Harris: Futuristic inventions Illinois scientists are working on today

Here are three homegrown examples of scientists on the brink of engineering products or cells that could change the way we live

  • Pin It

Dr. Philip Laible, lead researcher behind Argonne's endurance bioenergy reactor, in his lab at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill. (Posted on: December 13, 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.

  • Pin It