RDRutherford

May 23, 2007

Solar Flashlight Lets Africa’s Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poorest Villages

Filed under: LDCs, Technology — rdrutherford @ 8:51 pm

Solar Flashlight Lets Africa’s Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poorest Villages
Solar Flashlights

FUGNIDO, Ethiopia — At 10 p.m. in a sweltering refugee camp here in western Ethiopia, a group of foreigners was making its way past thatch-roofed huts when a tall, rail-thin man approached a silver-haired American and took hold of his hands.
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The New York Times

A Houston oilman brought the solar flashlight to Fugnido camp.

The man, a Sudanese refugee, announced that his wife had just given birth, and the boy would be honored with the visitor’s name. After several awkward translation attempts of “Mark Bent,” it was settled. “Mar,” he said, will grow up hearing stories of his namesake, the man who handed out flashlights powered by the sun.

Since August 2005, when visits to an Eritrean village prompted him to research global access to artificial light, Mr. Bent, 49, a former foreign service officer and Houston oilman, has spent $250,000 to develop and manufacture a solar-powered flashlight.

His invention gives up to seven hours of light on a daily solar recharge and can last nearly three years between replacements of three AA batteries costing 80 cents.

Over the last year, he said, he and corporate benefactors like Exxon Mobil have donated 10,500 flashlights to United Nations refugee camps and African aid charities.

Another 10,000 have been provided through a sales program, and 10,000 more have just arrived in Houston awaiting distribution by his company, SunNight Solar.

“I find it hard sometimes to explain the scope of the problems in these camps with no light,” Mr. Bent said. “If you’re an environmentalist you think about it in terms of discarded batteries and coal and wood burning and kerosene smoke; if you’re a feminist you think of it in terms of security for women and preventing sexual abuse and violence; if you’re an educator you think about it in terms of helping children and adults study at night.”

Here at Fugnido, at one of six camps housing more than 21,000 refugees 550 miles west of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Peter Gatkuoth, a Sudanese refugee, wrote on “the importance of Solor.”

“In case of thief, we open our solor and the thief ran away,” he wrote. “If there is a sick person at night we will took him with the solor to health center.”

A shurta, or guard, who called himself just John, said, “I used the light to scare away wild animals.” Others said lights were hung above school desks for children and adults to study after the day’s work.

Mr. Bent’s efforts have drawn praise from the United Nations, Africare, Rice University and others.

Kevin G. Lowther, Southern Africa director for Africare, the largest American aid group for Africa, said his staff was sending 5,000 of his lights, purchased by Exxon Mobil at $10 each, to rural Angola.

Dave Gardner, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said the company’s $50,000 donation in November grew out of an earlier grant it made to Save the Children to build six public schools in Kibala, Angola, a remote area of Kwanza Sul Province.

“At a dedication ceremony for the first four schools in June 2006,” Mr. Gardner said in an e-mail message, “we noticed that a lot of the children had upper respiratory problems, part of which is likely due to the use of wood, charcoal, candles and kero for lighting in the small homes they have in Kibala.”

The Awty International School, a large prep school in Houston, has sent hundreds of the flashlights to schools it sponsors in Haiti, Cameroon and Ethiopia, said Chantal Duke, executive assistant to the head of school.

“In places where there is absolutely no electricity or running water, having light at night is a luxury many families don’t have and never did and which we take for granted in developed countries,” Ms. Duke said by e-mail. Mr. Bent, a former Marine and Navy pilot, served under diplomatic titles in volatile countries like Angola, Bosnia, Nigeria and Somalia in the early 1990s.

In 2001 he went to work as the general manager of an oil exploration team off the coast of the Red Sea in Eritrea, for a company later acquired by the French oil giant Perenco. But the oil business, he said, “didn’t satisfy my soul.”

The inspiration for the flashlight hit him, he said, while working for Perenco in Asmara, Eritrea. One Sunday he visited a local dump to watch scavenging by baboons and birds of prey, and came upon a group of homeless boys who had adopted the dump as their home.

They took him home to a rural village where he noticed that many people had nothing to light their homes, schools and clinics at night.

With a little research, he discovered that close to two billion people around the world go without affordable access to light.

He worked with researchers, engineers and manufacturers, he said, at the Department of Energy, several American universities, and even NASA before finding a factory in China to produce a durable, cost-effective solar-powered flashlight whose shape was inspired by his wife’s shampoo bottle.

The light, or sun torch, has a narrow solar panel on one side that charges the batteries, which can last between 750 and 1,000 nights, and uses the more efficient light-emitting diodes, or L.E.D.s, to cast its light. “L.E.D.s used to be very expensive,” Mr. Bent said. “But in the last 18 months they’ve become cheaper, so distributing them on a widespread scale is possible.”

The flashlights usually sell for about $19.95 in American stores, but he has established a BoGo — for Buy One, Give One — program on his Web site, BoGoLight.com, where if you buy one flashlight for $25, he will buy and ship another one to Africa, and donate $1 to one of the aid groups he works with.

Mr. Bent, who is now an oil consultant, lives in Houston with his wife and four young children. When he is not in the air flying his own plane, he is often on the road.

Traveling early this month in Ethiopia’s border area with Sudan, Mr. Bent stopped in each town’s market to methodically check the prices and quality of flashlights and batteries imported from China.

He unscrewed the flashlights one by one, inspecting the batteries, pronouncing them “terrible — they won’t last two nights.”

On his last day along the border, Mr. Bent visited Rapan Sadeeq, 21, a Sudanese refugee who is something of a celebrity in his camp, Bonga, for his rudimentary self-made radios, walkie-talkies and periscopes.

The two men huddled in the hut, discussing what parts would be needed to power the radio with solar panels instead of clunky C batteries. “Oh, I can definitely send you some parts,” Mr. Bent said. “You can be my field engineer in Ethiopia.”

Will Connors reported from Fugnido, Ethiopia, and Ralph Blumenthal from Houston.

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May 16, 2007

Burning wood to power fridges

Filed under: LDCs, Technology — rdrutherford @ 11:09 pm

A consortium of UK universities hopes to bring affordable domestic appliances to rural areas of developing countries by developing a device that acts as a refrigerator, cooker and power generator all in one, powered by locally available biomass fuels such as wood.

The SCORE (Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity) project, led by the University of Nottingham in England, has been granted £2 million (US$4 million) to develop the device using a technology called thermoacoustics. The United Kingdom’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have contributed 80% of this funding.

Thermoacoustics takes advantage of the way that sound waves can be produced when a gas is heated unevenly. In a thermoacoustic engine, such as the Stirling engine developed in the nineteenth century as an alternative to steam power, these pressure sound waves drive mechanical motion.

This process may also be run in reverse: the sound waves can be used to extract heat, pumping it from a cool source to a hot sink and thereby inducing cooling.

Thermoacoustic engines and refrigeration units have been used before in high-tech settings, as power sources or cooling units on spacecraft, satellites and military craft for example. But it needn’t be limited to these top-end applications. “In principle, thermoacoustic devices are quite simple and should be able to be made very cheaply,” says Scott Backhaus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a specialist on thermoacoustics who is assisting the SCORE team.

Sound system

In the SCORE device, says the project director Paul Riley at the University of Nottingham, UK, “burning wood heats a gas-filled pipe at one end. The gas moves from the hot part, where it expands, to the cold part, where it contracts. The pipe then resonates rather like an organ pipe.” This produces acoustic pressure waves, which can be harnessed to produce electricity in the reverse process to how a loudspeaker turns electrical signals into vibrations.

The sound waves are also used to drive a second engine that operates as a heat pump to remove heat from a nearby refrigeration unit. And the heat from the burning wood can also be used for cooking in a conventional cooker stove. The fridge and the cooker are connected by “the pipes necessary to carry the hum,” says Riley — but are kept apart so that the heat from the stove doesn’t interfere with the cooling.

The system will only generate electricity and cool the fridge while it is operating as a stove.

One of the main attractions of SCORE stoves is that they don’t need an external electricity supply. “The electric grid in developing countries basically only serves the cities,” Backhaus explains. And many homes are already using a fuel source such as wood for cooking. “Over two billion people use open fires to cook,” says Riley.

SCORE aims to be producing these fridge/stoves in significant numbers within five years.

Do it yourself

Backhaus thinks this goal is feasible, but admits that it is challenging. He cautions that the SCORE team “will have to stay focused on keeping the device inexpensive and not let a desire for technical perfection get in the way of the true goal: improving the living conditions in the developing world.”

The research team recognizes that the science is only a part of the challenge: success will also depend on ensuring that local communities have enough expertise to maintain and ultimately to produce the devices themselves.

“One of the keys is to make this device simple enough so that it can be produced cheaply by the local population,” says Backhaus. Local researchers and experts from the development charity Practical Action will advise on how to best introduce the new technology. The group is already discussing their project with governments of developing countries.

Burning wood to power fridges: Project aims to bring high-tech device to developing world.

May 10, 2007

GM patent rejected after 13 years

Filed under: Nature, Technology — rdrutherford @ 5:53 pm

Patent for technology to fire genes into soy seeds thrown out.

Ned Stafford
Opponents complained that Monsanto had too broad a patent on GM soybeans.
Punchstock
The European Patent Office (EPO) has revoked a patent owned by global agricultural giant Monsanto for the genetic modification (GM) of soybeans, saying the technique it approved 13 years ago lacked “novelty”.

The technique, which describes a way of creating any kind of GM soybean without reference to the specific genes being introduced, has helped make Monsanto the dominant force in GM soybeans — the company owns nearly 90% of the global market. Opponents complained that the patent gave Monsanto de facto control over all GM soybeans, and have been fighting against it since it was granted in 1994.

At a hearing on 3 May, the EPO revoked the patent. The board’s decision is final, says Rainer Osterwalder, spokesman for the EPO, with no further appeals available.

The decision will no doubt have an impact on other GM technology patents, Osterwalder told Nature. “Case law is important,” he says.

But the patent was due to expire in 2008 anyway. A spokesperson for Monsanto says: “We do not expect this decision to have an impact on Monsanto’s business.” The EPO will not issue a detailed written explanation of the legal basis of its decision for three to six months, Osterwalder says.

Firing line

The application for the soybean patent was first submitted in 1988 by US biotech company Agracetus under the title ‘Particle-mediated transformation of soybean plants and lines’.

The technique, dubbed a ‘particle gun’, involves introducing foreign genes into regenerable soybean tissues by coating on carrier particles, which are physically accelerated into plant tissues. The tissues are then recovered and regenerated into whole sexually mature plants. The progeny are recovered from seed set by these plants; a portion will contain in their genome the foreign gene.

This idea was actively researched by several teams during the 1980s, one of which was the team at Agracetus, according to Ricarda Steinbrecher, a molecular geneticist at the Oxford-based non-profit science watchdog group EcoNexus. Steinbrecher, who served as a scientific expert at the hearing in Munich, notes another use of the technique on onions1 in 1987 was cited in the EPO hearing as an example that others were working on the technology.

Osterwalder notes that GM technology was much less developed then than it is now, and patents in the field were new. “Guidelines are now better developed on whether to grant or refuse these patents,” he says; a higher percentage of GM plant patents are now refused than in the past.

Not the usual suspects

The original patent approval was opposed by a strange mix of groups, including the Canadian environmental group ETC and a long list of big agribusiness firms involved in GM research. One of the opposing firms was Monsanto, which dropped its opposition in 1996 after acquiring Agracetus, thus becoming owner of the patent.

Christoph Then, a GM expert at Greenpeace Germany, which cooperated with ETC in opposing the patent, was at this week’s hearing in Munich. He says representatives from the Swiss agribusiness firm Syngenta provided some of the strongest arguments against the patent.

It is “a little strange”, he admits, for Greenpeace and ETC — which are generally opposed to the use of GM soybeans — to be arguing the same side as Syngenta, a manufacturer of GM crops. It was also unusual, adds Then, for Greenpeace to be arguing a case that would effectively give other companies more unrestricted access to GM technologies.

Then says Greenpeace is strongly opposed to any patent that would give a company basic control over a plant species and allow them to restrict access to technology. “For us, this patent was highly symbolic,” he says.

http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070430/full/070430-14.html

January 24, 2007

Wheat fungus spreads out of Africa

Filed under: Technology, Uganda — rdrutherford @ 7:38 pm

Published online: 23 January 2007; | doi:10.1038/news070122-3

Stem rust threatens key crops in Asia.

Emma Marris
The fungus penetrates the wheat stem, ruining the crop.
D. Mowbray, CIMMYT
The average human being eats more than 500 calories worth of wheat every day — it is a staple among staples. Now, a strain of fungus that threatens most of the world’s wheat crop has spread from its origin in Africa, across the Red Sea to Yemen.

Prevailing winds will probably start moving the fungus spores eastwards, experts say. The fungus could be in South Asia in four years, where wheat is the number-one crop in Pakistan and the number-two crop in India.

“It’s like it just got on the highway,” says Rick Ward, coordinator of the Global Rust Initiative, a group started by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, based near Mexico City, to deal with this strain.

The fungus is a kind of stem rust (Puccinia graminis), so called because it gives the stems and sometimes heads of the grain a rusty look. The stem rust penetrates the plant and gorges itself, leaving little for humans and sometimes breaking the head off altogether. Crop losses start at 40% and keep going up.

Fifty years ago a similar strain of rust ransacked the wheat fields of North America, but since that time wheat growers have not maintained genetic resistance to the blight. To be resistant, the plant must have genes that code for proteins that recognize the incoming rust and kill the first plant cells it infects, so that its march through the plant is stopped. The best resistance is a mixture of several genes, which seems to give a more generalized resistance, rather than a single gene that matches a single protein on the fungus.

This is the equivalent of a slow-motion tsunami.

Rick Ward
Global Rust Initative

The race is on

Almost none of the now-popular wheat varieties have any resistance to the current strain, known as Ug99 (for Uganda 1999, the time and place of its discovery). It will take time for the few crops that do have resistance to be bred into large numbers of plantable crops. Meanwhile, fungicides lie outside the realm of financial possibility for most of the world’s wheat farmers.

What results is a race between wheat breeders and the windborne spores. Experts are grasping for monetary figures to put on the likely damage. They agree that it will be at least several billion dollars by the time the fungus can be stopped, although they emphasize that neither the percentage of crop destruction, nor the fungus’s exact speed and pathway, is certain.

“This is the equivalent of a slow-motion tsunami,” says Ward. “The earthquake happened in central-eastern Africa where Ug99 arose, and the damaging waves are moving out.”

Norman Borlaug, who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on improving food crops, bemoans the fact that past experiences with disease strains are often lost. “As we forget what a disease epidemic can look like, the impetus to maintain certain lines of research and types of international collaboration also weakens,” he says.

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