Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Next generation affordable housing

I tend to spend quite a bit of time thinking about how some of the technical advances we have been making recently can be applied to improving quality of life for folks around the world. Hydroponics, aquaponics, cheap power generation, water distillation / filtration, atmospheric water extraction, housing, medical services, different applications for recycled materials, etc.

Recently I have been thinking alot about the various options for prefab and recycled housing and temporary shelters. There are quite a few interesting projects based on the Mongolian yurt (about $15-$90 USD per square foot), some interesting portable solutions for the homeless (about $500 USD per unit), and some interesting projects for permanent housing using shipping containers ($90-$150 USD per square foot) among others.

Now, the motivation for using shipping containers is multifaceted. For one thing, they are relatively cheap - used ones start at around $1200 USD and new ones can be bought for $6000 USD. They also have been piling up in US ports, as they are cheap enough that it is not worth shipping them back empty to countries that have an export imbalance with the US. Second, they are very solidly constructed for the transport of dense and heavy loads, and can hold up under a fairly wide variety of environmental conditions. Easy to transport to housing locations, of course, as they are designed for trucking applications. Sandblasting to remove existing coatings or residues is cheap and can be done by hand, and with a two layer coating of a ceramic paint, an R value of 28 is fairly easy to achieve. Further, they age fairly gracefully, and modular designs are easy and mostly a matter of stacking and cutting. Once stacked and cut, finish construction is relatively cheap and can often be done by the homeowner - run plumbing and electrical, install wallboard, floors, windows, doors, and fixtures.

Adam Kalkin is one architect who has been doing quite a bit of really interesting high end design and construction using prefab aircraft hangars and shipping containers. His Quik House project is an example of how to build cheaper high end housing, and runs approximately $184k USD for a 2000 square foot house using 6 shipping containers, coming in at around $92 USD per square foot.

It should be possible to reduce the costs for a shipping container based design by focusing on minimal amenities, smaller size, and functionality rather than focusing on the high end. A fully featured two container design (~700 square feet) could be finished for as little as $35k USD, or around $50 per square foot. Which is a pretty good figure for fully featured housing.

All of which implies that there ought to be an 'open source' housing project based around using used shipping containers as modular structural components. Various designs, suggestions for construction methods, coatings, fittings, and whatnot. Such an open source project could provide some housing options that are significantly more affordable than traditional construction methods and readily available to all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Are commercially viable and functionally efficient electric vehicles finally almost here?

The evolution of commercially viable electric and hybrid vehicles has been a long process, and from the sidelines it has been a sometimes painful process to watch.

For hybrid vehicles it has been clear that diesel hybrids make more sense than gasoline hybrids from an engineering standpoint, especially considering the efficiency of next generation diesel motors and generators. Unfortunately the traditional antipathy in the american marketplace towards diesel has led to a great deal of international work on standard gasoline hybrids and much less work on diesel hybrids except for industrial and commercial applications where the bias against diesel fuel is minimal or nonexistent. This is only just beginning to change.

Another key component for both electric and hybrid vehicles has been the disadvantages associated with battery based energy storage. Primarily the low energy density, slow recharge time, limited lifespans, and high costs. These issues are, however, being addressed as fundamental improvements to battery technologies like Li-ion and others are improving recharge time, energy density, lifespan, and addressing overall cost and recyclability issues. In addition, ultra capacitors address the problems associated with electrical energy storage from a different direction, and as both Li-ion batteries and ultracaps improve, storage systems using both elements are becoming more common in electrical and hybrid vehicle applications.

For electrical vehicles, it has also been clear that 'in wheel' motors provide a more efficient approach than a centralized drive train, but the technology required has just not been mature enough. This is also changing. One example of this technology is the wheel motors from PML which allow for the construction of a wide variety of very efficient electric vehicles.

Further, it has always been clear that the most efficient electric vehicles would be the lightest possible designs constructed using the best strength to weight ratio materials. In this sense, electric motorcycles and scooters seem an obvious first step toward a full range of efficient and effective electric vehicles. And, as it happens, the first electric motorcycles are just beginning to appear in the marketplace. An excellent example of a well thought out design and product support strategy is provided by Zero Motorcycles and the Zero X - their initial all terrain motorcycle currently available to customers. A street legal version motorcycle, the Zero S, should be available soon.

So, are commercially viable electric vehicles almost upon us after fifteen years of agonizing fits and starts? My money says yes, even though the specific players and technologies have yet to shake out.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Are patent and copyright laws killing innovation?

There is a lot of debate as to whether the current set of domestic and international regulations regarding intellectual property encourage or discourage innovation. Two economists from Washington University, Boldrin and Levine, recently wrote a book and contribute to an impressive and thought provoking blog outlining their position that intellectual property and patent legislation as currently implemented constitutes a de facto monopoly in the classic economic sense. An article about their book can be found here.

Now, I certainly agree that there is a great deal wrong with the current intellectual property laws, but coming from an entrepreneurial and research background i do not agree with Boldrin and Levine that limiting patents to those that have social value (among other constraints) is the most appropriate fix. In my experience, limiting the term of patents and copyright, as well as requiring a functional prototype would accomplish much the same end results without returning the community to the stifling world of 'trade secrets' that ruled much of our pre intellectual property economic history. The prime motivation in establishing an intellectual property system, after all, is to insure that the rewards folks receive for making information about their inventions public outweigh the benefits to be had from keeping their innovations secret. To forget this is to forget why the intellectual property system was established in the first place.

So to my way of thinking, hard limits on the length of time for which patents and copyright grant legal protection as well as a stringent requirement for functional prototypes would do more to fix the system currently in place than the changes suggested by Boldrin and Levine.