Innovation, water, and energy: semi-conductors cannot defeat physics

I was at a “maker’s lab” the other day, where inventors experimented with computer numerically controlled (CNC) designs of motors, and motored systems like three-dimensional printers. It was fascinating. There is technology today, a lot of it open-source, that enables talented and creative people like those at the maker’s lab to manufacture systems and components that only a few years ago were impossible without enormous and highly capitalized design and manufacturing infrastructure. Given as I am to rhetorical flights that pack decades and centuries of human history into convenient nutshells, I commented that this is a development rivaling in importance the Second Industrial Revolution. That phase of technological development introduced, among other things, the cheap steel, ubiquitous electricity, and chemicals that are the physical basis of our modern world.

A significant underlying development of the Second Industrial Revolution was standardization of parts and components, especially things like nuts, bolts, and screws. Things like these, and the tools—screwdrivers, wrenches, etc.—that went with them, enabled the do-it-yourself types to physically interact with the new technological world, thereby maintaining the link to Mother Earth that many feared had been lost when people began migrating en masse from rural to urban areas in the latter part of the 19th century.

The convergence of open-source software (e.g., Linux and G-code) with hardware (e.g., Arduino) that enabled CNC technology to explode in recent years is, in my limited view at least, roughly analogous to the standardization of parts and tools a hundred years ago, though it is of course proceeding along decidedly different business-model lines. It allows far greater breadth and depth of interaction with the world than ever before.

I cannot predict exactly what this development will produce. But one of the participants at the maker’s lab, my friend Darcy Whyte (who is more than a participant; he’s one of the driving forces) said “this is a revolution.” I think he’s right.

The maker’s lab was in Ottawa, where I live. The maker phenomenon is of course world-wide; step back and look at the possibilities for innovation and your imagination will soar.

Imagination is soaring at Singularity University, and at U.S. public television. But in a contrived way, not organically like at the maker’s lab the other night. Put innovative people together with the media and sometimes you get amazing things. Unfortunately, some innovators’ need for capital and some media’s need for ratings often collaborate to produce little more than hyperbole. A recent PBS report on the goings on at Singularity University says

Food, water and energy, [are] supposedly scarce, but with the tinkerings of technology… [are] potentially abundant.

It’s not really the tinkerings of technology that will make scarce things abundant. Food scarcity could be eradicated by irradiating freshly harvested produce with gamma rays from isotopes made in nuclear reactors. A recent report from Bangladesh Agricultural University estimates that 18 to 44 percent of fruits and vegetables are lost after harvest to pathogens and pests. Humans should be eating this produce. Pathogens and pests could be destroyed by gamma rays, without harming the food. There should be a major push on to get irradiators, loaded with the gamma-emitting isotopes cobalt-60 or cesium-137, into the food supply chain of every developing country.

This is not “tinkering with technology.” The technology is already invented. Gamma irradiators have existed for decades. Canada led the world in developing them. The World Food Organization urges fast uptake of irradiation to solve the harvest spoilage problem and feed more people. The problem is political, not technological.

Same with water and energy. Again, technology could end all shortages. But it’s not a case of inventing it; it was invented decades ago and has been in use for decades. Readers of this blog know I mean nuclear energy. Only uranium and plutonium nuclei contain enough energy to power mankind for the foreseeable future. Water desalination by nuclear heat is totally viable; it just needs uptake.

Unfortunately, the PBS piece did not cut to that chase. Instead it focused on pie-in-the-sky notions and stuck loyally to the “tinkering with technology” line. This gives the impression that if you design a better computer chip, food will grow faster. Water will become easier to manage.

Water is not easy to manage. I mentioned in an earlier post that I personally wrestle with the reality of the specific heat of water every time I visit my Muskoka hibernacle in the winter. I get to the cottage, then spend the next five or six hours heating the place and “looking after the water.” The latter involves sawing a hole in the lake ice, fetching water in pails, lugging the pails into the cottage, transferring the water to a pot, putting the pot on an electric stove, then waiting until the water is hot. The water-fetching and -heating process by itself takes about two hours from fetching to boiling. Good thing somebody else is producing the electricity.

Sometimes it pays not to fetch or heat water. One of those times is right after a sauna, when you want cold water. Here’s one of those times:

That’s my brother Dave taking a dip, after a sauna; the water temperature is somewhere between 0° C and 2° C. If you want the water more comfortable than that, then you’re looking at a lot of work.

So I shook my head at at 05:15 in the PBS video below, when the correspondent introduced the Slingshot, a portable water purification device which according to the report can each day purify 250 gallons of polluted water by boiling it first.

Watch Tech’s Next Feats? Maybe On-Demand Kidneys, Cheap Solar on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

This gives the impression that the energy to boil the water is of secondary importance in the purification system. It’s not. Africa has a potable water problem because it lacks cheap, widely available electricity. If cheap electricity were as widely available as it is here in, say the southern part of Canada, the poor African women in the video would not have to physically fetch dirty water then try to figure out how to make it safe to drink.

I say the “southern part of Canada” because, amazing as it may sound, there are people who live in Canada’s north who have water problems similar to those of the African women in the video. But their problems are compounded by the temperature. Water freezes at zero degrees celsius, and that introduces a whole new set of problems to anyone dealing with the infrastructure that moves and heats water. The bulk of my Muskoka problem has to do with water’s differing physical phases below and above zero (i.e., the fact that it’s liquid above and solid below).

At one point in the video, the inventor of the Slingshot water purifier says “if we can build these machines to scale, at a cost that is highly realistic, we will be able to put these things all over the world… .” I salute his desire to bring clean water to people who need it. But unless he makes energy cheap, the water purifier will see only limited uptake.

How could the “Maker Revolution” described above approach this problem? Let’s take the issue of water infrastructure on Canadian First Nation reserves in the North. What technological improvements to water infrastructure could be addressed by Makers? In “Inuvik running out of gas,” I suggested using isotope water heaters, based on the heat that the isotope strontium-90 gives off as it disintegrates, to keep potable water and sewage systems from freezing. Once installed, these heaters would work for decades. How could a maker make one?

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11 years ago

I think some of the stuff in the video is a little dreamy. I don’t mean that it wont happen but it takes time for these sorts of things to come forward. 3D Printing is still a geek only thing. The day will come when there is a 3D printer right beside the photocopier at Staples. It’ll need some time. And what arrives at Staples may not be 3D printers as we know them now.

I was just fishing around to get the claimed energy requirement for the Sling Shot water purifier. I found a claim of 500W. I’m supposing that’s the ongoing requirement to distill 250 gallons per day? If it is, I guess that’s 12kWh to make up 250 gallons? That’s 48 Wh to make up a gallon? Seems fishy.

By the way, 500W is a lot of juice.

Distillation of water isn’t really new and as you suggest we’re back to the energy problem. If people had the energy they could DIY a water still. But we’re not seeing that since there’s no way to power a still in many areas that need water.

The world doesn’t need another guy trying to make a 2000.00 appliance for boiling water. It needs energy to do the work and an open source distiller that can be built by needy people out of the materials they have.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  Darcy

The world doesn’t need another guy trying to make a 2000.00 appliance for boiling water. It needs energy to do the work and an open source distiller that can be built by needy people out of the materials they have.

My point exactly. The real question is, how can we build a good solid grid in Africa. And then, what sources will power the grid?

I notice the Slingshot comes with a Stirling Engine generator powered by cow dung. Again, great if you don’t think about it too much. But if you do think about it, here’s what comes back. This system:

1. Converts cow dung (which is actually not cheap, especially in societies where cows are a measure of wealth) to heat.

2. Converts that heat into electricity, via the Stirling Engine.

3. Converts the generated electricity back into heat.

Shouldn’t they just boil the water by burning cow dung, or find another source of electricity? Either way, get the Stirling Engine out of the mix. It sounds cool but it just adds a layer of inefficiency that nobody can afford.

11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Yeah, burn the fertilizer! Boil directly or convert to electricity then back to heat. The idea stinks either way.

11 years ago

I just spent a minute pondering the 500W, 250 Gallon per day. This can’t be true.

This ordinary commercially available distiller has this claim:

0.80 Gallons produced in 3.5 hours. Using only 650 watts of electricity.

It sells for 500 bucks.

I didn’t look around much but I wouldn’t be surprised if those numbers are closer to the truth.

Kamen took an idea ($300 electric scooter) and turned it into a $6000 Segway. Now we have a $2000 water distiller.

But how much does it cost to distill water after you have the distiller? I suspect the claims surrounding the Sling Shot are wrong.

11 years ago

Dear Steve: Just finished reading your articles about innovation, which are darned good. Besides having a scientific mind, you also make a good teacher. Carry on. Love, O

11 years ago

I kept thinking about your article after I read it–it stuck with me!

My apartment building announced earlier this week that it was shutting off water all day today. I forgot until last night, and very late I found myself filtering water and setting out large containers in different areas of my apartment for drinking, cleaning, and washing (just as I have done when I lived on the US Gulf Coast to prepare for a hurricane).

Even with the convenience of advance notice and running water, it was a laborious, time-consuming process.

Because we take our conveniences for granted, it’s easy to forget all the aspects of getting good, clean water to a home.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  Denise

Denise, thanks—good point, handling water is tough even when you have running water.

Imagine what it would have been like without running water. If you live on a floor above the limit served by municipal water pressure, then you need electric power to run the booster pump that brings water up. If there’s a general grid failure, then floors above the municipal pressure limit don’t get running water.

In the 2003 blackout, I lived on the 19th floor of a high rise. I had running water all through the blackout (which here lasted only about 14 hours), but it was hot only: the building hot water tank was on the roof, and gravity works even when there’s no electricity. Of course that supply would have run out very soon.

I also had elevator service—but only because the building manager drove across the river to Quebec to get gasoline to run an emergency generator. He had to go to Quebec for gasoline because none of the affected Ontario gas stations could sell gasoline—all their pumps are electric-powered. No electricity, no gasoline.

The building manager had to decide whether to run the water booster pumps or the elevators. The generator could not handle both. So he chose the elevators.

That blackout affected most of Ontario and the U.S. northeast. It was a major event. It happened during a hot summer day. This killed one person that I know of, a burn victim in Toronto who died from thermal shock because his air conditioner stopped working. That was a very heartbreaking story.

If the blackout had occurred in the middle of a minus-15 cold snap, there would have been many, many fatalities, beginning within hours.

Cities are literally uninhabitable without electricity. Cities need electricity every hour of every day.

10 years ago

This portable water distiller is capable of removing the five major categories of pollution.
But now, with the disastrous flooding going on in Pakistan, we have
seen firsthand that too much water is equally a killer as drought and dryness.

We should keep ourselves and our future generation clean and tidy.