Monthly Archives: December 2014

Fresh Water from the Sun and Waves

Clean water is still hard to get for many of the poorest people of the world living in underdeveloped countries. Bangladesh now has more people than Russia, and most of its people suffer from water that either leads to dysentery and disease or contains dangerous levels of arsenic. Millions of others live along the seacoast where water is all around, yet not fit to drink. Desalinization is expensive and energy intensive. But two research projects have the potential to bring clean fresh water to millions using solar or wave power.

A British company has produced now 4 prototype solar powered desalinization units they call the Desolenator. The family-sized unit has a single insulated solar panel measuring about 3 feet by 5 feet and produces about 4 gallons per day of distilled water. Desolenator unit

The company is still in the development stage optimizing the product and plans to produce 100 units in the first half of 2015, scaling up to 1000 units in the second half. They are currently raising $150,000 for refining the process on Indiegogo. The unit produces about 4 gallons per day and costs under $500.

In Quebec, students at Sherbrooke University are working on using wave power to desalinate sea water by reverse osmosis. The students are designing a second prototype unit designed with a buoy on top and an anchor below to desalinate 925 gallons per day. The wave motion drives a hydraulic cylinder pump that pushes the seawater through a reverse-osmosis membrane and pumps the fresh water to shore.Odyssee desalinator

The students are now raising $8,600 on Kickstarter to fund construction and testing of the second prototype.

China Tries to Clear the Air

China’s rapidly growing manufacturing economy requires lots of electricity. Historically China has met their electrical requirements by building coal-burning power plants. China does have some nuclear power, but coal has been the mainstay.

Graph of China's coal usage compared to the U.S.

In 1994, China began construction on the world’s largest hydroelectric dam across the Yangtze River. The Three Gorges Dam project took eight years to become operational and displaced 1.3 million people.

Polluted air at Tianamin SquareHydropower was a nice idea, but it couldn’t keep up with China’s rapidly growing economy. So many coal-burning power plants were built that by the time the Three Gorges Dam was up and operating, the air in Beijing was thick with smoke.

Graph of wind power installed capacity in leading countries
So China has aggressively pursued wind and solar power. The nation is already number 1 when it comes to wind power.

In fact, China has been building wind towers faster than the can connect them to the grid.

Graph of installed solar power capacity in leading countriesNow they’re doing the same with solar power.

Swanson’s Law states that every doubling of photovoltaic (PV) solar capacity results in a 20 percent reduction in unit cost. China aims to make solar power cheaper than coal by brute force. China plans on adding another 13,000 megawatts this year hitting 35 gigawatts in early 2015 and targeting 100 gigawatts by 2020. Last year China also added 13,000 megawatts of solar power. However last year 94% of that came from large utility-scale solar farms. This year China is trying to get over half of the new solar power from small projects. Michael Sankowski estimates that solar in China will become cheaper than coal by about 2018. That cost reduction will not only benefit China, but solar installations all around the world.

China’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions announced during President Obama’s visit last month requires some massive spending by the Chinese government. Bloomberg news estimated that it would require “either 67 times more nuclear energy than the country is forecast to have at the end of 2014, 30 times more solar or nine times more wind power.”

But with China it is not either/or. Besides solar and wind, the nation also plans to almost quintuple its nuclear power in the next 5 years. Currently with 18 gigawatts of nuclear power, China plans to add 58 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2020 and have another 30 plants under construction.

3-D Printing Organs

It may sound a little like Frankenstein, but scientists are working on being able to use 3-D printing technology to create human organs. Today’s post is going to make heavy use of video, but in this case, a video clip is worth a thousand words.

For background, check out this 3-year old TED talk and then come back for an update.

At the University of Louisville, researchers are working on 3-D printing a human heart.

Creating a whole new heart is years away, but heart valves are already being produced. And 3-D printing is helping surgeons prepare for complicated heart surgery.
Using MRI scan data, Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City 3D printed a copy of the child’s heart, which was both riddled with holes and structured unusually.
Surgery was going to be complicated and dangerous, but this 3D printed heart [model] provided the surgeons the opportunity to study the organ, and develop a detailed surgery strategy.

Companies like Organovo are producing human tissue samples for the testing of new drugs.

Liver toxicity is a key concern for any new drug and Organovo is selling samples of human liver tissue to drug companies for their use in testing possible drugs.
Aspect Biosystems in Canada is also working on creating 3-D human tissue samples.

Research is underway on a number of human organs. The goal is to use a patient’s own cells to grow the new tissue and organs that will be transplanted back into the patient’s body. One of the difficulties is including blood vessels in those organs. Dr. Jennifer Lewis at Harvard has now come up with a way to 3-D print with multiple cell types including the cells that form blood vessels. She was able to create blood vessels down to 75 micrometers in diameter. Technology is not yet available to get down to true human capillaries which average only 8 microns in diameter. That size is necessary for good oxygen transfer from the red blood cells to the surrounding tissue.