A Growing Presence on the Farm: Robots

A new generation of autonomous robots is helping plant breeders shape the crops of tomorrow.

Not only can the TerraSentia navigate under dense crop canopies, it can make many observations about plant health and yield as it drives through fields.

Credit…Institute for Genomic Biology/University of Illinois

FARMER CITY, Illinois — In a research field off Highway 54 last autumn, corn stalks shimmered in rows 40-feet deep. Girish Chowdhary, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bent to place a small white robot at the edge of a row marked 103. The robot, named TerraSentia, resembled a souped up version of a lawn mower, with all-terrain wheels and a high-resolution camera on each side.

In much the same way that self-driving cars “see” their surroundings, TerraSentia navigates a field by sending out thousands of laser pulses to scan its environment. A few clicks on a tablet were all that were needed to orient the robot at the start of the row before it took off, squeaking slightly as it drove over ruts in the field.

“It’s going to measure the height of each plant,” Dr. Chowdhary said.

It would do that and more. The robot is designed to generate the most detailed portrait possible of a field, from the size and health of the plants, to the number and quality of ears each corn plant will produce by the end of the season, so that agronomists can breed even better crops in the future. In addition to plant height, TerraSentia can measure stem diameter, leaf-area index and “stand count” — the number of live grain- or fruit-producing plants — or all of those traits at once. And Dr. Chowdhary is working on adding even more traits, or phenotypes, to the list with the help of colleagues at EarthSense, a spinoff company that he created to manufacture more robots.

Traditionally, plant breeders have measured these phenotypes by hand, and used them to select plants with the very best characteristics for creating hybrids. The advent of DNA sequencing has helped, enabling breeders to isolate genes for some desirable traits, but it still takes a human to assess whether the genes isolated from the previous generation actually led to improvements in the next one.

“The idea is that robots can automate the phenotyping process and make these measurements more reliable,” Dr. Chowdhary said. In doing so, the TerraSentia and others like it can help optimize the yield of farms far beyond what humans alone have been able to accomplish.

Automation has always been a big part of agriculture, from the first seed drills to modern combine harvesters. Farm equipment is now regularly outfitted with sensors that use machine learning and robotics to identify weeds and calculate the amount of herbicide that needs to sprayed, for instance, or to learn to detect and pick strawberries.

Lately, smaller, more dexterous robots have emerged in droves. In 2014, the French company Naïo released 10 prototypes of a robot named Oz that is just three feet long and weighs roughly 300 pounds. It assembles phenotypes of vegetable crops even as it gobbles up weeds. EcoRobotix, based in Switzerland, makes a solar-powered robot that rapidly identifies crops and weeds; the device resembles an end table on wheels. The household appliance-maker Bosch has also tested a robot called BoniRob for analyzing soil and plants.

“All of a sudden, people are starting to realize that data collection and analysis tools developed during the 90s technology boom can be applied to agriculture,” said George A. Kantor, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, who is using his own research to develop tools for estimating crop yields.

The TerraSentia is among the smallest of the farmbots available today. At 12.5 inches wide and roughly the same height, the 30-pound robot fits well between rows of various crops. It also focuses on gathering data from much earlier in the agricultural pipeline: The research plots where plant breeders select the varieties that ultimately make it to market.

Girish Chowdhary, holding a TerraSentia robot, and Chinmay Soman, left, with Tim Smith at one of Mr. Smith’s research fields in Farmer City, Ill.

The data collected by the TerraSentia is changing breeding from a reactionary process into a more predictive one. Using the robot’s advanced machine-learning skills, scientists can collate the influence of hundreds, even thousands, of factors on a plant’s future traits, much like doctors utilize genetic tests to understand the likelihood of a patient developing breast cancer or Type 2 diabetes.

“Using phenotyping robots, we can identify the best-yielding plants before they even shed pollen,” said Mike Gore, a plant biologist at Cornell University. He added that doing so can potentially cut in half the time needed to breed a new cultivar — a plant variety produced by selective breeding — from roughly eight years to just four.

The demands on agriculture are rising globally. The human population is expected to climb to 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100, according to the United Nations. To feed the world — with less land, fewer resources and in the face of climate change — farmers will need to augment their technological intelligence.

The agricultural giants are interested. Corteva, which spun off from the merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont in 2016, has been testing the TerraSentia in fields across the United States.

“There’s definitely a niche for this kind of robot,” said Neil Hausmann, who oversees research and development at Corteva. “It provides standardized, objective data that we use to make a lot of our decisions. We use it in breeding and product advancement, in deciding which product is the best, which ones to move forward and which ones will have the right characteristics for growers in different parts of the country.”

Dr. Chowdhary and his colleagues hope that partnerships with big agribusinesses and academic institutions will help subsidize the robots for smallholder farmers. “Our goal is to eventually get the cost of the robots under $1,000,” he said.

Farmers don’t need special expertise to operate the TerraSentia, either, Dr. Chowdhary said. The robot is almost fully autonomous. Growers with thousands of acres of land can have several units survey their crops, but a farmer in a developing country with only five acres of land could use one just as easily. The TerraSentia has already been tested in a wide variety of fields, including corn, soybean, sorghum, cotton, wheat, tomatoes, strawberries, citrus crops, apple orchards, almond farms and vineyards.

But some experts question whether such robots will ever truly be targeted to small farms, or a sufficiently affordable option. “For the kind of agriculture that smallholders tend to engage in, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America, there are a lot of barriers to the adoption of new technologies,” said Kyle Murphy, a policy and agricultural development analyst at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at M.I.T. He added that robots like the TerraSentia may be more likely to help smallholder farmers indirectly, by promoting the development of better or more suitable crops.

Before the TerraSentia can advance crop breeding for a wide swath of farmers, it must perfect a few more skills. Occasionally, it trips over branches and debris on the ground, or its wheels get stuck in muddy soil, requiring the user to walk behind the rover and right its course as needed. “Hopefully, by next year we’ll be able to train the TerraSentia so even more so users won’t have to be anywhere in the field,” Dr. Chowdhary said.

For the moment, the TerraSentia keeps a leisurely pace, less than one mile an hour. This allows its cameras to capture slight changes in pixels to measure the plants’ leaf-area index and recognize signs of disease. Dr. Chowdhary and his colleagues at EarthSense are hoping that advancements in camera technology will eventually add to the robot’s speed.

The team is also building a maintenance barn, where the TerraSentia can dock after a long day. There, its battery can be swapped with a fully charged one, and its wheels and sensors can be sprayed clean. But for now, a farmer simply dumps the robot in the back of a truck, takes it home and uploads its data to the cloud for analysis.

The main office of EarthSense, in Urbana, Illinois, is full of early versions of robotic technology that didn’t quite pan out. Initial prototypes of TerraSentia lacked a proper suspension system, so the robot jumped into the air and disrupted the video streams whenever researchers set it loose in a deeply rutted field. Another design kept melting from the heat of the robot’s motors, until they switched plastics and added metal shielding.

Those early, cracked chassis are now stacked on a shelf, like a museum display: a reminder of the need for improvement, but also of the excitement that the robot has generated.

“A lot people who tried the early prototypes still came back to us, even after having robots that essentially broke on them all the time,” Dr. Chowdhary said. “That’s how badly they needed these things.” SOURCE

Electrical energy can be captured as liquid air

The result might give grid-scale batteries a run for their money

In the past few decades wind and solar power have gone from being exotic technologies to quotidian pieces of engineering that are competitive, joule for joule, with fossil fuels. Those fuels retain what edge they have only because of their reliability. The wind may not blow, or the sun may not shine, but—short of a blockade or strike—a coal or gas power station will always have something to burn.

To overcome the reliability problem requires cheap grid-scale energy storage that can be scaled up indefinitely. At the moment, the market leader is the lithium-ion battery (see article). Such batteries—already the workhorse of applications from mobile phones to electric cars—are reliable, scalable and well understood. Most proposed alternatives are clumsy, poorly understood, unscalable or all three. But there is one that, because it relies on putting together pieces of engineering used routinely elsewhere, and thus proven to work, might give lithium-ion batteries a run for their money: liquid air.

At a temperature of -196°C, all of air’s component gases will liquefy. Doing this is a routine, electrically driven industrial procedure. Storing liquefied gases in bulk is also a routine piece of engineering. The result occupies a 700th of the volume of those gases at room temperature—so, when liquid air is warmed and allowed to expand, it does so forcefully. Using a device called a Dearman engine (after its inventor, a Briton named Peter Dearman), that forceful expansion can be employed to spin turbines, and thus generators, thereby recovering part of the electricity used to liquefy the air in the first place. MORE

 

Alta Devices to Provide Solar Cells for New, High Performance, Long Endurance UAVs

SUNNYVALE, CA & AJDOVSCINA, Slovenia –(eSolarEnergyNews)--C-Astral Aerospace and Alta Devices today announced that Alta’s world-record-breaking solar technology will be used to significantly extend the endurance for the most sophisticated of C-Astral’s next generation unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Details of the agreement are not being disclosed.

C-Astral’s latest system, called the Bramor ppX-LRS (long range solar), can fly at least two hours longer with the addition of Alta’s solar technology. This new Bramor enables highly efficient and precise global surveying and sensing capabilities in remote and urban areas. One example application is mapping and surveying of long stretches of road from the sky — finishing the project in only a few days without disrupting traffic; if done from the ground, this kind of work would take two to three months of road closures. The beyond-line-of-sight capability of the UAV, together with its advanced gas detection and SWIR (short wave infrared) sensors, is also suited for pipeline monitoring, replacing manned aircraft systems and helicopters at a fraction of the cost. Alternatively, these aircraft can dramatically accelerate and reduce the cost of surveying major railway lines and power line infrastructure.

“From the time of our founding, we have known that solar technology is useful for extending flight times and have continuously pursued it,” said Marko Peljhan, C-Astral co-founder. “Alta’s solar technology is the only mature option on the market that allows us to achieve extended flight times without compromising our high performance aircraft design.”

“C-Astral has an incredible track record of innovation,” said Rich Kapusta, Chief Marketing Officer at Alta Devices. “There are very few companies with the deep expertise required to develop this type of aircraft, and we are extremely proud to be working with them on this endeavor.”

Alta Devices designs and manufactures the most efficient, thinnest, and flexible solar technology in the world and is revolutionizing the endurance of unmanned systems. MORE

Here’s a way for governments to buy positive outcomes

Some of the toughest social problems can be solved through community-driven outcomes contracts – C-DOCs – which provide incentive for innovation.

Image result for policy options: Here's a way for governments to buy positive outcomes

Can a little-known practice called “outcomes purchasing” generate solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges? We believe the answer is yes. Through a form of outcomes purchasing we call community-driven outcomes contracts (C-DOCs), governments, communities, investors and the charitable sector can collaborate in transforming seemingly intractable problems into opportunities for inclusive growth. Moreover, the soon-to-be-launched $755-million federal Social Finance Fund presents Canada’s social sector with a powerful new tool for financing such work.

First, let’s consider the status quo. Governments provide grants and contracts to social-purpose organizations (social enterprises, nonprofits and charities) to deliver programs that are closely tracked on the basis of activities or outputs: how many homeless people sheltered, how many people enrolled in addictions treatment programs and so on. However, short-term fixes that alleviate suffering do little to address the conditions that create such problems. At worst, they foster dependency.

In contrast, C-DOCs set targets that social-purpose organizations are then funded to deliver. They provide an incentive to innovate: to iteratively test, evaluate, adapt and scale evidence-based approaches. Whether the issue is homelessness, chronic disease or greenhouse gas emissions, providing financing in a way that rewards results can accelerate systemic shifts.

C-DOCs are similar to social impact bonds (SIBs), in that investors provide upfront capital to a social-purpose organization to implement a new approach to a problem. If successful, an outcomes purchaser — usually a government — pays back the investors. However, C-DOCs have several important differences from SIBs. First, community priorities inform and drive the projects, and thus accountability is not just to investors and outcomes buyers but also to community stakeholders. Second, C-DOCs might include, and indeed require, a community engagement and development phase supported by grants, as well as the seconding of technical expertise to social-purpose coalitions.

Let’s look at two examples in which our organizations are involved.

Jobs + renewable energy = economic reconciliation

Winnipeg-based Aki Energy is an Indigenous-led social enterprise founded in 2013 to build relationships with First Nations and train community members to do geothermal installations. Aki replaces expensive, noisy and polluting diesel generators in First Nations communities with geothermal systems that meet community heating and air-conditioning needs, lower utility bills, reduce GHG emissions and create good jobs in the process. Aki has installed systems in over 400 homes and community buildings in the northern Manitoba communities of Peguis, Fisher River, Sagkeeng and Long Plain First Nations. Originally, it worked with Manitoba Hydro’s Pay-As-You-Save program, receiving $20,000 in upfront capital investment for each installation, recouped through a long-term charge on utility bills — thus benefiting communities, taxpayers and the environment.

However, in 2016, Aki Energy hit a roadblock. Federal bureaucrats weren’t convinced that Pay-As-You-Save was the right program for the delivery of large-scale energy transformation on reserves, and they halted their involvement. After unsuccessful efforts to challenge this ruling, Aki co-founder Shaun Loney and Ian Bird, president of Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), worked with the McConnell Foundation and Raven Indigenous Capital Partners to develop the community-driven outcomes contract that now helps finance Aki’s operations.

By definition, a C-DOC must meet needs that have been prioritized by communities. In this instance, those needs are skills training and job creation, lower utility costs, reduced dependency on social assistance — and the completion of geothermal installations. Raven Capital is an Indigenous social finance intermediary focused on revitalizing Indigenous economies. Several foundations and the communities themselves are providing upfront investment, and CFC is the initial outcomes buyer, with additional purchasers set to come onstream via a larger outcomes fund.

Healthy food + social enterprise = reduced incidence of diabetes

Food insecurity is an acute problem for many Indigenous people in Canada’s North. By several measures, Nutrition North Canada — the freight subsidy program intended to reduce the cost of food in northern communities  is not working. One result is runaway rates of type 2 diabetes, afflicting 17 percent of on-reserve First Nations individuals versus just 5 percent of the general population. An Ontario study showed that caring for one person with diabetes entails $10,000 in extra health spending annually without considering expenses like air transport and medical support, which are higher in remote communities.

In the Manitoba community of Garden Hill (population 2,600), diabetes treatments cost $2.6 million annually and the Nutrition North subsidy is nearly $1 million. To qualify, food must be flown in from the south — locally raised food gets no support. It’s a system designed for poor outcomes: expensive and (often) unhealthy food, erosion of the local food economy, escalating rates of diabetes and burgeoning health care costs. Outcomes purchasing is designed to tackle this sort of wicked problem.

Part of the solution is to revive the local food economy. With support from a consortium of foundations and provincial agencies, Aki Energy’s sister enterprise, Aki Foods, worked with elders and other leaders to create the Meechim Project. Employing local residents, it has established a farm with a poultry operation, an orchard and an irrigated vegetable garden. It sells healthy food at prices lower than those at the freight-subsidized monopoly retailer.

Raven Capital is working with First Nations communities, foundations, governments and private sector participants from Manitoba and PEI to design C-DOCs that will finance improved health and employment outcomes in Garden Hill and similar locations. 

Governance for outcomes

The federal government’s new $755-million Social Finance Fund gives Canada a powerful tool with which to co-invest public capital in systemic social innovation. We believe C-DOCs can deepen the fund’s reach and impact. With additional capacity building and R&D support, communities and a diverse range of social-purpose coalitions will soon have access to repayable capital to address a wide range of challenges.

Governments are key outcomes buyers and can send important signals to markets, including through the use of C-DOCs. But when it comes to collective challenges like mitigating and adapting to climate change or advancing economic reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, governments cannot act alone. Corporations have important roles, too — through social procurement and investment in outcomes-focused social enterprises. Trustees of foundations, university and hospital endowments, public pension funds and Indigenous trusts must accept that in our current circumstances, the exercise of fiduciary duty entails more than maximizing financial returns. It means investing in sustainability, equity and social cohesion, and resilience. This in turn requires improved facility with behavioural economics, evidence-based policy-making and smart metrics.

C-DOCs cannot solve problems by themselves, but in the hands of leaders in all sectors — public, private and community — they can help to accelerate societal transition at multiple scales at this critical time. SOURCE

The Billionaires Are Getting Nervous

Bill Gates and others warn that higher taxes would lead to lower growth. They have their facts backward.

By 

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

Bill Gates in New York on Wednesday.
Credit…Calla Kessler/The New York Times

When Bill Gates founded Microsoft in 1975, the top marginal tax rate on personal income was 70 percent, tax rates on capital gains and corporate income were significantly higher than at present, and the estate tax was a much more formidable levy. None of that dissuaded Mr. Gates from pouring himself into his business, nor discouraged his investors from pouring in their money.

Yet he is now the latest affluent American to warn that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan for much higher taxes on the rich would be bad not just for the wealthy but for the rest of America, too.

Mr. Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, suggested on Wednesday that a big tax increase would result in less economic growth. “I do think if you tax too much you do risk the capital formation, innovation, U.S. as the desirable place to do innovative companies — I do think you risk that,” he said.

Other perturbed plutocrats have made the same point with less finesse. The billionaire investor Leon Cooperman was downright crude when he declared that Ms. Warren was wrecking the American dream. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, complained on CNBC that Ms. Warren “uses some pretty harsh words” about the rich. He added, “Some would say vilifies successful people.”

Let’s get a few things straight.

The wealthiest Americans are paying a much smaller share of income in taxes than they did a half-century ago. In 1961, Americans with the highest incomes paid an average of 51.5 percent of that income in federal, state and local taxes. In 2011, Americans with the highest incomes paid just 33.2 percent of their income in taxes, according to a study by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman published last year. Data for the last few years is not yet available but would most likely show a relatively similar tax burden.

The federal government needs a lot more money. Decades of episodic tax cuts have left the government deeply in debt: The Treasury is on pace to borrow more than $1 trillion during the current fiscal year to meet its obligations. The government will need still more money for critical investments in infrastructure, education and the social safety net.

This is not an endorsement of the particulars of Ms. Warren’s tax plan. There is plenty of room to debate how much money the government needs, and how best to raise that money. The specific proposals by Ms. Warren and one of her rivals, Senator Bernie Sanders, to impose a new federal tax on wealth are innovations that require careful consideration.

But a necessary part of the solution is to collect more from those Americans who have the most.

And there is little evidence to justify Mr. Gates’s concern that tax increases of the magnitude proposed by Ms. Warren and other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination would meaningfully discourage innovation, investment or economic growth.

The available evidence strongly suggests that taxation exerts a minor influence on innovation. Experts have an imperfect understanding of what drives innovation, but taxation isn’t in the same weight class as factors including education, research and a consistent legal system.

Congress has slashed taxation three times in the past four decades, each time for the stated purpose of spurring innovation, investment and growth. Each time, the purported benefits failed to materialize. President Trump initiated the most recent experiment in 2017. The International Monetary Fund concluded this year that it had not worked.

Moreover, while higher tax rates may weigh modestly against innovation and investment, that calculus is incomplete. It ignores the question of what the government does with the additional money. It also ignores the possibility that higher taxes could result in more innovation.

A study of American patent holders found that innovators tend to come from wealthy families, to grow up in communities of innovators and to receive high-quality educations in math and science. Mr. Gates, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in American history, fits the profile: He grew up in an affluent family and received the best education money could buy.

The implication of that study, and related research, is that public investment, funded by taxation, could give more kids the kinds of advantages enjoyed by the young Mr. Gates.

There is no doubt that it is theoretically possible to raise taxes to prohibitive heights: If people had to pay a tax of 100 percent of the next dollar they earned, they would be likely to call it a day.

But the alarm bells are out of all proportion with Ms. Warren’s plan. Describing his concerns on Wednesday, Mr. Gates at one point suggested he might be asked to pay $100 billion.

The Warren campaign calculates that under Ms. Warren’s plan, Mr. Gates would owe $6.379 billion in taxes next year. Notably, that is less than Mr. Gates earned from his investments last year. Even under Ms. Warren’s plan, there’s a good chance Mr. Gates would get richer.

To his credit, Mr. Gates has said that he thinks the wealthy should pay higher taxes. But that’s not how he behaved on Wednesday. He can demonstrate that he’s serious about tax increases by setting aside the hyperbole and engaging in principled and factual debate about the details. SOURCE

 

Top tech CEOs warn Canada’s ‘future economic prosperity is at risk’ in letter to federal leaders

Leader of companies employing 35,000 Canadians urge parties to foster innovation

Image result for innovation

The CEOs of more than a hundred Canadian technology companies have penned an open letter to the four major federal party leaders, asking them to step up to the plate when it comes to fostering Canadian innovation.

The letter, addressed to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May, says the parties need to develop economic policies that allow the Canadian tech sector to more easily access talent, growth capital and new customers.

“We’re writing because Canada’s productivity is lagging and our future economic prosperity is at risk,” the letter reads. “We want to work with all parties in this election to address this challenge.”

“If you look at what’s currently occurring on the political platforms, there isn’t much talk about innovation or wealth creation as being a key (topic) of this economic discussion, about Canada and its future,” said Benjamin Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, which organized the letter.

The CEOs add that their companies employed more than 35,000 Canadians last year, exported to 190 countries and generated over $6 billion for the Canadian economy.

CEO hopes parties commit to Global Skills Strategy

John Sicard, CEO of Kinaxis, is one of 110 CEOs who signed an open letter to the four major federal party leaders asking them to create a plan to foster Canadian innovators. (Courtesy of Kinaxis)

John Sicard is the CEO of Kinaxis, an Ottawa-based company that helps improve supply chain efficiency for clients such as Toyota, Honda and Merck and employs 700 people. Sicard said business is good, but growth is challenging because top qualified graduates are siphoned off by U.S. tech giants.

About one in four science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students leave for the U.S. technology sector, according to a recent study from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. MORE

COLIN MACKAY: Climate change will be key in elections

 


Hundreds of beach umbrellas on Outlet Beach at Sandbanks Provincial Park. Rising floodwaters have forced park staff to turn away visitors just days before the August long weekend. (FRÉDÉRIC PEPIN/RADIO-CANADA)

High water levels still remain along the shorelines of Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte.

Even into August, there are small sections of the waterfront trail under water. Climate change is mainly responsible for the higher water levels, although a few people will point to an International Joint Commission Plan 2014 as a culprit too. With a federal election approaching in October 2019, how politicians tackle climate change will be extremely important. At the provincial level, too many politicians consider carbon pricing as strictly detrimental, ignoring science, while spewing only opinions.

Nevertheless, scientists have been warning that a failure to act on climate change could have enormous consequences, particularly in Canada. Fortunately, William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, winners of the Nobel prize for economics in 2018, have shown that putting a price on carbon emissions is the best way for governments to combat climate change.

Already, in the Belleville area, there have been two years out of the past three that water levels have created massive flooding resulting in considerable issues, including additional costs for our municipal government. Floods in basements, rising insurance costs, and even having to move pop-up shops to higher ground are a few of these issues.

Scientists have proven the Earth is warming considerably, almost exponentially, mainly due to increasing carbon emissions. An additional three degrees of warming during this century is predicted. Scientists from Alberta have issued an even more dire report highlighting that Canada is warming twice as quickly. A six degree increase in average temperatures would be catastrophic for the north in particular. Scientists have been ringing the warning bells for a considerable amount of time, and for the most part, politicians have failed to act.

Putting a price on carbon has proven to be the best way to reduce carbon emissions. Yet, in Canada, the political will to implement this, from a provincial level, is inconsistent. Under Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario, the cap and trade program has been dismantled, removing billions in revenue. A price on carbon is viewed, by Ford, strictly as a tax with no benefits. Yet, in British Columbia, emissions have dropped considerably due to putting a price on emissions, with their provincial economy moving along just fine. Companies wanting to avoid paying a price on carbon emissions become innovative, which is one of moving forces of carbon pricing. Sadly, in Ontario, a considerable number of innovative companies weren’t given much of a chance to succeed. MORE

University of Alberta researcher creates new cling wrap from leftover canola straw

Researcher Marleny Saldaña shows the raw materials used to make canola-based cling wrap at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Marleny Saldaña

EDMONTON—One industry’s trash is another researcher’s treasure.

For canola oil producers, the straw is the most useless part, often left behind when harvesting canola. But Marleny Saldaña, a researcher in food and bioengineering processing at the University of Alberta, has created a new use for the leftover fibrous stalk, and that is cling wrap, more popularly known in the kitchen as Saran wrap.

“Canola is big in Canada, mainly in Alberta. We produce tons of canola,” she said. “We find that we are opening up a new use for residue that has no value until now.”

Saldaña said she noticed that the straw is mostly composed of cellulose and lignin, components that give tensile strength. She used the cellulose nanofibres found in the straw to make the see-through, plastic-like film.

Her creation could not come at a more perfect time because in March, China started banning shipment from canola companies in Canada. Saldaña believes her product could create a diverse local industry for canola in Alberta.
“We have created a new product that has high value. If we can do this in a refinery or treatment of all this canola straw (here), then we are adding more jobs, probably sending some high-value product to other countries,” she said. MORE

Canadian clean-tech companies show their stuff at CEM

Canadian innovation and breakthrough technologies present a glimmer of a green future.


Simon Beller, CFO, left, and Jos Hoetjes, chemical engineer, BC Biocarbon. Image: Nelson Bennett/Business in Vancouver

Last week’s Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver gave Canadian clean-tech companies a chance to show their stuff.

The event, hosted by Natural Resources Canada, is described as “a global forum where major economies and forward leaning countries work together to share best practices and promote policies and programs that encourage and facilitate the transition to a global clean energy economy.”

Here’s a look at some of the Canadian companies that presented their technologies.

TERRESTRIAL ENERGY: SMALL-SCALE NUCLEAR POWER

Based in Oakville, Ontario, Terrestrial Energy was named one of the top 10 breakthrough technologies in MIT Technology Review, curated by Bill Gates.

It is among a handful of companies developing small-scale molten salt nuclear reactors. Terrestrial’s process has cogeneration capabilities in that it can use the heat from its nuclear power plants to produce hydrogen cheaply, and combine it with carbon to produce low-carbon gasoline.

The company plans to start building its first commercial plant in Ontario in the 2020s. A second plant is planned for the U.S.

Traditional nuclear power plants can cost between $8 billion and $20 billion, but Terrestrial Energy claims it can build a 200-megawatt plant for $1 billion. Molten salt reactors do not have the same dangers of meltdowns that have plagued traditional water-cooler nuclear power plants.

Canadian and American governments have provided 25% of the company’s financing to date, with the rest coming from high-net-worth individuals.

AGORA ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES: CO2-BASED FLOW BATTERY

Spun out of the University of British Columbia, Agora Energy Technologies is a B.C. clean-tech startup that is developing a redox flow battery that uses carbon dioxide, which is then turned into a storage medium.

Flow batteries are believed to be a better storage solution than lithium-ion batteries for intermittent wind and solar power. Large amounts of electricity can be stored in liquid form for much longer periods of time using any number of catalysts – vanadium being the most common. But Agora plans to use captured CO2, which would then be converted into the storage medium, which is proprietary.

“The carbon dioxide enters the battery and the catalyst converts it to a storage medium, and that storage medium is what is used to store the energy,” said Hannah MacDonald, Agora content manager. “So carbon dioxide and electricity go in, the carbon dioxide gets converted and stored.”

MacDonald said the Agora battery system could be used to produce a carbonate product – soda ash – which is used in detergents, glass and other industrial processes. MORE

Airships to ferry goods to Northern Manitoba?

Innovation is going to result in profound changes in the new Green Economy. Airships, for example, could open up Canada’s vast northern territories, dramatically lowering the price of food, medicine, housing,  and essential supplies for development. Imagine a better future!

Airships Are Going to Redefine the Logistics Industry

Northern Manitoba chiefs are hoping an idea to help their communities avoid the high cost of fresh produce will get lift-off next month. Meagan Fiddler reports. 1:51

MKO Grand Chief David Harper said the goal is to make shipping cargo up north more cost-effective.

“There’s no reason that First Nations can’t operate these airships,” he said. “And there’s no reason they can’t build these airships.”

“Instead of sending six trucks up, you could be sending one of these, and your goods are delivered year round,” he said. Harper said climate change is making winter roads unreliable, sometimes open for just a couple of weeks. And he said a permanent road won’t be a reality for a long time.

Barry Prentice said Manitoba spends almost $5,000 per kilometer building some 2,200 kilometers of ice roads every year.

“So it’s about $10 million a year spent on ice roads,” he said. “And at the end of the year, it all melts away, and it’s gone. If we had 10 years of that money, we’d have a whole airship industry started.” MORE

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Airships Are Going to Redefine the Logistics Industry