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Desalination

GE is experimenting with small, 3-D printed desalination plants to help provide fresh water in disaster areas where there is not enough energy to run a regular, full-size desalination plant. The GE Global Research Centre has developed miniature printed steam turbines to drive sea water through a cooling loop. Once frozen, the salt separates from the water, leaving fresh, drinkable water. The company estimates that, if the tests are successful, the price of making fresh water from the sea could be lowered by 20%.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are also experimenting with cheap ways to produce fresh, drinkable water. “Shock electrodialysis” does not rely on a filter system to strain out the salt. This system puts small glass particles in the water and then uses a solar electric charge to separate fresh water and the salt water, allowing the fresh water to flow out. The charge is also good for destroying some bacteria, crucial in many situations. It could be used to purify fracking waste water or other contaminated waste to provide drinking water. The development won the team the $140,000 Desal Prize, a competition designed to encourage researchers to find solutions to water shortages in the developing world.

Canadian National Parks

2017 is the 150th anniversary of Confederation and admission to Canada’s national parks and historic monuments will be free all year. So, if you buy a Canada Discovery Pass this year, it’s good for two years. Or, you can just wait until next year and visit everything for free!

Banana beasts

A disease that attacks Cavendish, the world’s most popular strain of banana, which is, in turn, the world’s most popular fruit, is spreading around the world and growers in Central America are afraid it will soon show up in their crops. TR4 (Panama Tropical Race 4) has spread throughout China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and parts of Africa. And, it has been seen in Queensland, Australia, where drastic measures have been taken to contain it. So far, TR4 has not been seen in Central America, where 82% of the world’s banana crop is grown, but farmers there fear it is only a matter of time.

Australian bio-protection measures are second to none. The disease has been seen in five plants, and the surrounding ten hectares has been cleared. This kind of action is just not possible in a place like Costa Rica, where 8% of the population is involved in growing bananas on numerous small-holdings.

Panama Tropical Race 4 is a clone of the Panama disease that destroyed the Gros Michel banana in the 1960s. It is very serious now because it threatens Cavendish and there is not as much diversity in the banana crop as there should be.

Chinese medicine threatens endangered porpoise

An illegal trade in the swim bladder of the Mexican totoaba fish could lead to the extinction of the vaquita porpoise because the animals are getting snared in the gill nets used to catch the fish.

There are fewer than 100 of the porpoises left but they might die out to satisfy the demand in Hong Kong and South China for the “maws” of the totoaba fish, which live in the same waters. The curative powers of the totoaba maw are entirely unproven, but there is a lot of money to be made trading in them. The international Environmental Investigation Agency is analysing Facebook pages and monitoring email traffic in order to catch some of the hundreds of illegal fishermen, smugglers, and sellers of the banned item.

Old lightbulbs to replace new

People who regret the loss of the old incandescent lightbulbs can take heart. A new research project by three MIT scientists is experimenting with ways to “recycle” the energy from old-style lightbulbs to overcome the inefficiency that has caused them to be discarded in favour of LED lights and compact fluorescent bulbs.

Invented by Thomas Edison, incandescent bulbs create light by heating a tungsten wire to 2,700 C. The resulting light reflects colours in a warm spectrum, similar to daylight, but sheds a tremendous amount of heat. The newer lights are much more energy efficient, but the colder quality of the light they emit is unpopular with many people.

The MIT team is working on a way to coat the filament with a crystal structure that will re-absorb the waste light from incandescent bulbs and emit it again.

Traditional lightbulbs now are about 5% energy efficient; and LED reach about 14%. The team believes that the new system could mean bulbs reach 40% efficiency.

Seabins

Finally, a couple of surfer dudes in Palma de Mallorca, Spain has come up with a novel device to clean marinas and harbours. The Seabin will float quietly in a corner and collect rubbish, oil, fuel, and detergent. And the inventors hope to have it manufactured locally on several continents and to replace the current electric power system with solar or another renewable energy source.

They say that in the four years they have been testing the devices, no marine life has been inadvertently caught because they seem to stay away from the pumps. But, the filter inside is a natural fibre bag and anything that does swim in can be safely removed and set free.

Eighty million people so far have visited their site and viewed their video and the first prototypes are due to roll off the production line this year.

Remaining optimistic, we are expecting leaps and bounds in 2016. There are many environmental issues still to be addressed, and we really hope the new Canadian government will live up to its promise and begin to fix all the problems left by the last one. Looking in the rear-view mirror we can see where we've been, and that should tell us the best direction to travel. Always looking forward to creative solutions!

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