December 15, 2013
Philip Laible, Argonne National Laboratory: endurance bioenergy reactor. An endurance bioenergy reactor. Huh?
Most of us have seen one — in a movie.
In "Back to the Future," Doc barrels his DeLorean into the McFlys' driveway. "What are you doing, Doc?" Marty asks as Doc rummages through the garbage, grabbing a banana peel and an open can of Miller beer.
"I need fuel!" Doc shouts. A hiss emits as Doc opens the lid of his "Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor." He throws in the peel, pours in beer and then tosses in the can itself. The DeLorean is ready to blast off.
Yet again, reality has almost caught up with science fiction.
Laible is working on a prototype of a fuel-maker that one day will be used like any other appliance in your home, although this one, since it involves trash, might sit in your backyard. You'll open a package of freeze-dried bacteria — something like a Kool-Aid packet — and sprinkle it into one of the reactor's ports. It'll be like putting detergent in a dishwasher, except you'll only have to do it once or twice.
Then you'll throw your latrine waste or kitchen scraps into the tank/reactor, and the resulting fuel will be able to fill up your car about once a month. (The amount of fuel generated would depend upon how often and how much a family feeds it; an average family of four would likely not generate enough waste to power a car solely using this method.)
"We want this whole reactor to be really simple to use, and be operated by someone with a minimal amount of education and produce useful quantities in a relatively short amount of time," Laible said.
It's a diesel substitute. So the reactor fuel would work in any diesel generator or vehicle engine.
"It's bacteria, so it can use really diverse feedstock," said Laible, an Argonne biophysicist who grew up in the Peoria area. "It can use animal waste, composting waste from your kitchen."
One thing it wouldn't be able to accept is anti-bacterial soap, which would kill the organism.
"I want you to fill up your own car with this," Labile said with his hand atop one of two glass jugs containing colorful, swirling, modified bacteria. He's constantly refining the recipe for it; his team has tried 137 different strains of bacteria thus far.
The challenge is achieving a seamless separation of the byproduct — the fuel — in those jugs from the water and bacteria swirling in there as well. The reactor needs to both produce the fuel and separate it, using magnetic force, at the same time. A process that now requires two steps must be reduced to one.
The U.S. military is expected to be Laible's first customer. Soldiers would use the reactors at forward-operating bases to produce their own electricity to power machinery and charge electric vehicles, eliminating the need for some fuel convoys. More than 3,000 American soldiers or contractors were killed in fuel convoys between 2003 and 2007 in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
Laible predicts he'll have a version ready for military testing in two to three years with commercial applications arriving thereafter.
"On a forward-operating base, if you create a fuel, you have to protect a fuel," he said, adding that a U.S. Air Force research fellow working in his lab taught him that. The reactor "has to be able to turn off right away so they can actually go do their work and not have to leave people behind protecting their fuel."
Daniel Rock, University of Illinois: a good virus for livestock. A large number of livestock in the developing world aren't being reliably vaccinated or vaccinated at all, dying from ailments that don't even exist among U.S. livestock.
The reasons for this mirror the reasons children aren't vaccinated: an inability to pay and the monumental challenge of delivering vaccines annually to remote regions of the world.
"Vaccinating these animals, in many cases, must be done on a yearly basis because you'd need to vaccinate the new additions to the herds and flocks," said Rock, a professor of pathobiology at the university's Urbana-Champaign campus. "And people's lives are actually affected by this a great deal."
If a goat or sheep dies, so does a farmer's source of income.
Rock's proposed solution would address two problems. First, one vaccine would prevent four livestock diseases: sheep pox; goat pox; peste des petits ruminants (afflicts goats and sheep); and Rift Valley fever, which can be passed to humans. Second, this vaccine would last many years.
"That's the unconventional aspect of this project," Rock said. "Viruses are circulating all of the time. You and I, we're persistently infected with a half-dozen viruses, and we always have the potential to transmit them to other people. But these viruses we're going to engineer (into vaccines). These viruses are really ubiquitous in animal populations. They're very successful. They circulate efficiently, so the young animals are infected very early."
Thus, Rock's engineered virus — a good virus — would be passed to new animals in the herd naturally just as the flu is passed from person to person because the flu virus circulates in the air. So this good virus would naturally circulate as well, exposing newborns and new arrivals alike to the vaccine.
Rock isn't certain this is going to work. But he's optimistic. He expects field testing to begin next year in either Central Asia or Africa. His research is being supported by a $100,000 grant, awarded in November, from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"And the impact, too, I think is going to be big for us, in the United States and the developed world," he said. "Because as we reduce these diseases where they occur, it reduces the threat to us. If we have less sheep and goat pox circulating in parts of Africa or parts of Asia, the risk of introduction to the United States and Western Europe is decreased."
Michael Peshkin and Edward Colgate, Northwestern University: surface haptics. Sometime in the future, before buying a pair of jeans on Amazon, a shopper will be able to know what those jeans feel like. All he or she will have to do is slide a finger over the photo of the jeans on a computer screen.
"All sorts of things we do with our hands, in the real world we expect to get sensations from it, and on glass surfaces, we just don't," Peshkin said. "And that's something we can fix."
Peshkin pointed at my iPad, on which I was pecking away notes, and asked: "Wouldn't you like it if your keys (on your iPad) had edges?" In fact, I would like that very much.
Peshkin and Colgate are the co-founders of an Evanston startup called Tangible Haptics, which will commercialize their inventions. One patent has been issued; others are pending. Haptic is derived from a Greek word and means "of or relating to the sense of touch."
The company this year raised a seed round of funding, which included an investment from a publicly traded manufacturing company, which Greg Topel, Tangible Haptics' chief executive, declined to name. The company also has received grants from the National Science Foundation.
Sitting on the desk of Peshkin's Northwestern office last week were two prototypes. Each looked about the size of an iPad Mini but with a thicker underbelly. The first application Topel and Peshkin asked me to try was a scroll wheel. Think about completing an address form online and scrolling through the list of states to find "Illinois." Well, with Peshkin's scroll, every time your finger scrolls from 1 to 2 to 3 — or from Illinois to Indiana to Iowa — you feel as if your finger hits a little bump.
This is accomplished with software-controlled friction. The screen doesn't move at all. The next generation of this technology would do more than impede your finger. Instead, your finger also could be pulled forward, left or right. Friction alone can't do that.
Tangible Haptics hopes to have a product ready for production by the end of next year. The technology would be integrated into another company's consumer electronic device. That hasn't happened yet because the team is working on shrinking the size of the technology to a half-millimeter of thickness, small enough to fit in a mobile phone.
"As soon as you start to have glass that feels like other things, we're never going back," Peshkin said.
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