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The Future of Solar Energy


Travelling Through Morocco

20 years ago my father retired from work, and to celebrate he gave me and my brothers £1000 each. I went to university and sat next to my buddy Sam, and asked her if she fancied going to spend the money on a holiday. I skateboarded to my favourite travel agents and booked flights to Morocco.

6 weeks, a long road trip. We divided the remaining money into daily allowance, $20 US per day. Not really enough. Well enough to eat, or travel, but not eat and travel. So on days that we travelled we only ate once, and on other days we ate twice. Not a lot though.

Anyway we wanted to go and see the sahara. We went from Casablanca via Radat and Meknes, down through Azru and all the way to Merzuga. It’s quite a thing to see. Then to Ouarzazate.

Now the Marocco of 20 years ago is not the country of today. And we were poor. We did not have enough money to take the national bus lines, we took the local buses, no windows, animals on the roof tied into canvas bags, goats inside. Today Ouarzazate is a world leader in solar energy.

Desert Solar Energy

Morocco wants to become a world leader in solar energy production. The development that is underway and newly online will eventually provide 20% of the country’s energy needs. It will be the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world. The mirror technology it uses is different from the photovoltaic panels that we see on roofs the world over, but it will have the advantage of being able to continue producing power even after the sun goes down.

The system uses mirrors to heat an oil, known as heat transfer solution (HTF). Each parabolic mirror is 12 metres high and focussed on a steel pipeline carrying HTF that is warmed to 393C. It then goes into a heat transfer plant, is mixed with water that turns into steam and drives turbines.

In order to operate after dark excess heat is used to turn sand molten, the heat being released overnight allowing the plant to function for a few hours longer, and the plan is that in a couple of years time it will be able to operate 24 hours a day.


If Morocco becomes self sufficient through solar wind and hydro, they will look towards exporting. There have been several projects involving laying power lines from North Africa into europe (Libia to italy comes to mind) but as far as I know nothing is currently operational.

For more details check out this article in the Guardian.

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GM Salmon


Food Revolution?

The news is out, the revolution has begun. The US Food and drug Administration has passed the first ever GM animal for food consumption, and it is a fish.

This week a company gained a license to sell their new breed of GM salmon. It is modified, although it has genes from a different type of salmon, so not as Frankenstein as some other combinations, but that of course does not mean that this will always be the case. But I don’t want to be a scaremonger, they say it is safe (although that is of course based upon the company’s evidence), and so the choice is yours.

The new food is merely a type of Atlantic salmon injected with a gene from Pacific Chinook salmon to make it grow faster, but critics raise questions about safety, possible cross breeding and whether the general public even wants to eat GM fish. Without being too corny though it does raise questions of floodgates. First a cross salmon, then what comes next?

Oh but we can choose of course whether we want to eat it or not. But that requires information. Will it be labelled as a GM food? Well it won’t in the USA. That is because GM produce is viewed by the administration as being nutritionally equal to non GM, and so does not require labelling. Well to be exact it is voluntary. So if you want to sell it as science, advancement in nutrition, the way forward and futurism, you can label it, but if you want to slide it in unnoticed, then Bob’s the word.


It is about making it quicker and cheaper. A fish that will grow all year round gets bigger in half the time, so you can eat it earlier. You can farm it in tanks near the city, so it cuts down on various environmental pollutants and practices, but of course creates others.

And where to next? Surely in a few years there will be giant cows that grow to adulthood at twice the speed, and maybe sheep with dreadlocks?

Animal farming for foodstuffs is grizzly enough at is is (was), but now maybe we open another chapter.

I don’t want to put any links in this post, a quick search will find what you need. This is merely a personal opinion post, and I would like to hear others. The photo above is quite telling though, they are supposedly salmon of the same age, but one has been modified. Can you guess which one?

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World Wide Views on Climate and Energy

world wide views

Public Participation

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I found myself in Brussels in a beautiful Palace. I was at a conference about public participation, and went to a presentation of a very interesting project called World Wide Views on Climate Change and Energy.

The project as the name suggests involved a kind of world wide survey, involving 10 000 people and covering a large portion of the globe. It involved 97 day long debates spread over 76 countries, just to give you an idea, and the incredible thing is that they all happened on the same day. Not only that, but the results were uploaded live, and so could all be seen as they happened, a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest but without Terry Wogan.

The conference was not really about the results of the project, but the methodology and how it was actually conducted. The system has been used twice before, and was designed by the Danish Board of Technology and a host of other National and International organizations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change were one of the initiators, so as you can see it was a large project.

The Results

The results are aimed at providing policy-makers with world views. The participants were selected in order to represent the make up of each individual country and gathered for a day long experience. They were all shown the same videos, presented with the same written materials and asked the same questions.

Democratic debate and deliberation are central to the project, and it looks like an interesting use of the web to me. Obviously you can pick holes in the methodology if you wish, how representative can 10 000 people be? But I don’t think that was the point of the exercise. It is a large scale global survey of how people feel about climate change and energy transition, and the fact that countries and areas can be compared, as well as other groups taken across the globe, is a really interesting development.

The results are all posted on the website, find them here, there are also user friendly analysis tools for anyone to use.

In the report however an analysis has been done of some of the findings. As a brief outline, we can say that citizens want their governments to act, that action should be on the basis of the individual county’s emissions and wealth, and the private sector should participate.

Citizens are also expected to take part in decision-making and to participate in the process of lowering emissions.

This is an interesting project, and if you have time I highly recommend a look at the website and a play with the figures.

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Continuity in Renewable Energy


Renewable Energy

Here at Technology Bloggers we are all great fans of renewable energy developments, so I was extremely interested in a project that has just received funding on the Northern Irish coast.

As we all know there are problems with wind and tidal electricity generation, not least due to the weather, lack of wind, sun and sea swell being the obvious thoughts. But developers have an interesting proposal that may work towards alleviating some of these problems.

The idea is to use excess power to compress air and store it in huge caverns underground, to then use it to drive turbines when the wind drops. Sounds like a great idea, but of course there are always pros and contras for these things.

The caverns have to be mined, about 1.5 km below ground, and this will be done using a salt water erosion process. Simply put, a bore is drilled down, water pumped in that will circulate as if in a bottle, erode the surrounding rock salt and be washed out of a drain hole into the sea. The salt solution that comes out with then disperse into the wider sea.

When the cavern is ready, wind turbines will be used to force air into them, which can then be released in a controlled manner to turn turbines on days when you couldn’t dry a handkerchief in the back garden.

Environmental Concerns

So it sounds great, but there are of course those who argue that it is not a good idea. What will the impact be of pumping all of this salt solution into the sea? I think everyone concerned realizes that it will kill wildlife over an area, but how big that area might be, how long it will take to recover and how much damage it will do seems to be under debate.

Some locals suggest that it might lead to an industrial wasteland.

More is explained on this BBC report. Once again a new and possibly extremely positive power development brings the many complexities surrounding renewable energy sources. Issues of responsibility loom large, as do issues of public engagement and risk.

One to follow.

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Digital Amnesia

digital amnesia figures

Digital Amnesia

When someone asks me for my mobile number, I take one of my business cards out of my wallet so I can read it to them. Now I have only had this number for a year, but I haven’t learnt it yet. I don’t know my wife’s phone number either. I just look her up in the contacts of my phone by name. I can however remember my first girlfiend’s mum’s home number, going back to about 1982.

Of course in those days we did not have machines that remembered your life for you. I remember having to arrange to meet someone at a certain time and in a certain place before leaving the house, oh how quaint. And believe it or not, not only did our brains keep in all that extra information (which seems to have made them work better I might add), but we were also freeer.

Free because once you were out of the house you were in effect offline. No calls from work, no-one asking you why you are late, or more to the point where you are. “Where were you? I tried calling but you did not answer!” Oh so now I am obliged to both carry my phone and answer it otherwise moral judgements will be made about me, where is the freedom in that?

And these developments have lead to parents and friends worrying more. Now I have a phone so if you start thinking about me you can send a text. In the past you couldn’t do that, so you worried less. There was no point in worrying because you could do nothing about it. And what happens if your phone runs out of charge? Then you really are in trouble, it is almost as bad as your life support system breaking down.


But where is the evidence I hear you ask, for these glory days when people could remember where they were supposed to be, had diaries and used pens to make appointments.

Here. Read it and weep.

The BBC is reporting a UK study carried out through Kaspersky (see the stats above in the picture), that seems to demonstrate that reliance on digital technology is causing a loss of memory capacity. The belief that we can just access information whenever we need it has brought us to this point. But the limitations are obvious. When I lose my phone I cannot even phone home on somebody else’s. I don’t know the number.

Maybe the brain needs exercise too. Stretching is always good, and I must say that this is probably true of brain use. As I have once before mentioned, learning a language is great for your brain function, but many might not bother now we have real time translation tools. But I should say that I am not against these things, my life would be much more complicated without the famous online translation tool that I use every day.

I remember an article on this blog about the power of the human brain, it is incompably good to digital technology, let’s exercise it and keep it fit.


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3D Printing Developments


3D Printing

3D printing is great, but it does have its downsides. Take a look at this article for example, it gives some idea of possible applications and uses for the technology.My colleague Christopher wrote that one, and it is a joy to see some young and optimistic blood writing about technology. As an old pessimistic dog however, I cannot overcome my cynical streak. Check out this article that I wrote about possible negative effects upon health related to 3D printing.

Anyway, on a blog with the grandeur of this one there is room for everything, and today I am going to dive into the abyss of optimism!

Now when we think of 3D printing we often think of small plastic models, and we all know that plastic is a problem for the world. It is cheap, does not degrade, you cannot get rid of it, it washes into plastic floating islands and it’s made from oil. But 3D printing offers much more than plastic models today.

Alternative Materials

A Dutch design company plans to use special robots to 3D-print a steel bridge across the Amsterdam Canal. A company called MX3D, which specializes in using robotics to 3D print, and Dutch designer Joris Laaram are behind the project. You see these kids can print with metal, as can the people who supply parts for Boeing, and use is far more common that we might imagine.

But MX3D go one better. They can print metals in position, so not in a lab or workshop but wherever they want, outside, in the open air, or over a canal. So they have robots that can build a bridge on site using 3D printing technology, as they sit on the half constructed bridge.

But that is not the end of it, of course. Printers can also use recycled products to produce artifacts. Plastic is a simple idea, but what about other materials? What about food waste? Well obviously you can.

Food Waste

Italy-based designer Marina Ceccolini is doing some experimenting in the field. Inspired by the rigidness of a dehydrated tangerine peel, the designer began creating her own potential 3D printing material called AgriDust. Ceccolini’s AgriDust is made from foods found in her local landfill: everything from coffee grounds to peanut shells, orange and lemon peels, tomato skins, and bean pods. Held together with potato starch Ceccolini believes that using a paste extruder, the material could be 3D printed into new objects. The 64.5% waste/35.5% binder composition could, the designer proposes, limit the plastic waste generated by 3D printers.

Now Check out this article, it describes everything and includes an interview with the designer.

One thing that comes to mind however is the problem of allergies. Can you make something that contains nuts? I doubt it. But the idea sounds really promising to me. And I certainly look forward to watching the bridge go up, it’s just down the road (or canal) from here.

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A Drinkable Book

drinkable book


Water Filters in a Book

Dr Teri Dankovich, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh USA has developed and tested a book whose pages can be torn out and used to filter drinking water. Trails are impressive, with the process bringing the water up to US drinking water standards.

The book’s pages contain nanoparticles of silver or copper, which kill bacteria in the water as it passes through. Some of the particles do remain in the water however, but they remain within the legal limits.


Now here I have to add my own input to the debate. As readers might know I have written several posts about nanomaterials and it is one of the fields that I work in, and I would question how legal limits are defined.

Nanoparticles are treated like any other particles, and their scale is not taken in account, but this seems to raise some questions. The fact that they are so small means that they can pass easily into the blood stream, so their effects may not be the same as larger particles of the same materials.

So I have to leave an open question mark over the legal issue, but the fact that the water is drinkable is a great advantage. And this leads me to ponder the fact that innovation, and its level of responsibility and ethical justification, must be local. An invention or innovation that brings drinkable water to millions, is portable and cheap and could save many lives, must be seen within its context. Nanoparticles in the water in this situation, may not be same an nano particles found in water because of factory pollution or deliberate addition when other processes might be readily available.

An article on the BBC explains that “All you need to do is tear out a paper, put it in a simple filter holder and pour water into it from rivers, streams, wells etc and out comes clean water – and dead bacteria as well”. And one page can clean up to 100 litres of water. A book could filter one person’s water supply for four years.

The project is looking for funding, so if you are interested and have some money to spare click on the link at the start of the post and pass them over your pocket money.

As a final thought, nanotechnology has come in for criticism from the academic community for its lack of regulation, and rightly so. But it also brings a world of possibilities, many of which like the story above that could transform people’s lives. This is the fine line that interests me in my work, how to make the most of scientific developments at the least environmental and social costs, and for the highest number of people.

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Responsible innovation, a call for your opinions


Responsible Innovation

Some of my reader(s) might know that I work in the field of Responsible Innovation. This is a growing area within Science and Technology studies, but also plays a part in EU legislation and funding as well as working practices in general.

To be perfectly honest, one of the problems we have in the field is defining and explaining what we work on. I would say in general terms that we are interested in making innovation processes more democratic and transparent, while aiming scientific and technological development towards improvements for society. So possibly make the development of things that might be advantageous for society a priority, even if they might not be so profitable.

If you would like more information before I give you your homework for this week, check out this article in the Spectrum Engineering blog (I wrote it). Take a look at the MATTER website, or the Bassetti Foundation who I collaborate with in my work, or you could even download my $1.17 book from Amazon.

Or none of the above, just use a general sense of what it might look like in your own imagination.

So here we come to the homework part.

Your opinions and Ideas

As part of the European Commission’s Digital Agenda for Europe, Hilary Sutcliffe of the UK based think-tank MATTER (linked above) has launched the New Principles for Responsible Innovation document. Hilary is the plainest speaker of the community, and she wants to know what the general public think about developments. So her document is an open call for comments, with particular interest and questions about the following aspects of RI:

1. Purpose – is it realistic to think that such a voluntary initiative will have a useful role as we have envisaged it?  If yes or no, it would be helpful to know why. (My interpretation of this question, can we improve society through voluntary action within innovation?)

2. Content – Are there gaps or duplications or structures which you think are unhelpful?  Do you have suggestions on how that could be improved? (If so, how could we do it, which structures might be useful, and where are the obstacles?)

3.Effectiveness – How do you think this would be best implemented?  Do you agree with our concept of Radical Transparency being the tool for all stakeholders to access the information of their choice in place of armies of verifiers, or is this just unrealistic? (Could it all be done through transparency, and without rules from above?)

The main aims of the project are to generate positive momentum for transformative innovation for social good and create shared expectations to help build trustworthiness & confidence, and there are several ways in which any interested parties can contribute, with comments from yourselves at number 1.

The document is available here, and I would urge everyone to have their say by replying to Hilary in person through the email link contained within it.

Tell her Jonny sent you.

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Wave in Milan

This month Milan is hosting WAVE, an event that promotes the idea of frugal innovation in all of its different facets. I must say before beginning that the Bassetti Foundation (who employ me) are co-sponsors of the event, so I am a little partisan. It is however from any point of view an interesting project and concept.

The event includes an exhibition open to visitors and free of charge from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Piazza San Fedele, Milan until 3 July, alongside a series of lectures and other events. The full program is here. There is a huge variety of stuff to see and hear, including debate about sustainability, smart city technology, citizen science and editing the human genome.

The WAVE Project

I take the following form the WAVE website. It gives a nice idea of what the project is all about:

At a time when the entire planet is facing tremendous economic, social and environmental challenges, a multitude of initiatives from around the world prove that solutions exist for doing more with less. The common ingredient in all this creative ferment? Collective ingenuity.
Being flexible, keeping it simple, seizing opportunities, thinking differently: in an unstable world, the ingenious innovator develops a state of mind that’s agile enough to turn obstacles into opportunities.
We live on a small planet where everything is interdependent. This is not a time for divisions, but for concerted action: citizens, associations, NGOs, local authorities, and companies both large and small are implementing new ideas for a better world. Driven by the digital revolution, most of these initiatives rely on social media. Some of them fall within the commercial sphere, others do not. But all of them demonstrate new ways of innovating together, differently.
A wave of collective ingenuity is sweeping across the world. Drawing on a wide range of concrete examples, the WAVE exhibition explores the major currents on every continent: co-creation, the sharing economy, the maker movement, the inclusive economy, and the circular economy. These examples feature people from all walks of life who share a positive vision of the world of tomorrow.

So as we see, WAVE as a concept is traveling the world. It started in France, now Milan before moving on to Senegal, USA and then India. It looks like an interesting series of events to me, and next week I am off to Milan to check it out in person.


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Dinosaur Developments

boston museum


Like many Bostonians a great deal of my time in that fair city was spent in the Museum of Science. It is a fine museum, well suited to children. They have some incredible lightening making machines, a bed of nails that you can try out yourself, and lots of dinosaurs.

And outside the front door they have a model of a T Rex, you can see it in the photo. This model T Rex was built and placed in 1972, and here lies a story. We might feel that this great beast has been part of our culture for many years, it was first described in 1905, but the first almost full skeleton was only found in 1990 in South Dakota.

Now if you look at the model you see an upstanding T Rex, but the model is not a good replica. These dinosaurs did not stand erect like that, they were much more laid back in their posture due to their size and a considerable tail.

Here below we see the reconstruction of Sue, the first almost complete skeleton brought to life in 1990 and mentioned above. Now Sue is well balanced, looks even more ferocious, and somewhat resembles a flightless bird. Just think how quickly science is developing!

Meet Sue
Meet Sue

Birds and chickens

So here I get to the meat on the bones. Birds seem to have evolved from dinosaurs, some dinosaurs even had feathers, and recently scientists have managed to create a chicken embryo with a dinosaur-like snout and palate, similar to that of small feathered dinosaurs like Velociraptor. The results are published in the journal Evolution. You can read the abstract here.

They did not hatch the embryo, but manipulated genes that deal with facial development in birds, until the beak started to look more like a dinosour or aligator mouth. See the photo below taken from the BBC article on this story.

From Beak to Snout
From Beak to Snout

This is an interesting line of research. I am not worried about a Jurassic Park scenario, but it does seem to open a world of opportunities , and I am not sure that all of them have been explored. I wonder how far it could go?