Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Future of Books

Books. They’ve been around in one form or another for over 1500 years. From the hand written scrolls and codices of antiquity and the middle ages to the more familiar printed books of the modern era, these vehicles of information transmission have been used to tell humanity’s story.

Read by rich and poor, young and old, they have been there to provide information and entertainment to anyone who cares to pick one up. You have always been able to rely on a book for a good diversion from whatever it is you might be doing. As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”

Wherever you go you are likely to find books. They are as ubiquitous as food, water, and even the air we breathe. And just as food, water and air are the inalienable rights of man, public libraries have ensured that this is true for books as well.

A world without books would be a sad place indeed. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I can not live without books.” Well, if President Jefferson were alive today, the next few years might very well kill him.

Why is this, you might ask? No one is claiming that novels and history are going to stop being written down. It is merely the method by which they will be read that is changing. Namely, E-books or electronic books. Advancing technology has allowed for devices such as Barnes and Noble’s Nook and Amazon.com’s Kindle to supplant physical books. And they are gaining widespread acceptance very quickly. In fact, Amazon.com has been selling more e-books than paper ones since April of 2011.

For those of you who don’t know, these devices, E-readers, operate in much the same way that a regular book does, but with several advantages. Rather than each book being a separate, individual item, these devices can store hundreds of books apiece. You can conceivably have your entire library on this one small device. That is a major space saver. It also makes it easier to carry your books around with you. This is important especially for school children. With the weight of their textbooks, children are at risk of back injuries. In fact in 2001 over 7,000 emergency room visits were attributed to children’s backpacks being too heavy. With an E-reader (or even some sort of tablet PC) most of that weight could be eliminated.

Purchasing new books is also easier. In the 20th century, if you wanted a new book, you would have to go to your local bookstore or library to pick one up. Then the internet came along, allowing you to order books online. Much simpler, but you still had to wait several days for your books to arrive. With an E-reader, you use the device to look for a book in much the same way you might on Amazon.com. But once you purchase it, instead of waiting several days for your book to arrive, it is on your device and ready to be ready within 60 seconds.

Besides safety and convenience, there is also the environmental impact. Approximately 30 million trees are felled annually for book production in the United States alone. This figure should reduce dramatically over the coming years as more people switch away from paper books to digital books.

And while it’s true that an E-reader can’t reproduce the smell and feel of a well read paper book, this perhaps is a small price to pay for the numerous benefits that E-readers provide.

In the future people will still be reading just as they are today. Entire new worlds of ideas and adventures will still await the curious mind that seeks them. But you won’t have to head to the bookshelf to access them; you’ll have to look no further than your pocket.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Future of Organ Replacement

This is a repost of an article that I had to take down when I sold it to bighthink.com. Enough time has passed that I can now repost it.

There are approximately 105,000 people currently on the waiting list for solid organ transplant in the United States. 18 of those people die every day. These deaths are due entirely to the fact that there are far more people on the waiting list than there are available organs. Kidney transplant patients often have to endure months or even years of being hooked up to a dialysis machine and heart transplant patients may spend just as much time stuck in a hospital bed due to heart failure. In both these cases, patients are waiting for an organ that might never come.
But what if they didn’t have to rely on a donor to receive a new organ? What if all they needed were a few cells from their own body?

Consider the case of 36 year old Andemariam Beyene, who had advanced inoperable tracheal cancer. As little as five years ago, this would have been a death sentence. But since it occurred in 2011, doctors were able to use cutting edge techniques to grow Beyene a new trachea from his own stem cells.

To make the new trachea, doctors started with a glass replica that was created based on 3-D scans of Beyene‘s own trachea.  It was then coated with polyethylene glycol, a substance porous enough to allow Beyene’s stem cells to grow into it.  The artificial trachea needed only two days in a bioreactor before it was ready to be implanted into Beyene. This whole process took just one week. Additionally, since the new trachea was made from his own cells, Beyene doesn’t have to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life.

While the above incident is certainly a medical breakthrough, why is this new treatment method such a game changer? There are several reasons. First, any organ that can be regrown from a patient’s own cells negates the need for said patient to be on a donor list; they would no longer need someone else’s organ to replace their own.
If everybody on the organ transplant waiting list could have the organ they required grown from their own body in just a few days, none of them would have to die from lack of a compatible organ. They could have their old organ swapped out with the new one, spend a little time recuperating and be out of the hospital relatively quickly. Needless to say, this would save billions in healthcare costs, which is always a happy side effect of medical advances.

The second benefit relates to the age of the patient. In today’s world, if you are 80 years old and you need a new heart, chances are you’re not going to get it. Any donor hearts that are available will go to someone younger than you. However, if you can have a new heart grown from your own body, then as long as you are healthy enough for the surgery (and have the money to pay for it) you can get that new heart, which should be as strong and healthy as your own was when you were much younger.

While it’s true that at present most organs can not yet be grown in the lab, things are moving forward rapidly.
Currently, tracheas have been grown in the lab and successfully implanted into patients. This has also been done with bladders and urethras.  Research has also begun into growing livers, hearts, kidneys, pancreases and thymus glands.

The rate at which medical technology is advancing is truly astounding. In the coming years and decades, we will be entering a new era of health and longevity. Gone will be the days of organ transplant wait lists. Gone will be the days when we require an external donor, who often never materializes, to get the organ we need to continue living.  If you find that any of your organs have stopped functioning properly, whether from traumatic injury, disease, or simply old age, just grow yourself a new one!

The Future is Illuminating

This is a repost of an article that I had to take down when I sold it to bighthink.com. Enough time has passed that I can now repost it.

It has been 130 years since the first practical light bulbs began to light up the world. In 1881, the Savoy Theatre in the City of Westminster, London was fitted with incandescent light bulbs, becoming the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.

Since then, there have been great strides made in lighting technology. For the most part, advances have been incremental in nature, such as tweaking existing designs to produce a better bulb. But every once in a while a major breakthrough came along that completely changed the game.

The first major shift in light bulb technology came with the advent of the fluorescent bulb. One of the first prototypes was designed and built in 1934 by a team of engineers led by George E. Inman at General Electric’s Nela Park (Ohio) engineering laboratory. The immediate advantages of fluorescent bulbs over incandescent are operating life and energy efficiency. The average incandescent lasts on average 1,000 hours while the average fluorescent lasts for 10,000 hours. Also, because incandescent bulbs lose much of their energy as heat, just 5% of the energy they consume is converted to light. Fluorescent bulbs on the other hand, convert from 20% to 25% of their energy to light.

A disadvantage of fluorescents bulbs, however, is that they require mercury vapor to work. While this doesn’t make them unsafe to operate, the bulbs cannot be disposed of with regular household garbage due to the toxicity of the mercury. There is also a potential health risk if a bulb breaks.

In 1962 the latest and greatest form of artificial illumination was invented; the light emitting diode (LED). Initially, these bulbs could only emit low intensity red light, but in the ensuing years, versions covering the entire visible, ultraviolet and infrared spectrums have become available. In recent years, they have reached a level of illumination suitable for most applications of indoor lighting.

The advantages of LED bulbs over fluorescent ones are quite similar to that of fluorescent over incandescent: greater energy efficiency and longer operating life. LEDs last for 100,000 hours (compared to 10,000 for fluorescent and 1,000 for incandescent), so based on an assumed usage of 4 to 8 hours per day, LED light bulbs would only have to be changed once or twice in the average person’s lifetime. Also, unlike the 5% efficiency of incandescent or the 25-30% efficiency of fluorescents, LEDs have an efficiency rating of 30%. As an added benefit, LEDs do not contain mercury.

Researchers estimate that, because of their increased energy efficiency, a worldwide switch to LEDs, because of their increased energy efficiency, would enable the closure of 560 power plants and result in annual CO2 savings equivalent to the output of all the cars on the planet. A 2010 US Department of Energy report estimates that if the entire US switched over to LEDs, the savings would amount to $20 billion per year.

One of the challenges preventing this from happening has been the high initial cost of LEDs. Even today, after many decades of improvements, most LED bulbs still set you back anywhere from 10 to 30 dollars. The primary reason for this is because LEDs are grown on sapphire substrates, a costly process.

In January of this year however, researchers at Osram Opto Semiconductors (the second largest lighting manufacturer in the world) announced they were able to grow LEDs on silicon instead of sapphire, with no reduction in quality. In fact, researchers reported that they were able to produce LEDs with efficiencies of up to 58%. This should bring the cost of producing bulbs down tremendously as silicon is a much less expensive substrate than sapphire. Best of all, Osram says that these new LEDs could become commercially available in as little as 2 years.

With steadily falling manufacturing costs and ever increasing efficiencies, it’s reasonable to assume that before the decade is over, LEDs will be as prevalent in homes and offices as incandescent and fluorescent bulbs are today. This should translate into tremendous energy savings, which is good for the planet and good for the wallet.

Thanks to LEDs the future looks bright.