Why Mobile Technology Matters for the World’s Nomadic Peoples

An ancient way of life discovers newfound viability by drawing on surprisingly modern innovations.

Camels marked with painted brands, though no phone numbers. Image by Mark Hay

A few weeks back, in a passing conversation I heard a story about a strange innovation cooked up by some nomads in a far away country. Looking for a better way to identify their herds and locate them when they wander off, these folks had apparently decided to paint their phone numbers onto the side of their livestock in lieu of abstract brands. To date, I’ve been unable to substantiate this tale (although I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true, as I’ve seen such painted-on characters used as quasi-brands at camel markets in East Africa in the recent past). But even if it is apocryphal, the story is far from absurd. It speaks to a real and verifiable revolution in the world’s nomadic traditions, fueled by the proliferation of cheap communications technology. These simple devices are rapidly conquering the challenges of modernity that have long chipped away at the viability of itinerant herding, laying the grounds for nomadism not just to survive into the new millennium, but to thrive—as few would have imagined—to the benefit of us all.

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Japan Unveils A Pair Of Massive, High-Efficiency, Floating Solar Power Plants

What’s big, “green,” and able to provide clean power for almost a thousand people?

image via youtube screen capture

For those interested in clean renewable energy, we’re living in exciting times. Recent news that we’re adding more green energy capacity every year than that of oil, coal, and gas combined was heralded as “the beginning of the end” for fossil fuels, and every day it seems there are new advances in the field of clean, sustainable power. But, in terms of sheer scale, it’s hard to not be particularly impressed with these massive, solar energy plants unveiled this week in Japan. But it’s not just the staggering size of the solar fields that have observers so excited; It’s the fact that plants this large and this powerful are, in fact, entirely aquatic.

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This $850 Million Solar Plan Will Help Power Everything Apple Does in California

Apple announces plans to spend nearly $1 billion on the largest solar power investment of its kind.

image via (cc) flickr user vladimir.ognjanovic

It was smart of Apple to acquire the iTunes rights for the Beatles song catalog back in 2010. CEO Tim Cook’s announcement this week that the company will be making an unprecedented investment in solar energy should have everyone singing “Here Comes The Sun.”

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America's Solar Industry Tries to Show It's Still on Top

China might sell more solar panels, but the U.S. remains a net exporter of solar goods.

In the past few years, China began making more solar panels than the United States. Workers in China are paid less than workers in America or Australia, and domestic solar companies have begun to confront the idea that they might not be able compete with China on manufacturing costs. But the American solar industry wants to show that there’s more to the solar economy than putting together panels.

A new report, sponsored by a solar industry association and conducted by a renewable energy analysis group, found that American companies are net exporter of solar products, despite importing the panels themselves. Last year, American companies exported $5.63 billion worth of solar products, while taking in $3.75 billion worth, according to the report. American exports to China top imports from there by at least $247 million.

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Military Eco-Chic: Army Uniforms Go Solar Down Under

Wearable solar panels? Australian soldiers could have them in their uniforms in the near future.

From camouflage prints to combat boots, military "fashion" has a long history of infiltrating civilian trends, and a new eco-style about to be piloted by the Australian army may have similar success. Earlier this month, researchers at the Australian National University, working with the country's military, announced that they've created a wearable solar panel.

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Ink-Jet Technology Can Print Cheap Solar Panels

An ink made up of solar-capturing elements can be used to print up solar panels just like regular people print out documents.

The two most important variables for making solar panels ubiquitous are the panel’s efficiency and their cost. A group of researchers at Oregon State University think they’ve found a way to cut costs dramatically: they developed an ink made up of solar-capturing elements that they can print onto solar panelsjust like regular people print out documents from their computer. Now they just need to find a way to make the resulting panels more efficient.

The first solar cells and most solar cells on the market today use crystalline silicon as their base. The most efficient of those cells panels convert about 20 percent of the sunlight they capture into electricity. But they’re expensive, and in the last decade, researchers have been working on a different magic mix of elementscopper indium gallium selenide or CIGSthat could make solar panels cheaper. That’s the substance that the OSU researchers focused on.

The materials themselves are still relatively expensive, but inkjet technology can minimize costs. Traditional solar cell manufacturing methods end up wasting expensive materials. But inkjet printers can deposit the CIGS-based ink onto the solar cell substrate in exactly the desired pattern. The OSU team says the technique they developed will reduce the waste of raw materials by 90 percent.

The resulting cells, however, only convert sunlight into power with 5 percent efficiency, not high enough for the cells to be commercially viable yet. In theory, CIGS-based panels could be enormously efficient: advocates like the OSU researchers point out that a thin layer of this material can capture sunlight as efficiently as a silicon-based cell 25 times as thick. The next step to improving the inkjet printing technology is to make the resulting cells more efficient; CIGS-based solar panels produced by traditional techniques reach efficiency levels as high as 18 percent.

Without increased efficiency, ink-jet printed solar cells have little chance of catching on, even if they are cheaper to produce. Konarka Technologies, a Massachusetts-based company, figured out how to print solar panels back in 2008. But those printers used a third type of solar material, one based on organic materials. Like the OSU technique, the Konarka cells promised to be cheaper than traditional silicon-based cells. But the company has been having a hard time finding a foothold in the market for its products, some of which have a power conversion efficiency of only 2 percent.

The OSU panels are more promising. This is the first time anyone has succeeded in printing out a CIGS-based panel at all, and it's already more efficient that Konarka's printed panels. The OSU team believes that it will be able achieve 12 percent efficiency with the ink-jet technique it developed. And even if the resulting cells aren’t as powerful as the panels gracing rooftops or spreading out in solar farms, they could be more easily and cheaply incorporated into consumer products, making it that much more likely that every little gadget will have a solar panel incorporated into its design.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Engineering at Cambridge

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