July/August 2010

Automation by the Numbers


Swiss researchers marked a major milestone in July in the development of a solar-powered, single-pilot aircraft that they hope will eventually circumnavigate the globe. They kept their craft aloft through an entire night on stored solar energy. The pilot, André Borschberg, chief executive and cofounder of the Solar Impulse project, declared: "I have just flown more than 26 hours without using a drop of fuel and without causing any pollution!" Its wings are covered with 11,000 solar cells, and it uses lightweight composite structural parts and has a wingspan of 210 feet, not far from that of the world's biggest commercial jet, the Airbus A380, which has a wingspan of 260 feet. Keeping the plane's weight down to 3,500 pounds required optimizing electrical components in order to keep battery size as small as possible. Lightweight solar-powered planes could be crucial to conducting long-term surveillance, and that is why various governments, including that of the U.S., have been researching the technology.

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General Electric Co. said it has developed an electric vehicle charger that will reduce the amount of time it takes to replenish depleted batteries. The GE WattStation will be sold in 2011, and GE said a home version will be introduced later this year. The equipment can reduce the time it takes to charge an electric vehicle battery from 12 to 18 hours to around four to eight hours, according to GE. GE is already working on projects with Nissan and the Rocky Mountain Institute to prepare electric vehicles, and it is part owner of the A123 Systems battery maker.

$200 million

General Electric said that it will pledge $200 million to fund new research and development projects meant to create a more energy efficient and environmentally friendly power grid. GE and three venture capital funds are soliciting ideas from entrepreneurs, researchers, and startups. Awards will be announced in November. The fund will focus on smart-grid technology designed to improve the nation's energy network from the power plant to the home. That includes using alternative energies like wind power and developing new products that cut down on energy waste in houses. GE has made a big push into the sector, which Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt estimated is worth up to $20 billion but could grow to $120 billion by 2020.


The latest to join in modernizing water metering is New York City. In July, residents of the Bronx began to see every detail of their water consumption habits in real time, thanks to a $252 million city-wide upgrade of water meters and a new water use and bill tracking system. The New York Times reports that 834,000 customers have a wireless meter already installed and will be able to start using the system immediately. Meters are still being installed, and the effort should be completed by 2012. By consumers having the ability to see how much they're spending on water and where they're using it, they can make immediate changes to their behavior and hopefully conserve more water. Not only that, but the wireless meters also make it easier for the city to collect water bills. The system could lead to tiered pricing, where the biggest consumers pay more per unit of water. Smart water technologies are predicted to be a booming business, hitting an estimated $16.3 billion in the next 10 years.