Thursday, April 16, 2009

Part 1-Dean Kamen on Clean Energy, Clean Water, and Commuting in the Mega City (Part One)

Click on the link or the title to go to the article.

by Jacob Gordon, Nashville, TN on 04.10.09

Dean Kamen is the kind of inventor we don’t imagine exists anymore—a fervent polymath like Thomas Edison. Best known as the creator of the Segway, Kamen is also responsible for major breakthroughs in clean energy, water purification, prosthetics, and other urban transport devices.

He is the owner of a small island off the coast of New York where he tests his creations. He recently took the island zero-net energy with solar cells and LED lighting.

TreeHugger: So you’re the owner of a private island in the Long Island Sound called North Dumpling. You were able to render the island net zero energy. How did you do this, and why?
Kamen: Well, it's a long story, but that island has a great, great history. It was discovered and named in 1609 by the English explorer Adrian Block. For all of his great service, in 1639, it was granted to him by the King.

And it went from his estate to other notables, including the then Governor Winthrop of the colony of Connecticut, until just after the Civil War when it became a part of New York. In 1847, it was taken by the federal government to be the location of a lighthouse, which they call the North Dumpling Light. From 1847 till the 1930s, it was manned by lighthouse keepers that used oil lamps to help keep the shipping lanes in and out of New York safe with the North Dumpling Light.

In 1932, the federal government ran an eight mile undersea cable and electrified the light. They discontinued having lighthouse keepers there, and some number of years later they auctioned this unique, historical island off because the government didn't need to own the island, they just needed an easement for their light.

It turns out that just last year the government decided, "We don't even need to continue to operate the 80 year old undersea cable." They could—and I applaud them for doing so—change to an efficient light and photovoltaics, and their goal of keeping the light on and keeping the shipping lanes open would be solved.

Unfortunately, for the three houses I have on the island, their little photovoltaics wouldn't do it, and I wasn't in a position to take over responsibly for the undersea cable. So I had a very high incentive to figure out how to use technology to instantly substitute for the eight-mile undersea cable.

Nearly 20 years ago, when it wasn't very popular and nobody knew what a carbon footprint was and nobody talked about global warming, I did put a ten kilowatt wind turbine on the island. It turned out it was a bit more of a hassle than I thought to actually put my own wind turbine on my own island. But that's another fun and interesting story.

As of last year, as I said, when we were told by the Coast Guard that the electricity was going to be eliminated, we immediately started figuring out how to reduce our overall loads by putting LED lights everywhere. And we got a lot of cooperation from the Phillips Company and Color Kinetics.

We started looking at all sorts of other ways to dramatically reduce our consumption of energy and to increase our production, including photovoltaic cells and a Sterling cycle generator (which is one of my own designs), and other things to augment and improve the wind turbine system.

TreeHugger: Let's talk about the Segway. You're best known in the mainstream for inventing the Segway. And around the time of the Segway's much anticipated launch, you were talking about some very idealistic hopes for the Segway as a new form of sustainable transportation that could reenergize downtown areas by reducing the need for cars, and take people “the last mile,” as you referred to it. Is the Segway being used the way you envisioned it?

Kamen: I hope so. I think it will take time. I think virtually every new technology that I've ever seen ends up starting out in some very specific niche market where it can do something that simply can't be done any other way. And so people are willing, since they have no alternative, to take risks, pay a premium, or overcome obstacles to allow the world to change. And change is always seen with skepticism. So, whether it was computers, telephones, or airplanes, you name it, they typically get used in some very niche way when they're new and high priced. And then over time, they end up being used in completely unrelated ways to what the inventor had in mind.

And typically, as their acceptance goes up and their costs come down, they get used for all sorts of things. The Segway has now established itself, for instance, in the security industry and police as a very efficient way to carry people that have to primarily walk around to do their job. It gives them more efficiency, more mobility, more visibility. And they can afford to use the Segway to accomplish those goals.

I think as time goes on, the Segway will end up—as I thought many years ago—being a very attractive alternative in dense, pedestrian-orientated, urban environments where cars are just impractical and frustratingly slow...and expensive, and difficult to park, and difficult to do lots of things with.

Since the average speed in most big cities between any two addresses is still only seven or eight miles an hour—whether you do it by a cab or a trolley or a subway. But seven or eight miles an hour is still four times faster than walking at one and half or two miles an hour.

The fact that a Segway can get you from one place to another at the same average speed as all those other alternatives without the hassle, without the cost, and without the environmental impact on a per-trip basis, it gives the pedestrian a 300% or 400% increase in efficiency based on speed. It has lots of potential applications, since nearly half of the global population now lives in cities or megacities—that's over three billion people who do almost all of their primary traveling on their feet.

Most New Yorkers don't have a driver's license. So we believe that the future will be megacities where most people don't own or drive cars as their primary method of getting around locally. We think that the Segway is a huge opportunity.

It's certainly fun and environmentally friendly compared to most of the alternatives.

TreeHugger: You've done some remarkable work with water purification. What's the latest with that?
Kamen: We believe that technology really does have a huge opportunity to affect the way people live and work, like the Segway. But, there are some really, really critical issues that most people, particularly in the United States, are lucky enough to never have to deal with. About a quarter of the people alive today do not have access to safe drinking water. The number one cause of death in many country is water-borne pathogens. Two million people, mostly kids under five years old, die every year because of lack of water.

And most credible global health organizations will tell you that virtually 50% of all the hospital beds that have people in them right now are filled simply because of the lack of clean water. That’s falf of all human disease.
We decided that there ought to be a technology to solve that problem. Knowing that most of those people don't live in a world where there's a lot of infrastructure, we figured it can't be the typical 19th or 20th century industrial world model of mega-systems run by big municipal organizations.

We decided that we ought to be able to build a small machine that could be carried by a couple of people into any environment, such as a small village (of which there are 900,000 in places like India, Bangladesh, Central America, and Africa).

We ought to be able to move a machine into place, plop it down and have it draw from any source of local water, whether it's full of bioburden, Criptospiridium, Giraudia, or whether it is full of inorganics like arsenic and heavy metals, as are a million-and-a-half wells in India and Bangladesh.
It ought to be a box that is agnostic about what is wrong with the input water, and can even take saltwater from the ocean. It ought to be able to just have two hoses on it, one that you put into a source—anything that looks wet—and another hose out of which comes pure water that is safe and attractive.

Not only would it be safe, but it wouldn't smell from chlorine. It wouldn't have other problems that you and I wouldn't tolerate in our water.
And we said if we could make a box like that and make it operate efficiently enough that it could make water at a reasonable cost, and it could operate for reasonable periods of time without a lot of maintenance, and we could build them in quantities where one machine could serve 100 people, you could go build a few million machines and you could serve a pretty good proportion of the people who don't have drinkable water now.

And so we have spent about 10 years developing the core technology to make that machine possible. The goal was no membrane, even if there is salt water. No chemicals, like chlorine, even if there's bioburden in the water. No activated charcoal or other kinds of consumables even if there are heavy metals and inorganics.

The machine has to operate cost effectively, reliably, without maintenance and disposables, making at least 1,000 liters of water a day for a number of years. And we think we have gotten to where it's time to start testing these systems in reasonable quantities in different locations around the planet.
TreeHugger: You know you've made it when you're invited to be a guest on the Colbert Report. You brought this device on there and Steven threw what I think were chilly lime tortilla chips into the contaminated water. How did that work out?

Kamen: Our machine is good, as I said. It not only could take care of stuff that could kill you, like inorganics and heavy metals and spores from viruses and bacteria, it could even handle everything that Steven Colbert threw at it. We both drank the water and I don't recall either of us having any ill effects.
Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...