financially material economic, environmental, social and governance criteria specific to its own industry with a focus on long-term value creation.

The results are published in The Sustainability Yearbook as a guide to investors worldwide on which companies are doing the most to address the risks and opportunities of sustainability.

And the gold medals go to…

Gold medals are awarded to the top-performing company within each sector and to those companies whose scores are within 1% of their sector leader’s score. A total of 67 companies have been awarded gold medals in The Sustainability Yearbook 2013, which corresponds to just 2.5% of all companies assessed.

The country with the highest number of gold medal winners was the USA, with nine companies shining: Molson Coors Brewing Co (Beverages sector), Alcoa Inc (Aluminium), Sonoco Products Co (Containers & Packaging), Herman Miller Inc (Furnishing), UnitedHealth Group (Healthcare Providers), Baxter International Inc (Medical Products) and Waste Management Inc (Waste & Disposal Services). All these companies are leaders in their respective sectors. PepsiCo (Beverages) and MeadWestvaco Corp (Containers & Packaging) also scored highly enough to be awarded gold medals.

Germany and South Korea each account for six gold medal winners. German gold medalists are Siemens (Diversified Industrials), SAP (Software), BMW (Automobiles), Henkel (Non-durable Household Products), Adidas (Clothing, Accessories & Footware) and TUI (Travel & Tourism).

Each one of them is a leader in its respective sector.

In South Korea, GS Engineering & Construction Co (Heavy Construction), Amorepacific Corp (Personal Products), SK Telecom (Mobile Telecommunications), KT Corp (Fixed Line Communications) and Lotte Shopping (General Retailers) set the standard as industry leaders. In addition, Hyundai Engineering & Construction Co is awarded a gold medal, which in total puts South Korea in second equal place internationally.

Australia, Taiwan and Canada also feature on the list of top 10 gold medal-winning countries proving that Europe is no longer the exclusive bastion of corporate sustainability and that sector-leading sustainability performance can now be found all over the world.

Gold medal table


1st         United States      9

2nd        Germany            6

2nd        Korea               6

4th         United Kingdom  5

4th                  France             5

4th         Spain                5

7th         Netherlands        4

7th         Australia            4

7th         Taiwan               4

10th       Canada             3

10th       Italy                  3

Michael Baldinger, CEO, RobecoSAM, said: “Since we launched our first Sustainability Yearbook 10 years ago, it has become the reference book on corporate sustainability. Over the last decade, sustainability has become an essential item on corporate agendas and companies have made such great strides that today it is much harder for them to stand out against their peers and make into the Yearbook. We congratulate them on their success and are convinced that this competition benefits all stakeholders and shareholders.”

Yvo de Boer, Special Global Advisor on Climate Change & Sustainability, KPMG International, said: “Business is entering a period of unprecedented opportunity and risk due to a potent cocktail of megaforces including climate change, population growth, water scarcity, urbanization and ecological decline. Investors should consider the companies awarded gold medals in The Sustainability Yearbook 2013 as among the best prepared within their own sectors to manage these challenges and make themselves fit for the future.”

Other highlights of the jubilee edition of The Sustainability Yearbook 2013

 Unilever (Sector leader: Food Producers) is the only company that has achieved sector leader status every single year since The Sustainability Yearbook was first published in 2004

 The number of North American companies that have participated in the RobecoSAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA) has almost doubled since 2004 from 111 to a total of 194 companies in 2012

 Among the five largest sectors, Banks and Real Estate have had the biggest improvement in average scores since 2004 (+14% for Banks and +8% for Real Estate)

 The five companies that have most improved their scores since 2012 are: Samsung Life Insurance Co (Insurance), Baker Hughes Inc (Oil Equipment & Services), Liberty Global Inc (Media), Infosys Ltd (Computer Services & Internet) and Microsoft Corp (Software)

Useful Links

 List of the RobecoSAM Sector Leaders in The Sustainability Yearbook 2013

 Full list of companies in The Sustainability Yearbook 2013

 Electronic version of The Sustainability Yearbook 2013


About RobecoSAM

RobecoSAM is an investment specialist focused exclusively on Sustainability Investing. Its offerings comprise asset management, indices, private equity, engagement, impact analysis and sustainability assessments as well as benchmarking services. Together with S&P Dow Jones Indices, RobecoSAM publishes the globally recognized Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes (DJSI). RobecoSAM was founded in 1995 out of the conviction that a commitment to corporate sustainability enhances a company’s capacity to prosper, ultimately creating competitive advantages and stakeholder value. Headquartered in Zurich,

RobecoSAM employs over 100 professionals. As of December 31, 2012, RobecoSAM’s assets under management, advice and license amounted to a total of USD 11.4 billion.

About KPMG

KPMG is a global network of professional firms providing Audit, Tax and Advisory services. We operate in 156 countries and have 152,000 people working in member firms around the world. The independent member firms of the KPMG network are affiliated with KPMG International Cooperative (“KPMG International”), a Swiss entity. Each KPMG firm is a legally distinct and separate entity and describes itself as such.

Last Word: The Artistic Pathway to Sustainability

Posted by Ken on February 7, 2013
Posted under Express 184

A Leonardo influence? The promotion of environmental sustainability can take multiple pathways, besides the familiar technological and business means. Promoting the idea of the arts as a form of activism by providing visual images that raises awareness of the issue of sustainability is the goal of the student art show “Art + Activism” collaboratively organised by organisations at Dartmouth College in the United States. By tapping into the striking emotional power that art has, the exhibition also hopes to spark a conversation among Dartmouth students and the community on how to better act on the challenges presented. Read more

‘Art + Activism’ links poverty and sustainability

By Simone D’luna (29January 2013):

The Dartmouth, founded in 1799, is the student newspaper at Dartmouth College and the campus’s only daily. The Dartmouth is published by The Dartmouth, Inc., an independent, nonprofit corporation chartered in the state of New Hampshire.

Featuring a perhaps unexpected combination of sustainability, poverty and art, the student art show “Art + Activism” will open this Thursday in the student gallery of the Black Family Visual Arts Center.

The show, which will run until the end of the term, is the result of collaborative efforts between the Office of Sustainability, the “A Monstrous Octopus: The Tentacles of Poverty” symposium team and “This Is Not a Group,” a student organization responsible for running, curating and installing exhibits in the gallery.

The theme “Art + Activism” originated when the Sustainability in the Arts interns and representatives from the “A Monstrous Octopus” symposium approached student gallery co-managers Luca Molnar ’13 and Sabrina Yegela ’13 about combining the arts with their respective focus areas.

Both student groups were especially eager to incorporate their ideas with the arts to align with the Hopkins Center’s Year of the Arts initiative, Sustainability in the Arts intern Anna Morenz ’13 said.

“We really felt that the arts can be a form of activism in terms of providing powerful visual images that get people thinking about social issues or raise consciousness about issues in a different way than say, a lecture or some of the other opportunities on campus,” Morenz said. “We were interested in tapping into that striking emotional power that art has.”

“A Monstrous Octopus: The Tentacles of Poverty” is a conference that will be held from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 by the Nathan Smith Society, the Geisel School of Medicine’s chapter of Physicians for Human Rights and the Tuck School of Business’s Center for Business and Society.

The symposium features several events in conjunction with the “Art + Activism” exhibit throughout this week, according to Anna Huh Med’15, co-chair of the Geisel chapter of Physicians for Human Rights.

“We want to spark a conversation among Dartmouth students, the entire Upper Valley community and beyond about what each of us as individuals, as an institution and as a community can do about issues of poverty, homelessness and social inequity,” Huh said. “We often think the world of alleviating poverty is for someone else to do or is incompatible with some career we choose, but the fact of the matter is it’s not. What we want is to show people that there is something we can do. We only have to think of a way.”

As part of the schedule of events, letterpress printer Amos Kennedy, whose work is currently displayed in Baker-Berry Library, will hold a printmaking session on Jan. 30. Photojournalist James Nachtwey ’70 will also hold a discussion about his career and social justice work that afternoon.

Thursday’s opening reception of the art show will follow a screening of the Academy Award-nominated film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012) in Loew Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. The event will feature refreshments, discussion of the artwork and the unveiling of an original poster designed by Amos Kennedy for “A Monstrous Octopus.” The group will also be collecting donations for the Peruvian philanthropy organization Visionarios, according to Huh.

Because the student gallery — which opened this Fall — is relatively new, “Art + Activism” will be one of the first shows to be hosted in the space, according to Molnar. Nearly all pieces submitted will be able to be showcased. Along with formally submitted work, “This Is Not a Group” and the Office of Sustainability encouraged students and community members to gather in the gallery to create artwork from trash, found items and recycled materials in three open studio sessions held this past weekend, Morenz said.

“We really hope to bring people who aren’t necessarily arts students into the space and into the idea of making art, and we’re really hoping people who are more experienced experiment with these materials and viewers get the idea of art and activism,” Molnar said.

Inviting the community to participate in the show was in part inspired by the community-based art projects of artist Candy Chang, Morenz said.

Some of those who came to participate in the open studio sessions were students preparing to spend the summer on Dartmouth’s Big Green Bus who were looking for new and creative ways to teach sustainability, according to Morenz.

“I think a lot about who is alienated by sustainability because it’s definitely been consumerized into the American diet,” Meegan Daigler ’14, who came to the galery to make art from recycled materials, said. “I don’t think that sustainability should be alienating because the issues of sustainability are things that are affecting people across race and gender, and art is a very different mode of communication than numbers and stats so I’m interested in who you can reach.”

Participants at the studio sessions generally expressed a belief that art and activism complement each other.

“I think that art, especially throughout history, has been used a lot to make people step back and think about society and choices and the way we treat other people,” Amanda Wheelock ’13 said. “I think that’s also the main goal and spirit of activism in most places, so I think that they are often very intricately linked and I think that art can be used as a form of activism and vice versa.”