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Posts about cool products including high tech gadgets, appropriate technology solutions and possible products in the future. Recommended posts: Lego Learning (mindstorms) - Lifestraw - Video Goggles - Wakamaru Robot - Re-engineered Wheelchair

Scientific Inquiry Leads to Using Fluoride for Healthy Teeth

This webcast, from the wonderful SciShow, explores how we discovered fluoride helps prevent tooth decay and how we then used that knowledge and finally discovered why it worked.

I love stories of how we learn for observing what is happening. We don’t always need to innovate by thinking up creative new ideas. If we are observant we can pick up anomalies and then examine the situation to find possible explanations and then experiment to see if those explanations prove true.

When working this way we often are seeing correlation and then trying to figure out which part of the correlation is an actual cause. So in this dental example, a dentist noticed his patients had bad brown stains on their teeth than others populations did.

After investigation the natural fluoridation of the water in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA seemed like it might be an explanation (though they didn’t understand the chemistry that would cause that result). They also explored the sense that the discolored teeth were resistant to decay.

Even without knowing why it is possible to test if the conditions are the cause. Scientists discovered by reducing the level of fluoridation in the water the ugly brown stains could be eliminated (these stains took a long time to develop and didn’t develop in adults). Eventually scientists ran an experiment in Grand Rapids, Michigan and found fluoridation of the water achieved amazing results for dental health. The practice of fluoridation was then adopted widely and resulted in greatly improved dental health.

In 1901, Frederick McKay, a recent dental school graduate, opened a dental practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was interested in what he saw and sought out other dentists to explore the situation with him but had little success. In 1909, he found some success when renowned dental researcher Dr. G.V. Black collaborate with him.
Dr. H. Trendley Dean, head of the Dental Hygiene Unit at the National Institute of Health built on their work when he began investigating the epidemiology of fluorosis in 1931. It wasn’t until 1945 that the Grand Rapids test started. Science can take a long time to move forward.

Only later did scientists unravel why this worked. The fluoride reacts to create a stronger enamel than if the fluoride is not present. Which results in the enamal being less easily dissolved by bacteria.
Health tip: use a dental stimudent (dental picks) or floss your teeth to maintain healthy gums and prevent tooth decay. It makes a big difference.

Related: Why does orange juice taste so bad after brushing your teeth?Microbiologist Develops Mouthwash That Targets Only Harmful Cavity Causing BacteriaUsing Nanocomposites to Improve Dental Filling PerformanceFinding a Dentist in Chiang Mai, ThailandFalse Teeth For CatsWhy Does Hair Turn Grey as We Age?

MudWatt: Make Power From Mud!

Keegan Cooke and Kevin Rand created MudWatt kits as a way to engage kids/students with science. From the website:

We want to show kids this brighter side of STEM, to empower them to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. Because let’s face it, there are plenty of problems in the world that need solving.

Unfortunately, our experience in school wasn’t unique. In 2011, less than one-third of 8th graders in the U.S. were deemed proficient in science. Today, 70% of the fastest growing careers are in STEM fields. The supply of STEM education is not meeting the demand.

Most of the world’s mud contain microbes that produce electricity when they eat. That is the engine driving the MudWatt. Colonies of special bacteria (called shewanella and geobacter) generate the electricity in a MudWatt.

The electricity output is proportional to the health and activity of that bacterial colony. By maintaining these colonies in different ways, you can use MudWatt to run all kinds of great experiments. Thus the MudWatt allows kids to engage with science, using their natural curiosity to experiment and learn. Engaging this too-often-neglected human potential will bring joy to those kids (as kids and as grown-ups) and benefit our society.

With standard topsoils, typical power levels are around 100 microWatts, which is enough to power the LED, buzzer, clock, etc..

Related: Arduino, open source hardware (Introduction Video Tutorial)Teaching Through TinkeringAwesome Gifts for the Maker in Your LifeQubits Construction Toy

3D Printing at Home: Today, Challenges and Opportunities

Guest post by Noah Hornberger

The State of 3D Printing at Home

Rapid prototyping is very rewarding. Moving from an idea that you had during breakfast to an object you can hold in your hands by lunchtime feels like magic or science fiction.

Modeling tools are getting easier to use, making the actual process of designing 3D objects fairly intuitive and dare I say . . . easy. I suspect home 3D printing is empowering a silent revolution that will be more and more apparent in the coming years.

3d printed taco holder with tacos

Taco Shell Holder, a recent idea I had during breakfast was ready to test the next day.

Even so, there is a lot of quirkiness to the 3D print technology that an average consumer is probably not ready to deal with. In this post I want to give inside information I have learned by running my own home-based 3D print business. I have been there in the trenches, with a queue of orders, a few 3D printers and the drive to make it happen. And let me tell you that without the drive to push past the obstacles, it really would not be possible to run a 3D print-on-demand business this way.

3D printers have enabled me to pull off an impossible task of distributing my own artistic products to an international market. I have shipped to USA, Spain, Australia, Norway, Canada, and the UK. And this May of 2015 marks my first year of owning a 3D printer.

small 3d printed planters, 1 with a plant growing in it

Mini Dodecahedron Planters, my first attempt at designing and printing an idea from scratch. I was hooked.

So there is some magic I would say in being able to move through iterations of your ideas so fast. And magic in being able to post photos of your products that people can understand to be real and tangible things.

I have had ideas for products for many years and even tried to launch them (unsuccessfully). But now things are different. I do not have to convince people that an idea is good, I can show them a real example of finished art they can own.

I would argue that 3D modeling is the easiest part of the process. Getting a spectacular print can take some work and patience, because it can involve re-starting the printer with small changes in settings each time. As an American trained artist, I have a tendency to want things to be fast and easy. I want to press a button and it just works. 3D printers can kind of promise this ability, but most often, I am stepping in to keep the machines on track.

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Biomass Fueled Power Generator from All Power Labs

All Power Labs produces biomass fueled power generators. They have grown from a open science and engineering foundation to their current position. I really like how they are focused on promoting understanding and encouraging collaboration.

They reject the copyright cartel closed science mindset; which is something I like. Their product takes waste biomass; for example walnut shells, coconut shells, hardwood chips (Oak, Beech), softwood chips (Douglas Fir, Pine). It also takes corn cobs, palm kernel shells and others but there are additional challenges to operation.

Their products use gasification which is most simply thought of as choked combustion or incomplete combustion. It is burning solid fuels like wood or coal without enough air to complete combustion, so the output gas still has combustion potential. The unburned gas is then piped away to burn elsewhere as needed.

The Power Pallet is a complete biomass power generation solution that converts woody biomass into electricity. It costs $29,995 which translates to a cost of $1-$2/watt which is more cost effective that alternatives. They have significant sales in developing markets where power is often problematic. It is specifically not suited to some fuel – wastepaper (could maybe work in pelletized form), municipal waste, coconut husk…

This webcast is the start of a presentation on the history and current state of their efforts (continue to view other clips for the whole presentation):

Related: Ethanol: Science Based Solution or Special Interest WelfareDo It Yourself Solar Furnace for Home HeatingKudzu Biofuel Potential Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally from 2005 to 2012Turning Trash into Electricity (2006)

Manufacture Biological Sensors Using Silk and Looms

The fabric chip platform from Achira Labs in India uses looms to manufacture biological sensors.

Image of process for creating silk test strips

image by Achira Labs

Yarn coated with appropriate biological reagents like antibodies or enzymes is woven into a piece of fabric at the desired location. Strips of fabric are then cut out, packaged and can form the substrate for di erent biological assays. Even a simple handloom could produce thousands of these sensors at very low cost.

The resulting fabrics can be used to test for pregnancy, diabetes, chronic diseases, etc.. Achira Labs, an Indian start-up, received $100,000 in Canadian funding in 2013 to develop a silk strip that can diagnose rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea and can be used in diapers.

The company is planing to start selling silk diabetes test strips using there process this year and expects costs to be about 1/3 of the existing test strips using conventional manufacturing processes.

Related: Appropriate Technology Health Care Solution Could Save 72,000 Lives a YearWater WheelUsing Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless AreasAppropriate Technology: Self Adjusting Glasses

The Downside of Adopting the Metric System

The only downside of adopting the metric system is less control over room temperature (based on my experience). Every ºC = ºF * 1.8 so have less control (when using only integers to control temperature as is the case in my experience).

Granted this could be solved easily by using .5 (option in air conditioning and heating controllers but in my experience they don’t) for Celsius. For Fahrenheit this works out to enough control for me. For Celsius in a fair number (lets say 15%) of systems it is a bit uncomfortable.

The specific circumstances add greatly to creating a problem. My guess is those that annoy me swing even further than 1 ºC, they move further in one direction in order to not turn on and off all the time. So maybe that moves to swings of 2 or 3 ºC at the measurement point. But that is another issue, the measurement on home (or hotel) systems is often 1 reader so the variation is often greater in other locations.

Add to that the imprecision of their measures, I don’t have good data, but I am confident that the measurement error is fairly high. I am pretty comfortable at about 25ºC for air conditioning. But in some places I am cold at 27º and others I am warm at 23º. It could be me, but I don’t think so (most of the time – sometimes it is me).

A long time ago I had some imprecise portable temperature gauge and while I wouldn’t stake my life on results based on it, it confirmed my feelings (when I felt it was warmer than the local reading said my device agreed and when I felt it was colder my device agreed). Hardly scientifically valid proof, but it made me more comfortable trusting my opinion on this matter anyway.

My guess is in a unit using ºF you often can be 4 or 5 degrees off (or more) in different locations. For some people that might be ok. But for me that often starts to be uncomfortable. If you convert the issue to that time 1.8 it is noticably worse.

Now in reality I don’t think it expands quite that much. While the manufactures balance the confusion of adding .5 to a Celsius controller and decide not to, I would think they don’t swing 1.8 times as far (in heating or cooling in order to not turn on and off all the time), but it is still let precise than using Fahrenheit integers. I believe (hope) they set their internal dynamics not based only on integers but could say for example turn off .5º past the setting and turn on when the conditions are .5º worse than the setting (so .5º too warm in the case of air conditioning, for example).

It is still lame the USA fails to adopt the metric system, but reducing this problem in the USA is one small benefit of holding off :-) I wonder if 1 in a million, 1 in 10 million… up to 1 in 7.2 billion people (just me, all alone in the world) have my concern for the lack of precision of heating and air conditioners when using the metric system.

Related: Google Lets Servers Stay Hot, Saving Air Conditioning CostsDo It Yourself Solar Furnace for Home HeatingUsing Algae Filled Window Panes to Provide Passive and Active Solar

Appropriate Technology and Focus on Improving Lives at MIT

I have written about the D-lab at MIT founded by Amy Smith. This is just a reminder of all the good stuff they are doing. The D-Lab is building a global network of innovators to design and disseminate technologies that meaningfully improve the lives of people living in poverty. The program’s mission is pursued through interdisciplinary courses, technology development, and community initiatives, all of which emphasize experiential learning, real-world projects, community-led development, and scalability.

Another of their initiatives, the International Development Innovators Network seeks to create low-cost, high-impact technologies and ventures, while simultaneously documenting and evaluating approaches to international development that value local ingenuity and innovation. This effort includes design summits, innovation centers, business incubators, and a growing network of over 400 innovators in 50 countries.

D-Lab’s Youth Outreach Program focuses on Hands-on Invention Education and works with primary and secondary school teachers to develop curricular materials that build the confidence and skills needed by the next generation of innovators from around the world. Together with students and educators from around the world, D-Lab is developing and delivering hands-on curricula aimed at youth that utilize affordable locally available resources.

The program continues to help develop and deploy great products that are meeting the needs to people around the world.

The Leveraged Freedom Chair, is an all-terrain wheelchair designed for the harsh terrain faced by people with disabilities in developing countries.

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Lactic Acid Bacteria in Bees Counteracted Antibiotic-Resistant MRSA in Lab Experiments

13 lactic acid bacteria found in the honey stomach of bees have shown promising results as an antibiotic treatment in a series of studies at Lund University in Sweden (Open access paper: Lactic acid bacterial symbionts in honeybees – an unknown key to honey’s antimicrobial and therapeutic activities). The group of bacteria counteracted antibiotic-resistant MRSA in lab experiments. The bacteria, mixed into honey, has healed horses with persistent wounds. The formula has also previously been shown to protect against bee colony collapse.

photo of a bee on a flower

Photo by Justin Hunter

Raw honey has been used against infections for millennia, before honey – as we now know it – was manufactured and sold in stores. So what is the key to its’ antimicrobial properties? Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have identified a unique group of 13 lactic acid bacteria found in fresh honey, from the honey stomach of bees. The bacteria produce a myriad of active antimicrobial compounds.

These lactic acid bacteria have now been tested on severe human wound pathogens such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Pseudomonas aeruginosa and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), among others. When the lactic acid bacteria were applied to the pathogens in the laboratory, it counteracted all of them.

While the effect on human bacteria has only been tested in a lab environment thus far, the lactic acid bacteria has been applied directly to horses with persistent wounds. The LAB was mixed with honey and applied to ten horses; where the owners had tried several other methods to no avail. All of the horses’ wounds were healed by the mixture.

The researchers believe the secret to the strong results lie in the broad spectrum of active substances involved.

“Antibiotics are mostly one active substance, effective against only a narrow spectrum of bacteria. When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat. It seems to have worked well for millions of years of protecting bees’ health and honey against other harmful microorganisms. However, since store-bought honey doesn’t contain the living lactic acid bacteria, many of its unique properties have been lost in recent times”, explains Tobias Olofsson.

This is a very cool: “When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat.” As is the note that store bought honey doesn’t contain the living bacteria. My guess is some honey bought directly from farmers or bee-keepers, at farmer’s markets may well still have those live bacteria – but I am just guessing I may be wrong.

The next step is further studies to investigate wider clinical use against topical human infections as well as on animals.

The findings have implications for developing countries, where fresh honey is easily available, but also for Western countries where antibiotic resistance is seriously increasing.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of SpeciesThe Search for Antibiotic Solutions Continues: Killing Sleeper Bacteria CellsOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksPotential Antibiotic Alternative to Treat Infection Without Resistance
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Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential for Benefit to Society

Self-driving cars was something that seemed very far-fetched when I first read Google was seriously investing in pursuing that idea as a commercially viable product (Google’s Self Driving Car – 2010 post). I quickly became convinced they were right. I still think it is questionable if they will succeed (the political issues may well be even more difficult than technical ones). But the chances of success seem reasonable and the investment in research could provide a huge payoff.

Google’s self driving cars have driven 700,000 miles without an accident already; which is amazing. Warren Buffett stated that “self-driving cars are a real threat to the car insurance business” (His company owns the GIECO car insurance company) at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in Omaha.

There are some people, stressing that this is not ready for mass market use. They are right. But, I think it is funny to see people thinking that a very early stage huge innovation in transportation not being ready today is a reasonable criticism. I am amazed that this huge innovation may actually be available before 2020. That would be incredible.

Certainly even then it will have limitations. And certainly there will be accidents. The current transportation system with humans driving cars has thosands of accidents a day and tens of thousands of deaths a year in the USA alone every year. Every year 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic-related incidents, and over 90% of those accidents are due to human error.

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DIY Air Filters for Your House

In January 2013 PhD student Thomas Talhelm, was living in Bejing, China with very bad air pollution and wondered why air purifiers cost so much. He bought a HEPA filter on Taobao, strapped it to a simple fan, bought a particle counter, ran some tests, and published the results.

As the effort gained publicity and people said they had trouble finding the right type of fan and a trustworthy HEPA, Thomas and his friends Gus and Anna decided to launch Smart Air in September 2013 to ship fans and the best HEPAs they could find to people all over China.

Smart Air believes that if more people saw their open­ source data and testing, more people would know that clean air doesn’t have to cost thousands of RMB (hundred of USD). The simplest solution (a fan, filter and strap to hold the filter to a fan) costs 200 RMB (under US $35).

I love simple solutions. And I love entrepreneurship combined with engineering to provide customers value.

Related: Air Pollution Resulted in 223,000 Cancer Deaths in 2010Extremely Bad Haze in Johor Bahru and SingaporeUsing Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless AreasPay as You Go Solar in India

It is also great that they provide useful data including: HEPAs lasted 90 days without any drop in effectiveness, then effectiveness dropped by 4% between days 100-130. It’s up to you to decide whether that 4% is enough to warrant changing your filter after 3 months of nightly use.

iPhone Addition as Alternative to Expensive Ophthalmology Equipment

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed two inexpensive adapters that enable a smartphone to capture high-quality images of the front and back of the eye. The adapters make it easy for anyone with minimal training to take a picture of the eye and share it securely with other health practitioners or store it in the patient’s electronic record.

The researchers see this technology as an opportunity to increase access to eye-care services as well as to improve the ability to advise on patient care remotely.

The standard equipment used to photograph the eye is expensive — costing up to tens of thousands of dollars — and requires extensive training to use properly. Primary care physicians and emergency department staff often lack this equipment, and although it is readily available in ophthalmologists’ offices, it is sparse in rural areas throughout the world.

“Adapting smartphones for the eye has the potential to enhance the delivery of eye care — in particular, to provide it in places where it’s less accessible,” said Myung. “Whether it’s in the emergency department, where patients often have to wait a long time for a specialist, or during a primary-care physician visit, we hope that we can improve the quality of care for our patients, especially in the developing world where ophthalmologists are few and far between.”

“A picture is truly worth a thousand words,” he added. “Imagine a car accident victim arriving in the emergency department with an eye injury resulting in a hyphema — blood inside the front of her eye. Normally the physician would have to describe this finding in her electronic record with words alone. Smartphones today not only have the camera resolution to supplement those words with a high-resolution photo, but also the data-transfer capability to upload that photo securely to the medical record in a matter of seconds.

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