The Glucose Economy

hacking-bacteria-fuel-ecoli-670In the long search to find alternatives to fossil fuels and industrial processes that produce tons of waste, several ideas have been forward. These include alternative energy – ranging from solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal – additive manufacturing, and cleaner burning fuels. All of these ideas have begun to bear some serious fruit in recent years thanks to ongoing research and development. But looking to the long term, it is clear that a complete overhaul of our industrial economy is needed.

That’s where more ambitious ideas come to the fore, ideas like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and what’s known as the “Glucose Economy”. Coined by Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese-American physicist who also had the honor of serving as the 12th Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama, this concept calls for the development of an economic model that would replace oil with high-glucose alternative fuels.

110302_steven_chu_ap_328Chu conceived of the idea while working as a professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In short, the plan calls for fast-growing crops to be planted in the tropics – where sunlight is abundant – converted into glucose (of which cellulose, which makes up much of the dry weight of a plant, is a polymer). The resulting glucose and cellulose would then be shipped around much as oil is today, for eventual conversion into biofuels and bioplastics.

As expected, this would render the current system of converting oil into gasoline and plastics – a process which produces immense amounts of carbon dioxide through processing and burning – obsolete. By comparison, glucose fuels would burn clean and produce very little in the way of chemical by-products, and bioplastics would be far more resilient and eco-friendly than regular plastics, and not just because they won’t cause a terrible disposal and waste problem (see Garbage Island).

David-Benjamin-and-the-future-of-architecture-01Another benefit of the this new model is the economic development it will bring to the tropical regions of the world. As far as production is concerned, those regions that stand to benefit the most are Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and South-East Asia. These regions are already seeing significant economic growth, and a shift like this would ensure their continued growth and development (not to mention improved quality of life) for many generations  to come.

But above and beyond all that is the revolutionary potential that exists for design and manufacturing, with architects relying on specially-designed software to create multi-material objects fashioned in part from biomass. This unique combination of biological processes, computer-assisted design (CAD), and human intelligence is looking to trigger a revolution in manufacturing and construction, with everyday materials to buildings created from eco-friendly, structurally sound, biomaterials.

bio-buildingOne such architect is David Benjamin, a computational architect and principal of the New York-based practice The Living. Together with his collaborators, Benjamin is conducting experiments with plant cells, the latest of which is the production of xylem cells – long hollow tubes plants use to transport water. These are computer modeled and grown in a Cambridge University lab and studied to create materials that combine the desired properties of different types of bacteria.

In addition, they are working with sheets of calcium and cellulose, seeking to create structures that will be strong, flexible, and filigreed. And beyond The Living Thing, there are also initiatives like the Living Foundries Program, a Department of Defense initiative that is hoping to hasten the developmental process and create an emergent bio-industry that would create “on-demand” production.

1394231762-re-making-manufacturing-united-statesNot only would this shave decades off the development process, but also hundreds of millions of dollars. What’s more, Benjamin claims it could take only 8 to 10 years to see this type of biotechnology enter commercial production. Naturally, there are those who oppose the development of a “glucose economy” as advocated by Chu. Beyond the proponents of fossil fuel energy, there are also those advocate nationally self-sufficient resources bases, rather than foreign dependence.

To these critics, the aim of a future economy should be energy independence. In their view, the glucose economy is flawed in that it merely shifts energy dependence of nations like the US from the Middle East and OPEC to the tropics, which could create a whole new slew of geopolitical problems. However, one cannot deny that as alternatives go, Chu’s proposal is far preferable to the current post-peak oil model of frakking, tar sands, natural gas, and coal.

bio-building1And it also offers some new and exciting possibilities for the future, where building processes like additive manufacturing (which is already making inroads into the construction industry with anti-gravity 3D printing, and the KamerMaker House) would be supplemented by using “biohacked” bacteria to grow structures. These structures would in turn be composed of resilient materials such as cellulose and organic minerals, or possibly carbon nanotubes that are assembled by organic processes.

And the amount of money, waste, energy and lives saved would be immense, as construction is currently one of the most dangerous and inefficient industries on the planet. In terms of on the job accidents, it causes some 10,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries a year in the US alone. And in terms of resource allocation and money, construction is labor intensive, produces tons of waste, and is almost always over budget.

hacking-bacteria-bio-light-670Compared to all that, a system the utilizes environmentally-friendly molecules and materials, enhances growing operations, fostered greater development and economic cooperation, and leads to a safer, cheaper, less wasteful construction industry seems immensely preferable. And it does offer a solution of what to do about two major industries that are ailing and in desperate need of modernization.

Boy, it feels like a long time since i’ve done a conceptual post, and the topics do appear to be getting more and more serious. Can anyone recall when I used to do posts about Cool Ships and Cool Guns? Yeah, me too, vaguely. Somehow, stuff like that seems like a far cry from the Internet of Things, Interstellar Travel, O’Neill Cylinders, Space Elevators, and timelines of the future. I guess this little blog of mine has been growing up in recent years, huh?

Stay tuned for more conceptual posts, hopefully something a little lighter and fluffier next time 😉

Sources: inhabitat.com, aspenideas.org, tampabay.com

3-D Printing Martian and Lunar Housing

3dprinted_moon_base1For enthusiasts of 3-D printing and its many possibilities, a man like Berokh Khoshnevis needs no introduction. As for the rest of us, he is the USC’s Director of Manufacturing Engineering, and has spent the last decade working on a new direction for this emerging technology. Back in 2012, he gave a lecture at TEDxTalks where he proposed that automated printing and custom software could revolutionize construction as we know it.

Intrinsic to this vision are a number of technologies that have emerged in recent years. These include Computer-Assisted Design/Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), robotics, and “contour crafting” (i.e. automated construction). By combining design software with a large, crane-sized 3-D printing machine, Khoshnevis proposes a process where homes can be built in just 20 hours.

contour-craftingKhoshnevis started working on the idea when he realized the gigantic opportunity in introducing more speed and affordability into construction. All of the technology was already in place, all that was required was to custom make the hardware and software to carry it all out. Since that time, he and his staff have worked tirelessly to perfect the process and vary up the materials used.

Working through USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies, Khoshnevis and his students have made major progress with their designs and prototypes. His robotic construction system has now printed entire six-foot tall sections of homes in his lab, using concrete, gypsum, wood chips, and epoxy, to create layered walls sections of floor.

3dprinted_moon_base3The system uses robotic arms and extrusion nozzles that are controlled by a computerized gantry system which moves a nozzle back and forth. Cement, or other desired materials, are placed down layer by layer to form different sections of the structure. Though the range of applications are currently limited to things like emergency and temporary shelters, Khoshnevis thinks it will someday be able to build a 2,500-square-foot home in 20 hours.

As he describes the process:

It’s the last frontier of automation. Everything else is made by machines except buildings. Your shoes, your car, your appliances. You don’t have to buy anything that is made by hand.

contour-crafting2As Khoshnevis explained during his 2012 lecture at TEDx, the greatest intended market for this technology is housing construction in the developing world. In such places of the world, this low-cost method of creating housing could lead to the elimination of slums as well as all the unhealthy conditions and socioeconomic baggage that comes with them.

But in the developed world, he also envisions how contour crafting machines could allow homes to be built more cheaply by reducing labor and material costs. As he pointed out in his lecture, construction is one of the most inefficient, dirty and dangerous industries there is, more so than even mining and oil drilling. Given a method that wastes far less material and uses less energy, this would reduce our impact on the natural environment.

3dprinted_moon_base2But of course, what would this all be without some serious, science fiction-like applications? For some time now, NASA and the ESA has been looking at additive manufacturing and robotics to create extra-terrestrial settlement. Looking farther afield, NASA has given Khoshnevis a grant to work on building lunar structures on the moon or other planets that humans could one day colonize.

According to NASA’s website, the construction project would involve:

Elements suggested to be built and tested include landing pads and aprons, roads, blast walls and shade walls, thermal and micrometeorite protection shields and dust-free platforms as well as other structures and objects utilizing the well known in-situ-resource utilization (ISRU) strategy.

3dprinted_moon_baseMany existing technologies would also be employed, such as the Lunar Electric Rover, the unpressurized Chariot rover, the versatile light-weight crane and Tri-Athlete cargo transporter as well some new concepts that are currently in testing. These include some habitat mockups and new generations of spacesuits that are currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Desert Research And Technological Studies (D-RATS).

Many of the details of this arrangement are shrouded in secrecy, but I think I can imagine what would be involved. Basically, the current research and development paradigm is focusing on combining additive manufacturing and sintering technology, using microwaves to turn powder into molten material, which then hardens as it is printed out.

sinterhab3To give you an idea of what they would look like, picture a crane-like robot taking in Moon regolith or Martian dust, bombarding it with microwaves to create a hot glue-like material, and then printing it out, layer by layer, to create contoured modules as hard as ceramic. These modules, once complete, would be pressurized and have multiple sections – for research, storage, recreation, and whatever else the colonists plan on getting up to.

Pretty cool huh? Extra-terrestrial colonies, and a cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly construction industry here on Earth. Not a bad way to step into the future! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of contour crafting at work, courtesy of USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, nasa.gov

World’s First 3-D Printed Metal Gun

3dmetalgun-640x353Earlier this year, Distributed Defense became the source of much controversy after they unveiled the world’s first 3-D printed gun. Known as the Liberator, this single-shot weapon was entirely composed of ABS plastic, and was the first weapon that could be created using open-source software and a 3-D printer, giving anyone with access the means to build their own firearms.

Predictably, the website was shut down and the design specs were removed, thanks to an injunction filed by the U.S. Department of Defense Trade Control just a few days after the unveiling. However, the issue was far from closed, as the case of Distributed Defense and the Liberator were clearly just a drop in the bucket of a much larger trend.liberatorAnd now, just six months later, the issue is once again rearing its head as the world’s first 3-D printed metal gun was unveiled. Created by the rapid prototyping and 3-D printing company known as Solid Concepts, this 1911 Colt .45 is a major step forward in the realm of weapons that can be built by just about anyone and counted on to remain functional after firing.

The gun was built using the relatively new process known as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a process that combines lasers and powdered metals to create finished products. Basically, a high-powered laser is used to fuse small particles of powder together, layer by layer, until the desired shape is created. In addition to being able to create highly intricate objects, sintering is far more efficient than the machining process.

3D-Printed-Metal-Gun-Components-Disassembled-Low-Res-640x480This latest weapon was also an improvement over the Liberator in that it was able to fire over 50 rounds with considerable accuracy, whereas the Liberator broke down after just a few shots. Made of of over 30 separate 3D printed parts, the gun is composed of stainless steel and Inconel 625 (a nickel-chromium superalloy), consistent with the original Colt design.

But before people begin to worry that this is bad news, Solid Concepts was quick to point out that the gun was printed using an industrial printer, the price of which is out of range of your average citizen. In addition, the software is not open-source, meaning people can’t simply download it from any 3-D printing website and begin producing their own private arsenal.

sinteringSolid Concepts also claims that they produced this weapon to demonstrate how 3-D printing is not just for hobbyists anymore, and how sintering is a viable way to produce delicate, precise, specific consumer and professional grade products. The company said that it is currently the only 3D printing service provider with a federal firearms license, and will be looking to provide printed gun parts for legal gun owners.

Regardless, this story serves as an example of how far the technology of 3-D printing has come in just a short amount of time. From printing models with plastic, the technology is now pushing the boundaries of industrial manufacturing and bioprinting, using everything from steel and titanium to liver and kidney cells.

Give more time and refinement, we could be entering into an age where all consumer products and necessities are created from powder and individual cells, possibly even at the atomic level. For those wondering what the next industrial revolution will look like, I suggest you look no further!

And of course, Solid Concepts captured the test firing of their 1911 Colt on video. Check it out:


Source: extremetech.com

NASA’s Vision: Robots to Help Mine Asteroids

asteroid_mining_robotIn a recent study, NASA shared a vision that sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Basically, the plan calls for the creation of robots that could be sent to a nearby asteroid, assemble itself, and then begin mining the asteroid itself. The scientists behind this study say that not only will this be possible within a few generations of robotics, but will also pay for itself – a major concern when it comes to space travel.

A couple of factors are pointing to this, according to the researchers. One, private industry is willing and able to get involved, as attested to by Golden Spike, SpaceX and Planetary Resources. Second, advances in technologies such as 3-D printing are making off-world work more feasible, which can be seen with plans to manufacture a Moon base and “sintering”.

asteroidsBut also, humanity’s surveys of space resources – namely those located in the asteroid belt – have revealed that the elements needed to make rubber, plastic and alloys needed for machinery are there in abundance. NASA proposes that a robotic flotilla could mine these nearby space rocks, process the goods, and then ship them back to Earth.

Best of all, the pods being sent out would save on weight (and hence costs) by procuring all the resources and constructing the robots there. They caution the technology won’t be ready tomorrow, and more surveys will need to be done of nearby asteroids to figure out where to go next. There is, however, enough progress to see building blocks. As the agency stated in their research report:

Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost…

asteroid_belt1Phil Metzger, a senior research physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, who led the study, went on to explain how the process is multi-tiered and would encompass several generations of progress:

Robots and machines would just make the metal and propellants for starters… The first generation of robots makes the second generation of hardware, except the comparatively lightweight electronics and motors that have to be sent up from Earth. It doesn’t matter how much the large structures weigh because you didn’t have to launch it.

A computer model in the study showed that in six generations of robotics, these machines will be able to construct themselves and operate without any need of materials from Earth.

asteroid_foundryAt least two startups are likely to be on board with this optimistic appraisal. For example, Deep Space Industries and Planetary, both commercial space companies, have proposed asteroid mining ideas within the past year. And since then, Planetary Resources has also unveiled other projects such as a public space telescope, in part for surveying work and the sake of prospecting asteroids.

And this latest research report just takes thing a step farther. In addition to setting up autonomous 3D manufacturing operations on asteroids, these operations would be capable of setting themselves up and potentially upgrading themselves as time went on. And in the meantime, we could look forward to a growing and increasingly complex supply of manufactured products here on Earth.

Source: universetoday.com

The Future is Here: The Anti-Gravity 3D Printer

anti-grav3d2Three-dimensional printing is without a doubt one of the greatest growth industries of the 21st century. And yet, surprisingly enough, there are those who seem to think that there is room for improvement when it comes to current concepts and designs. Two such individuals are Petr Novikov and Saša Jokic, a group of architecture students who recently began interning at the Joris Laarman Lab in Amsterdam. While there, they came up with a revolutionary method for 3D printing that reboots the concept!

It’s called Mataerial, a new and patented process where polymers are squeezed from a nozzle similar to how bakers squeeze icing from a tube to frost a cake, except there’s a robot involved. Ultimately, their concept was based on the fact that all conventional printing works with layers, which they considered grossly inefficient. Not only do such methods require the presence of a support structure, they also take additional time, materials, and increase the risk of damage if the object is removed from its support structure.

anti-grav3d1As Novikov explains:

The material that comes out of the nozzle is still kind of viscous–It’s not a liquid already but its not a solid material, so what we wanted to do is make it solid the same exact moment it comes out of the nozzle. And that’s the hardest part. Because if it solidifies before it comes out of the nozzle, then its going to make a clog… but if it solidifies after it leaves the nozzle, than its going to be weak and fall down.

The key was to find two liquid polymers that, when mixed, quickly harden, which allows for mid-air solidification. They’re calling the resulting method “Anti-Gravity Object Modeling,” since the material’s just-in-time solidification eschews the need for any sort of support structure. The new method is exciting for a number of reasons. The first is scale, in that this method could be adapted for manufacturing large and well as small scale objects easily.

anti-grav3dDepending on the size of nozzle used, the technology could be used to print materials and objects that are on the scale of millimeters (like components for consumer electronics), 3D models (the kinds that are printed by standard professional printers), or larger objects such as furniture or even parts used in large-scale architectural construction. Basically, anything from the tiniest object to the largest structure could be created by robots equipped with specialized nozzles and Mataerial printers.

But perhaps most exciting is the possibility that this new method would be able to print objects in low or even zero gravity. Given NASA’s recent interest in building a Moon base using 3D printing, such a process could come in mighty useful. Already, the technology known as “sintering” has been considered for the purposes of building a Lunar settlement, but given its “anti-gravity” application, the Mataerial process just might have a shot at winning some lucrative contracts.

In fact, Navikov indicates that they considered the possibility and put it to the test. As he indicated: “We did an investigation and we are pretty sure that this could be used as 3-D printer in zero gravity.” Did you get that NASA? Anyway to make this technology work with regolith? Regardless, it sure could be useful here on planet Earth!

Source: fastcoexist.com

Preventing the Apocalypse: NASA’s Asteroid Lasso Mission

asteroid_lasso

Shortly after that large meteor hit Russia, President Obama and NASA administrator Charles Bolden both announced that work would begin on a series of asteroid tracking technologies that would ensure that more severe Earth collisions would be prevented. Earlier this month, Bolden spoke at the Mars Summit in Washington, D.C. and said that a robotic spacecraft mission is currently being planned with this goal in mind.

The plan calls to mind such films as Armageddon and Deep Impact, but differs in that it involves lassoing an asteroid instead of detonating a small nuke inside it. The ultimate goal here is to tow an asteroid out of the path of Earth, but then to deposit it in orbit so that it can be visited by astronauts. These astronauts will then collect samples and conduct research that could one day assist in a mission to Mars or save Earth from a catastrophic collision.

Asteroid-Toutatis

This is in keeping with the Obama administrations’ pledge of putting a man on a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and a manned mission to Mars by 2030. It’s also in the same vein as NASA’s plan to catch and deposit an asteroid around the Moon, an idea that was proposed back in January of this year as part of the agencies plan to establish an outpost at Lagrange Point 2 early in the next decade.

And even though NASA has expressed that the massive 22 million ton asteroid Apophis will not impact planet Earth in 2036, it didn’t rule out that other, smaller rocks could possibly reach us in that time. Capturing them and towing them to where they could be safely deposited in orbit would present many opportunities, not the least of which could be commercial.

asteroid_foundry

For example, asteroid prospecting is slated to begin in 2015, with companies like SpaceX and Deep Space Industries leading the charge. Once property rights are assigned to various celestial bodies, these and other companies hope to send missions out to mine them and establish automated 3D manufacturing facilities, places that use “sintering” to process ore into metal and other materials that can then be shipped back.

NASA’s science mission directorate associate administrator John Grunsfeld also spoke about the importance of the lasso mission at the Human to Mars Summit on Monday. Above all else, he emphasized the importance of using the knowledge and skills gained from the research to achieve the long-term goal of survival:

We have a pretty good theory that single-planet species don’t survive. We don’t want to test it, but we have some evidence of that happening 65 million years ago [when an asteroid killed much of Earth’s life]. That will happen again someday … we want to have the capability [to leave the planet] in case of the threat of large scale destruction on Earth.

Yeah, its a rocky universe. And if we intend to survive in it, we had best learn how to deflect, capture and destroy any that come our way and get too close. And of course, we need to learn how to harness their endless supply of minerals and trace elements.

asteroid_belt1Source: news.cnet.com

NASA’s 3D Printed Moon Base

ESA_moonbaseSounds like the title of a funky children’s story, doesn’t it? But in fact, it’s actually part of NASA’s plan for building a Lunar base that could one day support inhabitants and make humanity a truly interplanetary species. My thanks to Raven Lunatick for once again beating me to the punch! While I don’t consider myself the jealous type, knowing that my friends and colleagues are in the know before I am on stuff like this always gets me!

In any case, people may recall that back in January of 2013, the European Space Agency announced that it could be possible to build a Lunar Base using 3D printing technology and moon dust. Teaming up with the architecture firm Foster + Partners, they were able to demonstrate that one could fashion entire structures cheaply and quite easily using only regolith, inflatable frames, and 3D printing technology.

sinterhab2_1And now, it seems that NASA is on board with the idea and is coming up with its own plans for a Lunar base. Much like the ESA’s planned habitat, NASA’s would be located in the Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole, where sunlight (and thus solar energy) is nearly constant due to the Moon’s inclination on the crater’s rim. What’s more, NASA”s plan would also rely on the combination of lunar dust and 3D printing for the sake of construction.

However, the two plans differ in some key respects. For one, NASA’s plan – which goes by the name of SisterHab – is far more ambitious. As a joint research project between space architects Tomas Rousek, Katarina Eriksson and Ondrej Doule and scientists from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), SinterHab is so-named because it involves sintering lunar dust: heating it up with microwaves to the point where the dust fuses to become a solid, ceramic-like block.

This would mean that bonding agents would not have to be flown to the Moon, which is called for in the ESA’s plan. What’s more, the NASA base would be constructed by a series of giant spider robots designed by JPL Robotics. The prototype version of this mechanical spider is known as the Athlete rover, which despite being a half-size variant of the real thing has already been successfully tested on Earth.

athlete_robotEach one of these robots is human-controlled, has six 8.2m legs with wheels at the end, and comes with a detachable habitable capsule mounted at the top. Each limb has a different function, depending on what the controller is looking to do. For example, it has tools for digging and scooping up soil samples, manipulators for poking around in the soil, and will have a microwave 3D printer mounted on one of the legs for the sake of building the base. It also has 48 3D cameras that stream video to its operator or a remote controlling station.

The immediate advantages to NASA’s plan are pretty clear. Sintering is quite cheap, in terms of power as well as materials, and current estimates claim that an Athlete rover should be able to construct a habitation “bubble” in only two weeks. Another benefit of the process is that astronauts could use it on the surface of the Moon surrounding their base, binding dust and stopping it from clogging their equipment. Moon dust is extremely abrasive, made up of tiny, jagged morcels rather than finely eroded spheres.

sinterhab3Since it was first proposed in 2010 at the International Aeronautical Congress, the concept of SinterHab has been continually refined and updated. In the end, a base built on its specifications will look like a rocky mass of bubbles connected together, with cladding added later. The equilibrium and symmetry afforded in this design not only ensures that grouping will be easy, but will also guarantee the structural integrity and longevity of the structures.

As engineers have known for quite some time, there’s just something about domes and bubble-like structures that were made to last. Ever been to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul? Ever looked at a centuries old building with Onion Dome and felt awed by their natural beauty? Well, there’s a  reason they’re still standing! Knowing that we can expect similar beauty and engineering brilliance down the road gives me comfort.

In the meantime, have a gander at the gallery for the proposed SinterHab base, and be sure to check out this video of the Athlete rover in action:

Source: Wired.co.uk, robotics.jpl.nasa.gov