Category Archives: IEEE Spectrum

Thermoelectric Heating Comes In From the Cold

Before architect César Martín Gómez could send his latest thermoelectric experiment to Antarctica in 2018, he had to make sure that soldiers from the Spanish Army could get it right on the first try. In the laboratory, he could always run the experiment—a scale model of a solid-state thermoelectric heater—a second time if it needed troubleshooting.

But at Spain’s Gabriel de Castilla base in the South Shetland Islands, soldiers would be too busy running other civilian experiments to troubleshoot Martín’s for him if it failed. And in a place like Antarctica, the goal of his experiment—providing efficient heat from direct current electricity—was both important and difficult. The experience “forced us to make a jump in quality,” recalls Martín, who is a professor at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain.

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How Nigerian Hacktivists Are Taking on Big Oil 

A group of hacker-activists in Nigeria, in the wake of setbacks in the conventional court system, have taken their appeal to a higher authority—the court of public opinion. And to bolster their case that oil refinery pollution is harming the densely populated Niger Delta region, these hacktivists are engaging in their own campaign of DIY data collection and sharing. 

Last March, Shell won a victory in one of its many court battles over the environmental impacts of its oil drilling in the Niger Delta. A U.K. judge ruled that the plaintiffs from the West African nation couldn’t prove that a 2011 oil spill in Nigeria’s offshore Bonga oil field had been the direct source of harm. The judge didn’t reject the existence of the harms, or even that they were caused by oil spills. Instead, the problem was attributing the harm to that specific spill.

Now, the Media Awareness and Justice Initiative (MAJI), a civil society organization in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, is building a low-cost air pollution monitoring network that could help better identify polluters. “Data has been the key,” in other, successful lawsuits, says Okoro Onyekachi, a filmmaker and the executive coordinator of MAJI. And now, he says, in MAJI’s own lawsuit for pollution reparations, as much data as possible will be needed. Starting in 2022, the group began installing the first of 15 air-quality sensors in and around Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s fifth largest city. The sensors are a mix of cellular-enabled and noncellular devices that monitor particulate matter alongside temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure. 

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Political Backlash Ramps Up Digital Privacy Laws

The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but tech ramifications sometimes turn around on a shorter timetable. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 overruling of its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision—alongside subsequent state-level prosecutions for abortions—provoked a proprivacy backlash now wending its way through administrations and legislatures. At the same time, though, there may be a catch. Between industry lobbying and legislative mistakes, some of the proposed or recent rules may leave room for data brokers to still profit and for buyers to still continue obtaining people’s locations without explicit consent.

At the moment, unlike in the early 1970s when the previous Supreme Court precedent was set, broad-sweeping digital tool kits are widely available. In states tightening their abortion laws and seeking to prosecute women seeking or obtaining abortions in defiance of those laws, prosecutors have access to mobile-phone location histories—currently available on the open market throughout the United States.

“I think there is increased anxiety that is being spurred in part by the overruling of Roe v. Wade,” says Alex Marthews, national chair of Restore the Fourth, a civil-society organization in Boston. “There is anxiety about residents’ browser and location information being subject to information requests in states that have essentially outlawed abortion,” he says.

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Heat Pumps—the Well-Tempered Future of A/Cs

During heat waves in Phoenix, while some people fry eggs on sidewalks, Matt Heath, a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) service manager at AC by J, is on the front line, helping maintain air conditioners in people’s homes. Heath has great job security: Half of Phoenix residents are at risk of an emergency-room visit or worse if their electricity fails during a future heat wave, according to a recent study. Air-conditioning is what keeps people there comfortable—and alive—a growing fraction of the year. The extreme heat already kills hundreds of Phoenix-area residents every year, a number that went up by 25 percent from 2021 to 2022.

Phoenix is a harbinger of life in the many hot parts of the world that are getting richer, where people are demanding ever more air conditioners. This in turn exacerbates the extremes of climate change due to increased demand for fossil-fuel-intensive sources of electricity, as well as leakage of refrigerants, themselves noteworthy greenhouse gases. “Most of the growth of air-conditioning will be in other countries,” says mechanical engineer Vince Romanin, cofounder and CEO of the San Francisco–based Gradient Comfort, “and restricting access is not fair.” Instead, he and others are trying to invent new climate-control technology that doesn’t further increase the dangers facing the planet’s climate.

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