July 31, 2009

Science behind record breaking swims

Hi-tech textiles in sport are nothing new. In recent years we have seen the design of fabrics that can take moisture away from the body, patches on All Black jerseys so players can dry their hands for better grip, fabrics that can sense high impact stresses on players joints, and fabrics that can sense heart rate, temperature and other physiological data (see Zephyr Technologies).

All are performance enhancing to varying degrees, but perhaps not quite as much as the latest hi-tech swimsuits worn by competitors at this years World Championships in Rome. There is a lot of talk in the media at the moment in regard to these swimsuits, which have seen numerous records broken so far. And not just broken, smashed in some instances, by up to 6 seconds! The science behind these suits is quite interesting. There are two aspects to it - posture and drag.

The corset-like suits are made of an incredibly compressive material (apparently they take an age to squeeze into) that holds the swimmer in an optimal posture. Because the swimmer doesn't have to use any of their muscles to hold this posture (like usual), more of their energy can be directed to their propulsion through the water. The compressive nature of the suit also stops water becoming trapped in the suit, and reduces the amount of skin 'wobble', which both contribute to drag, the second aspect.

Drag refers to the forces that oppose the relative motion of an object through a fluid medium. It is wasted energy. In chemistry we call something that is attracted to water hydrophilic, and something that repels water hydrophobic. These hi-tech suits are hydrophobic - they actually repel water, like a bead of water on a lotus leaf, or like oil in water. This creates a water-repellent seal that adds buoyancy, lessens drag and creates record swim times.

Speedo's LZR suit did this by adding polyurethane panels over the parts of the body that contribute the most to drag. This suit saw a multitude of records fall in Beijing 2008, and 94% of gold medals were won by swimmers wearing LZR's. The obvious next step was to make an entire suit from the stuff, and this is what the current outcry is about. There is an excellent article about it all here.

So, at what level is science in sport too much? Where does the competition of man vs. man instead become a competition of who has the best equipment? Personally, I have no problem with it - I believe sport science (both physiologically and technologically) will continue to evolve because people will always strive to be fitter, faster and stronger. The question is, how can we level the playing field, so that good competition, the real essence of sport, is still the centerpiece of the show?

July 29, 2009

Energy Efficiency in Appliances

I saw this article on Scientific American about new EU regulations for energy efficiency in appliances. It made me think about a great NZ company, that most of you have probably never heard of, called Wellington Drive Technologies (WDL).

WDL, who are listed on the NZ Stock Exchange, are in the business of making energy efficient electric motors and fans that are used in appliances and ventilation systems. Their motors are brushless DC motors, or Electronically Commutated Motors (ECM), because the reversal of electric current (what makes the motor turn) is done using electronic switches and not a physically rotating switch.

There are a number of advantages in using this type of electric motor. Firstly, they are more efficient, typically using one third to a half less electricity than traditional electric motors, and as a result, run cold so there is no energy loss to heat. Secondly, because they don't have brushes , they are quieter, and have a longer lifetime. Additionally, WDT's design uses 30% less copper and 80% less steel, making them incredibly lightweight.

WDL have struggled to grow substantially in the last few years, which may partly have something to do with the fact that ECM's are more expensive than the traditional inefficient motors used for these applications. However, with regulation looking likely in big markets like Europe, appliance manufacturers may be forced to move towards more energy efficient components, and so this could be a big win for WDL. Share tip?

July 27, 2009

Living Cell Technologies

Here's another cool Kiwi company doing some amazing work, even if quite controversial. There is a lot of hype around Living Cell Technologies (LCT) currently, some of which is outlined over at the NZ Science Media Centre. This is because LCT's pig cell trial for a diabetes cure is underway.

LCT is actively working to develop life-changing cellular therapies – treatments that will improve the quality of life of patients with diabetes, haemophilia, hearing loss, liver failure and brain degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

In the case of diabetes, this is done by encapsulating the healthy living pig cells that produce insulin, in a seaweed derived extract (alginate) to form tiny particles that are then implanted into the patient. The seaweed extract coating is biocompatible, and so no immunosuppressive drugs are needed to stop to the body rejecting the cells. Nutrients can pass through the seaweed coating into the cell, and insulin can pass out into the patients blood stream where it is required. These implanted cells have led to near-normal blood glucose levels in patients, reduced the need for insulin injections and lessened episodes of high blood glucose that lead to long term complications.

LCT's pigs originate from the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands and are disease free. A new pig breeding unit recently opened in Invercargill, ensures that they remain free of viruses, bacteria and parasites.

This type of bioencapsulation technology is quite widely applicable, and can be used in stem cell research, for example. Although there are clearly some ethical issues involved with this type of treatment, this is an emerging area which, through Living Cell Technologies, represents an opportunity for NZ to capitalise.

July 24, 2009

Lumiblades and their NZ link

I saw this article on Stuff.co.nz yesterday about Lumiblades, developed by Philips. These new lighting devices will one day replace the methods of lighting we currently use, as they are incredibly energy efficient. As a result, they can be lumped into the broad CleanTech category of technologies that achieve tasks in a more environmentally sustainable manner. These ultra thin lighting devices are based on organic light emitting diodes, (OLED's for short), essentially special types of plastics that can conduct electricity and emit light.

There is a nice link to NZ here, in that this work stems from that of Victoria University graduate, Alan MacDiarmid (born in Masterton, New Zealand), who helped to pioneer the study of these materials in the 80's, and then won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it in 2000. His legacy lives on in NZ in the MacDiarmid Institute of Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, and also in a new science building being constructed at Victoria University of Wellington. You can view a documentary about his life here.

His work provided a lot of scope, and forms the basis of the flexible electronics industry, which is set to revolutionize electronics in the next 5 years or so. Some products already exist today, but in the future we will see more widespread use of flexible electronics in areas such as:

  • electronic textiles,
  • flexible batteries
  • solar cells,
  • display screens you can roll up and put in your bag,
  • cheap sensors for a range of biological matter, chemicals, diseases, gas detection
  • radio frequency ID tags,

All this, because of a New Zealander. I think that's pretty cool, and proof that anyone in NZ (even if they're from Masterton...jokes!) can conquer the world.

July 22, 2009

A positive from the Job Summit

I was about to post a few months ago about the cut to $98 Million of postgraduate scholarships in the budget, but the moment seems to have passed. I was amazed with the lack of foresight by the Government - what better way to come out of a recession than to up skill and come out hitting the ground running, but they chose instead to stunt the development of NZ's next generation of young scientists by cutting funding in this area.

But here's one positive that's come out of the Job Summit a few months back. I haven't heard of many, but I am pleased about this one. It goes some of the way to making up for the loss of the said $98 Million dollars worth of cuts to scholarships.

The Foundation for Research Science and Technology (FRST) has announced a pilot scheme that will see 150 new internships created in industry, with the FRST providing salary contribution of up to $30,000 for a period of 9 months.

This is a great way to encourage industry to innovate and build linkages with universities. I think this is crucial in the development of NZ's knowledge economy, and the success of the model is evidenced by the emergence of the Finnish powerhouse, Nokia, out of a successful network of inventors who were trained in Finland's own university system and had strong linkages with industry.

If you are in business, I would love to hear your thoughts on this new initiative. What is your R&D capability currently like, and would you be willing to take on a young science and technology graduate if their salary was met halfway by the Government?

July 20, 2009

The Exquisite Corpse of Science

The exquisite corpse was a technique used by the Surrealists whereby images were collectively assembled in sequence, either linked together based on a rule, or by seeing what has come before.

Arko Olesk, Graham Paterson and Tim Jones, science communicators at Imperial College in London, have applied this concept to science by asking three groups of people from various backgrounds to draw and commentate on what they think are the most important issues facing science (and the world) today.

According to the authors, their "thinking was that long questionnaires and government surveys have their place, but they don’t catch those instinctive, spur of the moment thoughts and reactions that show where someone’s really coming from. We wanted to capture the ideas that get lost in a more calculated response."

Here is the result expressed as four drawings joined using the Surrealists' technique of the 'Exquisite Corpse'. One thing I think scientists forget to do a lot of the time is, in the words of MFAT CEO John Allen, "get out and talk to the people." This is a really open and honest response, and shows what you get if you only ask. It also challenges us to see other peoples issues through their eyes.

The Exquisite Corpse of Science from Tim Jones on Vimeo.

You can check out a more in depth analysis of this exercise here at Tim Jones' excellent blog, Zoonomian. In fact, the project is being extended, and you can now send in your own drawing. Click here to find out how!

July 17, 2009

Innovation in NZ

There have been some interesting comments in the media lately from Prime Minister John Key, regarding the decline in NZ's productivity. Economists sometimes refer to this decline as the New Zealand paradox: "The mystery is why a country that seems close to best practice in most of the policies that are regarded as the key drivers of growth is nevertheless just an average performer" (OECD, 2003). To those of us who work in science and technology, the missing ingredient is obvious: innovation.

Each week I receive from the MacDiarmid Institute, the MacDiarmid Update by email. Last weeks email mentioned a very interesting study by Dr. Shaun Hendy, the Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, on innovation in NZ. He and his research assistant have used an OECD patent database to investigate whether collaborative networks form between inventors through co-patenting.

It turns out that there are numerous large communities of inventors connected in this way, and one network from which NZ can learn a lot, is based in Finland (1,300 inventors), largely around patents owned by Nokia. This network appeared in only a decade in a country with a population similar to our own! As Shaun says, "in the early 1990s, few would have described ICT as a Finnish strength, but by the end of the decade they were vigorously patenting and writing papers in ICT, and had increased their electronics exports tenfold to more than NZ$20 billion per annum."

Where did they get that inventive talent from? It appears that the Finns trained Nokia's inventors in their Universities. Sure, the Finns were lucky that mobile phones came along when they did, but I think its proof, as Shaun says, that "an innovation-driven economy is not bound by its geography or its history". So we can forget about all this rubbish about NZ being too far away from anyone. With the MacDiarmid Institute being a collaborative network between NZ Universities and Crown Research Institutes, they are in an excellent position to try and emulate this here in NZ. The question is, what technology will NZ lead the world in? Perhaps something in the CleanTech area, as I've talked about before. Whatever it is, we will have to remain flexible and extensive enough to respond to new opportunities when they arise, which raises some very big questions regarding the current crappy science and technology policy of low investment and "picking winners."

I sincerely hope that Shaun's excellent research is spread far and wide, and I wish him well in achieving his (I believe attainable) goal that "one day people will be studying us to see how we did it."

July 13, 2009

The Fat of the Land

So its finally happened, I am posting about obesity on this blog. Some people, one in particular who shall remain nameless, will be thrilled.

I found this article on Chemistry World News this morning, which seemed quite timely considering the recent news of NZ's apparent obesity problem. Scientists have found a synthetic peptide molecule (a short chain of amino acids) that possesses key features of two natural hormones which are involved in regulating glucose metabolism and appetite control. When injected into obese mice, after one week the animals' body weights had decreased by 25 per cent and their body fat by 42 per cent. Kind of like The Nutty Professor in real life!

While research like this paves the way for improvement in many areas of human health, I am still a big fan of preventative measures. New technology can then be introduced, arming us with a number of tools in the fight. The link between obesity and diabetes, heart disease and stroke is well documented, and so it kind of annoys me that Health Minister Tony Ryall has commented here that the Government planned to announce programmes "around physical activity" and sports "in due course", when upon being elected one of the first things the National Party did was cut advertising for the very successful "Push Play" program by SPARC, and remove restrictions on the kinds of foods tuck shops can sell in schools. Like smoking, what is needed isn't an initial blitz, but a sustained approach.

It has been suggested that obesity has addictive elements just like alcoholism, drug abuse and smoking do. We are bombarded everyday by advertising about how drinking or smoking is harmful, yet where are the advertisements telling us that if we eat too many Whopper's or KFC Quarter Packs we will increase our risk of developing diabetes? Not to mention we have to run for something like 10km to work it off! Tobacco companies are not allowed to advertise, yet McDonald's can advertise just before dinner during children's TV shows. Or when we buy a bottle of wine it is taxed at a high rate to counter the health costs due to irresponsible behaviour of a few, yet this doesn't occur with fast food.

If this study has any substance, if our diets continue as they are, and if our Government keeps making nonsensical decisions about prevention, we will quickly end up with an obesity epidemic. Maybe this study is the wake up call we need.

Plastic Not-So Fantastic

A report has recently been released regarding the impact of plastics on the environment and human health. It aims to present the first comprehensive review of the impact of plastics on the environment and human health, and offers possible solutions. If it is the first of its kind, it baffles me that it has taken so long for a study of this scale to be conducted given our widespread use of plastic materials. Whether or not you believe what the report has to say regarding the toxicity of plastics (check out the comments, as usual there is a lot more substance there!), the fact of the matter is we are poor at disposing and recycling plastic materials and the effect of this on our environment is clear in some areas. What we need are more biodegradable packaging products.

Nonetheless, it is a perfect introduction to the basis of my PhD research, as I know some of you have wondered exactly what it is I did all those years at university (apart from corridor cricket, darts, and long lunches at KK Malaysia!).

The essence of our research group is to add value to natural products, particularly those that NZ is a world class producer of, like paper and wool. There is a big drive at the moment from the packaging industry to develop products that offer the technical characteristics of plastics, but with the biocompatibility of natural materials like paper.

My research looked at creating high tech packaging products by using the electronic, magnetic, and optical properties of nanoparticles (really tiny particles, 10,000x thinner than a human hair). These particles by themselves are hard to utilise due to their small size, but if we can capture them on a surface we can begin to create useful materials. I looked at a number of low cost coating methods and simple inkjet printing (like you can do at home) to impart these properties on sheets of paper.

Because the paper materials we made are electrically, magnetically, and optically active, we hope to use the findings of this research to create anticounterfeit packaging technologies (optical materials), for shielding equipment that is sensitive to electromagnetic radiation such as cellular and wireless network frequencies (electronic and magnetic paper), and in antistatic packaging for sensitive components (electronic paper). The image below is of the VUW logo inkjet printed with nanoparticles. Under normal light conditions this is invisible - just a white piece of paper, yet under UV light it glows orange. This forms the basis of the anticounterfeit packaging technology I was talking about above.

Hopefully someone can find a use for it!

July 10, 2009

Powerhouse Wind Ltd.

An interesting article came up in my feed this morning, and follows on nicely from the CleanTech post last week. The article is published in Idealog, an excellent NZ magazine that showcases some great kiwi ideas, across business, design, science and the web etc. Check it out if you get the chance.

Powerhouse Wind Limited are a Dunedin based company working in the area of wind turbines. The team have a background in desiging high-volume, mass-market consumer products (some of them are ex-Fisher & Paykel) and they've used these skills to develop a small scale wind turbine capable of powering a household.

Their design is radically different to most already available in that it only has one blade with two counterweights, while most have three blades. There are several benefits to this - the turbine can align itself more efficiently to the wind, and that it is quieter. With an average wind speed of about 5-6 meters per second, the turbine can generate about 3,200 kWh, which is enough to power an energy efficient house. The target price is $20,000, which seems high but if you work it out it is a good investment over time. My flat spends about $200 a month on power (I think), so it will pay for itself in 8 years, not to mention the savings you make by selling surplus electricity generated back into the grid.

I think this is a really clever approach, as it builds upon the trend toward a distributed energy generation system, where the energy is generated on-site with minimal energy lost in its transmission, unlike centralised generation (wind farms for example) that transmit over long distances and inefficiently. If one day everyone is generating their own power, Powerhouse Wind will be sitting in a good position, having amassed years and years of experience ahead of a field that currently only seems to be interested in large scale turbines for big wind farms. I wish them luck!

Would you buy one?

July 8, 2009

Woolstock 2009

On Monday I attended the NZ Merino Company's "Woolstock 2009" Conference in Christchurch. The conference is largely a showcase of what the NZ Merino Company has achieved for its shareholders - NZ's Merino Growers. Their main goal is to increase the price of Merino wool on the world market, and they seem to be making some headway. They do this through their excellent brand partners such as Icebreaker, and excellent marketing campaigns like the Zque brand which combines natural performance wool with an accreditation program ensuring environmental, social and economic sustainability, animal welfare and traceability back to the high country NZ source.

The latter half of the day saw a series of talks and a panel discussion from Sam Morgan (of TradeMe fame), Jeremy Moon (Icebreaker), and John Allen (former NZ Post CEO, now MFAT CEO) about the future of NZ. All were amazing, but a highlight for me was John Allen's talk. I've seen him speak on a couple of occasions now and he always inspires me with his passion for NZ and his big picture thinking. I fully agree with him in that we must start celebrating risk takers in NZ and be more confident in who we are as a country! I also love how he challenges us to work together, and scientists to "get out of the lab and talk to the people", which I think is critical in advancing science, and in a way forms part of the reason for this blog.

Check out one of his talks from last year, its only 7 minutes!

Thanks again to the organisers for a great day!

July 3, 2009

Protecting Brand NZ

Yesterday I attended the GoTrace Symposium in Wellington, which was all about traceability, country of origin labelling, anti-counterfeiting and the like. It was a really interesting day, and was attended by the likes of Zespri, Wools of NZ, NZ Merino, Comvita (Manuka Honey), The Wine Industry etc., that have a vested interest in protecting their brand against rip-offs (mainly in Asia). There were some staggering figures shown throughout the day, including that the World Trade Organisation estimates that about 5-7 % of world trade is in counterfeit goods. That equates to about $520 Billion!

The conference looked at a number of ways to track goods to their origin, which was mainly done through trace metal analysis or isotopic testing. Basically, if a cow grows up eating grass in the North Island, the resultant steak will have a different trace metal or isotopic 'signature' to one that has been raised in the South Island. This is due to the different rainfall and geology in the regions. Scientists throughout the world have been working hard to produce huge databases so that they can test and match a wine, for example, to the vineyard the grapes were grown on, thus determining if it is a fake or not. This can be done with incredible accuracy, down to a few hundred metres in certain instances!

Counterfeit wines are a problem, but counterfeit drugs are a BIG problem. Not so much in NZ because our supply sources are very secure, but particularly in poorer countries. A group from GNS Science analyzed a number of malaria pills supposedly made by Guilin Pharmaceuticals (a legitimate company) in China, and found that in Laos, 88 % of the pills claiming to be from GPC were counterfeit. Because the particular malaria pills were bitter in taste, the counterfeiters tried to make their rip-offs bitter by adding various things such as floor cleaners or solvents. Because of this work, a few of the illegal supply chains were able to be shut down. Perhaps one way to stop this activity in the region is by donating genuine malaria pills (they are so cheap anyway), so that the incentive for the counterfeiters to counterfeit in the first place is removed. However, this was only one brand of malaria pill, and one disease in a list of many. Quite scary really.

Counterfeiting will always be a problem and so the work that is being done by many of the attendees is important not only for the economic livelihood of small exporting countries like ours, but also for the livelihood of many people in lesser developed nations that are being subjected to some horrendous practices at the hands of a few sick individuals.

Thanks to the organisers for a great day!

July 1, 2009


Following on from the post about IRENA and Masdar City the other day, I thought I would talk a little bit about about CleanTech. CleanTech is a broad definition for products and technologies that improve performance, productivity and efficiency, while at the same time reducing costs, energy input, pollution or waste. These technologies have an incredibly broad range of application in Energy Generation (wind, solar, biofuel, wave), Energy Storage (advanced batteries, fuel cells), Agriculture (organic pesticides, land management), Energy Efficiency (building, lighting), Waste Treatment, and Water and Air Purification. The list is extensive.

Some people, including myself, view CleanTech as the next big boom, because in a world that is becoming short on resources (water, energy, food, for example), countries that are efficient or even sustainable will find themselves in a powerful position.

NZ is doing its bit in this part, although as is often the case, we could, and should be doing more. We, like Masdar City, could have the potential to become a 'hotbed' of innovation in this area. We could leverage our clean-green image, our brains and ingenuity and our ability to take on new technologies because of our size, to create more of these types of companies. For example, the electric car will become more prevalent throughout the next 20 years, and so imagine if NZ positioned itself to become the biggest manufacturer of advanced batteries for electric cars? Or infact experts in any of the areas I listed above! This is similar to what Denmark has done with wind turbines. We could really create a name for ourselves and although there are clearly economic and regulatory issues associated with the uptake of renewable energy sources, I believe the payoff could be huge if we back ourselves NOW!

Here are a few early stage NZ companies operating in this area that have taken the plunge already. I'll try and talk in more detail about what these companies are doing in the coming weeks because they have some amazing ideas. But in the meantime please check them out:

Aquaflow Bionomic (biodiesel from algae)
Carbonscape (carbon capture and storage)
Crest Energy (tidal power)
Lanzatech (bioethanol from waste)
Neptune Power (tidal power in Cook Strait)
Novatein (plastics from waste materials)
Wellington Drive Technologies (energy efficient electric motors)

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