Alternative medicine is now a $30 billion industry. But does it work?

Report finds that 59 million Americans use complementary medicine.

Alternative medicine is big business in the U.S. A new report found that Americans spent more than $30 billion on alternative therapies in 2015. That includes treatments such as homeopathy and acupuncture as well as supplements, yoga and meditation.

The report, released jointly by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 59 million Americans sought out some type of alternative therapy. Most of the alternative therapies are being used by adults, not children, the researchers found. Of the $30.2 billion, about $28 billion was spent on adults, compared to $1.9 billion for children.

Researchers estimated that one out of five Americans spent money on at least one type of alternative therapy, which could include practices such as Ayurveda, biofeedback, chelation therapy, chiropractic manipulation, energy healing therapy, tai chi, hypnosis, naturopathy, progressive relaxation and massage therapy.

Overall, spending on alternative remedies amounted to just around 9 percent of out-of-pocket healthcare expenditures. But the report found that Americans with lower incomes were shelling out more of their income proportionally than their more affluent peers. Families making less than $25,000 per year spent around $314 per person on complementary medicine and $389 per person on natural supplements. Families earning more than $100,000 per year spent an average of $518 per person on alternative treatments and $377 each on supplements.

While there have been studies confirming the therapeutic benefits of some treatments — such as acupuncture and yoga — other forms of complementary medicine, namely homeopathy, guided imagery, energy healing and some natural supplements have faced severe scrutiny for the lack of scientific data to support their use.

Yet despite this lack of data, the alternative medicine industry is continuing to grow in the U.S. And according to researchers, this confirms the need for more research into to ensure that the products and treatment options offered are safe.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

Anti-aging pill could allow everyone to live over 120 years old

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León famously journeyed to the Americas in search of the Fountain of Youth. If he were still alive today, he might have been able to simply visit his pharmacist instead.

A potential anti-aging drug that is already commercially available for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, called metformin, is soon set to begin clinical trials to see if it can also expand the human life span, reports the Express.

Initial tests on some animals, such as one study of the drug’s effects on worms, suggest that humans could live healthily well into their 120s if the effects are shown to be similar. Metformin could literally be a miracle drug– the Fountain of Youth in pill form. It could change medicine in a way not seen since the discovery of antibiotics. That is, assuming the trials are a success.

Early optimism is high. Since metformin is commercially available for the treatment of diabetes, several extensive studies about its effects are already available; the hype is not merely based on a simple worm study. For instance, last year a study of more than 180,000 people showed that those being treated for diabetes with metformin lived longer than a healthy control sample. That is worth reiterating: Patients being treated for diabetes lived longer than otherwise healthy people.

Other research has shown that metformin could also help to directly treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and even cancer.

“I have been doing research into aging for 25 years and the idea that we would be talking about a clinical trial in humans for an anti-aging drug would have been thought inconceivable,” said Gordon Lithgow of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. “But there is every reason to believe it’s possible.”

The clinical trial is called Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME), and it will be conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Researchers are looking for 3,000 people in their 70s and 80s who either have or are at risk of having major diseases, and the trial should last from 5 to 7 years.

The drug has already been in use for over 60 years for diabetes patients, so scientists have a pretty good idea of how exactly it works. For instance, metformin is known to make our cells better oxygenated, and its easy to imagine how better oxygenated cells can have a positive effect on the body.

“We lower the risk of heart disease, somebody lives long enough to get cancer. If we reduce the risk of cancer, somebody lives long enough to get Alzheimer’s disease. We are suggesting that the time has arrived to attack them all by going after the biological process of aging,” said Stuart Jay Olshansky, one of the researchers involved in the project.

If all goes well, then age 70 could soon become the new 50. Age 100 could be the new 80, and so on. Better yet, we can age in a healthier fashion, free from many of the debilitating diseases that make living to older ages undesirable. It won’t be an immortality pill, but it might be the next closest thing.

credit: Bryan Nelson

What is genetically edited food?

The USDA says this method of tampering with a food’s genes is not the same as genetically modifying it.

I wasn’t familiar with the term “genetically edited” food until I read an NPR feature last week about genetically edited mushrooms. While it may seem like genetically edited is another way to say genetically modified, editing is not the same as modifying, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Genetically modified foods (GMOs) have had their genes altered in some way. Genetically modified salmon, for instance, has had its genes modified to grow faster than natural salmon. GMO salmon can grow to full size in 18 months. Non-GMO salmon take three years to grow to full size. The purpose of genetically modified food, whether it’s an animal or plant, is to introduce a new, desirable trait to the organism. (And yes, what’s desirable depends on who you talk to.)

A genetically edited organism does not have a gene altered to introduce a new trait. Instead, it has a gene taken away using a four-year-old technology called CRISPR. In the case of the mushroom mentioned earlier, Yinong Yang, a Penn State researcher, snipped out “a tiny piece of DNA from one particular gene in a white button mushroom,” NPR reports. With that gene gone, the mushroom produces less of the enzyme polyphenol oxidase, making the mushroom brown more slowly. An undesirable trait was removed from the organism.

Yang asked the USDA if his genetically edited mushrooms would be regulated as a GMO. The government agency said since no new DNA was introduced, and there is no evidence the edited white button mushrooms would bring any problems with weeds or become a pest to other plants, the USDA does not need to regulate them.

I’ve seen several headlines since the NPR report last week that claim genetically edited foods will not be regulated. That’s inaccurate. The USDA said it would not regulate these mushrooms, but the agency ended the letter to Yang with the following statement: “Please be advised that your white button mushroom variety described in your letter may still be subject to other regulatory authorities such as the FDA or EPA.”

Whether some form of government regulation will happen for genetically edited foods hasn’t been decided. This mushroom is the first food created using this technique, according to The Washington Post. The company that paid for the mushroom research has no immediate plans to sell the mushrooms. There’s a lot more work and government scrutiny before a genetically edited food comes on the market — regulated or not.

At least, let’s hope much more government scrutiny will be done on genetic editing for food. CRISPR can be used for more than simply keeping fruits and vegetables from browning quickly. The method is also being considered as a way to remove undesirable traits in human beings, like the ability to inherit a devastating disease — something that should come only after years of testing for safety and side effects, and necessary regulations.

credit: Robin Shreeves

Amazing benefits of Malaysion palm oil

Every few years we rediscover a new, healthier cooking oil. About 20 years ago, we abandoned vegetable for canola, and 10 years back we forsook canola for olive. Today many people tout coconut or avocado oil for their healthy cooking needs. Waiting in the wings? Malaysian palm fruit oil.

Red palm oil, as it’s also called, is produced in several areas, including Malaysia, West Africa and Ecuador. It’s derived from the fruit of the oil palm, not to be confused with palm kernel oil. Ancient Egyptians regarded the palm fruit oil as sacred healing oil. The dark red oil is about 50 percent saturated and 40 percent oleic acid, an unsaturated fat present in higher quantities in olive oil and believed to be partially responsible for its health benefits.

A tablespoon of red palm oil is about 130 calories, similar to other oils, but it’s loaded with carotenes, like beta-carotene and lycopene.

These are the same antioxidants that give tomatoes and carrots their deep color. The tropical oil may have other benefits as well. “Malaysian palm fruit oil is a rich source of beta carotene (much more than carrots and tomatoes), vitamin E and may have benefits for patients with breast cancer, fatty liver disease, and more,” says Dr. Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, author of “Living Skinny in Fat Genes.”

What’s the hubbub about?

Unlike other oils, Malaysian palm fruit oil doesn’t lose its nutritional value when it’s cooked in high heat. It can be cooked at a higher temperature than butter, corn oil or virgin olive oil. Plus, most oils only keep for four to six months after they’re opened. (Olive oil can last for a year, if refrigerated.) Malaysian palm fruit oil can be stored at room temperature for 12 months without going rancid.

The oil is cholesterol-free and is touted as heart-healthy. Preliminary studies show that adding palm oil to your diet may help remove plaque build-up in arteries. What’s more, studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown that a natural form of vitamin E called alpha tocotrienol, which is the form found in in red palm fruit oil, can help reduce the effects of stroke by 50 percent.

And since the oil is helpful in fighting inflammation, the core of many diseases, palm oil may have health benefits in fighting illnesses like osteoporosis, asthma, cataracts, macular degeneration, arthritis and premature aging.

Adding high antioxidant, anti-inflammatory Malaysian red palm oil palm oil to your diet may even reduce cholesterol and keep your blood pressure in check, too.

One review published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition, found Carotino and other red palm oils to be effective for treating vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness. (Carotino is a specific blend of canola oil and red palm fruit oil.) Still, much more research is needed.

Raw, unrefined palm oil is a deep reddish color and may have a pungent taste of olives and saffron and smell flowery while the refined, processed version is colorless and tasteless. You should be able to find both versions in health food stores. The red-colored oil is the one with possible health benefits. Raw, unrefined oil retains its vitamins and antioxidants and may lend a zesty flavor to foods sautéed in it.

Buying sustainable oil

To reduce the environmental impact of deforestation by palm-oil producers, a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products. The group aims to reduce harm to wildlife habitats, especially orangutans and elephants, and improve conditions for migrant workers on palm oil plantations. RSPO has its critics, but others say the group is making headway toward the goal of making more sustainably harvested oils available to consumers.

credit: Jennifer Nelson

How olives changed the world

If grapes have a rival for a food with the most historical importance to Western civilization, surely it is the olive.

Native to the Mediterranean basin, the olive tree and its fruit, which is technically a drupe, have held a special meaning for almost every culture and religion in the region. Ancient societies revered olives for much more than the tree’s long life and its importance to their agriculture. Many ancient peoples considered it a gift from the gods.

Olives, olive oil and the olive branch have maintained their special, even sacred, symbolic meaning through the centuries. The leafy branch of the tree has been used as a sign of virginity and purity at weddings, a symbol of peace, a sign of power to crown victors of bloody wars and a sign of wisdom.

U.N. flagThe symbolism is as important and present today as ever. Offering a hand of friendship to a foe is known as extending an olive branch. Even the United Nations flag features two stylized olive branches wrapped around a world map — a sign of peace for all people. And olive oil, long considered sacred, continues to be used in many religious ceremonies.

History of olives

The earliest fossil evidence of olives was found at Mongardino, Italy, in leaves that date to the 12th millennium B.C., according to a history compiled by the International Olive Council. Situated in Madrid, Spain, the IOC is the world’s only international intergovernmental organization in the field of olive oil and table olives. Other early records of olives have been found in North African fossils from the Paleolithic Period, when humans first started using stone tools, and in parts of Bronze Age olive trees found in Spain.

Although some believe these locations indicate that the tree is indigenous to the entire Mediterranean basin, the IOC says the olive tree originated in the thick forests of Asia Minor. The only ancient civilizations in the area that were not familiar with the olive tree were the Assyrians and Babylonians.

“Olives have been cultivated in the Mediterranean since at least 2500 B.C.,” said food historian and author Francine Segan of New York. Considerable progress in cultivation of the tree took place in Syria and Palestine, although accounts differ about how the tree reached these regions.

From there it moved to the island of Cyprus, to Egypt, to the Greek Isles in the 16th century B.C. courtesy of the Phoenicians and then, in the 6th century B.C., westward to Sicily and southern Italy. The Romans continued the expansion of the tree throughout the Mediterranean using it as a peaceful weapon to settle people and regions in their conquests.
Segan included a passage about a fondness Cato (234-149 B.C.), the Roman orator and statesman, had for olives in her book “Philosopher’s Kitchen.” Segan explained that Cato wrote a book about small farm management in which he detailed a recipe for chopped olives mixed with herbs and spices to be eaten at the start of a meal.

Here is Cato’s original recipe, as offered by Segan:

Green, black or mixed olive relish to be made thus. Remove stones from green, black or mixed olives, then prepare as follows: Chop them and add oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue, mint. Cover with oil in an earthen dish, and serve.
Olive farming spread to the New World in 1492 with the Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America. By 1560, olive groves were being cultivated in Mexico and South America. Today, olive trees are farmed in places as far removed from the Mediterranean as southern Africa, Australia, Japan and China.

History of olive oil

Although there are different kinds of olives, humans learned long ago that they couldn’t pick and eat the majority of them right from the tree as they would an apple. Olives are too bitter for that because they contain a compound called oleuropein. They are also low in sugar. To become palatable as table olives, the fruit typically has to undergo a series of processes to remove the oleuropein. In most cases, the few olives that are exceptions to this rule sweeten on the tree though fermentation.

Ancient olive presses apparently it was the bitter taste of freshly picked olives that led early human civilizations to find another use for olives. That use was to press them to extract the oil and then use the oil for a variety of purposes. Originally, cooking wasn’t one of those purposes. It was these many uses for the oil — lamp fuel, pharmaceutical ointment and as an anointment for religious leaders, royalty, warriors and others — that led the ancients to domesticate the olive tree.

The production of olive oil is believed to have occurred no earlier than 2500 B.C. Olive oil wasn’t used for cooking until about 2,000 years later, in the fifth or fourth century B.C. Once again, the Romans were responsible for significantly increasing olive oil production, which occurred between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.

Olives in mythology

The olive tree is revered in Greek mythology, which credits the goddess Athena, daughter of supreme god Zeus, for bringing it to the city of Athens.

According to legend — recounted in Segan’s book — whichever god gave the people of Greece the most esteemed gift would earn the right to name their most important city. Poseidon, brother of Zeus and god of the seas but a seeker of earthly kingdoms, gave Attica a waterway through the city that provided fresh drinking water and easy access to the Mediterranean. Athena gave them olive trees.

Although the citizens were grateful to Poseidon, Segan wrote, they preferred Athena’s gift. Not only were the olives long-lasting and delicious on their own, but they also produced a useful oil. In return for the gift of olives, Athena was granted the right to name the city after herself. The Parthenon, a temple that overlooks Athens, was built in Athena’s honor.

Other mythological figures are associated with the olive tree. When Hercules was very young, for example, he killed a lion with a wooden stake from a wild olive tree, thus associating the tree with strength and resistance. He also used a club from an olive tree in one of his twelve labors.

Olives in religion

Some of the world’s most widely followed religions place great significance on olives and olive trees. Even so, the use of olive oil in religious rituals has its origins in pagan ceremonies. Priests in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome used olive oil in their sacrifices and offering to the gods.

Olive oil — along with bread, wine and water — is one of the four most important symbols in Christianity. References to olive oil are almost as old as the religion itself, with God telling Moses that olive oil is a holy anointing oil (Exodus, 30:22-33). This tradition of anointing with oil has continued throughout history by leaders of churches and nations.
The olive tree also came to symbolize peace and God’s reconciliation with man. A dove brought an olive branch back to Noah as a sign that the flood was over. Jesus was praying in the Garden of Olives, or Gethsemani, when he was taken prisoner. In Hebrew, “gethsemani” means “olive press.” Early Christians decorated their tombs with olive branches as a sign of the victory of life over death.

The Quran and hadith mention the olive and the olive tree numerous times. Islam considers the olive a blessed fruit and a health food that is a good source of nutrition. A parable refers to Allah, olive oil and light (Surah al-Noor 24:35). Another reference speaks to olives and nutrition (Surah al-Anaam, 6:141). The hadith refers to the olive tree as “blessed” (Reported by al-Tirmidhi, 1775).

Olive oil and health

Olive oil — along with all the other vegetable oils — is high in fat, which means it is high in calories. It’s also considered to be a healthy food. This sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

That’s because the main fat in olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. MUFAS have been found to lower total cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. As a result, MUFAs may decrease the risk of heart disease in some people. They may also normalize blood clotting. MUFAs may even benefit people with Type 2 diabetes because they affect insulin levels and blood sugar in healthful ways.

As with many good things, olive oil has a “but.” In this case, it’s that olive oil should be used in moderation because even healthful fats are high in calories. It’s also a good idea to use MUFAs instead of, rather than in addition to, other fatty foods such as butter.

Production and consumption of olives

Olive harvestThe world’s top four producers of olives are Spain, Italy, Turkey and Greece, according to the IOC’s executive secretariat. The four main producers of olive oil are Spain (1.27 million tons), Italy (408,100 tons), Greece (284,200 tons) and Turkey (178,800 tons). The four leading producers of table olives are Spain (533,700 tons), Egypt (407,800 tons), Turkey (399,700 tons) and Algeria (178,800 tons). These figures are an average of the past six crops, according the IOC.

One of the trends in olive consumption, the secretariat said, is the rise of olive popularity in the Persian Gulf countries of Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. That, it seems, is fitting. Just as olive farming has moved around the world, the consumption of one of the world’s most important foods has come full circle, back to the part of the world where it originated so many millennia ago.

credit: Tom Oder

Eyes may be the windows to heart health

Vision problems may sometimes be the only symptom a person has of a serious cardiovascular condition, a new case report suggests.

In the case, a 77-year-old man in Greece experienced three short episodes of blurred vision in his right eye. The five-minute episodes stretched over an hour in total, and after each episode, his vision returned to normal.

An eye exam showed that the man’s vision was good, and the pressure within his eyes was normal. But when the man’s pupils were dilated and a doctor looked more closely into his eyes, the culprit was revealed: A blood clot was blocking the blood supply in a branch of his retinal artery, which supplies blood to the lining at the back of the eye, according to the report of the man’s case.

Such clots are typically made out of cholesterol and clumps of platelets (blood cell fragments), and in the case, the clot came from the man’s carotid artery, the main artery that brings blood to the head and neck, said Dr. Ilias Georgalas, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, in Greece.

But the tiny clot was a serious health problem — people with a blockage in the eye’s central or branch retinal artery have a high risk of a serious or fatal stroke, said Georgalas, who treated the man and was one of the co-authors of the case report published online Nov. 25 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Vision problems and heart disease

The 77-year-old man had no history of eye problems, but he had high cholesterol levels and had been taking statin drugs for the past five years to reduce his cholesterol.

The man was diagnosed with “amaurosis fugax,” a condition in which a person loses vision in one eye, usually for a few minutes at a time, because of an interruption of blood flow in an artery.

The clot in the man’s eye was a fragment of a plaque that had formed in the man’s right carotid artery, and then traveled through his bloodstream and landed in one of the smaller branches of the retinal artery in his eye, Georgalas said. This temporarily closed off the blood supply to his right eye, which explains the man’s blurred vision, he said.

Examining the eyes is an easy way for doctors to have a look at the vascular system, the network of blood vessels in the body, which includes the arteries and veins, Georgalas said. It’s very rare for a vascular problem in other parts of the body to not be seen in the blood vessels within the eyes, he said.

For this Greek man, his blurred vision led doctors to detect that the blood flow through his right internal carotid artery was 80 percent blocked because of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

He needed a carotid endarterectomy, a surgical procedure that removes plaque buildup in a narrowed artery, and can prevent a stroke. Twelve months later, the man’s vision was normal and he had no eye problems, according to the case.

For a relatively high number of people with severe carotid artery blockage, temporary visual loss may be the only symptom, Georgalas said.

Any temporary, painless loss of vision should not be ignored, he said. The eyes can provide a good indication of a person’s health throughout the body, and visiting an ophthalmologist can often be the first step in diagnosing more severe health problems, Georgalas noted.

Credit: Cari Nierenberg

protesting yoga in schools doesn’t make sense

Yoga is pretty easy to make fun of (plenty of yogis mock themselves), or to simply dismiss as a fad (its popularity and ubiquity will certainly be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the early years of this century), but for the most part, it doesn’t have a reputation as a source of disagreement — being banned or bringing parents together to “stamp that evil seed out” (a la rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s). Yet yoga, which seems to make sense as a way to calm ever-more-anxious students’ nerves, and maybe keep a few pounds off kids who are now officially fighting an obesity epidemic, may be taken to court by parents in Encinitas, Calif., which is near San Diego. The parents’ beef? They see the stretching and strengthening routines of Ashtanga yoga as some kind of religious indoctrination.

“There’s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” attorney Dean Broyles, who represents the concerned parents, told the North Country Times.

The superintendent for the schools, Tim Baird, says he expects the classes, which are in nine schools currently (and set to expand to more via a grant of more than $500,000 from an Ashtanga yoga association) to continue, and his decision to bring yoga to the students to be upheld.

“Yoga is a worldwide exercise regime utilized by people of many different faiths,” he said. “Yoga is part of our mainstream culture.”

As a young atheist, I was sensitive to the plethora of Christian messages that were part of the common culture at my smallish public high school in New York state — enough so that I complained several times to the dean of students about the most egregious rule-breaking the school engaged in on behalf of Christian student groups, because I believed then (and I still do) that religion and spirituality are private concerns, to be kept in the home and places of worship. One of the reasons that I have left some yoga classes is because I felt I was being preached to about spirituality, and I left that behind when I left the Episcopalian church when I was 13. But I also know that yoga can be effectively taught without any religious or spiritual messages at all (which is actually how I practice it, and how it is being taught at Encinitas and at schools all over the U.S.).

I see it like this: some people walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain — which is a traditional pilgrimage route for the faithful that ends at a spectacular church at Spain’s Atlantic coast. I have also walked much of this ancient route; as an atheist I appreciated its history, its natural beauty, and the quiet charm that is all part of northern Spain’s DNA. Hiking the Camino doesn’t make me a Christian any more than doing yoga poses makes me a Hindu. Dancing the Hula doesn’t make me a native Hawaiian (I have done that too), nor does eating matzo ball soup make me a Jew.

Just doing yoga doesn’t make anyone a Hindu, or even more likely to become a Hindu. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of America’s 20 million yoga practitioners haven’t switched religions. Yoga can just be exercise —in fact this atheist wouldn’t have it any other way.

credit: Starr Vartan

THC produced by genetically engineered yeast

It used to be that if you wanted to produce THC (short for Tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive compound found in marijuana, you had to grow some cannabis. But that’s no longer the case. Thanks to genetic engineering, there is now such a thing as THC-producing yeast, reports the New York Times.

The breakthrough could make it easier to produce the compound for medical purposes and for research without all the hoopla surrounding the legality of growing marijuana. For the many people that depend on medical marijuana, such as those that take it to treat the nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite caused by HIV infection or cancer chemotherapy, that could be a game changer.

“This is something that could literally change the lives of millions of people,” said Kevin Chen, the chief executive of Hyasynth Bio, a company working to create yeasts that produce THC.
THC can be produced synthetically, in pill form, as well. But genetically modified yeast could provide a far cheaper way to make the compound.
The researchers who engineered the THC-producing yeast also successfully designed yeast that can produce cannabidiol, another compound found in cannabis that has medical benefits. Though the amount of THC and cannabidiol produced by these yeasts is small compared to the cannabis plant, researchers are optimistic that further engineering and research can increase yield and make these yeasts competitive with marijuana.

Of course, there is also the potential for THC-producing yeast to offer drug users a few new ways to get high, a fact not lost on the researchers. So far, though, such options — which include using the yeast to produce THC-infused beer — remain off the table.

“People keep asking about it,” Mr. Chen said. “But there’s bigger potential there than just making a beer.”

credit:Bryan Nelson

Solar Sunflower harnesses power of many suns

The latest in solar power comes to us from Swiss inventors working for Airlight Energy, Dsolar (a subsidiary of Airlight), and IBM Research in Zurich, reports Ars Technica. It’s called the Solar Sunflower, and like its namesake, it tracks the sun and cools itself by pumping water through its veins like a plant.

Aside from its aesthetically-pleasing design, the Solar Sunflower also makes use of some innovative technology. It uses something called HCPVT (Highly Efficient Concentrated PhotoVoltaic/Thermal) to generate electricity and hot water from solar power. Basically, this method entails using reflectors to concentrate the sun, as well as highly efficient photovoltaic cells (known as gallium-arsenide photovoltaic cells) to convert that concentrated solar energy into electricity.

Though concentrated solar thermal power and PVs are nothing new to the solar power industry, the Solar Sunflower incorporates these technologies in a novel way that represents a few ingenious engineering breakthroughs.

According to Gianluca Ambrosetti, Airlight’s head of research, the Solar Sunflower’s reflectors concentrate the sun “to about 5,000 suns.” In other words, the difference between this technology being classified as a death ray as opposed to a solar array is merely a matter of how the reflectors are angled. For instance, during one test, Airlight used the reflectors to melt a hole in a lump of iron. It gets extremely hot, and dealing with those high temperatures is how the Solar Sunflower really sets itself apart.

Photovoltaic cells used by the Sunflower have a max operating temperature of around 105 degrees Celsius, which is significantly less than the melting temperature of iron, let alone the heat of 5,000 suns. To counteract this, the Sunflower makes use of a hot water cooling system invented by the project’s IBM collaborators. Basically, this consists of pieces of silicon packed with microfluidic channels that are stuck to the backside of the PV cells. Water pumps through these highly efficient microfluidic channels to absorb all that heat.

Here’s where things get really efficient and innovative, though: rather than piping all that scorching-hot water through a radiator to dissipate the heat (and thus waste it), the team instead uses that hot water as a power source itself, to heat homes or drive industrial processes. The end result is a device that produces about 12kW of electricity, along with 21kW of thermal energy.

Even though that doesn’t amount to a huge amount of energy (the 12kW of electricity is only enough to power a few homes, for instance), it is nonetheless highly efficient. The real obstacle to the implementation of the Solar Sunflower is its cost. Its gallium-arsenide photovoltaic cells, though more efficient than standard PV cells, are not cheap. Add up construction costs and the costs of the fancy cooling system, and the design isn’t going to be able to financially compete with less innovative but sure-fire solar energy harvesters already on the market.

It does have an aesthetic appeal, however. And the innovation at the heart of the design could lead to future advances that might eventually lower the costs. At the very least, the Solar Sunflower adds to the list of highly-efficient alternatives to non-renewables now available to consumers.

credit: Bryan Nelson

Subway eliminated yoga mat chemical but many others still use it

The Environmental Working Group’s food database turns up nearly 500 supermarket foods that contain azodicarbonamide, a chemical found in yoga mats and rubber soles of shoes.
Earlier this month, Subway announced it was removing azodicarbonamide, a chemical that bleaches flour and conditions dough, from its bread products. The chemical isn’t used only in food products; it can also be found in yoga mats and rubber soles. It’s banned in many other countries because it can cause respiratory problems.

Subway isn’t the only food chain that used the chemical in its bread products. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Starbucks all have some foods that contain it, and it looks like many of those companies are working to eliminate it now.

Today, the Environmental Working Group released a list of nearly 500 products that contain azodicarbonamide. These products don’t come from fast-food chains. They come from the grocery store shelves.

I won’t post the entire list here. You can head to the EWG site for that. But, it’s a good list to look at and familiarize yourself with if you’re concerned about eliminating azodicarbonamide from your diet. Several brands of hot dogs and hamburger buns come up on the list. Since there are a few signs of spring finally happening and we all think about firing up our grills, which brands contain the chemical might be something you want to know.

Azodicarbonamide “is not known to be toxic to people in the concentration approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration,” but workers who are around large volumes of it have “reported respiratory symptoms and skin sensitization.” The chemical has not been extensively tested for any harmful health results.

There are big names on the list like Pillsbury, Sara Lee and Wonder, although it’s only a few of their products that contain the chemical. Shoprite, the grocery store that’s closest to me, has it 24 of their products.

Credit: Robin Shreeves