K. Ceres Wright

The Future of Energy

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Apr 19, 2014

The Anti-Atkins Method: Carbs!

zhangProfessor Percival Zhang thinks he has the answer to the world’s energy problems: Carbohydrates. According to Zhang, carbs are ideal for storing energy as they already serve that function in nature. Living organisms break down carbs in order to perform daily activities. However, most of today’s technology runs on energy that comes from breaking down hydrocarbons, found in gas, oil, and coal. In fact, Zhang and fellow researchers introduced a prototype battery that runs on maltodextrin, a carb often found in processed foods.

The process involves the use of an enzyme pathway that can cull 24 electrons per glucose molecule to convert to electricity, which can then be used to power devices. In the future, the team hopes to engineer enzymes according to more detailed specifications to maximize efficiency. And excess energy will be stored as sugar, since it can be kept for a long time. When electricity is needed, the sugar can be converted via a sugar battery.

Oh, so sweet!

Surrender, Dorothy: Artificial Tornadoes

mbtornado03-640x960In the real world, tornadoes begin to form when the air closest to the ground is at least 20 degrees Celsius warmer than the air above it. The ground air rises and begins to spin until it forms a vortex. To capture that energy on a smaller scale, Louis Michaud, a former ExxonMobile engineer, has developed a specially designed chamber that allows hot air to enter and rise in a circular pattern until it creates a vortex. In a larger chamber, the tornado would spin turbines in order to generate energy.

To help create larger tornadoes, Michaud suggests using power plants. They create waste energy in heat, which can be used by an atmospheric vortex engine to generate 10 to 20 percent more energy.

Michaud says that the total energy potential of this process is 52,000 terawatts (TW), of which 12 percent could be harnessed, which equals 6,000 TW, and is 3,000 times the 2 TW currently generated worldwide.

I think Dorothy would be pleased.

Surf’s Up! Wave Energy

scotland-approves-installation-worlds-largest-wave-farm-1369846528You may have heard of fish farms, but wave farms?

Wave farms use large machines that float in the water that convert the up-and-down movements of the ocean into energy that homes use. The process still needs perfecting, especially regarding durability and methods of transferring the energy from the machines in the ocean to land.

The Scottish government has approved plans for the world’s largest wave farm, which will generate enough energy to power 70,000 homes, more than twice the number of homes in the targeted area (Western Isles).

Sadly, the United States is lagging in wave energy research. Oregon has sponsored several wave energy tests over the past few years, however, regulatory and financial issues have delayed installation.

Stay tuned on that front.

So…which energy-producing method do you think has the most promise?

When Virtual Meets Reality

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Apr 19, 2014

As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” This adage holds true for many of life’s aspects, but I believe especially so for science fiction, and now for virtual reality more so than ever.

As part of an open source art investigation, THE MACHINE TO BE ANOTHER seeks to study identity and empathy through the use of a virtual reality platform to simulate embodiment and body extension. The project allows two people (one performer and one user) to interact whereby the user experiences life through the eyes of the performer. This experiment is accomplished through the use of immersive goggles that are head-mounted displays. The user initiates movement, which the performer mimics, but the user sees the movements through the eyes of the performer (http://www.themachinetobeanother.org/?page_id=1000). One use for this experiment will be to allow someone of one gender to experience what it would be like to be the opposite gender. Remind you of anything?

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered the progenitor of the cyberpunk genre, with its now-familiar tropes of cyberspace, artificial intelligence, and alienated anti-hero. Case and Molly are the protagonists, where Case is a hacker for hire, and Molly is a bodyguard and general bad ass. In one scene in the book, their minds are joined via cyberspace, where Case is able to “ride along” in her mind as she performs preliminary recon for a heist. He cannot control her movements and can hear, but not talk. He experiences life as a female, if only for a little while, in a juxtaposed cyberspace/“meatspace” environment:

“The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color. […] For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes.” (Gibson, Neuromancer)

The head-mounted displays used in the Machine project are the Ocular Rift, which uses custom tracking technology to provide ultra-low latency 360° head tracking, creating a stereoscopic 3D view with depth, scale, and parallax. Life imitating art, an educational game prototype was developed for the Rift entitled, “Case and Molly,” named after Gibson’s characters. In the game, Molly wears a pair of iPhones, duct taped together, that give Case a 3D video feed. With Case guiding her, Molly has 30 seconds to reach a specific room. The game is not commercially available, but you can download the code (https://github.com/atduskgreg/case-and-molly/).

Although only in the early stages of experimentation, virtual reality that allows people to swap perceptions and identities can help foster empathy and expose them to various perspectives in ways other than a hypothetical detached way. I am looking forward to the results of experiments involving race and mental and physical challenges, as well as further studies of gender identity issues.

Genetic Breakthroughs—From Growing Livers and Brains to Editing Genes

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Apr 19, 2014

dr_moreauWith continuing groundbreaking research occurring in the field of genetics, promising results have come from several projects.

Given the worldwide critical shortage of donor organs, scientists are desperately trying to find alternative means of treating patients with organ failure. Recently, Japanese scientists have demonstrated that a functional human liver can be created from stem cells derived from skin and blood. Cells derived from these sources, as opposed to embryos, are known as induced pluripotent stems cells, which can be programmed to grow into any other cell type in the body, such as heart cells or neurons. To make liver cells, scientists combined three different cell types of a human liver—endoderm, mesenchymal, and endothelial. When mixed, the cells grew and began to form liver buds, a group of liver cells that have the potential to grow into a full liver.

isllost1Once these buds were transplanted into mice, the buds matured, connecting with the mice’s blood vessels and performing many of the functions of liver cells. Even if a full liver could not be grown from a patient’s cells, a smaller liver could be transplanted to assist a failing liver. Similar approaches are now planned for other organs.

Using induced pluripotent stem cells from skin, researchers have also grown clumps of brain-like tissue. They started with stem cells on a synthetic gel that mimicked connective tissues in the brain, then placed the cells into a centrifugal bath to mix in nutrients and oxygen. Even though the cell clumps lacked blood vessels and only grew to pea size, the resulting tissue can be useful for research on neurological disorders, such as microcephaly, a condition that stunts brain growth and impairs cognitive development.

ISLAND_OF_LOST_SOULS_MoC_003Another development in the field of genetics is the most promising. Scientists have been able to “edit” the human genome with a heretofore unattainable level of precision. The technique is called Crispr and is so accurate, it may oon be used in gene-therapy trials to treat disorders such as Huntington’s disease. Instead of using current unreliable methods of re-engineering the human genome, scientists will be able to change any part of the DNA molecule, including nucleotides. It may even be used to “correct” the DNA of an embryo to eliminate genetic diseases in families that are prone to particular genetic defects.

The Crispr process developed from a discovery by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, that bacteria used a specific immune defense against viruses. Using a DNA-cutting enzyme called CAS9, researchers were able to make changes to DNA without unwanted other changes.

download (1)If this process is successful, it could lead to the elimination of many types of human diseases, such as HIV and cancer.

Of course, Dr. Moreau might have other ideas for these procedures, but the future of eliminating diseases and genetic disorders looks bright indeed.

Gaia Rockets Into Space to Map the Milky Way

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Apr 19, 2014

Gaia_launch_-_Full_replay_video_production_full

On December 19, 2013, in French Guiana, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched its own “mapping app” aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket (nowadays, everything’s an “app”). The “app” is a two-ton observatory called Gaia that is equipped with the largest digital camera ever launched into space and an imaging system that includes a billion-pixel camera (try getting that on e-bay) and two telescopes. Its mission? Chart the changing position of a billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy to find out their history, their composition…and their future.

As you’re reading this, Gaia is rocketing toward an orbit around a gravitationally-stable virtual point in space called L2, about 1.5 million kilometres beyond Earth. Over the next five years, Gaia will study the stars in our galaxy by observing them an average of 70 times in order to measure their properties and position changes in the sky.

Gaia promises to build on the legacy of ESA’s first star-mapping mission, Hipparcos, launched in 1989, to reveal the history of the galaxy in which we live,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.

GAIA_lund

Like the cassette tapes of old, the stars’ movements can be rewound to discover what events occurred to form the Milky Way…whether gas clouds and star clusters merged, or whether a huge chunk of gas and dust began to condense.

“Along with tens of thousands of other celestial and planetary objects,” said ESA’s Gaia project scientist Timo Prusti, ”this vast treasure trove will give us a new view of our cosmic neighborhood and its history, allowing us to explore the fundamental properties of our Solar System and the Milky Way, and our place in the wider Universe.”

By analyzing and comparing its collective data, Gaia will be able to estimate wobbles in the position of stars, which would signal the existence of planets in orbit around them. Gaia will also be able to view new asteroids and give more accurate data of their orbits.

Deployment_of_Gaia_s_DSA

After five years, the data collected will exceed 1 Petabyte or 1 million Gigabytes, equal to about 200, 000 DVDs. The Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium, comprising more than 400 individuals from various scientific institutes across Europe, will be responsible for compiling and analyzing the data…a scientist’s dream.

So if you’re traveling in a spaceship one day and have to ask Siri how far it is to the next star system, she may access the Gaia database in order to inform you that you’ll have to remain in cryogenics for the next 4 billion years. Don’t forget the freezer wrap!

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ESA is an intergovernmental organisation, created in 1975, with the mission to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space delivers benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

ESA has 20 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, of whom 18 are Member States of the European Union.

The Future of Farming

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Apr 19, 2014
Robert A Heinlein_Farmer in the Sky_DELREY_Lee Rosenblatt

We’re not quite yet up to Heinlein’s alternative – terra-forming and farming Jupiter’s moons.

The United Nations expects the world’s population to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. And, of course, feeding this population will be a daunting challenge. We all know about the advent of genetic manipulation of plants to yield hardier crops, but many stakeholders have both explored and invested in other farming alternatives, which range from farming underwater to farming in the desert. Let’s take a look at some of these options:

Farming in the Desert

British designer, Charlie Paton, traveled frequently to Morocco and was struck with the idea of converting nearby sea water into fresh water to irrigate plants. He set about designing just such a method, and came up with Seawater Greenhouse. The greenhouse is inexpensive to produce, about $5 a square foot, and works by collecting water from the sea, allowing it to trickle down to honeycomb-shaped lattices where it evaporates, cooling and humidifying the air inside. The air warms up as it travels across the greenhouse and is fed into a second evaporator, which supersaturates it. From there, the air quickly moves to a condenser, which pulls out freshwater and moves it to an underground storage tank for plant irrigation.

Interconnected Energy and Food Production System

Alltech envisions a farm that uses an interconnected system of algae production, aquaculture, a biorefinery, solid state fermentation, and a cogeneration plant. In this system, fibrous materials such as corn cobs, rice bran, and wheat bran would be recycled into nutrient-rich feed at the solid state fermentation plant, which in turn, produces enzyme-activated fiber, a key ingredient for the biorefinery’s ethanol production.

Ethanol production creates carbon dioxide, which is recycled in the algae field, and is converted to oxygen. The aquaculture center sends nitrogen from fish waste to the algae field where it enhances algae growth. In return, the algae provides feed for cattle. The fish waste also provides fertilizer for the crops.

At the cogeneration plant, the biorefinery’s yeast byproducts are used to produce bio-gas that generates heat and electricity, which is given to the biorefinery and the SSF plant. The cogeneration plan also recycles water for irrigation. Little to no waste is envisioned within this self-sustaining system.

Large-scale Urban Farming

Some big news that recently hit concerned Whole Foods contracting with Gotham Greens to develop a 60,000 square-foot greenhouse on the top of its store under construction in the Gowanus Canal district of Brooklyn. Greens and herbs grown in the greenhouse will be sold in the store below and at other Whole Foods New York locations. This distribution system will cut down on transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions, and the production cycle will include sustainable technologies such as solar-generated power and an irrigation system that uses 20 times less water than traditional farming.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) also recently launched the Red Hook Urban Farm, a 1-acre urban agriculture installation and the first-ever large-scale community farm on NYCHA property. The farm will provide fresh produce for the community as well as a center for education, job training, and community engagement for residents. Within this self-sustaining system, produce will be sold at farmers’ markets or donated to families in need, and revenue from sales will fund members of the Green City Force Clean Energy Corps, which combines national service and workforce development to lower energy consumption and provide urban youth with training and leadership opportunities related to greening the economy.

In another project, in Bedford Park, Illinois, the organization called Farmed Here renovated an abandoned warehouse with the intent of converting the building into a vertical farm with 150,000 square feet of growing space. Farmed Here will hire newly released non-violent offenders and train them for work inside their facility. The farm uses a soil-free, aquaponic process to grow organic greens in a mineral-rich water solution derived from tanks of tilapia. The facility plans to provide 1 million pounds of chemical-, herbicide- and pesticide-free greens such as basil and arugula to the Chicago area once full production is reached.

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Bruce Dern tends his plants and flowers in Silent Running. Hopefully, new farming methods will help us avoid this fate.

Permaculture

The word, permaculture, was developed by Australian authors and farmers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and is a combination of the words, permanent and agriculture. Permaculture is a system of farming that works with, rather than against, nature. Those using permaculture design farms in harmony with nature to provide food and energy in a sustainable manner. For example, instead of having clumps of trees surrounded by open fields, a permaculture farm may include a collection of small clearings within a woodland, each serving a purpose. Each plant also has a purpose, a specific job that contributes to the farm. One plant may produce nitrogen; another could collect potash, salt that contains water-soluble potassium that is used in fertilizers; another plant deters pests; and another with deep roots pulls up nutrients and minerals from deep within the soil. Animals also serve specific purposes. Birds produce phosphate and eat phosphate-rich seeds and insects, and recycle the nutrient through their dung and transfer it to the soil. Ducks eat slugs and other insects to keep down the pests. Farm animals eat willow, lime, and ash branches, in addition to grass, and produce all-natural fertilizer. All of these processes contribute to the cycle of sustainability within permaculture.

Of course, these are just a few of the potential solutions to the food-supply challenges of the near future. And with the future seemingly getting closer every day, it will be interesting to see which of these methods will prove the most efficient.

DNA Tattoos = Dattoos

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Oct 16, 2013

skinputWhen I was coming up, the only people who got tattoos were bikers, prisoners, or gang members. Of course, times have changed. It seems everyone has a tattoo now. And even my 15-year-old daughter wants one (Me: “Uh, no.”)  But…I almost have to say yes to a dattoo. What is a dattoo, you ask? Read on…

Imagine your skin as an interface platform that you can program and choose which tools it can become—microphone, camera, speaker, phone, calculator. The list goes on. Other functionalities could include nanosensors, pattern and image recognition, education applications, flexible organic light-emitting diodes, cyborg components, and interactive touch reading (think Braille). And your body would power that platform by transferring its own energy to the processing device.

Harrison, Tan, and Morris of the Human–Computer Interaction Institute and Microsoft Research have developed Skinput, a process by which your body can be used as a touchscreen device or your fingers as buttons on a controller (http://www.chrisharrison.net/projects/skinput/SkinputHarrison.pdf).

To get a dattoo, you would access an online design portal that would allow you to view, test drive, and select a processing device that you print onto your skin or clothes. You could even program its appearance. Think of all the external devices that you could replace, such as smart phones, tablets, and laptops. There would be no need for separate physical space, surfaces, or energy sources that these devices require. With functionality only a tap away, your multitasking capabilities would be expanded exponentially.

And there’s no need to worry about permanence, as with a regular tattoo. Dattoos could be washed off at the end of the day. The user would set the lifespan of the dattoo, for as long or as short as desired. For example, if you were taking a trip to Europe, you could print out a specialized dattoo to quickly calculate exchange rates or offer translation in Italian.

Dattoos also read your DNA, which allows them to serve as unique identifiers in cyberspace or for security systems. No more wearing those annoying key cards around your neck.

You could also communicate with others across the globe through dattoos. Perhaps instead of phone numbers, we would use DNA sequences to reach others.

Of course, science fiction writers had already envisioned this capability years ago. In Steel Beach by John Varley, which was released in 1984, he wrote, “I snapped the fingers of my left hand…Three rows of four colored dots appeared on the heel of my left hand. By pressing the dots in different combinations with my fingertips I was able to write the story in shorthand…”

In my book, Cog, my protagonist, Nicholle, pays for a drink at a bar by tapping her thumb to her temple. Such technology would allow anyone to forgo having to carry around a debit card, fob, checkbook, or even cash.

It seems that science is finally catching up more quickly with science fiction than in decades past. SF writers are constantly having to outpace the next technological breakthrough. So while we wait for faster-than-light travel or teleportation to be discovered, we can at least anticipate skin surface interface in the coming years. But remember: Don’t give out your DNA to just anyone.