Monthly Archives: June 2014

THE NUMBER 7 BUS THAT MIGHT CHANGE THE WORLD

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My journey around the world for the BBC World News series, Horizons, has taken me on lots of different forms of transport. I have travelled into the Amazon in a four-seater plane, into the Israeli desert by camel, through china by bike, over England in a Tiger Moth and by speed boat through the islands of Scotland.

This time I’ve arrived on a bus in a town called Gumi in South Korea. Normally these buses are powered by petrol which is very polluting. Sometimes they are powered by electricity but that is difficult and involves huge charging stations, plugs and it is very cumbersome. But that is beginning to change.    

The World desperately needs highly productive energy sources that don’t emit toxic pollutants or greenhouse gasses. But our predictions about the future of fuel have often been wide of the mark and that’s because the energy debate is itself one of the most energetic and fast moving of them all. More than that, it is also one of the most crucial for the future of our planet.

To find out how they’ve ditched the mess normally associated with electric vehicles I went on the maiden voyage of the latest in electric vehicles with the President of OLEV (online electric vehicles) Mr Young-won

People are used to wireless internet connections and this bus takes that approach and applies it to wireless power charging. As it comes to a bus stop and whilst passengers are boarding, the bus waits over a special panel in the road. In the minute or so it has stopped, the bus quickly picks up a wireless electric charge from the generator under the road.

It’s not a massive charge, but it is enough to get it to the next charging station. So with a charge at the bus station and regular top-ups along the route, the bus can be fully electric and fully wireless along its whole route.

One of the problems with this system is that it involves and lot of new infrastructure. That cost the company 2 million dollars, an investment they think will get back in 5 or 6 years. The new system will save the company, they say, about 75% on their fuel bill, cutting it from 4000 dollars a month to

One thousand dollars a month. But the finances are only part of the calculation.

OLEV say this technology means the bus creates zero greenhouse gas emissions. Of course that over estimates its environmental benefits because whilst there may be no kerb-side emissions, generating the electricity that is used to charge the busses, creates its own pollutants. Nonetheless, the company claims this system results in a 70% cut in greenhouse gases compared to the diesel or gasoline buses it is replacing.

OLEV have been working on the technology for just five years so it’s still very much in the early stages. But the innovations on the number 7 bus in Gumi in South Korea will hopefully help add to the mix of answers we need to solve the big energy questions facing the world in the decades ahead.

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THE FIRE THAT DESTROYS AFRICAN HOMES

Sometimes you come across a fact that is so shocking you can’t quite believe it.

In South Africa in the past 12 years 90,000 fires have robbed people of their homes and meant that 9 children have been burnt to death every day. That is such an extra ordinary statistic that it is hard to believe it is still happening in 2014 in one of Africa’s most advanced countries.

Around eleven percent of the population of South Africa live in shacks in informal settlements. They use paraffin to cook on and candles for light. The stoves are often unsafe and when fire breaks out, the consequences can be disastrous leading to homelessness and death.

For my recent programme investigating the world of new materials, I began my journey in the makeshift shanty town of Du Noon, with the fire station commander, Theo Layne who for the past 26 years has been fighting an average of 2 to 3 shack fires a day meaning he has faced thousands of shack fires.

The statistics are horrifying, and with parents at work, the children left in schools and crèches are particularly vulnerable to these fires. With this in mind a local non-profit initiative was established to alleviate the crisis and help these communities. They are using an innovation in material technology to combat the flames.

David Grier is the founder of the Cipla Foundationwhich is introducing a material to be used in Shanty towns which could save thousands of lives. They are beginning by introducing the material in new creches which they are establishing.

The solution they came up with is using vermiculite, which is exfoliated rock. The fire capabilities of vermiculite, have been known for years so the material itself is not new, what could be revolutionary is the use of the material in homes. The vermiculite is then mixed with calcium silicate and a bit of potassium, and under heat it’s recompressed in to a board. That is then skinned on the outer and inner side with a thin steel outer layer. And this makes up the pre-fabricated walls of the buildings they then construct.

David told me that the walls could withstand temperatures of up to 1200 degrees. I was willing to believe him but he insisted that I test it. Much to my horror they gave me a blow torch and while David put his hand on the back of the 4cm thick board, I tried to blow a burning hole in the front of it. Flames burst over the board and David cooly held his hand centimetres away from the burning torch which could have set him alight. There was screaming, but it was me – scared stiff of the flame thrower I was now directing at David.

Amazingly after a minute under a blow torch at around a thousand degrees centigrade the other side was still perfectly cool as was David. I was clearly the only one that was worried.

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The Cipla Foundation already have 15 crèche units in action, keeping over 200 children safe, and their goal is to replace 1500 Centres over the next 10 years.

Everyone deserves to know their children are safe in school or childcare, and this product, with its amazing fire resistant properties, goes a long way to doing just that.

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The Next Big Thing

Stand by for a dull sentence.

In March 1984 in a boring corridor in a rather dull building on the border between France and Switzerland, an ex-telecoms engineer was working on a problem of how to share information in a large organisation. Few outside of his employers knew what he was doing or much cared. No one, not even him, foresaw the importance of his project.

That man was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the organisation was CERN and his project was the World Wide Web. The first website he ever created was this: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html,

For such an historic thing, the website is too dull to imagine. The office in which the web was created is also dull and today it is only marked with a rather understated plaque outside it. I have stood I that corridor and by that plaque and try as I might, it is impossible to conjour up any sense of excitement.

It is as if the people behind one of the biggest revolutions in human are purposefully playing the whole achievement down.

That understated approach stands in marked contrast to an innovation which might change human behaviour as much as the World Wide Web. 3D printing has exploded into the public consciousness. There are over 32,000 news articles about 3D printing, many of which claim it will be one of the biggest things to revolutionise our lives in the future.

So let me lay my cards on the table. I agree with the broad thrust of those 32,000 articles. I think this new technology can revolutionise the way consumers behave and also, perhaps much more significantly, I think it could bring about a new kind of de-centralised industrial revolution which could change the nature of manufacturing for ever.

My concern is the sheer weight of expectation on this new technology might be too much for it. People, even experts are often rather poor at predicting which technologies will work and which won’t.

For example when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone he couldn’t sell it to Western Union, the largest communications company in the USA, because they didn’t think it had a future. In 1901 when talking about the new technology of the automobile, the President of Michigan Savings Bank said: “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” People laughed at, George de Mestral, when he proposed a new material he called Velcro and chuckled at Benjamin Franklin when he suggested that lightening was electricity.

So the almost universal applause for the 3D printer worries me rather than give me confidence but nonetheless the mind boggling possibilities it offers – has won me over.

Last year I was talking to a scientist at NASA about taking 3D printers to Mars to construct buildings on the surface of the planet from the planet’s own dust funnelled into 3D printers brought on a NASA Mars mission. Whilst the ambitions in the future are very grand indeed, I have been exploring their potential much nearer to home.

At the moment it’s probably quite hard to imagine a 3D printer lined up alongside a coffee machine and microwave in your kitchen but it’s what the company Natural Machines want you to start thinking about.

They think they’ll be a demand for what they call Foodini. To explain and show me what they mean, they are making special gnocchi and a biscuit for me. The difference is that their chefs are programming a 3D printer to do it. Instead of loading the printer with ink, they load it with liquid ingredients and the printer downloads the recipe in the form of software. They press print and off comes your meal.

The gnocchi tasted nice, certainly much better than I expected and whilst the biscuit didn’t taste great – they printed it out in the shape of my programmes name, Horizons – which made it very special indeed. In the future, it may well be that a 3D printer in the kitchen could “download” an Indian takeaway rather than having one delivered or rustle you up a quick bit of pasta.

3D Printed Biscuit

3D Printed Biscuit

And it’s not just food companies which are experimenting with this next technology. At a warehouse in New York I visited a factory called Shapeways, which could be a model for manufacturing in the next century. Using one of their on-line tools I designed a fruit bowl with a few moves of my mouse and an attempt at being artistic. My design was then uploaded and sent to the machines to be printed out.

It may look like technology is at the heart of what 3D printer offer but it is a lot more than that. In the mass market age, companies have fooled themselves into thinking what we want is choice, but they are wrong. Companies offer us a choice of products because they can’t know which product we really want. They give us a range of products in the hope that one is fairly close to what we actually want. But choice is a poor replacement because a product is rarely exactly what we want, it’s just an approximation of it.

The age of 3D printed goods could change all of that. Who needs a choice of products when you can have the exact one you want?

The irony is that this new age of manufacturer has more similarities with the pre-industrial age of bespoke goods than it does with modern commerce. This is an age in which the masses can benefit from the personalised products and that is why despite all the worrying hype this really might be almost as big an invention as the Web.

Twitter: @AdamShawBiz

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THE POWER OF PEE AND OTHER REVOLUTIONARY IDEAS

 

Thank your lucky stars that while there are flat screen televisions, high definition broadcasts and on-demand video services, there is no smelly vision – yet.

Finding the smelliest science wasn’t the aim of my research into the most important new technologies emerging around the world, it was however an unhappy by-product of it.

As part of the Horizons series on BBC World News I have been travelling the world looking for revolutionary ideas that might change our world. That trip has taken me to more than 20 countries from Outer Mongolia, South Korea and Indonesia to my more familiar stamping grounds of Europe and the USA.

In that world safari of ideas, there are few which have been as weird or as smelly as the ones that I found in two different university labs on different sides of the world which are both breaking new ground in the world of extreme recycling.

An often quoted statistic is that there are supposedly more mobile phones in existence than tooth brushes or toilets. I’ve not seen the research from the toilet and toothbrush counters of the world but there’s no doubt that mobile phones are the ubiquitous tool of the 21st Century. I have seen them in small African towns where there is barely any electricity to charge them as well as filling the hands of millions of people in some of the world’s most bustling cities.

One problem all mobile phone users face, is flat batteries. In fact as phones become better at doing more things – they become ever worse at quickly draining the battery.

However an unusual solution to the flat battery is being developed at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK. The research is being led by Dr Ioannis Ieropoulous and is based on what he calls Urine-Tricity. It is, he says, about harnessing the power of a resource in plentiful and renewable supply. It is about the Power of Pee.

His work is an example of the latest in a new world of research into extreme recycling. Dr Ieropoulous and his colleagues are taking distilled urine to power a charging station which then re-charges a mobile phone.

It all starts with the toilets in the laboratory where users have a choice of the traditional urinal or a sample jar. A research student, who is presumably on punishment duties, regularly visits the toilet to collect the samples left by willing donors. It’s all then mixed in a huge distillation jar.

It seems foolish now I think about it, but I never imagined the lab would smell. I fondly thought that once it was in the white lab-coat environment of glass and polished steel, everything would be sterilised and odourless. But this lab smelt so bad, I could only stay in it for 10 minutes at a time. While I’m told the researchers get used to it, their partners at home are known to complain about the lingering pong.

Dr Ieropoulous and his team use a two compartment fuel cell, with two electrodes and a membrane. Live micro-organisms in the chamber metabolise the urine that passes through the chamber. The microbes effectively clean the urine and as a by-product of their activity, they also create electricity. So this is a double technology – sanitation and renewable energy in one go.

This urine technology is at an early stage. At the moment they are just trying to prove the scientific concepts as opposed to creating a product you can buy, so don’t expect it at your local Apple or Samsung shop anytime soon. The charging station is the size of a large suitcase and takes 24 hours to charge a mobile phone. But it’s not hard to imagine a time when public toilets in remote areas could be used to generate electricity to charge people phones or create energy for the local village.

Dr Ieropoulous’s efforts are part of a wider movement. The spirit of extreme recycling is also to be found alive and well in Seoul in South Korea, which was my next stop,

South Korea has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But not only are the country and its residents getting richer, they are creating huge amounts of waste.

A science team at the Women’s University of Seoul is trying to tackle one of the biggest pollution and waste issues by re-inventing plastic wrapping.

In the Food, Science and Technology laboratory, Assistant Professor Sea C. Min and his team are using the protein in fish skin to create an environmentally friendly food wrap.

The final plastic is as odourless as any other wrapping, but it starts with discarded fish skins that stink to high heaven.

Although various other waste products were tried to make the edible film such as apple peelings – the one they finally decided to push ahead with – fish skin – is achieved through a relatively simple process.

In fact it was simple enough in fact for me to have a go at creating it.

First I washed the skins and added them to a saline solution. A gelatine mixture is extracted and it’s then shaken and freeze dried into white blobs which look like clumps of snow. It’s then re-hydrated and a bit of Glycerol is added. I then poured the mixture over a plate and let it dry for 12 hours. And that is all you need to create a film of biodegradable plastic sheet.

It’s a clever idea. More than that, it’s a commendable idea. While the fish plastic isn’t as robust as the cling film I am used to, it does have the amazing advantage of being edible. As a result consumers are able to eat the plastic packaging along with the food. In one fell blow eliminating the problem of discarded fish skin, environmentally unfriendly plastic and the problem of discarded food wrappings. It didn’t look appetising to me and I resisted the very small temptation to eat the plastic but this is a technology which is still in the laboratory – so more improvements might be on the way.

Many of us have got used to the idea of recycling. It is common for people to recycle their old paper, tins and glass. But we are now taking baby steps into a new world in which science is helping make bolder contributions to a more sustainable environment. Discarded fish skins and urine- are clearly just the beginning of a new approach to extreme recycling. Who knows which disgusting and wonderful places it will take us to next.

 

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