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For most of us, technology is a time-saver and a money-saver. For people like Dean Kamen, Elon Musk, Henry Jones and Matt Scott, high-tech innovations are emerging as a planet-saver.
From sky-high gas prices to concerns about global warming, planet-saving obviously is an issue that affects all of us. Pioneers of clean technology -- a broadly defined area that includes solar energy, biofuels, advanced lighting, water purification and alternative means of transportation -- see it as a way to save us from ourselves.
“In our view, the technology to seriously combat climate change and promote development exists,” says Matt Scott, CEO of Cosmos Ignite Innovations, which is bringing LED lights to the poor in India so they can replace dangerous, polluting kerosene lamps. “The challenge is now in execution.”
Here’s a look at four innovators who are using tech to improve the planet:
Shining a light on the world
With its genesis in a design-class assignment at Stanford University, Cosmos Ignite Innovations was created to solve a problem. About 1.6 billion people in the world rely on kerosene lanterns -- often nothing more than a wick in a soda bottle -- for light to study, work and live. These kerosene lights give off noxious fumes and thick smoke and often create a fire risk.
Scott and his colleagues decided that LED (light-emitting diode) technology had progressed enough from its days as the readout on your calculator to be able to create a reliable, affordable light. The MightyLight, charged via a small solar panel, will be distributed to more than 100,000 people by the end of 2008. It has replaced kerosene in homes in India, Mexico, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
MightyLights cost $50, and the optional solar or AC chargers are a little more. Bulk orders reduce the price. With rechargeable batteries, the lights can be used all night in low-power mode, for a shorter time as a normal light, and for a brief period of bright light. LEDs are considered an ultra-efficient light that doesn’t require much power. Cosmos says it has developed new LED technology to allow its bulbs to produce light for 100,000 hours -- perhaps 30 years of eight-hours-a-day usage.
Although we’re just getting used to those squiggly compact fluorescent bulbs here in the United States, experts say we’ll see more LEDs in our own homes in the next few years.
“We’re providing a real-life example of how clean technology can have a real impact,” Scott says.
Driving into the future
When Elon Musk drove the first Tesla Roadster away from the company’s headquarters in San Carlos, Calif., earlier this year, it wasn’t just a personal triumph. Yes, Musk has invested more than $50 million of his own money (gained from the sale of PayPal to eBay) into building a $100,000, zero-emissions, all-electric sports car.
But Musk, who also has invested in a solar company and chairs a space-exploration firm, has a vision of a future filled with nonpolluting transportation. “We’ve got to have something people can use everyday and sell their big SUVs or gasoline sedans,” he says.
That’s why Tesla intends to quickly follow its Roadster with a more affordable sports sedan and then a third vehicle that won’t cost much more than a fully equipped Toyota Camry or Honda Accord.
“The goal of Tesla really is to produce mass-market cars,” Musk says. “The company is not out to solve a sports-car shortage in the world.”
Although electric cars were first created more than 100 years ago -- Thomas Edison built and sold one -- recent high-tech advances have made them a more viable option today. That list includes more efficient lithium batteries, improved computer hardware and software that control the complex workings of an electric car, and even charging systems that allow for quicker fill-ups of the batteries.
His shiny black Roadster has become Musk’s daily driver. “I never go to a gas station; it’s great,” he says.
Scooting toward clean water
Dean Kamen’s Segway seems tied to the era of the Internet bubble when the promise of change -- how we shopped, how we communicated, how we got around -- was in the air. The inventor of the two-wheel scooter has turned his attention to something more serious.
His Slingshot uses just a small amount of electricity to distill drinking water. For those of us who live with store shelves full of clear bottles of high-priced water, it’s easy to forget that one in six people in the world don’t have access to clean water for drinking and cooking.
Kamen also is developing an engine that generates electricity from methane derived from cow dung. And he’s testing both in villages in Bangladesh. He told Newsweek earlier this year that the Slingshot is about two years away from production. The Slingshot and his Stirling-cycle generator will likely cost between $1,000 and $2,000 each.
Kamen’s two projects are connected, although the Slingshot will work with a standard electrical supply. The inventor says the machine can purify dirty water, even sewage or ocean water, using vapor compression distillation. It can make 1,000 liters of clean water daily. And the generated heat from Kamen’s generator can be used to make electricity.
Saving electricity one home at a time
Electricity meters, which spin silently outside your home monitoring how much power you’re using to run your air-conditioning and your plasma TV, are century-old technology. That simply isn’t acceptable when saving energy has become such an emphasis for the green movement, says Dr. Henry Jones.
Jones, chief technology officer of SmartSynch in Jackson, Miss., says information is the key. “The first step to energy conservation is knowing how much energy you’re consuming,” he says.
The company’s smart meters use wireless communication to tell customers and utilities precisely how much power is being consumed. Customers can learn which appliances are energy zappers, and how much power high-tech devices consume even while in sleep mode. Utilities get a better sense of power needs and can communicate with customers through their meters when emergencies and weather necessitate conservation. Smart meters, such as SmartSynch, are being installed by utilities throughout the United States and Canada. You can buy energy-monitoring systems for your home at high-end electronics stores.
Other clean-technology companies are working on creating fuel from garbage or wood chips; building huge solar-thermal facilities that use the sun’s rays in the desert to create power plants that size of coal or natural-gas plants; and even using ozone, instead of chlorine, to disinfect fruits and vegetables.
The bottom line? Tech isn’t just the hippest cell phone or social networking site, anymore. It’s making the world a better place -- for everyone.
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