Archive for the ‘Future’ Category

Does bionics ultimately threaten our humanity?

First broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1 (7-11-2016)

woman-with-bionic-arm

A woman with a ‘bionic’ arm. Science fiction is becoming science fact. (Image credit: Telegraph, UK)

Being human means our bodies, tissues and organs, will eventually deteriorate and malfunction. However, advances in medical science mean we can replace aging or diseased hips, knees, even hearts with advanced man-made materials. Many of our bodies, in this way, have become partly artificial or synthetic.

Advances in medical science and engineering mean that a lot more of us, in the developed western world at least, are set to have all manner of misfiring tissues and organs, maybe even our brains, replaced by something synthetic, better, and perhaps an awful lot better. The age of truly bionic man and woman is upon us.

History

The replacement of body parts with something man-made – what we now call bionics – is something that goes back a long way in human history.

Back as far as 1,500 BC there is a report of an Ancient egyptian mummy having its toe amputated and replaced by a prosthetic made of wood and leather. This was done apparently because the Egyptians felt that amputees would be cursed in life as well as the afterlife.

During the middle ages, crude prosthetic limbs ere available, but only to the very wealthy. These were made of wood, leather and metal, and the replacement leg would resemble a peg leg, with a hook replacing a hand.

Towards the end of the 18th century, in about 1897 the scientist Alessandro Volta – he of electricity fame – found that hearing could be restored by the use of electrical stimulation. This was a big advance in medical bionics.

However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that bionics entered the popular consciousness with the arrival of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman on our television screens.

The bionic man, played by Lee Majors, was human, had a bionic left eye, bionic legs, and a bionic right arm, while the Bionic Woman, played by Lindsay Wagner, had similar bionic limbs, but also had a bionic ear.

Science fiction becomes fact

What was science fiction then is now fact. A bionic eye, and ear have already been built, providing people with something even better than the original, while there have been remarkable advances in bionic limbs, including the human hand.

We could today, build a Bionic Man and Woman, with bionic ears, eyes, and limbs (not necessarily with the ability to run at 60 mph, but it could be done if felt necessary), but science is moving beyond what was speculation in the 1970s.

Neuroscientists have begun to decode the language of the brain, so that it is possible to know what word or series of words they are thinking. This is important because it means that people who are disabled, or paralysed can be now trained to move robotic limbs, or a new limb attached to their bodies.

Bionics and neuroscience is, thus, liberating disabled people from their physical dependence on people around them, and they can control their artificial limbs, or wheelchairs by simply thinking. At the same time, materials are becoming more sophisticated, and these can enhance malfunctioning biological tissues.

Bionic eyes, which pick up signals from the environment and transmit electrical impulses straight to the brain will soon help the blind ‘see’ again. A Bionic ear has been developed which restores hearing to the profoundly deaf via an implant which receives and transmits signals in the inner ear.

A bionic hand, with tremendous dexterity has been developed for a Danish man, which has been integrated by neurosurgeons with his existing nervous system. Bionic feet and legs under the thought control of the brain have been developed. A fully artificial heart has been successfully implanted, and there even moves to build an electronic implant to replace malfunctioing parts of the brain, or to construct a fully artificial brain based on the biological brain.

What this all means is that we are seeing a general trend towards humans becoming more artificial, as we live longer, and want to maintain the functioning of our limbs, organs and brain for as long as possible.

What do people want in life? They want to alive at the age of 90, but still active and healthy, physically and mentally. Bionics offers this, and its alluring.

No one knows where this all will end, or how artificial we will eventually become. Some believe that the trend towards having more and more bionic body parts threatens our humanity. How far can we go towards becoming artificial before we stop being human? It is a huge philosophical question we’ll face in future.

Irish research

The majority of the work in Ireland in this area is on the repair of body parts, through what is called regenerative medicine, rather than bionics, which involves the complete replacement of a tissue or organ, with something new and artificial.

Bionics, and regenerative medicine are moving ahead together and in parallel. It is perhaps a bit like the car industry.

There will always be a market for a brand new cars. Some people will buy a new car because they can afford it, and they want the latest technology and performance capabilities.

Others might want a new car because they have crashed their old one, and is beyond repair. However, there are also people who do not feel the need for a new car, and are quite happy to have their old car service, fixed, and on the road for as long as possible.

Ireland, in this sense, is more in the service and repair market, than the new car sales market, but both are equally important areas.

In terms of bionics, researchers in the University of Limerick, led by Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, along with an industrial partner, MTD Precision Engineering (Cork) are aiming to develop a full body Bionic Suit to help the elderly.

The Axo Suit project aims to help the aging live independently and stay mobile. The suit needs to be light enough to allow them to do daily tasks, such as going for a walk, or putting clothes on the line, but strong enough to give support.

The goal is to produce an ‘exoskeleton’ or bionic suit, which will sell for between 5k and 10k. This could keep many people out of nursing homes.

AT TCD, the Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Group (AMBER) led by Professor Danny Kelly’s group is involved in developing 3D bio-printing of tissues and organs, which could negate the need for organ transplants.

It could also lead to printing of organs or tissues made up of a combination of natural and artificial components, or even totally artificial components. There has already been a successful transplant of an artificial heart, and with natural organs hard to come by, this trend is set to increase.

Also at TCD, Dr Mark Ahearne’s group are developing bioengineered corneas which can be used for cornea transplants to restore sight or relieve pain. The artificial cornea has been made by using artificial fibres that mimic the ability of natural collagen fibres in the cornea to allow light to penetrate through. The researchers believe this will help people suffering from corneal blindness.

Meanwhile, At the Regenerative Medicine Institute at NUI Galway, or REMEDI there is a clinical trial underway where stem cells are being used to tackle osteoarthritis. The idea here is to insert stem cells into, for example knee joints damaged by arthritis to facilitate the growth of new, healthy bone tissue.

The potential for knee repair is incredible. For example, Professor Fergal O’Brien,  based at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and AMBER, developed a new material which repaired the severely damaged knee joints of a competitive show jumping horse called Beyonce. The horse was facing euthanasia, but after the material was used, it began competitive show jumping again.

REMEDI researchers are also working with colleagues our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, to use stem cells to overcome congenital heart defects in children. In terms of organ repair, or fixing the sky is now the limit.

Is humanity threatened?

Bionics and regenerative medicine are set to help millions of people around the world who are suffering the effects of diseased or damaged tissues or organs. We are living longer, and this technology will help us live better, no doubt.

But, there are some issues, or concerns. For example, some well known scientists in the field, such as Hugh Herr at MIT, believe that synthetic materials such as titanium and silicon will one day replace flesh and blood.

Do we want that? Will this spell the end of humanity, at our own hand?

Herr got caught in a snow blizzard while climbing a mountain at the age of 17, and lost both legs to severe frostbite. Now in his 50s, he is the co-director of MIT’s Center for Extreme Bionics, where he is designing artificial legs (including his own) feet, ankles, knees and hips.

Herr’s view is that we will become more artificial, and eventually totally artificial, but that we will retain our humanity. We already have ‘augmented’ abilities, such as the ability to fly, and devices that improve our memory and ability to communicate.

Herr believes that our humanity, our ideas, our personalities, and our creativity, will become ‘embedded’ into artificial ‘designable’ bodies. We will come to see this as normal in the way, he says, and that artificial legs, or body parts will be considered part of us in the same way as biological legs are now. This is all part of the natural progression, or evolution, or humanity, Herr says.

Others disagree, and argue that as we shed our biology, we will shed our humanity, and that this technology represents an existential threat to mankind.

 

 

 

Irish ‘bench to bedside’ research improving health outcomes

Broadcast on 29-08-16 on Today with Sean O’Rourke

Medical Research Ireland

Medical research in Ireland, led by doctors and nurses, is discovering new ways of doing things that are improving health outcomes for sick people, and helping prevent illness arising in the first place (Source: http://www.ucd.ie)

The evidence shows that the best hospitals – the ones where patients have the best medical outcomes – are those that are most actively engaged in medical research.

This is the kind of practical hospital based research that saves people’s lives and it is often led by doctors or nurses seeking better ways of doing things, with no commercial motivation.

People at the frontline may have an idea of how a tried and tested way of doing things with certain patients can be improved upon. Then trials or tests are setup to test the new idea.

If the idea works, and an improvement in patient medical outcomes is proven, then changes are made in medical practice to ensure that patients fully benefit from the new knowledge.

It is called ‘bench to bedside’ research where doctors or nurses use science to test out their ideas, and if they work, then the new ways are translated from lab bench to patient bedside.

Evidence

The evidence shows, from decades of work all around the world, that hospitals are safer and generally better where the doctors, nurses and medical professionals are ‘research active’.

Medical practice doesn’t stand still, or it shouldn’t, and there are always ways of making improvements in patient care. Sometimes there is a big leap forward, with a dramatic new advance, while lots of other times, it’s a case of steady, gradual incremental gains.

The important thing is that medical professionals are in a mindset where they are constantly challenging how they do things, and never believe that existing methods can’t be improved.

The research that we are talking about here could be as simple as a better, or more, timely way of delivering a medicine, or a radical new method of performing difficult surgery.

One of the great advantages that hospital researchers have over laboratory scientists is that they can carry out tests and trials on humans, who have agreed to take part in such trials.

The individual patient can be asked to sign up for a ‘clinical trial’ to advance the state of knowledge in a particular field, such as cancer research or cardiovascular disease.

Taking part in such trials offers patients, sometimes very sick patients, the chance to help their fellow man (and woman) that come behind them, who may have the same illness.

But, as well as helping to improve the prognosis for future patients, there is plenty of evidence that an individual has a long to personally gain by taking part in a clinical trial.

The evidence suggests that people on clinical trials in hospitals have better long-term health outcomes that those that aren’t, and have earlier access to new drugs and treatments.

The people on clinical trials are watched very closely by medical staff, and they get the very best of care and attention, so that any issues that arise are picked up quickly and addressed.

There are more and more clinical trials taking place in Irish hospitals and this is a very good thing for our patients there, young or old, as the more trials, the better the health outcomes.

Ireland

All of the major Irish hospitals have significant research programmes going on at this stage, and many people will have been offered the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial.

It was long recognised that Ireland needed to be done more hospital based research, and in 2006 the Irish Clinical Research Infrastructure Network was setup to facilitate this.

Clinical trials, and studies are best done across a number of hospitals, at home and abroad, to increase the numbers that take part, and make the results more meaningful. The Network is now supported by the Health Research Board, the HRB, and the HSE.

There is also a lot more paediatric research taking place in Irish paediatric hospitals such as Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital Crumlin, and around the country, than ever before.

There is also a paediatric research network being set up between medical researchers at Irish paediatric hospitals, and this is very good news for sick children in Ireland.

Generally speaking then, there is a lot more hospital based research taking place in Ireland than there was say, 20 years ago, but we have a long way to go to catch up with the best.

Investigator led

Many people may have the impression that a lot of research done in hospitals is being by pharmaceutical companies who want to test our new drugs and products on patients.

That kind of industry led research does happen, and, in fairness, it can occasionally lead to the development of a wonderful new drug, or to the different use of an already existing drug.

However, the kind of research that is having a more sustained impact on patients’ health is the type of research that is called ‘investigator led’ research with no commercial motivation.

The genesis of this type of research is a doctor, or nurse, physiotherapist, spotting a potentially better way of doing things in their daily work, and setting up a trial to test this out.

This requires a culture to be established in Irish hospitals, where new ideas, or ways of doing things are encouraged, and they don’t always have to come from the consultant.

The important point is that it is not the pharmaceutical industry calling the shots here, it is the medical professionals on the ground, who have no axe to grind but trying to help patients.

The one issue that we have in Ireland, however, compared to the leaders in hospital research is that not enough time is freed up for consultants and others do do research.

In the US, clinical researchers might spend half their time working with patients and the rest of the time doing research. That kind of freedom is not the norm, here in Ireland.

Projects

I visited the UCD Clinical Research Centre last week to talk to some medical researchers about their work. This is just one of many research centres attached to Irish hospitals.

Dr Alistair Nichol, a consultant anesthestist told me about a research project called TRANSFUSE. The goal here is to test out whether using new blood to transfuse patients leads to better outcomes than older blood.

Irish blood products can be 35 to 42 days old by the time they are used for a transfusion, and there is some evidence emerging that ‘using fresh blood is better.

Dr Nichol is testing this out in a study on 5,000 people that receive fresh blood against blood that is ‘standard’ (older). They have gone through 4,000 patients so far.

They plan to publish the results in about one year, and whether the fresh blood is found to be better, or not, the information that is obtained from this trial will change clinical practice.

Dr Nichol is also involved in a study that aims to get Ireland better prepared for the next major flu outbreak, as we weren’t ready for the H1N9 outbreak in 2009 he said.

The idea is to be ready to move fast when the next major flu outbreak happens here, and we are due one he said, by having everything in place to capture information on the flu.

The idea is that the doctors, nurses, and paperwork are all in place so that when people come in with a dangerous flu that UCD is ready to start a trial to capture information on it.

UCD is linked with researchers in Australia and New Zealand, in this major effort to prepare for the next flu outbreak so that information on its first appearance is properly captured.

A flu pandemic hits in waves, so that when the first wave comes through Ireland, the UCD trial will capture the information needed so that it can be tackled on the second wave.

Diabetes 

I also met Professor Carel Le Roux, a South African doctor and researcher now based in Ireland who is doing important work on obesity and diabetes.

The work of Professor Le Roux, and colleagues around the world, has found that there is a gene in some people which means they are always hungry, even soon after a meal.

This genetic link to obesity shows that obesity, and related conditions such as diabetes Type 2 are not due to some moral weakness, but due to measurable genetic differences.

This finding means that for some, it may be better for doctors to try and maintain people’s health at their current weight, as trying to get big weight reductions might not be effective.

It also means that for some, said Prof Le Roux, the best option may be to have gastric bypass surgery, which is a proven method of reducing people’s appetite in the long run.

Children

There is also important research into children’s diseases – paediatric research – happening in Ireland, in areas such as leukaemia, eczema, controlling pain and childhood diabetes.

What Irish paediatric researchers are doing is identifying the very earliest signs of diabetes, or allergies, for example, and this means treatment can also begin much earlier.

The goal in the future is to be able to identify children or infants that are at risk from a condition, or that have a condition, even in the womb and then prevent or treat it.

This preventive approach to medicine which is investigator led is far different from a world where the pharmaceutical industry wants to simply test drugs and products on already sick people.

Scientists help insurers develop ‘death clock’; loneliness is bad for health; biological computers; dinosaur extinction story updated;

Listen to discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan (21.04.16)

Loneliness

Loneliness puts people at higher risk from stroke, heart disease and many other illnesses (Credit: http://www.ucsf.edu)

Loneliness has been linked to a 30% increased risk of stroke. This is more evidence that being lonely, at whatever age, puts the person at higher risk of ill health.

Insurance companies, with the help of scientists,  are working on developing a ‘death clock’ which will better predict when their customers, with life insurance, will die.

Biological computers are on the way, made from genes, proteins and other living tissue, which may be used in future to diagnose and treat disease from inside the body.

The extinction of dinosaurs was prompted by the collision of a 10km wide piece of space rock with the Earth 66 million years ago, but, new evidence suggests that before the impact, the dinosaurs had already seen their best days.

 

How Regenerative Medicine will change the World

Listen to discussion on the Today with Sean O’Rourke show on 30/3/16

 

shutterstock_102215590 - Regenerative Medicine

Scientists in Ireland’s Royal College of Surgeons will this year begin to use regenerative medicine in patients to repair damaged bone and cartilage.

Imagine a world where organs are not replaced, but repaired in situ?

Where stem cells are used to repair bone in knees or hips, preventing the need for their replacement?

Or where an entire heart, liver or kidney an be printed to order in advance of transplant into a patient?

It might sound fanciful but this is the world of regenerative medicine, it’s already happening, and Irish scientists and research teams are among the leading lights driving the field.

What is Ireland’s energy future?

Now, the dust has settled on the Paris climate summit, it’s a good time to assess where Ireland’s – and the world’s – power generation future lies.

Click above to hear discussion on Today with Sean O’Rourke (broadcast 30/12/2015)

Offshore1

Ireland has a huge wind energy resource, offshore and on land. If tapped the country could become a net energy exporter (Credit: Irish Wind Energy Association)

Big picture

Despite the agreements announced in Paris, China is set to continue building a new coal fired power plant every 7 to 10 days, while India and Japan are increasing, not reducing, their reliance on cheap coal.

Meanwhile, oil prices are falling, driven by a global oil glut driven by increased oil supplies. Despite claims that oil supplies are running out, geology suggests the world has substantial untapped oil supplies.

In this context, the big question is how will Ireland, and the world, wean itself off coal and petrol, and how will energy be generated in 2050?

The top five energy consumers in the world today are China, the USA, India, Russia, and Japan. This is significant because none of the big five would be renowned for their record on supporting clean energy options.

China is key to this story, as it has now surpassed the US as the main energy consumer in the world. China is increasing its dependence on coal, and building new coal fired plants at an alarming rate.

Coal is cheap, readily available, and China believes that coal is what will improve living standards to match those of the west. In the same way, that Britain used ‘King Coal’ to become a 19th century superpower.

Meanwhile, India, another Asian giant, is also increasing its reliance on coal, for the same reasons that China is taking this route. Coal is cheap, and provides a shortcut to industrial development and prosperity.

Let’s not forget that developing reliable, economically viable energy alternatives requires high technology, patience and lots of funding.

Keep in mind too that 250 million Indian people live in homes without electricity. That’s more people than the combined populations of Germany, France and the UK, all living without electricity.

Globally, some 1.2 billion people live without electricity. Is that ethical?

Russia as we know is a significant exporter of oil and gas, and much of the gas we use here in Ireland comes from Russia.

Japan is an interesting case, because it is a highly industrialised country, but it lacks a cheap, home based energy source. This is why it went down the nuclear route, but that, as we saw with Fukushima in March 2011, led to disaster. They too are now turning to cheap sources of coal.

The US, meanwhile, is heavily dependent on its home based reserves of natural gas to provide its electricity needs, and Middle Eastern oil to keep its love affair with motor car going.

Clean energy

Approximately 11 per cent of the world’s energy consumption comes from so-called ‘renewable energy’ sources. That’s according to the US Energy Information Administration.

When we say ‘renewable’ we mean energy generated from non-polluting sources, which can be used over and over again without negative effects. The main renewable sources of energy come from biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind.

The same US body, which is a reputable source, predicts that by 2040, 15 per cent of the world’s energy will be from renewables by 2040.

The message then is that our energy needs are overwhelming provided by fossil fuel, greenhouse gas generating sources, and that the changeover to renewables is happening slowly – perhaps too slowly.

coal-burning-factory-in-china

China continues to build a new coal fired power plant, on average – every 7 to 10 days. Like this one in the city of Baotou, in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Photo : REUTERS/David Gray)

Whither Paris?

This is where the Paris agreement comes in, because without a major push, there is no reason why – economically speaking – countries or companies or individuals should shift to using renewable energy.

The main point was that governments agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Above 1.5 Celsius and scientists believe we are into uncharted territory where climate and weather might cross a variety of ‘tipping points’.

Lurking in our future is the ominous, and very real threat of rapid, and severe climate cooling, provoked initially by warming.

Recent data shows that we have already reached 1C above pre-industrial levels and there is no sign of emissions of ‘greenhouse gas’ falling.

The emissions figures are interesting. China is responsible for 28% or more than a quarter of the world’s emissions.

The US is next at 16%, then the EU at 10 per cent. Together, China, the US, India, Russia, Japan and the EU make up 70% of global emissions. The rest, about 150 countries or so, make up just 30% of emissions.

A binding agreement between the US, China, India, Russia, Japan on the EU on emissions would go a long way to addressing this problem.

That won’t be easy as they all have very different energy agendas.

Before Paris, 180 countries submitted pledges to cut or curb emissions, but, when all these plans were put together, experts believe they will, even if they are rigorously implemented, lead to a 2.7C rise – at least!

Also, there is no legal imperative to implement the plans.

Paris set out a long term global goal for zero emissions. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  says that ‘net zero emissions’ must happen by 2070, in order to avoid ‘dangerous warming’.  But, it’s only a goal!

There is also a pledge to ‘take stock’ every 5 years to make sure that the plan to keep to 1.5C is still no track. But, only a pledge to ‘take stock’. The plan also included a clause which say that countries mainly responsible for warming – the US – will not be liable to pay financial claims from countries damaged by extreme weather.

There is a pledge to provide $100 billion a year from 2020 to finance developing countries so that they can adapt to climate change and transition to ‘clean energy’ – but this to is not legally binding.

All in all, Paris looks like a weak agreement, which holds no-one to account, and is largely aspirational in tone.

Fossil future

Coal, gas, petrol and diesel are fossil fuels. They contain high amounts of carbon and were formed from previously living organisms. They are cheap, readily available, and are very efficient at releasing usable energy when burned in combustion engines, or power plants.

Most experts believe that fossil fuels will still dominate, in terms of supplying our global needs by mid century and beyond. The Paris deal was heralded by some as the ‘end of coal’ but this is highly unlikely, and coal will continue to be burned, perhaps more than before.

Yet, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, or increasing rates – to meet increasing energy demands – we are on a road to nowhere. If fossil fuels are here to stay, how can we reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases which are released when they burn?

Is there a solution?

Well, one thing that can be done is to improve the fuel efficiency of our cars, and power plants which use fossil fuels, and this is happening.

Another more radical solution, but one which is now under serious consideration is referred to as carbon capture and storage  technology.

The idea here is to continue to burn fossil fuels, but that the carbon dioxide from this burning will be buried in a secure place underground. For example, there is talk of using gas fields, which have been exhausted, such as Kinsale, which is nearing its end, to store carbon dioxide gas.

2050?

The demand for electricity is set to soar in coming decades, as more than one billion people look to get plugged in. The energy mix will still be mainly fossil fuel based, so measures to improve energy efficiency will be crucial and technology will be developed to do that – in our homes, offices and in industry.

These energy efficiencies will only happen if governments fund the development of technology in the short term, because it will take time for their to be a pay off in any investment. So, industry won’t do it.

Coal is going to remain very important, as China and India develop.

Nuclear energy is expensive, and it is far more costly to build a nuclear power plant compared to a new coal or gas fired power plant. There are also costs of disposal of waste, and safety concerns, and there can be serious political opposition to new plants too.

Ireland has a real opportunity to develop its wind and wave resources, where we could – with the right investment – be a world leader. But, our grid is outdated, and other countries such as Denmark, have been investing in wind technology for far longer with greater success.

The most promising of the renewable technologies, generally speaking, is Solar and this will take off if supported initially by governments.They can be particularly useful to bring electricity to places now ‘off grid’.

The world, and individual countries, will have to realise that more expensive energy, and reduced growth might be required.

Ireland’s windy future

In 1935, the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power plant built near Limerick in the 1920s was supplying 80% of the country’s electricity.  Our electricity needs were far less at that time, of course, but we were still far more self sufficient in energy than we are today, as 60% of our energy is provided by natural gas, and 90% of our natural gas is imported.

Back in the 1930s, the vast majority of Ireland’s electricity was generated by harnessing the gravitational force of falling or flowing water. Ardnacrusha served us well for decades, but over time, the plant was unable to generate enough electricity to meet the growing demands of industry here, and modern homes, now mostly supplied with electricity.

These days our electricity needs have vastly increased, and the range of sources we get our electricity from has hugely diversified.

One of the good news stories for Ireland, is terms of its energy future, is the ready availability of lots of wind, particularly along the coastlines. As of 2015, 17.7% of Irish electricity was generated by wind power, making us second only to Denmark which has reached 30%.

The government has a target in its white paper to increase the energy consumption from ‘renewables’ to 16% from 7% currently. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland believes that electricity generated from wind will exceed domestic needs by 2030.

Ireland will then be in the happy position of becoming an electricity exporter, possible with a new electricity connector to the UK. It’s possible, if targets are reached, that Ireland could be providing 2.5% of the EU’s energy needs by 2050 through wind power generation.

Renewable mix

Ireland is also blessed with a valuable wave energy resource. One study found that the average wave power in Europe is highest near the west of Ireland.  The potential for utilising wave is huge. There is some 525 TWh of wave and tidal power in Irish waters. The total electricity requirement for the Republic of Ireland in 2006 was just 27.8 TWh!

Solar photovoltaic technology will be far more important, even in Ireland, where, as we know the sun doesn’t shine enough.

County councils around the country are building solar panels using PV technology on farmland. These ‘solar farms’ will provide electricity to the grid, and help to power new homes that will be built in coming years.

Bioenergy too will be far more developed here in coming decades. Plants are already being built in Dublin and Cork which will take food waste and harvest bio-gases to generate significant amounts of electricity.

Each bio waste plant can provide electricity for thousands of homes, and divert food waste which is going into landfill at the present time. Ireland will not move into nuclear. There are cheaper, better options and the political opposition and cost would seem to rule nuclear out here.

There are also, geologists believe, significant ‘hydrocarbon’ resources in the Irish offshore that lie underdiscovered due to the depths they are at. There is gas, we know this from Corrib, but many believe there is also oil, plenty of it, and as technology improves it will become easier and cheaper to prospect for this liquid gold.

So, all in all, Ireland’s energy future looks promising if we fully exploit our huge wind, wave and untapped hydrocarbon resources in our offshore.

That’s leaving aside the thorny question of potentially exploiting two large oil reserves trapped in rocks underneath Leitrim and the counties of southwest Ireland through ‘fracking’ technology.

 

Fancy a holiday on Mars?; the science behind the VW scandal; what Snowdon got wrong about aliens; rechargeable solar/ wind roof batteries

Click above to listen to the discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

HD's Vista Set

The discovery of water on Mars means that holiday makers this century could see sights like this  (Credit: http://www.topgalleriesphoto.com)

The discovery of water on Mars has increased the chances of it becoming the ultimate holiday destination. Martian water, although salty, could be made drinkable, used to generate electricity and as a rocket fuel.

The VW diesel emissions scandal only came to light when diesel VW’s cars were subjected to a random test, in ‘real’ road conditions. This revealed that nitrous oxide emissions were up to 35 times higher than what was permitted.

Edward Snowden, in a rare interview from hiding, commented that alien messages would be likely to be so heavily encrypted as to render them invisible. Alien hunting scientists quickly stepped in to contradict his remarks.

Cheap, reliable, rechargeable batteries, which could store energy from the sun or wind, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, store it, and release it as required, have been developed by Harvard University scientists.

[The item above was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 1st October 2015.]

DNA-based computers set to replace silicon

Click above to listen to discussion with Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O’Rourke, broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on 27th August 2015

DNA Computers

DNA-based computers have already been built and they look set to replace silicon computers in coming years (Source: http://www.news.discovery.com

We love our electronics, or most of us do, and every year or two, when we go to buy a new phone, computer or laptop we all expect to buy a faster, more intelligent device.

The microchips inside our electronics are ‘the brain’ of the device. They  are currently made up of silicon, an abundant material found in sand.

However, some time soon, perhaps very soon, silicon-based chips will no longer be able to provide devices with the extra speed and functionality that buyers demand.

The big question is, if electronic devices are not based on silicon, as they have been for decades now, what will they be based on?

It might come as a surprise to some to learn that DNA, the genetic material inside every human cell, is a leading contender to fill silicon’s shoes.

Origins

In a way, it makes perfect sense to use DNA for computers.  DNA is brilliant at storing and processing information, and is made up of  a simple, reliable code.

Yet the idea of using DNA in computers didn’t emerge until as late as 1994.

That was when Leonard Adleman, of the University of Southern California showed that DNA could solve a well-known mathematical problem.

The problem was a variation of what mathematicians call the ‘directed Hamilton Path problem. In English that translates to ‘the travelling salesman problem’.

In brief, the problem is to find the shortest route between a number of cities going through each city just once.

The problem gets more difficult the more cities are added to the problem. Adelman solved the problem,using , for seven cities in the US.

Thing is, it is not a hugely difficult problem, and a clever enough human using paper and pencil could probably work it out faster than Adelman’s DNA computer.

The importance of what Adelman did was to show that DNA could be used to solve computational problems – what we might call a proof of concept today.

He used synthesised DNA strands to represent each one of the seven cities and other strands were made for each of the possible flight paths between the cities.

He then performed a number of experimental techniques on the DNA strands to get the single answer that he wanted. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

It was slow, but he showed it could be done.

The question now was, what else can we do with DNA?

Purified Silicon

Purified silicon, pictured here, is sourced primarily from sand and is an abundant element in the Earth’s crust (Source: Wikipedia)

Silicon

The most important element is silicon, pictured here on the right, which is the material used to make the microchip; the brain of our phones, pads and laptops if you like.

The first silicon chip was made in 1968, and it became the material of choice for the emerging computer industry in the years and decades that followed.

It is an abundant material, found in sand, and in rocks like granite and quartzite, and this abundance means it is cheap, and easy to find, all over the world.

It is also a semiconductor, which means it conducts electricity, although badly. It is halfway between a conductor, such as metal, and an insulator, such as rubber.

It would be very hard to control electricity, in terms of switching transistors on and off, using a material that conducted electricity or block its flow entirely.

This semiconducting property makes it easier to control the flow of electricity in a silicon microchip, which is crucial to success of the microchip technology.

Other materials

Aside from silicon, there are plastics, which make up a lot of the weight of many devices and laptops, in the body, circuit boards, wiring, insulation and fans.

These are plastics like polystyrene, a common one, are made up of carbon and hydrogen, two of the most common elements in nature.

There are metals, but usually light metals, such as aluminium, which is popular because it is light, and strong and has a sleek, modern appearance.

Aluminium comes from bauxite mining, and a lot of energy is spent in extracting the ore aluminium from the bauxite rock in big producer nations like Australia.

There is some steel for structural support and for things like screws, and copper is still used in wiring on circuit boards and to connect electrical parts.

The battery is key, of course, and typically it is a lithium-iron battery these days. These batteries also have cobalt, oxygen and carbon.

Rare earths

There are also small elements of rare materials, or rare earths such as gold or platinum, or neodymium, which is used for tiny magnets inside tiny motors.

electronic devices, including iPhones and other devices. This,has proved controversial as the process that extracts those rare earths from the ground is environmentally risky, some believe.

Minerals such as neodymium are used in magnets inside the iPhones to make speakers vibrate and create sound.

Europium is a material that creates a bright red colour on an iPhone screen and Cerium is used by workers to polish phones as the go along the assembly line.

The iPhone wouldn’t work without the various rare earths contained in it. Ninety per cent of the rare earths are mined in China, where environmental rules are slacker.

Price 

There is a human price to be paid – elsewhere – for our shiny, fast, new devices.

For example, a centre of rare earth mining is a place called Baotou, in Inner Mongolia. The town has dense smog, and a radioactive ‘tailings’ lake west of the city, where rare earth processors dump their waste, described as “an apocalyptic sight”.

Radioactive waste has seeped into the ground, plants won’t grow, animals are sick, and people report their teeth falling out, and their hair turning white.

The people that risk their lives mining for  the rare materials that need to make make the electronics we love, usually live far away from Europe or North America.

China is a major centre for such mining, and Australia is significant too.

DNA is ‘clean’ 

When scientists built a computing running on DNA in Israel in 2003, it contained none of the silicon, metals or rare earths used in our devices today.

It could also perform 330 trillion operations per second, which was a staggering 100,000 times faster than silicon-based personal computers.

A DNA computer would be much ‘greener’ and more in keeping with our 21st century ideas of sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint.

DNA computers don’t need much energy to work. It is just a case of putting DNA molecules into the right chemical soup, and controlling what happens next.

If built correctly, and that is where the technical challenge likes, a DNA computer will sustain itself on less than one millionth of the energy used in silicon chip technology.

Milestones

There have been a few important milestones since the pioneering work of Adelman in California opened the door to DNA computers back in 1994.

A lot of the progress has happened in the Weizmann Institute for Science in Israel, a world class institute in a country even smaller than our own.

Between 2002 and 2004, scientists there produced a computer based on DNA and other biological materials, rather than silicon.

They came up with a DNA computer which was, they said, capable of diagnosing cancer activity inside a cell, and releasing an anti-cancer drug after diagnosis.

More recently in 2013, researcher stored a JPEG photo, the text of a set of Shakespearean sonnets and an audio file of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech using DNA.

This proved that DNA computers were very good at storing data, which is something that DNA has evolved to do over millions of years in the natural world.

DNA computers are on the way that will be far better at storing data than existing computers which use cumbersome magnetic tape or hard drive storage systems.

The reason is simple. DNA is a very dense, highly coiled molecule that can be packed tightly into a small space.

It lives in nature inside tiny cells. These cells are only visible under a microscope, yet the DNA from one cell would stretch to 2 metres long if uncoiled and pulled straight.

The information stored in DNA also can be stored safely for a long time. We know this because DNA from extinct creatures, like the Mammoth, has lasted 60,000 years or more when preserved in ice, in dark, cold and dry conditions.

One of the few advantages of our Irish weather is that it is makes it an attractive place for high technology companies to base their data store centres here.

It was a factor in the announcement by Google last week that it was to locate a second data centre in Dublin.

Silicon Chip (Source www.tested.com)

Many industry experts believe the days of the silicon chip, like this one, are numbered, and some believe DNA will replace it as the material of choice in our future devices (Source: http://www.tested.com)

DNA chip

A DNA computer chip – if we call it that- will have to be far more powerful than existing silicon chips to establish itself as a new technology.

This will be ‘disruptive’,and a lot of money is invested in manufacturing plants like Intel in Leixlip, which have been set up and fitted out to make silicon chips.

But, regardless of the level of investment, and Intel have invested something like $12.5 billion in their Leixlip plant since 1990, silicon’s days are numbered.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, came up with a law governing the production of faster and faster computing speeds, which has proved accurate.

He said that the number of transistors on an ‘integrated circuit’ – the name given to chips before silicon became the material of choice – would double every two years.

This doubling has continued every two years since 1965, but engineers say that they are fast reaching the point where they have exhausted silicon transistor capacity.

The need for something to replace silicon is becoming urgent, and this is why a recent breakthrough in DNA computing in the UK is especially timely.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia have just announced they have found a watch to change the structure of DNA – twice – using a harmless common material.

The material is called EDTA and it is found in shampoo, soaps and toiletries to keep their colour, texture and fragrance intact.

The scientists used EDTA to change DNA to another structure, and the, after changing it, to change it back into its original structure again.

In silicon, the transistors switch between ‘on’ and ‘off’ states and this provides the means of controlling the way that the silicon chip works.

Similarly, this breakthrough has shown, for first time, that scientists can now also switch DNA between two ‘states’ or forms.

The research was just published (17th August) in the journal Chemical Communications.

The fact that the structure of DNA can be changed twice means that it is possible to create DNA ‘logic gates’, like those which are used in silicon computers.

A logic gate, by the way,  is something that is capable of performing a logical operation based on more or more logical inputs, to produce a single logical output.

Future

DNA computers can take us to a new level of computing which wasn’t possible with Silicon.

DNA computers, the size of teardrops, will be constructed in the future, using nanotechnology; will will be as powerful as the supercomputers of today.

This size will be important as we are entering an age when many things will be connected to the internet in our homes and offices, all talking to one another.

These devices will have artificial intelligence, and they will be capable of rapid processing of data, and making decisions to benefit mankind.

We come home, and some wearable device detects we are sweating, and the hot water is put on for a shower, while a cold drink is made in the kitchen.

We will have a lot of devices, and if they are based on DNA technology, we’ll need a lot of DNA, but that is no problem, as we can now make it ourselves.

There are no toxic materials required to synthesize DNA and it can provide us with the technology we crave, without something else paying for it with their ill health.

%d bloggers like this: