Looking Beyond The Horizon

Innovative Technologies & Services

Archive for October, 2007

The United States – a member of an imminent thirsty planet

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 28, 2007

For last few months, I have been concerned with the growing issue of freshwater availability in the rapidly expanding economies and communities of South Asia. What came to me as a shock is a similar catastrophe in the making right here in the homeland. Some of the numbers are staggering – US used more than 148 trillion gallons of water in 2000. With a surging growth in population, immigration, usage, and wastes. My jaws fell learning that we use nearly 500K gallons of water per capita. The global problem of depleting freshwater has started to reach our shores, and that’s too pretty fast. As I kept on reading about it in the article published in MSNBC [read article here], I felt that the awareness about this impending problem is quite insignificant. However, keeping our eyes closed wouldn’t promise a continuous flow from our taps. This is one of several things we have taken for granted!

Well, following my philosophy of problems-lead-to-opportunities, I see a great potential in innovation, invention, private sector-government collaboration, governance, and conscious management of services around development of freshwater facilities. Distribution will be another big concern. As again mentioned in the MSNBC article – it will cost us nearly 300 billion dollars to just upgrade our pipes to support increased capacity. Who is going to bear the cost? Will it be government alone (using our tax money) or should it be individual citizens bearing a subscription based cost structure as found in tollway road systems. Pay as you go! However, that model will not be able to support the infrastructure totally since the pipes won’t stop coming to the tap that stays unopened. freshwater.jpg

I like the idea of desalination plants. However, the cost-benefit structure may be preventing an expansion of its capacity. On the other hand, the desalination capacity is not significant either. If you look at the numbers in Florida, they are not impressive either. One component that would be really beneficial is the recycling of waste water. If we can convert a large amount of industrial and farming wastes (water) by different organic technologies (microbial treatments, etc.), we will be able to bring freshwater back to the ecosystem. That will be a very prospectful industry.

Finally, I came across a global perspective in the following article published in BBC. Wanted to share with you: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/755497.stm

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Posted in Energy, Environment, Innovation, Water | 2 Comments »

GE’s greener approach – cutting down mercury from fluorescent lightbulbs

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 24, 2007

GE has taken an initiative to cut down the amount of mercury in compact fluorescent light-bulbs (CFLs). Currently, the cock-screw shaped energy-saving bulbs carry 5 mg of mercury. A pretty small amount per unit. But with soaring sales of CFLs over the last few years (150 million just last year), the amount just multiplies to a significant amount. Environmentalists are complaining about the fact that many of these bulbs are ending up in landfills rather than the recycling facility – leading its way to environmental waste and thereby to the ecosystem.

The article can be found [here]. You can read about the initiatives and the numbers for CFLs growth. However, I would like to take the opportunity to talk about the amazing nature of industry around a growing acceptance of an innovation and its commercialization. Again, my interest lies in the development and maturity of an ecosystem around an invention. cflstandard.jpg

I have earlier wrote about CFLs [here] and their tremendous market growth where mass acceptance drives the price/unit down. This cock-screw shaped bulb saves lot of energy and limits CO2 emission considerably. However, as the CFLs catch up, so does the consumption of mercury. Meanwhile, the shear number of waste that ends up in landfill create a hazard for the garbage workers, who often come in direct contact with exposed mercury.

Considering the energy savings, several countries are starting to ban the incandescent light bulbs. However, GE and other manufacturers are still not phasing out the regular bulbs, which has the maximum penetration in the market. There is an obvious balancing act where in one hand a product is slowly reaching its demise (! well eventually) whereas another product from the same portfolio class is ramping up for fine tuning and cost adjustments. The two curves are moving dynamically in opposite directions but with different speeds. Meanwhile, another influential parameter driven by social and governmental policies enforces a greater speed in the declining curve. This can modify the ecosystem with different market players (smaller companies) who may bring new innovations to mitigate the disparity while the big manufacturer adapts.

Ecosystem dynamics is just amazing!

Picture: NPR

Posted in Energy, Environment, Innovation, investment | Leave a Comment »

More applications for ‘smart’ sunglasses

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 23, 2007

The ‘Informance’ sunglass displays a stopwatch and heartrate on one edge – the athlete adjuts his breathing rate and speed while he closes in for his last one mile stretch. On the left edge of the glass screen, the runner could read scrolling temperature and steps/minute. All these is made available by a thin wedge-shaped prism is built into the left edge of the lens.

Rodenstock, a German lens manufacturer, has developed these sunglasses with an estimated steep price tag for it’s tentative commercial release in 2009. We have head-up displays for defence. Fighter pilots have head-mounted display mounted on their view finder/glass in their helmets. But embedding these display capabilities make the equipment very heavy and are not feasible for a light sunglass that often stands as a signature of fashion. Rodenstock has brought an innovation that makes the lens much lighter. For details, read [here].

What makes this thing cool is the wireless link that connects the glass with a digital clock reading pulse beats, body temperature, and ambient humidity. I believe that this innovation could be further stretched by blending the display unit into the lens – to maintain the look and feel of a cool shade. Some of cool applications could be:

  1. Connect wireless devices with the glass – a flashing ringer that will alert you of an incoming call.
  2. Show time/stopwatch/lap time fed from a wireless transmitter in the viscinity – a stadium.
  3. Show heartbeat and other physical attributes being transmitted by receptors attached to the body.

—————— while doing the research ————————————————————

Guys: While doing the research for this article, I came across a product with the ability of watching video from iPod on a glass mountable video display – totally portable! You may check it out.

http://www.myvu.com/Experience/

Posted in Communication, glass, Innovation, optics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Compound changing color on demand

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 22, 2007

Researchers from MIT have created a gel that changes color in response to external stimuli. The compound has the unique characteristic of changing colors when exposed to different kinds of stimuli – light, moisture, pressure, and possibly voltage. The versatile gel provides some significant signatures for changes in the surrounding environmental components. lightgels-2-enlarged.jpg

The researchers have achieved this remarkable feature by using a copolymer thin film made of alternating layers of two materials, polystyrene and poly-2-vinyl-pyridine. The thickness of those layers and their refractive indices determine what color light will be reflected by the resulting gel. External stimuli produce changes to the thickness of the layers (space between them), which then alters the refractive indices of the layers and hence changes the color of the gel. As claimed by the researchers:

The key to manipulating the thickness of the poly-2-vinyl-pyridine (2VP) layer is to give the nitrogens on each segment of the 2VP block a positive charge, yielding a polyelectrolyte chain that can swell to more than 1,000 percent its volume in water.

This is a fundamental research breakthrough – an ingenious way of swelling ultra thin compunds/layers by sending a small chanrge through it. For more details, read the article [here].

I have been thinking of the commercial aspects of this research – and many others already have. True innovation in materials has the key to unfold areas of the application that could have never be contemplated earlier. Some of the immediate uses that comes to my mind are:

  1. Coumpound can be used to detect moisture in food warehouses – where dryness is essential.
  2. Small pressure changes can be detected with the presence of explosive materials.
  3. Color changes through a large spectrum of light can produce vivid and visible responses to the slightest change in the environmental factors.
  4. — I will do research and think of few more — any other ideas are more than welcome.

 Picture: MIT News – Ned Thomas, Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and head of the department, left, and Joseph Walish, graduate student in materials science and engineering.

Posted in Innovation, materials | Leave a Comment »

Should we be worried? Banked blood loses potency fast!

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 17, 2007

This news is up in the channels – about banked blood losing its ability to deliver oxygen to tissues after transfusion. Result: patients receiving tranfusions are more prone to strokes, heart attacks, and often even deaths. The cited reason is the loss of nitric oxide from blood after the RBC leaves the body. Nitric oxide is the oxygen carrier. Dr. Jonathan Stamler, a Duke researcher, has found that ability of the blood cells to deliver oxygen drops pretty fast after the blood has been removed from the source body. Stamler has also noted that if nitric oxide is added back, the banked blood regains this ability. Read the article [here].

I have several questions about this research:

  1. What kind of manifestations are seen when banked blood is first introduced to the receiver’s body and to what degree do these manifestations get debilitating with time?
  2. Did the receiving patient has any pre-disposition to any disease that got triggered for some other reason and henceforth produced a negative impact on the heart?
  3. Will a small transfusion for a relatively smaller wound produce a long-term negative impact in the receiver’s body?
  4. Bottom Line – Should I be worried? 

There is a WSJ blog that talks about this finding and exhanges some nice views.

Another group at Duke, led by Timothy McMahon, MD, PhD, found that red blood cells in banked blood lost some of their flexibility in storage. That process happened more slowly than SNO-Hb loss in banked blood. According to McMohan, replenishing SNO-Hb may enable RBC to stay flexible to carry oxygen to the tissues.

A relevant article on artificial blood posted earlier: Oxycyte™ – Just another invention or a better substitute for blood?

Posted in blood, health, Medicine | Leave a Comment »

Metamaterial refracts light the other way – Fundamental research in optics

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 15, 2007

A research group from Princeton has developed a metamaterial from the semiconductors in a computer chip that is capable of refracting light in the opposite direction from the conventional materials. This breakthrough has been achieved by arranging the semiconductor materials in an alternate pattern in a 3-dimensional format. Earlier, metamaterials were being created in a 2-dimensional format. However, this 3-dimensional arrangement has been able to create the novel property of bending light in the negative direction. The research detail can be found [here].

The research is part of a multi-institutional research center called Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE). MIRTHE is a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center headquartered at Princeton University, with partners City College New York, Johns Hopkins University, Rice, Texas A&M, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

laser3.jpg

The negative refraction achieved in the metamaterial will be able to create microscopes with many fold higher magnification than the conventional ones. The negative refraction property used in flat lenses could compensate the optical aberration created by curved lenses. Furthermore, this research can open the doorway for minuscule particle detection systems using IR light source and sophisticated sensors.

Posted in Infrared, Innovation, materials, optics | Leave a Comment »

Thought provoking article on biotech-cancer-cost of life

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 11, 2007

I really enjoyed reading this article on MSNBC. An open and realistic discussion of the cost of cure for cancer and other terminating illnesses in the US. I am not going to repeat what’s in the post. You can find it [here]. The article talks about one patient who was diagnosed with breast cancer and tries to focus on several pertinent but critical human issues related to the subject. The very well presented story questions the monetary value of life. It’s about the cost of biotech drug therapy – the state-of-the-art medication that targets specific proteins and is capable of expanding the life expectancy of the affected. 800px-genentechheadquarters.jpg

The primary message is the cost of undergoing such elite drugs, and how it affects the patient, his/her family, savings, and lifestyle in general. Most of these drugs are outrageously costly – ranging from $55K to $100K per year of treatment. For an average middle-class individual with a decent salary, the recurring cost of such magnitude gets debilitating. Many loose their lifelong savings, house, and other dear belongings. The human side of the story is very emotional. On the other hand, the drug companies pursue years of research and billions of dollars to bring these revolutionary drugs to the market. Once commercialized, the companies try to salvage their investments several fold. A pressure from the stock market and shareholders moulds the path of profit-making. Some outcries the tremendous cost of ~$100K to maintain a drug regimen and supports the idea of government control over such drug prices – which is right away a damper to innovation and free market impetus. So how do you balance that?

I believe that in the coming years these questions need to be addressed sincerely. Not just from political and social perspectives but also from business platforms. How can these drug companies manage to continue their innovation, leverage their invaluable intellectual capital, benefit from the one-way (seller’s market) cost proposition, address the ethical and social questions, and meanwhile appease the investors to continue growth. Several challenging issues that need to be dealt by business community, political community, scientific community, and the general population.

Picture: Genentech Building

Posted in biotech, drugs, investment, Medicine | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Nano-clothing – Could this be a commercially viable choice anytime soon?

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 10, 2007

Popular Science posted an article about a nanoparticle coated jacket that wards off viruses. Researchers from Cornell have sprinkled the upper cotton layer with silver nanoparticles that deflect bacteria and viruses. Further, palladium nanoparticles sprayed on the neck and upper parts of the jacket acts to breakdown pollutants. This functional clothing does a little bit more than just making one look cool. Read the [article] here.

In the latest trend in nanotextiles, nano-metallic particles are sprayed on the fabric to perform numerous tasks – keeping bigger dirt particles and bad stains off. However, there are some difficulties in creating such cool dresses. A considerable degree of precision is required in spraying nanoparticles evenly across the whole length of the fabric. It is extremely difficult to maintain such a level of accuracy in such a small scale of length. On the other hand, the silver and gold particles are not cost effective for mass production and cheap commercial acceptance. Some of the business aspects that should be considered to make this innovation a household word are:

  1. Commercial entry of high-end devices those are capable of mass-producing nano material layers fast and cheap.
  2. Investing effectively in R&D for finding nanoparticles that are more cost effective than metals like gold and silver.
  3. Create awareness in the community about the strength and efficacy of nanosprayed clothing in defeating daily infections.
  4. Consider the negative effect of nano particles when infused into the eco-system – by disposal, factory run-off, and/or recycling.

Posted in Environment, Innovation, micron, nano assembly, nanotechnology | 2 Comments »

Matching brain signals with prosthetics – algorithmically

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 4, 2007

I do remember the robot from Will Smith’s I Robot (2004), where the android moves its arm with unimaginable degrees of freedom. The artificial machine is capable of translating its wishes by communicating effectively with its mechanical appendages. Brain (central intelligence system) signals are decoded and converted into mechanical actions. One of the researchers from MIT has embarked on one such project of creating these movements in artificial prosthetics by decoding neural commands from the brain.

Laxminarayan Srinivasan has developed an algorithm that will enable a prosthetic device to move according to neural signals [read article here]. People who often loose their arms or limbs from accidents or paralysis are still able to think and manifest their intentions from the brain. The challenge is to interpret their intentions that originate as neural signals and match them with the mode of action sought. Then make the prosthetic device operate accordingly. The researcher and his team have developed an algorithm that matches such recorded signals with different archived mechanical actions and then instruct the machine to behave. Presumably, a lot of work needs to be done in understanding the nature of the neural transmission associated with the movements of our arms and limbs. The algorithm processes the signal modalities and all its subtle variations in stimulation and then appropriately connects the command with the action code. A highly robust library of actions and a very sensitive and critical recorder of signals. blog_irobot.jpg

With a very difficult task in hand, Srinivasan aspires to build a unifying model of decoding in the coming years.

These kind of activities will one day lead to artificial movements very close to the natural ones. The difference between science fiction and reality is TIME. As we develop smart interfaces and recording devices for neural signals, and are able to interpret their messages, the closer we will get in understanding the motor behaviors related to such signals. My forecast is over the next decade industry will focus on developing such interfaces and creating small prosthetics that use AI to learn and develop actions from the recorded signals. A very burgeoning area of bio-engineering.

Posted in artificial intelligence, brain, robotics, robots | Leave a Comment »

Your cellphone is an interactive wallet of the future (very soon)

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 2, 2007

Once again the concept just flashed in my head – ‘often innovation is not about what you use but about how you use’. While reading an MSNBC post [read here] about Filipinos using their cell phones for receiving foreign remittances seemed like revisiting a past idea (not too past though). The question that came to my mind right away – Will cellphones become our next generation interactive wallet? Actually… it surely can be and doesn’t have to wait till the next generation!

In the US we restrict our cellphones to communication (chat and text), media access (recently with iPhone and other PDA devices), and some degree of web access. Numerous companies strive to bring innovations or rather tweaks in the UI, website, or communication speed (Wi-Fi, Wi-Max) to make websites load into that small device with a smaller screen. Nevertheless, ergonomics and human psychology of persisting habits go at odds to each other and we just keep on churning over a blind end. However, in EU and Asia things are treated differently when it comes to the use of cellphones. Usability has gone few steps above texting for entertainment or social purposes. c-Banking (cell banking?) is a new format now. People are remitting money over the cell from EU to Africa and Asia. The increasing accessibility to a cell phone at warp speed even to the remotest parts of continents are allowing applications to penetrate markets that could have never been reached. The social innovation aspect of it is now another face of profit-based corporate innovation. wireless-carriers.jpg

For a villager or an immigrant worker, you don’t need to load a webpage in front of him/her. Just give a 4 digit SMS number to dial and simple instructions to load cash, ping cash, and confirm receipt. But there is a whole menagerie of applications that are already evolving or awaiting to launch in the mobile phone domain. Some of them are:

  1. Cell phone debit card to buy movie tickets by accessing a toll free number
  2. Waving cell phones in front of a cash register while checking out groceries or other merchandise
  3. Using cell phones to validate your presence – carrying graphic Drivers License
  4. And more….. are ideas that I will keep for my startup – 🙂

So you can see, we are soon approaching the days of c-wallet. Just keep on building the interfaces!!

Another good post [here].

Posted in Communication, Innovation, online banking, wireless | Leave a Comment »