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January 2014 Archive for Growing Technology

RSS By: Ben Potter,

Technology editor Ben Potter brings you the latest in technology news, and how you can apply it to farming.


The Sweet Future of Energy

Jan 31, 2014

 Pouring sugar in your gas tank is generally regarded as a horrible prank. (Although the damage potential of doing this been debunked, by the way.) But the cars of tomorrow might run on synthetic gasoline made from sugar, at least if Audi gets its way. The company has expanded its biofuel initiative by investing in Global Bioenergies, a French company with the capability to produce just such a fuel.

This fuel, called bio-isooctane, can be used as a direct replacement for gasoline without any modifications needed to your car. It also can be blended with regular gasoline, just like ethanol. Global Bioenergies can produce the fuel with corn, sugarcane, and even biomass like woodchips if the level of glucose is adequate.

As a proof-of-concept, the company hopes to produce up to 100,000 liters of gas annually once it has built two production facilities. This aligns well with Audi’s "e-fuel" strategy that also includes ethanol and biodiesel. It’s not the only car company exploring alternatives to fossil fuels, either – General Motors, for instance, has also invested heavily in ethanol, and other car manufacturers are developing electric options for their lineups.

That’s not the only energy endeavor where sugar’s a star of the show, either. At Virginia Tech, researchers are working on an energy-dense sugar battery. Their hope is to devise a product that could replace conventional batteries with a cheaper, refillable, biodegradable option.

"Sugar is a perfect energy storage compound in nature," says Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech. "So it’s only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery."

Zhang’s findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications. The sugar solution the battery holds is neither explosive nor flammable, and the enzymes and fuels that make up the device are all biodegradable. The battery is designed to be refilled in a manner similar to reusable ink cartridges.

These ideas and others must may sweeten the future of alternative energy.

zhang battery

Y.H. Percival Zhang, right, an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Engineering at Virginia Tech and Zhiguang Zhu, who received his degree in biological systems engineering in 2013, show their new sugar battery, which has an energy density an order of magnitude higher than others.

Game-Changers, Winners, Contenders and Clunkers

Jan 16, 2014

It was an exciting year for new technology, says Alex Hillsberg, a web journalist at

"The year that was gave us a bumper crop of devices to choose from," he says. "We believe it’s always good to round up the last year’s best and worst tech offerings while looking forward to this year’s previews."

Hillsberg measured several categories of new technology and labeled them game-changers, winners, contenders or clunkers in an infographic. Here are the highlights:

• Game Changer – Motorola Project ARA
• Winner – Apple iPhone 5
• Contender – HTC One
• Clunker – Blackberry Z10

• Game Changer – Amazon Kindle Fire HDX
• Winner – Apple iPad Air
• Contender – Google Nexus 7
• Clunker – Microsoft Surface RT

• Game-Changer – Asus Taichi
• Winner – Apple Macbook Air 13"
• Contender – Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus
• Clunker – Google Chromebook Pixel

Other categories include mobile apps and wearable tech. You can view the full infographic here.

5 Technologies About to Disappear

Jan 10, 2014

 Technology can move fast – fast enough it often leaves older tech outdated. Today’s hot new tech can become tomorrow’s historical curiosity. Just ask the lowly floppy disc or the 8-Track.

Time Magazine has projected five tech products that will be extinct in five years. Here they are, with some commentary on how their absence might affect farming.

1. Blu-ray/DVD players, because the future is in streaming content online or even over your television. As streaming content becomes higher quality and more prevalent, the mighty Blu-ray is destined to start collecting dust next to VCR players. (Interestingly enough, 58% of U.S. households still have a VCR player.) Will it affect farming? Not majorly so. But high-quality streaming content will likely come much more slowly to rural areas, so farm households will hold onto their DVD and Blu-ray players longer than their urban and suburban counterparts.

2. Stand-alone in-car GPS units, because the future is in asking your smartphone for directions instead. After smartphones started offering GPS capabilities in 2008, they have killed 15% to 20% of GPS units’ market share annually. Will it affect farming? Yes, any truck or farm vehicle with these units will feel a small impact. Many newer models come with built-in GPS capabilities already, however.

3. Dial-up Internet, because the future is in broadband. Pew Research notes that just 3% of Americans use dial-up today (a number also cited by AgWeb’s annual audience poll), down from a peak of 41% in 2001. Broadband use has hovered around 65% for the past few years. Will it affect farming? If you use dial-up, it will, but not to worry. The FCC’s Connect America Fund hopes to bring broadband to 7 million Americans who cannot currently receive it. Plus, new viable alternatives such as satellite Internet, along with cable company expansions, will help to bridge the gap.

4. Low-end digital cameras, because the future is in smartphone snaps. If you’ve bought a smartphone in the past two years, chances are it takes as good or better photos than a sub-$200 point-and-shoot digital camera. Nikon, Canon and Sony are expected to shift focus to mid- and high-end markets over the next five year. Will it affect farming? Doubtful. Hopefully, you are already using your smartphones to capture photos of in-field problems and emailing them to your agronomist, or geo-tagging them to a farm management app so you can address them later yourself.

5. Car keys, because they will be replaced by smart keys that allow for keyless entry and push-to-start buttons. And that in turn could be replaced with your smartphone. A mobile app called OnStar RemoteLink from Chevrolet already allows you to unlock and start your car. Will it affect farming? Probably – many in-cab tractor features started their life cycles in consumer motor vehicles before trending over into farm equipment. Smart keys shouldn’t be any different.

5 Consumer Tech Trends Worth Watching

Jan 03, 2014

 Some technology experts are predicting 2014 will be the year that technology gets "a lot more personal," thanks to tech trends such as wearable devices such as smart watches.

"There’s going to be massive growth in the wearable device market," says CNBC reporter Cadie Thompson.

Oftentimes, consumer-driven technologies find their way to the farm. Consider how ubiquitous smartphone use has become in agriculture, for example. So, it’s not a stretch to consider staring out of the combine with your new Google Glasses or checking commodity prices on your smart watch. Here are four other consumer tech trends worth watching, and examples of how they could be used on the farm.

1. Crowdfunding. Farmers tend to be natural tinkerers, and more than a few have a one-of-a-kind process, fix or invention sitting in the shop. Crowdfunding is a way to unleash those ideas into the world and build a business around them. The name explains how it works – you solicit funds from multiple people at websites as Kickstarter or Fundable to raise money for your project. Patrick Chung, a partner at the venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates, calls crowdfunding "the new lottery."

2. Local. Local information is a natural extension of the proliferation of smartphones and other GPS-enabled devices. Examples include local businesses sending push notifications about sales when you’re within a certain distance of the store. Current telemetry software in agriculture basically has this functionality already – sending you alerts when a tractor is driving over a specified speed or needs its next oil change, for instance.

3. Payments. Alternative forms of payment are ready to break big, Thompson says. This includes virtual currencies such as bitcoin, as well as a technology called Coin, which is a credit-card-sized electronic device that holds all of your credit cards in one place. "Your phone is going to become your wallet," Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, told CNBC. It might not have any on-farm applications, but it will at least make life incrementally easier when dining out or grocery shopping.

4. Ephemeral. What is ephemeral media? Think of it as "nonpermanent," something that only exists temporarily. Snapchat is a prime example. It is a mobile app where the recipient can view your photo "snaps" between 1 and 10 seconds before they are deleted. Ephemeral media has its critics (for example, with screengrab technology, Snapchat is hardly "temporary"), but the underlying point remains – privacy is still important, even in the era of social media, where much of one’s life can be live-casted on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere on the Internet.

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