Category Archives: solutions

LED lighting

colourful solutions

colourful solutions

The most recent Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to the developers of the blue light emitting diode (LED), not something I’ve known much about until now, but a recent article or two in Cosmos magazine has more than whetted my appetite about the future of LEDs.

This is an amazing technology that I feel I should be availing myself of, and advertising to others. But first I need to get a handle on how the technology works, which I suspect will be no mean feat. Here goes.

The name of Oleg Losev should be better known. This short-lived Russian (he died of starvation during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942 aged 38) is now recognised among the cognoscenti as the father of LEDs. He did some of the world’s first research into semiconductors. Semiconductors are materials whose electrical properties lie between conductors such as copper and insulators such as glass. While working as a radio technician, Losev noticed that when direct current was passed through a point contact junction containing the semiconductor silicon carbide (carborundum), greenish light was given off at the contact point, thus creating a light-emitting diode. It wasn’t the first observation of electroluminescence, but Losev was the first to thoroughly describe and accurately theorise about the phenomenon.

LED technology continues to develop, but now it seems to have reached the stage where it’s not only commercially viable, but has eclipsed all other forms of lighting. I’m more than a bit interested in promoting this form of lighting for the Housing Association I’m living in, especially as the relatively expensive fluoro bulbs in my own home keep blowing. 

In issue 60 of Cosmos, Australia’s premier popular science mag, Alan Finkel waxed lyrical on the coming of age of LED lighting, which he now has installed in his home:

Our LEDs are brighter than the [halogen] lights they replaced, they use less electricity, they mimic the colour of sunlight, they have not visibly aged since they were installed, they work with dimmers, and they are safer in the ceiling cavity because they do not run nearly as hot as the halogens

It’s only quite recently that LED lighting for homes – and everywhere else that bright sunshine-like light comes in handy – has become available on competitive terms, and to understand why we need to return to the history of LED development.

Oleg Losev’s creation of the first LED in 1927 wasn’t capitalised on for decades, but experiments in the fifties in the USA reported infrared emissions from semiconducting materials such as gallium arsenide, gallium antimonide and indium phosphide. By the early sixties the first practical applications of infrared and visible red LEDs emerged. Ten years later, yellow LEDs were invented, which increased the brightness by a factor of 10. In the mid-seventies, optical fibre telecommunications systems were developed by the creation of semiconductor materials adapted to the fibre transmission wavelengths, further enhancing brightness and efficiency. It was around this period that we started to see patterned LEDs in radio and TV displays, and in calculators and watches. At first these were quite faint, and expensive to manufacture, but many breakthroughs in the field have brought down costs while improving efficiency markedly, and the field of high power LEDs has experienced rapid progress, particularly with the development of high-brightness blue by the Nobel prize winning Japanese researchers in the early nineties. The blue LEDs could be coated with a material which converted some of the blue light to other colours, resulting in the most effective white LED yet created. The blue LED was also the last piece of the puzzle for creating RGB (red, green, blue) LEDS, enabling LEDs to produce every visible form of light.

The future for LEDs is so bright that it’s been called the biggest development in lighting since the electric light bulb, The question for the everyday consumer like me, then, is – should I get on board with it now, or should I wait until the technology becomes even cheaper and more energy-efficient?

As we know, the incandescent bulb is going the way of the trilobite. Hugely sucessful worldwide for decades, it has been outcompeted in recent times by the cheaper and more efficient CFL (compact flourescent lamp), and its extinction has been assured by state energy laws. But the CFL is now recognised as a stop-gap for the far more versatile and revolutionary technology of LED. LEDS are already beginning to outstrip CFLs in terms of life-span, but up-front costs are high. As this American C-net article has it,

The minimal energy savings you get from going from CFL to LEDs reflects that LED bulbs are only slightly more efficient, when measured on lumens per watt. And, of course, CFLs have come way down in price over the past few years, while LEDs are still at the top of a projected downward cost curve. If you have incandescent bulbs, saving $4 a year with an LED is more compelling, but that’s still a long pay back.

So for many of us it’s a matter of waiting and watching those costs diminishing down to the proportions of our meagre bank balance. Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to see where LED technology takes us. It’s very likely that it will outgrow the old light-socket techology, from what i’ve been reading, but that’s still a way off, and will require a real change of mindset for the average consumer.

Current trends in solar

Barak Obama talking up the solar power industry

Barak Obama talking up the solar power industry

i was reading an article recently called how solar power workswhich was quite informative, but it mentioned that some 41,000 homes in Australia had solar PVs on their rooves by the end of 2008, and this was expected to rise substantially by 2009. This sounded like a very small figure, and I wondered if there was more recent data. A quick search turned up a swag of articles charting the rise and rise of rooftop solar installations in recent years. The data in just about every article came from the Australian Clean Energy Regulator (ACER). Australia swept past 1 million domestic solar installations in March 2013 with solar advocates predicting a doubling, at minimum, within the following two years. That hasn’t happened, but still the take-up has been astonishing in the past six or seven years. This article from a month ago claims 1.3 million PVs, with another 170,000 systems going up annually, though it doesn’t quote sources. Others are saying that the industry is now ‘flagging’, due to the retreat of state-based subsidies, though the commercial sector is now getting in on the act, having recently tripled its share of the solar PV market to 15%. The current federal government seems unwilling to make any clear commitment to domestic solar, but the Clean Energy Finance Corp, which was established by the Gillard government, and which the Abbott government wants to axe, is now engaged in a deal with ET Solar, a Chinese company, to help finance the solarisation of shopping centres and other commercial energy users. Shopping centres, which operate all day virtually every day, would seem to be an ideal target for solar PV installation. Presumably these projects will go ahead as the Abbott government seems unable or unwilling to engage in Senate negotiations which will allow its policies, including those of axing the entities of previous governments, to progress.

There’s so much solar news around it’s hard to keep track of, but I’ll start locally, with South Australia. By the end of 2014 some 23% of SA homes had solar PV, a slight increase on the previous year. One effect has been to shift the peak power period from late afternoon to early evening (just after 7PM). South Australia leads the way with the highest proportion of panels, with Queensland close behind. Australia’s rapid adoption of rooftop solar is surpassed only by Japan. The Japanese are now voting decisively against nuclear energy with their panels.

SA-Bozing-day-solar

This graph  (from the Renew Economy website) shows that on Boxing Day last year (2014) rooftop solar in SA (the big yellow peak) reached one third of demand in the middle of the day, and averaged around 30% from 11.30am to 3.30pm. With our heavy reliance on wind power here, this means that these two renewable power sources accounted for some two thirds of demand during that period. Sadly, though, with the proposed reduction of the Renewable Energy Target, wind and solar (small and large scale) are being forced to compete with each other for more limited opportunities.

There are some short-term concerns. Clearly the federal government isn’t being particularly supportive of renewables, but it’s highly likely the conservatives will be out of office after the late 2016 election, after which there may be a little more investment certainty. There’s also clear evidence now that small-scale solar uptake is declining, though it’s still happening. Profit margins for solar companies are suffering in an increasingly competitive marketplace, so large-scale, more inherently profitable projects will likely be the way of the immediate future. Still, the greater affordability of solar PV over the last few years will ensure continued uptake, and a greater proportion of households taking advantage of the technology. According to a recent International Energy Association (IEA) publication:

The cost of PV modules has been divided by five in the last six years; the cost of full PV systems has been divided by almost three. The levelised cost of electricity of decentralised solar PV systems is approaching or falling below the variable portion of retail electricity prices that system owners pay in some markets, across residential and commercial segments.

The 2014 publication was a ‘technology roadmap’, updated from 2010. Based on the unexpectedly high recent uptake of solar PV, the IEA has revised upwards its share of global electricity production from 11% to 16% by 2050. But on the barriers to expansion, the IEA’s remarks in the foreword to this document read like a warning to the Australian government

Like most renewable energy sources and energy efficiency improvements, PV is very capital-intensive: almost all expenditures are made up-front. Keeping the cost of capital low is thus of primary importance for achieving this roadmap’s vision. But investment and finance are very responsive to the quality of policy making. Clear and credible signals from policy makers lower risks and inspire confidence. By contrast, where there is a record of policy incoherence, confusing signals or stop-and-go policy cycles, investors end up paying more for their finance, consumers pay more for their energy, and some projects that are needed simply will not go ahead. 

The four-year gap between each IEA roadmap may be too long, considering the substantial changes that can occur in the energy arena. There was greater growth in solar PV capacity in the 2010-2014 period than there was in the four previous decades. The possibilities of solar energy really began to catch on with the energy crisis of the seventies, and the technology has received a boost more recently due to climate change and the lack of effective leadership on the issue. The charge was led by European countries such as Germany and Italy, but since 2013 China has been leading the pack in solar PV adoption.

What, though, of the long-term future? That’s a subject best left for another post, but clearly solar is here to stay, and its energy share will continue to expand, a continued expansion that is causing problems for industries that have traditionally (though only over the past couple of centuries actually) profited from our expanding energy needs. Our future is bound up in how we can handle transitions that will be necessary if we are to maintain energy needs with a minimum of damage to our biosphere.

anti-matter as rocket fuel?

easy peasy

easy peasy

This post is in response to a request, I’m delighted to report.

I remember learning first about anti-matter back in about 1980 or 81, when I first started reading science magazines, particularly Scientific American. I learned that matter and anti-matter were created in the big bang, but more matter was created than anti-matter. If not for that I suppose we wouldn’t be here, unless we could be made from anti-matter. I’m not sure where that would leave anti-theists, but let’s not get too confused. We’re here, and so is anti-matter. Presumably there are plenty of other universes consisting mostly of anti-matter, though whether that excludes life, or anti-life, I’ve no idea. Confusion again. If you’re curious about why there’s this lack of symmetry, check out baryogenesis, which will feed without satisfying your curiosity – just what the doctor ordered.

The next time I found myself thinking about anti-matter was in reading, again in Scientific American, about positron-emission tomography (PET), a technology for scanning the brain. As the name implies, it involves the emission of positrons, which are anti-electrons, to somehow provide a map of the brain. I was quite amazed to find, from this barely comprehensible concept, that anti-matter was far from being theoretical, that it could be manipulated and put into harness. But can it be used as energy, or as a form of fuel? Due to anti-matter’s antagonism to matter, I wondered if this was feasible, to which my 12-year-old patron replied with one word – magnets.

The physicist Hans Georg Dehmelt received a Nobel Prize for his role in the development of ion traps, devices which capture particles of different kinds and charges, including antiparticles, within magnetic and electrical fields, so clearly my patron was onto something and it’s not just science-fiction (as I initially thought). It’s obvious from a glance through the physics of this field – using ion traps to analyse the properties and behaviour of charged subatomic particles – that it’s incredibly arcane and complex, but also of immense importance for our understanding of the basic stuff of the universe. I won’t be able to do more here than scratch the surface, if there is a surface.

The idea is that antimatter might be used some time in the future as rocket fuel for space travel – though considering the energy released by matter-antimatter annihilation, it could also have domestic use as a source of electricity. To make this possible we’d have to find some way of isolating and storing it. And what kind of antimatter would be best for this purpose? The sources I’m reading mostly take antiprotons and also anti-electrons (positrons) as examples. The potential is enormous because the energy density of proton-antiproton annihilation is very many times that of equivalent fission reactions. However, experts say that the enormous cost of creating antimatter for terrestrial purposes is prohibitive at the moment. Better to think of it for rocket propulsion because only a tiny amount would be required.

Three types of antimatter rocket have already been proposed: one that uses matter-antimatter annihilation directly as a form of propulsion; another that uses the annihilation to heat an intermediate material, such as a fluid, and a third that generates electricity from the annihilation, to feed an electric spacecraft propulsion system. Wikipedia puts it this way:

The propulsion concepts that employ these mechanisms generally fall into four categories: solid core, gaseous core, plasma core, and beamed core configurations. The alternatives to direct antimatter annihilation propulsion offer the possibility of feasible vehicles with, in some cases, vastly smaller amounts of antimatter but require a lot more matter propellant. Then there are hybrid solutions using antimatter to catalyze fission/fusion reactions for propulsion.

A direct or pure anti-matter rocket may use antiproton annihilation or positron annihilation. Antiproton annihilation produces charged and uncharged pions, or pi mesons – unstable particles consisting of a pair of quarks – as well as neutrinos and gamma rays (high energy photons). The ‘pion rocket’ channels this released energy by means of a magnetic nozzle, but because of the complex mix of energy products, not all of which can be harnessed, the technology currently lacks energy efficiency. Positron annihilation, on the other hand, only produces gamma rays. To use gamma rays as a form of propulsive energy has proved problematic, though it’s known that photon energy can be partially transferred to electrons under certain conditions. This is called Compton scattering, and was an early proof of the particulate nature of light. Recent research has found that intense laser beams can produce positrons when fired at high atomic number elements such as gold. This could produce energy on an ongoing basis, eliminating the need for storage.

The more indirect types are called thermal antimatter rockets. As mentioned, these are divided into solid, gaseous and plasma core systems. It would be beyond my capacity to explain these technologies, but the finding so far is that, though plasma and gas systems may have some operational advantages over a solid system, the solid core concept is much more energy efficient, due to the shorter mean free path between energy-generating impacts.

It’s fairly clear even from my minuscule research on the subject that antimatter rocketry and fuel are in their early, speculative stages, though already involving mind-numbing mathematical formulae. The major difficulties are antimatter creation and, where necessary, storage. Current estimates around the technology are that it would take 10 grams of antimatter to get to Mars in a month. So far, storage, involving freezing of antihydrogen pellets (cooled and bound antiprotons and positrons) and maintaining them in ion traps, has only been achieved at the level of single atoms. Upscaling such a system is theoretically possible, though at this stage prohibitively expensive – requiring a storage system billions of times larger than what has so far been achieved.  There are many other problems with the technology too, including high levels of waste heat and extreme radiation. There are relativistic problems too, as the products of annihilation move at relativistic velocities.

All in all, it’s clear that antimatter rockets are not going to be with us for a long time, if ever, but I suspect that the technical issues involved and the solutions that might be nutted out will fascinate physicists and mathematicians for decades to come.

wind power in South Australia

Starfish Hill wind farm, near Cape Jervis, SA

Starfish Hill wind farm, near Cape Jervis, SA

I was unaware, until I recently listened to a forum panel on renewables broadcast by The Science Show, that wind power has really taken off in SA, where I live. Mea culpa. By August last year 27% of the state’s electricity production was from wind, and it’s now well over 30%, thanks to a new facility outside Snowtown, which came on stream in November. That’s half of Australia’s installed capacity, and it compares favourably with wind production in European countries such as Denmark (20%), Spain and Portugal (16%), Ireland (15%) and Germany (7%). It’s one of the great successes of the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, introduced in a modest form by the conservative federal government in 2001 and expanded under the Labor government in 2009. The RET, like those in other countries, mandates that electricity retailers source a proportion of energy from renewables. South Australia’s renewable energy developers, under the longest-serving Labor government in the country, have been provided with tax incentives and a supportive regulatory framework to build wind farms throughout the state, to take advantage of the powerful Roaring Forties blowing in from the west.

The first wind turbine in SA was a small affair at Coober Pedy, but from 2004 onwards this form of energy generation has taken off here. The Snowtown wind farm mentioned above is the second in the region, and SA’s largest, with 90 turbines giving it an installed capacity of 270MW. We now have some 16 wind farms strategically located around the state, with an installed capacity of almost 1500MW. As far as I’m aware, we’re in fact the world leader in wind power – always remembering that, in population terms, we would be one of the smallest countries in the world, if we were a country.

The direct beneficiaries of these new farms are, of course, regional South Australians. An example is the 46 MW, 23-turbine Canunda wind farm near Millicent in the state’s south-east, which opened in 2005. The farm provides clean electricity generation to the region and has increased the viability of agricultural production. The facility has generated enough interest from the local community for tours to be undertaken.

Of course, one of the principle purposes of utilising renewable energy – apart from the obvious fact that it’s renewable – is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And South Australia’s emissions have indeed declined in spite of increased electricity demand, due to the high penetration of wind power into the market.

This development has of course had its critics, and these are pretty well summed up on Wikipedia – linked to above:

There has been some controversy with respect to the impact of the rising share of wind power and other renewables such as solar on retail electricity prices in South Australia. A 2012 report by The Energy Users Association of Australia claimed that retail electricity prices in South Australia were then the third highest in the developed world behind Germany and Denmark, with prices likely to rise to become the most expensive in the near future.[24] The then South Australian Opposition Leader, Isobel Redmond, linked the state’s high retail prices for electricity to the Government’s policy of promoting development of renewable energy, noting that Germany and Denmark had followed similar policies. On the other hand, it has been noted that the impact of wind power on the merit order effect, where relatively low cost wind power is purchased by retailers before higher cost sources of power, has been credited for a decline in the wholesale electricity price in South Australia. Data compiled by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) shows South Australian wholesale electricity prices are the 3rd-highest out of Australia’s five mainland states, with the 2013 South Australian Electricity Report noting that increases in prices were “largely driven by transmission and distribution network price increases”.

The issue of cost to the consumer (of energy in general) is without doubt extremely important (and complex), and I’ll try to wade into it, I hope, in another post, but for now I want to look just at the costs for wind, and whether there are any further developments in the offing.

According to this site, which is informative but perhaps not as regularly updated as it could be in such a changing energy environment, SA’s Premier last year renewed his government’s pledge to have 50% of the state’s annual power supplied by renewable energy by 2025, a very realistic target considering that, according to the same site, wind and solar were already at 38% of annual supply, as of December 2013. However he pointed out that this would be difficult if the federal government reduced its RET target, then at 41TWh by 2020. In October federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane and environment minister Greg Hunt proposed a reduction of the RET to 27TWh.

A more recent article on the Renew Economy website argues that, though the government appears to have upped the proposed figure to around 31 or 32TWh, it may be targeting large-scale wind power projects by trying to incorporate rooftop solar, which has been taken up rapidly in recent years, into the large-scale target. The initial target was 45TWh overall, with a projected rooftop solar take-up of 4TWh, leaving 41TWh for large-scale renewable energy projects. We’re currently at 7TWh for rooftop solar, and the Warburton Review expects this to double by 2020. Hints by the government ministers that the take-up of rooftop solar should be reflected in the renewed target are adding to uncertainty in the industry, which is said to be in limbo at present. It may take a change of government to resolve the situation. Meanwhile however, South Australia leads the way with wind, and if the graph on the Renew Economy website is to be believed, we’ve already passed our 50% target for renewables (though the graph appears to fluctuate from moment to moment). The graph shows that we’re currently generating 710MW from wind, 527MW from natural gas and 179MW from brown coal. That makes just on 50% from wind alone. Compare this with Victoria, a much more populous state, which generates almost as much from wind – 592MW. However, that’s only about a tenth of what it currently generates from brown coal, its principle energy source (5670MW).

A new wind farm has been approved for Stony Gap, near Burra, but there may be delays in the project due to industry uncertainty about the RET and the federal government’s plans. Energy Australia, the project’s developers say ominously: We are now re-assessing the project based on current market conditions as well as government policy and legislation.  

And the cost? This is hard to gauge. As with solar, the cost of wind power has come down markedly in recent times. Basically the cost is for initial capital rather than running costs, but some argue that, because wind farms require back-up, presumably from fossil fuels, for those windless days, this should be incorporated into the cost.

indoor pollution, and some general points about solutions

possible sources of formaldehyde in the home. But remember - be aware, not alarmed

possible sources of formaldehyde in the home. But remember – be aware, not alarmed

In a book review published, or linked to, on 3 quarks daily, Philip Hoare cited a number of gloomy facts about our impact on the biosphere. I won’t contest them, but I was struck by this one:

Only 1 per cent of the world’s urban population are breathing air clean enough to meet EU standards according to a 2007 report by the World Bank (the Chinese government, fearing social unrest, redacted it on publication).

This struck me because I’ve read elsewhere that our city air has always been polluted, but has improved in recent times, due to our greater awareness of pollution and our ability to clean up our act, to adapt. It’s difficult to get to the truth here, of course. I’d love to be able to walk down a London street in 2007, then repeat the act in 1907, 1807 and 1607, but the fact is that EU standards have only been around for the life of the EU, and standardised monitoring of cities is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The Romans used lead piping rather more often than was good for them in their cities (as many of them well knew), and investigation of the lungs of paleolithic cave dwellers have revealed smoke from home fires as the first known deadly anthropogenic pollutant.

I’ve never been to China but I do teach a lot of Chinese students, who mention often, without prompting, the pollution of their cities, so of course there are problems, though I wonder whether EU standards might be a bit tough. Be that as it may, what solutions are being implemented for cleaning up our cities?

The WHO has described air pollution as the world’s biggest environmental health risk, with 7 million deaths being sheeted home to air pollution in 2012, but get this, more than 50% of these deaths were due to indoor pollution (4.3m), due mostly to cooking on inefficient systems. Apart from cooking, which I’ll return to later, there are a whole range of more or less fixable problems arising within homes and other buildings. They include formaldehyde, environmental tobacco smoke, biological contaminants (bacteria, mould and mites), household products and pesticides. And when you think about it’s not surprising that indoor pollution is such a problem, due to lack of dispersal of the contaminants. If you’ve ever travelled in a heavy smoker’s car you’ll know what I mean.

So two solutions come immediately to mind – ventilation and reduction (or elimination). Open the windows, use extraction fans, stop smoking, find substitutes for formaldehyde – whatever it’s used for – and other toxic substances, and we’ll all live longer and healthier, contributing all the more to the food production, greenhouse gas emission and habitat destruction problems of the world.

Another solution is to get out more (which is also good for romance, and experience generally). People spend on average about 90% of their time indoors, most of it in their own homes. If you’re really concerned that your sanctuary is slowly murdering you, you can get yourself an indoor pollution meter which will measure carbon monoxide and particulate emissions from your stove. Different kits can also measure formaldehyde, mould, CO2, PCB, asbestos and other nasties in your indoor environment.

Of course we like to look at ultimate solutions here, not just proximal ones, and so, rather than simply flushing pollutants out of our homes, we need to consider the whole environment. We also need to consider what we bring into our home that has an impact on the environment – petroleum based products and furnishings for example.

Take formaldehyde, an established carcinogen which can also exacerbate asthma and affect the central nervous system. It’s commonly used in the building trade as an adhesive (urea-formaldehyde, UF) for pressed wood products such as cabinets, furniture and flooring. It can also be found in household adhesives, paint and fabrics. Quite apart from UF’s immediate danger to people (at above standard atmospheric levels), it’s a fossil fuel-based chemical resin with environmental problems associated with its manufacture. The same goes for phenyl-formaldehyde resin (PF), which at least emits formaldehyde at much lower levels than UF. Other formaldehyde-free resins such as MDI (methylene diphenyl isocyanate) and PVA (polyvinyl acetate) are also derived from fossil fuels. The most promising alternative binder is a soy-based product, described here (where I obtained much of this info) as ‘non-toxic, renewable and cost-neutral’. I don’t yet know what cost-neutral means. Maybe I’ll look at such soy products, and their inevitable downsides, in another post.

Of course I don’t want to be alarmist here, no need to start tearing up your floorboards or ripping out your in-builts because of a suspicion of UF emissions. Builders are well aware of the rules, nor would they want to expose themselves to toxic chemicals in their workaday life. The damage done in producing these resins can’t be undone by replacing them. It just pays to be aware of the dangers, to yourself and others.

The point is that I want to look at solutions in as complex a way as my limited abilities can stand. Waltner-Toews presents a 9-point plan for looking at complex issues which I’ll set down in simplified form here:

1. What is the problem situation or issue? How did it come to be a problem?

2. Who are the stakeholders? What do they care about? Where are they coming from (motives, investments)? What are the agreements, discords among them?

3. What are the stories being told by these different stakeholders re their roles and concerns in the problem?

4. What’s our best systematic, scientific understanding of the situation/problem?

5. What’s our best understanding of the social & cultural issues to be addressed?

6. How are 4 & 5 related? How do they constrain or support each other?

7. What are the scenarios and narratives here that people most connect with? On what things can we agree on? What are the power relations between people who agree or disagree? Given these constraints and acknowledgements what do we realistically expect that we can do?

8. What course of action, governance structure and monitoring system will best enable us to implement our plans and move towards our goals?

9. Implement. Monitor. Adjust. Learn. Re-Start.

I think these are good guidelines to keep in mind, even if they don’t have to be followed to the letter in every situation. It’s worth remembering that solutions are always partial and generally involve battles and compromises. Yet they can still be solutions. To take the issue of indoor pollution using these guidelines, the first point is   defining the problem and how it has arisen. However, indoor pollution is an umbrella term for a host of problems, such as: cooking and stoves and fuel; ventilation; the use of formaldehyde and/or other toxic chemicals in buildings; mites and bugs and cleanliness; humidity and mould, etc. My instinct would be to treat each of these as separate problems, though some are clearly related, and to prioritise the problems -and the priority would depend on location. In some regions, cooking is the major problem, while in others it might be cigarette smoking, formaldehyde, or mould.

The question of how problems have arisen is always pertinent. Who are responsible? Sometimes it’s the negligent householder, sometimes a dodgy company, sometimes a practice or habit of the wider community.

The second point is about the stakeholders. They include those directly affected, the victims, and their nearest and dearest; those being held responsible; regulators; independent experts; legal experts; government reps; potential victims, and other interested parties.

And so on. For me, the fourth point, the scientific understandings, will be a major focus, along with the social and cultural issues, point 5, and of course points 7 and 8, the possible and viable solutions.

So, to return to indoor pollution – aside from ventilation, you can minimize the biological contaminants in your home by maintaining a humidity level of 30 to 50 percent, and that’s pretty standard humidity. Dehumidifiers are available at prices between $300 and $400 in Australia, but are unlikely to be readily available in developing countries. Higher levels encourage dust mites and mold growth. Keeping carpets clean and dry, and simply maintaining a clean house also discourage biological contaminants.

On cooking, fuel and fires, it so happens that this morning I was looking up ‘Weird Al Jankovic’ on Wikipedia, due to a number of his new videos being aired on the box, and learned that sadly both his parents died in their home some years ago due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a newly installed fireplace. The flue was closed. CO poisoning from improperly maintained or operated fuel-burning systems causes some 2000 deaths annually in the USA alone. These deaths, of course, are entirely preventible and largely due to carelessness or ignorance. CO is colourless and odourless, so people can be overcome without being aware of it, and especially in their sleep. This useful information site from the Minnesota Department of Health describes the many household sources of CO:

In general, CO is produced when any material burns. More is produced when there isn’t enough oxygen for efficient burning. Common sources of CO in homes include fuel-burning devices such as: furnaces, gas or kerosene space heaters, boilers, gas cooking stoves, water heaters, clothes dryers, fireplaces, charcoal grills, wood stoves, lawn mowers, power generators, camp stoves, motor vehicles and some power tools with internal combustion engines. Smoking is another common source of CO that can negatively impact indoor air quality.

CO detectors and alarms are available at reasonable prices. To check out how they work, here’s the low-down.

 

solutions, an intro

Whatever-you-need-the-Solution-is-Here-Help-and-Assistance-on-EVERYTHING-Mozilla-Firefox-2014-05-26-18.34.57

Today as reporters report on the repeal of Australia’s carbon tax and people I know and many I don’t know on Facebook are urging us to join forces to bring down the government because of this and many other issues, I’m inclined to think beyond local politics and policies, not because they aren’t important but because protesting endlessly and talking of revolution isn’t as interesting to me as finding solutions, short term and above all long term, for the predicaments we’re faced with and the problems we’re beset with, and which sometimes we don’t feel beset with because, well, I have a job, at least for now, and I have food in my belly, I’m in relatively good health, I’m not at war with anyone, my future housing is secure and so forth. But we’re not islands, we suffer with those that suffer, we’re arguably the most social species on the planet, so the fate of people fleeing from persecution, or simply trying to get to places of greater opportunity, as well as the fate of the under-nourished, the under-educated, the exploited and mistreated, these are fates that impact on us, as we compare and contrast, as we feel guilty, or lucky, or angry or frustrated or saddened about the world we live in.

It’s true that on the face of it, Australia currently has a government that is in denial of anthropogenic global warming and has an ideological agenda of reducing government spending in areas we associate with our health and well-being, but I find it hard to believe that senior government ministers are truly anti-science, anti-innovation or indifferent to the sufferings of the poor, of refugees and so forth. The key is to engage their potential for doing the best for us all.

I’ve also been guilty, elsewhere, of mocking, dismissing and reviling ‘enemies’ – and let’s face it, many people do make it hard to engage with them positively – but it generally makes me feel better to report positively on developments and on people, to feel inspired by innovations and solutions.

And so to solutions, not just for we humans, but for all the other life forms we’re related to, which is of course all of them. But let’s start with humans, of whom there are currently nearly seven and a quarter billion on the planet according to the world population clock, an amazing site to clock into, though I can’t vouch for its accuracy. As I’m reminded by various sources, such as The Origin of Feces and Australia’s Cosmos magazine, this growing population is also consuming more calories per capita than ever before (2830 in 2009 compared to 2189 in 1961), and therefore producing more shit with the potential to contaminate our waterways, not to mention shit from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertiliser, methane and CO2 from farming, mining, industry and transport, and so on. Yet we are surviving and thriving for the time being, and beavering away at solutions to these problems, and solutions to the problems created by our solutions.

So this blog is an attempt to promote solutions to problems, large and small, global and local, serious and trivial and everything in between. I’m neither a technophile nor a technophobe, and I’m not a science nerd or a cool arts dude, I’m just an observer struggling to make sense of the messy and ingenious lives of us. Because of my lack of general expertise I may have to over-explain things to some in order to make sense of them to myself, but anyway, we’ll see.