Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Low-key wonders: how small-scale innovation can aid the developing world

The success of mega-budget science experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has quite rightly generated widespread praise for these technological marvels. This has led to plenty of discussion regarding similar international endeavours now in the pipeline, such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). However, numerous far smaller, cheaper projects have been largely overlooked, despite their potential to offer practical improvements to millions of humans and in some cases, to the environment as well. Although not nearly as glamorous as their far larger counterparts, these innovative schemes - at least in application if not necessarily in technology - are surely as important and deserve more attention than that so far given to them.

The projects in question are aimed towards improving the quality of life in developing nations and as such tend to fall into one of a few key categories:
  1. Fuel efficiency and non-fossil fuel energy sources
  2. Water, nutrition and food preparation
  3. Medicine and hygiene
  4. Low-cost consumer electronics
The companies and inventors conceiving these schemes are based around the world in both developing and developed countries, with most having little if any association with multi-national manufacturers. Indeed, such has been the lack of interest from traditional industry that some of the projects have relied on a few far-sighted entrepreneurs or crowdfunding schemes. In some cases it appears that the less sophisticated the technology being developed, the more successful the product; clearly, lack of funding for research and development can limit the efficiency and reliability of new devices. Although the World Bank estimates that the crowdfunding market could generate ninety to ninety-five billion US dollars by 2030, the lack of secure financial infrastructure and limited ecommerce experience in developing nations mean that its infoDev global partnership programme is finding it tricky to help small-scale innovation take off in these countries.

1. Fuel efficiency and non-fossil fuel energy sources

An irregular electricity supply if available at all is still a prominent problem in developing countries, so millions of poor households rely on dangerous and inefficient forms of lighting and cooking. Kerosene lamps for example, in addition to causing health issues from smoke inhalation are responsible for three percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. One simple yet effective solution comes in the form of the GravityLight, whereby a bag of slowly descending ballast drives a generator to power an LED light for about twenty minutes before it needs resetting.

Other devices are less innovative but still very useful, such as Princeton University-developed SunSaluter, one of several compact solar panel products being designed to optimise energy collection, in this particular instance with the ability to rotate and so follow the sun across the sky. Another alternative energy scheme currently being prototyped is called ROTOR and uses a small floating device to generate hydro-electric power. These local-level systems are not only environmentally friendly but would relieve poor families of having to buy fossil fuels such as kerosene. Unfortunately, many are still at the development stage and lack of funding usually means slow progress in implementation.

Another invention that utilises existing components without any moving parts is the Eco-Cooler, which uses halved plastic bottles to drastically reduce temperatures in houses without needing a power source. This may not be cutting edge technology per se, but as per a previous post from 2010, this simple ingenious solution may prove to a wider public how they can help themselves and the environment simultaneously.

2. Water, nutrition and food preparation

If water is the new oil then devices that can heat and/or purify it at the same time as saving money and lessening environmental impact cannot be far behind in importance. Inventions in this category range from incremental improvements (i.e. more efficient versions of conventional products such as the Berkeley-Darfur Stove) to the innovative Jompy Water Boiler prototype, which heats water to purify it at the same time as cooking food and saving fuel.

Water purification systems are being tested, as are waste recyclers that can convert household organic waste at low-cost into drinking water or even cooking gas. These devices are being developed to use little or no power to operate, and in the case of Indian conglomerate Tata's Swach water filter, a combination of traditional rice husk ash and nanosilver forms the active ingredients. As I've discussed elsewhere nanosilver is not the most environmentally friendly of substances but at twenty-five US dollars this device has become widespread over the past eight years, presumably saving the lives of innumerable children in regions without a safe water supply.

At the other end, so to speak, the UK's Cranfield University has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to complete development of the self-powered Nano Membrane Toilet. This is one of several such designs that don't require connection to plumbing as they work without an external water supply or outflow. Indeed, the Cranfield design is a net producer of water and possibly even energy too.

Developing countries are also seeking ways to improve nutrition themselves, such as the seventeen African nations involved in the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative. This ten-year programme aims to reduce vitamin A deficiency by breeding a new strain of sweet potato, especially aimed at households with very young children. It may not involve cutting-edge genetic modification, but just the work required to overcome the social and economic conservatism of the region is probably as key to success as the agricultural science.

3. Medicine and hygiene

In a crossover between nutrition and medicine, the advertising and marketing agency Grey Singapore has been involved with the distribution of the Life Saving Dot, an iodine-rich bindi designed to cure iodine deficiency in many rural Indian women. In this instance, the use of the traditional design means that the product shouldn't face suspicion from its target market.

In 2010 a German former teacher Martin Aufmuth began developing a simple method to quickly produce pairs of spectacles without the need for a power supply. His OneDollarGlasses are now selling worldwide, further proof that low-tech ingenuity can generate enormous benefits.

More high-tech schemes are also in development that could prove to be extremely efficient yet relatively low-cost life savers. Médecins Sans Frontières has been studying the use of both 3-D printing and virtual reality for setting up field hospitals while the e-NABLING the Future project coordinates volunteers who can supply 3-D printed items such as prosthetics. The disaster-relief NGO Field Ready aims to provide 'faster, cheaper and better' aid via the manufacture of 3-D printed elements, including medical items, a sure sign that this technology is probably the best method of rapidly producing custom components in regions lacking sophisticated infrastructure.

Solar power is also being co-opted to replace conventional batteries in devices such as hearing aids, with the Botswana-based Deaftronics and its Solar Ear unit a pioneer in this field. Presumably, as smart clothing technology becomes more common, such devices will be able to use the wearer's own motion to supply the necessary power.

Pharmaceutical distribution and illness diagnosis techniques are also on the verge of radical improvements, particularly in Africa. An example of the former is the Ghanaian-based mPedigree's use of a free SMS code to confirm that the pharmaceutical is genuine. MIT research is aiding the latter, thanks to a series of paper strip tests for conditions ranging from Ebola to dengue fever.

4. Low-cost consumer electronics

The first example I came across of such devices was British inventor Trevor Baylis' wind-up radio, developed in 1995. Having been rejected by mainstream radio manufacturers, Baylis was lucky to gain the support of entrepreneurs so that he could achieve mass-production.

One of the few major companies to take an interest in the bottom end of the market has been Vodafone, whose 150 and 250 model mobile phones appeared in 2010 and were aimed solely at developing nations; the importance of rapid yet cheap communication in rural areas should not be underestimated. Other devices have not been so lucky with their manufacturers, with the world's cheapest tablets, the Indian Government-promoted Ubislate/Aakash range, suffering from so many design and build issues that the device is unlikely to satisfy its intended market any time soon.

Although the Aakash fiasco may inhibit other Western corporations from wanting to engage in similar projects, the mini paradigm shifts that some of these projects have engendered could well generate a two-way interaction between developed and developing nations. Rather than playing safe by fiddling with small iterations based on existing designs, the potential for wholly new products manufactured by smarter, more efficient methods has been given a solid proving ground by some of the examples described above. This 'trickle up' method may prove to be the way in which multinationals get involved in this level of project; needless to say, the timing couldn't be more apt.

From long-lasting, low voltage light bulbs to non-fossil fuel road vehicles, there is a multitude of examples of how big business has traditionally stifled innovation if it meant potential loss of profit. In some cases, shortened product lifespan and incremental upgrade release cycles have forced consumers to participate in a planned obsolescence programme, at the cost of the wider environment as well as customer bank balance. With talk of a several trillion US dollar funding gap in the United Nations' sustainable development goals - which the USA is now more than ever unwilling to subsidise - any means to replace aid relief with self-sustaining processes and local manufacturing are to be welcomed. There's enormous potential out there for developing nations to improve dramatically without relying on charitable hand-outs or the dubious support of big business. Hopefully the flow of  inventors, entrepreneurs and volunteers will continue building that future.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Amphibian Armageddon and killed-off kauri: the worldwide battle against fighting fungi

I recently wanted to visit the Ark in the Park, an open sanctuary in the Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland that uses constant predator control to protect native plants and animals. However, I was stopped by a sign stating that Te Kawerau a Maki, the Maori of the district, have placed a rāhiu or prohibition on entering the forest. Although not legally binding, the rāhui is intended to stop people walking through the area and spreading infection, serving in place of any notice by the New Zealand Government or Auckland City Council, since the latter two bodies have failed to take action. Perhaps this inactivity is because the infection does not directly affect humans or farming. Instead a fungus-like pathogen is killing the native kauri Agathis australis, one the largest tree species on Earth.

Known to live for over a thousand years and grow to over fifty metres tall, the largest kauri are seen by Maori as the lords of New Zealand's northern forests. Yet since 2009 the microscopic water mould Phytophthora agathidicida has been causing kauri dieback at an ever-increasing rate. Surveys in the Waitakeres show that most of the infected areas are within ten metres of walking paths and therefore the mould is being spread by visitors to the lowland forests who fail to thoroughly clean their shoes with the supplied disinfectant spray. In a truly David versus Goliath battle between the miniscule mould and giant trees, introduced species such as possums and pigs are aiding the former by accidentally spreading the minute spores.

Auckland Council reported last winter that the amount of affected kauri has reached 19 percent, meaning a doubling in scale in only five years. Since there is no cure for infected kauri, some scientists are now predicting the extinction of this magnificent tree in the near future. The combination of the pathogen's microscopic size with its rain-based activation after dormancy means there are currently no methods that can prevent the infection from spreading. In a way, the rāhui may just slow down the inevitable. Considering the immense kauri are home to a unique ecosystem of epiphytes, orchids and associated symbiotic organisms, the future flora and fauna of kauri-free forests may well be markedly different from the Waitakeres as they are today.

I've previously discussed the ubiquity of the unsung fungi and how prominent they are even within totally man-made environments. It seems surprising that New Zealand's authorities, so keen to preserve native birds and reptiles, are failing to take any action to at least buy time for the kauri; perhaps they have already deemed extinction as unavoidable and not worth spending public funds on.

The kauri are far from being the only organisms currently threatened by fungi or their kin. Over the past decade more than thirty snake species in the eastern and mid-western United States have started succumbing to what has been termed Snake Fungal Disease. The culprit is thought to be a soil-based fungus called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, with a similar organism now also thought to be affecting snakes in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. Research suggests that up to ninety percent of infected snakes die from the condition, so clearly if humans and their vehicles play unwitting hosts to the microscopic fungal spores, the future for the world's snake population looks depressing. Although many people might not like snakes, ecosystems without them may see an explosion in the numbers of their prey animals, including rodents; to say the least, this would not bode well for crop farmers!

Perhaps the best-known of the global fungal-caused epidemics is the amphibian-decimating Chytridiomycosis, whose affects were initially recognised twenty years ago but may have started much earlier. As its spores can live in water, the responsible Batrachochytrium fungi are ideally situated to infect about one-third of all frog, toad, newt and salamander species. Again, it is thought that man has inadvertently caused the problem, as the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis is an immune carrier of the fungus and has been exported worldwide since the 1930's.

Another contributor may be climate change, as amphibian-rich forests experience temperature variations that are ideal for the chytrid fungi to proliferate in. As a final nail in the coffin - and as with bees and Colony Collapse Disorder - pesticides may play a key role in the epidemic. Agrochemicals are shown to lower the amphibian immune response and so increase their susceptibility to infection. However, the situation isn't completely hopeless: here in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Otago have used chloramphenicol, an antibiotic eye ointment, to cure infected Archey's frogs (Leiopelma archeyi). This species is already critically endangered even without the chytrid epidemic; hopefully, the cure will prove to be the saviour of other amphibian species too. This would be just as well, considering the dangerous side effects found in other treatments such as antifungal drugs and heat therapy (the latter involving temperature-controlled environments that are lethal to the pathogen).

During the past decade, over five million North American bats have been killed by white-nose syndrome, which is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. Again, humans have inadvertently spread the pathogen, in this case from Eurasia, where the bat species are immune to it, to North America, where they are most definitely susceptible. The bats are only affected during hibernation, which makes treating them difficult, although brief exposure to ultraviolet light has been shown to kill the fungus. This may prove to be a cure to infected colonies, although how the UV could be administered without disturbing the cave-roosting populations will take some figuring out.

It appears then that a combination of manmade causes (international travel, climate change and chemical pollution) is creating a field day for various tiny fungi or fungus-like organisms, at the expense of numerous species of fauna and flora. The culprits are so small and pervasive that there is a little hope of preventing their spread. Therefore if conventional cures cannot be found, the only hope for the likes of the kauri might be the use of genetic engineering to either give the victim resistance or to kill off the pathogen. This science fiction-sounding technology wouldn't be cheap and its knock-on effects unknown – and potentially disastrous. The former technique would presumably not be any use to the existing populations, only to the germ line cells of the next generation. Whatever happens, our short-sighted approach to the environment is certainly starting to have major repercussions. A world without the magnificent kauri, not to mention many amphibian, reptile and mammal species, would be a much poorer one.