Back to the Future of Green Tech

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It’s no secret that Asia is years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to developing cutting-edge technologies, from clean energy to mobile smart phones.

At this year’s CEATEC exhibition in Tokyo, an international crowd was clearly present and taking notes. The electronics exhibition, similar to the Consumer Electronics Showcase held in the U.S., is the place to be if “coming soon” electronics are on your radar. This year, green tech was a dominating theme as it was showcased everywhere from home appliances to electric vehicles.

Earth911.com was in Japan to tour this year’s CEATEC and take a look into the future of green technology. We were also invited to tour various Panasonic facilities around Japan, including its Eco Ideas House outside of Tokyo and its Eco Technology Center and home appliance manufacturing facility near Osaka.

The plug-in Toyota Prius, set for release in 2012, was on display in the garage of the Panasonic Eco Ideas House. A relatively small plug-in station in the garage charges the vehicle overnight as part of a complete home energy management system. Photo: Panasonic

Though the list was long, we found five of our favorite trends and concepts from the week. Here’s a glimpse of the green tech we can expect to see, “coming soon,” in the U.S.

1. Electric Vehicles

The 2011 model year is likely to draw a bit more attention than normal as electric vehicles (EVs) are about to take center stage in the automotive world, with the highly anticipated U.S. release just around the corner.

The Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt are expected to hit showrooms end of 2010, both featuring a lithium-ion battery pack charged through a plug-in outlet.

The Leaf is set to be the first mass-market EV released in the U.S., capable of traveling 100 miles on a single charge. The Volt, on the other hand, is a bit of an EV hybrid as it combines electric battery-stored power with a four-cylinder gasoline-fueled engine.

Other automakers are set to release EV hybrids in 2011 as well, including BMW, Volkswagen and Porsche, among others. Though new to market in the States, EVs have been in the works in Japan for quite some time. Catching sight of an EV on the road is becoming even more common as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV went to market earlier this year.

The challenge to make public charging station infrastructure match up with demand is something Japan is working through and is something the U.S. can surely expect for 2011 as well.

Touring the Panasonic “Eco Ideas” House outside Tokyo, we couldn’t help but notice the plug-in Toyota Prius parked in the garage. Set for release in 2012, it appears Panasonic’s green technology developments were a major driver in bringing this and other EVs to market.

Panasonic recently completed a majority acquisition of Sanyo, a leader is smart energy generation and storage technology, including solar panels and lithium-ion battery technologies. Sanyo’s sophistication in green tech appears to have lent well to Panasonic’s goal of becoming the No. 1 green innovation company in the electronics industry by 2018.

Panasonic considers the garage part of its “one more room” concept, in which the power of the vehicle is just one more home electronic to add to its smart grid system of energy management.

2. Comprehensive Home Energy Management

Smart energy-efficient home appliances were featured prominently at Panasonic's CEATEC showroom. Photo: Lori Brown, Earth911.com

The idea of a comprehensive home energy management system was was featured prominently as the core of Panasonic’s CEATEC exhibition.

The home energy management system, known as HEMS, with Panasonic’s Smart Energy Gateway (SEG) at its core, provides a complete means of monitoring energy creation, storage and savings occurring in the home.

The tech giant aims to bring the concept of virtually zero CO2 emission-free homes to realization in just a few short years, with the means of doing so on display at its Panasonic Center Eco Ideas House.

By connecting all home appliances and environmental technologies together, HEMS visualizes the amount of energy used in the entire house and displays the progress made toward energy-saving targets for the homeowners to see. HEMS provides advice on a central control panel to support energy-saving activities in the home.

In the triad of creating, storing and saving energy, Panasonic’s lineup of cutting-edge green technologies take central stage, including the household fuel cell ENE-FARM unit (energy creation), solar power generation system (energy creation) and lithium-ion household storage battery (energy storage).

3. Smart Home Appliances

While household fuel cells and solar panels create energy and household storage batteries store energy, efficient smart home appliances complete the triad in the “saving” category.

From a tilted-drum washer/dryer combination that utilizes heat pump technology for rapid drying to a refrigerator that memorizes time-of-use patterns, these appliances are meant to cut CO2 emissions associated with home energy use dramatically.

When we say smart home appliances, we literally mean smart. Take the Panasonic Eco Navi air conditioner unit, which comes equipped with an ultrasonic sensor to detect thermal energy and determine the locations and activity-levels of individuals in the room.

Using heat pump and inverter technology, the air-conditioner unit can tell the difference between a person sitting on the couch reading a book – a low activity level – to a person vacuuming in the room – a higher activity level – and adjusts the direction and air current accordingly. The unit can sense the number of people, sun rays and obstacles in a room to control the power appropriately. We jokingly asked if it can provide you a tissue when it knows you are weeping as well! (Unfortunately, it cannot.)

3-D displays took center stage at Japan's CEATEC show. Photo: Lori Brown, Earth911

The Panasonic Eco Navi refrigerator seems to navigate a fine line between smart and spying as its motion, temperature and light sensors work together to monitor usage patterns and control energy consumption.

If you tend to visit the fridge each morning for breakfast, then not again until dinnertime, the appliance will set energy patterns to control cooling. A light sensor determines time of day and may allow the inside temperature to rise a degree or so in the middle of the night, keeping it low enough to avoid any spoilage risks.

The refrigerator is already available for sale in Japan, while the newest model of the inverter air-conditioner unit is set for sale in Japan Oct. 21. Panasonic does have a global expansion plan for the home appliances, so look for the gadgets “coming soon.”

4. Fun, High-Tech Gadgets

Though green technology was highest on our radar while walking around CEATEC and other facilities, we definitely took note of the occasional high-tech new gadgets. Okay, truth is, we couldn’t help but to take notice as one step into CEATEC drew the eyes immediately to massive 3-D HD screens, with crowds of glasses-wearing onlookers dodging soccer balls formed at its base.

3-D took center stage at CEATEC this year, with all the big players showcasing their latest innovations in the technology. Sony ran 3-D video clips on a massive screen that must have spanned 50-feet in length. Toshiba drew crowds to a line rivaling those found for a theme park ride with its 56-inch glasses-less 3-D LED LCD television prototype, due to hit markets in Japan later this year. Sharp also displayed smaller versions of the glasses-less 3-D LCD screens.

Panasonic featured a massive multi-television conglomerate of 3-D screens in a home theater setting, though cutting-edge tech aficionados appeared more drawn to the first-of-its-kind 3-D HD home video recorder and 3-D lens for SLR cameras. For the first time, individuals can digitize home memories through high-quality 3-D video and photo using the new technology.

5. Designing for Dismantling

Of all the 3-D, electric vehicle and home energy management technologies proudly displayed in Japan, two smaller concepts resonated with us and provided a great take-back with a recycling message.

CRT TV's at PETEC enter a disassembling line, where critical components must be taken apart by hand. Photo: Lori Brown, Earth911

After touring the Panasonic Eco Technology Center (PETEC) in Kato City, where 700,000 home appliance units are recycled annually, facility President Kazuyuki Tomita explained that “designing for dismantling” is a concept on the forefront of all Panasonic manufacturing operations.

In fact, all Panasonic product designers are required to spend weeks at PETEC to better understand how the products they design are taken apart at end-of-useful-life.

Each screw, panel, cord and material of a product must be accounted for in the recycling operations at PETEC, an incredibly labor-intensive process. By designing products thinner, smarter and with fewer components and varieties of materials, a product becomes easier to dismantle and recycle down the road, something critical in Japan following the implementation of the Home Appliance Recycling Law in 2001.

The consumer-fee oriented recycling law added additional materials in 2009, making it illegal to dispose of CRT TVs, air conditioner units, refrigerator/freezers, washing machines, clothes dryers, LCD TV’s and other appliances in a landfill. For an industry that is designing new products faster than old ones are becoming obsolete, this law is critical and contributes to the recycling of 18 million home appliance units per year.

Takumi Kajisha, managing executive officer of Corporate Communications for Panasonic Corporation, illustrated a second concept at a dinner event in Kyoto where he explained that many areas of Japan, including Kyoto, don’t subscribe to the 3Rs of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle; rather they subscribe to the 4Rs of Repair, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Perhaps a cousin to reuse, repairing an item is first and foremost the most important task in resource management. A strange dichotomy in a country where new technologies are manufactured quicker than others are sold out of showrooms, yet still an important concept supporting the local principle of using everything to its fullest.

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