Technology

The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

Category: Green Tech

You've upgraded: Inventive ways to get rid of your old electronics

iMac

If this holiday season was all about upgrading for you -- upgrading to a better computer, phone or camera -- then it's time to think about what to do with your old gadgets.

The good news is, you have options. The bad news is, you may have too many options. There are many ways to dispose of your old gadgets responsibly, and navigating it all can be difficult and frustrating.

To help you out, we've put together a step-by-step guide to getting rid of your old electronics now that you have new electronics.

1. The hand-me-down: The best and easiest way to recycle your old electronics is to hand them off to someone you know who can still use them. Do you have a 4-year-old niece who won't know the difference between a 4-megapixel camera or a 12-megapixel camera? She might like your old point-and-shoot. Your frustratingly slow former laptop may work perfectly for a middle-school-age cousin who only needs it for Web surfing.

2. Donate it: So, you don't know anyone who wants your old computer, but if it's still functional there may be someone you don't know who could make use of it. EBay's Rethink Initiative has put together an easy-to-navigate list of organizations that know how to put your old electronics to work.

3. Sell it: You can always sell your old electronics on EBay or Craigslist, but this may be more work than you bargained for. Alternatively, you can check out NextWorth.com, an e-recycling company that will pay you for your working electronics. You can get an instant quote on the company's website and even trade in your electronics at 1,450 Target stores nationwide.

4. Recycle: Unfortunately recycling your old electronics is not as simple as throwing them in with your old newspapers and soda cans. You'll need to find an e-recycling center that knows how to responsibly recycle your gadget. GreenerGadgets.org has a list of e-recycling centers and also has a list of e-recycling centers by ZIP Code. (Look to the bottom right of the screen). Goodwill Industries International Inc. will take e-waste. So will Best Buy.

And if you think this all sounds annoying and hard, we don't totally blame you. But if you take the extra time to recycle your old gadgets, the planet will thank you.

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Image: If you've been lugging around this 1998 iMac personal computer, it's time to let it go. Credit: Associated Press.

California leads venture funding for electric vehicle technology

Tesla
California is fast becoming a global center for electric-vehicle innovation and jobs.

Businesses in the state collected $467 million in electric vehicle venture capital investment during the first half of this year, or 69% of the global total, according to a study by Next 10, a nonprofit founded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist F. Noel Perry.

California also is now tied with Michigan, the traditional center of the U.S. auto industry, in the number of patents filed for electric vehicle technology. Both states generated 300 patents for electric vehicle technology from 2008 to 2010.

Globally, California trails only Japan and South Korea in electric vehicle patents and leads other nations, including Germany, Taiwan and France, Perry said.

Employment also is taking off. Tesla Motors has hired 300 workers in California so far this year, bringing its national workforce to about 1,400. It plans to double its employment next year, with most of the jobs coming to an auto factory in Fremont that it is refurbishing to launch production of its Model S electric sedan in 2012.

“We have a huge hiring plan for next year,” said Arnnon Geshuri, Tesla’s vice president of human resources.

Tesla’s growth is starting to trickle to vendors and contractors. Geshuri said Tesla is busy upgrading and building more office space at the Fremont factory.

“That means we will need more carpet, tables and desks, and that has an economic effect on the trade groups that provide those services,” he said.

Other companies, from small electric drive manufacturers to businesses that install electric vehicle charging stations commercially and in homes also are growing rapidly, with many having doubled their workforces or grown even faster this year.

Continue reading »

Tony Fadell feathers his 'nest' with thermostat for the digital age

Nest

Tony Fadell wants to bring the home thermostat into the digital age.

The former Apple exec who created the iPod and worked on the iPhone has been toiling for the last year and a half in near-total secrecy on making thermostats as cool as the iconic gadgets from Apple.

The $250 sleek circular thermostat called Nest is simple to use and smart enough to study homeowners' schedules and adjust to save energy. It goes on sale in mid-November and can be pre-ordered on the Web. It's compatible with about 90% of home heating and cooling systems.

Fair warning: It's supposed to take 20 minutes to install but apparently isn't as simple for the average homeowner as for a Silicon Valley engineer. You can judge on the degree of difficulty and decide to pony up for professional installation which will run you $119 for the first unit and $25 for each additional unit.

After reading my article about Nest, one L.A. Times reader was sold. David P. said he pre-ordered one on Tuesday.

Around my house, air conditioning and the thermostat are talked about a lot more than any of us would like. Allergies keep us from just throwing the windows open, so we run the A/C a lot. My wife and I separately learned how to program it several times, but we soon forgot the complex keypad combinations, and the thermostat would often forget our programmed schedules.

I've spent some time with Google looking for alternatives, but they are too expensive, not much smarter, or even easier to use. The Nest changes all of that, and if Tony got it right, then it will be a huge hit. And I'll be watching to see if he builds a better lawn irrigation controller too.

NestHere are some take outs from an interview with Fadell.

ON HIS TIME AT APPLE: "My wife [Danielle Lambert, former vice president of human Resources at Apple] and I were at Apple for eight or nine years working for Steve [Jobs]. It had been a great, great ride doing great stuff, the iPod and the iPhone. My wife hired Ron Johnson (who created Apple's retail stores). But we had a newborn and a 1½-year-old and we needed to spend more time with them."

ON WHY HE'S NOT BUILDING PRODUCTS THAT COMPETE WITH APPLE: "That would be hell on Earth."

INITIAL REACTION OF HIS WIFE ON HIS LATEST PROJECT: "You are going to build what?"

MOTIVATION FOR BUILDING PRODUCTS THAT GET PEOPLE TO SAVE ENERGY: "Having kids makes you think about the world differently."

FIRST IMPRESSION OF THE 350 THERMOSTATS HE LOOKED AT: "They looked like computers from the '90s. They were horrible looking."

HIS SECOND IMPRESSION: "This is crazy. It can't be that difficult to build a great thermostat. So I decided to figure out: What would the thermostat for the iPhone generation look like? I got this bug. It really infected my brain. I kept thinking about it. This could be a cool product that matters and a cool product that has a great business. I couldn’t shake it."

BUILDING THERMOSTATS COULD BE A BIG BUSINESS: "Everybody needs one." He says 10 million home thermostats are installed each year.

ON HOW HE CAME UP WITH THE NAME NEST: In the MTV age, everyone began saying they were hanging out at their "cribs," so Fadell decided to hang out at his "nest." It was the working name for the product and just stuck, he said.

ON WHAT'S NEXT: "We think that the device itself is great and we are really putting all of our wood behind that through a lot of software updates, new features and functionality. This is a great first step. Hopefully people will be energized and want to buy it."

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Photo: The $250 Nest thermostat programs itself based on the temperatures that homeowners set and automatically turns down the heating or cooling systems when they are away. Photo credit: Nest Labs

NASA issues award in green aviation competition

Pip

NASA has seen the future of aviation and awarded it $1.35 million.

On Monday, the space agency issued the award to team Pipistrel-USA.com of State College, Pa., as part of the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency, or CAFE, Green Flight Challenge.

The competition, sponsored by Google, was created to inspire the development of more fuel-efficient aircraft and spark the start of a new electric airplane industry, NASA said. The winning aircraft had to fly 200 miles in less than two hours and use less than one gallon of fuel per occupant, or the equivalent in electricity.

Fourteen teams registered for competition, which took place Sept. 25 to Saturday above Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa. NASA said that the competing teams collectively invested more than $4 million in pursuit of the prize purse.

A photo gallery of the event is posted on NASA's Flickr account.

Pipistrel-USA.com and the second-place team, EGenius of Ramona, Calif. -- both of which used electric-powered aircraft -- achieved twice the fuel efficiency requirement of the competition. That means they flew 200 miles using just over a half-gallon of fuel equivalent per passenger.

"Two years ago the thought of flying 200 miles at 100 mph in an electric aircraft was pure science fiction," Jack W. Langelaan, team leader of Team Pipistrel-USA.com, said in a statement. "Now, we are all looking forward to the future of electric aviation."

NASA, which frequently uses prize competitions to address particular problems or challenges in the aerospace industry, said that the $1.35-million award was the largest in aviation history.

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Photo: Pipistrel-USA.com's Green Flight Challenge-winning aircraft. Credit: NASA via Flickr

Google will finance rooftop solar installations

Solar

Google wants homeowners to use solar panels to generate electricity. And it's investing $75 million to help up to 3,000 of them install panels on their roofs.

The Internet search giant said Tuesday that it will create a fund for solar installers to offer financing plans.

One of the biggest hurdles to installing solar panels are the upfront costs. Homeowners often don't have the upfront cash and solar installers don't have the means to offer financing.

Google said its plan will allow homeowners to install a $30,000 solar electricity system with little or no money upfront. Instead homeowners would pay a monthly fee which would be about the same that they would pay in their monthly bills to their local utility.

Google will own the panels, and will get paid when customers buy the electricity the panels produce.

How it works, according to Google:

That's where Clean Power Finance comes in. They've developed an open platform that connects installers with investors like Google to provide financing to homeowners. Solar installers sign up with Clean Power Finance to get access to the company’s comprehensive sales solutions, including consumer financing from investors, like the Google fund. This enables installers to sell more systems and grow their business. The installer builds the system, the investor owns it (in this case, Google), and homeowners pay a monthly payment for the system, at a price that’s often less than paying for energy from the grid. Maintenance and performance are taken care of by Clean Power Finance and its network of installers.

This is Google's second investment in residential solar, bringing its total investment to more than $850 million to develop clean energy, Rick Needham, Google's director of green business operations, wrote in a blog post.

In June, Google created a $280-million fund to help finance rooftop installations. At the time it said the deal with SolarCity, a solar panel installation company in San Mateo, was the largest green investment it had ever made.

Founder and chief executive Larry Page has pushed Google to experiment with energy-saving technologies. Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters installed a rooftop solar installation in 2007.

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Photo: Carl Harberger has transformed his Chatsworth home into a sun-powered behemoth, with special thin-film rooftop panels that can generate electricity. Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times 

Paper airplanes with MIT solar technology can make electricity

Paper-solar1

Solar panels come in many forms: Crystalline silicon, thin film, even sprays and transparent plastic. 
Time to add paper to the list.

A research team from the MIT has developed a flexible and extremely thin solar technology that, when printed, looks like an ordinary document ready to be stapled and turned in as homework.

But when wires are clipped to one end of a floppy sheet and set in the sun, it can power an LCD clock display and other small “gizmos,” researchers said. The technology may help push the solar industry away from hulking, expensive installations and toward options that can easily generate renewable electricity anywhere.

Using vaporous “inks” made from common elements rather than pricey, toxic components like tellurium, solar cells are deposited onto plain, untreated paper -- including tissue, tracing paper and even newsprint.

The process, which is similar to the one used to make the shiny interior of potato chip bags, is nearly as simple as ink-jet printing -- just with a vacuum chamber thrown in.

The pages can be molded into paper airplanes and still generate electricity when unfolded. They’re also long-lasting, according to researchers, who tested cells produced last year.

The technology, according to MIT engineers, is cheaper and more adaptable than current commercial solar options that use glass and require heavy support structures. Paper solar cells, they said, could be taped to a wall, attached to laptops or made into window shades and clothing, even laminated to protect against harsh weather.

It’ll be a while before commercialization, since researchers are still working on improving the device’s efficiency from its current 1%. But maybe Apple Inc., which has studied how to create a solar-powered touch screen for its smartphones, should call them up.

The MIT team reported the findings in the Advanced Materials journal this month. Watch the cell being folded below:

 
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Photo: Graduate student Miles Barr hold a flexible and foldable array of solar cells that have been printed on a sheet of paper. Credit: Patrick Gillooly / MIT

Solar panels come in many forms: Crystalline silicon, thin film, even sprays and transparent plastic. 
Time to add paper to the list.
A research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a flexible and extremely thin solar technology that, when printed, looks like an ordinary document ready to be stapled and turned in as homework.
But when wires are clipped to one end of a floppy sheet and set in the sun, it can power an LCD clock display and other small “gizmos,” researchers said. The technology may help push the solar industry away from hulking, expensive installations and toward options that can easily generate renewable electricity anywhere.
Using vaporous “inks” made from common elements rather than pricey, toxic compenents like tellurium, solar cells are deposited onto plain, untreated paper – including tissue, tracing paper and even newsprint.
The process, which is similar to the one used to make the shiny interior of potato chip bags, is nearly as simple as inkjet printing – just with a vacuum chamber thrown in.
The pages can be molded into paper airplanes and still generate electricity when unfolded. They’re also long-lasting, according to researchers, who tested cells produced last year.
The technology, according to MIT engineers, is both cheaper and more adaptable than current commercial solar options that use glass and require heavy support structures. Paper solar cells, they said, could be taped to a wall, attached to laptops or made into window shades and clothing, even laminated to protect against harsh outdoor weather.
It’ll be a while though before commercialization, since researchers are still working on improving the device’s efficiency from its current 1%. But maybe Apple Inc., which has studied how to create a solar-powered touch screen for its smart phones, should call them up.
The MIT team reported the findings in the Advanced Materials journal earlier this month.

Madison, Wis., snags Guinness record for longest hybrid parade

Photo: An aerial view of the parade. Credit: Smart Motors Last weekend, a line of 208 hybrid cars snaked through city streets, but not in tree-hugging Berkeley or the technology hotbed of New York.

This was the cheese-loving lake community of Madison, Wis., which scored a Guinness world record on Sunday for the longest hybrid parade.

Apparently, having the highest percentage of people with PhD's wasn’t a good enough record. Bet it feels good beating Belgium, which held the previous title with a measly 140-car event last year.

Starting and ending at the Smart Motors dealership, the 2.1-mile route was crammed with Toyota Priuses, Ford Escape hybrids, Honda Insight hybrids and more, with drivers from 10 states and Canada.

The vehicles, according to organizers, stuck mostly to their electric modes, making it one of the quieter parades in memory.

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Photo: An aerial view of the parade. Credit: Smart Motors

Toyota Prius Plug-in, electric RAV4 showcased at Little Tokyo Design Week

Prius
Toyota’s eco-friendly autos are center stage at a Little Tokyo event this weekend showcasing new technologies and designs from Japan.

Visitors to the Little Tokyo Design Week area can peek inside the Prius Plug-in hybrid, the RAV4 EV battery-electric vehicle and the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Hybrid vehicle that are sitting in the plaza beside the Japanese American National Museum.

The Prius Plug-in will be able to run for 13 miles on power from its Lithium-ion battery, according to Toyota. More than 160 of the vehicles are already being driven in the U.S. as a demonstration program before sales start in earnest next year.

Toyota is working with Tesla on the electric RAV4, which is also expected to become available to buyers in 2012. Meanwhile, the automaker plans to spread more than 100 of its advanced fuel-cell vehicles around the country by 2013 through another demonstration program, with hopes of bringing the technology to market by 2015. 

The rest of the event, which lasts through Sunday, involves more than 15 steel storage containers acting as temporary exhibit space.

The Giant Robot retail chain has a makeshift gallery featuring products such as a “crunching dog” USB stick with a model canine doing sit-ups on the end. There’s a “Robot Box,” with various automatons and other machines. Representatives from USC, UCLA and SCI-Arc have their own boxes too.

Near the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, there’s an extended garden set up on stilts with tomatoes, carrots and beans.

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Photo: A Toyota Prius Plug-In on display at the Frankfurt Auto Show in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2009. The model is being exhibited this weekend as part of Little Tokyo Design Week. Credit: Ferdinand Ostrop / Associated Press

Lufthansa launches first daily commercial flights to run partially on biofuel

Lufthansa
Travelers can now make it from Hamburg to Frankfurt in Germany and back using animal fat and plants, as the Lufthansa airline on Friday launched the first daily commercial passenger flights to run on biofuel.

The first flight took off from Hamburg at 11:15 a.m. Central European Time. Aircraft biofuel has been in demonstration phase for years, showing up in test flights by large jets, helicopters and even the Air Force Thunderbirds.

But now the blends are being worked into much heavier rotations. For four daily flights between the cities, Lufthansa will use a 50% biofuel blend in one of the engines of an Airbus A321.

The mixture of jatropha and camelina crops and animal fats was approved for use in jet engines earlier this month by the American Society for Testing and Materials, the reigning decision making body on fuels standards.

The fuel doesn’t require upgrades to existing engines and was sustainably sourced and produced so that no food crops or rainforests were impacted, the airline said. Lufthansa has spent about $9.3 million on biofuel projects so far, it said.

The roughly 250-mile flights will continue for six months as Lufthansa studies the effect of the biofuel blend on aircraft performance. But the company expects the trial run to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 1,500 tons.

Britain’s Thomson Airways has said it plans to operate a flight to Spain this summer using a biofuel mix involving cooking oil. Dutch airline KLM plans to use a similar blend for flights to and from France.

Biofuel will also play a major role in a hypersonic aircraft revealed by EADS last month at the Paris Air Show, which will be able to hop from Tokyo to Los Angeles in 2 1/2 hours.

Around the same time, the Air Transport Assn. of America said that several of its member airlines are gearing up to use fuel made from urban and agricultural waste in the next few years.

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Photo: Lufthansa planes parked at an airport in Munich, Germany. Credit: Joerg Koch/Associated Press

Google to retire Health and PowerMeter products

Getprev

Google will discontinue two of its products -- Google Health and Google PowerMeter -- after neither achieved the popularity necessary to continue them, according to the company.

Google Health, launched in May 2008, was intended as a service that aggregated health and wellness information. Users could create an account at google.com/health and import their medical records, lab results, prescription info and immunization histories.

Google PowerMeter is a energy monitoring tool that helped users analyze their home's energy consumption.

"Both are based on the idea that with more and better information, people can make smarter choices, whether in regard to managing personal health and wellness, or saving and conserving energy at home," Google product manager Aaron Brown wrote in a Friday blog post. "While they didn't scale as we had hoped, we believe they did highlight the importance of access to information in areas where it's traditionally been difficult."

Google PowerMeter is set to retire Sept. 16. Users can download the data on their accounts.

Google Health will be discontinued Jan. 1, 2012, although records and other data on that service will be available to download until Jan 1, 2013. Users can get their records in a variety of formats, including a printable PDF file, HTML or XML versions. The tech giant will also add the ability to transfer files to other health database services such as Microsoft's HealthVault, Google said.

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Photo: Google's logo at company headquarters on April 7. Credit: Kimihiro Hoshino /AFP/Getty Images

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