Monthly Archives: February 2010

Death of the power grid?

Whoa, check out this story about the installation of apparently feasible fuel cell power for a significant customer:  Server for cleaner energy unveiled.

Actually, multiple customers, including Google, eBay, Bank of America, Staples, Coca-Cola and WalMart.  Seriously!  (Note:  even though I am an SEO whore, I refuse to link back to the websites of these companies, not that they would notice one way or the other.)

Fuel cells are not new, so what’s all the hubbub, bub?  Well, even though the technology has been making progress toward commercial goals (meaning lower cost), the equation has not been favorable for broad adoption.  But Bloom Energy, whose CEO K R Sridhar was featured on this week’s 60 Minutes, seems to have been able to convert their $400 million investment into a winning product.

One of the problems with large scale power generation is transmission losses.  Power generated in Virginia, for example, goes onto the grid and is distributed to the users from there.  Of course it works, but if the power could be generated on the site where it is to be consumed, at least the costs and losses associated with transmission lines could be eliminated.  And of course, we have been worried for years about attacks on our increasingly ‘smart’, and therefore vulnerable, grid.  On a hot summer day, a transformer going offline in Miami can take out part of the power system in New England.  It’s a carefully balanced beast that does not have nearly as much redundancy built in as should be required for such an important service.

Bloom Energy’s units are about the size of a car, and can be arranged in modules for easy increases in generation as demand increases.  Plus, they are much cleaner than, for example, coal-fired power plants, since they can utilize green fuels.

So, it looks like our power problems are solved, right?

Meh, I don’ t know.  After all, this is coming out of Silicon Valley, the same folks who brought you the dot-com bubble whose burst created an economic mess that is still being cleaned up ten years later.  As mentioned in the article, “the market will separate fact from fiction, and will prove claims versus reality”.

I hope it works.  Competitively priced electric power generated locally using green fuels and distributed without the need for landscape blighting high tension power lines cutting broad swaths across my forest covered mountains, has to be a good thing, right?

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Filed under Energy, fuel

When is technology a bad idea?

OK, I’m fully expecting to receive some flak about this post, but I’m going to write it anyway.

I remember a scene in the movie Jurassic Park where, after hearing the scientific explanation about how the dinosaurs were cloned and brought to life, Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by rakishly nerdy Jeff Goldblum) says something like, “Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should do it.”

You know, technology is a lot like that.  Just look at nuclear fission.  The same technology that could give us almost unlimited, inexpensive electrical power, can also be turned on us in the form of nuclear weapons.  Perhaps more to the point, it can also give us Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

I apply that same sort of caution to an otherwise laudable effort by Dr. Dennis Hong and his team to develop technology that would allow blind people to drive a car. You can read more about it here and here.  Dennis’ team is stepping up to the National Federation for the Blind‘s “Blind Driver Challenge“, sponsored by the Jernigan Institute.

I know.   That was my reaction at first, also.  Why in the world would we want blind people driving automobiles?  Sighted people have enough trouble.

So, now that I have that out  of my system, let’s talk about reality.  There is no doubt that Hong’s engineering team will come up with some amazing ways to augment automobile navigation and control.  But let’s face it, who will insure a blind driver?  See, (no pun intended), driving is one of those personal responsibility things.  If you hit somebody, it’s your fault.  Period.  The statistical tables are well understood for the insurance industry, which allows them to set rates based on likelihood of an accident for various population classes who drive.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, the highest incidence of accidents is not reckless teenage boys with fast cars, as popular 1960s songs might lead you to believe.  Nope, it’s teenage GIRLS.  Not really a surprise, I suppose, is it?

Anyway, just imagine that Hong, or somebody, develops the technology to allow blind people to drive a car on the highway with everybody else.  And suppose some critical part of that technology fails, as technology is wont to do at the most inopportune moments.  And suppose this failure leads to an accident where, unfortunately, one or more people are killed.  Maybe even the blind person.

The lawyers will have a field day.  The blind driver’s family will sue the automaker and the people who developed the blind driving technology for misleading the blind driver into thinking it was safe to drive.  The families of anybody else involved in the accident will sue the blind driver, and probably all the people the blind driver sues as well.  Somebody will sue the regulatory agency that approved this fiasco.  Who knows where it might end?

Which is why I don’t think this technology will ever be used to enable blind people to driver cars on the highway.

BUT, it could have other purposes.  What would a foolproof blind driver system look like?  Well, it would navigate for you, locate obstacles for you, predict paths for you to avoid objects, and pretty much just take over the driving for you.

In fact, if such as system could work, we would all end up in a world where none of us would actually be driving our cars at all.  I mean, if it is that safe, then there would be a massive computer controlled road network with smart cars, no traffic jams, and pretty much no autonomy.

Might as well take a bus or a train….

So, what’s the end of this story?  Well, I think Hong’s work will actually lead to systems that make cars safer and more convenient for sighted drivers, not blind ones.  And while I completely sympathize with blind people and their limited autonomy in life, the usefulness of this technology to them will be limited to in-community, limited use roads such as within a retirement area.  And maybe that is enough.

Be sure to spend a few minutes browsing Hong’s research lab website, the ROMELA lab.  It’s full of very interesting and very, very creepy robotic things, including graduate students.

Hehe, just kidding.  The graduate students, while creepy like all graduate students, are not, in fact, robotic as far as I know.

But with Dennis, you can never be sure….

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Filed under Communications, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software

University research is a bargain for tech companies

Executive summary:  It’s a steal.  For you, I mean.

Many companies will crinkle up their noses, frown and then throw up on your shoes if you suggest they should work with a university research team to achieve their technology goals.  And, in many cases, your shoes would deserve to be soiled in this manner.  After all, there is a reason that good research faculty are teaching college classes instead of heading up research labs for private companies.  The academic life has its own pace, which is nowhere near fast enough for the typical technology based business.  I have personally managed a number of university collaborations over the years, and I have management-inflicted scars on my back to prove it.  But even though the interface to a university research team is difficult to control and synchronization of goals with business timelines is almost impossible, I still believe that university research is the best bargain your business will ever see, outside of bureaucratically distributed stimulus funds.

First, consider how much larger is the skill set of a well-endowed university research laboratory.  Generally there is a mix of seasoned senior research-managers and younger faculty, which really brings some R&D power to the problem.  In addition you get grad students feverishly working to earn their degrees, as well as apprentice post-docs trying to beef up their resumes using your project.

Most importantly, the cost of the research is a real bargain.  Not only do you get the benefit of years, sometimes decades of well-equipped labs, some containing one-of-a-kind tools developed specifically to study problems in your field, but you only have to pay a fraction of the actual cost of the work.

Think about it.  In a public university, the state budget underwrites a huge part of the research, not only by providing facilities, but by subsidizing the salaries of the folks working for you.

Let’s look at the Virginia budget (relevant tables for education spending are here).  The University of Virginia and its Medical School, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech together account for about $4 Billion of the State budget.  So, for example, if Virginia Tech, with about 1500 faculty, gets about $950M from the state, that equates to about $680k for each faculty member.  Of course, not all of that money goes directly to research faculty, but still, because the state underwrites the university operation to this degree, outside sponsors get a huge bargain compared to what it would have cost them to accomplish the same research results internally.

Even so, the perceived “relaxed pace” with which university research occurs is often at odds with product windows of opportunity in the commercial world.  Yes, that’s true, and it’s not going to change.  But it shouldn’t.  Businesses should view university based research as a long term strategy for obtaining leading edge technology for next generation products, not quick fixes for the failures of an internal R&D effort.  And while there are slackers within a university just like any other organization, the unbounded freedom to explore science and technology within the university environment can unleash extreme creativity, often leading to game-changing, transformational technology for the market.

One criticism often leveled at university technology transfer efforts is that the school “wants to own all the intellectual property developed with the sponsor’s money”.  Well, that’s sort of true, but there are some reasons.  Generally, the university requires faculty to assign all their rights as inventors to the school for management.  In exchange, the tech transfer office (TTO) returns a significant fraction of any license revenues back to the inventors.  So they could, for example, reap huge royalty payments from a pharmaceutical company for a drug they helped develop without having to work in a startup company.  The TTO protects and markets the inventions for the state and the inventor.  In the case of company sponsored research, the sponsor generally gets some sort of credit in the way of paid up options to negotiate exclusive license agreements, and possibly very favorable terms, in exchange for their portion of the funding.

It’s important for the company to understand that no matter how much funding they put into the project, the taxpayers of the state have also put in a significant amount, and expect a fair return.

But it’s still a bargain.  Partnering with a university results in the development of leading edge research at a fraction of the actual cost to the company.  Often, for the company, it can be the difference between being a market leader or an also-ran.

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Keeping the eggs in the omelette

I feel like a pincushion.  I’ve had so many pre-emptive shots this season to ward off flu and pneumonia and such that I am thinking I might as well go ahead and get a tattoo.

When I was younger, I laughed at the flu and never got a shot.  In fact I laughed at the people who ran around getting the shots in the fall, and called them all sorts of effeminate names.  But for the past few years the flu decided to remind me that I am not 25 years old any more, so now I get the shots.

When I can get them, that is.  There always seems to be a shortage of vaccine when I need the shot, and I can tell you one reason.  Eggs.

Yep, you need about 2 eggs to make a single dose of flu vaccine, and the vaccine itself generally doesn’t cover all the possible ways you might get the flu anyway.  Plus, it takes about six months to crank up the amount of production needed for the general population, so if something new and slightly unexpected comes along, it’s hard to get the vaccine to people in time.

Eggs are used to make vaccine?  Yup.  It’s the traditional method.  Eleven days after fertilization the embryos are injected with live virus, which then incubates inside the fluid sac until it is harvested.  Obviously not a wonderful experience for the embryo, I’m guessing.  So, that means that you need millions of fertilized eggs to make the product, and it all seems rather difficult and messy to me.  And slow, which means that some people, like about 36,000 per year, could die from the disease.

But, Dr. Paul Roberts of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is coming to the rescue.  Roberts has been experimenting with a different method of producing the vaccine, based on cell cultures.  His goal is to develop a faster way to produce vaccine which will also be more adaptable to changing mixes of flu variants that occur during a typical flu season.  To accomplish this, Roberts essentially makes the flu produce its own poison.

The way your body fights an invader, such as a flu virus, is to produce antibodies against it.  It’s sort of like tagging the invading cells with a little red flag, and then sending out other killer cells to wipe out anything with red flags.  Unfortunately, antibodies work best when they are very specific to a particular invader, but the flu doesn’t consist of just one flavor of threat.

Roberts is using new cell culture technology to coax infected cells to produce their own antidotes, so to speak.  He tags the envelope of the host cell containing the virus with proteins that will induce the body to make antibodies, and so when the virus emerges, or ‘buds’ from the host cell, it gets wrapped in the envelope, effectively painting itself with a big bullseye for the immune system.  The virus itself is killed and then it can be safely injected into the host (me, for example) where my own body will stimulate my immune system against it without my having to actually get the flu.  Later, when real flu bugs invade me because my office mate spent the last three days coughing and sneezing on me, I’ve already got my antibodies lying in ambush.

I love it when a plan comes together.

So, the point is that eventually this cell culture technique might replace the egg incubation technique, which means that vaccines could be produced more rapidly to address emerging health threats.

Plus, since you no longer need millions of eggs to produce vaccine, demand for eggs will go down, resulting in lower egg prices for consumers…well, we won’t go there.  I like to discuss topics that have predictable outcomes, like science.  Not economics.

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Filed under biotechnology, genetics, medical technology

Under my skin

Who among us hasn’t slipped out without our parents knowing and visited our local hopefully hygenic body artist and gotten a little permanent ink decoration in that special spot,  only to change our minds later and realize that either (a) our current significant other, the object of our inky affection, turned out to be a jerk/jerkette, or (b) in some careers, visible tattoos are not considered acceptable business attire?  Don’t you hate it when Mom turns out to be right?

In addition to many actual dermatological conditions requiring attention, a growing number of people are seeking to undo that adolescent indiscretion through laser skin treatments.  With the devices currently available, the laser light is applied to the surface of the skin and then it is up that beam of light to find its own path to the pigmented areas beneath the surface of the skin.  That means it can bounce around in there for a little while before finding the pigmented area, all the while heating up the surrounding tissue needlessly.  Ouch.

Biomedical Engineer Dr. Chris Rylander and his team in the Biotransport and Optics Lab at Virginia Tech have come up with a device that better controls where the laser light travels using optical fibers modeled after a mosquito proboscis – that’s the part the mosquito sticks into you to suck out blood and leave behind an itchy bump (and possibly malaria).

When a mosquito first slips its proboscis into a victim’s skin, it is so small it can’t be felt until the insect starts the deposit/withdrawal process of removing blood.  Chris’ optical fibers rival those of a mosquito, and he is working on a full-scale prototype of his current single fiber prototype.  These fibers can painlessly penetrate the outer layer of the skin and direct laser light more efficiently and quickly to those subdermal target areas.

While the offending spots and blemishes to be treated seem to reside on the surface of the skin,  they arise there from the subdermal layers.  Zap the subdermal cells that are the source of the unwanted pigment effectively and completely, and the source of the spot will be no more.  And that is what Chris’ invention is all about: delivering laser light faster, better, and with less damage and pain to the cells that resupply the spot you see on the skin’s surface.

For more details, you can actually download a pdf report of Chris’ work from the website of the National Insitutes of Health here.

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Filed under biotechnology, Materials, medical technology, optics