Dung, Sewage Fuel Inventors’ Imaginations

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Individuals’ Projects Range From Electricity To Clean Irrigation

Mr. Morgan realized that there was a need for improved helmets when he witnessed the aftermath of road accidents in his native Brisbane, Australia, 20-odd years ago. A traffic-investigation squad would alert him to wrecks, and he would rush to the scene to recover helmets for study at a local university. He vividly recalls his first crash scene: A biker on a high-powered Ducati had gone too fast on a wet road, and slid along the ground hoping to miss a vehicle ahead.

Mr. Morgan found the spectacle almost too much to handle. “By sliding,” Mr. Morgan says of the biker, “he had undressed himself….The other thing that got me were the ripples of blood from the other guy.” Mr. Morgan collected himself and recovered the helmet, put it into a plastic bag and returned to his lab.

There, he pulled the helmet apart and measured it, looking for compression, depression, scratches. The helmet’s insides looked particularly grim. In this instance, “whatever helmet you put on this guy, it wouldn’t have saved him,” Mr. Morgan says. But the fact that the helmet remained largely intact helped convince him that helmet linings needed to soften to absorb more of the impact. Since most helmet linings are hard foam — expanded polystyrene of the type you would find in a beer cooler — an impact is transferred to the skull.

After much trial and error, he came up with what he calls the “cone-head design” — a layer of softer foam covered in cones, embedded in a firmer outer layer of high-density foam. The cones compress on impact, allowing the liner to absorb an impact more effectively, Mr. Morgan says. The helmets now are being made by a Hong Kong company and should be available on the market next year.

Fellow Australian Mr. Cameron also faced a setting most of us would rather avoid: sewage. With his invention, Biowater, human and other waste is pushed through a multilayered tank in a composting process that uses soil creatures — worms, beetles and billions of microscopic organisms — to break up the organic material naturally until water emerges at the bottom, ready to be used for irrigation. Mr. Cameron’s father, a civil engineer, had let him tag along on projects putting in sewerage and water systems, leaving Mr. Cameron with an interest in a subject that later studies in theology, horticulture, botany, ecology and environmental science helped nurture.

This background not only helped him to see the potential in allowing nature to filter waste, but to challenge the accepted wisdom about the environment in which such creatures need to survive. “We went to the experts in earthworms and they told us they would die” at certain high temperatures, he says. “We’ve proven beyond a doubt they’re wrong.” His company, Biolytix Water Pty Ltd., has installed Biowater tanks in nearly 3,000 homes, projects and businesses across the Pacific region and plans to launch in Asia, the U.S. and Europe next year.

Mr. Quadir found his inspiration a continent away. After bringing the cellphone to rural Bangladesh with Grameen Phone, he decided he needed to tackle a more basic need in the developing world: electrical power. “Power is always necessary,” he says, “even to run your telephone.” He found the answer in another simple observation: “Infrastructure is unreliable in Bangladesh, so they have to depend on fuel being brought in. But cows are everywhere.”

Cow dung became the fuel source built around a technology called the Stirling engine, an external combustion engine invented by The Rev. Robert Stirling in the early 19th century. Mr. Quadir experimented and found that cow dung worked well as a fuel. Running six hours, the Stirling engine would produce enough power to light up a small cluster of houses.

There were significant benefits to bringing electricity to places that either had none or relied on car batteries bought from towns miles away. But Mr. Quadir had a bigger vision. Not only would the devices produce electricity, but the fertilizers produced as a byproduct of converting the manure to biogas could be reused, while the heat pushed out by the exhaust could be circulated back into a machine to dehydrate vegetables.

“The issue,” says Mr. Quadir, “is fuel independence.” While his Emergence BioEnergy Inc. started operations in Bangladesh, it aims to spread to other parts of Asia.

Brigitte Dale-Pine and her colleagues at Brunei Shell Petroleum Co. had an energy problem, too: They needed an economic way to tap oil and gas reserves in the Champion West field off the coast of Borneo. Although the field was discovered more than 30 years ago, most of the oil reservoirs hadn’t been tapped because they were reckoned too expensive to develop. The thin reservoirs are as deep as 4,000 meters beneath the seabed in a complex web. The solution: wells drilled horizontally rather than vertically, snaking eight kilometers through layers of rock, shale and sand.

This approach took time and, in the words of unit manager Peter Slaiby, relied on bootstrap technology as one innovation built upon another. One crucial part of the project was being able to monitor remotely what was going on in the wells, according to Ms. Dale-Pine, the project leader. This meant finding a way to thread sensitive data cables down and through the pipes. “How to get delicate instruments though hundreds of thousand tons of steel…in a hellacious environment was a challenge,” Mr. Slaiby says.

For Karianto Leman, the limitation he confronted also involved tunnels: those through which Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit runs. His team at A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research had been asked to come up with an effective way to monitor the possibility of terrorist attacks on the subway — in particular, odorless gas attacks like the one in the Tokyo subway in 1995.

The problem was that while dozens of closed-circuit television cameras were being built into retrofitted carriages of the transit system’s North South line, they couldn’t transmit video in real time because the tunnels and fast-moving trains didn’t permit it.

Instead, video captured between stations would be compressed into a file and, once the train had entered a station, transmitted wirelessly across the platform. This created another limitation: Since trains stopped only for a minute, there wouldn’t be time to send large files, requiring the quality of the video to be reduced. Instead of the usual 15 to 30 frames a second, Mr. Leman’s team would have to rely on one frame per second of video footage (think the jerky movements of Charlie Chaplin, rather than modern video). This would be against a fast-changing background of tunnels and stations, and a blur of buildings and trees when the trains traveled above ground.

His team’s solution: Instead of concentrating on color or movement, they focused on software that would isolate objects of interest — individuals, as well as the bags or other items they might leave behind — from the carriage and the background, or “scene.” This meant looking at the shapes, and in particular the edges, or “gradients.”

“To make sense of the gradients,” Mr. Leman says, “you need steps to see whether it belongs to the crowd, the structure or the external scene. After making sense of the gradients, you can do further analysis to determine what it is,” Mr. Leman says.

Reducing errors concerned Joanne Chung and her colleagues at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Nursing: in this case, in patients’ medication. As a nurse for 20 years, Ms. Chung knows that errors are all too common. There are two types, she says: incorrect prescriptions and mistakes by patients or nurses in administering the medication.

To reduce mistakes by patients or nurses, the team — which included KL Fan, an engineer, and Thomas Wong — had to come up with a system that would work as well in a home, where patients may administer the drugs themselves, as in a clinic or hospital. They settled on radio-frequency identification tags attached to each medicine bottle. The drugs are stored inside a cabinet with a sensor that alerts, via cellphone or Internet connection, the supervising health-care officer when medicine is removed.

“The signal that they may be taking the wrong drug would automatically come back to our clinics,” says Ms. Chung, providing time to alert the patient.

Innovation isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds. Just ask Dean Cameron, who has spent the past few years digging around sludge to find a new way of treating waste, or Donald E. Morgan, whose research into helmets has taken him to the scene of gruesome accidents, or Iqbal Quadir, who found in cow dung a way to boost the fortunes of Bangladesh villages.

They are among the 12 finalists for this year’s Asian Innovation Awards, presented by The Wall Street Journal Asia in association with Global Entrepolis@Singapore. The awards honor people and companies who improve quality of life, the environment or business productivity.

Ms. Chung and her colleagues were harnessing computers to make up for human shortcomings. Sometimes it is the other way around: Computers, and those who write software for them, forget that not all humans are the same. Frustration with this kind of shortcoming motivates Chieko Asakawa, who carries the title of distinguished engineer at IBM Japan’s Tokyo Research Laboratory. Ms. Asakawa has been blind since the age of 14 and has worked on research into computer accessibility for the past 20 years.

Her latest project: a sort of overlay on existing Web browsers to assist blind people to navigate pages that can’t be read by the screen-reading software that she and other blind users rely on to convert text into speech. Controlling audio or video clips on Web sites is usually done by clicking on buttons with the mouse, and there has been no way for her, or her screen-reading software, to figure out how to access or control those clips. “It is getting increasingly difficult to access Internet content which has multimedia content,” she says.

Her solution: a set of predefined shortcut keys for, say, controlling volume or stopping play of a video. In addition, text that is friendly to screen-reading software can be added either by developers or volunteers to offer more information about the video, as well as the controls. Ms. Asakawa says the goal is “to make sure that the accessibility technology advances [at] the same pace as the new technologies in the Web 2.0 era.”

Navigating Web sites also presents a challenge to users of cellphones. As cellphone users access data online, they bump up against the limitations of small screens. Celltop, from Indian software developer Aricent Inc., has a solution: dividing the screen into widgets, or cells, that make it easier for users to retrieve slices of information, such as sports scores, weather information or email accounts, with fewer keystrokes.

“Consumer research indicates that anything beyond five to six clicks is a failure,” Aricent’s submission to this year’s awards says. Celltop “objectizes” content, as Aricent calls it, so once the user has personalized that data, it is one click away through a Celltop cell.

There is another cellphone innovation among this year’s finalists. A longstanding challenge has been to improve the quality of sound from the cellphone microphone — filtering out the noise and keeping just the voice of the cellphone speaker. The most common approach to improving this filtering process is through an array of microphones, spaced apart. Through a process called signal processing, the array can build a tunnel of sound that leaves out the ambient, unwanted noise.

The problem with cellphones is that as they get smaller, the microphones get fewer and closer together. That means they yield less information since the sound from one mic isn’t that different from the sound at the next mic. The solution comes down to how best to calibrate the microphones to ensure their yield is as good as possible, says Ming Zhang, co-founder of California-based Fortemedia Inc. and head of its Chinese operations, Fortemedia (Nanjing) Ltd.

“If you cannot calibrate the microphone, you cannot distinguish the sound you want and the sound you don’t want,” he says. Fortemedia’s SAM, or small-array-microphone, technology is now used in Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc.’s Raku-Raku phone and has been adopted by two dozen major players in the cellphone, computer and car industries, Mr. Zhang says.

HP Labs in India is working with a much older technology — paper. It has developed a way to authenticate documents. The scenario it cites is a common one: time and effort wasted trying to confirm that a document — a degree, a contract, a birth certificate — is genuine by going back to the source, whether it is the issuing authority, the company or the individual who purportedly signed it. Wouldn’t it be easier if confirmation of the document’s authenticity was in the document itself?

HP India’s innovation: a bar code that can be read by any scanning device. The bar code is printed onto the document it authenticates, and includes all the same textual information the original document does. If there is a discrepancy between the two documents — the printed one and the one enclosed in the bar code — then the recipient can assume that it has been tampered with.

Most important: Unlike more-sophisticated technologies such as holograms or radio-frequency identification chips embedded into the page, the bar code can be printed onto a document using a desktop printer.

Such innovations illustrate that simple ideas are often the best. Employees of Microsoft Research India sifting through photographs of computer education in schools spotted an obvious bottleneck. “I noticed in a lot of photographs a lot of children crowding around a computer,” says Indian researcher Udai Singh Pawar. Sometimes there were as many as nine children trying to share the same keyboard and mouse. Mr. Pawar’s solution: a separate mouse for each user, with each cursor distinguished by a different color.

The software is simple enough, and no extra hardware is needed so long as the computer carries enough USB slots. What excites Mr. Pawar and his colleagues is that, not only do children quickly understand how to use the Multipoint mouse, they seem to collaborate better.

“What we are finding,” he says, “is that there is a lot of collaborative discussion” when children use the approach. “That discussion causes better learning,” meaning that “even if you can afford a single computer per child, it might not be the best” arrangement.

Listening to users is key to innovation, and Pradip Kumar Sarmah, a veterinarian by training, has learned to listen to the eight million downtrodden rickshaw pedalers of his native India. Realizing that their poverty partly is because few are able to save enough to buy their means of livelihood, he helped set up a “rickshaw bank” to provide loans so they could buy a rickshaw after only a few months of work.

He coupled this innovation with another: a rickshaw design that attracted more customers, had room for advertising to increase the driver’s income and was more comfortable to ride and pedal.

Despite these steps, Mr. Sarmah and his Centre for Rural Development was in for another lesson in innovation: the need for a good feedback loop.

Continue Reading “Dung, Sewage Fuel Inventors’ Imaginations

Source: Wall Street Journal (link opens in a new window)