The day when roads will harness solar energy is drawing near

There are some 60 million kilometers (37.3 million miles) of roadways in the world, just sitting there. But adapting these surfaces to do anything besides passively carry traffic has proved difficult and prohibitively expensive.

However, an idea has gained traction in the last few years: embedding solar cells in roads. In 2014, an American couple launched the Solar Roadways project and collected more than $2 million on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Their effort, however, is much farther from reality than the Netherlands-based consortium SolaRoad, which has been operating a 70-meter (230-foot) cycle path that generates enough electricity for one or two households.

Read more on Quartz, published May 15, 2015.

Image by SolaRoad.

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Curious Bends  –  the mirror man, leaderless science, Modi’s love for the environment and more

1. To prescribe or not to prescribe

There is a saying in Tamil that goes “if your family can’t discipline you, the world will”. That would be the story of the slipshod trio of Wockhardt, Ranbaxy and Sun Pharma, three Indian pharma companies whose drugs have been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), leaving Indian doctors and patients facing a dilemma nobody deserves. On the one hand, these companies’ drugs have no substitutes in the market. On the other, neither their quality checks nor the government regulatory body’s are trustworthy. While culpability swings from deficient manpower to lax rules, what drugs are doctors prescribing? (4 min read)

2. Science in India suffers from a lack of leadership

The Indian Institute of Science wants to construct India’s biggest particle accelerator, but for years the desire has not even materialised into a concrete plan. The difficulty? It cannot afford the cost of construction of nearly Rs. 2,000 crore without help from the central government. But the excuse belies a more visceral problem: the Indian science community has a vacuum at its helm, and it shows. Other developing nations are doing much better. Brazil, arguably India’s peer, is already building its second synchrotron. (4 min read)

3. The man who cycles in Cambodia treating phantom pain with mirrors

He has held more than 20 jobs before this, from being an English teacher in Saudi Arabia to being a body-double in a German film. However… “In the autumn of 2010, Stephen was living in a basement apartment in Vancouver when it struck him that his calling might be mirror therapy. He’d go where there were amputees in pain, give them a mirror and teach them how to use it. Cambodia was his first destination because it had an inordinately high number of amputees, and it was small and flat, which was important because Stephen was planning to bicycle with his mirrors.” (27 min read)

+ The author, Srinath Perur, is a Bangalore-based science and travel writer.

4. Fast turnaround of environmental approvals will cost us dearly

Any developmental project in India requires a government-approved environment impact assessment (EIA). However, two things can decidedly worsen its trustworthiness. First, the company whose project is to be assessed can choose who performs it, no doubt a controversial facility. Second, as the newly installed Indian government seems to be doing, assessments can be “fast-tracked” at the expense of quality. As a result, both biologically diverse and endangered ecosystems around the country are under increased threat. (5 min read)

5. The science bit of India’s budget

Biotechnology, education and renewable energy research are the big winners in the 2014 Union Budget in India, at least in absolute terms. Relatively, however, the rise in funding (4%) is diminished by the rate of inflation (8%), while the slew of new IITs and IIMs are likely to exacerbate a spate of teacher deficiency. Also hanging in the balance is the approval for scientific mega-projects. Nonetheless, scientists are optimistic that things will improve by September, when the government will issue revised estimates of funding figures. (2 min read)

up

Chart of the week

After the awful 2013 communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, polling in the constituency was strongly and predictably polarised. In most polling booths, the party that won also secured more than 90% of the votes. But was this the case across all of the state of Uttar Pradesh? Apparently not, as this analysis and chart shows. Western UP had the most polling booths where the contest was a winner-takes-all, but the extent of polarisation became visibly moderated toward the east. More on this at DataStories.in.

For more stuff like this, follow Akshat and Mukunth on Twitter. If you have anything to tell us, we can be found at curiousbends@gmail.com. Have a good week!

Rain clouds: From dust to lawn

Clouds turn to rain when water droplets and ice crystals that make them up get too big to resist the pull of Earth’s gravity. This is often caused by particles that disturb the maelstrom of droplets and crystals to become seeds around which cloud matter coalesces. Once this happens, the seeds grow rapidly and eventually fall to the ground.

The seeds can be caused by the passage of exotic things like cosmic rays. More often, though, they are dust particles lofted high into the air. A study in 2009 showed that dust from Taklimakan desert in China, whisked above 5,000 metres, circumnavigated the globe in just 13 days. Because dust needs large horizontal distances to attain sufficient altitude, it might then cause rainfall half-way across the world.

For example, the Rocky Mountains in America push water vapour to higher altitudes that help form clouds. At that point, the theory goes, the clouds run into particles swept in from Africa and Asia. To find if that is indeed what happens Kaitlyn Suski and her colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, examined dust and clouds in Californian skies, to the Rockies’ west. They report their findings in Science.

Ms Suski needed to confirm that dust particles reached heights of about 3,000 metres or more to be able to intercept rain clouds. She also had to verify that they originated in Asia and Africa. She collected samples in an aeroplane equipped with a mass spectrometer, which can accurately determine the dust’s chemical composition. These chemical signatures were then compared with those found in Asian and African deserts. As a cross-check, Ms Suski used data from satellites like CALIPSO, which tracks dust particles’ atmospheric peregrinations.

Perhaps more interesting, Ms Suski also found that rain clouds contained bacteria, though it proved impossible to pin down their origins. Tiny living organisms can float in the atmosphere for a long time, feeding on trace carbon and any other nutrients they bump into. They can also act as cloud seeds.

In 2010 researchers in Norway concluded that bacteria are not as important to rainfall as dust is. But calculations by Ms Suski and her colleagues suggest that their rainmaking powers are amplified when they mingle with desert dust. Deserts may be some of the harshest places on the planet to live, but, if Ms Suski is right, they may be the enablers of life everywhere else.

First published on economist.com.

Reference: Creamean et al. Science 2013. Dust and Biological Aerosols from the Sahara and Asia Influence Precipitation in the Western U.S. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1227279

Image credit: The Economist

India and endosulfan: A bitter harvest

India’s response to the ill-effects of a toxic pesticide has been slow and inadequate

Endosulfan, a pesticide, has been poisoning villagers in India over the past two decades. Its use has caused physical and mental ailments among thousands of children and adults and deaths of many hundreds. In 2011 India agreed to ban endosulfan, and, more recently, it offered compensation to its victims. But now it is falling short to keep both those promises.

The pesticide, once commonly used, damages the central nervous system and causes hormonal changes in mothers and babies. It leads to many birth defects including cerebral palsy, a condition that causes physical disability. Worse still, it lingers in the environment without degradation, leading to its accumulation in the food chain and causing lasting ill-effects.

Commitment to ban?

In 2011 at the Stockholm Convention 128 countries, including India, added endosulfan to the list of pollutants that they agree to phase out of use. Following India’s commitment at Stockholm and after years of effort by the Democratic Youth Federation of India, a non-governmental organization, in May 2011 the Supreme Court banned the use of endosulfan in the country but allowed its exports to exhaust remaining stocks. At present India has 2000 tonnes of the pesticide and raw materials enough to make a further 4000 tonnes of it. As international demand for the pesticide has plummeted, the government has been forced to dispose this stash.

In July, because the Indian government was not ready to foot a $40 million bill for the disposal of endosulfan’s raw materials, it asked the Supreme Court to lift the ban on making the pesticide. In November the Supreme Court’s expert committee requested giving in to this demand. Citing that the treaty that Indian signed allows it up to six years to phase out endosulfan, so it could allow endosulfan’s manufacture and use without breaking its commitment. This recommendation was made even though the committee accepts that endosulfan is harmful to human health.

Sadly, endosulfan remains popular among farmers too. Manufacturing of the pesticide, if allowed, will be greeted with strong demand. Before the ban, India was the largest producer and consumer of endosulfan. It is cheap, easily available and curtails a variety of pests. For those unaware of its environmental consequences, there is little reason to not use it.

Studies show ill-effects of endosulfan use across the country. Kerala is the worst affected state. A 2012 state report linked the pesticide to 4000 afflicted and 700 deaths, many of whom suffered the fate because of aerial spraying over nearby cashew plantations. In some villages 50% homes have a child or an adult with severe disabilities.

In May the Kerela government, based on the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission, agreed to pay compensation to the victims of endosulfan in Kerela. The amount varied from Rupees 300,000 ($5,500) to 500,000 ($9,500) depending on the victim’s suffering. But despite protests in September and December, the government has only paid 101 out of the 2453 victim families.

The request to allow manufacturing of endosulfan exposes the government’s inability to dispose the raw materials. If undisposed, the chemicals lie in poorly maintained warehouses. A task force setup to inspect one such warehouse in Periya, Kerala, after locals complained of foul smell, found endosulfan leaking from rusted steel drums. The warehouse also lacked storekeepers, fire safety equipment and first-aid kits, posing a serious threat to nearby villages and water bodies.

Endosulfan rehabilitation project, setup by Kerala last year to help the afflicted, started an operation to deal with such cases. Their first task was to contain the leaking drums. They are now hoping to get help from the government for disposal and detoxification, said Mohammed Asheel, the project officer.

Far too little, far too late

Pratibha Patil, former President of India, promised to double public spending on health care to 2.5% of the GDP by 2017. Among its first steps is a $5 billion free drugs plan, the implementation of which began in October. Surely then the Indian government can, apart from preserving the ban, also afford to stop poisoning its own people for a mere $40 million and also compensate those already poisoned.

Image from here.

The future of our materialistic selves

“I need a computer”, I told my dad in 2005. I was finishing the first year of my degree and none of my hostel friends had a computer yet. He knew that.

“Why do you think it’s necessary?”, he asked me. That was what he always asked when I made a demand. It was his way of testing me on whether I knew why I wanted what I wanted.

I told him that I had seen my seniors in college use it for many things that would be beneficial for me. Yes, there were many who wasted their time watching movies but that is not what I wanted it for. I wanted it because I wanted to tap in to the power of the internet.

A guy named Edgar, a computer whiz in my dad’s office had taught me how to use Windows ’95. By 1998, using the Internet Explorer, I had created myself a Yahoo! Mail account (I don’t know what I used it for because I had no friends who had email back then!). But more importantly, I had found Yahoo! Games. I used to love being able to play with random strangers. By the time I had finished high school, I had excelled at using Windows XP and I knew how to use Google to help me with small things.

When I started my degree in 2004-05, I knew there was a lot more I could do with a computer and I explained it to my dad. He was convinced. He bought me an expensive and powerful IBM desktop with a flat screen monitor. My mum thought he was splurging for no reason. That purchase, which costed my dad plenty of money, left me with two important lessons

  1. Buy only what is necessary
  2. If you decided that something is necessary then do your research and buy a version of that thing that serves your purpose the best. Even if it is a little more expensive.

In 2005 in India, we had desktops on offer from the big companies like Dell, IBM and HP. But there were also many computer shops that sold ‘assembled’ desktops. These assembled desktops were usually much cheaper than the branded computers for the same specifications because the shop keeper purchased cheaper individual parts and charged much lower amounts to put it altogether.

But my dad had done his research. He knew that ‘assembled’ computers often broke down and although the shop keepers fixed the machine for free most of the times, it would usually take some time to get it repaired. He preferred to buy me an IBM computer even though it was much more expensive because at least it won’t need repairing that often.

He also realised that I did not have much desk space in my hostel room and wanted to make sure that I could place the screen on my desk and still be able to use the desk (if I had one those CRT monitors, it just wouldn’t have been possible and laptops were too expensive to give to an undergraduate student then). So he bought me something because it was necessary and he did not think twice before spending money about buying only that things which served my purpose the best.

I’ve bought things for myself without having to ask my parents only since I left India but I’ve stuck with the lessons that my dad left me with. These thoughts about purchasing things came rushing back to me when I heard this talk by Bruce Sterling.

Sterling is a science writer and his talk is anything but organised. But if you are patient enough (or just skip to 26:01), he gives our generation some advice on how we could make a real difference to our environment despite consuming what we have to. Although, I don’t agree with everything he says, I cannot disagree with his take on our materialistic lives.

He says that, “You have to think about stuff not like, ‘Oh, this is a nice pen and I must keep it’. But in terms of how much space and how many hours you spend in using that thing.” He calls it a ‘good design approach’. One in which we pay a lot of attention to the purpose of the things we use and how well do those things solve that purpose (very similar to my dad’s philosophy on purchasing anything).

He also goes on to give advice on how we can think about our materialistic lives in a way that will help us improve our lives and cause a lower impact on the environment. “Buying cheaper things or organic things is not the way forward”, he says. We probably make a lot more environmental impact by choosing to buy cheap everyday objects thinking they will solve our purpose. When doing that you don’t think hard enough whether you should buy it or not because it’s cheap.”

He says, “Buy the best possible most commonly used everyday objects. Like a bed. You spend a third of your life in that thing. On a per hour rental basis, the most expensive bed would still be worth it. Get a good chair, especially if you spend a whole day sitting on it. There are great ergonomic designs out there. Use them. Don’t spend time whining about your wrists or your back.”

Makes complete sense to me and I have partly lived by that advice. For my next purchase, I will not forget this advice. He goes on to talk about how to get rid of things that you don’t need and not fall in the trap of buying things you won’t need (35:40 onwards). He asks us to categorise everything in to four categories:

  1. Beautiful Things: Will you be driven to share it?
  2. Emotionally Important Things: Does it have a narrative?
  3. Tools/devices/appliances (things that efficiently perform useful functions): Have really high technical standards for this.
  4. Everything else.

Only recently, I helped a friend move. Now she had so many things that had accrued over the years. Stuff that she hadn’t even seen since the years that have passed in between purchasing it and now. But she held on to those things. Even if it meant that she had to spend extra on the moving van or that she will have less place in the new place she was moving to. In that context, I find those categories above useful to be able to reduce the material clutter in our lives.

There really isn’t an end to our materialistic lives unless we make a conscious choice. Big businesses have spent billions of dollars and years of effort in to making us the perfect consumers. To break out is hard but it is the only sustainable way forward.

How green is your detergent?

Fragranced household products, even those labelled as ‘green’, can emit large numbers of hazardous chemicals that aren’t listed on their labels, US researchers have confirmed. The research raises questions about the risks associated with these products and regulating the claims on their labels.

How green is your detergent? – Chemistry World, 12 November 2010