Future Computational Technologies and Biomimicry

Remember I promised that I would share my research on this blog “someday”?  I am glad to announce –  finally, that day is near! But not today~  Ha! I will definitely share my research with you here next time when I write on this blog, so stay tuned!!

Before that happens, let us take another direction and maybe I can help you see the hidden threads connecting the seemingly unrelated topics of biomimicry, future computational technologies, and my research.

If you are a fan of Sci-Fi movies or TV shows like me, have you ever wondered why the “alien” or “futuristic” computers all have guts like this picture below on the left?

superman-memory-crystal-2-1024x5761

– Superman (1978)

Tau'riControlCrystals

– Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)

fantasy-crystal2Even if you are not old enough to have watched the original superman movie when it first came out, you are likely to have watched the rerun on TV, given its popularity. Do you remember what the computer control panels and the “key” that is used to store the information of his identity, his father’s “spirit” and to boot-up the computer mainframe on the ship looks like? You are definitely correct, it’s a crystal again!! But why is that?  Have they all incidentally chosen “crystal” at random?

Besides the “cool” factor and the fact that it looks good on TV, I believe those visual settings are all influenced by the term “photonic crystal.”

Our modern computer technology is based on transistors made from semiconductors and running on electricity, because electric signals can be controlled and manipulated by semiconductors. However, current computer technology has reached a bottleneck and needs a fundamental change either in the architecture or materials used to build the computer. Scientists and efig2 拷貝ngineers have studied possible solutions for next generation computing for quite some time now. One of the possible solutions is called optical (photonic) computing. The idea is that, just like semiconductors can be used to manipulate an electron’s behavior, photonic crystals can be used to control light’s behavior. So if we build the transistors using photonic crystals instead of semiconductors and power our computers by light instead of electricity… Voila! The computers should look like what we see in the movies and TV shows, right?joannopoulos-fig1-1

Mmmm, not quite~~ First off, the term “photonic crystal” is misleading. Photonic crystals don’t need to look like a “crystal”. The term “crystal” only means that there is “periodicity” in the material, and it can be any shape and form as long as it has a periodic structure. Therefore, the more realistic illustrations of photonic crystals are actually those shown here on the left.

The first stage of optical computing probably will be something like this:

It will be faster, smaller and more energy efficient. All good, but how does that connect with biomimicry? Do you realize that photonic crystals exist in living organisms, especially in birds and insects? It’s also the foundation for structural color production! Hence, understanding the principles of structural colors in nature could inform new photonic crystal designs or fabrication techniques. See the connection now?

The core computing architecture for computers hasn’t changed for almost 70 years now, and it desperately needs a change; not just an incremental upgrade, but a paradigm shift is needed. No matter how fast modern computers in current architecture are, they are dealing with problems sequentially. So with simple and straightforward problems, they can deal with them quickly and accurately. However, they will struggle when they encounter real world, complex systems. That is the reason why our brain is still much better than any computer, even if our brain is significantly slower. Our brains deal with information in parallel, not linearly like the computer. Even though you can add cores in current CPUs or connect many computers together over the internet to deal with parallel computing, it’s just not an efficient way to achieve significant performance improvements that can match the human brain.

There are many ways to improve parallel computing power as well. With optical computing, it’s easier to achieve because of the nature of light. And that is what Optalysys is trying to do now. Another more biomimetic way – emulating the neural network of the human brain in a computer chip – is currently being research by IBM, and they are already getting very positive results!!

Earlier last week, when the attention of world’s media was all drawn to Apple’s big media event, advances about optical computing were also quietly announced. The future is indeed looking bright – you just need to know where to look! And it’s not just about Apple~ (Even for a fan of Apple’s products like me.)  :p

This video here also shows the power of lightbending (pun intended).  LOL~

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News from last week related to optical computing:

  1. Super-efficient photonic switch created
  2. 500 GHz photon switch is based on subnanometer-scale-engineered optical fiber
  3. Lasers could make hard drives faster, simpler and higher density

The Heliotrope – A New Approach in Sustainable Architecture

This week I would like to share a post about the Heliotrope – a self-sustaining, 360° rotating building in Freiburg, Germany. I was introduced to this building in a class during my masters degree program in Biomimetics in Energy Systems at the Carinthia Universtiy of Applied Science in Austria a few years ago. Since I could not find many reports written in English, and no documentary narrated in English on this topic, I thought it might be interesting for English speakers if I translated a German video about the Heliotrope so you can share in learning about it. I still recommend you watch the video, because the animations are quite helpful to illustrate the Heliotrope’s functional principles.

The Heliotrope was built in 1994 by the German architect Rolf Disch who is a pioneer in solar architecture. The building is named after the principle of heliotrope plants that turn their leaves according to the sun’s position to maximize their energy production. This is exactly what the Heliotrope is doing: A gearwheel at the Heliotrope’s  base rotates the building 360° throughout the day. Therewith, a photovoltaic panel on the building’s rooftop is always directly facing the sun, which increases the energy efficiency of the Heliotrope. In fact the Heliotrope produces around 9000 kWh per year which is 5-6 times more energy than the building itself requires. The excess energy is fed into the local electricity grid. The rotating of the building also has a second advantage: for instance in summer, inhabited interior spaces like bedroom or living room can be rotated into the shadowed side of the building. By the way, the engine, which is responsible for rotating the building, requires only the same amount of electrical energy as an average energy efficient refrigerator. Furthermore, warm water is generated by solar thermic vacuum tubes that are arranged around the building. The generated warm water is also used to heat the building via a heat exchanger. In case no sun is available for several weeks, a wood pellet oven is used as a  backup heating system. Additionally, the Heliotrope is almost a hundred percent waste free. All organic waste products from the kitchen as well as bodily wastes from the toilettes are recycled by a compost unit, which annually creates one bucket of potting soil as a recyclable waste product. A very impressive feature of the building is that it is completely built from wood. There is no other building in the world that includes a central wood column that carries and rotates the entire building’s structure. All rooms inside the building are arranged in a spiral around that central column. More technical details about the Heliotrope’s architecture can be found at www.rolfdisch.de.

Why water fluoridation?!

As an expat living in the States it’s hard not to compare the US with my native country, Belgium. When people ask me “What is it that you dislike the most in America? ,” I answer without hesitation “the bad taste and smell of the water.” I’m not really sure of the cause, but looking into it made me aware of the water fluoridation problem. With this blogpost I’m hoping to raise more awareness about water fluoridation in the US, because I think a lack of awareness might be the main reason why water is still being fluoridated here, while it is not anymore in Europe.

Water fluoridation initiated in the 1940s, but since then has been banned in the majority of non-English speaking countries (e.g. China, Japan, most of Europe). Fluoride is thought to reduce tooth decay. The bacteria in our mouth love to eat our leftovers (esp. sugars). The acids they produce during digestion demineralize our tooth enamel. Some of the mineral loss can be recovered—or remineralized, a process that is boosted by fluoride ions (but not dependent on it). Caries are formed when the rate of demineralization exceeds the rate of remineralization. It is widely accepted that fluoride’s helping function only works by topical means. The reasoning behind water fluoridation is that tap water with fluoride added will end up in our saliva, thus helping to prevent caries.

The benefits and downsides of water fluoridation have been debated since its introduction, but I’m a scientist, not a dentist so I’ll reserve comment on the effectiveness of fluoride on reducing tooth decay and instead simply share some facts I learned when reading about it:

- Topical application of fluoride is what prevents caries so, only topical fluoride products (e.g. toothpaste) are likely to provide optimal benefits. However, there are no known naturally occurring compounds of fluorine in the human body, showing that there is actually no requirement for it at all.

- In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeled fluoride as “not generally recognized as safe” and prohibited the addition of fluoride to food or to dietary supplements. Strangely, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) exempted fluoridated water from this ban, including fluoridated water used to process food.

- Usually, the natural mineral fluorite, calcium fluoride (CaF2), is the source of fluoride ions. At the start of water fluoridation they introduced sodium fluoride (NaF) into our municipal water systems, but today they are almost exclusively using hexafluorosilicic acid (H2SiF6) and its sodium salt (Na2SiF6). This is actually a byproduct from the phosphate fertilizer industry. It is recovered in an unrefined form by scrubbing the gaseous emissions from the treatment of phosphate ores with sulfuric acid. The resulting fluorides are not pure, but contain variable amounts of lead, arsenic, beryllium, vanadium, cadmium, and mercury. Because of this change in fluoridation agent, studies based on the use of natural calcium fluoride or on chemically pure sodium fluoride are irrelevant, even had they been done correctly.

- Many corporations benefit from water fluoridation, including US Steel, DuPont, Alcoa, Alcan, Reynolds Metals, Kaiser Aluminum, Allied Chemical, and the Florida phosphate fertilizer industry. They are able to profit by selling 155,000 tons of fluoride byproducts per year for water fluoridation instead of having to dispose of them as toxic waste at great expense.

- In the US, fluoride is also present in bottled water. However, you might not realize it, as the label on your bottle won’t specify. Also, filtration does not eliminate fluorides because the diameter of these ions is too small to be captured by the filter. Only reverse osmosis or distillation removes them from water.

- Both beneficial and harmful side effects of water fluoridation have been highly disputed. There are difficulties in interpreting studies done to test the effect of fluorides. For example, the multiple pathways of dental caries development make it difficult to accurately ascertain the contribution of fluoride ingestion to dental caries prevention. When reading about this topic, questions to ask yourself include: Who did the research? Was it sponsored by industry/organizations? How long was the testing period? What was the source of fluoride? How did they address other possible contributing factors such as diet, calcium uptake, age, natural population variation (and genetics), mouth hygiene, etc.

Even if, in the best scenario, added fluoride does help reduce tooth decay, this is just one possible benefit versus many possible side effects (e.g. dental fluorosis, joint problems, weaker bones, cancer, decreased thyroid function, neurologic damage and even impaired brain development in children). Would you “gamble” on something with those odds?

- The majority of the studies showing the benefits of fluorides are focused on tooth caries of deciduous (baby) teeth. But… don’t we lose them anyway?

- If fluorides do reduce tooth decay they should be considered a medicine. By introducing fluorides into our tap water this medicine is forced upon people who do not want it. This is arguably a violation of law, because in the United States, people may not be medicated without their permission. Moreover, no single dosage works for everyone. If, for example, 4 ppm is acceptable for an adult, this might only be 2 ppm for a developing child, and less than 1 ppm for a baby. By adding fluoride in the public water supply, the intake of this “medicine” is involuntary and the dosage uncontrollable.

A question to ask ourselves: are there alternatives for fluorides that could help prevent tooth decay, thus relieving the need for water fluoridation? How are remineralization processes promoted in biological systems? Could those provide a model for a replacement strategy that employs more life friendly chemistry?

Please feel free to react, raise questions, and share your knowledge of this topic; but most of all please help raise awareness and trigger action. We can stop water fluoridation!

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Sources:

- McDonagh, Marian S., et al. “Systematic review of water fluoridation.” Bmj 321.7265 (2000): 855-859.
– Wei Sheng Yan Jiu “Effect of fluoride in drinking water on children’s intelligence.” (1999): 337-8.
– Kauffman, Joel M. “Water fluoridation: a review of recent research and actions.” Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 10.2 (2005): 38.
– Harrison, Paul TC. “Fluoride in water: a UK perspective.” Journal of Fluorine Chemistry 126.11 (2005): 1448-1456.
– Cartona, Robert J. Review of the 2006 United States National Research Council report: Fluoride in drinking water. Technical Report, 2006.
– Peckham, Stephen, and Niyi Awofeso. “Water Fluoridation: A Critical Review of the Physiological Effects of Ingested Fluoride as a Public Health Intervention.” The Scientific World Journal 2014 (2014).
http://fluoridealert.org

New Education Fellow – Adam Pierce

Adam PierceThank you for taking the time to explore our blog! I am Adam Pierce. A Pacific Northwest transplant, I fell into Ohio because my wife had a unique opportunity to contribute to inventive education. Once here I was amazed at the innovation and scientific discovery focused in Ohio. Seeking to expand my own experience, I stumbled upon the opportunity to apply as an Integrated Bioscience doctoral student and as an Education Fellow to the Biomimicry program at The University of Akron and jumped at the chance. I will primarily be working with 5-8 grade students at the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM school, helping to make curriculum which will then hopefully provide a foundation for Biomimicry education in the years to come.

The past fifteen years or so has been spent volunteering in classrooms and communities, establishing programs in public education to make local education a better option for the families associated with the schools and my own children. 2007 for me was a polarizing year, it lead to the creation of environmental science and sustainable building curriculum for K-8 students local to the North Kitsap community. From there my studies have been pragmatically-based including involvement with a cohort group charged with the task of designing a sustainable educational facility on the farm of The Evergreen State College and that led to a number of opportunities to create partnerships with individuals and institutions, all of which led to my current interest. I have a B/A in Environmental Studies and Creative Writing from The Evergreen State College with concentrations in Sustainable Design and Organic Architecture. I spent the summer of 2012 seeing firsthand the new field of Baubotanik and learning about the study from Ferdinand Ludwig in Stuttgart, and exploring the practical application of organic farms throughout Europe and especially in Küçükkuyu Turkey, largely by volunteering and being shown how to work the farms.

The forest and wooded hillsides of my childhood in Washington left an indelible mark on my personality. Instead of seeing how we as a people can expand into the world I always see a way the world can expand into us. With the Biomimicry program at Akron I feel that the next logical step in ecological building and education can take place and I am excited to have the chance to be a part of that.

 

Biological Knowledge Doubling Every Five Years

Due to advances in computation and nanotechnology, biological knowledge is doubling every five years (Rifkin 1999). Looking forward, what’s the impact on biomimicry? According to Gebeshuber, Gruber, and Drack, biomimicry practitioners increase their chances of success when they focus on emulating biological systems where causation is well-understood (2009); so, as we learn more about biological systems, our ability to develop effective biomimetic technologies grows. Right now the fields of biology where causation is best understood are biochemistry, biophysics, biomechanics, and physiology (as indicated by the ratio of explanatory versus descriptive knowledge) (Gebeshuber, Gruber, and Drack 2009).

What about in hindsight? Looking back, how does exponential growth in biological knowledge impact biomimicry? Often, new scientific discoveries lead to modifications of old theories and occasionally the development of entirely new theories. This means that in some cases scientific theory upon which a biomimetic product or process is based will be revised. For example, Eastgate Centre, a shopping center and office block in Harare, Zimbabwe, was modeled after a termite mound to achieve passive ventilation. When architect Mick Pearce designed Eastgate in 1993, he based his design on a natural convection model of gas and heat exchange in termite mounds (Lüscher 1961). In this model, the termite colony’s metabolic heat warms the air in the underground nest. Hot air buoys upwards from the nest through the mound’s aboveground, central tunnels, and as it loses heat, sinks back down through passages that run parallel to and just below the mound’s surface. During downward passage, the air’s oxygen levels are refreshed via diffusion through the mound’s porous walls (Lüscher 1961). Since Eastgate’s construction, scientists have learned that while heat’s buoyancy effect contributes to gas and heat exchange in some termite mounds, it is only a part of a much more complicated story. Wind also plays a big role. Wind contacting the windward side of the aboveground termite mound drives oxygen-rich air through its porous exterior into the mound’s tunnels. Stale, carbon-dioxide-rich air is sucked out the leeward side (Turner 2001). Eastgate’s architect was not privy to this information, but we are now. What should we do with this new knowledge?

Eastgate Centre - Harare, Zimbabwe

Eastgate Centre – Harare, Zimbabwe

In cases where transfer of a functional principle from biology to design falls short, we should ask ourselves: how did that affect the design’s overall performance? Eastgate’s architect may have had incomplete information, but his design still functions very well. The building’s interior temperature stays in a comfortable range of a few degrees year round. It is much more energy efficient than buildings of similar size with traditional HVAC systems. That said, there may still be room for improvement. When new scientific knowledge becomes available, we should ask: how can we use it to help us improve upon old biomimetic design concepts?

References

  1. Gebeshuber, I. C., Gruber, P., and Drack, M., 2009, “A gaze into the crystal ball: biomimetics in the year 2059,” Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. Part C J. Mech. Eng. Sci., 223(12), pp. 2899–2918.
  2. Lüscher, M., 1961, “Air-Conditioned Termite Nests,” Sci. Am., 205(1), pp. 138–145.
  3. Rifkin, J., 1999, The biotech century: harnessing the gene and remaking the world, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York.
  4. Turner, J. S., 2001, “On the mound of Macrotermes michaelseni as an organ of respiratory gas exchange,” Physiol. Biochem. Zool. PBZ, 74(6), pp. 798–822.

BiomimicryNYC Workshop for Educators

Continuing with the education theme from my past post, I’d like to highlight a great workshop I was able to participate in this summer, put on by BiomimicryNYC and sponsored by NYSERDA. At this Biomimicry Workshop for Educators, hosted by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, educators from all types of schools and grade levels came to learn how to integrate biomimicry into their own curriculum and lesson plans.

The teachers ranged from Kindergarten educators, up through the undergraduate teaching level (mainly for education majors). I’m continuously struck by how many people hear about biomimicry and then have this intense desire to learn about it. Even through this course, one teacher learned about and was subsequently sponsored by a parent to go through this workshop because he could see the value in bringing it to the school. Yet another teacher’s catalyst was her own child, learning about biomimicry through her. Learning about biomimicry and the workshop came from a number of different trajectories, but regardless of the start, we all came together to learn how to teach the next generation about this incredible new paradigm of thinking.

Through the workshop, we tried out and experimented with various established lesson plans, but expanded beyond scientific biomimetic applications, to delve into the fictional realm – letting kids use their imaginations, blended with biomimicry tools and knowledge, to come up with something completely unique, such as….Mantis Shrimp Man! This lesson let kids (in this case – us big kids) create our own super heroes taking inspiration from unique abilities of organisms and systems. We then drew the super heroes and shared them with the rest of the class. What a great way to combine biomimicry, science, art and design, and public speaking skills into one lesson – a truly biomimetic, cross-disciplinary designed lesson! Below are a few photos of the many activities we dove into.

photo 2photo 1photo 3-1photo 1-1

Dinosaur feathers and the evolution of flight

I am by no means an expert in bird or dinosaur feathers, but one of my advisors at The University of Akron, Dr. Matt Shawkey, is an expert in feather coloration in extant and extinct models (including dinosaurs).  Through our conversations I’ve become familiar with the subject area, including new discoveries.

This month, there have been a lot of important new discoveries related to dinosaur feathers published in academic journals.  I thought I would just collect them here and share them with you at once.

To start out as a great beginning example, I would like to share one of the TED-Ed animations that I liked the most, related to this topic.

 

Secondly,this PhD comic titled “The Science News Cycle” is also an excellent introduction.

In this comic, it illustrates how new scientific discoveries are misrepresented by the media, often deviating more and more from actual experimental results as the story is passed among various outlets.

In The following links, you can get some real examples by just reading the titles.

The source of those links can be separated into three different categories: 1. Original scientific papers; 2. University PR office; 3. Scientific news outlets.

Example 1.

category #1: New specimen of Archaeopteryx provides insights into the evolution of pennaceous feathers (Nature, July 3)

category #3: Early bird Archaeopteryx ‘wore feather trousers’ for display

Example 2.

category #1: A new raptorial dinosaur with exceptionally long feathering provides insights into dromaeosaurid flight performance (Nature Communications, July 15)

category #2: New feathered dinosaur from China sheds light on dinosaur flight

Example 3.

category #1: A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales (Science, July 25)

category #2: Fossils found in Siberia suggest all dinosaurs had feathers

The bottom line is: When you are interested in an article you just read or the knowledge you just learned, refer back to the original scientific paper whenever it is possible.  This is especially important for biomimicry. Because only based on scientific facts, biomimicry can achieve its true potential.