PopTech Blog

Ecomaterials Lab: Gas from grass? Next-generation biofuels

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.


Instability in oil-producing countries like Libya has precipitated a sharp rise in oil prices. This means primarily two things: more pennies at the pump for gasoline, and an increase in cost on everything from bottled water to a loaf of bread.

Finding a way to make fuel out of anything other than petroleum has been a singular fascination for many scientists. Recently, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) have succeeded in producing isobutanol (a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol that can be burned in regular car engines) directly from cellulosic plant matter, such as corn stover and switchgrass, using bacteria. The breakthrough means that the formerly multi-stage process of converting biomass to fuel has been simplified to a single step; and that a cheap, eco-friendly alternative to corn ethanol is now within reach.

"Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles," said James Liao, chancellor's professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and leader of the research team. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification." (via Gizmag)

Bringing this to scale will, of course, be no easy task. Fighting an entrenched petroleum economy and the heavily subsidized corn ethanol industry is more than daunting. However, such new technologies might be the best, and most environmentally sound, chance we have to combat runaway fuel costs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nancy Duarte: Presentations that transform audiences

Speaking in front of an audience can be hit-or-miss. Even if you have something amazing to say, if your on-stage presentation is weak or disorganized, you’re not going to move anyone, let alone keep people’s attention.  That’s where Nancy Duarte comes in. Presentation designer and CEO of Duarte Design, Duarte is a storyteller with an eye for clearly articulating a message and keeping an audience rapt. If you need any convincing, check out the slides she put together for the 2006 Oscar-wining documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

A Faculty Advisor at PopTech, Duarte, along with her team, have helped Social Innovation and Science Fellows put together powerful stage talks for PopTech’s annual conference for the past couple of years. She's also the author of a book on the same topic entitled Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences.

In this PopTech video, Duarte shares the patterns she’s seen emerge from performances, speeches and films that transform - and transfix - audiences. Referencing Martin Luther King Jr., Martha Graham, and Steve Jobs, Duarte explains, “The greatest communicators connect really empathetically with their audience.”

This week in PopTech: Everyone's at SXSW

SXSW 2011 by Peter Durand

There’s always something brewing in the PopTech community. In addition to PopTech’s Andrew Zolli who is speaking on a panel at SXSW, this week, quite a few people from our network are headed to Austin to participate in SXSW. A handful of their events, panels and, of course, parties follows.

  • Can you really do good for the world and make a profit at the same time? You bet. We’re thrilled to be one of the sponsors for The Good Capitalist Party on Saturday March 12. Here’s your chance to meet a diverse group of folks connected to the field of social entrepreneurship.
  • Musical comedian Reggie Watts (PopTech 2006, 2010) is featured in the film, “Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!” a documentary about indie comedy scene’s rising stars, which will have its world premier on Thursday, March 17.

Have we missed someone? Let us know in the comments!

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Peter Durand, who, as part of a group of graphic facilitators known as “Image Think,” will be creating live visuals of keynotes during SXSW.

Susan Casey talks tsunamis and the mysteries of wave science

In light of the recent 8.9 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and with tsunami warnings issued to 50 countries and territories, we’ve released Susan Casey’s enlightening PopTech 2010 talk about the history and implications of rogue waves. For three years, Casey studied this mysterious phenomenon, observing waves’ behavior, researching their history, and talking with people who spend their lives in the ocean.

For more on these ‘oceanic criminals,’ as she refers to them, check out Casey’s most recent book, The Wave: In the Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean.

PopTech at SXSWi: Better Innovation, Design and Sustainability via Open Source

Hannah and Andrew

If you're in Austin on Monday, March 14th for SXSWi, why not consider checking out Better Innovation, Design and Sustainability via Open Source, a conversation between PopTech's own Andrew Zolli and Hannah Jones, Vice President of Sustainable Business at Nike?

Here's what you can expect from the discussion:
The need has never been greater than it is today for action to be taken on separating consumption from the use of natural resources if we are all to thrive in a future sustainable economy. Nike believes that design, innovation and a commitment to open source data and collaboration will help fast track the work needed to architect a sustainable roadmap. This session will explore the internal and external pressures that are creating a platform for Nike to start a conversation with the design and development community around the value and application of intellectual property and data to help find solutions to some of the most intractable sustainability problems.

We hope to see you there!

Monday, March 14, 11 am
Salon K, 500 East 4th Street

And if you can't make it in-person, follow the conversation on Twitter with #nikebetterworld.

Pine Point knows how to tell a story

Pine Point started off as a book but quickly morphed into something that could only exist online: a scrapbook (of sorts) that uses films, old photos, and audio recordings to tell the true story of a small Canadian town that simply disappeared one day. (via VSL)

Created by The Goggles (Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons) and produced by the National Film Board of Canada, this "interactive documentary," as they call it, is pitch perfect. Poignant, nostalgic, historical, entertaining and interactive in a completely intuitive way, could Pine Point be the future of the book? Watch it over lunch - it's best consumed when you've got 20+ minutes to spare.

You make plastic out of what? Ryan Smith tells all.

Someday soon we may all be drinking water out of biodegradable plastic bottles made from raw sewage. Yes, raw sewage. That is, if Micromidas has anything to do with it. Founded by 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Ryan Smith, Micromidas feeds raw sewage to bacteria that, in turn, turns it into plastic. It's an elegant solution that solves two problems simultaneously: it reduces the use of harmful petroleum-based plastics and uses sewage instead of resources like oil and coal.

Recently, PopTech asked Smith about the potential long-term impact of Micromidas.

Micromidas can play a critical role in transitioning the chemicals industry from petroleum-based feedstocks towards low-cost renewably-sourced feedstocks. There has been a great deal of discussion over the last few years about developing a biorefinery platform within the fuels and chemicals industries. I believe that Micromidas has found a pathway to achieving this ideal by efficiently taking wastewater bio-solids and converting them to commodities materials and chemicals such as plastics. We're also very proud of the fact that our bio-plastic is marine biodegradable and can help prevent further pollution of our oceans.

So those plastic islands floating in the middle of the ocean that amount to the size of Texas? Micromidas won't be contributing to that problem. Its plastics break down within one year.

Ecomaterials Labs: Bouncing back with Comet's soy-based skateboards

(NOTE: This is a corrected version of yesterday’s post. We incorrectly reported that Comet was currently producing skateboards using a degradable, soy-based polymer resin. This is currently being prototyped.)

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.

With a freak dump truck accident and a fire in its new production facility, 2010 was a rough year for Comet Skateboards. These setbacks, however, could not crush the Comet team’s collective spirit:

"Like an interstellar Comet, we rolled with all the cosmic forces only to return full force." Totally.

The Ithaca, NY-based Comet prides itself on its sustainable ethos.  The team makes its boards from FSC certified maple with formaldehyde-free glue, and water-based inks and clear coat.  The team uses about 20 or so 5-gallon plastic buckets worth of glue every month. Rather than being sent to landfill, the used buckets are re-purposed by sustainable entrepreneur Tom Shelley for his Sustainable Chicken Project.

Shelley gives the buckets to Ithaca residents to collect compostable kitchen scraps that he then brings to his farm. The compost helps generate food for his chickens that lay eggs, which he then resells to the community.

Comet also has a deal with designer L.L. Hammond who takes the off-cuts from the Comet CNC production process for use as heating fuel for their shared production facility and as raw materials for his high-end furniture.

In addition, Comet has plans this summer to prototype a skateboard made from a degradable, plant-based polymer resin developed by Ecomaterials Lab participant Anil Netravali's team at Cornell University.

As Comet co-founder Jason Salfi put it: “It is not just one novel solution that makes us tick but an ever evolving symphony of intelligent moves.”

Since last October, Comet has rolled out the Grease Shark and the Ethos, and they recently announced new graphics from artists Arlo Chapple and Kadie Salfi. After 2010, here's hoping 2011 is all downhill.

Meet the Comet team this Friday, March 11 at the Longboard Expo NYC.

Emily Pilloton is a character

Tomorrow, March 8, at 11/10 CT, USA Network will feature 12 cultural influencers in its Character Approved Awards, including 2009 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow and Project H founder Emily Pilloton along with Foursquare founders, Naveen Selvadurai and Dennis Crowley, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim and architect Walter Hood among others.  From technology to design to film, social good and more, the special will highlight the work of people who are changing the face of American culture.  For a preview, check out this trailer featuring Pilloton describing her work with Project H.

Pieter Hugo's Permanent Error

These images are of people and landscapes at an expansive dump of obsolete technology in Ghana. The area, on the outskirts of a slum known as Agbogbloshie, is referred to by local inhabitants as Sodom and Gomorrah, a vivid acknowledgment of the profound inhumanity of the place. When Hugo asked the inhabitants what they called the pit where the burning takes place, they repeatedly responded: 'For this place, we have no name'.

E-waste is a massive, and massively overlooked, problem. Pieter Hugo's stark photography forces us to confront the discrepancy between society's desire for the newest, flashiest gadgets and electronics and the lack of care and accountability about where they go to die.

As part of PopTech's ongoing effort to be a part of the solution and address this imbalance, we'll continue to bring these issues to the forefront through our Ecomaterials Labs.

Images: Pieter Hugo