Blue Gold: World Water Wars

 

 

In consideration of the recent debate about water privatization in the European Union I would like to share the 2008 documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars. Even though the movie is not the most recent one it is still worth watching since the content of the debate has not changed much during the past years. The documentary is based on the book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, and criticizes the business of big water companies privatizing and selling water for profit, which creates a life or death situation for those who can not afford it. I personally consider the privatization of water a new form of slavery. Water is the source of life and every organism depends on it, thus I consider access to clean water (at locations where it is possible!) a human right. But let us take a step back first to take a look at the current water crisis and how we got there.

Ninety-seven percent of the Earth’s water is salt water. Of the remaining three percent more than half of it is captured in icecaps and glaciers whereas the rest is mainly groundwater. Only a fraction is actually accessible surface water in forms of rivers, lakes or swamps. A considerable amount of our ground and surface water is polluted by human activities such as agriculture, for example. However, industrial activity has the biggest impact on our water quality. I work for the incineration company, Ross Environmental Services in Elyria, Ohio. Currently the company has to send millions of gallons of waste water off site every year. Off site means disposal by deep well injection. The water contains hazardous compounds generated by the incineration of hazardous waste and will most likely return to our ecosystem in a few thousand years or so. Ross is only a small company compared to the big players in this business who probably inject a hundred times more contaminated water into the ground or directly pipe it into the ocean. But there is good news: Ross is aware of their problem and they are looking for a sustainable and environmental friendly solution. Despite the company’s small size, they can still set an example for bigger players by innovating novel approaches to waste water management. This is why they employed me. As an interdisciplinary biologist and engineer my job is to find an energy efficient way to recover the plant’s waste water. Due to my work at Ross I also see that industry has its difficulties with problem-solving. My task for instance focuses on the desalination and purification of the polluted water. So the company wants me to find a solution for a problem that they created. This is definitely better than not doing anything but I am not convinced it is the right approach. Current desalination technologies such as distillation or reverse osmosis are highly energy demanding processes. Thus they would create new problems by increasing the company’s CO2 footprint and energy consumption. Why do companies not rethink the system’s design, which is the root cause of the problem? For instance, most incineration companies use a wet-cooling system, meaning that water is sprayed on the combusted steam to wash out the ash and to cool down the gases. This is of course contaminating the cooling water. I always wonder why we are not using dry-cooling systems like counter current piping. This would allow us to separate the fresh water stream from the polluted gases, so the water could be used over and over again without taking more fresh water out of the ecosystem. Obviously those systems are more complex and/or more expensive than those being used. So as long as short-term profits have a higher value in our society than the well being of our fresh water sources there is probably no chance to expect. I believe that fiercer environmental legislation is required to limit industrial water pollution. Another problem humans created is the imbalance of the natural hydrologic cycles. We pump more water out of the ground than we can return, which leads to an increasing desertification of our ecosystems. This is also reinforced by the building of dams and increasing urbanization. Due to the extent of paved surfaces in big cities, less water is flowing back into the soil, and thus our ecosystems are losing more and more water. Additionally, deforestation leads to a decrease in the water holding capacity of forested areas, which aggravates existing water shortages in this areas. So we see that the hydrologic cycle is a highly complex and interconnected system and every human interference will have its impacts. It is estimated that we will approach a global water collapse in around 50 years if we continue on the same path.

Now that we understand the nature and causes of our water problems one might ask why government does not intervene and set up appropriate regulations to limit water pollution. The reason why they don’t is, as always, money. In fact our political system is totally failing when dealing with the big players controlling the water market. Politicians are giving more and more power to corrupt water cartels, which are buying our natural water sources in order to sell the water in bottled form for profit. The biggest players in this business, just to name a few, are the french companies Veolia and Suez Environment. The basic discussion between those companies and politicians is whether water is a human right or an economic good. According to the water companies water is a commodity – a point of view with which I totally disagree. I agree that it is hard to declare the access to clean drinking water as a human right for all of our people. That would be desirable but probably not realizable worldwide because in certain regions, such as deserts, water is hard to access. But we should at least try to use our best technology in order to make as much water accessible as people need. One drawback I see if water is declared a human right for everyone is that people will not use it responsibly. We would need the right regulations to make people use only the water they really need and utilize the right technology to recycle and reuse it. Monetary control is definitely the wrong approach to regulate our water distribution. We see this in several cases all over the world where companies buy natural water sources and sell the water in bottled form to the people. One example I would like to point out is the Swiss food company Nestle. The Nestle imperium owns a large number of water wells all over the world; even in areas where water is highly limited and the local population depends on the few wells they have. For instance, in rural areas in Pakistan Nestle owns the deepest water wells which access the majority of the local ground water leading to the aridification of the surrounding environment. Thus, the local people are running out of their natural fountain water and now have to buy Nestle’s bottled water with money they don’t have. This is only one example of the dark side of Nestle. You should take a look at the documentary, Bottled Life, which takes a critical look at the Nestle imperium. By the way, the Great Lakes region is also a target of Nestle and its water imperium. Nestle already received permission to bottle Great Lakes’ water to sell it in other parts of the world. Nestle is not the only company that is known for its dark deeds: Coca Cola is another well known example and the list goes on and on. As long as money is valued higher in our system than the life of the individual we will most likely not see any significant change in our water politics. But what are our alternatives? In that regard you might wanna take a look at an earlier documentary I posted: A New World System by Jaques Fresco, which is criticizing our money oriented society and suggests a resource-based rather than a monetary economy.

If we try to predict the future it almost seems like one day wars will be fought because of water like we are doing today because of oil. It is even happening already. One example is the Water War of Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000. The water supply company Semapa tried to privatize the city’s municipal water, which led to violent protests among the population. Finally, the government reversed the privatization. This example shows that we can do something against water privatization. It is not too late for change and the earth can still recover. We can return the earth’s water into its natural cycle. We can take down all the dams and generate hydro-power by river turbines that do not impact the ecosystem. We do have the technology to come up with feasible solutions for that. The redesign of cities could contribute to returning water to the ecosystem by using porous pavement that allows water to flow back into the soil. A mindset change in the general population would be necessary to treat our water responsibly and economically. There would be a variety of realistic solutions from which to choose.

Universal urination duration in mammals

Nature is a source of all kinds of inspirations, some more original than others. This one I found very exceptional and so I thought: “Lets share it on our blog!”
At Georgia Tech (George Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and School of Biology) they have been studying how fast animals urinate…yes, how they pee. They found out that all animals weighing more than 6.6 pounds (3 kg) urinate in 20 seconds, on average. So an elephant (18 L bladder capacity) urinates in the same amount of time as a cat (5 mL bladder capacity). It all has to do with the length of their urethra: Larger animals have longer urethra, which increases flow rate because of higher pressure. An elephant urinates the same volume per second as five showerheads. Can you imagine standing under a peeing elephant?

dog_peeing_klein-749915 2124279454_4416a1e0e5

This study disproves a previous hypothesis that urinary flow is controlled by bladder pressure generated by muscular contraction; and instead suggests urination is powered by the force of gravity rather than external pressure.
They demonstrated the feasibility of this by showing that a teacup, quart and a gallon of water emptied at a same rate, using varying lengths of connecting tubes. This is an interesting insight that could inform liquid dispensing systems, as it’s not the capacity of the tank that determines the dispensing rate, but it’s the connector tube. Any ideas?

Cool, right? I just have one remark. I think humans are an exception – I still hold the record of longest urinator with my 1 minute 43 seconds… but maybe it’s just me who can’t do it in 20 seconds.

Link: http://www.news.gatech.edu/2014/06/30/study-animal-urination-could-lead-better-engineered-products
Journal reference, published in PNAS: Duration of urination does not change with body size – Patricia J. Yanga, Jonathan Phama, Jerome Chooa, and David L. Hu

Innovation Engineering

Biomimicry is a novel approach to innovation.  One way to make biomimicry relatable and permeate more quickly through an established organization is to integrate it with innovation approaches that are already familiar to and widely-used by employees.

BioTRIZ exemplifies how integrating biomimicry with a popular innovation approach can make it more accessible.  BioTRIZ is an integration of biomimicry and TRIZ.  TRIZ is a familiar engineering problem-solving tool developed by Soviet inventor Genrich Altshuller and his colleagues in the 1940s. It is a matrix where intersections represent engineering trade-offs; for instance, a vehicle with higher horsepower usually requires more fuel. At each intersection there is a cell containing a technological principle(s) for resolving a trade-off. If the vehicle’s body is made more aerodynamic, it’s rate of acceleration / top speed increases without requiring more fuel. In the 2000s, a team of researchers at the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath in the UK, developed a revamped version of TRIZ by identifying biological principles for overcoming the same trade-offs.  Trade-off resolutions recommended by BioTRIZ are different than those recommended by the original TRIZ (only 12% overlap), which evidences that biology often solves problems differently than we typically do with technology. In technology, especially at small scales, the manipulation of energy may account for up to 70% of the solution, whereas in biology, energy never figures into more than 5% of the solution. Instead of manipulating energy, biological solutions tend to leverage information (control mechanisms) and structure (material arrangement). For example, HVAC systems which allow humans to live in a variety of climatic zones are energy intensive; but penguins survive extreme cold because their feathers are short, stiff, and interlock to trap a layer of air beneath that provides 80% of the penguin’s thermal insulation. This is a much more energy efficient solution to temperature regulation than a typical HVAC system. Thus, BioTRIZ builds from a familiar innovation approach, while introducing new problem-solving principles.

IEI am curious to explore how biomimicry could be integrated with other innovation approaches and tools; for instance,Innovation Engineering.  Innovation Engineering (IE) is a scientific system for growing a culture of never-ending innovation that increases innovation speed up to 6x and decreases risk 30-80%.  Over 1,500 companies and 15,000 managers have been educated in IE.  I met the founder and CEO of the IE Institute, Doug Hall, in September 2013.  Doug is interested in exploring how biomimicry might enhance the IE system.

I’m in the process of developing materials for the IE Institute. To start, I’m compiling descriptions of biological strategies and biomimetic inventions for use as ideation stimulus. These materials have the potential to spark meaningfully unique ideas for product, service, or systems innovations. Doug Hall piloted some of my materials at a recent IE Executive Program – a recurring 1.5 day training program where executives learn the fundamentals of IE – and the response was positive.  I’m excited to refine these materials and test them on a broader audience. Stay tuned.

What other proven innovation approaches might be strengthened by biomimicry…and biomimicry likewise strengthened through association? Let’s take a lesson from biological systems and cultivate more cooperative relationships!

NEO Biomimicry Education Showcase

We’ve had a lot of posts on what’s happening globally with research, neat sustainability ideas, etc., but for this week, I thought I’d highlight something a bit closer to home – biomimicry education in Northeast Ohio.

Officially, I’m the first Biomimicry Education Fellow in the PhD program – hosted at Lake Ridge Academy, and serving the greater Lorain County Public Schools, thanks to a generous Nord Family Foundation grant. I’ve been on board for six months now, and have been amazed at how many schools in the region are taking it upon themselves to integrate biomimicry in some capacity at a more grassroots level. This past week, with the help of Key Bank, Great Lakes Biomimicry hosted a regional “Education Showcase,” which brought teachers of various schools together to highlight how they’ve been incorporating biomimicry into their classrooms.

As wide and varied were the schools, so were the approaches to biomimicry integration. One school, Tallmadge Public High School, was very bottom-up in its approach. The students came to the biology teacher to start a biomimicry club and although the teacher had no idea what biomimicry was, she was keen to get on board, resulting in two remarkable outcomes in two short years. A biomimicry science fair team made it to the state competition, and by the end of the second year, the club had grown threefold to over 60 students.

Another school – The Inventor’s Hall of Fame STEM School – has a “Biomimicry in Every Classroom” approach, utilizing Problem-Based Learning (PBL) across curricula, while integrating biomimicry throughout the subjects. Yet another school’s (Hawken) biology and art teachers worked together to get the kids to use biomimicry to solve an everyday issue they encounter, then represent the outcome in a fine arts piece, while having the high school entrepreneurship classes come in to help teach the students about making business pitches. This culminated in an awesome trifecta of disciplines coming together around biomimicry, and a showcase where projects were presented to parents.

In yet another interesting approach, MC2 STEM School did a nine-week biomimicry PBL focused approach, collaborating with business partners on a regional real-world issue, which resulted in prototypes designed by the students.

The enthusiasm was palpable in the room, not only for biomimicry, but coming together to learn from each other and see what else is going on in the region. Each approach was underpinned by a common thread, and that was devoted teachers putting in time, effort, and many times, their own funds, to teach kids about biomimicry.  There are a ton of really exciting things happening in Northeast Ohio when it comes to biomimicry education, but for my next post, I’m already looking forward to discussing an amazing workshop I’m currently attending – a Biomimicry for Educators Workshop at the Omega Institute, put on by Biomimicry NYC and sponsored by NYSERDA that brings together educators from a range of disciplines and grade levels. It’s awesome!

Bioluminescence…or not!?

 

In researching structural colors, I recently learned something that surprised me.  I always assumed the colorful jellyfish in aquariums were bioluminescencent.  But the comb jelly (Ctenophore; in video above) is really something special and, in fact, not technically a jellyfish.  Those rainbow like colors are created by tiny hair-like structures called cilia.  The comb jelly constantly moves its cilia back and forth very quickly as a means to swim.  Because those hair-like structures are so tiny, they diffract light as they move, causing effects that look like moving rainbows.  Because this effect is not created by directly emitting different colors of light, it’s not bioluminescence, per se.  It’s actually a kind of structural color. Since I brought up “bioluminescence,” let’s talk about its definition.  This term means different things to different groups of people – same as “biomimicry.”  One of my Facebook friends commented on this, saying: “all human problems are semantic,” meaning we use different terms to describe the same thing and vice versa. “Luminescence” means “emitting light.”  There are many different types of luminescence including: photoluminescence (emitting light as a result of absorbing light), chemiluminescence (emitting light as a result of chemical reactions), mechanoluminescence (emitting light as a result of mechanical stimuli), etc.  Photoluminescence can be further divided to fluorescence and phosphorescence, as shown in the figure below.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

If “luminescence” means “emitting light,” then it would seem to follow that “bioluminescence” means “emitting light by living organisms.” But in the last 10 years, some people advocate that there should be a term called “biofluorescence”, defined as proteins that emit light by absorbing light first.  Then the term “bioluminescence” would fall under the “luminescence” umbrella on the same level as chemiluminescence, mechanoluminescence, …etc, and be defined as light emitted by biochemical reactions assisted by enzymes.

As this figure shown here.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

From this figure, you can probably see why putting “biofluorescence” and “bioluminescence” on the same level doesn’t really make sense.  If we accept this new definition, can the following examples still be called “bioluminescence”?

 

It only glows when physically disturbed, right?  Sounds like the definition for “mechanoluminescence”, doesn’t it?

However, it’s impossible to force definitions.  Those “semantic” problems will always be there.  At least we can try to understand what other people could possibly mean when they’re not using language in a way with which we’re familiar.  I think this is a very important and fundamental skill for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research, such as biomimicry.

Solar Freakin’ Roadways

When driving my car during winter I have always asked myself if there is a solution to keep our roads ice-free other than throwing salt on them. Especially during my first tough winter here in Northeast Ohio with temperatures of 30° C below zero, I have seen an enormous amount of salt used to melt down the snow and prevent ice formations. I always doubted that this is the best solution for our cars, roads and the environment. So I have been thinking of how it would be possible to keep the temperature of our roads slightly above freezing to avoid the use of salts. This would also improve our road conditions enormously, especially here in Northeast Ohio where the streets are covered with potholes due to severe weather conditions. But how could that work energy wise? I asked myself if there is a way to harvest the energy the cars apply to the road’s surface. Maybe we could leverage the weight forces or vibrational forces they apply on the roads. I discussed this with a friend of mine who sent me the following video a few days later:

 

 

Great stuff, right? When I saw this video I was impressed by the multi-functionality of this technology. Think about those materials building the roads, parkways or playgrounds of our future. My first question though was whether such a technology is financially feasible for implementation. Even if, according to the inventor, the technology is based on recyclable materials, how expensive would it be to implement this system on a large scale? Probably more expensive than laying down asphalt as we are already accustomed to; but only in the short term with higher initial capital investment. Think about this: Cleveland spent about $388 million on roadwork since 2007 and  the city’s roads are still in terrible condition, with major repairs having to be done every summer (for more info take a look at the official website of cleveland.com). That’s a big chunk of change that could be used to realize a more sustainable solution. Using solar roadways would also pay for itself due to the enormous amounts of energy being produced by using such a technology. One would have to do the math behind it considering all important factors to see if and how this technology could replace our current inefficient pavement. I am sure there has to be some economically feasible pathway for implementing this technology.

Our World is Getting Trashed

In light of Ocean Day, which was on June 8th, this blog post is about the plastic soup drifting in our waters. Waste is a global problem that is created by our consumer-culture and economy. A radical change of our industrial processes and individual mindset is needed; this is being advocated in numerous new ideologies and strategies like Biomimicry, Cradle-to-Cradle, Circular Economy, and Blue Economy. These approaches encourage recycling and re-use of wastes as inputs for other value chains.

Awareness is one key element to support a necessary mindset shift. This 2012 documentary, called Trashed, is a must-see. It is very confrontational, but left me feeling motivated to contribute a change effort! And even John F. Kennedy believes in me: “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

It’s impossible to summarize this documentary, because I think every minute is important. Also, images can be much more powerful than words. So please take the time to watch it, but, here’s a teaser of some shocking facts covered in the documentary:

-       There is 6 times more plastic waste than life (i.e. zooplankton) in the surface waters of our oceans. Zooplankton is an essential organism, as it is at the bottom of our food chain, and produces large portions of the oxygen we breathe.

-       Plastic particles leach chemicals into our waters. This  attracts other chemicals making the substances even more dangerous. These small particles are being ingested by marine organisms and stored in their body fat. The further down the food chain, the worse the contamination gets. This effect is called bio-magnification.

-       Plastic is built to be long-lasting and this is great for durable products. The problem we’ve created is caused by throwing plastics away after one usage. We use it for several minutes, at best a few days, but the actual plastic is around for a very long time after disposal.

One difficulty is that people love their habits and are resistant to change. How many times have you thought before grocery shopping “This time I’ll try to buy something different!” But still, you come home with most of the same products you always buy. Almost all of these products are wrapped in plastic packaging, and in turn put in plastic bags. Both the package and the bag quickly end up in your garbage can. This gets picked up, and you don’t see or think about it anymore. BUT… you might be surprised, one day you could actually get back in touch with your plastic waste, albeit in a very different, disturbing form!

See here your plastic bag’s life: http://youtu.be/GLgh9h2ePYw

Let’s make it a challenge: try to not consume any new plastic product (packages, bags, cups, cutlery etc.) this week. You’ll quickly be amazed by how much plastic we are using; it’s everywhere! Even better, share some of your creative solutions for not using plastic. I start now! What about you? Let’s try making a new habit, together. This book could help us: The Power of Habit (by Charles Duhigg), it’s a great read!

 

Related info: Planet Ocean, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (freely available on YouTube), Midway, The Ocean Cleanup, Charles Moore’s TED talk: Seas of plastic

   Image        Image