Turning Food Leftovers Into Energy Fast

A team of researchers at Cornell University has discovered a process of turning leftover food into energy much faster than already existing methods. It is a two-step process and is very efficient, since it captures virtually all the available energy.

Other methods work on the basis of anaerobic digestion with bacteria slowly chipping away at the organic matter and producing methane, which is then used for fuel. This new method that the researchers discovered works on the basis of the process of hydrothermal liquefaction. Basically, the food leftovers are first pressure-cooked, which results in a sort of bio-oil. This bio-oil is then refined into biofuel, while all that remains of the original food leftovers is just very watery liquid.

The next step is to feed this liquid into an anaerobic digester, which converts it into methane in a couple of days. Two sources of usable energy are produced via this method, one for generating electricity, the other heat, while none of the original food leftovers go to waste. When using just anaerobic digestion, it can take weeks for the food waste to turn into energy.

Also, the liquefied product that is leftover after the hydrothermal processing in this new method is better for the anaerobic digestion part of the process. Combining the two makes the overall process both more efficient as well as quicker. It takes mere minutes to achieve hydrothermal liquefaction and just a few days for the anaerobic digestion.

Current statistics show that about one-third of the world’s food is wasted, while US landfills are primarily filled with food waste. Needless to say, one of the priorities should be to keep food from becoming waste. But it is also important to find efficient ways of recycling food waste into something useful. A process such as this one, which leaves virtually no waste while producing clean energy would greatly reduce our carbon footprint and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.

Tiny Minimalist Home

The firm Escape has been making tiny homes for a while now, and their latest offering, the so-called Escape One, is just as well built as all the others. It features a charred wood façade and an interior layout that maximizes the available space in the most thoughtful way possible.

The Escape One is built atop a 25 ft (7.62 m)-long trailer and measures 276 sq ft (25.6 sq m). The home is clad in wood throughout, and the exterior cladding was treated with the traditional Japanese Shou Sugi Ban method, which both preserves the wood and protects it from pests and decay naturally. The interior walls are also clad in wood, but these were left in their natural state.

As is the case with most tiny home builds, the interior was kept simple. The ground floor features a sitting area, a spacious kitchen, and a bathroom. The kitchen features a good amount of counter space and shelving, as well as a stove, sink and fridge. The bathroom is large enough to fit a toilet, sink and shower. The bedroom is located in a loft, which is accessible via a set of stairs. There appears to be a lot of headroom here, especially if the bed is low. There is also a second loft above the bathroom, which can be used for storage.

The home is very well insulated and has an average R-rating of R-30. The lighting is LED throughout, and while the base model features a standard RV hookup, a solar power system is an option. Other off-the-grid optional add-ons include water storage, and a composting toilet package. Customers can also opt to install a mini-split air-conditioning unit with a heat pump, and a propane furnace for heating. Luxury items such as a flatscreen TV with Blu-ray, stone countertops, and more are also available as an add-on to the base model.

Prices for the Escape One start at $49,800, which is quite a bargain.

Tiny House Goes Back to the Basics

The Japanese firm Muji has recently unveiled a their first offering in the tiny home sphere. The so-called Muji Hut is a minimalist tiny home, equipped with just the basic necessities, but it also looks very cozy and inviting. It would work great as a vacation cabin, a home office or a guesthouse, but might not work so well as a permanent home.

The Muji Hut measures 97 sq ft (9.1 sq m), but the exterior deck adds an additional 32 sq ft (3 sq m) to the floorspace. The exterior is made of cedar wood and was treated with the all-natural preserving method called Shou Sugi Ban. The interior cladding is unfinished Japanese cypress plywood, while they used polystyrene foam for insulation, and it appears that only the ceiling is insulated. That, together with the fact that the windows are only single pane, it seems that the Muji Hut is only suitable for mild climates, though it does have a fairly large wood-burning stove installed for heating. The Muji Hut also needs a reinforced concrete foundation, and has no electric power or plumbing installed.

The interior is comprised of a single room, which the owners can furnish according to their wishes. It would be easy to add a small kitchenette and maybe a composting toilet, as well as solar panels to the roof. This tiny home may not have a whole lot of extra features, but it does exactly what it is meant to do: it provides an affordable way to build a cozy dwelling anywhere you want to be.

The Muji Hut will be available in mid-2017 and will cost around $27,000 including construction. At this time, it can only be shipped in Japan.

Shape-Shifting Solar Cells

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The wider adoption of solar cells is largely being stalled by their cost. That’s why a lot of new research in this field has been focused on making solar cells more affordable. And now a group of engineers at MIT and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have made a breakthrough.

They’ve created a 3D printed material, which is able to change shape when heated or cooled, and then return to it’s original form on it’s own. Among the many applications of such a material it could also be used as the turning mechanism for solar cells, which would allow them to effortlessly capture more solar energy.

The 3D printed material they created is capable of remembering its original shape, and always returning to it when certain key conditions are met. In other words, it can be bent, twisted, stretched and used to build complex shapes (such as a replica of a flower or the Eiffel Tower). These structures bend and stay in the new form until they are heated to between 104 to 356 degrees Fahrenheit when the material becomes rubbery and once again assumes its original shape.

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To create these structures, they used a special 3D printing method called microstereolithography, which etches patterns onto the polymers using light as they are layered. The thinner the structure the faster it reacts to temperature changes and they are actually calling this new tech 4D printing, since the changing of shape happens across the fourth dimension of time.

Designing an effective way of combining this new tech with PV cells would make them much more efficient at harvesting solar power, as well as make it possible to use solar cells in a lot more places. More efficient solar cells would also lessen the need for large battery banks.

Affordable Tiny Off-The-Grid Weekend Retreat

The firm Modern Tiny Living just unveiled a tiny home, which makes other tiny homes appear like mansions in comparison. The aptly named Nugget comes fully equipped with everything you need for a cozy weekend retreat.

The Nugget rests atop a single-axle 12 ft (3.6 m)-long trailer, and weighs 4,500 lbs (2,040 kg). It’s floorspace is just 102 sq ft (9.4 sq m), which is tinier then even the tiniest competition. However, the Nugget has all one needs, including a kitchenette, a bathroom and a comfy sleeping area. They are marketing this one as a weekend retreat, which is quite accurate, since it is probably too small to be used as a full time home.

That said, they did maximize on the available space. There is a large sink in the kitchen, complete with a copper faucet, while the countertop is actually a hickory butcher block. There is a small fridge, but no stove, since the owner plans to use one of the portable camping ones. The bathroom is separated from the main living area by a pocket door, and is equipped with a composting toilet and a shower. The sleeping area doubles as the lounge, and features a good-sized bed.

The Nugget is completely independent of the grid, and is fitted with a rooftop mounted solar power array, which is connected to an inverter and a battery system. They also installed a 100 gal (378 l) fresh water tank and pump, which provides all the necessary water. A propane heater is used to heat both the interior as well as the water.

The home is also reasonably well insulated, with the ceiling and floors having an insulation rating of R-28, and the walls a rating of R-21, but the home is not really suitable for use in extreme climates.

To go with it’s size, the Nugget’s price is also small. It is currently being sold for $36,000.