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Archive for November, 2009

Norway now holds the world’s first power plant to create technology that uses osmosis to generate electricity. Sited in a bay in south-east Norway, the plant opened on the 25th of November.

Statkraft is the company behind this, and is the third largest energy producer in the Nordic Region. FYI, they are a state owned electricity company. Their first plant prototype has been unveiled, and it can is still undergoing testing.

What is all the fuss about? Well, no one has actually used osmosis to produce electricity before, so this technology is new. There are of course many obstacles, but with the first prototype now made, they can test the system and see if it works before scaling it up! That makes sense, but wait, what’s osmosis again?

Osmosis is a process of movement of water. It defines the spontaneous, or passive, water movement from a solution with a lower concentration of solutes (substances dissolved in water) to a solution with higher concentration of solutes, through a semi-permeable membrane. See the figure below for an example. The beaker holds two solutions, and the dashed line is the membrane. The solution on the left is more concentrated, and so water moves from the right into the left. See here for an animation on osmosis.


Using this concept, Statkraft intends to use salt and fresh water from the bay as the two solutions, creating a pressure gradient that pushes up the water level differences and eventually drives a turbine to generate electricity.

Still under testing, the prototype is able to produce enough energy to boil 2-3 kettle pots, and the company is still resolving problems of river bacteria and silt gathering on the membranes – their first obstacle before they scale up to produce energy for countries around the region.

It reminds me of when they first came up with the technology for reverse osmosis, the process that Singapore now uses to produce Newater as well as for desalination of salt water, that was an exciting time!

Interesting stuff!

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Email today brought a piece of interesting news – greenpost is an integrated billing system designed to rid ourselves of paper billing, by going digital.

Here’s a screenshot:

Googling the company only got me as far as their greenpost page again, and their facebook group. I’d have thought its an effective way to spread the message, at least by just facebooking it, but I had not heard of this, and it has been around since 2005 (the idea). GreenBills Pte Ltd is the startup firm who has gotten this going, and has four billers in its system now: Starhub, M1, Singtel and Singapore Power.

The three major telcos in Singapore have already signed up, and I think that’s a great step. Moving on to registering, I found it really easy to get myself an account. This is how it looks like at my homepage:

Now, as you can see, I don’t have anything billed to my name because they’re under my parents’ names, so here you see there’s N.A. for all the four billers. Of course, when I get back and when I start renewing my contracts and stuff, I’d eventually add the billers to my account. What I’m going to do next is to get my parents to sign up for this.

So do I need to go online every time I want to view my bill? Well here’s the great part: bills can be downloaded to your computer, so you can have an unlimited archive of all previous downloaded bills in pdf format stored in your computer. It makes me wonder if they have tied up with any company that provides programmes for budgeting and handling financial accounts – now that would be a cool system to get into. Imagine yourself being able to check your accounts on your blackberry/PDA whenever, wherever, that’s convenience at its peak.

But before I digress, I was thinking: there must be some catch, right? Turns out that this is a free system; no one is going to have to pay, and the site seems secure. Seeing how I got this email via NUS sources, I pretty much trust it already. So searching some more gave me this article reported in October 2009 by WILDSingapore.

If you search the site, and go to the FAQs, you’d also notice this little thing saying: earn credits while you save paper! Or something to that effect. Point is, they’re talking about carbon credits here. Every time you get a new bill online, they also tell you how much paper you would have saved. If greenpost can save 2 million sheets of pages per month, it can enable itself and its billers (its companies) to earn carbon credits.

That to me, is tough territory here. Carbon trading has been in talks since about 20 years ago, and carbon credits, carbon offsets, carbon neutrality, carbon taxes, all threaten to propagate the perception that pollution is OKAY, and instead give licenses for polluting companies to carry on. While I give it credit (pun intended) that this is a new field, we should be cautious about the assumptions it makes, and perceptions it perpetuates.

It doesn’t remove the source of pollution, but instead allows it carry on under a facade, a guise that they are somehow compensating and so do not need to cease their polluting ways. It’s the same as how Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is used by countries as an index of economic development – initially conceptualised to quantify social progress by the United Nations in 1945 – but does not really measure social progress, and instead becomes a larger value even when pollution increases, traffic accidents increase, and hospitalisation rates increase -> because GDP per capita increases whenever there is a monetary transaction, in other words, whenever money exchanges hands. As a result, industrialised nations increase their GDP per capita, but at what cost? That topic however, is for another time.

Carbon credits don’t weed out the source, but mediate symptoms instead. For information on carbon trading and its history, Larry Lohmann writes sharply, and his book is available here.

Back to the topic. While there are great advantages to a system such as this, tech-UN-savvy users who are not connected to the internet or don’t even have computers will be left out of the system. It addresses the majority of users yes, but we should be careful not to make certain factions of our society become passée. It doesn’t mean we don’t go ahead with these plans, but it means we should take steps to incorporate these people.

I applaud GreenBills on its commitment to its mission for a paperless billing system nationwide by 2012 – now remember to click on “Stop Envelope” when you sign up and add the billers to your account, because that tells the billers their customer’s demand to stop paper billing. It doesn’t mean you immediately stop getting paper bills – your biller will tell you when they are going to stop it – but it means you’re letting them know you want this.

Lastly with the money that companies are saving from not sending customers their bills by post, we should also insist that whatever polluting ways they have should stop. Corporations should channel this money responsibly, not into more pollution or more technology that brings pollution. Otherwise what we have done is not offset our increasing usage of the environment, but further increase resources used instead.

Onward!

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Having just learnt about the Grants in community ecology class, who famously continued Darwin’s work in studying the finches of Galapagos Islands for some 36 years, I was bemused and surprised when WIRED reported a new species discovered by them yesterday. Topics brought up in community ecology class keep popping up in the news! Read about it here.


Source: Wired.com

So what is it with all this species talk? Here’s some quick background.

The systems of classification we have today in biological science for living organisms have many levels. They start from Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and finally Species. Of all of these levels, note that the only “natural” classification is species – why? Because we recognise the individual for itself, and the species is a fundamental unit that is not grouped together with other individuals based on a set of characteristics that people think is important, because this can be flawed. Note that classifications are a human construct after all, just as the theoretical science we make our rules in the world by are simply hypotheses that have yet to be proven wrong.
Source: Wikipedia
Scientists in the past first started classifying animals much like how a 5 year old kid naturally learns to put things together. If they look like the same thing, it makes sense that they are the same kind of thing. Fishes look like fishes, and insects look like insects. We call this morphology (structure, or external form). Are things really that simple though?

Source: Corbets.

As the earth aged and thousands and millions of years passed, species on different continents adapted to the different conditions present there. In certain parts of the world however, this set of abiotic conditions (things like amount of moisture, air, temperature, nutrients, etc) were similar – and living organisms living by this same set of conditions may have adapted to this set of conditions, growing to have the same kind of external form, and thus looking the same. We call this convergent evolution. Click here for more examples of convergent evolution.


Source: Ivana Stehlik’s lecture notes for Environmental Biology, University of Toronto.

Lineage-wise though, they may come from extremely different ancestors. Cacti are one example. Desert conditions are so harsh that only a certain set of characteristics have prevailed, and plants from different families (DNA-wise) in different deserts have the same characteristics: needle-like leaves, succulence, deep roots, etc. On the other hand, two individuals that look completely different can be the same species: a few cases in point are ants and termites. Ever see how different soldier ants are from worker ants? And look at the queen!

 
Soldier termite with big bulbous red head; alate reproductive is whitish in colour, worker termites are the rest in dull grey and cream colour. Picture by Nuwan, from my collection (for more termites, see my page here)

Okay, so we know morphology isn’t enough. So what exactly is a species? This kinda seems pretty clear cut, doesn’t
it? Well it actually is kind of fuzzy – though most scientists agree on
using the Ernst Mayr biological species concept:

“Groups of populations that can actually or potentially exchange genes with one another and that are reproductively isolated from other such groups”

Why is that unclear? It sounds like its pretty clear-cut. Theoretically, that is. Realistically, its difficult to actually determine if individuals from two populations are capable of reproducing together and producing viable offspring. Take for example some common birds of Singapore. To test with certainty if the mynahs, crows, sparrows and pigeons are different species (setting aside structural differences), one would have to place them together in a setting and allow for enough time to see if they would breed together. If they breed and produce infertile offspring, it’s ruled out. But if they do produce viable offspring, one would then have to follow the case back to the wild, to see if their territories overlap enough that copulation is possible, and then observe if breeding between the two occurs. Extrapolate that to birds of a country. To test this with all the birds of a country, would be a nightmare. Read more about other species concepts here.

It’s not so clear after all, and there are many other things to take into account. What about organisms that breed asexually, such as fungi and aphids? Or living things that hybridise? The picture gets more fuzzy as we consider more things. Remember though, that this is a human construct, and we can keep coming up definitions that fit best as they can; sometimes they don’t fit for all cases, and we may need separate definitions for others. It’s not made in stone! For a quick, easily absorbed lesson in speciation, go here (recommended!).

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Yes, if you don’t already know this, you read right! I was just messing around with my computer system when I stumbled upon this: Ecological Corridor for Bukit Timah and Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

REALLY??

And this is recent too! Oh, how I wish I subscribed to newspapers here in Toronto, and that they were free. I don’t visit news webpages enough, it seems.

So back to this. Finally! Some people would diss the building of an ecological corridor, because being a relatively new field (the concept is not that new, it dates back to beyond 1986), coupled with the fact that ecological experiments and results take years and decades to show, they’d say it’s doesn’t work. Of course, there’s a lot of theoretical work.

How the width and nature of different corridors are suited to different functional groups (ie. predators, prey groups); how vegetation types planted there affect movement of these animals; whether to build above ground or below ground corridors, so on and so forth. Most of the time the conclusion ends up with: what corridor is constructed is specific to what species it is directed towards, and that affects the success of the corridor. And the funny thing is that we just went through this in class last week (again, because in Community Ecology we’re studying the theory of Island Biogeography and patchiness, etc).

So how do we justify building one?

Well it seems that in systems where we cannot afford to lose something, the precautionary approach is one that should be taken (read: we should build it if predicted benefits > costs). In this case, perhaps some would say building one is better than having none at all. For Bukit Timah however, it may prove a case of “too little, too late”. Let’s hope that won’t come true.

Supposedly the link will be done by 2013, if all goes to prediction. Taking into account that the Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE) was built in 1986, that’s some 27 years of physical isolation between the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR) and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (BTNR). Will behaviour and migration patterns of local animals have changed? Will animals, used to a relatively ‘quiet’ habitat within the forest (especially of the CCNR that is >3000ha large), move to the BTNR, and vice versa, over cars and vehicles zooming past below them? Noise and lights are a significant disturbance to many animals, and enough to induce behavioural changes.

So many more questions could arise regarding the specifics of the corridor. Is 50m at its narrowest enough? How strong do you build it? Of course, these questions should not promote inaction, but they should be tackled so that we think critically about our actions, and their consequences.

Grace Chua writes in the Straits Times: “..[the corridor will be] planted with dense trees resembling a forest habitat, could help populations of animals like the critically-endangered banded leaf monkey to recover”.

Banded-leaf monkeys are extremely shy, arboreal creatures, hardly seen by people because they live so high up, avoiding noise and disturbance. The media has an important role in education, and should moderate the public’s expectation of a result like this. Should their movement patterns not include the eco-corridor in a couple of years, critics may claim eco-corridors don’t work after all, when in fact there are many things we have yet to learn not only about eco-corridor functionality, but also about even the banded-leaf monkey life history and characteristics.

Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada has been a leader in eco-corridors (refer: wildlife crossings) and they are in a similar state with BTNR-CCNR road bisection by the BKE. They have been successful in promoting the movement of many animals, but one should note that different animals have different characteristics and functionalities. While concepts such as learning curves and infrastructure to improve corridors can be generalised for application, we should take note not to promote high expectations of corridors that might eventually lead to a ‘perceived failure’ of them when they do not deliver within a given timespan.

Again, because of generational times of animals and plants, their population dynamics and disturbances, results of building the corridor may be difficult to predict, or discern even after a decade. As Navjot Sodhi of the Conservation Ecology Lab at NUS says, “only time will tell.”. Meanwhile, as we wait, we should continue our efforts to preserve biodiversity, educate the masses and re-tune attitudes of today towards making an effort for the environment we live in, if not for the environment/animals, then for ourselves.

It is heartening then, to note that the National Parks has come up with a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. As a citizen and as a human being, we all have a stake in what surrounds us. Sacrificing nature for pure concrete buildings without a thought for leaving the same or more capital and environmental wealth for the next generation to carry on is not mature, it is not smart. We are fortunate to be living in Singapore, where majority of us can afford to address our basic necessities and focus on other interests such as culture, arts, etc – so in this day and age, let us not only learn more, but take action for our lives and for the generations to come.

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Creek breach

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The topic of water source protection brought us to the York Region in Newmarket today to listen to the South Georgian Bay Lake Simcoe Source Protection program. Here you see Brook talking to us about the creek in the Eastern Creek Naturalisation Project under the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.

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To break down the complicated scenario here, we have urban development located on a floodplain that can potentially flood; a man-made pond introduced into the middle of a natural creek (that is unmanaged nor maintained); manicured lawns that perimeter the creek and pond that allow all rainwater to drain directly into the creek/pond without filtration; and water runoff from urban development (carparks and buildings surround the area).

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This is how the creek looks like now, and the vegetation has grown back in part because of the efforts of the LSRCA. One of the main methods that have worked really well seemingly (it has only been a year since they’ve done it) is to place Willow and Red Osier Dogwood clippings into a fascine. Growth from the clippings then strengthen the soil and earth structure around the bank, and prevent erosion.

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This is the fascine visible from where I’m standing. You can also notice that the water is pretty clear, not very turbid or silty. The stream floods when heavy rains arrive, and when it floods the erosion isn’t too bad because of the fascines and because manicuring of the banks isn’t done anymore. Planting of vegetation that is able to tolerate water as well as salt (salt that comes from road salt used on the snow in winter to make roads more manageable) is planted, so not just any plant will do.

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Fishes are present too! He didn’t mention too much about whether frogs and other animals were here though. Fish population doesn’t seem much affected by the management work done on the creek and ponds (largely because they took a very short time to work – in these situations working as fast as possible and staying in the river as short a time as possible is important).

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Wood chips placed on the ground also help retain moisture for the plant as well as prevent the grasses from overcrowding the woody vegetation that they want growing there. Ingenious eh? (:

So with the naturalisation project things seem set to go well, and once they start creating the systems needed to treat water going from the pond into the creek that comes from urban runoff, we’ll really see how things work out. right now, oh man its pretty interesting to see bio-engineering at work!

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