The Sound of Science: towards robust monitoring of the optic and acoustic environments

Posted: December 15th, 2012 | Author: csoeder | Filed under: atlanta, Bioregionalism, Tools | No Comments »

There is a companion article at TopOc which takes a more detailed look at the science of environmental sound and light

If you look up at the sky, and it seems to glow orange and drown out the stars, you’re looking at light pollution.


This is a satellite composite map, showing the light released by humans, color coded by activity. Urbanization in particular has brightened the surface of the Earth over the last century or so. Light has lways been our friend, so it may sound odd to speak of it as a pollutant, but remember: pollutants are things that jam the workings of an ecosystem. And light is an important environmental regulator. A recent review highlights ‘well known’, ‘catastrophic consequences’ of light pollution:

“the deaths of migratory birds around tall lighted structures, and those of hatchling sea turtles disoriented by lights on their natal beaches. The more subtle influences of artificial night lighting on the behavior and community ecology of species are less well recognized, and constitute a new focus for research in ecology and a pressing conservation challenge.”

If you’ve dealt with a headache while Atlanta traffic squonked outside, you know what a nuisance urban noise pollution can be. It’s also a recognized occupational hazard. Moreover, the impact of human sounds on the environment are just now being recognized: robins and frogs are shifting their calls to communicate around or through traffic noise, and songbirds have begun to rebroadcast human sounds, chirping in ringtones.

Considering the scale and significance of human influence on the sonic and optic environments, there is a great deal we could learn from widespread ecological monitoring of sound and light. The review cited earlier reccomends: “measurements of light disturbance should be included routinely as part of enviromental monitoring protocols”. Monitoring of sonic ecology has thusfar been fairly transient and concentrated on localized and/or urban settings (eg, here and here)

At ArkFab, we’ve been thinking about how to develop and deploy an inexpensive infrastructure to monitor these environmental variables. The proposed system would involve a number of sensors placed in a wide variety of settings (urban, suburban, rural, etc) in geographically diverse regions. The sensors would consist of a small microphone and photodetector (and perhaps other inexpensive detectors, such as a thermometer for temperature measurements) in a weatherproof housing. Data would be stored, via a microcontroller circuit board, on USB sticks for easy retrieval and large data storage. The familiarity and small size and cost of a USB stick would mean that the disk drive could be easily replaced when full and mailed through the post office to a central site for data retrieval and processing. These low-power units would also be equipped with a solar panel for longer battery life.

Retrieving information from a geographically dispersed sensor array will require a nonlocal approach, and citizen science seems to be the best solution. Citizen science is the involvement of people outside of the mainstream scientific community in participatory research. A canonical example is that of SETI@Home, a distributed computing project which used spare computational power (ie, screensaver time) to analyze radiotelescope data.  The success of the SETI@Home project has led to an explosion of distributed computation projects, such as running malaria and climate predictions, protein folding and artificial intelligence simulations, and numerical explorations of famous unsolved mathematical problems. Protein folding further involved citizen science with the success of FoldIt, a puzzle game in which players add the finishing touches to protein-folding simulations (the last few steps are apparently more economical to do with a human brain than with a computer.) Citizen science has also been successfully used to monitor populations of insects, mammals, plants, and birds. In fact, this sort of distributed measurement philosophy has been explored, implemented, and advocated in studying urban noise pollution:

“…involvement of citizens is key. [...] In geography and urban planning there is a trend towards support for such participation. Under the flag of participatory GIS and participatory mapping new methodologies are being researched to better support the participation and involvement of citizens in projects that are typically tackled using geographical information systems (GIS), such as the mapping of spatial phenomena or land use and urban planning.”

Interested volunteers and science hobbyists already keep home weather stations; this enthusiasm could be tapped for sound and light monitoring. Indeed, there already exists a program which uses volunteers’ cell phones to record data about urban sound levels. Another group of potential citizen scientists are schoolchildren- the sensors could be given to schools as low cost educational kits, and possibly even designed to be assembled at the schools themselves, providing education in electronics and computer science as well as in ecology. There is already a strong precedent of student participation in citizen science. Remote areas are could be monitored by hikers and sight-seers, who often have an interest in the condition of the natural areas they visit. One place to start might be the Appalachian Trail, which is seasonally visited by hikers with a pre-established community which could be tapped into. Indeed, this community participates in monitoring mammal populations; participant and David Helms, participant and Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club president remarks:

“The Appalachian Trail was built and is still maintained by volunteers. Using volunteers is the way the world works on the trail.”


The ArkFab Earthship Breaks Ground – Great News from the GTech Green Phoenix Project!

Posted: July 10th, 2012 | Author: csoeder | Filed under: ArkFab Vertical Farm, atlanta, Food Production, Green Phoenix | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

ArkFab’s Earthship

Green Phoenix, an ArkFab umbrella project operating out of Georgia Tech, continues to develop innovative urban food production. They’re putting out a call for volunteers to help with construction:

Peachtree Creek

The project has broken ground and we are proceeding on multiple fronts.  We are currently excavating around the site to put in the greenhouse, acquiring pallets for our composting bins, and getting the final designs for our black soldier fly larvae (the fish food).

We have located hundreds of tires for the rammed earth tire wall which we are using as the thermal mass to keep our mushroom facility cool in the summer.

Basically, we are building an earthship which will house the mushroom growing facility. The tire walls are part of the earthship. We need help with everything – pulling tires, constructing the earthship, constructing the aquaponics part, composting, etc. We have some job openings as well, but we need some massive volunteer events first.

We need your help!​

Atlanta Memorial Park, Peachtree Creek between Northside Drive and Moores Mill

Time: The next 3 Saturdays – 7/14, 7/21, and 7/28 from 8am to 5pm

Details: We have located hundreds of tires in Peachtree Creek and we need help pulling the tires from the creek and loading them onto trucks.

Please come out and help!!

Please RSVP by emailing Steve Van Ginkel at

Source: Green Phoenix


CO2 Trouble: Arkfab’s First Feature Length Report

Posted: September 16th, 2011 | Author: csoeder | Filed under: atlanta, Political | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

A companion article at TopOc discusses the importance of correct documentation and an unexpected observation I made while crunching numbers for this research.

The first feature-length report from the ArkFab Collective is now out as a downloadable booklet! “CO2 Trouble: Ocean Acidification, Dr. Everett, and Congressional Science Standards” is available for download and sharing HERE.

As I have written in previous posts, environmental issues are downplayed in the political sphere with scientifically questionable but mediafuzzy talking points. I found this to be the case with Dr. Everett’s 2010 congressional testimony arguing that ‘there is not aproblem with increased acidification’. I have been writing about my research on the subject at TopOc; CO2 Trouble is the final report of my findings. It has been designed to be a fairly short (less than 30 pages, including images, appendicies, etc.) and accessible read. Suffice to say, Dr. Everett’s testimony doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.

One thing that this project brought up in my mind was about the institution of peer review: how does it function for this project specifically, and in a DIY/citizen science setting in general? In my case, the subject is not necessarily well-suited for the classical peer-reviewed literature, but outside of that arena, validation becomes hazy. There is a very real danger of slipping into what journalist Olivia Koski calls “Think Tank Scholarship”:

Public policy makers increasingly rely on the research of think tank scholars to guide their policy decisions. But who checks the accuracy of think tank scholar research? Unlike academic journal publishing, which follows a rigorous system of peer review and editorial oversight, think tanks publish opinion pieces without regard to the peer review process. Their policy publications are based not on pure academics, but on a complex interaction between academic, political, and economic interests. In Washington, there is no time to focus on the academic details.

Koski wrote that in 2007; in the years since, the think tanks have become even more crass in their tactics and have been joined by their DIY equivalent, Blog Science.

On the other hand, my experiences in trying to gather informal and community-based peer review left me hopeful for the future of democratic science networking. There are resources like ResearchBlogging for connecting science bloggers, where much of this report was field-tested. I am already experimenting with using ResearchBlogging to present original research. I also found that the experts I contacted with my questions were helpful and encouraging. Online communities have provided a forum for a lot of great discussions!

One final observation is about this networking of individual scientists, a prerequisite for science generally but for DIY and citizen science as well. Antiscience can sometimes have the effect of impeding research, as when a lab is flooded with nontrivial FOIA requests. I brushed against a bit of its erosive influence in the writing of this report: more than once, I had correspondence delayed because I was mistaken for a climate ‘skeptic’!

Stay tuned for more updates – coming up is an austere, printer-friendly version, a zine version, press information, and more. And be sure to check out the report, which contains unreleased material. Velociraptors figure prominently. (Really!)

Tragic News

Posted: June 10th, 2011 | Author: csoeder | Filed under: atlanta | No Comments »

Liam Rattray, who founded the ArkFab project, died on May 30. A drunk driver hit his motorcycle, throwing him into oncoming traffic. The whole story is here.

It was a weekend in may, 2007, and a chain of events catapulted me from Carrboro, NC to Greenville, SC, building a community radio station. The night I arrived I soldered audio cables, painted walls, and met Liam. He was an easily excited, highly stimulated fellow, enthusiastic about everything. We had sleeping quarters in a high school gym, but we barely slept that night for talking and scheming. He was an
incurable shutterbug, snapping pictures of the weedridden playground, an eerie Stephen King landscape in the hot afternoon light.

Over the next few years, I saw him occasionally, this collage of hikinks, soldering LFO circuits, watching TED talks and dreaming about
viruses, looking for him at 5am in Chapel Hill. Last October I showed up in Atlanta to work on our projects with him.

He had a lot of friends and he was on the edge of amazing, unbelievable things. We will all miss him. His memorial site is here.

Experimental Flat-Panel Photobioreactor

Posted: April 29th, 2011 | Author: arkfab | Filed under: ArkFab Vertical Farm, atlanta | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

With funding from the Center for Biologically Inspired Design I designed and built an open source experimental algae photobioreactor. Open Source Hardware plans will be released when I complete the research report. This is a 2 gallon experimental algae photobioreactor built from 1/8 inch cast acrylic cut on a laser cutter at the Georgia Tech Invention Studio. The lighting is provided by a 13.8 watt LED array that irradiates the culture at 465nm and 650 nm- the absorbence band for photosystems I and II. A water jacket is built into the reactor to cool or heat the cultures and modulate the incoming light frequency for experiments. A 2 CFM air pump provides CO2 rich air to the culture through the sparger at the bottom of the tank.

The objective of this research is to analyze the systems benefits of integrating fungi and algae cultivation. CO2 enriched air from the fungi incubator should increase algal growth while moderating the incubator’s relative humidity. If a prototype outdoor algae reactor were incorporated into the ArkFab project algae from the reactor could be used as an alternative to unsustainable ocean mined fish feed. Tilapia like to eat algae! Future uses may include growing high-value astaxanthin and measuring the metabolic rates of photosystems I and II in various algae strains.

I’ll provide an update as soon as my spirulina strain comes in.

Garage Mycology

Posted: March 14th, 2011 | Author: arkfab | Filed under: atlanta, Food Production | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Great news! ArkFab is a finalist in the Georgia Tech Ideas 2 Serve Business Competition. This makes us eligible for a $2,000 prize that could help us move on from our garage. Like many start-ups we’re using the space and resources we have to make our way. ArkFab currently operates a small wet lab and a few garden plots where my fellow collective members Nicole Bluh, Vincent Castillenti, and I are experimenting with natural and intensive mushroom cultivation. Here is a photo tour of our “garage” facilities:


Cultivars are selected from our local environment. Local cultivars should be well suited for the Atlanta climate.

cordyceps militaris

This Cordyceps militaris specimen found parasitizing a beetle pupae was found in the Katuah Wilderness of North Carolina. It has a unique morphology that makes it well suited for commercial cultivation of high value pharmaceuticals.


Spore prints are taken to breed new strains of mushrooms.


Samples from cultivars are introduced into sterile culture in our wet lab.


I built our laminar flow hood from pieces of plywood and a filter purchased off of eBay.


Strains run on sterile malt extract agar.


To expand the strain for mushroom cultivation slices of agar are introduced into sterile master rye grain jars and left to run for a couple weeks at room temperature.


Cultures are stored in our wetlab refrigerator.


After inoculation of fruiting substrate, incubation, and primordia formation the fungi fruits. These steps will be detailed in a future post.


A flush from a 5lb shiitake block can be had in approximately two months. Compare this to 9 months to a year for natural log cultivation.


This Spring we are experimenting with natural cultivation in garden beds with straw, Pleurotus ostreatus, and Stropharia rugosoannulata.


We grow in the city.

LuciaStoves and Dual-Power Steam GenSets

Posted: May 6th, 2010 | Author: liam.rattray | Filed under: atlanta, Open Development, Tools | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

LuciaStoves are dual-use biomass gasification stoves that have 96% combustion efficiency. 10 litres of wood pellets produce only 50 milliliters of ash… truly. When running in char mode the stoves produce biochar which is the only feasible method of carbon sequestration currently available. Biochar from millions of households using these simple stoves could reduce emissions through avoiding emissions from inefficient stoves and burying biochar in soil as a soil amendment by 40 million tons a year. Or about the amount of emissions from a small first world country such as Ireland.


My buddy Iuval and I are building stoves like these for home use in Atlanta and the Southeast with ArkFab Labs.

Gasifiers like this can also be used to run steam powered gensets such as this one from Joe Carruth.


Things get interesting at 4:00, take a look, this video has 100k views for a good reason. These technologies have the power to free people from their dependency on fossil fuels and centralized energy conglomerates.

There is something wrong with this picture

Posted: March 3rd, 2010 | Author: liam.rattray | Filed under: atlanta, equity | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

ArkFab Innovation Foundation

Posted: February 28th, 2010 | Author: liam.rattray | Filed under: atlanta, Open Development | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

We now live in a complex world. Over the past 200 years globalization has
increased our interconnectedness while industrialization has increased our interdependencies. The global division of labor between and within nations has created
a diversity of economic and social roles for humanity never before seen and by
compelling us to leave our natural habitats the city now claims the majority of
Homo sapiens. Humans and the environments we fundamentally rely on for our
survival are now struggling to keep up and adapt to the difficult implications of
these changes.

Sustainable technologies offer an opportunity to aid the transition towards
more resilient communities but physical hardware alone is not sufficient. Successful
adoption, operation and maintenance of sustainable technologies in at-risk
communities requires both the physical hardware and the local competences of
individual and social capacity, knowledge and know-how.1 Providing these
communities economic and social access to the technologies they need to improve
their resilience is arguably the most critical problem in the field of sustainable
development. We must renovate or establish organizations that better coordinate
and leverage the innovative, entrepreneurial and adaptive power of all individuals
especially those individuals who are most at risk.

The ArkFab Innovation Foundation harnesses an emerging global network of collaborative expertise and open source sustainable technologies development to provide local entrepreneurs access to the tools and resources they need to rapidly adapt their communities to continuously shifting landscapes of risk in our complex society. The Foundation’s community innovation system stimulates commons-based peer production in at-risk communities with cost effective local ArkFab Innovation Centers. These community innovation centers are comprised of

  • ArkFab Power, a locally sourced carbon-negative power generation system
  • ArkFab Lab, a digital flexible fabrication prototyping, manufacturing and cloud supercomputing facility and the
  • ArkFab Endowment, a revolving loan fund that provides mesofinance start-up capital for new for-profit environmental enterprise while funneling incoming returns on investment towards research and development grants, educational and vocational programming, and local not-for profit social enterprise

By building a global network of distributed ArkFab Innovation Centers that provide access to the resources potential entrepreneurs and innovators need we create a system of community innovation that will generate locally relevant and culturally and economically appropriate technological and business. The ArkFab Innovation Centers focus primarily on developing local knowledge and financial independence with programming with our local partners that encourages entrepreneurship, small business development, cutting-edge vocational training, and high-tech infrastructure development for the community. For example, we work with local technical colleges to provide vocational training in small-scale flexible digital fabrication and design and small ecological manufacturing business management.

See the full executive summary at Scribd: ArkFab Innnovation Foundation Executive Summary

An ATL Community Algae PhotoBioreactor for Health, Climate and Soil!

Posted: February 14th, 2010 | Author: liam.rattray | Filed under: atlanta, Open Development | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Post-industrial society is killing us slowly. We live in an environment of pervasive toxicity. Our primary line of defense in resisting the effects of mutagens and other physiological system disruptors is our diet. Eating fresh organic food provides our bodily systems with much needed complex biochemicals like polyphenols and other phytochemicals. These chemicals aid in the regulation of our bodies and our adaptive response to chemical stressors like chlorinated hydrocarbons and heavy metals.

Algae has been touted for many decades as a wonderfood because of both its nutritional and chemical makeup. Spirulina, for example, is thought to have been a food source for the Aztecs who made square cakes out of the algal mats they collected. Today, algae is still used as a food in Chad.

Haematococcus pluvialis is an algae species that is currently considered one of the most beneficial species for human health and nutrition. This species contains the highest naturally occuring concentration of the powerful antioxidant astaxanthin, up to 4% of biomass when grown under stressed conditions. This naturally occuring substance is considered in the scientific medical literature to be a photoprotectant in the skin and retina, an anti-inflammatory, contributor to the moderation of LDL and HDL cholesterol blood levels, anti-cancerous, anti-neurodegenerative, and immunomodulating. Considering these attributes, it is not surprising that Haematococcus pluvialis fetches ~$7,000 a kilogram retail.

Taking this into account, and the necessity of developing an open sourced algae photobioreactor design for the sequestration of carbon dioxide, the CDC slime expert, Catherine Armbruster, and myself are starting an open source algae photobioreactor project for human health and subsequent algae research into carbon sequestration and soil amendments.


Design, build, and operate an open source algae photobioreactor to produce, market and sell bulk food-grade Haematococcus pluvialis with a high biomass content of the medically significant carotenoid, astaxanthin.

Project Philosophy

This project is part of the international open source ecology movement to develop and diffuse disruptive technologies that can redefine both the social and ecological relations of production in our global economy. Inspired by successful organizations such as the New Alchemy Institute, Factor E Farm and ShipYard Labs this biotechnology project intends to function as the seed enterprise for funding an integrated peer to peer socio-ecology research institute and business incubator in Atlanta to aid the transition towards a socially and ecologically just world. All proceeds from the sale of Haematococcus pluvialis will go towards establishing the not for profit institute.

Our strain selection criteria is primarily based on the high-value of the dried and cracked algae Haematococcus pluvialus. However, this strain is particularly difficult to grow because of the need to control environmental parameters and the dual-stage growth process necessary to induce astaxanthin production within the algae. These added difficulties are the second criteria of our selection. Due to this strains’ difficult requirements the algae photobioreactor we engineer will be suitable for many other strain requirements and provide the opportunity for further research into algae-based products such as carbon sequestration and soil amendments.


A small-scale proof of concept prototype will be crowdfunded by local and international stakeholders with an interest in

  • our product
  • the establishment of the institute and
  • economic development, social justice and urban sustainability in Atlanta.
Funding for a full-scale facility will be bootstrapped from the sale of our product while we solicit donations to the institutes Open Development Fund endowment. The Institutes Open Development Fund, in turn, will provide the angel investment necessary to start-up the full-scale production facility. Information about where to donate will be provided after initial prototype designs and budgets are published. Further information and opportunities to collaborate can be found at the projects homepage at Freeside Atlanta hackspace and our OpenPario project management tool.