Nissan launches electric cars in China

September 12, 2014

Nissan Motor Co. has launched an electric car known as the Venucia on to the Chinese market. In doing so, it becomes the first Japanese automobile company to sell such an eco-friendly car in China – the largest vehicle market in the world.

Nissan collaborated with Chinese automaker Dongfeng Motor Co. to develop the Venucia e30.

‘With Nissan Global’s advanced technology, sales experience and know-how of electric vehicle, the Venucia e30 has been locally developed through our careful studies about market situations and consumer needs in China‘ said Jun Seki, President of Dongfeng Motor Co.

The Venucia is closely based on the Leaf electric car launched in Japan in 2010, and functions in a similar manner, despite having undergone some styling alterations. The Venucia can be fully charged in 4 hours via a household socket and is thought to be 7 times more economical than petrol models in the country. After a full-charge, the car can travel up to 175km. 

Nissan will manufacture the vehicle at a factory in Guangzhou and hopes to sell 50,000 of the models in 2018. By this time, the company also aims to have taken a 20% share of the Chinese market for electric vehicles.

The Venucia will retail at around 267,800 yuan, or around ¥4.7 million (GBP 27,000), for the cheapest model, and will be eligible for the Chinese government’s tax exemption for electric cars –  introduced to help reduce air pollution in the country.

‘I am looking forward to seeing the Venucia e30 lead China’s electric-vehicle market into the future and also to more development of new energy vehicles and the wide adoption of electric vehicles in China.’ said Seki.

Sources: The Japan Times; EV Fleet World

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Languages dying out faster than biodiversity

September 7, 2014

A new study by the University of Cambridge has found that economic growth and prosperity is causing some languages to die out.

The study, published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B., found that the more successful a country was economically, the more rapidly its languages were being lost.

Economically well-developed regions such as north-western North America and northern Australia were identified as hotspots for language loss, along with countries currently experiencing rapid economic growth, including areas of the tropics and the Himalayas.

The study found that aboriginal languages in Australia are now disappearing from the northern territories. In North America, languages such as Upper Tanana, a language spoken by indigenous Athabaskan people in eastern Alaska, were also at risk of extinction. It was found to have only 24 active speakers in 2009, and was no longer being acquired by children.In Europe too, numbers of speakers of minority languages such as Ume Sami in Scandinavia or Auvergnat in France are rapidly declining.

Lead author, Dr Tatsuya Amano claimed that around 25% of the world’s languages are under threat.

The study however could only glean details about the rate of decline or growth for 9%, or 649, of the 6909 languages surveyed.

Applying criteria used to identify endangered species (including small population size, small geographical habitat range and population change) to huge language datasets the researchers found that levels of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita correlated most with the loss of language diversity.

“As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres.

“People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold – economically and politically,” said Dr Amano of the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.

He emphasised that in the interests of the conservation of human cultural diversity, efforts need to be made to protect these at-risk languages, particularly those found in the tropics and the Himalayas. “These countries are experiencing rapid economic growth, so in the near future these languages will face risk of extinction,” he said.

The work undertaken to protect Welsh in the UK was given as a good example for a successful strategy for language preservation.

Daniel Kaufman, executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance commented on the research: “Environmental factors have been overshadowed by social, political and economic factors.

“We are now seeing a pattern of linguistic diversity that was originally shaped by the environment give way to a pattern that is being shaped by policy and economic realities.

“The environmental pattern at this point is largely historical residue. That is, we will no longer see areas of a particular environmental type attract or spawn language diversity. The economic aspect, however, cannot be overemphasized, as there are places within the language diversity ‘hotspots’ where whole villages are being emptied out due to out-migration.

“Because much of this migration is recent and undocumented, accurate numbers are unfortunately not readily available for statistical analysis.”

Source: BBC News; International Business Times

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Google tests delivery drones

August 29, 2014

Google’s secret research department, Google X, has built and tested autonomous aerial drones as part of a long term plan to offer speedy deliveries to remote areas and disaster zones, the company revealed.

The project, entitled Project Wing, has been running for two years but was not revealed by the company until now.  According to Google, the self-flying machines could be used after earthquakes, floods, or extreme weather events, to take small items such as medicines or batteries to people in areas that conventional vehicles cannot reach.

The idea was originally conceived as a way to deliver defibrillator kits to people suspected to be having heart attacks quicker than an ambulance would reach them.

The prototype drones have been tested successfully in Queensland, Australia – and were set up to deliver packages to remote farms in the area. Australia‘s progressive rules regarding the use of drones, which are laxer than those of other countries, led to Google’s decision to test the machines down under.

Unlike some military controlled drones which are often controlled remotely by a pilot on the ground, Project Wing’s vehicles are programmed with a destination and are then able to fly there automatically.

The protoypes have a wingspan of approximately 1.5m (4.9ft) and four electrically-driven propellers. They weigh approximately 8.5kg (18.7lb) and around 10kg with a package attached.

The drones can take off or land without a runway, and can hold their position hovering in one spot. They can also fly quickly and efficiently, allowing them to cover large distances.

“Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation,” explained Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots – Google X’s name for big-thinking projects.

The company said the machines may be used in the future to deliver items bought online to consumers. This follows online retailer Amazon’s announcement of a similar drone delivery service last year.

Source: BBC News

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US engineers build self-folding origami robot

August 15, 2014

A group of engineers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have succeeded in creating a self-assembling robot.

The robot’s assembly process relies upon origami, a traditional Japanese paper-folding craft.

Made from a composite sheet of paper, polystyrene and a circuit board, the machine can fold itself up from a flat sheet into a four-legged beetle-like form, and crawl away autonomously. The design also includes two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller. Hinges were programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits that produce heat on command from the microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens – making the robot stiff – and the microcontroller then signals the robot to crawl away at a speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour.

“We were originally inspired by making robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” says Sam Felton, doctoral student at Harvard and lead author of the paper described in Science. “The long-term plan is printable manufacturing; the short-term plan is building robots that can go into places where people can’t go.”

The robot is controlled by a timer which means that 10 seconds after the battery is inserted it will begin assembly.

Felton came upon the final design after testing around 40 prototypes. He fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and his hands. Assembly took around 2 hours.

As the pre-stretched polystyrene hardens after assembly, the robot cannot yet unfold itself and return to a flat sheet form.

‘There is a great deal that we can improve based on this foundational step,’ said Felton. He plans to experiment with different kinds of shape memory polymers, including those that are stronger and require less heat to activate.

The potential applications of this type of machine are wide-ranging, stretching beyond the cheap manufacturing of robots.

‘Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there – they could take images, collect data, and more,’  said Felton.

Source: The Engineer; Bloomberg Businessweek 

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Scientists map wheat genome

July 17, 2014

Bread is a staple food for one third of the world’s population, and accounts for a huge 20 per cent of the world’s calorie intake.

In terms of science however, wheat has been rather overlooked. Until now that is.

Since 2011, scientists and members of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, have worked to find out what exactly the humble grain is made of. On Tuesday, they published the first draft genome sequence of “common” or “bread wheat”: an accomplishment which they believe could help farmers meet the ever-increasing demand for a high-quality crop – something which is particularly important in the context of climate change and an ever-growing population.

The research, published in the journal Science on Tuesday, reveals the result of what has been nearly 3 years work and around USD 68 million. The team of scientists, including researchers from Germany, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Canada has so far succeeded in deciphering the blueprint for nearly all the genes of bread wheat and roughly 60 percent of the whole genome.

The unusual size and form of the genome made the sequencing especially difficult for the team, the article said. Indeed, that of wheat contains a staggering 100,000 or so genes, 5 times more than the human genome, which contains roughly 20,000.

The largely repetitive nature of the wheat genome also made its untangling more difficult.

The advantages of the project are manifold. “Wheat improvement is crucial to ensure food security and the development of sustainable agriculture in a context of climate change and growing population,” said Frederic Choulet, plant genomicist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and one of the lead researchers on the project.

The new draft genome is also expected to significantly decrease the time it will take to identify and isolate genes of interest to plant breeders, such as those which express resistance to heat, stress, insects, or disease.

The consortium plans to finish the full genome within three years. “We have a clear path forward for completing high quality sequences of all bread wheat chromosomes,” said Kellye Eversole, the consortium’s executive director.

Source: The Japan Times; National Geographic

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Blooming bouquets! Japanese scientists discover flower aging cure

July 4, 2014

morning-glory-173440_640Japanese Scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, claim to have found a way to delay the aging process in flowers by up to half, keeping bouquets fresh for longer.

Discovery of the gene believed to be responsible for the short shelf-life of flowers in one Japanese variety of morning glory is responsible for the breakthrough. By suppressing this gene — named “EPHEMERAL1″ — scientists found the life span of each flower was almost doubled.

“Morning glory” is the name for a large group of flowering plants whose petals unfurl early in the day and begin to fade and curl by nightfall. So far, the scientists have managed to isolate the aging gene in just one variety of Japanese morning glory but believe these methods could be applied to other flower species.

“Unmodified flowers started withering 13 hours after they opened, but flowers that had been genetically modified stayed open for 24 hours,” said Kenichi Shibuya, one of the lead researchers in the study carried out jointly with Kagoshima University.

This means the plant has fresh purple flowers alongside the paler blooms from the previous day, he said.

This gene is linked to petal aging, the researchers discovered. Although the scientists have only modified the genes of living flowers in the study, their discovery could lead to  the development of methods to extend the life of cut flowers.

“It would be unrealistic to modify genes of all kinds of flowers, but we can look for other ways to suppress the (target) gene . . . such as making cut flowers absorb a solution that prevents the gene from becoming active,” said Shibuya.

Some florists currently use chemicals to inhibit ethylene, a plant hormone which sometimes causes blooms to ripen, in the preparation of some cut flowers. This does not always help as ethylene is not present in the aging process of some very popular flowers, such as lilies, tulips and irises.

A gene similar to EPHEMERAL1 could be responsible for petal aging in these plants, Shibuya said, meaning the ability to suppress it would extend their life.

Source: The Japan Times

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Bhutan looks to Japan for help in introducing electric vehicles

July 3, 2014

The tiny Asian nation of Bhutan has a very big goal, to convert the country’s vehicles to electric power. The Bhutanese people’s culture has a deep respect for the environment, which is reflected in the Prime Minister’s decision in favour of zero emission vehicles.

Currently Bhutan’s main export is clean electricity from hydroelectric plants, which is sold to neighboring India. But most of the revenue from those sales at present goes to importing fossil fuels for transportation.

Following an economic crisis, the kingdom banned the import of new vehicles in March 2012, and subsequently imposed a “green tax” on all vehicles: 20 percent on those with engines of 1.8 liters or more, 5 percent on those below.

Prime Minister Tobgay announced his plan to reduce the country’s oil imports by 70 percent last December. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn followed this in February with an announcement of an agreement between the nation and the carmaker to provide electric vehicles for the country.

The opportunity to sell zero-emission electric cars was underscored by the Japanese carmaker Nissan’s simultaneous announcement that it had appointed a national sales company for the kingdom, named Thunder Motors. Nissan and Thunder will work together to develop localized versions of the company’s electric vehicles designed for conditions in the Himalayan nation, whose average elevation is 8,000 feet above sea level.

The first stage of the program is for Nissan Leaf electric cars to become both Bhutanese government vehicles and taxi cabs in the capital city of Thimphu.The Nissan Leaf is the most successful electric car in history, with over 100,000 sold.

Based on World Bank data for 2009, Bhutan has just 46 passenger vehicles per 1,000 people, meaning that its 742,000 citizens operate roughly 34,000 cars. Ghosn announced that Nissan hopes to sell “hundreds of cars” in the short term and “thousands” soon thereafter.

Though Nissan is be the world’s largest producer of battery-electric vehicles,  it will not have an exclusive on electric-car imports to Bhutan.

The Nissan CEO told Green Car Reports: “We welcome others, Nissan is most able to compete when buyers compare the performance, price, and customer satisfaction of the Leaf against any other electric vehicle.”

The big picture, Ghosn suggested, is that Bhutan can provide an inspiration, perhaps even a model, for emerging nations as they look toward expanding vehicle sales.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged this week that the “government and private sector of Japan will examine what we can do” to support Bhutan’s plan to introduce electric vehicles.

Tobgay is the first prime minister of Bhutan to make an official visit to Japan since the two nations established diplomatic relations in 1986. On his recent visit Tobgay said he told Abe that Bhutan wants to introduce the vehicles to help conserve the environment and to reduce spending on oil imports.

Tobgay also took the time to convey his country’s appreciation for a recently signed grants agreement with Japan for underprivileged farmers.

“This assistance has been instrumental in improving the livelihood of farmers through increased productivity, and contributing to the nation’s effort to achieve food self-sufficiency and security,” he said.

During the talks, Abe also briefed Tobgay on Japan’s intention to become a “proactive contributor to peace” through international cooperation, in the light of China’s apparent willingness to pursue claims for territory and other resources in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We reaffirmed our commitment to the U.N. Charter and its purposes, including the peaceful settlement of disputes based on the principle of international law,” Tobgay said.

 

Sources: Japan Times, Green Car Reports

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