Tag Archives: electronics

Carbon Flux Explorers take to the seas

The next time you’re out sailing the Seven Seas, keep an eye out for something small and red floating atop the water. It’s likely a Carbon Flux Explorer – an important scientific instrument and the brainchild of UC Berkeley professor Jim Bishop. My sidekick E.J, a researcher in Bishop’s lab, recently told me the fascinating story of how he had been involved in the launching of one.

While I may not be the most proficient oceanographer out there, with the help of E.J’s clear teaching style, I learned that Carbon Flux Explorers are robotic devices that measure an array of important oceanic properties. These measurements help elucidate how the rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere will affect the stability of carbon flow in the ocean.  The ocean experiences rapid temporal changes in carbon due to biological transportation of carbon from the surface of the ocean (where photosynthesis occurs) to the deep ocean interior. This involves phytoplankton, which absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and the excretion and sinking of CO2 by the animals that feed off of the phytoplankton. The stability of this intricate cycle is sensitive to global changes, and until the invention of Carbon Explorers we had no effective way of observing the arms, feet, and backbone that make up the ocean body’s cycle.

Sneak preview of BERC’s Electronics Waste Roundtable: an interview with Zoey Herm

Ever wondered what you’re supposed to do with your old electronics once you stop using them? Ever considered how the often toxic materials in your old laptops and cellphone can best be managed? If you’re interested in learning more about electronics waste recycling, head over to the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) sponsored Electronic Waste Roundtable this Friday, February 17th at 2:30 in Banatao Auditorium, Sutardja Dai Hall. Speakers will include employees of market-drivers in the field, like Dell, and members of policy-oriented organizations, like Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

Last week, I had the chance to talk to Zoey Herm, Berkeley grad student and organizer of this forum, about electronics waste.

Why did you choose to organize a roundtable on electronics waste?

This is a very pressing issue globally in terms of human health and the environment. Specifically the topic was of interest to the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative because there’s a huge vacuum in the market for solutions to this problem. There are a lot of market incentives to work on this problem, which can be pushed by regulations, but also exist on their own. There’s a lot of valuable materials – plastics and metals – in electronics waste which can be recovered for profit.

Leaping lizards

Do animal tails assist with “in-flight” stabilization?  It’s probably not a question you ponder every day, but it’s exactly what Berkeley graduate student researchers Thomas Libby and Evan Chang-Siu set out to find when they built a tailed robot  and drove it off a ramp.

Libby and Chang-Siu’s project made news when their paper Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots, and dinosaurs made the cover of the latest issue of Nature. Their project is one of many exciting biomechanics projects underway in Berkeley’s Center for Interdisciplinary Bio-inspiration in Education and Research, or CiBER, led by Integrative Biology professor Dr. Bob Full.

Inspired by the observation that Red-headed Agama lizards stabilize themselves in free-fall with controlled movements of their tails, the researchers built a lizard-sized robot with wheels and a “tail” (metal rod) and tried to  mimic the ability to stay upright during a fall. Unlike previous attempts to build self-righting robots, their robot tail used a control mechanism called active feedback.  Active feedback occurs when the robot is able to respond to its environment by making instantaneous movements in accordance to the in-motion changes perceived by its sensors.  In contrast, previous work focused on feed-forward robots, which rely on pre-programmed movements to compensate a predetermined trajectory. Tom Libby explains the difference in terms of picking up a milk jug: if you expect the jug to be full, you will initiate an appropriate amount of muscle power as you pick up the jug; this is feed-forward.  If, upon picking up the jug, you realize that it is empty, the system you use to change the amount of power you input (thereby preventing yourself from getting smacked in the head with the jug) is feedback control.

Lights out in Afghanistan: U.S. re-engineering efforts fall short


Returning to the subject of Liz Boatman’s recent post about the importance of ethics training in engineering, consider the following scenario. A major construction project worth hundreds of millions of dollars is in the planning stages. The project, if it is carried out, will be paid for with federal funds. In deciding whether or not to proceed with a particular option, do you (a) rely on a report produced by a firm that stands to earn tens of millions of dollars if a certain option is selected or (b) carry out an independent inquiry to determine the best course of action? The correct answer should be obvious, but USAID, facing a similar decision during rebuilding efforts in war-torn Afghanistan, inexplicably went with option (a). It’s not surprising what happened next.

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum, executive editor Glenn Zorpette reports on the failure of the U.S. to modernize Afghanistan’s electrical infrastructure despite spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on the effort over the last eight years. The centerpiece of his article is the Tarakhil power plant outside of Kabul. Tarakhil is a large diesel-fueled generator that was constructed between 2006 and 2010 under the direction of USAID. Massively over budget and years behind schedule when completed, it currently generates virtually no electricity. Why not? It turns out, diesel power plants are extremely expensive to operate, especially when the fuel must be transported through the mountains of Afghanistan. If Tarakhil were to operate at full capacity, its annual costs would be about one third of Afghanistan’s total tax revenue. Although cheaper options like hydroelectric generation would have made infinitely more sense economically, USAID opted for diesel largely because it was backed by a study carried out by engineering firm Black & Veatch. The problem: Black & Veatch, as the primary contractor for the project, was to earn a fixed percentage of the total project cost as profit, as dictated by the terms of their “cost-plus” contract with USAID. In other words, the more expensive the better, at least for Black & Veatch’s bottom line. Had USAID conducted their own study, they almost certainly would have gone with a cheaper electricity source.