Archive for the 'Invention' Category

Celebrating 2011 in Science

In anticipation of 2012, Nature published its “2011 in review“, highlighting major strides setbacks in science. The past year witnessed several landmarks in pure science, such as the claim that moving neutrinos could surpass the speed of light, as well as noteworthy advances in applied science and in the innovative environment.

In applied science, 2011 saw advances in cost-efficient genome sequencing technology, which will improve diagnostics and provide insights in evolutionary history. More on the medicinal front, 2012 will be able to enjoy new drug treatments for hepatitis C, lupus and melanoma.

More fundamentally, the innovative environment has shifted along with important political and societal upheavals in the past year. As the Arab Spring exploded across the Middle East and northern Africa, scientists considered the coevolution of democracy and scientific research. The earthquake-driven tsunami that devastated Japan spurred worldwide backlashes against nuclear technology that may resonate with 2012’s choices in alternative energy. And the world’s realization of 7 billion came with heightened awareness that we may indeed be living in the Anthropocene, a new geological time period defined by the burden of human population.

As Nature highlights, 2011 leaves many imprints on the upcoming year. While innovation by nature hinges upon the ability to push boundaries, it also depends upon existing structures and precedents. Thus, science will have to wait as the Arab Spring nations slowly solidify their transitions. Clean energy may only grow so far as national communities are ideologically and financially prepared for it.

On the other hand, growing scientific and global awareness of the Anthropocene offers encouraging prospects for 2012. Changing perspectives on human environmental impact may open up new world concerns, new priorities for problem-solving and, ultimately, new pathways for innovation. What New Year’s resolutions can science make for the coming year?

Cleaning up the horse manure of the 21st century

December emerged within a whirlwind of dialogue on global preparation for climate change. On November 30th, an MIT audience of hundreds listened to Steven Chu’s perspectives on “The role of science, technology and innovation in solving the energy challenge.” Well-poised and direct on Kresge’s stage, the Secretary of Energy first contextualized the clean energy challenge within a historical timeline. Chu recounted the turnover from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, discussing how horse manure in city streets was a crucial impetus in the technological switch that revolutionized daily transportation. And returning to the modern nexus of wiggly hockey-stick diagrams, he provoked us to consider parallels between horse manure and greenhouse emissions.

Secretary Chu’s discussion occurred while much of global climate community was tuned into its latest conference in Durban, South Africa – COP17 – which convened from November 28 to December 9. As representatives carved out difficult paths to the Durban Platform, greenhouse mitigation and human adaptation comprised main demands, while concerns of technology sharing and intellectual property rights resonated among several Southern parties. As Chu’s audience considered the U.S. status on clean technology, a wider audience deliberated a wider definition of innovation.

In particular, COP17 witnessed remarkable innovations in the science-policy interface. As Nature highlighted, Climate Action Tracker played a notable role in delivering science to the political drawing board. A small group of specialized analysts, the organization translates policy decisions into environmental consequences through scientific models that couple together the Earth system and society’s choices. Their final analysis of the Durban Platform reported that the 2015 deadline for a new climate framework is too late, and given the continued decisions of governments, Earth’s climate will exceed current upper limits of a 2 °C temperature rise.

Perhaps Climate Action Tracker signals a new trend in the way both scientists and policy-makers think about climate models. Too often do the languages of scientific models and decision-makers just miss each other. Like Climate Action Tracker, Climate Interactive also endeavors to close this gap between models and policy here at MIT. In hopes of establishing a space for model sharing, the organization has released software that allows users of all backgrounds to design their own model experiments and understand the consequences of their own agendas.

Common to many complex struggles is the realization that problem-solving requires its different solvers to communicate on common ground in the first place. Thus, amidst conflicting dialogues on how the world should manage climate change, it is not surprising that the language of innovation increasingly alludes to the dialogue itself. Climate models, which have provided both impetus and points of contention for negotiators who want results but not the broad uncertainties of scientific predictions, are a growing demand for innovative communication.

Low-cost energy storage devices for developing countries

The race to create low-cost energy storage devices has spurred many start-up companies like Ballast Energy, a company founded by MIT graduates Bryan Ho (PhD, 2011) and Bryan Ng (SM, 2008) earlier this year.  I had the opportunity to pick their brains about the challenges and potential impact of energy storage devices, their technology, and their experience as entrepreneurs.

1. What are the main problems with the electrical grid now?

Currently there is very little energy storage on the grid in the U.S.  Fundamentally, that means that electricity must be consumed immediately as it’s being generated.  This leads to a lot of synchronization problems and results in a very inefficient grid.  The U.S. has even built additional power plants to account for the occasional spike in energy use during peak hours.  These expansive power plants are needed very infrequently and are very expensive to fire up.

Developing countries face the same problem, but the challenges are exacerbated because their electrical grids are not as robust as those in the U.S., and there are many issues associated with local grid access, particularly in remote villages.  Furthermore, there often are not enough generators to provide energy during peak hours, so the power just goes out when energy demand is high.

2. What is an energy storage device and how does it help?

The purpose of an energy storage device is to provide a layer of buffering between energy generation and consumption, allowing people to use electricity in a manner that is much more efficient.  For the U.S., this means that we don’t need to continue building power plants that are rarely used and expensive to fire up.  Furthermore, electricity can be cheaper because it can be stored during low-demand times to be used during times of peak demand.  The development of energy storage devices is also critical alongside the ongoing development of renewable energy sources, since energy storage can smooth out intermittencies in solar and wind generation.  In developing countries, energy storage devices mean fewer power outages where there is a grid, and more efficient power usage in remote villages that can generate their own electricity through renewable energy.

3. What kinds of technologies are used for energy storage devices and how does your technology fit in?

Energy storage devices can be categorized by their energy storage mechanisms.  There are pumped hydro devices that pump water to be run through a turbine when energy is needed.  It requires a lot of space and there hasn’t been a new installation in decades. Secondly, there are compressed air devices, which can operate both below and above ground.  The concept is similar to that of pumped hydro but it’s done with air instead of water.  Third, there are electrochemical batteries, which can be divided into static and flow batteries, including lead-acid, Li-ion, Na-ion, liquid metal, etc.  There are many more, including devices based on gravity, flywheels, and capacitors.

One major problem with large-scale energy storage devices is the cost.  Current options for large-scale lithium-ion batteries involve stringing together a tractor-trailer full of smaller batteries to construct one large battery.  These methods are inefficient and expensive due to packing material costs.  Ballast Energy is looking into redesigning and reengineering electrochemical batteries specifically for the grid.

4.  What criteria do energy storage devices have to have to be used in the U.S. and in developing countries?

Depending on the application and mission of for the storage, the criteria for energy storage devices may vary.  Furthermore, commercial applications in urban areas have many of the same criteria as anything we’d purchase in the U.S.  Often what people have in mind when thinking of “applications in the developing world,” are off-grid applications in slums or rural areas.  In that case, the batteries need to be stable (doesn’t need a lot of maintenance and are more tolerant to less strictly controlled environments), inexpensive, distributable, and ideally have a long lifetime.

5. Can you put “low-cost” in context?

It depends on the type of application because not all types of power or energy usages are priced equally.  For the market that we’re targeting, which is energy or bulk storage where the charge/discharge rate is 1-6 hours, batteries currently cost $600+ per kilowatt-hour (kWh).  The price will go down over time, but Ballast is targeting $200-$250 kWh immediately.

6. Do you have any advice for aspiring MIT entrepreneurs?

MIT has a tremendous amount of resources, including intelligent and passionate people, competitions like the $100K or IDEAS, equipment, and programs/classes/clubs like iTeams, VMS, Ventureships, and Energy Ventures.  There are many opportunities for students to get involved with start-up companies and ventures, and vice versa.  Take advantage of these resources and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.

IDEAS and Global Challenge Teams – Delivering Impact

Thanks to all the teams that recently providing some exciting information about the progress you’ve made over the last year to tackle barriers to well-being in communities around the world. Here’s a round-up of some of the good stuff we’ve learned:

6Dot (Braille Labeler)

· Milestones. In the spring of 2011 6Dot moved into new offices of the Stanford student venture incubator, SSE Labs. 6Dot has gained awareness through participation in three major conferences and expos, including the Stanford Cool Projects Expo, the California Transcribers and Educators for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CTEVBI) conference and the CSUN International Technology and Persons with Diabilities Conference.

· Impact. 6Dot has begun low-volume production up to 250 of their Braille labeling devices for market. As of April 2011 they had secured more than 70 pre-sale commitments.

· Income. In May 2011 6Dot won $10,000 in the Stanford Product Showcase.

· Press. The 6dot Braille labeler was featured in a TV report by ivanhoe.com, which features “Discoveries and Breakthroughs in Science.”

BLISS

· Milestones. On May 11 BLISS introduced the Sozankaar collection of bags. Sozankaar means, “skilled with the needle” in Dari. BLISS has operationalized its partnership with Boston-based charity Barakat to provide its curriculum and training program in participating schools in Pakistan. On September 7, BLISS founder Saba Gul and BLISS were commended by the U.S. State Department in a gathering that featured Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. BLISS raised $8k as a finalist in the Unreasonable Institute marketplace, earning a coveted spot in their summer Institute.

· Income. $8,000 Unreasonable Institute;

· Press. BLISS founder Saba Gul (SM ’09) featured in the March/April edition of MIT’s Technology Review.
Founder Saba Gul’s International Women’s Day post for ThinkChangePakistan.

EmpleoListo! (AssuredLabor)

  • Milestones. Launched in Nicaragua and Mexico, AssuredLabor/EmpleoListo! has signed up over 100,000 job seekers. More than 40 prestigious employers, from Philip Morris International to Alcatel-Lucent to MacDonalds and Wal*Mart as well as numerous national and local businesses use the service to recruit candidates. Now has 14 full-time employees based in 4 countries, including: Nicaragua, Mexico, Pakistan and the United States. In October 2010 won the Omidyar Fastpitch Competition.

· Impact. Hundreds of successful job matches made.

  • Income. Raised $1M from prestigious angel investors and Venture Capital funds across 3 continents.

· Press. Recently profiled for their work with MIT’s Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development by the MIT News Office; featured in Fast Company, “Text Here for a New Job”; and VentureBeat, “A Mobile LinkedIn for the Developing World”.

Continue reading ‘IDEAS and Global Challenge Teams – Delivering Impact’

Ideas: Unleashing Creativity through Competitions

Dr Akhtar Badshah, Senior Director of Global Community Initiatives at Microsoft (and recent interviewee of our own Sneha Kannan!) has some insights into student innovation, development, and social change in today’s Huffington Post!

On May 2 as part of MIT’s 150 year anniversary celebrations I will be speaking to students who have entered the MIT IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge — which support innovation and entrepreneurship as a public service. This year more than 80 teams have entered ideas that address barriers to well-being in communities in 24 countries. 46 of them have qualified to enter final proposals.

What is unique about this is that the competition is sparking collaboration among students at MIT and the worldwide MIT alumni network, as well as communities around the world. Opening up the participation to the larger community is interesting and an innovative way for a university to engage a much larger audience. Over the last decade we’ve seen more and more universities and companies launching competitions to develop ‘ideas’ to solve some of the most intractable social problems that we face.

Read the full article here.

Farmhack@MIT Ignite! Pitches

Farmhack@MIT

Farmhack@MIT

Hey there’s a great event coming up at MIT in early March. Its called Farmhack, and the purpose is to bring together New England small-scale farmers and MIT engineers to identify projects for collaboration. There seems to be a consensus that the equipment available is costly, or simply does not respond well to the needs, constraints, and conditions of America’s small acreage farmers. Some of the areas that have come up include seeding technologies, soil monitoring systems, lifestock monitoring systems, irrigation systems. And more! So, if you are a New England farmer or an MIT engineer interested in using small-scale farms as laboratories for innovation, join us! Here are the details.

Farmers -

Do you come away from visits to other farms inspired by a tool or system that you just saw?  Have you invented things on your farm?  Can you describe some challenges on your farm that a team of farmers and engineers might be able to address with a new tool?


Engineers and Designers -

Do you have technical skills that you want to apply to the real world in real time? Are you interested in a direct relationship with the solutions our society needs? Have you considered applying your skill-set to sustainable agriculture?

Continue reading ‘Farmhack@MIT’

Press Release: MIT Global Challenge will Launch to Worldwide Community January 7, 2011

Contact: Lars Hasselblad Torres
617-999-5294
lhtorres@mit.edu

Be A Part of ItCambridge, MA — The MIT Global Challenge, a new initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Public Service Center, will launch on January 7, 2011 as the Institute celebrates 150 years of service to the world. It is anticipated that more than 30 MIT-based teams will compete for a total of $150,000 in awards with up to $25,000 per team that enable winning teams to implement novel solutions to some of the world’s urgent challenges.

The MIT Global Challenge is an online platform that connects and awards teams of public service innovators led by full-time MIT students. The website will unite students, the worldwide MIT community, and their collaborators in identifying barriers to well being in communities around the world, encouraging teams to work together to develop and pilot innovative solutions to those problems.

Sally Susnowitz, Director of the MIT Public Service Center, has described the MIT community as, “a community of ingenious problem solvers who enjoy solving challenging problems.” The MIT Global Challenge, she says, “invites and supports the entire MIT community worldwide in applying their creativity and knowledge to help people in need throughout the world by working with them to create innovative and effective solutions to their problems.”

Continue reading ‘Press Release: MIT Global Challenge will Launch to Worldwide Community January 7, 2011′

Oct 21| MIT Agricultural Processes Challenge kick-off

[Cross-posted from the MIT Food + Agriculture Collaborative]

October 21, 2010: Yunus Innovation Challenge Kickoff dinner, from 7:00 to 9:00pm, R&D Pub Lounge (Stata Center, 4th Floor).

PROBLEM

Around the world, 550 million smallholder farmers lack access to mechanized agricultural technology. Many important food staples like maize (corn) and grains (e.g., rice or wheat) are harvested and processed by hand, which is both labor intensive and time consuming. This year’s Yunus Challenge calls for locally and environmentally sustainable innovations to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

THE CHALLENGE

The 2011 Yunus Challenge will be awarded to participants who create an innovative solution that has the most potential to increase adoption of beneficial agricultural technologies, financial systems, or market access among smallholder farmers to improve their livelihoods. Participants are encouraged to put their energy toward creating solutions that overcome the behavioral and situational hurdles of the adoption of agricultural innovations, rather than looking at the challenge only in terms of the creation of new technologies. That said, the proposed solution may involve a physical device.

IDEAS and Global Challenge Generator 10/13

Want to learn from major international development organizations about opportunities for students to get involved?
Want funding for your innovative service project?
Want to recruit members or mentors for your project, or find a project team to join?

Then come get connected at the IDEAS Generator -its the perfect venue!

Please join the 2010-2011 IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge for our annual Fall Generator. We’ll have the opportunity to hear from a panel international development practitioners in the field about the “innovation as service” opportunities they see, along with students pitching project ideas and skills. This will be followed by a networking dinner around innovative solutions to community needs. Here are the details:

  • What: IDEAS Generator feat. International Organizations Panel + Networking Dinner
  • When: October 13, 2010 / Dinner Panel starts at 7:00pm, followed by pitches and networking
  • Where: Morss Hall (Blg 50) / Walker Memorial

The dinner will feature a panel of representatives from locally-based major international development agencies discussing what their organizations do, and what they don’t know how to do! In other words, this panel will focus on where there is space in the work of these organizations for innovation and entrepreneurship from MIT students. The following panelists have been confirmed:

Acción
Susana Barton, VP and Program Manager of Innovations and Integrated Solutions

UUSC
Gretchen Alther, Senior Associate, Rights in Humanitarian Crisis
Patricia Jones, Manager, Environmental Justice Program

Mercy Corps
Ruth Allen, Director, Community Mobilization, Governance, and Partnerships

World Education
Gill Garb, Director, World Education/JSI Bantwana Initiative and
Shirley Burchfield, VP, Africa Division

UNICEF
Christopher Fabian
Communication Specialist, Director’s Office, Technology for Development

Moderator: Joshua Schuler, Executive Director of the Lemelson-MIT Program , a non-profit organization based at MIT that, among many other things, encourages sustainable new solutions to real-world problems.

*****************

The Generator will have two recruitment open mic sessions with a prize for the best presentation in each category! The networking dinner will also include other activities to help everyone get connected with the right team mates (you don’t have to give a pitch). Feel free to bring along small prototypes and presentation materials that help describe your project. Participants who do sign-up to pitch will each have 60 seconds to pitch their projects to the audience. Pitches must be professional, practiced, and to the point. RSVP by October 11 to globalchallenge-rsvp@mit.edu to sign-up for an open mic opportunity, with the following included in your email:

Pitch Category One: Recruit The IDEAS Dream Team

  • Team name:
  • Project summary (50 words max):
  • Recruiting needs:

Pitch Category Two: Get Yourself “Hired”

  • Your name:
  • Reason a team should hire you (50 words max):
  • Type(s) of projects sought:

Questions? Email Lars or Kate at globalchallenge [at] mit [dot] edu  or visit http://ideas.mit.edu for more info. See you there!