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The Intel Environment Award
Kenneth A. Manaster
Since at least as early as the dawn of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s, technology, and the industrial innovation and expansion it has fostered, are often blamed for many of the environmental woes afflicting the earth and its inhabitants. Previously appealing advertising slogans like “Better Living Through Chemistry” and “Progress is Our Most Important Product” have come to be met with raised eyebrows at best. Accusatory fingers have been pointed at technological developments, such as the growth of the synthetic organic chemical industry in the 1940s and 1950s, the dominance of the internal combustion engine in popular transportation, and the principal forms of electrical energy production through fossil fuel combustion and nuclear fission.
In contrast, the Intel Environment Award recognizes that around the world efforts are being made to advance technology for a distinctly different purpose––to improve the quality of the environment for the benefit of humanity, other living things, and the natural systems with which humanity is linked. There were 59 applicants for this award in 2004, the largest number in this category since it was established. More striking than the quantity of applications, of course, was their quality—the varied combinations of practical know-how, common sense, sophisticated science, expert engineering, and profound sensitivity to the human condition and the planet’s environmental plight. In past years the applications in this category, as in others, have been described as diverse, profound, and inspiring, and so they were once again.
This year’s 59 applications were submitted from at least 22 countries, with some applications representing efforts of participants from more than a single nation. The largest batch was from the United States, with multiple applications also coming from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Also represented were Bangladesh, Burundi, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, South Africa, Uruguay, and Vietnam.
What is perhaps most notable about this lineup of diverse nations is what it tells us about the ubiquity of environmental problems and attempted solutions around the globe. Thus, for example, we see efforts at materials recycling programs not just in the U. S., but also in Brazil, in India, and in New Zealand. Russian experts pursue new methods of monitoring freshwater pollution problems in the southeastern part of that nation, South African entrepreneurs develop non-chlorine water treatment products, a Dutch organization promotes water supply storage and protection in central Africa, and a small U. S. company applies electrochemical remediation to drinking water contaminated by perchlorates.
Many applications evidenced the ingenuity of individuals and non-profit organizations in using computer and Internet tools to disseminate environmental information, promote education about environmental needs and practices, and bring people together for action. Although many of these uses of electronic tools are not in and of themselves technological breakthroughs, they are nonetheless creative applications of established technology in new and important contexts. Open source, environmental management system tools are made available over the Internet from Germany. Environmental education Web sites, tailored to the concerns and cultures of the respective locales, are created in places as far-ranging as Finland, Brazil, Alabama, and Vietnam.
Two subjects appeared with particular frequency among this year’s group of applicants for the environment award: agriculture and energy. In the agriculture category, some applications demonstrated innovation of a relatively straightforward character, as in the pedal operated rice mill devised in India, the low cost soil salinity sensor in Israel, and the urban rooftop garden in Mexico. Other agriculture-related entries were far more technically sophisticated, such as the potato genome project in the U.S., the Dutch laboratory instrumentation for observing free moving insects to assist in the development of new methods of biological pest control, and the Uruguayan device developed to protect crops from radiation frost damage.
Most of the entries linked to energy concerns focused on expanded usage of solar energy techniques. Applicants from California and the United Kingdom focused on novel building designs for solar energy maximization, while a Canadian company advanced solar-powered lighting, and a U.S. organization promoted solar cooking devices for families in Kenya.
Most of the projects offer benefits of multiple types. For example, recycling of electronic material such as cell phones or computers may help to protect land from unnecessary solid waste disposal, to protect water from toxic pollutants, and to protect workers from exposure to hazardous materials, while at the same time reducing the need for new metals extraction and excessive energy consumption for further manufacturing. Similarly, usage of more environmentally benign pest control methods not only may improve crop yields, but also may better protect water and soil quality as well as provide additional safeguards for worker health.
The Judging Process
The six member judging panel for this award faced a daunting task. Fortunately, the Tech Museum of Innovation awards program provides a helpful judging rubric. The rubric identifies some critical, pertinent criteria for the evaluation of applicants’ contributions to humanity through technological innovation. Of particular salience in these criteria are the seriousness of the problem addressed, the clarity and thoroughness of the technology description, the extent of the breakthrough signified by the technology, the availability of measurable evidence of success and contribution, identification of negative side-effects of the achievement, and the potential for replication.
Of additional concern for each application is where it falls on a continuum of innovation. At one end of the continuum is simply the new idea, and at the other is a technology that has been so fully proven and put into use that it has become the standard of practice. The environment panel certainly found applications all across this spectrum. We tried to ultimately identify the final five that seemed not only to rank high on the judging rubric but also to be well beyond the initial concept stage, even if some doubt might remain about whether eventually the technology will become so mature in actual usage as to become the standard of practice.
Working with these considerations in mind, the panel members immersed themselves in the full batch of applications and then winnowed it down to successively smaller groupings. As the applications remaining under consideration became fewer, our research became deeper. This research—through methods including literature review, Internet searches, e-mail and telephone conversations with experts in many fields around the globe—offered fascinating insights into the multitude of small, yet international, communities of researchers and entrepreneurs working daily trying to find technological solutions to humanity’s environmental problems.
David Kuykendall and Jim Hunter, Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Through the work of two research microbiologists, Dr. L. David Kuykendall and Dr. Jim Hunter, this government organization developed a patented soybean inoculant—known as the TA 11 NOD+ inoculant or the “USDA strain”—that forms symbiotic nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots of soybean plants. The researchers’ work altered the production of tryptophan by bacteria to affect the production of hormones in the nitrogen fixation process. This achievement improves nodulation, increases nitrogen fixation, improves soybean yields, andreduces the use of fertilizer.
This technology mitigates the dramatic worldwide increase of nitrate in water supplies, which in large part has resulted from increased agricultural fertilizer usage. When this inoculant is used at the time of planting, it forms more nitrogen-fixing nodules on the soybean plant roots. The nitrogen generated by these nodules boosts crop yields and improves seed quality by increasing protein content while greatly decreasing the need for chemical nitrogen fertilizers. In other words, these nodules supply much of the nitrogen the plant needs for growth.
Although soybean inoculants are not new, this particular strain is the first to possess modified tryptophan metabolism. It thus is an improvement on one of the best strains previously available. The improvement is based on traditional genetic selection methods, rather than on recombinant DNA methodology. Accordingly, it can be used by all farmers, including those producing organic label soybeans. This strain has been put to extensive use in U. S. soybean fields, already covering an estimated 35% of the annual crop and thus decreasing chemical fertilizer use and related pollution from fertilizer manufacture and runoff.
Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE),
Durango, Colorado, U.S.
This nonprofit organization has applied Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographical Information System (GIS) technology to the distinctive environmental needs, communication traditions, and cultural heritage of the Navajo Nation. Specifically, Diné CARE has applied GPS and GIS tools in community health risk assessment surveys and resource mapping projects concerning forestry damage and uranium mining and milling wastes radiation exposure on Navajo lands.
Diné CARE is a Navajo environmental organization concentrating on education and advocacy within the Navajo homeland in the western U. S. Since its founding in 1988, Diné CARE has addressed a variety of environmental and resources issues, and in recent years has applied information technology tools to its distinctive objectives. In 1996 the organization undertook a forest mapping project aimed at re-forestation in the Chuska Mountains. GIS software was applied to help understand and visualize the effects of 100 years of commercial forestry in these mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border. The resulting database for the Chuska forests was a strong tool for making the case that the destructive impacts of forest practices there needed to be changed. Similarly, the Sanostee Navajo Chapter on the eastern flank of the Chuska Mountains learned how to use the GIS system to develop a forest restoration plan accounting for innumerable species of vegetation, animals, birds, and endangered species in the area, as well as to map grazing areas and sites of cultural and spiritual importance.
Subsequently, working in conjunction with volunteers and outside organizations, Diné CARE made intensive use of GIS tools as part of the Eastern Navajo Health Survey involving five Navajo chapters in New Mexico. Addressing the legacy of uranium mining and milling, this project sent volunteers with hand-held GPS units to interview individuals and families. Information was collected about activities involving sources of daily water, locations for grazing sheep, placement of gardens, sites for growing corn, and many other daily practices. The locations identified through these answers were recorded with the GPS units, and the results were then fed into the GIS database on a personal computer. By correlating this information with sources of radiation contamination on Navajo lands, this database allows the residents to see where they might be exposed to radiation and facilitates collective action to address the most immediately harmful sources. Indeed, this Health Survey provided critical impetus to the successful effort to obtain $10 million in federal funding for additional health risk assessment studies in the area.
Further information about Diné CARE can be found at http://dinecare.indigenousnative.org.
Frost Protection Corporation, Montevideo, Uruguay
Frost Protection Corporation developed and markets a patented mechanical device called Selective Inverted Sink (SIS or TecSIS), which applies fluid dynamics principles to selectively extract the densest and coldest air layers from a stratified atmosphere to protect crops from frost radiation damage. Protection of crops thus can be achieved with lower environmental impacts and energy costs than accompany traditional frost protection methods. The SIS technology is already in use in Europe, New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, and the U.S.
This technology addresses radiation frost, a meteorological phenomenon which causes crops to undergo extreme cold conditions on clear, wind-free nights. It has been estimated that radiation frost causes average annual worldwide crop losses of between 5% and 15% of total production market value. A variety of traditional frost protection methods have been developed to respond to this challenge. These include fans and other wind-generating mechanisms, which tend to be noisy and require substantial energy input, and open-air heaters of various types that burn different kinds of fuel.
In contrast, the SIS is based on the premise that air density is inversely proportional to temperature, and thus the lowest and coldest layers are also the most dense. Accordingly, viewing the atmosphere during a radiation frost as a stratified fluid, it is possible to selectively withdraw the higher density strata. The SIS thus suctions the coldest air through a lateral cylindrical inlet in the lower part of the device. The air is then expelled upward through a horizontal circular outlet in the upper part. An internal propeller gives mechanical energy to the flow, pushing the cold jet upward where it mixes with the increasingly warm strata it encounters. It then spreads horizontally at a height—generally around 100 meters above the outlet—where the resulting mixture has a temperature equal to that of the local environment. This result is achieved through low energy usage, with low noise impacts, and without the burning of fuels as in heaters. In sum, improved crop yields can be achieved with distinctly reduced environmental and energy impacts.
Further information on SIS can be found at www.frostprotection.com.
Dr. Kenneth D. Owens, Jr. and Paul Burgess, Humboldt State University,
Arcata, California, U.S.
Through the work of Dr. Owens, a mathematics professor at Humboldt State University, and with the assistance of Mr. Burgess, also an instructor there, a laptop-based system has been devised for autonomous navigation of mine clearing robots and graphical verification of the progress of these mine clearing operations. This system relieves the strain of continual concentration required of operators of remote controlled mine clearing vehicles. It also allows a higher level of verification of clearing operations, thus facilitating the safer reclaiming of mine-infested land in many parts of the world.
The environmental and safety costs of land mines are tremendous. President Clinton’s recent autobiography (Bill Clinton, My Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) recites that just a few years ago there were about “100 million land mines, mostly relics of past wars, just beneath the surface of the earth in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Many of them had been there for decades but were still lethal; 25 thousand people were killed or maimed by them every year.” On his last full day in office, President Clinton issued a statement on land mines, indicating that since 1993 the U. S. had destroyed more then 3.3 million of our own land mines and spent $500 million to remove mines in 35 countries. Although not usually seen as an environmental issue, there can be no doubt that mines, particularly from past conflicts, constitute a massive contamination of land in many nations and an insidious danger to many populations.
The effort to remove land mines, however, is usually dangerous and imprecise. Dr. Owens and Mr. Burgess have developed a navigational and verification system that can dramatically reduce the danger and improve accuracy. Working in conjunction with the United States Army, they have developed a portable technology system to be deployed with robotic de-mining vehicles. Their system consists of a laptop personal computer, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers with accuracy to two centimeters, an inertial navigation system, and several radios.
The self-steering calculations and mine clearing verification take place on the laptop. To clear a minefield, the robot is remotely controlled to the corners of the field, defining its perimeter. Then the self-steering routine uses real-time kinetic GPS receivers to trace out the self-steering path, in a fashion analogous to an ice skating rink’s Zamboni machine. The vehicle is then instructed to following a moving goal around the path. The graphical verification is displayed on the laptop, thus maintaining a data survey record of the areas covered. The de-mining equipment, in short, can achieve nearly autonomous control, thus adding immeasurably to the success and safety of international efforts to reclaim land from the scourge of mines.
Further information can be found by contacting Dr. Owens at his Web site: http://www.humboldt.edu/~kdo10/.
Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha (SSS), Dakha, Bangladesh
This organization, formed in 1982, is devoted generally to improving the lives of people in rural Bangladesh, with special emphasis on environmental awareness and conservation, watershed management, food security, and the status of women. Specifically, its Mobile Internet-Education Units on Boats (MIEUB) program is an innovative deployment of technology to educate river communities in the remotest parts of Bangladesh on environmental practices concerning agricultural non-point source pollution, fertilizer and pesticide usage, soil and stream bank erosion, sanitary latrine usage, protection of water quality and biodiversity, and other matters.
SSS brings its boats to riverside courtyards and other public places in rural communities. There it conducts evening educational and training programs, using an Internet-connected laptop computer, a multimedia projector, a 12 foot square display screen, and other equipment. It also relies on cellular telephone technology to assist rural organizations, such as water user associations, farmers’ steering committees, and grassroots extension delivery teams, to communicate with each other on development issues. MIEUB’s equipment is operationally flexible enough to be fitted to virtually any type of local country boat, and to be brought to even the most far-flung riverside locations.
By 2004, SSS’s program has been brought to over 263 villages, where villagers—especially female farmers—have become more familiar with the technology and even have begun to customize it to suit their distinctive needs. Over 15,000 farmers have been trained on proper use of fertilizers and pesticides, resulting in reduced usage of chemicals on land and increased agricultural productivity. Similarly, about 4,500 people have been trained in methods for the establishment of tree and grass filter strips, resulting in improved control of soil erosion and pollution runoff through creation of hundreds of acres of riverbank trees and grasses in their communities.
Further information about Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha and its MIEUB program can be found at www.interconnection.org/sss.
The applications for the Intel Environment Award in 2004 offer a remarkable view of the many levels of humanity’s concern for global environmental quality. They also illuminate the extraordinary persistence and richness of humanity’s effort to reverse the tide of environmental degradation and danger.
Kenneth A. Manaster, Chair, Professor of Law, Santa Clara University
Dorothy Glancy, Professor of Law, Santa Clara University
Ed Maurer, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering,
Santa Clara University
Sarah McCue, Senior Partnership Advisor, World Bank Institute
Tatsuo Okada, Executive Director, Global Sports Alliance, Japan
Mike Taylor, President, Syleum, Inc.