Technology Quote

“Technology has the shelf life of a banana.”

— Scott McNealy, Co-founder of Sun Microsystems


Solar-Powered Drip Irrigation May Save Lives in Africa

Americans spend on average 12.4% of their paycheck on food according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s latest survey. In contrast, sub-Saharan African communities spend 50-80% of their income on food, even though they are engaged in agricultural production as their main livelihood. These communities rely on rain-fed agriculture for crop production, despite having a short annual rainy season of only 3-6 months. Traditionally women and girls are responsible for hauling water by hand from very long distances in order to grow some crops, particularly during the long dry season.

Only 4% of cropland is irrigated in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly irrigation could help improve quality of life for these food-insecure communities, if a water source is available. The most efficient type of irrigation for such a dry climate is drip (micro) irrigation, which delivers water and fertilizer directly to the roots of a plant. Low-pressure drip irrigation systems require only 1 m of pressure to irrigate plots of up to 1,000 square meters (0.25 acres). However, this irrigation technology requires access to a reliable water source.

One solution is a photovoltaic-powered drip irrigation system that combines the efficiency of the drip irrigation with the reliability of a solar-powered water pump. In such a system, a photovoltaic solar array powers a surface or submersible pump (depending on the water source) that feeds water into a reservoir. The reservoir then gravity-distributes the water to the low-pressure drip irrigation system. Energy is stored via the height of column of water in the reservoir. These systems can be configured so that no batteries are required. The pump only runs during the daytime and the system passively self-regulates. Namely, the volume of water increases on clear hot days when plants need the most water.

This kind of solar-powered drip irrigation system was tested in two rural villages in Northern Benin. The systems were installed and financed by an Non-governmental Organization, Solar Electric Light Fund, with the goal of boosting vegetable production from communal gardens in order to combat high malnutrition and poverty levels. The research was performed in collaboration with Stanford University. This NGO-academic research team scientifically evaluated the impact of the irrigation system on the community through a randomized controlled project that was rigorously studied and analyzed. The study results were recently published by Stanford University in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

Three solar-powered drip irrigation systems were installed in two villages. Each irrigation system was used collectively by an agricultural group of 30-35 women, who each farmed her own 120 square meter plot and some additional shared plots used for group expenses. Researchers monitored these communities, as well as two “control” villages in which women’s agricultural groups grew vegetables by hand watering. This allowed a comparison between the solar-powered drip irrigation system to traditional watering method.

Each of the solar-powered irrigation systems supplied on average 1.9 tonnes of produce per month — including high-valued crops such as tomatoes, okra, peppers, eggplants, carrots, and greens — without displacing other agricultural production. The women farmers kept on average 18% by weight of the vegetables and sold the rest at local markets. As a result, vegetable intake across all villages increased by about 1 serving (150 g raw weight) per day during the rainy season. For the villages with irrigation systems, the vegetable intake rose to 3-5 servings per day even during the dry season. Overall the users of the irrigation systems showed remarkable benefits even in the first year, compared with the control households. The article states, “Their standard of living increased relative to the non-beneficiaries (by 80% of the baseline), their consumption of vegetables increased to the Recommended Daily Allowance, and the income generated by production of market vegetables enabled them to purchase staples and protein during the dry season.”

Hardly anyone is going to argue against the potential benefit of irrigation in Africa. However, one question remains — is the expense of a solar-powered system really necessary? The Stanford researchers would argue that it is, despite the expensive up-front costs. They compared their irrigation system with a hypothetical alternative system that used a liquid-fuel (gasoline, kerosene, or diesel) engine-driven pump, instead of the photovoltaic array and pump. This alternate pump can have significant problems, because fuel supplies can be unreliable and fuel prices volatile. According to their analysis, the solar-powered irrigation system is actually more cost effective in the long run, particular when fuel prices are high. It is also better for the environment since it doesn’t cause carbon-emissions.

The solar-powered drip irrigation system in the Benin project cost approximately $18,000 to install ($475 per 120 square meter plot) and requires about $5,750 ($143 per plot) per year to maintain. Based on the projected earnings of the farmers, the system should pay for itself in about 2.3 years. In addition, the cost of the photovoltaic arrays is expected to lower for larger-scale projects.

The project in Benin isn’t the only one underway. Solar-powered drip irrigation systems are also being installed by other groups in different areas of the world. For instance, the Sustainable Agriculture Water Management Project has installed solar-powered drip irrigation systems to 5,000 farmers in Sri Lanka’s dry zones. The hope is that these international efforts can provide substantial economic, nutritional, and environmental benefits to food-insecure impoverished communities.

Making Diesel at Solar Plants

Normally biofuels and solar power are considered to be competing alternative energy sources. However, some researchers are merging these technologies, trying to use the best of both to create “solar fuels.”  This includes the researchers at a small start-up company from Cambridge Massachusetts, Joule Unlimited, which was recently listed as one of the world’s ten most important emerging technologies by MIT’s Technology Review 2010 TR10. It was also selected as part of the TR50 in February, the only company besides Google that was chosen for both honors.

Joule Unlimited has manipulated and designed genes to create photosynthetic microorganisms. These microorganisms use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into ethanol or hydrocarbon fuels (such as diesel). The photosynthetic microorganisms are designed with a genetic switch that limits growth. They are allowed to multiply for a couple days, then the genetic switch is flipped to divert their energy into fuel production. The microorganisms excrete the fuel, which is chemically separated and collected using conventional technologies.

The goal of this direct, continuous process is to achieve high fuel production with minimal land use. The microorganisms are grown in water inside transparent bioreactors, where they are circulated to make sure that all the microorganisms are exposed to sunlight. Different kinds of non-potable water can be used in this process, including brackish water, waste water or seawater. The microorganisms are fed concentrated carbon dioxide and other nutrients. The long term hope is to use carbon dioxide from polluting facilities such as coal plants.

Joule Unlimited claims to have specifically designed both their microorganisms and bioreactors to work in harmony together, in order to maximize fuel production. For instance, the company carefully designed the bioreactor to keep the heat within the limits required by their microorganism. In the long term, the company is hoping to produce 25,000 gallons per acre per year of ethanol and 15,000 gallons per acre per year of diesel at the competitive price of $30 per barrel. They are planning to scale up from demonstration facilities to building a commercial facility in 2012, in order to start producing diesel in 2013. However, their engineers still need to improve the performance of the microorganism to meet these targets, as well as address whatever issues arise during scale-up.

Joule Unlimited isn’t the only one working in this research area. Others working on solar fuels include:  (1) Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, CA, (2) BioCee in Minneapolis, MN, and (3) University of Minnesota BioTechnology Institute, St. Paul, MN. Hopefully the race is on, and the winner will be all of us.

Joule facility
A diagram of how a Joule facility would work with bioreactors growing micro organisms with sunlight and CO2 in water. A separator removes the end product -- liquid fuel or chemicals. (Courtesy of Joule Unlimited)

Cheap Solar Using Plastic Electronics?

In order to make solar power cost-effective without governmental subsidies, we need to dramatically reduce the manufacturing costs of solar cells. (I discussed solar costs in a previous blog.) A lot of research is underway to do just that. One area of solar research focuses on finding a low-cost alternative to indium tin oxide (ITO), which is an expensive conducting material currently used in standard solar cells. ITO is a rare by-product of mining that is also used in flat-screen televisions, mobile phones, and other devices with display screens. As the demand for these popular devices increases rapidly, the price and availability of ITO for solar cells has become a real problem.

A team of chemical engineers think they’ve found the solution — plastic electronics. This collaboration of chemical engineers from Princeton University, University of Texas, and University of California Santa Barbara reported their latest results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 30, 2010. Their research focuses on conductive polymers (plastics).

Conductive polymers have been around for a long time, but their ability to conduct electricity degraded when manufactured into devices. Basically the manufacturing process caused their structures to be trapped in a rigid form and that prevented electrical current to travel through them, thus severely limiting device performance.

The multi-institutional collaboration has overcome this problem, by treating the conductive polymers with dichloroacetic acid (DCA) after they are processed into the desired form. This “postdeposition solvent annealing” with DCA dramatically rearranges the structure of the polymer, resulting in a smooth film with high conductivity. As a result, they are able to make polymers that are translucent, malleable and highly conductive. These materials could have wide reaching applications as electrodes in transistors, anodes in solar cells, and light-emitting-diodes.

One amazing thing about this research is the simplicity of production. This collaboration made a transistor (a very basic device used to amplify and switch electronic signals) by printing the polymer onto a surface, using a method similar to that used by a standard ink-jet printer. In the future, they hope to distribute the conductive polymers in cartridges like printer ink.

What does this mean for solar power? An important thing for solar is that these conductive polymers are translucent. Although they are less transparent than ITO (e.g., transmissivity of 73% v.s. 84% respectively), they are dramatically cheaper. So the newly developed conductive polymers are still a promising low-cost alternative as anodes for solar cells. Hopefully this research will translate into cheap, commercially available solar cells soon.

Researchers have developed a new way to manufacture electronic devices made of plastic, employing a process that allows the materials to be formed into useful shapes while maintaining their ability to conduct electricity. In the transistor pictured above, the plastic is molded into interdigitated electrodes (orange), allowing current flow to and from the active channel (green). Courtesy of Loo Research Group.

Tiny Mobile Phone Microscope

Ozcan tiny microscope for cell phone
The prototype for the lensless microscope developed at UCLA has the approximate diameter of a US Quarter. The microscope only weighs 46 grams, about as much as a large egg. (Courtesy of Ozcan Research Group @ UCLA)

My niece has worked in remote developing nations, in places like a tiny village in South Africa where the women have to walk several hours to fetch clean water. In order to travel to such areas, she had to take malaria medication and get a lot of vaccines — such as hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, typhoid, rabies, rubella, and diphtheria vaccines. HIV and Aids can also be prevalent. Unfortunately medical care and resources are often very limited in such isolated villages, where a doctor is many miles away and the villagers may not have access to vehicles or proper roads. To address this critical need, people are using new technology to bring the patients figuratively to the doctors. For example, medical data is acquired and then transmitted to a doctor or medical specialist elsewhere for offline assessment.

This field of telemedicine is growing rapidly. Some telemedical technology relies on the fact that cell phones are now used even in the developing world, as evidenced by extensive cell phone use after the recent earthquake in Haiti. Wireless phone technology has become significantly cheaper and the technical capabilities of cell phones is rapidly improving.

Aydrogan Ozcan, a research engineer at UCLA, has created a tiny microscope that is portable and lensless for telemedicine applications. The microscope attaches using a USB connection to a smart-phone, PDA or computer. This week his group published a paper describing in detail his latest, tiniest microscope. This minature microscope weighs just 46 grams (about the same weight as a large egg) and has dimensions of about 4 cm x 4 cm x 6 cm. It can image sub-cellular structures (with 1-2 micron resolution) over a 24 mm2 imaging area.

Microscopes normally use a lens to magnify the image of an object, where the image is generated by an electromagnetic (in optical microscopes) or electron (in electron microscopes) beam passing through the sample. However, standard microscopes are bulky and expensive, so they are generally used only in laboratories.

Ozcan’s lensless miniature microscope is instead based on digital in-line holography. It uses a simple light-emitting-diode (LED) and a compact digital sensor array to capture holographic images of blood samples or other fluids. A small chip is filled with a fluid sample, such as a blood smear, that is inserted into the microscope. The LED passes incoherent light through the sample, and the interference of the light waves that pass through the cells creates a hologram of each cell. The microscope digitally records these holograms, then rapidly reconstructs images of the cells. A compressed version of each holographic image can then be transmitted to hospitals elsewhere using wireless cellular networks, which have penetrated even the most remote corners of the world.

This portable microscope can accurately identify and count cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and T-cells (white blood cells whose counts are important for accurate diagnosis of AIDS). So this technology could help monitor diseases like malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis. It could also be used to test water quality following a disaster, such as a major earthquake or hurricane.

Ozcan’s microscope is also durable and easy to use. You just need to fill a chip with a sample and slide the chip into the slot in the microscope. The sample doesn’t need to be perfectly aligned in the microscope, so very minimal training is needed. It also uses cheap parts and a standard smart-phone. Plus the images are analyzed automatically by a computer, instead of requiring a trained medical technician.  However, this analysis does have a potential down-side. Namely, the computer automatically identifies a cell by comparing the cell’s hologram to a cell hologram library, but I’ve seen little information on the development of this database.

Overall though this new tiny mobile phone microscope has great promise. It could become a very cost-effective tool for telemedicine applications. Next time my niece heads off to a remote village, maybe she can have a tiny microscope to attach to her smart-phone just in case?

PET Imaging — Not for Cats or Dogs

PET ring drawingAs a medical imaging researcher, I notice when medical imaging technologies are mentioned by popular news media or medical-themed television shows. Lately I’ve been seeing PET imaging mentioned more frequently, including on TV shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy. This probably just reflects the fact that dramatically increasing numbers of PET scans are being performed in real life in clinics and hospitals. So what is PET imaging? Funny that you ask, because I just happen to do research in this field.

In this context, PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography. During a PET scan, a trace amount of biologically-active, radioactive drug is injected into the patient’s vein. The drug localizes somewhere in the patient, depending on the metabolic properties of the selected drug. The drug then emits a positron (anti-particle of the electron), and the positron annihilates with an electron in the patient’s body. The resulting energy forms gamma ray pairs that pass through the patient and are detected by the PET scanner. These detected gamma ray signals are used to create a 3-D volumetric image or picture of the drug’s concentration in the body.

PET imaging technology is unique because it images a patient’s metabolism, whereas most other medical imaging techniques measure anatomical structure. For example, X-ray CT or MRI scans can be used to identify a tumor because they show the patient’s anatomy in detail. However, PET imaging can identify if the tumor is benign or cancerous, by measuring whether or not the tumor takes up the radioactive drug. In reality, you’d really like to know both though — detailed anatomical structure and metabolic function. Recent work has demonstrated the increased clinical diagnostic value of fusing imaging technologies based on function (e.g., PET, SPECT or functional MRI) with those based on structure (e.g., CT, MRI, or ultrasound). As a result, PET and CT scanners are now typically combined into a single gantry system, so that images can be taken from both devices sequentially during a single procedure.

Since PET measures metabolism instead of anatomical structure, it is mostly used to image organs whose size or shape does not indicate whether they are functioning properly, such as the brain or heart. It is also used to diagnose diseases that exhibit an abnormal metabolism, such as cancer.

Stay tuned this week when I discuss some Alzheimer’s research that utilizes PET imaging.