Thursday, September 24, 2009

Enjoy “Take a Child Outside Week”

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Enjoy “Take a Child Outside Week”

Today marks the beginning of “Take a Child Outside Week,” which is an initiative that’s being promoted around the country by environmental educators, including many in central Illinois. In the words of organizers, the aim of “Take a Child Outside Week” is “to help break down obstacles that keep children from discovering the natural world.”

For some thoughts on how parents and caregivers might mark this occasion, I checked in recently with Judy Miller, who is the Environmental Program Manager of the Urbana Park District. Miller is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable naturalist who is eager to share ideas about how people can connect with the natural world.

Her first suggestion was to check out the Urbana Park District’s “Wild about Parks” program, which is designed as a way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Anita Purves Nature Center. In keeping with the spirit of the nature center, this program encourages people to get outside and explore.

Participants start by obtaining a booklet of clues, which can either be picked up at the nature center or downloaded from the web. The clues lead to small, weather-proof boxes that have been placed at various parks and facilities. Materials in the boxes, developed by the Park District’s environmental educators, provide information about the locations where they are found and about the plants and animals that occur there.

Participants keep a record of what they have found by marking their “Wild about Parks” booklet with the unique stamp kept in each box. A separate notebook that stays in the box enables participants to leave a mark or a message to the other people who find it.

Naturally before I suggested this activity to others I had to try it myself, so I popped over to Crystal Lake Park over lunch one day last week to locate the “Wild about Parks” box there. I won’t be giving too much away to say it contains a sheet telling about the ancient oaks found in the park and about cedar waxwings, distinctive birds that can be also observed there.

On my brief quest I was glad to confirm a point Judy Miller had made with regard to the “Wild about Parks” program, that it’s as much about the experiences one enjoys in the course of the search as it is about finding the box. Being at Crystal Lake Park that afternoon I saw things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, from warblers flitting about in the dense growth by the lake to small fish feeding on the insects drifting in the current of the Saline Branch.

The first set of clues for the “Wild about Parks Program” has been available for some time already, but the second set is being made available today to mark the beginning of “Take a Child Outside Week.”

Of course, celebrating “Take a Child Outside Week” need not include participating in any program at all, and when I spoke with Judy Miller she also had thoughts on enjoying the natural world at home. She pointed out that Fall is a great time of year to watch for creatures migrating on the wing, from dragonflies and monarch butterflies, which can be observed near ground level, to nighthawks and other birds that pass by high overhead. She also noted that there is no end of ways for children to enjoy trees in the fall, from collecting and comparing the acorns and nuts on the ground, to watching the leaves change colors and playing in them as they come down.

To discover these pleasures children need only be outside, so if you can, why not help them get there this week?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Solar Decathlon provides UI students experience creating sustainable house

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Solar Decathlon provides UI students experience creating sustainable house

[Information about this weekend's open house available at the Gable Home web site:]

Over the course of the past three months, students and faculty advisors from the University of Illinois have been completing construction of a small house near the College of ACES library on campus in Urbana. With an interior area of only 565 square feet, it’s a much smaller structure than most Americans might picture in association with the word “house.” But it’s certainly a building with many stories.

One important story is its reason for being. The Gable Home, as it is called, is not meant for a family to live in, but to represent the U of I at the 2009 Solar Decathlon. This competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, will bring together 20 teams from select post-secondary institutions around the world to set up houses on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in October. [Photos: upper, the house nearly ready for visitors; lower, solar panels being installed back in July.] Entries in the contest will be judged by their architectural integrity and aesthetic appeal, as well as how they meet demands for energy.

The most practical way to make a house that can meet all of its energy needs with solar power is to greatly reduce those needs through conservation. Thus the creators of the Gable Home are aiming for the most rigorous current benchmark for energy efficiency in building, the Passive House standard. Adherence to this standard, which is widely employed in Europe, and is promoted by the Passive House Institute U.S. located right in Urbana, reduces energy use by 90% compared to conventional construction.

The Gable Home minimizes thermal losses by means of exterior walls that incorporate an extraordinary amount of insulation, from about 9” where they are thinnest to 14” where they’re thickest. The innovative framing used in the walls, a thin bamboo laminate called Lamboo, was chosen over steel because it conducts less heat between the interior and exterior of the house than steel would.

The windows of the Gable Home, which comprise three panes of glass in an argon filled frame, also serve to prevent thermal loss better than standard double panes. In addition, the windows on the south wall of the house are much larger than those on the north, which will allow it to take advantage of the free heat provided by the low sun in winter.

Conserving energy is only part of the game at the Solar Decathlon, since teams also earn points by performing the tasks of everyday life, including cooking, washing dishes and doing laundry, as well as running a computer and a television. The creators of the Gable Home anticipate that it will generate more electricity than it uses by means of the solar panels on its roof. This will earn them points in the competition and enable them to sell electricity back to the grid over the life of the house.

To the credit of everyone involved, the Gable Home is characterized by attention to issues of sustainability beyond energy use. Its exterior siding is made from wood that was salvaged from a barn on the family farm of student working on the project. Similarly, the deck around the house and the handicapped-accessible ramp leading up to it are constructed with wood that was reclaimed from a grain elevator taken down in west Champaign last year. The new products used to finish the house, from the paint to the flooring to the furniture were also selected with regard to their environmental impact.

While the Gable Home won’t actually provide anyone with a place to live, the process of creating it has provided some 200 University of Illinois students from many different disciplines with direct experience in the design and construction of a sustainable house.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

University of Illinois researchers developing better method to measure carbon content of soil

University of Illinois researchers developing better method to measure carbon content of soil

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One effect of a cap and trade policy for carbon emissions would be to make it profitable to devise ways of storing carbon in the ground. People in Illinois think of FutureGen when they hear this. That’s the plan to inject carbon released by coal-fired power generation into deep underground rock formations. But there are also low-tech ways of storing carbon in the earth, much closer to the surface. Modified tilling methods and patterns of crop rotation can help sequester the carbon that is captured by growing crops.

Of course, credit to landholders for increasing the carbon content of soil would have to be based on accurate before-and-after measurements of soil carbon stocks on a very large scale.

Currently, there is no efficient way of making such measurements. To be sure, scientists are able to determine accurately the percentage of carbon contained in a sample of soil. But in order to do that they must collect it, bring it into a lab, dry it, grind it, run it through a sieve, and then burn it away in a very fancy combustion chamber. This process is labor intensive, time-consuming and expensive. And even when the data derived from it are incorporated with other information into comprehensive modeling systems, the result is only a rough estimate of the carbon content in soil for large areas.

Working with support from the recently established Environmental Change Institute at the University of Illinois, researchers Willie Dong and Nick Glumac are collaborating to develop a faster, cheaper, more accurate way to assess soil organic carbon stocks on a large scale.

Dong, who is a professor in the Environmental Change Institute, and Glumac, who is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, say they are currently nearing completion of the first step toward this goal, which is to adapt a process called “laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy” to accurately measure the percentage of carbon in soil samples in a lab.

That’s both simpler and more complicated than it sounds.

It means using a laser to vaporize a small amount of soil and then analyzing the light emitted by the resulting plasma to determine what elements were contained in the sample and in what concentrations. Do you remember in science class when you learned that astronomers understand the makeup of stars by analyzing the light they produce? The principle here is the same. The challenge is refining the process to minimize false positive results for carbon from other elements in the sample, but resolution of that issue is within reach.

The next step toward the overall goal will be to modify components of the laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy system for use in the field. This means incorporating the laser and the plasma light receiver into a probe that can be inserted into the ground, and figuring out how to mount all of the necessary apparatus on a mobile platform, such as a flatbed truck. Ultimately this set-up will enable researchers to move across the land and measure the carbon content of soil at many points right in the field, instead of bringing soil samples into a lab for processing and analysis. In combination with other data, these measurements will allow researchers to accurately estimate the total amount of carbon in a given volume of land.

Whether or not it becomes profitable to store carbon in soil will depend on what kind of policy Congress and the President develop to address climate change—and the process of developing that may be more complicated than laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.

Below you can link to a video on this topic by John E. Marlin from the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Illinois

Zapping Dirt in the Search for Soil Carbon from ASAP Illinois on Vimeo.