How to make everything ourselves: open modular hardware Reverting to traditional handicrafts is one way to sabotage the throwaway society. In this article, we discuss another possibility: the design of modular consumer products, whose parts and components could be re-used for the design of other products.
Initiatives like OpenStructures, Grid Beam, and Contraptor combine the modularity of systems like LEGO, Meccano and Erector with the collaborative power of digital success stories like Wikipedia, Linux or WordPress.
An economy based on the concept of re-use would not only bring important advantages in terms of sustainability, but would also save consumers money, speed up innovation, and take manufacturing out of the hands of multinationals.
Slow Electricity: the Return of DC Power? In today's solar photovoltaic systems, direct current power coming from solar panels is converted to alternating current power, making it compatible with a building's electrical distribution.
Because many modern devices operate internally on direct current (DC), alternating current (AC) electricity is then converted back to DC electricity by the adapter of each device.
This double energy conversion, which generates up to 30% of energy losses, can be eliminated if the building's electrical distribution is converted to DC.
How to get your apartment off the grid The typical solar PV power installation requires access to a private roof and a big budget.
However, wouldn't it be possible to get around these obstacles by installing small solar panels on window sills and balconies, connected to a low-voltage direct current (DC) distribution network?
To put this theory to the test, I decided to power Low-tech Magazine's home office in Spain with solar energy, and write my articles off the grid.
How to build a low-tech internet Wireless internet access is on the rise in both modern consumer societies and in the developing world. In rich countries, however, the focus is on always-on connectivity and ever higher access speeds. In poor countries, on the other hand, connectivity is achieved through much more low-tech, often asynchronous networks.
While the high-tech approach pushes the costs and energy use of the internet higher and higher, the low-tech alternatives result in much cheaper and very energy efficient networks that combine well with renewable power production and are resistant to disruptions.
Wind powered factories In the 1930s and 1940s, decades after steam engines had made wind power obsolete, Dutch researchers obstinately kept improving the – already very sophisticated - traditional windmill. The results were spectacular, and there is no doubt that today an army of ecogeeks could improve them even further. Would it make sense to revive the industrial windmill and again convert kinetic energy directly into mechanical energy?
Reinventing the greenhouse Growing fruits and vegetables out of season can also happen in a sustainable way, using the energy from the sun. Contrary to its fully glazed counterpart, a passive solar greenhouse is designed to retain as much warmth as possible.
Research shows that it's possible to grow warmth-loving crops all year round with solar energy alone, even if it's freezing outside. The solar greenhouse is especially successful in China, where many thousands of these structures have been built during the last decades.
Pedal powered farms and factories: the forgotten future of the stationary bicycle If we boost the research on pedal powered technology - trying to make up for seven decades of lost opportunities - and steer it in the right direction, pedals and cranks could make an important contribution to running a post-carbon society that maintains many of the comforts of a modern life. The possibilities of pedal power largely exceed the use of the bicycle.
The Revenge of the Circulating Fan The steadfast rotating fan has been employed to keep people cool since the eighteenth century, and it remains highly effective, requiring much less energy and providing more comfort than air-conditioning. Cooling people by increasing local airflow is at least ten times more energy efficient than refrigerating the air in a given space, and it also adds the benefit of a personally controlled thermal environment.
Back to Basics: Direct Hydropower All hydropower plants today produce electricity. Transforming energy to electricity seems to be the only way to harness water power, but it is not. For almost two thousand years, water wheels powered machines directly via mechanical transmission. The hydro power installations in use today are actually less efficient than those of earlier centuries.
Hand powered drilling tools and machines Hand-powered devices have been used for millennia, but during the last quarter of the 19th century a radically improved generation of tools appeared, taking advantage of modern mass production machinery and processes (like interchangeable parts) and an increased availability in superior material (metal instead of wood). One of the outcomes included an array of new drilling machines, but their heydays were over fast. These human-powered tools were not only a vast improvement over those that came before them, they also had many advantages in comparison to the power drills that we use today.
The bright future of solar powered factories Most of the talk about renewable energy is aimed at electricity production. However, most of the energy we need is heat, which solar panels and wind turbines cannot produce efficiently. To power industrial processes like the making of chemicals, the smelting of metals or the production of microchips, we need a renewable source of thermal energy. Direct use of solar energy can be the solution, and it creates the possibility to produce renewable energy plants using only renewable energy plants, paving the way for a truly sustainable industrial civilization.
Human powered cranes and lifting devices From the earliest civilisations right up to the start of the Industrial Revolution, humans used sheer muscle power, organisation skills and ingenious mechanics to lift weights that would be impossible to handle by most power cranes in operation today.
The velomobile: high-tech bike or low-tech car? Pedalling a "velomobile" requires three to four times less energy than pedalling a normal bicycle.
While electric velomobiles have a speed and range that is comparable to that of electric cars, they are up to 80 times more efficient. About a quarter of the existent wind turbines would suffice to power as many electric velomobiles as there are people.
Restoring the old way of warming: heating people, not places These days, we provide thermal comfort in winter by heating the entire volume of air in a room or building. In earlier times, our forebear's concept of heating was more localized: heating people, not places.
They used radiant heat sources that warmed only certain parts of a room, creating micro-climates of comfort. These people countered the large temperature differences with insulating furniture, such as hooded chairs and folding screens, and they made use of additional, personal heating sources that warmed specific body parts.
The mechanical transmission of power: Jerker line systems From the 1860s to 1940s, many oil wells were pumped by a technology that originates in a sixteenth-century power transmission system used in the mining industry. One engine operated up to 45 pumps in different locations, each up to a mile away. Power was transmitted by means of wooden rods or steel cables that moved back and forth, snaking through the landscape.
The system was so efficient that an engine used for pumping an oil well could operate a whole cluster of pump jacks. The technology, which still operates in a handful of small oil fields, could also work with renewable energy sources, and shows great potential for efficient small-scale energy use.
The mechanical transmission of power: Endless rope drives You don't need electricity to send or receive power quickly. In the second half of the nineteenth century, we commonly used fast-moving ropes. These wire rope transmissions were more efficient than electricity for distances up to 5 kilometres.
Even today, a nineteenth-century rope drive would be more efficient than electricity over relatively short distances. If we used modern materials for making ropes and pulleys, we could further improve this forgotten method.
Recycling animal and human dung is the key to sustainable farming Flushing the water closet is handy, but it wreaks ecological havoc, deprives agricultural soils of essential nutrients and makes food production dependent on fossil fuels.
For 4,000 years, human excrements and urine were considered extremely valuable trade products in China, Korea and Japan. Human dung was transported over specially designed canal networks by boats.
Thanks to the application of human "waste" products as fertilizers to agricultural fields, the East managed to feed a large population without polluting their drinking water. Meanwhile, cities in medieval Europe turned into open sewers. The concept was modernized in late 19th century Holland, with Charles Liernur's sophisticated vacuum sewer system.
Aerial Ropeways: automatic cargo transport for a bargain These days, we use them almost exclusively to transport skiers and snowboarders up snow slopes, but before the 1940s, aerial ropeways were a common means of cargo transport, not only in mountainous regions but also on flat terrain, with large-scale systems already built during the Middle Ages. Cargo tramways can be fully or partly powered by gravity, and some deliver excess power that can be utilized to generate electricity or to drive cranes or machinery in nearby factories. Some innovative systems have been constructed in recent years.
Wood gas vehicles : firewood in the fuel tank Wood gas cars (also known as producer gas cars) are a not-so-elegant but surprisingly efficient and ecological alternative to their petrol (gasoline) cousins, whilst their range is comparable to that of electric cars.
UNESCO sets up online traditional knowledge base The freshly launched "International Traditional Knowledge Institute" (ITKI) is an ambitious effort to preserve, restore and promote the re-use of traditional skills and inventions from all over the world. It includes an online encyclopaedia of low-tech know-how, though it will take many years before it is completed.
Sunbathing in the living room : oven stoves are greener, more efficient, healthier, safer and cosier than all modern heating systems. Why are they gone and how do we get them back?
Get wired (again): trolleybuses and trolleytrucks Greening public transportation and cargo traffic, on the other hand, could be done fast with existing technology for a reasonable price - if we opt for the trolleybus and the trolleytruck.
How to downsize a transport network: the Chinese wheelbarrow For being such a seemingly ordinary vehicle, the wheelbarrow has a surprisingly exciting history. This is especially true in the East, where it became a universal means of transportation for both passengers and goods, even over long distances. The Chinese wheelbarrow - which was driven by human labour, beasts of burden and wind power - was of a different design than its European counterpart. By placing a large wheel in the middle of the vehicle instead of a smaller wheel in front, one could easily carry three to six times as much weight than if using a European wheelbarrow.
The solar envelope: how to heat and cool cities without fossil fuels Designing a single, often free-standing, passive solar house is quite different from planning a densely populated city where each building is heated and cooled using only natural energy sources.
And yet, if we want passive solar design to be more than just a curiosity, this is exactly what we need. Modern research, which combines ancient knowledge with fast computing techniques, shows that passive solar cities are a realistic option, allowing for surprisingly high population densities.
The art of producing sustainable consumer goods: basketry The craft of basketry might be one of our species’ most important and diverse technologies, creating homes, boats, animal traps, armour, tools, cages, hats, chariots, weirs, beehives, shelters and furniture, as well as all manner of containers. Basket weaving makes use of fast-growing biodegradable materials -- branches, twigs or shoots -- that requires the forest to be cultivated rather than cleared. Basketry allows almost anyone, with little or no money and few tools, to create a large variety of useful goods in a way that is one hundred percent sustainable.
Cargo cyclists replace truck drivers on European city streets Those with strong cycling legs have ever more jobs up for grabs in Europe these days. A growing number of businesses are using cargo cycles, a move towards sustainable and free-flowing city traffic that is now strongly backed by public authorities. A cargo cycle is at least as fast as a delivery van in the city - and much cheaper to use, giving a strong economic incentive to make the switch. Cargo cycles also bring important economic advantages to tradesmen, artisans and service providers.
How to keep beverages cool outside the refrigerator In the industrialized world, we know only of one way to cool beverages: place containers in refrigerators. This practice, which occurs on a massive scale, is utterly dependent on fossil fuels. However, people obtained the same result much more sustainably before the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
In hot, dry climates, we used porous earthenware jugs that were not only re-usable, but also kept water cool by taking advantage of natural energy sources. The best known example is the Spanish 'botijo', an unglazed ceramic container that cools beverages by evaporation.
Saving food from the fridge Korean artist Jihyun Ryou, a graduate of the Dutch Design Academy Eindhoven, translates traditional knowledge on food storage into contemporary design. She found the inspiration for her wall-mounted storage units while listening to the advice of her grandmother, a former apple grower, and other elderly. Her mission: storing food outside the refrigerator.
The pinhole camera : low-tech photography It might be useful to remember that a camera is nothing more than a darkened box with a small opening and a shutter, as demonstrated by the pinhole camera. In many senses, this device is the very opposite of the latest digital cameras.
Tiles as a substitute for steel The crafstmanship associated with timbrel vaulting has long vanished, but the achievements are still with us today.
We don't need any new infrastructure, what we need is to clear the existing infrastructure of inefficient vehicles and replace them with efficient ones. In other words: give all streets, highways, cloverleaves and motorways exclusively to bicycles and all other human powered wheeled vehicles. Get rid of cars. Why make things so complicated if the solution is so simple?
Heat your house with car tyres and earth Building houses out of car tyres and cans might sound unconventional, but the ecological benefit of an earthship is so large that the concept deserves to be given some serious consideration.
Sailing at the touch of a button : we have computer-controlled windmills, why not computer-controlled sailing cargo vessels?
Life without airplanes: from London to New York in 3 days and 12 hours Before mass air travel took off in the 1960s, people crossed the globe in majestic passenger ships. Reintroducing ocean liners would be more than a nostalgic move: it could be a much more energy efficient (yet slower) way to travel.
Lego for Big Boys : habitable shipping containers Cars, washing machines, televisions: almost everything we can buy today is assembled on the conveyor belt of some factory. But our houses are still built on the spot by a team of workers. Accompanied by lots of noise for the neighbours, and hampered by the weather. That could change: a growing number of architects see the very thing in habitable shipping containers.
Bring back the horses Reintroducing horses in city traffic would be a bad idea - cars might be noisy, dangerous and polluting, but mounts are even worse. In agriculture, however, animal power would bring surprisingly large environmental profits. Replacing tractors with real horse power could be the revolution that agriculture needs.
The dustcarts of the sea Considering that the oceans hold more garbage than fish by now, this might be the right time to retrain our fishermen and let them hunt for litter.
Green, slow air cargo Air freight is the most ecologically damaging mode of transport. It becomes the most eco-friendly option if speed is reduced.
Floating Windmills: energy from the clouds At great heights the wind blows much more powerfully and steadily than it does at lower altitudes. Some companies are convinced that there lies an opportunity to generate cheap, durable energy.
The revival of the sailing ship Considering the wind as an extra source of power, the fuel use of cargo ships can be reduced substantially.
How to make your own low-tech vertical farm The ingenious low-cost vertical farms of Willem Van Cotthem are within reach of everybody.
The age of speed : how to reduce global fuel consumption by 75 percent Engineers treat velocity as a non-variable, while in fact it is the most powerful factor to save a really huge amount of energy - with just one stroke, at minimal cost, and without the need for new technology.
Gaming unplugged The newest generation of board games is more fascinating than most computer games
Solar powered cars If racing cars can drive on solar energy, then why do normal cars still need fossil fuels?
Water powered cable trains Cable trains (or funiculars) are one of the most energy-efficient modes of transport out there. Many historical systems used this efficiency and took it one step further with systems exclusively powered by water and gravity.
Build your own windturbine : building plans for the low-tech "Windbelt".
Trolley canal boats For many centuries, canal boats were propelled by men, horses or mules on the towpath beside the water. Before diesel power took over, engineers developed several interesting methods powered by electricity: trolleyboats, floating funiculars and electric mules. Many of these ecological solutions could be applied today instead of diesel engines.