When Simple Gadgets
Solve Complex Problems
Every once in a while, we choose to focus on small, alternative branches of scientific research, dedicated to our survival on this planet as a radically different, more benign species; works of wonder highlighting the ingenuity of the human spirit… Just kidding.
We do, however, come across examples of brilliant ideas, of simple but effective ways of overcoming the appalling conditions faced by billions, depleted of the most vital needs, such as breathable air, drinkable water, and a reliable charger for their cellphones.
The curious thing is, these inventions are all around us, and many seem interconnected, as if the same drive to develop a greenhouse in the middle of the desert, irrigated by desalinized seawater, also brought about a bottle that does all the desalinization on its own.
From a sterilizer that draws its power from the sun, to a shirt that can turn into a battery. There’s also ways that may enable manholes to charge electric cars, and yes, a cellphone charger powered by another bottle, actually any bottle. If there’s a want, there is a wheel, or something to that effect.
For now, though, we’ll restrain from reporting on the latest uses of body fluids as an alternative way to fossil energy. Yes, you’d be surprised about how much there is out there to report. Almost as much as what’s been generated as we speak. But we’ve done that before, so we’ll leave it for another time.
If there’s one common denominator of all these ingenious contraptions is that they’re deceptively simple but reach out to the needs of millions. While we agonize whether our stay on this planet is still viable, without detonating it first, some are busy making amendments with humanity and treating nature as an ally.
COOL PLANT IN THE DESERT
How can you grow food in the middle of the Sahara? Try using saltwater, wind and solar power, and some new technologies and you’re halfway there. The curiously named Sahara Forest Project has done just that, producing 75kg of crops, such as cucumbers, per square meter, in its Qatar pilot plant.
The project was first presented as a feasibility study during the 2009 U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, as a collaboration between a few Scandinavian and Middle East governments, U.N. officials, and a few fertilizer companies. It’s becoming a success story in less time than it’s taking to get wind farms going off the coast of Maine, for example.
The centerpiece of the Quatar plant is a seawater-cooled greenhouse, which serves multiple purposes, including allowing the use of natural wind currents to cool off the plants. The cold condensation on the pipes that circulate the seawater through the greenhouse also becomes a source of fresh water.
Power is provided by a complex of mirrors collecting good old sun rays, which are obviously plentiful in the desert. The energy generated by the solar heat is enough to also allow the desalination of water for irrigation. Heat-tolerant algae and naturally occurring desert vegetation contribute to making the plant nearly self-sufficient.
SURVIVAL & CONTACT IN A BOTTLE
If you happen to be stranded in the desert or the ocean, potable water would probably be your biggest concern. An entry at the 2013 IDEA Design Awards would come very handy indeed: a bottle capable of separating salt from sea water. Again, what Younsun Kim, Kangkyung Lee, Byungsoo Kim and Minji Kim created is elegant and effective.
All it takes is to apply enough pressure into a pump on the top of the bottle for the separation that turns the next wave into the most vital element of human survival, apart from air: fresh water. Puri, as it’s called, is still a concept but it’d probably cost much less to make it widely available than the next cola craze drink.
A much simpler bottle, in fact, a cola bottle should suffice, can also be turned into a cellphone charger. That’s what a group of designers in Nairobi, Kenya, have created, using boiling water and a special type of miniature turbine. The heated water will charge your phone for some 30 minutes, or until the other person hangs up on you.
After all, it’s quite possible that you’d be amazed that the contraption actually helped you contact your friends abroad if you happen to be stranded, well, somewhere in Africa, with no Starbucks or outlets around. No need to pity yourself: for millions, that’s the most likely scenario.
If you’re among the lucky few who can actually plug in your phone anytime, don’t forget your friends abroad, though. They’re holding a Kickstarter-like fund raising, to finance their project, and it’ll cost you less than a text message to help them out. And, as we said, help millions around the world to be in touch too.
MANHOLE COVERS & SMART SHIRTS
The need to find places to charge your gadgets and devices seems to be the least of most inventors’ concerns. But it’s crucial as anyone who got lost or found themselves in the middle of a natural (or unnatural) disaster would tell you: a big part of your fear is not knowing how the kids are doing.
Cue in the shirt battery and the manhole charger. ‘A simple chemical activation route is developed to convert insulating cotton T-shirt into highly conductive and flexible activated carbon textiles for energy-storage applications.’ Not the kind of language one would find in an Armani catalog.
But it’s part of a research conducted by University of South Carolina’s Xiaodong Li into the possibility of altering the fibers of cotton, for instance, into wires and capacitors. Through a process involving soaking the material in fluoride and then heating it up, the fibers can then store large amounts of energy.
No need to take your shirt off just yet, though. Most likely, some astronaut will sport the space fashion way before you do. But it’s fair to expect that some day you may be able to charge your beloved device by just putting it in your pocket. Something one wouldn’t do with a heavy, gritty manhole cover, though.
But if you were to drive an electric car on the streets of New York City, for example, not to far away in the future, it’s possible that finding a manhole cover will have the same meaning of finding a gas station these days: it could be part of an ’embeddable’ wireless charging system a local startup is developing.
HEVO Power and the NYU are developing just such system, which would be hooked into an underground network of access points under the city. Of course, this being now, you’d also need an app to tell you where to find the right spot to park and charge. But just the thought of having electrical vehicles finally having the right of way gets us all going.
GERM KILLING SOLAR STEAM
Let’s face it: we couldn’t live without the trillions of bacteria that cover and stuff our bodies. Then again, if they (or we) are out of balance in any way, we’re the ones getting killed. Viruses, microbes, spores, even what not even electronic microscopes can see can be, dearests, out to get us big time one way or another.
But we have friends, lucky us. One, the biggest, is the sun. The others, scattered, are researchers such as Naomi Halas, Oara Neumann and Peter Nordlander, of Rice University, who have developed a solar steam-powered sterilization system that can wipe out all of those microorganisms from places they love to hang: medical equipment and human waste.
Again, the genius of it, is that the system, once fully developed, may be a cheap way to improve sanitation in impoverished regions of the world. That and that the solar steam technique represents yet another way of optimizing the use of solar power in ways even more effective than the direct collection in panels.
Not bad from a walk on the wild side of helping people, wouldn’t you say? And it’s all about basic things, potable water, food, energy, sanitation, all cheap, simple and, most important, not at all corporate dependent. Taking in combination, they do show another side we don’t usually chat about on our cellphones.
Coming to think of it, it does beat the latest trendy gadget with which we impress those around us by just making a call. The hell with it. We may as well be stranded in some desert, wondering about how come we couldn’t find a single moment when we were not thinking about ourselves. Just before our last drop of water.
* Made Up
* Thirsty Future