Birds Provide Japanese Train Design

Yesterday a Japanese train company apologized for running 20 seconds ahead of schedule. How did Japanese trains get so fast?

The answer for how their famous bullet trains move so quickly is thanks in part to biomimicry, the study of using animals as a source for design. The front of the bullet train was inspired by the beak of a kingfisher which allows for more efficient airflow and thus less of an environmental impact. This is merely one example of the interesting world of using the evolution of animals to design the world around us.

Japan’s Shinkansen doesn’t look like your typical train. With its long and pointed nose, it can reach top speeds up to 150–200 miles per hour.

It didn’t always look like this. Earlier models were rounder and louder, often suffering from the phenomenon of “tunnel boom,” where deafening compressed air would rush out of a tunnel after a train rushed in. But a moment of inspiration from engineer and birdwatcher Eiji Nakatsu led the system to be redesigned based on the aerodynamics of three species of birds.

Nakatsu’s case is a fascinating example of biomimicry, the design movement pioneered by biologist and writer Janine Benyus. She’s a co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit encouraging creators to discover how big challenges in design, engineering, and sustainability have often already been solved through 3.8 billion years of evolution on earth. We just have to go out and find them.

It’s Time to Think Hard About our Waste Systems

the suburbs

Modern capitalism encourages consumption at levels previously unimaginable which has led to an inconvenient byproduct: the globalization of waste. High levels of consumption means more waste in our system, and with the gift-giving holiday next month we’re going to see a lot of wasteful purchases. This year think about what gifts to give that don’t contribute to a landfill, indeed take some time to think about how your local municipality deals with waste created throughout the year. It turns out that in Canada we have a lot to learn form other places.

It’s time to rethink how we approach waste management in Canada beyond just saying reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Hird tells a story about a research project at Queen’s University, run by one of her grad students, Cassandra Kuyvenhoven, who tracked materials put into blue bins at Queen’s to see where they ended up. “While the system seemed functional and neat on the surface,” says Hird, “It certainly wasn’t that behind the scenes.” Kuyvenhoven found, for example, that when recyclable Styrofoam left Queen’s it was loaded onto trucks and taken to Toronto, where it was compacted chemically then trucked to Montreal where it was put on ships that took it to China, where it eventually ended up in landfill. “We might as well have landfilled it here,” says Hird, “and saved the tons of carbon that went into the atmosphere getting it to China.”

Electronics equipment made its slow way from the university’s loading docks to landfills in India and Mexico.

“When people think their stuff is being recycled, it clears their conscience, no matter what is actually happening beyond the blue box,” says Hird. “Our research shows that when their conscience is clear they tend to consume more than ever. Since Canadians started recycling in earnest maybe 30 years ago, consumerism in this country has done nothing but climb.”

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15,000 Scientists Want to Change Climate Change

desert and stars

They want to stabilize the change and, ideally, change the trajectory we’re on.

Climate change is happening faster than predicted and the positive feedback loops have started (meaning that it’s even harder to stop climate change) – this is the warning from over 15,000 scientists. The Alliance of World Scientists released a statement and invite more scientists to sign on. They’re clear in what they want to do: “Our vital importance and role comes from scientists’ unique responsibility as stewards of human knowledge and champions of evidence-based decision-making.”

It all started as an assumption that scientists cared, and they care a lot.

Within two days, there were 1,200 signatures. Of the more than 15,364 signatures to date, 527 are from Canada, ranking eighth among 184 countries.

The goal of the paper is to raise awareness about the fragile state of the planet.

“The scientists around the world are very concerned about the state of the world, the environmental situation and climate change,” Ripple said. “So this allows them to have a collective voice.”

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NASA Designs Plane Modifications to Save Fuel

A seemingly simple change to airplane design can make a huge difference in fuel efficiency: add another engine. Yes, as counterintuitive as it sounds, NASA has figured out that by adding an engine to the rear of the plane the airflow of the plane itself can provide more thrust. Airplanes are notoriously bad for the environment and any efficiency in fuel consumption has a significant impact on emissions.

NASA’s idea is pretty straightforward: place a large turbofan engine on the rear of a plane, where it will collect the slow-moving air traveling along the plane’s body. This lets the wing-mounted turbofans be built smaller, which means less drag and a higher fuel efficiency.

That by itself would mean a minor improvement to fuel use, but NASA decided to go a step further. The engineers also added generators to the wing-mounted turbofans, and the electricity generated by these engines is used to power the tail-mounted one. This means that the rear turbofan that provides much of the plane’s thrust doesn’t require any fuel to operate.

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Go Ride the Bus, Busses are Great!

When is a bus not a bus? When it’s a trackless train.

Busses are a great solution to traffic congestion, so much so that bus rapid transit (BRT) systems are growing the world over. The problem with getting more money into BRTs and expanding them is the baggage of the word bus. It turns out that many people have negative associations with the idea of taking the bus, however if the same vehicle is called something else then it gets support.

How projects are described and packaged can affect the way people feel about them, which is why a slick video with CGI-rendered trackless trains might be so alluring to city leaders desperate for new narratives. But if transit is going to succeed, the rail-bias cycle needs to break. And it actually can, studies have found, when buses are as good as trains. The Orange Line, a BRT that runs along a closed corridor through L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, has spacious cars, frequent service, dedicated lanes, and smooth connections to bus and rail; it’s tripled its original ridership estimates. In a 2009 report by the U.S. DOT, some Orange Line passengers said they didn’t even see it as a bus at all, but something closer to a train. Part of that is due to how the system was marketed and branded—the Orange Line was always portrayed as an extension of L.A.’s Metro rail system, rather than as a regular part of the bus network. But it’s also because this bus is objectively superior to most others.

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