September 30, 2009

GoingGreen: Innovations in green tech

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Photo by Salem Kimble

By Salem Kimble
East Bay Green Tours

Earlier this month, amid the picturesque backdrop of the Cavallo Lodge in Sausalito, Calif., a flurry of venture capitalists and industry innovators came together at the GoingGreen Conference from AlwaysOn. There were all manner of industries represented, from cement that absorbs carbon (Novacem) to low frequency wireless technology for long range monitoring (On-Ramp Wireless) to completely architected materials (Nanosys) and everything in between.

In fact, there was so much going on, let’s break down a few of the more intriguing elements.

Smart designs for buildings

Project Frog, a slick and friendly outfit from San Francisco, showed off their super quick building construction from partially pre-fabricated buildings that minimize waste during construction, save 50 percent in energy once built, and go up in an incredible six weeks’ time. Their smart designs take into consideration the building process and include things like designing doors and walls to fit the size that the wall material is when sold. Their flagship installation is at Crissy Field in San Francisco.

Buildings are important, but perhaps more intriguing are the people who are re-engineering the building blocks themselves, as Novacem has done. They have an alternative to Portland cement (standard material used in the majority of construction) that has a lighter carbon footprint at the outset and over the long term. Says Novacem’s Stewart Evans, “The big win is that Novacem has the potential to not only remove the 5 percent [of carbon] from creation [of the cement] but to take out 4 percent of carbon [from the atmosphere] over time.”

Electric cars: From sports cars to ‘bicycles’

Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster

The state of electric cars is surprisingly advanced, with enterprising companies Coda, Aptera and Tesla on the scene. Coda is a company jointly working in China and the US on both the battery development and the electric car. According to CEO Kevin Czinger, they will have electric cars available to the public as early as fall 2010 with a 100-mile distance battery life and competitive price point of $30,000.

Aptera is a company with an entirely different strategy that currently has them legally classified as a bicycle — a car designed with only three wheels. Aptera’s strategy has been to tackle aerodynamics first and foremost in design so that less energy is needed for transport in the first place.

Tesla, the most widely known and covered in the press, strikes one as the equivalent of an Apple — emphasizing value beyond price and design focused development in which they build all their own software. Their most recent project, the upcoming roadster, is being created from scratch, which will allow a clean slate for the chassis and battery to have greater efficiency.

The less sexy but very economically savvy Bright Automotive, Inc. is tackling the commercial fleet market of delivery vans. They might seem ho-hum, but as an investment at scale they provide the highest economics savings, says Bright Chairman Rueben Munger. As investments, electric fleet vehicles “are price positive on day one,” he said.

Energy: Biofuels and geothermal

There were quite a few biofuels folks. It appears we’re more than fine when it comes to the availability of fuels as there is no shortage of biofuels solutions. Jatropha, the miracle plant of SG Biofuels that is easy to grow, doesn’t compete with food crops. They say they could produce cost-competitive biofuels at a price point equivalent to oil’s $42 a barrel. Similarly miraculous, Rentech offers “synthetic fuels for jet and diesel engines [made from] trash, sewage sludge, forestry and agricultural waste, energy crops and fossil resources.”

Then there’s the perennial grass feedstock Miscanthus from Mendel Biotechnology. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were engineered so effectively as to walk off the field and pump our gas for us.

Geothermal is something I haven’t heard much about lately as a feasible option, but Potter Drilling, backed by Google.org, is working on a patented technology that would allow much deeper drilling than is currently possible, which suddenly makes geothermal a viable option in many more regions. They are beyond the first stages of research and are working with a physical prototype.

Sierra Energy

There were also a few gasifer companies, including Sierra Energy and Zeropoint Clean Tech. Sierra Energy has an added bonus of focusing on tying in existing steel mills into their business design to revitalize old steel towns where many jobs have been lost.

As far as efficiency solutions and carbon tracking, the contenders in the field at this conference included Joule Labs, Greenbox Technology and FirstCarbon Solutions.

Technology: data collection applications

One of the striking presentations came from San Diego-based On-Ramp Wireless, a company with technology that harnesses uses and prices for wireless that don’t currently exist on the market. In simple terms, their technology harnesses low-frequency (non-regulated) wireless and allows for data collection within a range of up to 10 or 12 miles. That data collection application can be used on everything from finding a leak in a tube under city cement to automatically sensing that a farmer’s field needs watering.
Another technology leader was Nanosys, a San Francisco company with a vision for architected materials to become the modern equivalent invention of assembly lines.

Some applications of their work have shown up in reduced data center power consumption from (using higher density Nano Flash drives) and improved battery performance (re-engineered battery anode material) and remote phosphor for blue LED backlights. One of their intriguing materials is an engineered substance that when separated into various sizes in tubes causes the tubes to reflect light from an LED pointer in the colors of the rainbow. Unlike others in their nano-tech field, Nanosys has been working on technology development that is designed with the eventual large-scale production in mind from the beginning.

Altogether, it was enough new technologies to leave one’s head spinning, but in a hopeful direction. The overlap of sustainability and profitability is undeniable, especially when it comes to natural resources and large industries. I was surprised by the impression at this event that the greatest challenge lies not in innovation and creation of new technology, but in how those inventions and improvements can create a pathway to market and eventual widespread use.

Salem-KimbleSalem Kimble is operations manager of East Bay Green Tours. This is her first article for Socialbrite.

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