PopTech Blog

Posts by Kiley Lambert

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

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.

Look out! It's DARPA's robot cheetahs!

So the Marines roll up in their crowd-sourced Local Motors troop transport and out jumps a bunch of robotic cheetahs with lasers for eyes!  Warfare in the 21st century is gonna look like a James Cameron movie.

Image: Boston Dynamics

Ecomaterials Lab: EcoATM makes recycling used gadgets easier

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

E-waste is a huge problem. More than 80% of the 2.25 million pounds of electronics discarded every year in the U.S. end up in landfills. Filled with toxic waste - arsenic, cadmium, mercury – these items poison the ground and can easily contaminate water supplies. Add to this the economic and human costs of mining rare earth metals such as coltan, often referred to as 'blood minerals' because of the conflict zones from which they come; AND the vicious cycle of buy-discard-upgrade that is the hallmark of our gadget-obsessed culture and you have an extraordinary environmental problem.

The EcoATM is definitely a step in the right direction. Simply insert your old phone (or other device) and the EcoATM erases its memory, assigns a value to the item, and spits out a reward in the form of coupons, gift certificates, cash, etc. The company also takes care of all collection and recycling, including complete compliance with all e-waste laws. A step in the right direction, EcoATM bows to the notion that consumers will do the right thing if it’s convenient enough. And now that the company has new financing from Coinstar and the National Science Foundation, there's hope that we'll see EcoATMs popping up across the country.

Ecomaterials Lab: Mapping our way out of a mess

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

As a society, we use too much…stuff. Stuff that is manufactured in increasingly dangerous ways. When we’re done with these (mostly) unneeded and toxic items, we throw them in landfills or they end up in our oceans. Not exactly a news flash, but still worth repeating. Like energy and climate change, the issue of materials sustainability is real and immediate. In 2010, PopTech initiated the Ecomaterials Innovation Lab, an all-star network of stakeholders focused on ways to bring next-generation sustainable materials innovation to scale. Below are some of our findings from the first meeting of the Lab last July (read the full report in "PDF form) as well as recommendations for how we might go forward toward a brighter materials future:

  • There’s a surprising lack of consensus about how to ‘get there’ – including where ‘there’ is. Unlike, say, the '350' goal: among climate change advocates (stabilizing carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million in the atmosphere), there is no equivalent “grand vision” for materials sustainability. There are no agreed upon definitions for the most basic terms (see “eco” and “green.”) A huge part of the problem is that success, like the terms used to describe it, is in the eye of the beholder.

The search for ten balloons: Riley Crane crowdsources his way to discovery

The DARPA Network Challenge: “Be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States.” Although Riley Crane found out about the contest only four days before it started, four days, eight hours, and 52 minutes later he and his fellow MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, had won it. A postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Media Lab, Crane devised a system that allowed his team to harness the power of individual social networks by crowdsourcing the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge.

“It was a great network and winning the challenge was fun, but the real question is: what can we use it for?” Crane said. “If we want to see new things happen that are going to blow our minds, we need to start to really rethinking the way we communicate. If we do, the world will become really responsive to large-scale change.”

Neuroscientist Adrian Owen on the consequences of traumatic brain injury

The long-term consequences of traumatic brain injury, such as the one sustained by U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot through the skull at a shopping center in Tucson, Arizona this weekend, are at the center of PopTech 2010 speaker Dr. Adrian Owen’s research. Owen, a neuroscientist who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at the University of Western Ontario, has been working since the 1990s to determine levels of consciousness in vegetative patients.

Patients sometimes emerge from a coma, like the one medically induced by Giffords’ doctors, without ever becoming aware. That is, they cannot follow commands and show no sign of consciousness, though their lips might move or eyelids might open. What Owen and his colleagues have discovered, though, is that some patients are conscious despite being unable to move their limbs or communicate verbally.

“We have a logical problem here,” Owen told the PopTech audience in October. “If a patient was conscious but incapable of generating responses, which is the hallmark of vegetative state, we would logically have no way of knowing if that person was conscious.”


2010 Science Fellow Sarah Fortune

Sarah Fortune

2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow Sarah Fortune, Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is trying to figure out why the turberculosis microbacteria is so resistant. Her team has been studying the disease and the way it responds to various eradication efforts. Despite its virtual eradication in the States, it remains a significant health risk for millions of people worldwide.

“What you see is that we can always kill almost all of the bacteria,” she told the PopTech audience Saturday. “Yet there are always a few that remain. Whenever we relieve the stress on them, they come back.” Fortune reached out to the tech savvy crowd for help in her fight. “I want to crowdsource this issue,” she said. “Reach out to your networks, tell people about what we’re doing, and get back to us. We need everyone’s help.”

(Photos: Kris Krüg)

PopTech Fellows Justin Gallivan and Nina Dudnik

Justin Gallivan

2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow Justin Gallivan is amazed by bacteria. You can get them to do almost anything. For instance, Gallivan, associate professor of chemistry at Emory University, told the PopTech crowd Saturday that he can program e. coli bacteria to eat atrazine, a widely used herbicide that can contaminate ground water. The key is to be able to turn the gene on and off. Using a molecule called Riboswitch allows him to do just that. “We want to be able to program the bacteria to send it after atrazine,” he said. “Turns out we can do that.”

2010 Social Innovation Fellow Nina Dudnik told the crowd that her company, Seeding Labs, is taking discarded lab equipment from the United States to needy labs in other countries. “Talent is everywhere,” she said. “We need to train more scientists to be better everywhere.” As part of that commitment, Dudnik said Seeding Labs has also launched a program to connect scientists from the U.S. with their counterparts in Africa and South America. “Just 48 hours ago, the first group of science ambassadors landed in Nairobi,” she said. “Putting scientists from different walks of life together makes everyone’s work better.”

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Life during wartime: Laura Poitras on doc-making after 9/11

“I was with contractors in Kurdistan and one night, one of them told me he needed to use my room to do an arms deal.  As a documentary filmmaker, I said, ‘Of course, please come in and use my room for your arms deal.’”

Laura Poitras

Just your typical Laura Poitras story. The acclaimed director took time Saturday to share stories with the PopTech conference crowd about the making, and consequences, of her most recent films – My Country, My Country and The Oath, which form part of a trilogy she’s making about life after 9/11.

“With my work I’m trying to bridge the gap between what we actually know and what we actually feel,” she said. “I’m trying to make films that make you feel. And these films are about us. Even if they’re filmed over there, they still have to do with us.”