This one has the potential to be a world changing advance, in ways which we can’t even think of at the moment. There are literally thousands, if not millions, of applications where converting heat into electricity would be useful. One of the more obvious ones, mentioned in the article, is using waste heat from your car engine to help top up the battery in your hybrid car. That would mean that while driving on the highway using the gasoline powered engine in your hybrid, you’d be topping up the battery so that the electrical motor can be used for longer once you get off the highway. There are also plenty of places where converting waste heat to electricity could be used to create more efficient devices, think TV’s, laptops, behind fridges or stoves.
Thinking about fridges in particular brings up other interesting applications. Air conditioners consume an important percentage of global electricity. What they’re doing, in effect, is moving air around so that cool air comes inside by putting hot air outside. Imagine if instead we could cool the air by taking energy out of it, turning that heat into electricity. Air conditioners would actually be creating electricity while doing their work, instead of consuming it. Is it possible to do with such a small temperature difference? Who knows! Starting with something more simple though, like waste heat from your car engine topping up your hybrid battery, has got be a step in the right direction at least.
This one is not really a practical advance, at least not yet, but you can’t read the article and not think about how cool the theories behind it are. Warping space-time around a craft, compressing it in front and expanding it behind, so that faster than light travel is achieved. How cool does that sound! Even at the speeds that are mentioned in the article, travelling between a significant number of star systems would be impractical. Consider that the closest star to earth, Proxima Centauri, is a little over 4 light years away. Travelling at 10 times the speed of light, it would still take almost a year to make a round trip there and back (assuming there would be some amount of accelerating and decelerating still involved, or about 10 months assuming no accel/decel). Sure, that beats the 75,000 years it would take to reach it now, but it still makes it similar to the commitment that the few European settlers of North America made when they left their homes.
Still, let’s assume that about an eighteen month journey to reach a new solar system is a reasonable time frame. That’s slightly longer than the current longest stay in space, which was fourteen months, but close enough that we can imagine that there wouldn’t be any unforeseen side effects that hadn’t already occurred. With that journey length, we’d still be able to reach about 50 different stars travelling at ten times the speed of light. Just imagine how many planets, asteroids, and other stellar bodies we’d have to explore in all of those star systems!
There’s obviously some value to pain free vaccinations for their own sake, but what is really cool about this technology is the potential applications for vaccinations in developing countries. From the article, it sounds as if the laser injection system will be simple to operate, as well as painless. One of the big issues with immunization campaigns against diseases like measles, hepatitis, polio and more is finding qualified healthcare professionals to administer the injections. If a laser-based system which required little or no training to use existed, it would eliminate that problem.
Another important problem that the laser injection system would eliminate is infection through reuse of needles. Infection by needle is an important source of HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa, counting for almost 30% of new HIV infections. Using the 2010 infection numbers, which were the most recent ones available, there were about three quarters of a million new infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa. That means that about a quarter million of new HIV cases were caused injections from tainted needles in 2010. Using a laser, where there is no skin penetration, means that there would be no infection possible through cross-contamination.
Imagine an ambulance-type vehicle, driving from village to village with the laser injection equipment. A team of two workers, one driver up front and one healthcare worker in back, would be able to hit dozens of villages each week. Laser injection could be another important step towards eradicating some of the diseases which have dogged humanity through the millennia.
So you might be thinking, “Who cares if we can clone a woolly mammoth?” and that’s a pretty fair question. When I first read this article, though, what really intrigued me was the possibility of bringing back extinct species through cloning. Right now, we’re killing off species at an unprecedented rate of up to 200 species per day. Most of the time, it’s unintentional, through habitat destruction, use of dangerous chemicals, or pollution of the air and water. Imagine if we could collect tissue samples from endangered species now, and then re-introduce them through cloning later, once we’re consuming resources at a more sustainable rate.
At this point, even if we did everything we could to stop polluting, opening up new land for agriculture, over-fishing and warming the planet, there would still thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or millions, of species which would go extinct. A couple which come to mind are polar bears, because of the habitat loss from global warming, and some species of whales, because of the already dangerously low population levels and the need for the whales to find a mating partner in a huge ocean. Add to that the fact that humans have made very, very little headway in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, despite 20 years of negotiations attempting to do so, and it’s easy to get pessimistic pretty quickly about the future of a number of iconic species.
On top of trying to slow and eventually stop global warming, what if environmentalists also concentrated some of their efforts on preserving tissue samples of as many endangered species as possible? Given the rate of scientific advancement we’ve seen over the past few hundred years, it should be possible relatively soon to create a viable cloned animal from preserved genetic material. There would be quite a few important hurdles to overcome, such as how to re-introduce genetic diversity working with samples from only a handful of specimens, but doesn’t it seem likely that some bright human being in the future would be able to overcome those problems, even if we fail to overcome global warming, the single greatest problem facing us today?
We’re taking a thought adventure out into space exploration again with today’s article! Heat shields built using Lunar or Martian soil is a really cool idea they’ve apparently been tossing around (and testing!) at NASA. With the exorbitant cost of launching any material into space, estimated to be about $10,000 per kilogram on the space shuttles, building a heat shield to attach to a module just before re-entry seems like a huge cost saver. Doing a quick bit of math, assuming that any future Martian mission’s heat shield would weigh at least as much as the Apollo command module’s at 3000 pounds, NASA would be looking at a launch cost savings of around $30 million (1360.78 kg * 10,000 $/kg, multiplied by two since heat shields would be needed entering the Martian atmosphere as well as the Earth atmosphere). On top of the already large savings, there would also be significant savings from not having to push a heat shield all the way to Mars, and from the decreased amount of rocket fuel needed since the modules weigh a combined 6000 pounds less!
If we can set up an automated system to create heat shields on the Moon or Mars, why not set one up on the Moon and have it pumping out heat shields for every manned re-entry flight? The shield could be manufactured on the Moon, launched from there to low Earth orbit at low cost given the Moon’s much lower gravity, and then attached ships before they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. While we’re out manufacturing heat shields, imagine what other engineering challenges we could meet with Lunar manufacturing!
This one is less of a scientific advance than a policy one. For a number of years the government of Malawi was subsidising the cost of fertiliser for farmers, causing crop yields to almost double during the subsidy period. The government had to go against IMF and World Bank restrictions on development aid, agencies which restrict governments who are receiving development aid from doling out fertiliser subsidies to farmers. The subsidy policy was so successful in Malawi that it has been copied by almost a dozen other African nations.
While it might be hard to implement a similar policy in the developed world, it’s still great to hear about solutions for farmers who have the lowest crop yields on the planet. Considering that in the developed world we have the opposite problem, with too much fertiliser running off of fields and into waterways, it’s nice to see African farmers having a chance to get their share of fertiliser.
The breakthrough that I want to talk about is discussed right at the end of the article; “Researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, UK have demonstrated an early form of an improved, high-power electrochemical cell – the lithium-air battery.” Electric cars represent an important way to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially in places where electricity it produced largely from non-fossil fuel sources, as is the case in my home province of Quebec. Besides the higher purchasing price for electric vehicles, the other major concern is the limited range of the cars. There have been recent advances in charging times, though, and stopping for 15 minutes every hour and a half to get a coffee and go to the bathroom while your car charges doesn’t seem so unreasonable.
Assuming that the costs involved in producing a battery are largely correlated with the size of it, lithium-air batteries could cut battery costs by between 75 and 90%. Given the enormous cost of batteries in the current generation of electric cars, at $12,000-$15,000, an 80% reduction in the cost of a car’s battery would bring the cost of an economy electric car about even with that of the same model of internal combustion car, after government tax credits.
Next the fact is that fuel is incomparably cheaper for electric vehicles. Taking Quebec as an example, a Toyota Yaris cost about $0.09 a km to drive using gasoline (6.7L/100km = 0.067L/km, with gas at $1.30 per litre, works out to $0.0871 cents/km) while an electric version of the Yaris would cost about $0.01 a km to drive (0.2Kwh/km, with electricity costing $0.06415 per Kwh, works out to $0.01283). Over the course of the car’s life, let’s say 150,000km, that difference works out to over $10,000. Carbon emissions would also be reduced by almost 98% for an electric car in Quebec compared to an internal combustion model, meaning even greater saving in the even that carbon pricing legislation is ever enacted.
With all of the benefits provided by electric cars in areas where there is abundant, cheap and clean energy, a big drop in battery prices would be a huge step forward for electric vehicles, and an important step towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Here’s another interesting idea for farmers in Africa. Whereas a previous article talked about new ideas for subsistence farming in Swazliand, this one is aimed at small- and mid-sized farmers in East Africa. Rachel Zedeck founded a company to sell backpacks full of supplies like seeds, fertiliser and irrigation equipment along with training manuals to farmers, to help improve crop yields as well as profits for the farmers. The company also collaborated with an NGO to create a text-based education system for farmers, helping them with advice on how to farm more effectively based on their personal conditions, such as soil type, access to water for irrigation and what crops the farmer is looking to plant.
While this could be an important advance for African farmers using the system, why not take it a step farther, and combine weather data, soil sensors, and information about crop weather requirements to create personalized information on when and how much to water crops. Imagine the savings water and fertilizer savings which could be possible if farmers were able to water their crops exactly when needed, or to hold off on watering for a few hours based on there being rain in the forecast. There would also be improved crop yields to go along with the water and fertilizer savings, which means more money in the pockets of medium-sized farm owners and more food on tables around the world.
For any interested handy-men or -women out there, it’s relatively easy to create your own basic soil moisture sensors. Using that information to know when to water would probably be a big improvement over watering haphazardly, although it might be difficult to create any automated kind of system on your own. Even without an automated system, I’m sure there are plenty of small farm or large landowners in the developed world who would be interested in using sensors, automated watering systems and an app for their smartphones which could help give them farming advice.
There’s not too much to say beyond the article itself. Malaria is a deadly disease, which disproportionately affects poor people in Africa and Asia. It’s currently the responsible for a little over 5% of deaths in low income countries, but only a few thousand deaths in middle and high income countries. What’s really impressive about this breakthrough, and hopefully a sign of breakthroughs to come, is that the molecule was researched in Africa by Africans. Diseases like malaria which mainly affect low income countries aren’t popular with pharmaceutical companies who, at the end of the day, exist to make a profit.
The implications for other diseases that are less prevalent in high income countries but more common in lower income countries could be huge. Diseases like Typhoid Fever, Cholera, Yellow Fever and more could be targeted by researchers who have seen their effects first hand, and who are driven to make a difference instead of required to come up with cures which are profitable. Current funding to control the spread of Malaria is almost US$ 1 billion, and if a cheap, effective cure for the disease is found, then that money could be spent preventing the spread of other diseases, such as HIV or Hepatitis, helping the citizens of the poorest countries even more.
Another farming related advance, this time from an unexpected source. Two 14 year olds from Swaziland won the Scientific American Science in Action Award for their research project on hydroponic farming for subsistence farmers in Swaziland. This prize is awarded for a project “that addresses a social, environmental or health issue to make a practical difference in the lives of a group or community,” and you should read more about this $50,000 prize. These two teenagers came up with a method for using chicken manure to grow vegetables with crop yields 140% higher than vegetables grown in the regular Swaziland soil in the same amount of area. Taking recycling one step further, their setup used discarded containers to house the plants. There’s a short video of their work available as a YouTube video.
Although this could obviously be an exciting advance for the subsistence farmers of Swaziland, helping many poor rural farmers to grow enough food for their families and not rely on food aid, there are also exciting possibilities here for citizens of more developed countries. Chickens are a contender for the easiest livestock animals to keep in an urban or suburban environment, along with a few other possible candidates. With the growing popularity of urban farming, dealing with animal waste is one of the associated challenges. Imagine now if we were able to use the chicken waste productively, combining it after a few months or a year with compost to create ultra-nutrient rich soil in which plants could be grown with extremely high yields.
The other interesting idea in the proposal is using waste containers as planters, and that can be applied in urban Northern countries just as well as it can be in Swaziland. One great example is reusable shopping bags: a few holes in a bag is a bad thing for shopping, but holes are often the perfect amount of drainage when using the bags as planters. There are tonnes of everyday household items that can be used as planters instead of being thrown away, and you can always search for some inspiration. With an urban gardening strategy that uses recycled containers filled with compost and aged chicken manure, is there anything left that needs to be thrown out?