Super-Green Yachts, Electric Bamboo Bikes, Solar-Powered Roads, & Airport Wildlife Runway Zones? What Next? – a Trotting Horse-Propelled Treadmill-Driven Eco-Car?

It’s been over 20 years since I last saw the cartoon-animated sitcom, ‘The Jetsons”, about a futuristic American family living in a space-age ‘Skypad Apartment’ whose home rises and falls vertically on an adjustable column in the year 2062.  But being a kid back then growing up in a traditional cookie cutter suburban environment, what I wanted to copy most was this television show’s family ‘aerocar’ – a fast flying saucer-shaped car with a transparent bubble top that my own mother could use to drive me to school and YMCA swimming classes.  I wasn’t thinking of eco-friendly and sustainable transport back then – rather I was always thinking of excuses to get my parents to drive me to ‘fun’ places with the least amount of fuss.

Well today’s ‘fuss’ is all about new types of ‘environmentally sustainable transport’ now being developed for public consumption – transport energy based on electricity, natural gas, and biofuels rather than petroleum or a combination of the two as seen in ‘hybrid electric trains’ and ‘plug-in hybrid cars’.  Some of the really neat alternative energy vehicles include a newly tested electric bamboo bike that combines pedal power and electric power in a lightweight bamboo frame – a versatile grass that grows everywhere throughout the Philippines.   And at Yellowstone National Park, clean green snowmobiles are being tested that use biomass alternative fuels to cut hydrocarbon emissions by 90% and noise pollution by 50%. And at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics, a green airplane has just been developed which uses 70% less fuel than conventional airplanes in addition to reducing noise and nitrogen oxide emissions. But perhaps the most interesting development on the ‘leisure landscape scene’ is that of a “super-green superyacht” designed recently by Alastair Callender, a then 23 year old student at Coventry University in England.  His eco-friendly luxury yacht design utilizes solar, wind, and hybrid marine power by incorporating 600 square meters of solar panels on the exterior of the boat and giant fully automated rigid “wings” that function like solar-sails.

Not to be outdone, Italy’s newest transport construction has just been officially opened to the public on January 1, 2011 – this the world’s first solar-powered highway!  This two mile addition to Sicily’s existing 600km highway network features 80,000 photovoltaic panels to power 100% of the highway’s needs – “including tunnel fans, lights, road signs, emergency telephones, and more.”  It is expected that 10,000 tons worth of CO2 emissions and 31,000 tons of oil will be saved in one year’s time. Meanwhile the cruise ship terminal at the port of Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada (known for its famous Alaskan coastline cruises) has gone green! It is the first port in Canada and the third in the world to install an electrical ‘plug-in’ system for docked cruise ships whereby electrical shore power connections have replaced the need for diesel engines running idly.  It is estimated that during last year’s 2010 season alone, greenhouse emissions were reduced by 1500 tons.

But perhaps the most visible displays of transport infrastructure going green are at the world’s busiest airports!  Indeed seven of the twelve greenest airports in the world are right here in the USA:

1)          Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California

2)          Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in central Texas

3)          Denver International Airport in Denver, Colorado

4)          Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts

5)          Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City Beach, Florida

6)          San Francisco International Airport in northern California

7)          Stevens Point Airport in Stevens Point, Wisconsin

The other globally-located greenest airports in the world include: the Beijing Capital International Airport in China, the East Midlands Airport in England, the Munich Airport in Germany, the Toronto Pearson International Airport in eastern Canada and THE SUPER-GREENEST AIRPORT OF THEM ALL – the ZURICH AIRPORT IN ZURICH, SWITZERLAND!  In addition to utilizing geothermal energy for heating and cooling, rainwater for flushing airport toilets, an on-site compressed-natural-gas station that powers its airport cars, trucks, and machinery and solar cells for its daily operations, the Zurich Airport has an adjoining nature conservation zone for over 50 species of flora and fauna between two of its main runways!  So in addition to ‘planespotting’, and ‘nature gazing’, visitors to the airport can also ‘rent airport bikes’ around its 22 kilometers of bike-path-paved airfields to fill up their waiting time!

But not all green forms of transport energy and transport infrastructure are utilizing the newest technologies of today.  My favorite exception is the newly patented ‘Naturmobil’ – a vehicle run by a horse jogging on a treadmill – invented by a clever Iranian engineer. Yes, instead of using the centuries old method of having a horse pull a wagon or sleigh – the horse is inside the motor-driven vehicle working out on a treadmill which then charges the batteries that power the vehicle.  Like today’s cars, it is controlled by a human driver in the front seat with room for one passenger.  But unlike ‘George Jetsons’ aerocar, it can only cruise at about 12 miles per hour with a top speed of about 50 miles per hour and the ‘Naturmobil’ can only work on paved roads.  Now if only we can get it to fly!  Stay Tuned for Next Week’s Episode!

“Upcycling!” – The New “Up” in Today’s Upwardly Green Architecture & Furniture Design!

If it weren’t for the fact that its amazing roof is indeed made of an airplane wing, one would think it a joke that an architect has taken a “retired” airplane, (a Boeing 747), and has converted it into a hilltop dream home in Malibu, California now known as the ‘Wing House’. But that is exactly what architect, David Hertz, President and Founder of the Studio of Environmental Architecture in Santa Monica, California has done.

Then there is the ‘Monte-Silo House’, an old and abandoned grain silo in Woodland, Utah which has been converted by Gigaplex Architects in Park City, Utah into a cozy, eco-friendly bachelor pad with modern circular rooms and a deck overlooking the Provo River!

And here on the East Coast of the USA, the Philadelphian eco-minded builder and developer, OnionFlats, has ‘transformed’ a former meat packing plant into eight groovy residential units and a former trolley garage-turned-firehouse into a contemporary residential home complete with mezzanine and rental loft.

This ‘upcycling’ notion of re-using, recycling, and repurposing disused and neglected buildings into fabulous places to live in of better quality and a higher environmental value – began in earnest back in the 1980’s in the USA with the gentrification of its inner cities and city suburbs – an outgrowth of the ‘recycling movement’ of the 1960’s.   But ‘green home building’ and ‘sustainable architecture’ of today did not really take off until the 1990’s with the advent of new technologies – more energy efficient and renewable energy generation systems, waste management systems, sustainable building materials and environmentally friendly building practices.

This has had the effect of spilling over into ‘green furniture design’ and ‘green studio design’ as exemplified by East London’s “Village Underground”, a renovated community space founded by furniture designer, Auro Foxcroft, who has recycled shipping containers and upcycled discarded tube train carriages into a low-cost carbon neutral studio space to accommodate artists, writers, filmmakers, jewelry makers and musicians in central London.

A truly wonderful example of upcycled furniture design is that of the contemporary-looking oil drum furniture created by French artist Francois Royer.  In his ‘Rocking Chair’ piece, Francois has taken an old industrial oil drum of steel, painted it a vibrant orange, and cut out the mid-section thereby installing a waxen smoked bamboo seat with which to safely rock on its four adjustable rubber feet.

But my favorite examples of do-it-yourself upcycled furniture are indoor and outdoor sofas and coffee tables made out of discarded wooden warehouse pallets which can be inlaid with ceramics, tiles, and old wine boxes.  Even plastic pallets can be transformed into cozy children’s sofas by welding stainless steel plates and legs to its frame.

So next time, you happen to see a set of old school bleachers and vintage gym lockers being thrown out or a shopping cart or office basket cast aside – remember the word ‘up’ as in ‘upcycling’ – and get going on your ‘reclaimed’, ‘re-modeled’, green décor design!

“What To Do On Your Next Stay-cation? How About Eco-Musing at Your Local Art Museum and Following the Trail of Mistletoes, Chestnuts, and Sunflowers?”

Money is tight for me this summer and my home state, Texas, is suffering from one of the worst droughts on record.  So rather than spinning off to the lushness of Hawaii or traipsing the local countryside, I decided to spend my vacation at home – taking day trips to nearby art museums – what is commonly referred to nowadays as a ‘Stay-cation”!  Luckily for me, the Dallas-Fort Worth area has some of the best art museums in the country and fortunately this year it is host to some of the world’s most iconic traveling exhibitions.

So with audio tape recorder in hand, following the numbered ‘beeps’ of my art gallery guide, I made the rounds of the most prominent museums – wandering through rooms full of paintings and collections of Modern art, Asian art, Western art, African art and more till suddenly – I hit upon the idea of following my own trail – the trail of mistletoes, chestnuts, and sunflowers.   Feeling like a member of Kit Carson’s scouting party, I soon encountered sprinkles of ‘mistletoe’ popping up in Norman Rockwell prints and avenues of ‘chestnuts’ melting across the distant horizon in Alfred Sisley’s  landscape paintings until after a long trek across the dusty plains, I saw in the dim light of a nearby campfire – a circle of packs and saddles huddled around the glow of  flames – it was Vincent Van Gogh’s still life sentinel – his seminal ‘sunflower’!

Used by artists and astrologers alike in their interpretation of life’s imagery- mistletoes, chestnuts, and sunflowers are dreamy symbols of ‘affection’, ‘abundance‘, and ‘adoration’.   For me they are seasonal symbols of  ‘good times’ past: winter scenes of Christmas kisses and Christmas songs with mistletoe lyrics and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” – and – summer scenes filled with sunflower farms, spring-fed mudholes, and sunbathing girls from the city.  But what of the scientific eco-truths behind mistletoes, chestnuts, and sunflowers?

Long misunderstood as a parasitic pest that killed trees and destroyed habitats, ‘mistletoe’ has now been rehabilitated in the scientific world as an essential eco- element of forests and woodlands.  Various birds make their nests in mistletoes and many butterfly species are attracted by its nutrients.  So it is that the greater the amount of mistletoes in an ecosystem, the greater the biodiversity of animals.

Similarly, chestnuts are an important food source for squirrels, deer, jays, pigeons, and wild boar and many insects feed on its seeds. Note: There is a huge difference between ‘horse’ chestnuts and ‘sweet’ chestnuts.  Horse chestnuts are toxic if eaten raw whereas sweet chestnuts can be used to make a whole host of cooking products:

1)  They can be dried and milled into flour which then can be used to make breads, cakes, pancakes, and pastas.

2)  They can be ground up and used as a thickener for soups, stews, and sauces or to make a delicious chestnut stuffing.

3)   They can be boiled and brewed into an exotic form of beer or a coffee-like drink and –

4)  They can be grilled, roasted, or candied as a nice snack food.  Indeed chestnuts were the ‘energy bars’ of the Greek and Roman periods having twice as much starch as potatoes.  Alexander the Great planted chestnut trees all across Europe on his various campaigns and Roman soldiers were given chestnut porridge before battle.

And long before Native Americans were harvesting corn – they were harvesting sunflowers as far back as 8000 years ago!  Today’s oilseed sunflowers are commercial hybrids and are the number two crop in the world for vegetable oil production world wide – second only to soybeans.   Their counterpart, the confectionary sunflowers, produce large black and white seeds that are roasted and sold for snacks or baked in breads or grounded up into ‘sunbutter’.  They are also the preferred food for a wide variety of birds.  But for me, the most amazing eco-fact about sunflowers is their innate ability to remove toxic waste from the soil with their extensive root systems – toxins like lead, arsenic, uranium, Cesium-137, and Strontium-90.  Indeed hundreds of acres of sunflowers are now being planted around the fallout zone of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan to help decontaminate the radioactive soil that resulted from a massive earthquake and tsunami last March.  And now a new technology has emerged that revolves around sunflowers called  ‘rhizo-filtration’ – “a form of bioremediation that involves filtering water through a mass of roots to remove toxic substances or excess nutrients”.  To date, 95% of the residual radiation in ponds surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine (whose #4 reactor exploded back in 1986) has been extracted by floating rafts of sunflowers.

But the sunflower’s ecological importance does not stop here – in Holland, the fibrous roots of sunflowers have been used to reclaim marshy land areas and turn these areas into farmland.  And their dried stems have also been used to produce fuel – hydrogen fuel and vegetable-oil based fuel which burn 75% cleaner than standard petroleum based diesel products.

As for Vincent Van Gogh, sunflowers were symbolically a vibrant source of happiness.   In spite of his mood swings and great depression, he continued to paint them.  I wonder now if Van Gogh was onto something greater – addressing the needs of future generations – perhaps our own “green pursuit of happiness”?