Category Archives: Design

Mortar-filled tennis balls could make structures more resistant to earthquakes

Ensuring that a building is earthquake-proof (or at least earthquake-resistant) can be an expensive and challenging task. But according to a new study, a low-cost system can help: mortar-filled tennis balls.

In modern times, earthquakes have become a bigger and bigger problem. For starters, there are more people living in urban areas and multi-storey buildings. In addition, a lot of buildings are getting older and more vulnerable, and reinforcing or fortifying buildings is expensive and rarely attempted in practice.

Even new buildings are sometimes not fortified — especially in lower-income countries, where the extra cost of anti-earthquake design is unaffordable. The vast majority of anti-earthquake systems involve rolling isolator systems, typically steel rollers rolling on steel surfaces — a type of design that’s often expensive. Even when in the long run, the building owners would save money on building maintenance and repair, this type of system is rarely deployed.

But there could be a cheaper alternative.

Testing the tennis-ball mortar mold. Image credits: Katsakamas et al (2022).

A new method described by researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland uses tennis balls filled with mortar instead of specialized steel rollers. Using a closely-spaced grid of such spheres greatly reduces the cost, while also ensuring resilience against potential earthquakes. In addition, this could be a good way to reuse discarded tennis balls.

“The tennis spheres serve as permanent, spherical molds to cast mortar, and they are not removed after casting. The thin rubber shell of the tennis sphere offers increased damping and reduces stress concentrations at the contact areas. At the same time, this procedure creates a promising solution for the re-use of tennis spheres,” the researchers write.

“Tennis balls are used as permanent molds, meaning that they are not removed after casting. This has 2 main advantages: 1) The rubber shell of the tennis ball offers increased energy dissipation, and, 2) Local damage at the contact area is avoided since the shell offers stress distribution,” the team adds.

The performance of different cement mixes. Image credits: Katsakamas et al (2022).

The balls were initially cut in half, filled with mortar (a mixture of cement, sand, and water), and then stuck together with tape. However, although researchers tried several different mortar mixtures, the result was unsatisfactory as the balls ended up substantially deformed. Subsequently, the balls were drilled and mortar was poured through the tiny drill — this approach proved much more effective. Overall, the cost of the tested tennis ball isolators was 0.05 $ per sphere.

The idea is to use the resulting tennis balls to separate the building from the ground. The spheres are set into concave indentations and in the event of an earthquake, they create a rolling movement that absorbs the brunt of the earth’s movement. They also produce more friction, which dissipates much of the earthquake’s energy. In the study, the researchers set a small artificial building on top of their prototype and subjected it to the type of movement you’d expect to see during an earthquake, finding that the system worked as they hoped.

This could be a cheap and efficient way to protect buildings, the researchers conclude — but there’s still a way to go before the method can be conclusively proven effective. The team now wants to trial out this approach using a larger building and see if it performs equally well.

“The idea is to isolate masonry structures by placing the spheres at a dense grid so that only a thin or no diaphragm slab at the isolation level is required. Saving this cost is crucial to make seismic isolation affordable in low-income countries.”

The study “Feasibility Study on Re-Using Tennis Balls as Seismic Isolation Bearings” was published in the journal Frontiers in Built Environment.

Cyberpunk aesthetics and concepts.

What is cyberpunk — and are we already living in it?

In its simplest form, cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre that brings together advanced, futuristic technology, with a decline in societal decay. Think of a society featuring advanced artificial intelligence, cybernetics, massive skyscrapers, but with many people living in slums or being controlled and lacking social freedom. But cyberpunk isn’t only a sci-fi subgenre, but also a cultural movement that has some influence on things like entertainment, design, gaming, architecture, fashion, and technology. In fact, you could argue we’re already living in a cyberpunk world.

Image credits: Raasgendor/Pixabay

Cyberpunk often features a flashy visual theme and an underlying dystopian theme of this genre. It depicts a world where technological development is at its peak, artificial intelligence co-exists with humans, people have access to robotic brains and body implants — but at the same time, the social order is heavily disturbed, corrupt multinational corporations (or machines) own and controls everything, crime has become an integral part of society, and most of the population has a poor standard of living.

The “high tech, low life” concept of a cyberpunk world has been popularized by comics, films, animes, and books of the same genre. Writers like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Katsuhiro Otomo, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and many others in the 70s and 80s introduced different characteristics. Thin neon city lights, electronic music, dark streets, cyborgs, holograms, rugged and vibrant clothing style, drug syndicates, cramped apartments, illegal tech markets, and a broke society) — those are the tell-tale of a cyberpunk world that later became symbols of the genre. Cyberpunk protagonists are typically rebels, hackers, reluctant heroes clinging to individuality in a world where invasive control is the norm. Unsurprisingly, many see cyberpunk as more than just an artistic current, but rather as a social critique.

Cyberpunk elements in the real world 

Remarkably, many famous novels, anime, and movies in the cyberpunk style from the 80s and 90s that popularized the genre are set in the current time. Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi flick Blade Runner shows events from 2019, Software, a critically acclaimed cyberpunk novel from Rudy Rucker is based in the year 2020, P.D. James’ highly popular dystopian fiction, Children of Men is set in 2021 (its movie adaptation is based in 2027), whereas Bruce Sterling’s thrilling sci-fi book Islands in the Net tells a dark futuristic story from the year 2023.

But cyberpunk is still going strong now, we’ve just pushed the date by a few years.

Cyberpunk-type scenery from Tokyo. Image in public domain.

Learning from cyberpunk

Science fiction is reality ahead of schedule, Syd Mead, concept designer of tron and blade runner once famously said. So is cyberpunk a realistic expectation of what’s to come?

Researchers have suggested in the past that technology can fuel economic inequality. Big tech companies, in particular, are fueling inequality, and although technology as a whole is alleviating poverty, there are fears that it could fuel rampang social inequality. In addition, while making us richer, technology can also be used to control and impose dystopian measures — as we’re already starting to see in China, for instance.

In fact, what makes cyberpunk different from other sci-fi genres is its ability to manifest our fears associated with hi-technology and the perils it could bring, perils such as over-capitalism, drug addiction, gadget dependency, media oversaturation, crime, and data privacy. So while cyberpunk is a literary and artistic current, we’re definitely starting to see some of its signature trademarks in the real world.

Cyberpunk in the real world

Aesthetically, cyberpunk is distinctive in its neon urban lights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, cyberpunk scenery is becoming more and more common, as some of its underlying aspects are also creeping into our world. If we look around carefully, it’s not hard to find various cyberpunk elements around us. Here are just a few examples.

  • A cyberpunk world where powerful multinational corporations much of society. In the real world, multinational tech corporation like Google, Facebook, and Amazon control the web and most of our digital assets. A normal internet user may never know even if his data is sold on the dark web or his privacy is compromised on some level. Moreover, from time to time, these trillion-dollar tech companies are accused of putting their profits above democratic principles. Recently, an ex-Facebook (now Meta) employee Frances Haugen told CBS in an interview “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.” Oh, and we’re just beginning to see their influence.
  • Places like Las Vegas, Chongqing city in China, Japan’s major economic centers Tokyo and Osaka, and various parts of Singapore (Golden Mile complex), and Hong Kong (such as Montane Mansion and Monster building) are loaded with visual cyberpunk-ish aesthetics such as giant neon signboards, skyscrapers, stacked apartments, dark alleys, large advertisement screens, neon-lit commercial complexes, and crowded streets. In fact, Tokyo has been the inspiration for various fictional cyberpunk cities in video games and movies.
Akira, an anime, is one of the most influential cyberpunk operas of all time, featuring many of the genre’s characteristic elements (both visual and phylosophical).
  • Chatbots and voice assistants like Alexa and Siri that monitor our preferences using algorithms are an example of artificial intelligence co-existing in the real world. Similarly, the ability of social media and online advertisements to manipulate our emotions, thoughts, and decision-making ability indicates how deep technology has entered into our lives.      
  • A popular cyberpunk video game called Cyberpunk 2077 features an in-game personalized virtual world called Braindance. Though we have not been able to develop a futuristic VR experience as advanced as Braindance, VR devices in the present also allow us to experience virtual reality. Games and applications like Fortnite, Decentraland, Second Life, and Facebook’s newly launched Horizon World are examples of virtual worlds existing within our own world. 

Moreover, prosthetic body parts, augmented reality-based applications (like the game Pokemon GO), cyberpunk-themed clothing (such as cybergoth, futuristic gothic, etc), as well as the advent of brain chips (such as Neuralink), machine learning, smart weapons, humanoids (like Sophia and Ameca) and Internet of Things (IoT)are some of the developments that are taking place in the real world but also share a striking resemblance to various elements shown in the cyberpunk themes of Terminator, Akira, Blade Runner, Alita Battle Angel, and Ghost in the Shell.

Cyberpunk and transhumanism  

Although to many people, cyberpunk is merely an aesthetic style, we’ve already mentioned that there’s some hardcore social critique to it. The main reason for this is that cyberpunk involves heavy philosophical concepts.

Transhumanism is believed to be the core philosophy behind the development of the cyberpunk genre. Transhumanism is a social, philosophical, and intellectual movement that favors the invention and use of advanced innovations that can enhance human ability. Basically, transhumanists want us to evolve past our human nature using technology. Any technology capable of improving intelligence, physical strength, health, cognitive ability, memory, and lifespan of humans is part of transhumanist progress. 

Image credits: Ben Sweer/Unsplash

Transhumanist thinkers predict emerging technologies and examine their possible positive and negative impacts on human society. Writers in the 70s and 80s are also believed to have analyzed the influence of the internet, terrorism, drugs, computers, cybersecurity, and sexual revolution while working on various cyberpunk themes. This can also be understood from the fact that the nature of the protagonist in various such works is of a transhuman, for example, Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi was also a transhuman.

However, due to its dystopian nature, most of the fictional works in the cyberpunk genre reveal a negative side of a transhumanist approach. Novels and films like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Alita: Battle Angel, Cowboy Bebop, Terminator, etc shows how advanced technologies can promote corruption, greed, destruction and ultimately lead to a chaotic world. According to Robert M. Geraci, who is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, “cyberpunk as a genre attempts to caution against transhumanism by exposing the problematic elements of the social economy that supports it.”

Nobody wants to live in a dystopian world (especially after the pandemic) but in the coming years, it would be really interesting to see if some popular cyberpunk technologies such as cyborgs, laser weapons, advanced VR devices, and flying cars become a reality.

Waterlamp generates light and electricity for 45 days with just half a liter of seawater

Credit: Asociacion RUVID

For Colombian designer Miguel Mojica, design is supposed to transform the world in a disruptive way, while also being committed to sustainability. This mission is embodied by the WaterLight lamp, an amazing invention that can generate light for 45 days straight using only half a liter of saltwater. His creation was awarded a Silver Cannes in the design category and two bronzes in innovation and social responsibility, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2021 held in France.

Electricity is just a given in any Western home, so it’s easy to forget that there are still hundreds of millions of people across the world who lack access to electricity, condemning them to a life of poverty and poor health. Thankfully, progress is being made. Globally, the number of people without access to electricity declined from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 759 million in 2019, according to the World Bank. Where power lines haven’t yet been able to reach households, mini-grids consisting of solar panels or diesel generators came in to fill the gaps, with the number of people connected to mini-grids more than doubling between 2010 and 2019, growing from 5 to 11 million people.

Credit: WaterLight.

But for some remote households, even a few solar panels are unaffordable. That’s where the WaterLight project comes in, which Mojica was inspired to design after visiting poor indigenous communities in La Guajira, Colombia that lacked electricity.

“The WaterLight project emerged to brighten up the life of the Wayúu community in Colombia, to take light to La Guajira, but also to reach any home that needs light but has no access to electricity, so that people can continue with their chores at night, such as adults with their craftwork or fishing, or children with their studies. Being far from my country, Colombia, I felt it was an opportunity to be a promoter of this new revolution for clean energy,” Mojica said.

The device generates a small electrical current through the ionization of saltwater. An electrolyte from the saltwater chemically reacts with magnesium. The generated energy powers a LED lamp or can be used to charge small devices such as mobile phones or tablets.

Credit: WaterLight.
Credit: WaterLight.

WaterLight is made from recyclable materials, is waterproof, and has a lifespan of 5,600 hours, which should be good for a few years of use. The design of the product features indigenous symbols and a colorful strap that was handmade by native artisans from La Guajira.

“I am convinced that we are increasingly aware of the impact we have on the planet, and I believe in the change that we, the new generations of designers, are creating, as we are committed to sustainable and responsible design. Today it is a reality; sustainability has become an essential requirement when designing, which will surely help solve the new challenges that appear in the future. Furthermore, interdisciplinarity with professionals from the biological, medical and technological fields will be key to take sustainability to our day-to-day surroundings, by designing innovative products,” Mojica said.

Why transparent solar cells could replace windows in the near future

No matter how sustainable, eco-friendly, and clean sources of energy they are, conventional solar panels require a large setup area and heavy initial investment. Due to these limitations, it’s hard to introduce them in urban areas (especially neighborhoods with lots of apartment blocks or shops). But thanks to the work of ingenious engineers at the University of Michigan, that may soon no longer be the case.

The researchers have created transparent solar panels which they claim could be used as power generating windows in our homes, buildings, and even rented apartments.

Image credits: Djim Loic/Unsplash

If these transparent panels are indeed capable of generating electricity cost-efficiently, the days of regular windows may be passing as we speak. Soon, we could have access to cheap solar energy regardless of where we live — and to make it even better, we could be rid of those horrific power cuts that happen every once in a while because, with transparent glass-like solar panels, every house and every tall skyscraper will be able to generate its own power independently.

An overview of the transparent solar panels

In order to generate power from sunlight, solar cells embedded on a solar panel are required to absorb radiation from the sun. Therefore, they cannot allow sunlight to completely pass through them (in the way that a glass window can). So at first, the idea of transparent solar panels might seem preposterous and completely illogical because a transparent panel should be unable to absorb radiation. 

But that’s not necessarily the case, researchers have found. In fact, that’s not the case at all.

Professor R. Lunt at MSU showing the transparent luminescent solar concentrator. Image credits: Michigan State University

The solar panels created by engineers at the University of Michigan consist of transparent luminescent solar concentrators (TLSC). Composed of cyanine, the TLSC is capable of selectively absorbing invisible solar radiation including infrared and UV lights, and letting the rest of the visible rays pass through them. So in other words, these devices are transparent to the human eye (very much like a window) but still absorb a fraction of the solar light which they can then convert into electricity. It’s a relatively new technology, only first developed in 2013, but it’s already seeing some impressive developments.

Panels equipped with TLSC can be molded in the form of thin transparent sheets that can be used further to create windows, smartphone screens, car roofs, etc. Unlike, traditional panels, transparent solar panels do not use silicone; instead they consist of a zinc oxide layer covered with a carbon-based IC-SAM layer and a fullerene layer. The IC-SAM and fullerene layers not only increase the efficiency of the panel but also prevent the radiation-absorbing regions of the solar cells from breaking down.

Surprisingly, the researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) also claim that their transparent solar panels can last for 30 years, making them more durable than most regular solar panels. Basically, you could fit your windows with these transparent solar cells and get free electricity without much hassle for decades. Unsurprisingly, this prospect has a lot of people excited.

According to Professor Richard Lunt (who headed the transparent solar cell experiment at MSU), “highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications”. He further adds that these devices in the future can provide a similar electricity-generation potential as rooftop solar systems plus, they can also equip our buildings, automobiles, and gadgets with self-charging abilities.

“That is what we are working towards,” he said. “Traditional solar applications have been actively researched for over five decades, yet we have only been working on these highly transparent solar cells for about five years. Ultimately, this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible.”

Recent developments in the field of transparent solar cell technology

Apart from the research work conducted by Professor Richard Lunt and his team at MSU, there are some other research groups and companies working on developing advanced solar-powered glass windows. Earlier this year, a team from ITMO University in Russia developed a cheaper method of producing transparent solar cells. The researchers found a way to produce transparent solar panels much cheaper than ever before.

“Regular thin-film solar cells have a non-transparent metal back contact that allows them to trap more light. Transparent solar cells use a light-permeating back electrode. In that case, some of the photons are inevitably lost when passing through, thus reducing the devices’ performance. Besides, producing a back electrode with the right properties can be quite expensive,” says Pavel Voroshilov, a researcher at ITMO University’s Faculty of Physics and Engineering.

“For our experiments, we took a solar cell based on small molecules and attached nanotubes to it. Next, we doped nanotubes using an ion gate. We also processed the transport layer, which is responsible for allowing a charge from the active layer to successfully reach the electrode. We were able to do this without vacuum chambers and working in ambient conditions. All we had to do was dribble some ionic liquid and apply a slight voltage in order to create the necessary properties,” adds co-author Pavel Voroshilov.

Image credits: Kenrick Baksh/Unsplash

PHYSEE, a technology company from the Netherlands has successfully installed their solar energy-based “PowerWindow” in a 300 square feet area of a bank building in The Netherlands. Though at present, the transparent PowerWindows are not efficient enough to meet the energy demands of the whole building, PHYSEE claims that with some more effort, soon they will be able to increase the feasibility and power generation capacity of their solar windows.   

California-based Ubiquitous Energy is also working on a “ClearView Power” system that aims to create a solar coating that can turn the glass used in windows into transparent solar panels. This solar coating will allow transparent glass windows to absorb high-energy infrared radiations, the company claims to have achieved an efficiency of 9.8% with ClearView solar cells during their initial tests.

In September 2021, the Nippon Sheet Glass (NSG) Corporation facility located in Chiba City became Japan’s first solar window-equipped building. The transparent solar panels installed by NSG in their facility are developed by Ubiquitous Energy.  Recently, as a part of their association with Morgan Creek Ventures, Ubiquitous Energy has also installed transparent solar windows on Boulder Commons II, an under-construction commercial building in Colorado.

All these exciting developments indicate that sooner or later, we also might be able to install transparent power-generating solar windows in our homes. Such a small change in the way we produce energy, on a global scale could turn out to be a great step towards living in a more energy-efficient world.

Not there just yet

If this almost sounds too good to be true, well sort of is. The efficiency of these fully transparent solar panels is around 1%, though the technology has the potential to reach around 10% efficiency — this is compared to the 15% we already have for conventional solar panels (some efficient ones can reach 22% or even a bit higher).

So the efficiency isn’t quite there yet to make transparent solar cells efficient yet, but it may get there in the not-too-distant future. Furthermore, the appeal of this system is that it can be deployed on a small scale, in areas where regular solar panels are not possible. They don’t have to replace regular solar panels, they just have to complement them.

When you think about it, solar energy wasn’t regarded as competitive up to about a decade ago — and a recent report found that now, it’s the cheapest form of electricity available so far in human history. Although transparent solar cells haven’t been truly used yet, we’ve seen how fast this type of technology can develop, and the prospects are there for great results.

The mere idea that we may soon be able to power our buildings through our windows shows how far we’ve come. An energy revolution is in sight, and we’d be wise to take it seriously.

The Rollercoaster Bridge — why Eshima Ohashi is so steep and so impressive

In southwestern Japan, the prefectures of Tottori and Shimane were separated by a lake. The lake, called Nakaumi, made it hard for people to get from one side to the other, so in 1997, Japanese engineers and architects started working on a bridge. But there was a catch: ships also sailed the lake, so the bridge had to be tall enough to allow ships to pass beneath. That’s how the terrifyingly steep Eshima Ohashi bridge came to be.

Looking towards the bridge from the Shimane Prefecture Side. Image credits: mstk east.

The bridge has a slope gradient of 5.1% on one side and 6.1% on the other. It’s a mile long (1.6 km) and 144 feet tall (44 meters). It’s one of the tallest rigid frame bridges in the world, connecting the two busy cities on opposite sides of the lake.

Before the bridge was built, every time a ship would pass, traffic would have to be restricted for up to 8 minutes, and only vehicles under 14 tons were allowed to cross the bridge. There was also a limit of 4,000 vehicles that could cross per day. So traffic between the two Japanese prefectures was often delayed, and traversing the lake was a drag. The Eshima Ohashi bridge solved most of those problems, by being tall enough that ships can go under it — the only downside is that the bridge had to be high and steep.

In truth, it’s steep but not that steep. Many of the photos you see of it were taken from a distance using a telephoto lens, which distorts the perspective and makes it look like the bridge is steeper than it is. Images of the bridge have widely circulated, and a popular commercial was also shot in the area, carefully designed to make the bridge look as steep as possible by forcing the perspective of the images. The place became a sort of a legend, but as it’s often the case, reality doesn’t look exactly like the photos.

In some images, the bridge looks a bit like the upward slope of a roller coaster, creating the illusion that cars are going up a cliff. However, that’s also a bit of an optical illusion, or rather a distortion in the visual field of perception. The telephoto lenses often used to take these photos “flatten” the visual field, making it seem like the lowest point of the bridge is much closer to the highest point of the bridge than it really is, creating an illusion of extra steepness.

Example of how forced perspective can seemingly distort an object.

Here is how different the bridge looks from the perspective of an observer (first video) and from the perspective of a driver crossing the bridge (second video).

Still, the bridge is nothing to scoff at, and in Japan, it’s often referred to as a betabumi-zaka — ‘a pedal-to-the-metal slope’. Depending on your car, you may not need to push the gas all the way down, but it’s still a slope to be considered carefully. It’s not the only betabumi-zaka in Japan, several other such structures exist in Tokyo and Osaka.

Special provisions are in place, especially in the winter, to make sure that the surface doesn’t become ice- or snow-covered. However, while you may want to be sure your brakes are working before going on the bridge, it’s not exactly a rollercoaster

The bridge has sidewalks going up on both sides. Image credits: mstk east.

The bridge has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right. It’s fairly easy to reach: you can either drive on it or use a taxi to get you to it and then walk on it (there is a sidewalk on both sides). If you want to recreate the famous photos, there is a convenience store at the intersection on the Shimane side. If you do walk or cycle on the bridge, make sure to also climb to the top and enjoy the lovely view of the lake and Daikon island (telescopes and binoculars are freely available for tourists).

The nearby Daikon island itself is an interesting site. It’s a Japanese garden and the country’s largest producer of peony seedlings. Around 20,000 peonies of 250 different species are raised here and historically, growing and peddling seedlings was a job for the women on the island.

All in all, the Eshima Ohashi bridge may not be as incredibly steep as some photos make it out to be, but it’s still a sight to behold, and an important engineering accomplishment. It has connected two cities and bridged the gap between the relatively isolated Sanin region and the rest of Japan, helping the area develop economically in the past few decades. Like we’ve come to expect from Japan, it’s good, solid, and useful engineering.

Futuristic transparent smartphone.

Are transparent phones close to becoming a thing?

We’ve seen smartphones change drastically over the years, is going transparent the next stage of their evolution? We’re not sure yet, but companies seem to be taking it seriously.

Futuristic transparent smartphone.
Image credits: Daniel Frank/Unsplash.

A few tech giants have already received patents for their respective transparent phone designs, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re already working on transparent smartphones. The problem is that this type of design not only requires changes in the design or one particular part of the device but it asks for a complete makeover. 

From the display to cameras, sensors, and circuitry, phone engineers might have to make each and every component transparent if they wish to develop a true lucid smartphone — or assemble them in such a way that those components don’t overlap with the transparent screen. This is definitely not going to be easy, but if they somehow achieve this difficult feat, this might revolutionize other gadgets around us as well.

Furthermore, the advent of transparent smartphones may lead us towards the creation of transparent televisions, laptop screens, cameras, and a whole new generation of transparent gadgets. No surprise, such cool gadgets would make the current devices look like ancient artifacts (at least, in terms of appearance).

Are there any real-life transparent smartphones yet?

Well, not quite.

Although they’re not exactly like the ones you may have seen in The Expanse, Real Steel, or Minority Report, some companies have tried to develop transparent phones — not smartphones — or at least make them partially transparent. Although they were ahead of their time, some designs were actually pretty impressive.

In 2009, LG introduced the GD900, a stylish slider phone that was equipped with a see-through keyboard, it is considered the world’s first transparent phone. The same year, Sony Ericsson launched Xperia Pureness, the world’s first keypad phone with a transparent display. 

A look at LG GD900, world's first transparent phone.
LG GD-900, the first phone with a transparent design. Image credits: LG전자/flickr

Despite its unique design, the Xperia phone received poor ratings from both critics and users due to its poor display visibility and it didn’t turn out to be a very successful product. A couple of years later, Japanese tech company TDK developed transparent bendable displays using OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes). 

In 2012, two other companies in Japan (NTT Docomo and Fujitsu) joined hands to develop a see-through touch screen phone, and they did come up with a prototype that also had a transparent OLED touchscreen. The following year, Polytron Technologies from Taiwan, released some information about a transparent smartphone prototype they developed. Though the camera, memory card, and some motherboard components in this Polytron device were clearly visible, the phone almost looked like a piece of transparent glass. 

The see-through display technologies demonstrated by TDK, Docomo, and Polytron were impressive but for reasons that are not entirely clear, they never became a part of the mainstream touch phones.

Concept image of Samsung galaxy transparent smartphone.
A concept image of Samsung’s transparent smartphone. Image credits: Stuffbox/Youtube

However, the most exciting developments concerning transparent smartphones have happened much more recently.  In November 2018, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) published Sony’s patent for a dual-sided smartphone transparent display, reports reveal that Sony is soon going to use this see-through display design in its upcoming premium range smartphones. The next year, LG received a smartphone design patent from USPTO (the United States Patent and Trademark Office) that shined a light on the company’s plans for a foldable transparent smartphone. However, LG has also said they will stop making phones because the market is too saturated — so it’s unclear whether something will actually come of this design.

Leading tech manufacturer Samsung is also said to be in the process of developing a see-through smartphone. According to a report from Let’s Go Digital, The company had a patent (concerning a transparent device) published on the WIPO website in August 2020. The same report also reveals that in the coming years, Samsung aims to launch smartphones and other gadgets in the market (under its popular Galaxy series) that would come equipped with a transparent luminous display panel.

Are transparent smartphones even practical?

Just because big brands like Sony, LG, and Samsung are working on different projects related to transparent smartphone technology, it doesn’t mean we’re close to seeing actual see-through phones very soon. Many tech experts believe that while transparent smartphones may sound like a futuristic idea, they may not be feasible, for several reasons.

Surprisingly, one of the main challenges with transparent smartphones is the camera. You can definitely make transparent displays using OLEDs, but what about the rear and front-side cameras? There is no known way by which a phone engineer can make camera sensors go transparent. The same goes with other parts like SIM cards, memory chips, and speakers, if these components are still visible in a see-through phone then it is no better than the Polytron prototype of 2013. So while there’s a realistic chance of transparent-screen phones becoming a reality, how exactly a fully transparent phone would be built is not at all clear.

Another issue that users might face with transparent smartphones is poor display visibility. The screens used in current smartphones may not be transparent but they offer clear and sharp picture quality, whether you use them under bright daylight or in the dark. Transparent displays might not be able to deliver such a flawless visual experience, and users may even struggle to see the text or images clearly on a see-through screen in daylight conditions.

Until and unless these major issues are resolved, we probably won’t be able to see transparent smartphones in the market. But why would we even want one? Well, there are some merits to transparent smartphones. For instance, the notification and alerts could look more clear and more distinct on a transparent screen, and such a display might be conveniently used in a divided manner to use different applications at the same time. 

Moreover, you could use both sides of a see-through display; this would facilitate multitasking and save a lot of time. For example, you are watching an educational video or recipe on YouTube and you are noting down points from the same in a different tab. With a double-sided transparent screen, you don’t need to close your video tab every time you need to switch to another tab, you can just flip your phone to jump to the tab you want to use.

Transparent smartphones might also bring a drastic improvement in the way you experience augmented reality. The screen which serves as a barrier between your real and virtual worlds if becomes transparent, then you may not need an AR app to see virtual elements in the real world. The transparent screen itself may act as an AR simulator but then again such a screen may not be able to give you as good virtual imagery as you experience on a normal display.

Let’s face it: transparent phones would be very cool, but we’re not quite there yet. We can geek out about them as much as we want, but a transparent smartphone still requires a healthy amount of innovation that might take some time to evolve. With how quickly technologies are progressing, though, we may see them in the not too distant future.

Dome-shaped house in Italy is 3-D printed entirely from local clay

Credit: Iago Corazza.

By combining state-of-the-art 3D printing with a construction material humans have been using for millennia, a team of daring engineers and architects from Italy are seeking to reimagine sustainable buildings.

The pilot project, called TECLA (TEchnology and CLAy), employed specialized machines whose nozzles ooze liquified clay dug up from a nearby riverbed. The end result is a 3D-printed dwelling essentially made out of locally sourced mud, rather than environmentally-taxing concrete.

The 60-square-meter home took only 200 hours of continuous extrusion to complete, during which 60 cubic meters of clay was printed layer by layer via 7,000 instructions sent by a computer until it reached its final double-dome shape. The furnishings inside were also printed in one go along with the building’s 12-cm-thick walls. According to chief architect Mario Cucinella, the TECLA house used less than 6kW of power during its printing.

Credit: WASP.
Credit: Iago Corazza.
Credit: Iago Corazza.

“It’s combining this evolution in technology with a basic material you can find anywhere on the planet,” Cucinella told Wired. “A combination between high tech and local material.”

Cucinella partnered with Italian 3-D engineering firm WASP to erect the circular model entirely out of reusable and recyclable materials.

“TECLA is in fact the peak of advanced research between matter and technology, it is the achievement of an unparalleled challenge that has brought the printing geometry to its physical limit. The project represents an unprecedented perspective for buildings and new settlements, in which the value of local raw materials is amplified by digital design. The double dome solution made it possible to cover at the same time the roles of structure, roof and external cladding, making the house high-performance on all aspects,” reads a press statement on the WASP website.

Each dome is capped with a glass skylight that allows plenty of natural light into the living quarters, although Cucinella stresses that the design can be easily tweaked to accomodate different climates.

Ultimately, for Cucinella and colleagues, this project is all about proving to the world that it is still possible to construct truly sustainable buildings in the 21st century.

Credit: WASP.

The concrete industry is one of the most environmentally damaging in the world, accounting for 9% of total global CO2 emissions in 2018. Nearly 80% of concrete’s carbon emissions come from cement, which accounts for about 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter in the world — not far behind China and the US. It contributes more CO2 than aviation fuel (2.5%) and is not far behind the global agriculture business (12%). But, overall, the construction industry, which includes not only the manufacturing of cement but also the transportation of heavy materials across the world, was responsible for a staggering 38% of all carbon emissions in 2019, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Next, Cucinella would like to scale the project to multiple stories and experiment with other types of locally-sourced materials, such as wood used for flooring and support beams.

“We like to think that TECLA is the beginning of a new story,” Cucinella told Dezeen.

“It would be truly extraordinary to shape the future by transforming this ancient material with the technologies we have available today.”

Seoul is replacing street lamps with smart poles that offer electricity and WiFi

If there’s one thing that all cities have in abundance, that’s street poles. They’re so common that most of the time we just don’t even notice them any more. Why should we? They usually serve just one function, to house a light fixture and maybe a couple of road signs. But what if the humble street poles could be upgraded and become much more useful?

Image credit: Seoul Metropolitan Government

Seoul, South Korea’s capital, has started to install a set of 26 smart poles in six areas of the city. They include a wide array of functions such as CCTV, WIFI access points, smartphone and electric vehicle chargers, traffic lights, and — of course — street lights. Each pole’s functions were customized to the needs of its location in the city.

But this is only the start. The city is considering adding extra functions to the poles in the near future so they can detect parking violations and can be used as chargers for drones. This is because Seoul wants to roll out drones across the city to “monitor potential disasters and emergency rescue efforts,” the city said in a statement. It’s a vision of the future, already hitting the streets.

The city’s government expects that the installation of smart poles in different neighborhoods will lead to the improvement of urban scenery through the integration of diverse facilities. They argued they will save the replacement cost by using the street facilities that have reached changing times and secure the safety of the facilities. Lee Won-Mok, Director General of Smart City Policy at Seoul Metropolitan Government, said in a statement:

“Smart poles are expected to improve urban landscapes and enhance the safety, welfare, and convenience for our Seoul citizens. They will also serve as charging stations for drones and electric vehicles, bringing the city one step closer to becoming a smart city.”

The smarter poles are part of a global shift towards multipurpose street infrastructure, as cities, vehicles, and citizens become more connected and smarter. Today’s remarkable advances in information and communication technology (ICT) have a great potential to upgrade our cities and making them truly smart cities.

Seoul’s government has been taking concrete action to this goal. Advanced ICT, including an intelligent transport system, a bus management system, and a global positioning system, allowed city planners to essentially reorganize and democratize traffic — leading to 70% of the city’s population using public transit. The city also adopted ICT and sensors to control the water levels in times of torrential rain and direct intervention. The smart design also takes advantage of South Korea’s internet connection, which is one of the fastest and most widely used in the world (96% of the country has access to internet).

Other cities and companies around the world are taking action. Bigbelly, a US company, has created a solar-powered, rubbish-compacting bin, which has been deployed in Europe, the US, and Australia. The bins have a sensor that activates the compactor, which crushes the rubbish. It can hold up to six times more rubbish than a standard bin.

In New York, the New York City Department of Transportation created a congestion management system that has improved travel times on Midtown’s avenues by 10%. The city also implemented the LinkNYC communications network, providing free Wi-Fi and device charging, and the MyNCHA app for housing residents to manage services online. It’s still early days, but some cities are taking big steps towards the future.

Why keeping one mature street tree is far better for humans and nature than planting lots of new ones

Thanks to Victorian street planners, many British streets were designed to be full of big trees and, with 84% of the population living in urban areas, most people are more likely to encounter trees in the streets than they are in forests.

The UK is one of the least densely wooded countries in Europe (at 13% coverage compared to the EU average of 38%) and, as such, its street trees are even more valuable.

This became all too clear as the UK first entered lockdown in spring 2020, when many people spent more time on their local streets and in parks. Online tree app Tree Talk saw a 50-fold increase in users as people fell in love with their local “street trees”.

They were quite right to do so. The wood of street trees stores carbon, while their roots and crowns support wildlife and slow rainfall, reducing urban flooding. Transpiration and shade from their canopies reduces temperatures in heatwaves, while pollution-trapping leaves lower the prevalence of asthma.

If these ecosystem services weren’t enough, having trees on our streets reduces crime rates and improves mental health and wellbeing. One mature street tree can have a net ecosystem service value of thousands of pounds.

Big trees are being felled

Sadly, the UK has an unhealthy street tree-felling habit. Up to 60 trees per day are chopped down to make way for buildings and infrastructure, such as roads or sewers. Felling rates could also rise as development accelerates and governments relax planning rules to aid post-pandemic economic recovery.

It is larger street trees which are most often the victims of development because they are a challenge for city planners.

Large species like London planes, beech and oak need expensive, carefully engineered tree pits to help them grow safely surrounded by concrete and to prevent their roots from pushing up pavements. Such costs are more than offset, though, when we value nature – a single mature oak produces hundreds of thousands of litres of oxygen per year and supports thousands of species of birds, insects, lichen and fungus.

Residents and councils regularly clash over urban tree-felling. However, when Sheffield City Council entered into a contractor programme a few years ago, which felled more than 5,000 trees, the protests made international news.

Councils are wary of street tree issues now, and often try to manage PR by claiming felling is mitigated by planting several smaller trees to replace each large one removed. When local authorities like Swansea City Council claim development will result in “more trees” they are of course right, but it is not the full story.

Just as any child would understand they were being ripped off if given a 2p piece and a 1p piece to replace a pound coin, removing large species trees and replacing them with small ones results in a net loss of ecosystem services.

Joe Coles, the urban tree campaigner responsible for conservation charity Woodland Trust’s work in Sheffield, describes this as a form of greenwashing. “If we value green infrastructure to the same level as grey then large street trees will become far too valuable to lose”, he tells me. “Until there is acceptance that large trees, taking decades to reach maturity, have significant value – a fact based on scientific evidence – we will continue to see spurious but convenient assertions that higher numbers of small replacement trees are adequate compensation to facilitate development.”

Size really matters with trees. The annual net ecological benefit of planting a large species tree is 92% greater than planting a small one. Mature street trees do everything from having a positive effect on infant birth weight in lower socio-economic demographics, to increasing resilience to major life events among people who live within sight of them. Consumers spend more on streets that are lined with large trees.

Large street trees are the most valuable green infrastructure asset cities have and when that value is overlooked, disasters happen. Even winning the UK’s “tree of the year” competition in 2020 couldn’t save Hackney’s Happy Man Tree from being felled in 2021 to make way for a new housing development.

More than 25,000 petitioners objected to the removal of the healthy, 150-year-old London plane, with even the developers admitting it would have been avoidable had earlier consultation taken place.

There is hope for change in the form of tree strategies which set policies to guide development and planning and which require community consultation. They are a valuable tool for stewarding urban trees for future generations.

Bristol, perhaps the UK’s flagship green city, has adopted a tree replacement standard to ensure planting new trees meaningfully offsets the loss of carbon and ecosystem services where felling cannot be avoided. Tree replacement standards ensure an adequate number of trees are planted to offset each lost and quantifies the financial contribution developers must make if they choose to fell.

Even tree-war epicentre Sheffield has moved forwards, bringing people together to develop a new street tree partnership working strategy that values street trees for the benefits they bring to people, the city and the environment.

These strategies allow local authorities to mandate that developers value tree size and the total canopy cover in a city. The idea is to prevent the use of “stem counts” to hide the removal of large trees and their replacement with smaller trees that are less valuable in terms of carbon storage, ecosystem services and even human wellbeing.

Mary Gagen, Professor Of Physical Geography, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Small towns are bigger than we think — and the world is more connected than ever

Here’s a mental experiment: take a moment to ponder the entire global population and where they live. Some, your mind will envision, are in the sprawling megacities of the world, while others are in smaller towns or villages. How many live in remote areas?

According to a new study, less than one percent of the global population lives in truly remote hinterlands. The surprising study shows that smaller cities and their surrounding areas are having an increasing influence on people’s livelihoods, contradicting the narrative that big cities are where most development happens.

How long it takes to get to large towns. Image credits: FAO.

Not islands

Since the industrial revolution truly took over in the 20th century, mankind has slowly moved from rural areas to urban areas. We’ve also become more connected, thanks to trains, cars, and more recently, planes. But according to a new study, even areas that are mostly rural (and you might think, isolated) are usually pretty well-connected.

The study analyzed multiple spatial datasets and calculated the time needed for rural populations to reach nearby urban centers. This is the so-called peri-urban area.

Cities often sprawl about, growing unrestrictedly in their desire to provide housing and commercial development towards the edge of the city. Thus, the ‘edge’ of the city gets pushed more and more, until it’s not clear where the city ends, and where neighboring areas begin. There’s no real agreement as to how to classify ‘peri-urban’, but typically, even a sprawling, sparsely-populated area around a city can be considered peri-urban.

According to the new study, 40% of the planet’s population lives in peri-urban areas, which is not necessarily surprising. What was surprising is that this 40% are almost equally distributed around small, intermediate, and large cities. Furthermore, small and intermediate towns seem to draw more inhabitants into their orbit than large cities.

The problem is that peri-urban environments often slip through the cracks of regulation and policy. They were traditionally considered rural, countryside environments, but as cities continue to expand, this is starting to change. Designing and managing areas in a way that’s suitable for both farmers and city dwellers is challenging, the researchers highlight.

“Rural and urban have been thought of as separate for too long. Development planning needs to focus on rural people’s access to employment opportunities and services in nearby urban centers, and acknowledge that urban centers are not islands upon themselves,” said Food and Agriculture Organization Senior Economist Andrea Cattaneo.

Mountain valleys of industrialised countries (e.g. Inn valley) are often periurbanised. Image credits: Lonesome Crow.

But what is perhaps even more striking is the percentage of residents that live in isolated hinterlands — areas defined as needing more than three hours — measured in terms of the available mode of transit from an urban settlement — to get to a town (of over 20,000 people). Just three countries have more than 5% of their population living in hinterlands: Madagascar, Niger, and Zimbabwe. Globally, less than 1% of the world’s population lives in these isolated areas.

The findings build on an overly simplistic view that higher-income countries are more urban. Real development is more complex, and often falls in the grey peri-urban area that’s neither truly urban nor rural.

Another important finding concerns food supply chains. The dominance of these peri-urban landscapes, combined with the fact that the urban and rural components are managed differently, suggests that local food chains could be managed more effectively and sustainably through local collaboration between farmers and urban dwellers.

“Agri-food chains connect rural and urban areas,” said Professor Andy Nelson from the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation, University of Twente in the Netherlands, and a co-author of the study. “Our data set supports both research and policy for transforming food systems to sustainably meet the increasing demands of urban markets.”

However, the importance of large cities should still not be underestimated: 40% of the world’s urban population (and almost 50% in Latin America and the Caribbean) live in large cities.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lithuania’s capital will turn into massive open-air cafe, respecting physical distancing

Lithuania’s capital Vilnius will offer its public spaces free of charge for outdoor catering establishments. Owners are already jumping at the opportunity.

Vilnius, pre-lockdown. Image: Wikipedia.

A new model for going out

Vilnius will turn its many streets and open spaces into bars, restaurants, and cafes. This is meant to allow the catering industry a moment of respite and help the industry relaunch after the lockdown.

The idea is to offer a space where businesses can ensure a sufficient distance (2 meters / 6 feet) between patrons. The measure was hailed by local businesses and from the very first day, the municipality has received 151 applications from restaurants, cafes, and bars.

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafes will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine,” said Remigijus Šimašius, mayor of Vilnius. Public safety remained the city’s top priority, the mayor said, but the measure should help cafes to “open up, work, retain jobs and keep Vilnius alive”.

As Lithuania and several other countries are slowly trialing ways to relax the lockdown, owners were left with few ways to earn money. The first is carryout (takeaway), and it’s certainly a crucial aspect for many businesses. But there’s only so much you can do with takeaway alone, and opening “conventional” restaurants seems unrealistic since most places rely on crowding as many tables as possible inside — and this is exactly what you don’t want, given the state of affairs regarding COVID-19.

Cafes and some bars in Lithuania are already starting to open up after a fairly long lockdown, but with social distancing measures in place. For many businesses, however, this is not realistic, since they operate on razor-thin margins and are therefore dependent on a large influx of customers. Outdoor tables could prove to be an unexpected ally in this struggle.

“It came just in time,” said Evalda Šiškauskienė of the Lithuanian Association of Hotels and Restaurants, adding that the measure would help members “accommodate more visitors and bring life back to the city streets, but without violating security requirements”.

In addition to opening up public spaces (including historic areas) for businesses to operate, Vilnius will also give €400,000 ($430,000) in restaurant vouchers to medical workers as lockdown lifts.

Pathogens influence building architecture — the coronavirus will be no exception

The coronavirus has most of us cooped up inside buildings. For better or for worse, it’s where we spend most of our time anyway. It’s within buildings that we tend to sleep, eat, work, and find much of our entertainment.

Buildings, through their design, can influence the spread of pathogens, and this may become a more important consideration following the current pandemic.

Our buildings are shaped by disease

Infectious diseases have changed our buildings in the past and they will continue to do so, although they sometimes do it in less obvious ways.

For instance, to this day, many British households still have separate hot and cold taps. While some continue this design out of nostalgia or force of habit, there was a very practical reason why this design was first implemented: back in the day, only cold water was drinkable, because hot water was sourced from nearby sewage. It was only as the 20th century progressed towards its second half that hot water, too, became drinkable, and cross-contamination was no longer a problem.

Theoretically, public health officials have (or at least should have) a strong say in urban planning and building design, although this is not always an exact science, and most of the time involves general recommendations.

We are an inherently optimistic species, our buildings tend to mirror this in some regards. But like the old water taps, much of our buildings’ design is precautionary in nature. If infectious diseases are to become prevalent in our society, building design will also take this into consideration.

Here are some ways in which COVID-19 might how our buildings look like.

Taking advantage of nature

Here’s a simple, natural resource we can use: light. It’s very ‘Captain Obvious’, but light is a valuable resource which we often take for granted.

“Daylight exists as a free, widely available resource to building occupants with little downside to its use and many documented positive human health benefits,” write the authors of a new study analyzing how building design can influence pathogen transmission.

Daylight, this ubiquitous and defining element in architecture, can affect indoor bacterial and viral communities. Light in both the UV and visible spectral range can reduce the viability of bacteria compared to dark areas. In a previous study simulating sunlight on influenza virus aerosols, virus half-life was significantly reduced from 31.6 min in the dark control group to 2.4 min in simulated sunlight.

This might be significant for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus.

It is mostly passed from human to human, but surfaces can also become contaminated. While daylight’s effect on indoor viruses and SARS-CoV-2 is still unexplored, natural light can provide some benefits in reducing pathogens in our houses.

Image credits: Miki Kitazawa.

But the benefits of daylight expand further. The sun helps your body produce vitamin D — and as we’re spending much of our time indoors, it’s particularly important for our bodies to produce adequate levels of vitamin D.

Furthermore, several studies have linked low vitamin D levels to a higher risk of respiratory infections, and more severe symptoms when they develop. They’ve also been implicated in the development of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Ventilation can also both reduce and increase the risk of pathogen transmission. Increasing the amount of air flowing in naturally from outside can dilute virus particles indoors, although too much airflow could also stir up settled particles and send them back into the air. Artificial ventilation can also increase the risk of viral transmission, especially when it’s done through air conditioning.

Decoupling thermal space conditioning from other ventilation can be a consideration for future building design, especially for hospitals and crowded buildings with a higher risk of contamination.

Also, virus particles like drier air, so maintaining a high relative humidity can help. This seems to be the case with enveloped viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, but if there’s too much humidity, it can promote mold growth.

Different types of buildings

Will the coronavirus kill the open space workplace? Image credits: Alex Kotliarskyi.

The layout of many buildings might also change as a result of the current pandemic. Most offices and public buildings emphasize transparency and openness, aiming to give a sense of spaciousness. Open-plan concepts have gained popularity, aiming to increase communication between coworkers and favor collaboration and transparency. But this might change in the future.

For all their advantages, such spaces may inadvertently enhance opportunities for transmission of viruses from human to human, especially in a large, densely populated open-space office. An open space may increase connectivity, but it can also increase the risk of pathogen transmission. Traditionally, this has not been a concern, but it might change in the near future.

Furthermore, in this type of building, ventilation needs to play a more important role, compensating for the abundance of people (and microbes).

As we will seemingly be stuck with social distancing measures for months or years, understanding these concepts and applying them in architecture can be an important ally or a foe in the coming months.

Many buildings today are designed to promote social mingling. That may or may not change, but it’s becoming increasingly likely that infectious diseases will be a more important consideration when designing such workspaces.

Long-lasting changes

We’ve already heard it multiple times, but here it goes again: COVID-19 will likely change our society in more ways than we foresee. We’re only dipping our toes in the ice-cold water that is this pandemic, and its effects will live in our society far after the virus itself has hopefully succumbed.

As one of our colleagues was rightfully pointing out, enforcing social distancing in a highly social species like humans is something extremely difficult to accomplish. But humans are nothing if not adaptable.

New situations often sneak in, and before we can even realize it, they become the new norm. Trading aesthetics for function and sanitation has happened before, and it might very well happen now again.

You know those early 20th century bathrooms? The beautiful, ornate, wood-tiled bathrooms that are so incredibly appealing, but far less practical and hygienic than our current setups? That change seemed unimaginable at one point, but it made bathrooms cleaner and safer.

The cover of a 1912 sales pamphlet from the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company (later renamed American Standard) wrote a piece on how much bathrooms changed in only a couple of decades.

“Ideas of sanitation and hygiene apparently unknown but a few short years ago have become so imbred [sic] in our daily lives,” the pamphlet reads, “that were we for any reason, compelled to forgo them, we would feel that we had retrogressed for centuries, instead of the only twenty-five to fifty years in which present day sanitation and hygiene have come into being.”

Who knows, maybe we’ll read this type of article once more, not too long from now.

The unseen dance between urban planning and pandemics

Our cities and pandemics go hand in hand, influencing each other in a subtle tug-and-pull, oftentimes with important and long-lasting consequences.

Among the simplest suggestions for healthier buildings: opening windows to improve air circulation and opening blinds to admit natural daylight. Credits: Lucian Alexe / Unsplash.

Diseases shape urban design

In the mid 19th century, John Snow was somewhat of an outlier in the scientific community. He wasn’t a believer in the then-dominant miasma theory which assumed that diseases such as cholera and the plague were caused by pollution or a noxious form of “bad air”. Instead, Snow believed something else was at work, so in 1854 when the cholera outbreak ravaged London, he did something no one else had thought of before: he made a map of the infection.

“[N]early all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the Broad Street pump,” Snow wrote, identifying that water pump as the source of the cholera outbreak. With it, he discovered a pattern suggestive of a different spreading mechanism.

His theory was indeed correct. As we all know today, cholera spreads through infected water, not miasma. It took some time before Snow finally persuaded the local council to disable the public well pumps by removing their handles. It took a bit of political back-and-forth, but ultimately, Snow’s theory changed the way cities use public water pumps forever. This is just one striking example of how diseases can shape our cities, and it’s far from being an isolated one.

Urban design and public health intersect in many ways. It’s not always an exact science, as many external factors come into play in this equation (things such as culture and physical geography), but the way we design our cities does affect outbreaks.

Large cities (over 1-2 million people) tend to gain accentuated value in many societal aspects. They tend to have a better-educated population, more jobs, more entrepreneurs, and so on. But they also bring higher risks when it comes to things like violence, pollution, and epidemics. The same underlying mechanism that boosts urban innovation can also explain why certain types of crimes (and outbreaks) thrive in a larger population.

The downsides of large cities are often overlooked in comparison to the advantages they bring, but COVID-19 is forcing us to re-think how we design our cities — especially as global epidemics are becoming become more frequent. Increasingly, epidemics are becoming global — and urban — problems. This makes disease an aspect worth considering both for sprawling metropolises and up-and-coming urban areas.

More than just urbanization and densification

It’s easy to look at COVID-19 and say it was amplificated by globalization. But this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Outbreaks like this one start in and spread from the edges of cities, and into urban and suburban areas. Rapid urbanization enables the spread of infectious disease, and peripheral sites are particularly susceptible to disease vectors like mosquitoes or ticks. Increasingly, cities aren’t uniform, singular bodies — they are more like amorphous blobs, split into clusters connected in ways that are often complex. People’s income, age, habits, and culture can play a role, as do existing infrastructure and geography

They are all linked, however, by transportation. A city’s transportation is its lifeblood — and also the first route of possible disease spread. COVID-19 spread far and wide through airports, and most airports were not designed to feature quarantine areas or medical testing. This is perhaps the simplest and most consequential urban change that can be done to limit the risk of a disease spreading into the city, yet it’s often overlooked.

There is a healthy amount of chance involved in how diseases spread as well. New York is one of the most globalized cities in the world, but its outbreak happened weeks after the one in Italy and Spain, and studies have suggested that most of NYC’s coronavirus cases came from Europe itself.

Regardless of how it happens, once a disease starts to spread inside a city, things get much more complicated and site-specific.

Cities urbanize the areas around them in different ways. In the US, suburban areas are often hubs for affluent people whereas, in most of Europe, central areas are more desirable. This can influence disease spread, and it’s important to look at cities in their cultural and historic context.

Density alone also doesn’t tell the whole story.

Hong Kong. Image credits: bady QB / Unsplash.

Hong Kong has 17,311 people per square mile, and yet it managed to contain its outbreak admirably so far. It’s also a very cosmopolitan city, very close to China — a prime suspect for a severe outbreak, but Hong Kong hasn’t even come close to what New York is seeing.

Meanwhile, Washington state (much like what we have seen in Italy) is largely suburban, yet the disease has still spread with stunning speed. It’s still early to draw any crystal-clear lessons, but the level of urbanization doesn’t necessarily seem to correlate with how heavily hit an area is. There are likely other, more subtle aspects at play, which city planners will need to analyze and adapt to, just like they did after John Snow’s findings.

Rich-poor segregation also doesn’t really help cluster down the outbreak. In several US communities, the disease was brought in by inhabitants of affluent suburbs, but then disproportionately spread to some of the poorest neighborhoods. Quite likely, some affluent areas are spared because their inhabitants can afford to enter quarantine or work from home, whereas this might not be the case in other neighborhoods.

Digital infrastructure

Imagine if this pandemic would have happened 10 years ago. The mere thought that we would have to do this without internet deliveries is horrifying. Then, there’s all the digitized information that both we as citizens and decision-makers have available at our fingertips. There’s never a good time for a pandemic, but at least in terms of digital infrastructure, we’re way better prepared than we were a few years ago.

Digital infrastructure is becoming an increasingly important part of a city’s infrastructure, but we need to find ways to use it properly.

The next challenge is to figure out what data is useful, how to get it, and how to make decisions off of it. A good example in the current pandemic is Johns Hopkins’s CSSE aggregator of information. This dataset and visualization, which we have also used, was extremely useful in understanding the scale and overall evolution of the disease at the global level. As the outbreak progressed, several other datasets emerged, on international, national, and even local levels.

Having access to this unprecedented level of data is a game-changer. Even for cities lacking a solid digital infrastructure, having access to open-source data enables decision-makers to plan with unprecedented quality of information. Meanwhile, countries that have invested in building this digital infrastructure up are reaping the rewards. In Germany, for instance, you can watch a real-time map of hospital bed capacity, showing which areas are at full capacity and which can still take extra patients — an initiative which can be carried out at low costs, but which can carry huge rewards.

Much like they organize streets and buildings, city planners will need to look at what digital infrastructure is required in a city, and how it can be organized and used both in normal times and in times of crisis. The amorphous shape of cities will also carry on to the online infrastructure.

Looking into the next few years, as the world will start to shake off the COVID-19 crisis, we will enter another wave of megaurbanization. Urban regions would do well to develop efficient and innovative methods of confronting emerging infectious disease without relying on drastic top-down state measures that can be disruptive and often counter-productive.

Over the course of this pandemic, the US has demonstrated just how important it is for cities to be able to fend for themselves, and how devastating it is when they don’t.

In general, urbanization plans should account for fighting racism and intercultural conflict. Epidemic planning also falls into this category, and it’s more important than ever for cities to also consider this.

Cities are hotspots of innovation and solution-finding, but they can also be hotspots of disease spread. From cities, we will find both our solutions and our biggest problems. COVID-19 isn’t the last global outbreak we will have to face. Hopefully, the world’s cities will rise up to the challenge.

Buildings grown by bacteria — it’s not as crazy as it sounds, and it’s actively researched

Buildings are not unlike a human body. They have bones and skin; they breathe. Electrified, they consume energy, regulate temperature and generate waste. Buildings are organisms – albeit inanimate ones.

A block of sand particles held together by living cells. Image credits: University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science.

But what if buildings – walls, roofs, floors, windows – were actually alive – grown, maintained and healed by living materials? Imagine architects using genetic tools that encode the architecture of a building right into the DNA of organisms, which then grow buildings that self-repair, interact with their inhabitants and adapt to the environment.

Living architecture is moving from the realm of science fiction into the laboratory as interdisciplinary teams of researchers turn living cells into microscopic factories. At the University of Colorado Boulder, I lead the Living Materials Laboratory. Together with collaborators in biochemistry, microbiology, materials science and structural engineering, we use synthetic biology toolkits to engineer bacteria to create useful minerals and polymers and form them into living building blocks that could, one day, bring buildings to life.

In one study published in Scientific Reports, my colleagues and I genetically programmed E. coli to create limestone particles with different shapes, sizes, stiffnesses and toughness. In another study, we showed that E. coli can be genetically programmed to produce styrene – the chemical used to make polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam.

Green cells for green building

In our most recent work, published in Matter, we used photosynthetic cyanobacteria to help us grow a structural building material – and we kept it alive. Similar to algae, cyanobacteria are green microorganisms found throughout the environment but best known for growing on the walls in your fish tank. Instead of emitting CO2, cyanobacteria use CO2 and sunlight to grow and, in the right conditions, create a biocement, which we used to help us bind sand particles together to make a living brick.

By keeping the cyanobacteria alive, we were able to manufacture building materials exponentially. We took one living brick, split it in half and grew two full bricks from the halves. The two full bricks grew into four, and four grew into eight. Instead of creating one brick at a time, we harnessed the exponential growth of bacteria to grow many bricks at once – demonstrating a brand new method of manufacturing materials.

Living building materials can be formed into many shapes, like this truss. Image credits: University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Researchers have only scratched the surface of the potential of engineered living materials. Other organisms could impart other living functions to material building blocks. For example, different bacteria could produce materials that heal themselves, sense and respond to external stimuli like pressure and temperature, or even light up. If nature can do it, living materials can be engineered to do it, too.

It also take less energy to produce living buildings than standard ones. Making and transporting today’s building materials uses a lot of energy and emits a lot of CO2. For example, limestone is burned to make cement for concrete. Metals and sand are mined and melted to make steel and glass. The manufacture, transport and assembly of building materials account for 11% of global CO2 emissionsCement production alone accounts for 8%. In contrast, some living materials, like our cyanobacteria bricks, could actually sequester CO2.

A growing field

Teams of researchers from around the world are demonstrating the power and potential of engineered living materials at many scales, including electrically conductive biofilmssingle-cell living catalysts for polymerization reactions and living photovoltaics. Researchers have made living masks that sense and communicate exposure to toxic chemicals. Researchers are also trying to grow and assemble bulk materials from a genetically programmed single cell.

While single cells are often smaller than a micron in size – one thousandth of a millimeter – advances in biotechnology and 3D printing enable commercial production of living materials at the human scale. Ecovative, for example, grows foam-like materials using fungal mycelium. Biomason produces biocemented blocks and ceramic tiles using microorganisms. Although these products are rendered lifeless at the end of the manufacturing process, researchers from Delft University of Technology have devised a way to encapsulate and 3D-print living bacteria into multilayer structures that could emit light when they encounter certain chemicals.

The field of engineered living materials is in its infancy, and further research and development is needed to bridge the gap between laboratory research and commercial availability. Challenges include cost, testing, certification and scaling up production. Consumer acceptance is another issue. For example, the construction industry has a negative perception of living organisms. Think mold, mildew, spiders, ants and termites. We’re hoping to shift that perception. Researchers working on living materials also need to address concerns about safety and biocontamination.

The National Science Foundation recently named engineered living materials one of the country’s key research priorities. Synthetic biology and engineered living materials will play a critical role in tackling the challenges humans will face in the 2020s and beyond: climate change, disaster resilience, aging and overburdened infrastructure, and space exploration.

If humanity had a blank landscape, how would people build things? Knowing what scientists know now, I’m certain that we would not burn limestone to make cement, mine ore to make steel or melt sand to make glass. Instead, I believe we would turn to biology to help us build and blur the boundaries between our built environment and the living, natural world.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Italian hospital 3D prints ventilator parts, saves lives

The city of Brescia, Italy is in the coronavirus epicenter in the country. It’s heavily affected by the coronavirus outbreak, and in several areas, hospitals are overwhelmed by the influx of patients.

But among the deluge of tragedies, there is also some good news: when a life-saving part broke down and there was no quick availability, 3D printing came in to save the day.

The original valve (on the left) and its 3D printed twin. Image credits: 3D Printing Media.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is mild in most cases. But it can require hospitalization, and it can be life threatening. The biggest problem is that it can cause pneumonia and other respiratory issues. In severe cases, patients find it hard to breathe and must be connected to a ventilator. When the ventilator breaks down, people’s lives can be threatened.

This is what happened in Brescia.

The hospital needed extra ventilator valves faster than any supplier could deliver them — everyone was out.

A local company brought a 3D printer to the hospital, designed new valves, and printed them out within hours.

Coronavirus, meet technology

Massimo Temporelli, founder of The FabLab in Milan and a very active and popular promoter of 3D printing in Italy, reported early on Friday 13th that he was contacted by Nunzia Vallini, editor of the Giornale di Brescia.

The two had worked together about disseminating a concept called Industry 4.0 — think smart cities, Internet of Things, 3D printing, things like that. But this was not a communication issue.

The hospital in Brescia urgently needed valves for an intensive care unit, and the suppliers could not provide them in time. Running out would leave patients completely vulnerable.

After several intense phone calls, they found someone that was up for the job. A local company, Isinnova, responded to this call for help. Founder & CEO Cristian Fracassi, brought a 3D printer to the hospital. In a few hours, he had redesigned and produced the missing piece. Soon enough, they had built several such valves.

https://www.facebook.com/Ing.Cristian.Fracassi/posts/10222328772396310

“There were people in danger of life, and we acted,” Fracassi wrote, as translated by Metro. “Period. Now, with a cold mind, let’s think. Firstly, don’t call us, as some have, heroes. Sure, people were about to die, but we only did our duty. Refusing would not have been a cowardly act, but murderous.”

Another local company, Lonati SpA, used another technique (a polymer laser powder bed fusion) to produce even more valves.

As far as we understand, the hospital needs copyright to mass-produce such valves, but they can be produced without any infringement in the case of an emergency — as is obviously the case here.

It is a striking reminder that we are not powerless against the outbreak. Through measures both simple and complex, we can fight back and save lives.

Soft robot hand can sweat to keep itself cool

Credit: Mishra et al, Science Robotics.

An experimental soft-bodied robotic hand maintains a stable temperature by releasing water through its tiny pores.

Although still a proof of concept, this bio-inspired approach could lead to a new class of robots that can operate for prolonged periods of time without overheating.

Sweaty robot palms

Robots and mechanical machines, in general, face important thermoregulation challenges, either because their components overheat or due to operating in hot environments like an assembly line or out in the field on a summer day. Cooling consumes a lot of energy, raising costs, while poor heat management can significantly impact the durability and performance of the machines.

Researchers at the Cornell University, Facebook Reality Labs, and the Center for Micro-BioRobotics in Pisa, addressed this challenge by looking at nature for a solution — the cooling power of perspiration naturally stood out.

“We believe [this] is a basic building block of a general purpose, adaptive, and enduring robot,” said Robert Shepherd, associate professor of Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and co-author of the research,

When our bodies heat up, our millions of glands across our skin produce sweat — mostly water with a little bit of potassium, salt, and a few other minerals. Humans have the most efficient sweating system that we know of — we’re more of an exception in that we rely on secreting water on our skin to stay cool. Most furry mammals regulate their body temperature through panting while other animals like ectotherms — lizards, amphibians, and insects — have evolved other behaviors that help keep them cool.

Sweating enabled humans to march all day, even on hot summer days when most predators are out in the shade cooling off. So, in many ways, sweating has been a secret weapon that helped us survive and thrive across the world, in many different climates.

It makes sense to model some of our machines after this biological mechanism.

“It turns out that the ability to perspire is one of the most remarkable features of humans,” said Thomas Wallin, an engineer at Facebook Reality Labs and co-author of the new study. “We’re not the fastest animals, but early humans found success as persistent hunters. The combination of sweating, relative hairlessness, and an upright bipedal gait enabled us to physically exhaust our prey over prolonged chases.”

Credit: Science Robotics.

Wallin and colleagues designed a balloon-like robot fitted with pores that allow water to slowly ooze out — but only once the “body” temperature reaches a certain threshold. In order to make the hand-shaped robot respond to temperature, the researchers employed a hydrogel material called poly-N-isopropylacrylamide (PNIPAm). This material reacts to temperature passively, without the need for sensors or additional electronic components.

At 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), the micropores in the soft robot’s top layer stay closed. Beyond this temperature, the pores expand, allowing pressurized fluid to leak — the robot sweats.

Experiments during which the robot was exposed to wind from a fan showed that the cooling rate was six times better than non-sweating machines. In fact, the thermoregulatory performance was even better than humans and horses (the other animal that sweats, although quite differently than humans do; horses still mainly rely on panting to cool off).

Such soft robots, however, aren’t well suited for all types of applications. The dripping solution makes the soft actuators slippery, making grasping challenging. The robot also runs out of water eventually and a refillable water tank isn’t always an option.

It’s still a very interesting proof of concept that shows you don’t need huge heat sinks and cooling fans to keep a robot’s temperature at optimal levels.

The findings appeared in the journal Science Robotics.

Urban pigeons often have maimed feet. Now, researchers know why — and it’s not what you think

Image credits: Jiguet et al.

It’s rather unceremonious, but easy to understand, why pigeons are sometimes referred to as ‘rats with wings’. Just like their unrelated namesakes, pigeons have become ubiquitous in virtually all urban areas. Pigeons thrive in cities, they love most sorts of discarded food, and have almost no natural predators. It’s pretty easy to understand why they’ve become such a common sight — but life isn’t peachy for urban pigeons, either.

If you’ve ever glanced at a group of pigeons, you may have noticed a peculiar thing: their feet are often maimed — sometimes, quite gruesomely. It’s one of those things which you may not notice in the first place, but once you do, you see it everywhere. It seems that everywhere you look, a large proportion of pigeons have maimed feet, and it’s not exactly clear why. A team of researchers at the Institute of ecology and environmental sciences had the same question — so they set out to study it.

Now, they believe they’ve found a likely culprit: human hair.

“The study arose from the observation, made by birders and vets, that pigeons often carry strings on their feet, and that handicapped toes always show a sign of past strangulation,” lead author Frédéric Jiguet tells ZME Science.

It’s always hard to pinpoint the source of the damage in this type of scenario. Urban environments are among the most polluted on Earth. In between the organic waste on the streets, pollution in the water, noise, light, and permanent emissions from cars on the road, there’s no shortage of potential causes for biological damage. In fact, pollution and pigeon toe mutilation go hand in hand.

The team surveyed blocks of homogeneous habitat types, noting the degree of observed mutilation in the pigeon populations. They then analyzed a larger dataset to predict the occurrence and number of mutilation in non-juvenile pigeons, noting relevant environmental and sociodemographic factors that could be linked to the mutilation.

The team found that human pollution probably plays a role in almost all cases. Pigeons living in areas with higher rates of air and noise pollution tended to have fewer digits than those who live in greener areas. But there was another, more surprising correlation: toe mutilation tends to be more common in areas with a higher density of hairdressers. In other words, human hair might be to blame for the pigeon’s toe woes.

This is consistent with previous observations. A 2018 observation of foot and toe injury found a systematic connection to strings and/or human hair — something called ‘stringfoot’. What happens is the string or hair gets wrapped around the pigeon’s toe, where it tightens more and more. Human hair is extremely sturdy in this sort of scenario. Eventually, blood supply is cut off until necrosis causes the toe to fall off. This was also supported by observations carried out on mutilated toes, which seem to be consistent with stringfoot.

In this light, the connection to hairdressers doesn’t seem coincidental — there are more hairs that get entangled in the unfortunate birds’ feet.

Jiguet adds that although the anti-pigeon spikes that have become more and more common can do damage to birds, the spikes would injure the wings or body of the pigeons, not the toes.

“Urbanization is intensifying worldwide, and little is known about
how changes in urban landscapes influence wildlife health in cities,” the study authors write.

“The growing recognition of the value of urban wildlife for human well-being requires the protection of wildlife health as well as human health”

The study “Urban pigeons losing toes due to human activities” has been published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Da Vinci’s bridge that never was — how the world missed an architectural revolution

A design created by the Italian polymath was brought to life with 3D printing. It worked splendidly.

Masters student Karly Bast shows off the scale model of a bridge designed by Leonardo da Vinci that she and her co-workers used to prove the design’s feasibility. Photo: Gretchen Ertl / MIT

A revolution that wasn’t

It’s been five centuries since Leonardo da Vinci released his works into the world, and they’ve never ceased to amaze us. Whether it’s art, anatomy, or engineering, da Vinci was truly ahead of his time — the archetype of the fabled “Renaissance man”, he was not only brilliant but also incredibly productive.

For a man of da Vinci’s caliber, there was never a shortage of work. Most of the time, da Vinci would work for wealthy patrons, like Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, who commissioned the famous “Last Supper” painting. But people from all over the world would ask for da Vinci’s services. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Baiazid II, did not specifically ask for da Vinci, but the two would ultimately interact.

The Sultan sent word of a contract to build a bridge. The bridge would connect the capital city Constantinopole (Istanbul) with the neighboring city of Galata. It was a big project, and da Vinci relished his chance when he heard about it. He submitted a project to the Sultan — and it was a project unlike any other the world had ever seen.

It was 218 meters long (or 918 feet — although neither measurement system had been developed at the time), which would have made it the longest bridge in the world by a big margin. Not only this, but it proposed a style of design that was completely unheard of.

Leonardo da Vinci’s original drawing of the bridge proposal, showing a plan view at top and a side view (elevation) below, including a sailboat passing under the bridge, along with drawings that students Bast and Michelle Xie produced to show how the structure could be divided up into 126 individual blocks that were 3D printed to scale. Image credits: Karly Bast and Michelle Xie / MIT.

In Leonardo’s time, masonry bridges were typically supported by semicircular arches. Often times, bridges had one or two piers to support them — da Vinci’s bridge would have required 10. The concept was remarkable: a flattened arch, tall enough to allow sailboats to pass. Another innovation proposed by da Vinci was the use of abutments — structures used routinely in bridges today to support the lateral pressure of an arch or span. This would address one of the biggest problems bridges had at the time, stabilizing against lateral motions.

It was a complete revolution madness at the time. Da Vinci wrapped up his design and sent it to the Sultan — but the Sultan didn’t want it. He rejected it and went for a more conventional approach, rejecting the potential of revolutionizing bridge construction.

3D printing Leonardo

However, while da Vinci didn’t get the job, a group of MIT students set out to figure out whether the bridge could have worked or not.

In his letter to the Sultan, Da Vinci didn’t specify what materials he would have used. But the MIT team analyzed the materials and techniques available at the time, concluding that the bridge would have had to be made of stone because wood or brick couldn’t carry such a long load. Furthermore, as in the Roman bridges of old, no mortar would have been necessary — the bridge would stand on its own under the force of gravity.

The team decided on building a scale model, at a scale of 1 to 500 (making it about 32 inches long). A total of 126 blocks were 3D-printed; for the real thing, thousands of rocks would have been necessary.

“It was time-consuming, but 3-D printing allowed us to accurately recreate this very complex geometry,” Bast says.

“It’s all held together by compression only,” she says. “We wanted to really show that the forces are all being transferred within the structure,” which is key to ensuring that the bridge would stand solidly and not topple.

As with actual masonry arch bridges, the “stones” were supported by a scaffolding structure. After they were all in place, the structure was capable of supporting itself, and the scaffolding was removed. At the top of every arch, there was a crucial keystone.

“When we put it in, we had to squeeze it in. That was the critical moment when we first put the bridge together. I had a lot of doubts” as to whether it would all work, Bast recalls. But “when I put the keystone in, I thought, ‘this is going to work.’ And after that, we took the scaffolding out, and it stood up.”

“It’s the power of geometry” that makes it work, she says. “This is a strong concept. It was well thought out.”

Furthermore, it seems that Leonardo was aware that the area where the bridge was to be built was prone to earthquake. He also introduced uncommon features (such as the spread footing) into the design, which would increase the durability of the bridge in case of lateral movement.

The design seems to have everything it needs to work out, and the possibilities it raised were truly intriguing. Unfortunately, it never really caught wings, and the medieval world lost out.

Nowadays, Leonardo’s design wouldn’t really be of much use, since the materials we use today are so different from what is naturally available. But this just goes to show just how outstanding da Vinci’s mind truly was, and what beauties it was capable of producing.

Just one question remains: was Leonardo truly aware of what he proposed? Was it something he carefully considered, or simply a rough sketch? We don’t really know — and we probably never will. What we do know is that Leonardo’s stunning design could work.

“He knew how the physical world works,” Bast concludes.

The abstract is available online.

How UV lights could end up saving crane species

Cranes are some of the most iconic bird species in the world — but they’re declining rapidly due to several factors, most of which involve human activity. Lethal collisions with power lines, for instance, are an ongoing threat to many crane populations. Several approaches have been tried to make these lines more visible, with varying degrees of success.

Now, a new study reports that adding UV lights — to which many birds are highly sensitive — can decrease crane collisions with power lines by 98%.

Cranes are a family of long-legged birds inhabiting all continents except Antarctica and, mysteriously, South America. Most species of cranes are dependent on wetlands and require large areas of open space. They tend to fly over large distances, although some species don’t migrate at all. For decades, researchers have reported that some cranes tend to fly into power lines, which is extremely dangerous to the birds and can easily be fatal.

James Dwyer and his colleagues from EDM International, an electrical utility company, created what they call the Avian Collision Avoidance System, or ACAS. The system essentially involves a set of UV lights mounted on power lines’ supporting structures.

They tested its effectiveness in 2018 at Nebraska’s Iain Nicolson Audubon Center, where a power line crosses right through a key habitat for migrating Sandhill Cranes. Randomly switching the ACAS on or off each night, researchers observed the behavior of cranes flying along the river at dusk and during the night. They documented 98% fewer collisions and 82% fewer dangerous flights when the ACAS was on.

“This project came about as a result of years of studying avian collisions with power lines throughout North America. My studies included collisions involving numerous species and families of birds, even on lines modified to industry standards to mitigate avian collisions, and I thought perhaps there could be a more effective approach,” says Dwyer.

Even so, the results were so good that they surprised even him.

“I did not imagine that the ACAS would have the effect that it did–a 98% reduction in collisions! I thought it would have some effect, but I didn’t dare think the ACAS would pretty much solve the Sandhill Crane collision problem at our study site on our first try,” he adds.

This is still a case study — the technology needs to be verified on multiple types of power lines and in multiple habitats. Dwyer also says that effectiveness ACAS needs to be investigated on other smaller species, which may also be at risk of collision with power lines.

“Because large carcasses like those of cranes and waterbirds are more easily noticed than smaller species like sparrows and warblers, collision studies have mostly focused on those larger species, and I fear that we may not understand the true distribution of species and habitats involved in the global avian collision problem.”

The study was published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

Trees help keep cities cool and cozy — especially if there’s a lot of them

The fact that cities are heat islands has been thoroughly documented in recent years — in all parts of the world, urban areas are considerably hotter than their surroundings. However, trees can help counterbalance that phenomenon, helping to keep our cities cooler. The effect is especially pronounced for a large number of trees.

The list of benefits that trees provide in urban areas is huge. Not only do they help absorb carbon and pollutants from the air, but they help with soil erosion and stability, water absorption and filtration, they provide ecosystems for a number of creatures, and offer shade and protection from wind. Studies have shown that trees inspire children to be more curious and fond of nature, increase property values, and can even help reduce criminality rates.

Another service which trees provide is thermal regulation. That has been suggested by previous studies and is quite intuitive. However, a new study shows that the relationship isn’t linear. When the canopy cover reaches a particular threshold, the effect is much more pronounced.

“We found that to get the most cooling, you have to have about 40 per cent canopy cover, and this was strongest around the scale of a city block,” says Carly Ziter, an assistant professor of biology in the Faculty of Arts and Science, and lead author of the study. “So if your neighbourhood has less than 40 per cent canopy cover, you’ll get a little bit of cooling, but not very much. Once you tip over that threshold, you really see large increases in how much you can cool areas off.”

The effects can be huge. The temperature difference from tree-less area just a few hundred meters away from an area with a heavy canopy cover can be as high as four or five degrees Celsius. It’s not just the shade either. Trees transpire, giving off water vapor, almost like a natural air conditioner.

The measurements for the study were simple but very effective. Ziter and colleagues built small, battery-powered mobile weather stations and mounted them on bicycles. They then cycled all around the city, serving as a mobile data stations.

“By doing this over the course of a summer, we found that temperatures vary just as much within the city itself as they do between the city and the surrounding countryside,” she says. “We’re not seeing so much of a ‘heat island’ as a ‘heat archipelago.'”

Researchers hope that their findings will be considered by policymakers and city planners. For instance, cities or areas with a canopy close to 40% would have the most incentives to plant more trees, although in truth, virtually all cities in the world would benefit from having more trees.

“We know that something as simple as having one nice big tree nearby can have a huge host of benefits on people who live in the city,” Ziter concludes.

The study has been published in PNAS.