in vitro meat

September 3, 2009

This is where most of us get our ground beef from. (credit:

This is where most of us get our ground beef. (credit:

Seed Magazine (my favorite science publication), has an interview with Jason Matheny of New Harvest, a non-profit organization aimed developing scalable and tasty meat grown on a petri dish (basically). Growing meat in a controlled environment like a petri dish is more environmentally efficient, in energy, in water, in land usage. As developing nations like China and India become wealthier, the demand for meat only increases.

Of course, the best scenario is that we all become vegetarians, both because it’s healthier and more environmentally friendly. However, I’m not quite there yet myself (my mind can’t quite overpower my evolved lust for high-protein, high-energy flesh) and so can’t demand that the rest of the world must be as well. If we assume that people are going to eat meat, why not have it come from a controlled environment, where fat content and every other chemical can be controlled?

Interestingly, the technology used to grow little bits of meat is hijacked from the field of tissue engineering, which aims to grow everything from skin to muscle to organ tissue. The limiting factor for tissue (be it for eating or healing) is getting the blood vessels built so the tissue can be sufficiently large. Vascularization of artificial tissue is very tricky thing that we haven’t quite mastered yet.

Thus, the applications for this technology would only be (for the present) in ground meat, where the small amounts grown in vitro (meaning in the lab, not in a real animal) could be put together like we’re used to. But still, ground meat comprises a very large part (Matheny claims roughly half, but I don’t have an independent number) of the world’s meat consumption and so could still have a significant impact.

You might react to this idea of eating meat grown in a test tube as just another part of our over-commercialized, over-scientificized (my own word), over-supply-chain-ized agricultural industry. We should be eating our meat from local, grass-based, holistic farms. I agree that the nice local farm alternative feels better (and IS better at the moment), but if we can produce meat that’s healthier, cheaper, significantly more environmentally friendly, and perhaps even tastier than our local farm, how long are you going hold out just on principle?

Hmmm, a major motion picture now, eh? Im glad he was doing it for the right reasons.

Hmmm, a major motion picture now, eh? I'm glad he was doing it for the right reasons.

The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert has a wonderful undercut of the so-called eco-stunts, or living an extremely environment-friendly lifestyle, and the publicity surrounding them. Her primary targets are bloggers-et-book writers Colin Beaven (No Impact Man) and Vanessa Farquharson (Sleeping Naked Is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days), both of whom adopted extreme eco-lifestyles for a period of time, blogged about it, and then got a book deal. After describing all the measures they take, like going without a refrigerator, toilet paper, and cars/trains/buses/subways, her closing paragraph sums it all up particularly well:

The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”

Seriously, take the fifteen minutes to read this article. It’s good.

I’m going to take her criticism of such publicity stunts (she reminds us that Colin Beavan’s idea of living a no impact life arose from a lunch conversation with his agent about his next book project) one step further: not only are they inane and self-promoting, but they trivialize environmental measures the rest of us — in the real world — take.

Notice that once the book deal is finished, these authors revert mostly back to their original, planet-killing lifestyle. If I were to read such a book, I would probably feel some mixture of shame — that my own life was not more environmentally efficient — and humor — because the life described by the authors sounds so crappy.

Such accounts of “extreme” lifestyles seem to trivialize the things the rest of us do to help out, like switching in CFL bulbs, recycling, and turning the lights off. Compared to the “extreme” lifestyles, some might think that these small measures don’t have as significant an impact and thus aren’t worth being as diligent about. What a shame, because those small measures we all take work into our life are by far the best sources of energy efficiency.

Someone needs to write a book about reinsulatining his house, riding his bike more, installing a smart electricity meter, going to the farmer’s market, and installing solar panels on his roof. The book needs to span a year, and then another, and then another, and another. That stuff doesn’t make us feel bad about what we do. It makes us think, “Hmm, that sounds pretty doable.” The key part is that there’s no end point to “experiment.” It’s a sustainable (ahh…wordplay) lifestyle.

Of course, such a book would be quite boring. But that’s the point, isn’t it. It’s not about selling copies. It’s getting us to change our lifestyles — for good.



Anyone who’s thought about the environmental cost of the various products we consume, from plastic spoons to produce to toys, has thought about the costs involved in shipping these times. If you’re like me, you might think about the fossil fuels required to move a teddy bear from China to Pennsylvania: the gas of the truck from the factory to the shipping yard in China, the diesel of the ocean liner from China to Los Angeles, and then more gas for the truck from LA to Philadelphia. Usually, the longer the journey, the more environmentally expensive it is.

What many don’t consider (or at least not me) is the requirements of some products, especially food, in that transportation. For example: ice cream. It must be made, stored at the factory, shipped, and then stored at our grocery store all at freezing point. As you know, keeping food this cold requires a hefty amount of energy in addition to that required simply to transport it. Thus, as the Times of London and Scientific American report, Unilever (which owns Ben & Jerry’s) is embarking on the crazy-sounding idea of making ice cream that’s made, shipped, and stored at room temperature only to be frozen once you put it in your own freezer.

While the science behind fat, sugar, and consistency has been studied for a good while, it still sounds crazy. I’m quite skeptical that they’ll be able to do it and still have it taste as good as the real deal. But, never underestimate those food scientists, who’ve been able to create ice cream that doesn’t melt (although, again, who knows how it tastes).

Although food science hasn’t really improved the quality of our food that much, it certainly has its advantages (like decently ripe fruit 12 months out of the year), many of which we’re willing to compromise a bit on taste in order to get. And once (as I hope), we start having to confront the calories (or if you prefer metric, joules) of energy the products we buy cost (as the Brits have begun to do), we may be more willing to make sacrifices in flavor for the good of the planet, just like we often do for the good of our waistline and arteries.

(credit: Wikimedia)

Fair weather cumulous clouds (credit: Wikimedia)

Even though it’s been around for over fifty years, the idea of controlling the amount of precipitation in an area with chemicals still seems quite futuristic to me. I know many ski resorts seed their environs for more fresh power and had heard stories of China’s preventing rain from its opening Olympic ceremonies last year, but this new report about China’s efforts to again ensure dry skies for next year’s Asian Games got me wondering just how cloud seeding (as it’s called) works. Here’s a brief discussion from my research:

The entire process revolves around the phases of water in clouds. Such weather control can either be used to promote precipitation (like rain or snow) or inhibit it (like rain or often hail).

The water vapor in clouds is very, very cold (well below its freezing point, called supercooled) due to its height in the atmosphere. The problem is that in order for the vapor to turn into liquid or solid droplets, it usually needs a seed or starting particle (natural dust particles usually serve this role). One of the most common seeding chemicals, silver iodide, which has a crystalline structure very similar to that of water, is used to start these water (or ice) particles forming in the cloud.

Other chemicals like dry ice (solid CO2, liquid nitrogen, or liquid propane) can be used to cool down the water vapor so much that it spontaneously forms small droplets without the need for a starter particle, so to speak.

When enough of these little droplets in a cloud form, they can start clumping together, and eventually the droplets become so large that the air currents can no longer support them, and they fall to earth as either rain, snow, or hail.

However, if you’re like China and want to avoid precipitation, you can seed the clouds just a little bit, and the ice particles produced actually form at the detriment of the natural water particles, thus reducing their size and likelihood of falling to earth.

It’s somewhat hard to measure exactly how efficacious cloud seeding actually is since there’s no way to do a counterfactual weather experiment, but it’s been successful enough for a number of countries, including the U.S., China, Russia, and Australia, to have used it at one point or another (China’s the most aggressive at it).

For those of you who are a bit wary of dropping chemicals like silver iodide into the sky, it seems that in the amount they’re currently being used, the health and environment impacts are negligible.

As many of you may know, there’s talk of creating more clouds in the atmosphere by either spraying water droplets up from the sea with vast fleets of autonomous sailboats or dropping seeding chemicals from the sky as previously discussed. It’ll be interesting to see how this last ditch option changes (or doesn’t) as our understanding of weather control improves.


water vigilantism

June 22, 2009

(image credit: Science Progress)

(credit: Science Progress)

The U.S. Global Change Research Program recently released a study, which, among many daunting scenarios, projects the change in precipitation between 1961-79 to 2080-99. Needless, to say, there’s going to be a good bit less water falling over the coming years in the the southwest. This oncoming drought threatens both the future of agriculture and domestic and commercial water use in the area.

The politics of water rights in the West are fascinating and far to complicated to describe here. But the idea is that people who were “first in line,” so to speak, to sign up for the right of a certain amount of water from a river or other source get first dibs. What this translates into, though, is that preventing water from going into those natural channels is in effect “stealing” from the large pot that eventually gets divided along various lines.

I might be more sympathetic to this “crime” were it not for the following:
1) the way in which water rights are divided is incredibly complicated and often outdated;
2) it’s much more efficient to capture water on your own property, for your own use, than to let that water flow into natural channels only to have it pumped back to your house or building.

In April, Colorado passed a limited measure allowing people off the water grid to collect their own water for use in watering lawns and gardens. While a step in the the right direction, it’s not clear that other states will follow suit and/or expand water collection rights to those on the water grid.

Many homeowners have taken matters into their own hands regarding water usage, breaking the existing water laws. I support these measures both because I think they’re simply more efficient and because they set the stage for future improvements in water usage.

Some (mainly homeowners) have taken to collecting their roof water in barrels or cisterns. Others recycle greywater from washing machines, sinks, and showers (note, not toilets or sinks with garbage disposals) back into their yards. Allowing this kind of intelligent recycling promotes conservation on a local level as well as prevents us from wasting potable, treated water for things that don’t need it.

What’s more, in these two systems, the water not sucked up by the plants simply goes back into the natural aquifers.

We need to move to a more efficient and smart way of using this ever-dwindling resource in the West. Everyone acknowledges water shortage is a large problem, which may explain why many authorities sometimes look the other way over these types of infractions. When enough people embrace a technology or behavior that aims to ameliorate a serious problem, it becomes acceptable and can then become law.

Raw-Solars mirror concentrates sunlight to instantly vaporize water into steam.

Raw-Solar's mirror concentrates sunlight to instantly vaporize water into steam.

This news actually broke about a year ago, but I doubt many of you saw it.

A few MIT students took a class on solar concentrators and then built one. The main advantage of this design is that it’s cheap, simple, and fairly easy to build while still being incredibly powerful. It concentrates the sun’s light roughly a thousand-fold at the focal point, enough to cause a two by four too spontaneously combust. The short descriptive video is well worth the watch.

Some of the students founded a startup, RawSolar to take the idea to the marketplace.

The current models produces steam, which can be used in a number of ways, including generating electricity. Another idea (posted as a YouTube comment, actually) is to put a thermal-electric resonator at the focal point and generate straight up electricity from the concentrated electromagnetic radiation of the sun (similar in function but different in design from a photovoltaic cell).

It’s a tough climate to be starting a company, but I really hope these guys at RawSolar make it. In a time where there’s so much competing information and technology, disagreement about the expense and scalability of clean energy with and without subsidies, this device is simple, efficient, and cheap. It represents a democracy of innovation as well. It wasn’t some big VC-funded company the built this. It was a handful of MIT kids in a class. Successes like this one make the solutions to our energy crisis seem (naively) simple. But given the generally depressing climate of energy policy and the ever-looming specter of global warming, I can do with a bit of naive optimism.

To succeed, they probably will need some VC funding to get off the ground. They’ve got some smart people on their team, so hopefully they’ll make it to production. If (When) they do start cranking these out, though, I want to get one for my roof.

US Population Growth from US Census numbers 1790-2000 and projected to 2025. (credit Wikipedia commons)

US Population Growth from Census Numbers up to 2000 and projected to 2025. (credit Wikipedia commons)

This issue of Scientific American is running a story by Robert Engleman about population control that’s informative and quite troubling. The essential message is that our global population is dramatically increasing and could hit 9 billion by mid century, and that growth seriously threatens our environment. While population growth in itself provides challenges, especially in developing countries, where adequate space and employment for all these people are often scarce, the real issue is the energy and other natural resources that they’ll use. I don’t think I need to go into why this is a big, big problem, even with the future efficiencies and cleaner technologies we hope to use.

The richest countries use by far the most energy per capita, making their population control all the more important (credit: Frank van Mierlo using IEA 2006 Key World Energy Statistics)

The richest countries use by far the most energy per capita, making their population control all the more important (credit: Frank van Mierlo using IEA 2006 Key World Energy Statistics)

While the US gained about 3 million people in 2007, according to Engleman, India gained roughly 17 million. So shouldn’t most of the pressure go on countries like India and China that contribute the most to the global population each year to reduce their population growth?

Absolutely not, the U.S. is the number one culprit. Here’s why…

According to the World Resource Institute’s Energy Consumption Database, in 2005 the per capita energy use for the U.S. was 7,885.9 kgoe (kg of oil equivalent). The per capita energy use for India was 491.0 kgoe. So, doing some rough math, the total kg oil equivalent used in 2007 for the U.S. is more than 2.5 times that of India.

Of course we must make global efforts to reign our population, but it begins here, and now we get into delicate territory. We love our “freedom” here in the U.S., and that means the freedom to decide how many kids we have. Eventually we’ll have to come to terms with the fact that having more than two children is, in some sense, environmentally immoral. I have family and friends who are members of more-than-two-kid households, so I appreciate how sensitive this issue can be. Like recycling, conservation, and green technology, the number of children we have must also fall into the category of environment responsibility.

I’m not saying we need to go the route of China’s 1 baby per couple policy yet, but it might benefit us to start thinking about some sort of incentive system for having fewer kids rather than more, especially since it’s generally known that lower-income families (or single mothers) tend to have more children than those in the higher-income brackets.

The obvious first step is much more thorough and comprehensive sexual education and availability of contraceptives and, yes, abortion providers. The second step must be an understanding that the more children we have, the more strain we’re putting on our–and their–environment.