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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Japan launches precipitation-measuring satellite in bid to understand world’s weather

February 28, 2014

Following weeks of extreme and highly unpredictable weather all over the world, the launch of a new “precipitation measuring” satellite means we may from now on be more prepared…

Japan has successfully launched a rocket carrying a satellite built to track global rain- and snowfall, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The US-built “Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory” launched at 3.37am (Japan Standard Time) on Friday 28th February from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.  The satellite is part of an international initiative to help us better understand the world’s water cycle and its relationship to storms, droughts and climate change, and is designed to help meteorologists more confidently predict extreme weather such as storms and typhoons.

Steve Neeck, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Earth science flight programs, said of the project:

“Why are we flying GPM? Rain and snowfall affect our daily lives in many ways … The distribution of precipitation … directly affects the availability of fresh water for sustaining life. Extreme precipitation events like hurricanes, blizzards, floods, droughts and landslides have significant socio-economic impacts on our society.”

Indeed, after months of volatile weather, including deadly snowfall in Japan, severe flooding in the UK and a life-threatening Arctic freeze in the US, the promise of a more comprehensive weather observation system could not come at a better time.

The mission to launch the GPM Core satellite has been in place for over a decade. As a continuation of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which began in November 1997, GPM will, among other uses, improve the resolution of images gathered by the TRMM satellite.

JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, and NASA, have collaborated on the project and together have invested over $1.2 billion creating the sophisticated technology.

Designed and built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the GPM Core satellite weighs more than four tons fully fueled. It hosts two instruments to peer inside storms and through cloud layers from an altitude of more than 250 miles, acting like an X-ray for the clouds.

One of the instruments, the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will scan the planet to acquire three-dimensional views of rain and snow showers.

The other, NASA’s GPM Microwave Imager, or GMI, built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. will measure the total precipitation suspended inside clouds and falling to Earth.

“The GMI will sense the total precipitation within all cloudlayers, including, for the first time, light rain and snowfall,” Neeck said. “The DPR will make detailed three-dimensional measurements of precipitation structures and rates as well as particle drop size.”

The information gathered by the Observatory will fill gaps in precipitation data over oceans, remote land masses and other undeveloped regions.

The spacecraft is set to become the centrepiece of a worldwide program to synthesize observations from disparate international satellites into a database of global rainfall and snowfall, which will be accessible every three hours.

Researchers plan to use data from the GPM Core Observatory to calibrate microwave measurements gathered from the network of already-flying international satellite missions (developed by the United States, Japan, France, India and Eumetsat, the European weather satellite agency), creating a uniform dataset scientists can rely on in their work.

“When scientists incorporate data from the international fleet, they can get a snapshot of all precipitation on Earth every three hours” said Gail Skofronick-Jackson, NASA’s deputy GPM project scientist.

In this way, said Riko Oki, JAXA’s lead scientist in the project, the data recorded by GPM Core Observatory “will be to the benefit of all.”

Sources include: space.com; The Japan Times

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First river dolphin species in 100 years discovered in Brazil

January 24, 2014

River dolphins are some of the rarest creatures in the world. With only four species ever before discovered, of which one is already “functionally extinct”, and no new discoveries made since 1918, the revelation of a new species in Brazil has justly made headlines. But it seems that this new family is just as endangered as its relatives… 

Scientists working at the Federal University of Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil, believe they have discovered a new species of river dolphin in the Araguaia river basin. After undertaking close analysis and DNA testing, the team found that a group of dolphins separated by a narrow canal and series of rapids, was a different species to the recognized Amazon river dolphin. The temporarily named “Araguaian boto” or “boto-do-Araguaia”, displayed stark genetic differences to its cousins, constituting “strong evidence that individuals from the Araguaia River represent a distinct biological group”. According to The Independent, the scientists’ research, published in the journal Plos One, suggests that the species most likely separated from other dolphin species more than two million years ago.

Studies of mitochondrial DNA showed that these two species shared no lineage. “The groups that we see, the haplotypes, are much more closely related to each other than they are to groups elsewhere. For this to happen, the groups must have been isolated from each other for a long time.”  said Dr Hrbek of the University. “The divergence we observed is larger than the divergences observed between other dolphin species”.

During observations of the area, which spanned 12 weeks, 120 dolphins were spotted. BBC News reported that the researchers estimate that there are about 1,000 of these creatures living in the river that flows northward for more than 2,600km to join the Amazon.

Sadly, this number is not enough to protect the species and researchers are now concerned about the future of the dolphin suggesting the new species should be categorised as Vulnerable on the Red List. Their study claims that human development is a problem:

“Since the 1960s the Araguaia river basin has been experiencing significant anthropogenic pressure via agricultural and ranching activities, and the construction of hydroelectric dams,” the authors write in their study.

“The dolphins are at the top of the line, they eat a lot of fish,” said Dr Hrbek. “They rob fishing nets so the fishermen tend to not like them, people shoot them.”

Let’s hope that these creatures do not suffer the same fate as its Chinese cousin the Yangtze river dolphin or baiji, which is believed to have gone extinct in about 2006 after a survey recorded no sightings.

Sources include: The Independent; BBC News

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Could your smartphone save your life? App designed to give earthquake warning.

December 3, 2013

A minute may not seem like a long time but when an earthquake is about to hit, a few seconds advance warning can be the difference between life and death…

A smartphone app which alerts users of an impending earthquake between one minute and a few seconds in advance of impact could be ready as early as next year, say scientists at the World Science Forum in Rio de Janiero.

The app, presented by researchers from UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, adapts smartphone functions such as the GPS system and accelerometer (which determines the speed at which the phone is moving) to detect P-wave tremors, their direction and the time they are likely to reach the phone’s location. It also uses algorithms and information from seismic networks to determine the location, strength of the earthquake and time it is likely to reach its zenith – using this information to issue alerts to residents in potentially affected areas.

Those located at the epicenter of the quake will not able to receive the warning via their mobile phones, however data will be transmitted in a chain to other receivers so those at a distance of a few kilometers will be able to glean more information on what is happening where and what is likely to happen next.

“All we need is a telephone at the epicenter of the quake which detects it and sends the information (saying) ‘I felt a jolt, I am in this place’ to a server,” explained Richard Allen, head of the research team at Berkeley University, California.

“There are many phones simultaneously doing this to enable the server to determine the site and magnitude of the quake to send people further away a warning. These warnings include (information on) how much time to the start of the tremor and also its intensity.”

This is precious time for people to find shelter and switch off vehicles or halt production, resulting in safer conditions when the earthquake hits and reducing the risk at large.

Currently smartphones are able to detect magnitude 5 earthquakes up to 10km away, however Allen believes it will not be long before accelerometers are improved enough to detect quakes with a 3 magnitude up to 100km away.

Information on the intensity of the quake also allows communities to make informed decisions about what action they need to take to reduce devastation. 

With 1 billion smartphones in use across the globe, it seems this technology really could save lives.

Sources include: Japan Today, The Nation, SciDev.net

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Nuclear bomb testing a breakthrough in the fight against illegal ivory trading

July 6, 2013

Illegally poached ivory may be able to be tracked using nuclear bomb testing, new sources show. By testing the level of atmospheric carbon left over from nuclear bomb testing, scientists may be able to use the results to date elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns in order to determine whether they have been poached and trafficked illegally.

These findings, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS) last month, may make it much easier to enforce the ivory ban.

An international ban on ivory trading was applied in 1989, after the 1980s played host to the worst ivory poaching in recent history, a decade during which over half of Africa’s elephants were slaughtered for their tusks. Since the ban, the demand for ivory decreased markedly as the threat of extinction of these animals became known to the public.

In recent years, however, conservationists have become increasingly concerned about the growing demand for ivory and for rhinoceros horns, trends which are particularly prevalent in China and other Asian countries, where powdered rhinoceros horn is thought to hold medicinal properties.

It is often difficult to tell which of the tusks and horns amassed by world governments across the decades were poached illegally after the ban had come into play, and whether this is being illegally traded back into the black market. Recent research by scientists working with nuclear bomb testing have devised a manner of dating this ivory and horn to determine which of it pre-dates the trade ban and which has been traded illegally since 1989.

During the Cold War, extensive nuclear weapons testing by participant countries caused the amount of radioactive carbon in the atmosphere to almost double in volume. After 1962, such testing was restricted to underground locations, resulting in a steady decrease in the amount of radiocarbon in the air. These changing levels of radiocarbon are known as the ‘bomb-curve’.

Radioactive carbon is absorbed by the plants and animals with which it comes into contact, making it possible to test samples of animal tissue to reveal the concentration of radioactive carbon within. Using such tests, scientists can accurately determine the year in which the animal died, a step up in accuracy from the traditional dating techniques which rely upon the loss of radiocarbon over time, rather than its present concentration levels. Whilst past techniques could decipher only a tiny, almost imperceptible amount of decay, these new techniques based on nuclear bomb testing are able to pinpoint the date of the animal’s death to an astonishingly accurate level.

Combined with DNA testing, scientists are able to accurately describe both the animal’s region of origin and the date it died. These two factors are important in the fight against illegal ivory and horn poaching and trading, allowing scientists and conservationists to pinpoint the source of the ivory, and when it was initially obtained and traded.

Funding for anti-poaching organisations is somewhat limited, so the ability to determine whether a stockpile of ivory was illegally poached, and how recently, conservationists may direct the limited funding directly to ivory poaching hotspots where animals are increasingly at risk.

Nuclear bomb testing is not limited to the dating of ivory. The technique has wider implications for crime forensics, as it could be used in the future to date human bones, as well as in the art world, used to detect art forgeries.

Sources include BBC and The Guardian

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Japanese pharmaceutical companies form partnership to combat infectious diseases in developing countries

April 10, 2013

Five Japan-based pharmaceutical companies have announced that they will be forming a partnership programme which will target the treatment of infectious diseases in developing countries.

The public-private partnership will be comprised of Takeda, Astellas, Daiichi-Sankyo, Eisai and Shionogi, along with support from the Japanese government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and will be dedicated to the development of vaccines, medicines and diagnostic tools for lesser economically developed countries.

Known as the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund scheme (GHIT), the partnership, which is a first in Japanese healthcare, follows in the same vein as other public-private healthcare models that have been established across Europe. Such models include the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), which supports research into specific high-priority areas in the global medicine research industry, such as resistance to antibiotics. GHIT will see collaboration between drugmakers, universities and research institutions, as they focus their research into HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) such as hookworm infection, schistosomiasis, and trachoma.

The GHIT Fund chair and science adviser to the Japanese government, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, said that GHIT’s priority is to provide fast and impactful research with the spirit of collaboration, and “make tangible the kinds of contribution in innovation” that they feel Japan should be known for. GHIT’s work forms part of Japan’s growth strategies for the country, and hopes to leverage the individual strengths of each pharmaceutical company involved in order to make the most progressive advancements for developing countries.

Eisai, one of the five Japanese pharmaceutical participating organisations, issued a statement, which said that the company believes the scheme will “lead to further global public-private partnerships focused on the development of new drugs and contribute to global health through advances made in new health technologies in Japan.”

Sources include The Japan Daily Press, Zenopa.com

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Solar-powered Wi-Fi pioneered in Kenya

February 15, 2013

Solar-powered Wi-Fi is being introduced to Kenya’s isolated western Rift Valley Province offering local people easy access to the internet for the first time. This pilot project – named Mawingu, the Swahili word for “cloud” – is part of an initiative by Microsoft and local telecoms firms to provide affordable, high-speed wireless broadband to rural areas.

The project region is isolated and living can be hard, with no cash crops, no electricity, no phone lines, and hardly any rain. Gakawa Senior Secondary School is located there about 10 kilometres from Nanyuki town. “For internet access we had to travel 10 kilometres to Nanyuki and it would cost 100 Kenya shillings [about $1.20] to get there,” says Beatrice Nderango, the school’s headmistress. “Internet access is a life-changing experience and it’s going to give both our students and teachers added motivation for learning,” says Nderango. “It will also make my job as headmistress a little easier.”

There is certainly a great demand for internet services across the country. In just 1 year between 2011 and 2012 the number of Kenyan Internet users increased by a staggering 95%. Internet access is mainly through mobile phones, in 2012 over 71% of Kenyans were mobile phone users

However bringing the internet to people in rural areas with no power sources has been a problem until now. Microsoft’s creative and affordable solution is to use solar power, old-fashioned antennas and derelict TV frequencies. Once solar-powered base stations have been built then Microsoft will work with the Kenyan telecom firm Indigo to supply a wireless signal at a bandwidth that falls into what is called the “white spaces” spectrum.

This refers to the bits of the wireless spectrum that are being freed up as television moves from analogue to digital – a set of frequencies between 400 megahertz and about 800 megahertz. These frequencies can penetrate walls, bend around hills and travel much longer distances than the conventional Wi-Fi we have at home. That means that the technology requires fewer base stations to provide wider coverage, and wannabe web surfers in the village need only a traditional TV antenna attached to a smartphone or tablet to access the signal and get online. Microsoft is supplying some for the trial, as well as solar-powered charging stations.

To begin with, Indigo has set up two solar-powered white-space base stations in three villages to deliver wireless broadband access to 20 locations, including schools, healthcare clinics, community centres and government offices.

“Africa is the perfect location to pioneer white-space technology,” says Indigo’s Peter Henderson, thanks to governments’ open-mindedness. Indeed, Kenya has a strong chance of being one of the world leaders in white-space roll-out. While the US has already legalised use of derelict TV bands, it has yet to standardise the database technology that will tell devices which frequencies are free to use at their GPS location.

In the UK, white-space access should finally be up and running by the end of 2013, says William Webb of white-space startup Neul in Cambridge. “White-space trials are also taking place in Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and many other countries – and some of these may move directly to allowing access without needing lengthy consultations,” he says. In many cases, it has been these consultations that have slowed the technology‘s progress.

If the project succeeds and it is rolled out nationwide, as planned, it will mean that Kenya could lead the way with a model of wireless broadband access that in the West has been tied up in red tape. Microsoft future goal is to roll out the initiative to other African nations, such as sub-Saharan countries.

Sources include New Scientist, humanipo.com

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