Energy & Green Tech

Techonomic Top 5: Building with Mushrooms, Curbing Food Waste, the Selfie Mecca, and More

Every week we spotlight techonomic happenings on the Web and beyond, picking people, companies, and trends that exemplify tech’s ever-growing role in business and society. Here’s what’s got our attention.

1. Will Mushrooms Help Keep the Cold Out in Winters to Come? 

Ecovative's Mushroom Insulation. (Photo courtesy Ecovative)

Ecovative’s Mushroom Insulation. (Photo courtesy Ecovative)

When you want to make a mushroom omelet, you usually cut off the stems and use the caps—the tastiest, most tender part of edible fungi. But when it comes to putting mushrooms to more utilitarian use, the web of roots called mycelium has been getting a lot more love. Paul Stemets, author of “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World” has prototyped medicinal applications from fungi, including small pox, HIV, and malaria treatments, and used mushroom enzymes to clean up contaminated soil. Now he’s developed a building material that attracts and kills termites. Meanwhile, a company called Ecovative Design is using mycelium to make mushroom foam for packaging (Dell uses the stuff to ship its computer servers) and building insulation that’s grown between walls instead of injected or installed. The insulation is effective, fire retardant, and completely compostable. Ecovative has plans to roll out a whole line of mushroom-based building materials, including a “tree-free” fiberboard alternative called Myco Board.

2. Can Crunching Data Help Fill Empty Stomachs?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that food production must increase by 70% in the next 35 years to feed the projected 9 billion global population. Not only will limited farmland present a challenge for production, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimates that half of food produced globally already goes to waste. But networked devices—the so-called “Internet of Everything”—and associated data analysis could make food production and distribution more efficient. A sensor developed by Texas startup Vital Herd aims to track health information about cattle from inside their stomachs, helping to reduce sickness among animals, which according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture costs $5 billion annually. Climate Corporation, which was acquired by Monsanto in 2013, collects weather and soil observations from millions of locations to create simulations aimed at helping farmers estimate crop yields and determine the best times to spray. Meanwhile, the Indian company Tech Mahindra uses sensors that measure temperature and humidity to help make sure food shipping containers maintain optimal conditions, thereby averting spoilage.

3. Manila: Selfie Capital of the World

(Photo via Shutterstock)

(Photo via Shutterstock)

We are living in the age of the selfie. Or maybe we’re just having a selfie-conscious moment. The website Selfiecity.net says that it “investigates selfies using a mix of theoretic, artistic, and quantitative methods,” and uses a dizzying array of data visualization graphics to present its findings “about the demographics of people taking selfies, their poses, and expressions.” Now, Time Magazine has proclaimed Manila (Makati City and Pasig City, specifically) the selfie capital of the world, boasting 258 selfies per 100,000 people over a 7-day stretch. The Guardian’s Vincent Golangco speculates that heavy social media use (read: Facebook) among Filipinos and the fact that Manila is the country’s central hub for politics, showbiz, and nightlife may account for why everyone in the city seems to be ready for their closeup.

4. Spotify, Meet Your Match

New subscription music service Beats might be the new kid on the block, but it’s got the backing of such music industry vets as Dr. Dre, Trent Reznor, and people from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. With its celebrity branding, expertly curated playlists, and claims that it offers bigger royalties to artists than other services, Beats hopes to win over listeners—one $10-per-month subscription at a time. Some custom Beats playlists include “Rolling Stone’s Ode to a Biker Jacket,” Britney Spears’s workout mix, and the punny “You Can’t Handel This.”

5. New, Improved Robot Vac That Doesn’t Keep Bumping into Things

The Neato BotVac 85.

The Neato BotVac 85.

Looking for an automated way to vacuum your home (you lazy sloth, you)? The Roomba may have been all the rage a decade ago, but 2014 brings us the BotVac, a laser-enhanced robotic vacuum that maps as it moves. Using the same laser technology that enables some driverless cars, the BotVac tracks the space ahead of it, ensuring it won’t knock into your furniture or loved ones while it cleans. Produced by Neato Robotics, the BotVac is set to ship in April.

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