To ensure the benefits of solar power are felt by the rural poor in remote communities at least two things need to happen. The technology needs to be more efficient and cheaper but also more innovation needs to be applied to the business models that favour decentralised, off-grid, small solar systems over centralised, fossil fuel-based solutions.
Beyond financing, there are other hurdles to improving access to solar power for the poor. These include improving local ownership of solar technologies, weaving off-grid solar systems into climate change policies and targets for reducing global emissions, and scaling up production technologies to reduce capital costs.
The bottom line is that scaling up solar power for the poor will depend on a mix of scientific improvements, policy initiatives, and collective action aimed at tackling climate change and electricity poverty.
Source: SciDev.Net 24 March 2010.No Comments » | Add your comment
Two days ago the Government’s Chief Scientist, Professor John Beddington, “Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), said the world will have to produce 50 per cent more food by 2030 in order to feed the growing population. He said the only way to do this is to grow more crops on less land by using the latest scientific innovation, including GM and nanotechnology.” (Daily Telegraph, 6 Jan 2010)
Today the House of Lords published a report entitled: “Nanotechnologies and Food” which acknowledged that, “Our current understanding of how they behave in the human body is not yet advanced enough to predict with any certainty what kind of impact specific nanomaterials may have on human health”. It also recognised that there is currently insufficient research into the toxicology of nanomaterials and called on the Research Councils to take a more active role in stimulating such research.
All new technologies have risks as well as opportunities inherent in them. We need to ensure that new technologies, including nanotechnologies, are used responsibly. Practical Action have been working with the Responsible Nano Forum to work out in a practical way how this can be done. The response of the Forum to the House of Lords report can be read here.
Yet to an extent the debates about the safety of new technologies applied to food production is a “side line” to the main issue of how the earth and its people can support an increase in food production. In the past those who have grappled with this issue have assumed continued economic growth, low energy costs, and a zero marginal cost for pollution. But these conditions now need to be questioned in the light of climate change, increased energy prices and a decline in water supplies.
Most of the world enjoys cheap food but the unrecognised price is the high energy costs (transport and fertilisers) and high carbon emissions. Local food production which supports biodiversity and food security is likely to offer increased food production. But to realise this dream requires some fundemental re-framing of basic questions relating to the economics of food. Harnessing appropriate technology to fulfil this dream requires us to be clearer in our articulation of the kind of world we want to live in.2 Comments » | Add your comment
The departments of Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan, United States, and collaborators from Jiangnan University in China, have developed a new technique that uses carbon nanotubes to detect biological and chemical contaminants in water at very low concentration levels (Source: Nanowerk 2009). The news is to be welcomed because there is certainly a need for such a sensor which might be applied to detect the levels of arsenic in drinking water in Bangladesh and Nepal.
Yet, getting such innovative scientific breakthroughs into use in a developing country requires more than research effort by scientists. At the early stages of technology development there is a need to involve a variety of stakeholders in the design process. This was a point well taken at the Science, Technology and Innovation for Poverty Reduction seminar organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology yesterday – see earlier blog.
Wang, L. et al (2009) Simple, Rapid, Sensitive, and Versatile SWNT-Paper Sensor for Environmental Toxin Detection Competitive with ELISA Nano Letters, 9 (12), pp 4147-4152.No Comments » | Add your comment
According to a UN report in 2007 half the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people with water borne diseases. The challenge to poor people comes from both availability and access to water. For most poor people it is access to clean water that is the main issue. Inevitably access is governed by economics – the ability to pay. So the price point of water filter technology can be a crucial factor in adoption.
Water purification technologies have been around for many centuries so the main challenge for new technologies here is to introduce method of filtering water to a lower price point whilst at the same time providing an easy to use, safe, low maintenance, low energy system. Yesterday Tata lauched the swach (Hindi for clean) water filter for a price of Rs30 per month – with enough capacity for the water needs of a family of five. The product needs no electricity to work.
A further noteworthy feature is that the filter comprises both old and new technologies. The cartridge filter is made from rice husk ash impregnated with nano-silver particles and has a capacity of 3000 litres. Nano silver particles are now included in many products available to the consumer including items of clothing. Yet questions over the effects of nano silver on the environment and human health are little known and disputed by scientists. For example, Babu et al (2008) say “ nano-silver may cause potential damage to the genetic material and therefore the use of nano-silver in consumer products warrants a detail toxicological investigation to justify its safety”.
At the launch of the product the Chairman of Tata (Ratan Tata) acknowledged that water was the most basic of human needs. Potential consumers also need to know that the products have been adequately tested and will not pose undue threats to human or environmental health. It is hoped that Tata will publish their toxicity tests results in an open and transparent way.
K. Babu, M. Deepa, S. G. Shankar & S. Rai : Effect of Nano-Silver on Cell Division and Mitotic Chromosomes: A Prefatory Siren . The Internet Journal of Nanotechnology. 2008 Volume 2 Number 21 Comment » | Add your comment
The RS/RAEng report (published five years ago) raised concerns that there was a potential for nanotechnologies to intensify the gap between rich and poor countries.
Practical Action was consulted by the Royal Society working party and the following letter was published in The Guardian (20 August 2004):
“Our concern is that yet another new technology will over-promise and under deliver; that in addition to the already apparent “digital divide”, we may be on the verge of a “nanodivide”. We should ensure that nanotechnologies are harnessed for the benefit of all peoples in the world not just those who can afford to fuel a consumer boom of new products. Many poor people in the world have basic requirements – for water, energy, and food – that are as yet unfulfilled. We need to ensure that nanotechnologies are used to achieve wider social and environmental goals (eg sustainable energy), rather than meeting short-term or developed world “market opportunities” for products such as sunscreen.”
Five years on what progress has been made in harnessing nanotechnology for the benefit of poor people? It is true that there have been further nano-dialogues, including those undertaken by Practical Action in Zimbabwe, Peru and Nepal. Some engagement with scientists in developing countries has been made, for example Practical Action in Peru has been a catalyst for the development of a nanotechnology network. However there is scant evidence of specific applications of nanotechnology being developed for use in developing countries. Some solar power applications have been developed in South Africa and elsewhere and some novel methods of removing arsenic from drinking water are being tested in Mexico but to date few, if any of these innovations have been applied and certainly not at any scale. You might think this position is fine because it is “early days”. But experience suggests that if efforts are not made around a research agenda on social and ethical issues it could be too late to affect the overall business model.
Perhaps of even greater importance is conceiving research projects that will include partnerships in developing countries. Such partnerships should include scientists, NGO’s, Government agencies, and beneficiary communities.
For further reflections on the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering Report see the Report from the Responsible Nano Forum.No Comments » | Add your comment
Not always! Vicky Colvin (who I met over 3 years ago) and colleagues at Rice University have been working on what I often refer to as a “nano recipe for the poor”. The recipe uses “nanorust” to remove arsenic from water and according to press reports it is cheap. The “arsenic-removing technology is based on the unique properties of particles called “nanorust,” tiny bits of iron oxide that are smaller than living cells”. The “nanorust” binds with arsenic.
Earlier this week Rice University announced that it will do practical tests of this technology in Mexico later this year. A further benefit of this technology might be that it can filter out water borne viruses in addition to arsenic removal. Let us monitor the tests and watch with interest as the results come in.No Comments » | Add your comment
A big question! Yet this is what a workshop to be held in Kathmandu on 26 May 2009 will try to achieve. Practical Action Nepal, working with local partners including the Department for Water Supply and Sanitation and UNICEF will hold a multi-stakeholder workshop to explore the problems associated with current technologies used to sense the amount of arsenic in drinking water supplies in the Terai area of Nepal. Further information can be found elswhere on the Practical Action website.
An exciting day of discussion awaits…and further blogs will report on the process and outcomes.No Comments » | Add your comment
Earlier this week the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies published a report on: “Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnologies“. The report makes the point that: “Oversight of new technologies in this century will occur in a context characterized by rapid scientific advancement, accelerated application of science and frequent product changes. The products will be technically complex, pose potential health and environmental problems and have an impact on many sectors of society simultaneously. They may also raise challenges to moral and ethical beliefs. Nanotechnology embodies all of these characteristics as well as particular ones that challenge conventional methods of risk assessment, standard setting and
The very characteristics of nanotechnologies and many new technologies more generally have changed since the systems of regulation were established. Therefore it is to be welcomed that this report takes a systems approach to the issues of regulation. One positive outcome of this approach is the identification of the need for public participation on the choices society makes about new technologies. Hopefully this could also include the need to balance market requirements with the needs of humanity.No Comments » | Add your comment
Researchers at Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) and the University of Alberta have developed an approach that could lead to improved performance of plastic solar cells (hybrid organic solar cells). Conventional solar cells require materials that are expensive or in short supply, such as silicon, thus there is a great interest in the development of plastic solar panels that could be mass-produced and inexpensive.
However, the researchers estimate that it will be 5-7 years before plastic solar cells are mass produced. When that happens the material will be produced quickly and cheaply by ink jet like printers. So it appears that it will be a long wait for such technology to have an impact in developing countries. In the meantime there are other potential improvements to solar cells that will probably reach the market much earlier.
Full paper: Thienylsilance-Modified Indium Tin Oxide as an Anodic Interface in Polymer/Fullerene Solar Cells, (Feb 25, 2009 edition, ACS Applied Materials + Interfaces).1 Comment » | Add your comment
According to The Sunday Times (Colombo), 8 February 2009, Sri Lanka is hoping to be a global player in sustainable nanotechnology with the launch of the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) in May 2009. There is no doubt from this report that the public private partnership has established a group of leading scientists. Ravi Fernando, CEO of SLINTECH claims that “Sri Lanka has the opportunity to differentiate itself through sustainable nanotechnology that will enhance the environment, not impact social systems negatively and contribute to economic competitiveness.”
The challenge is to grasp that opportunity and apply it for the benefit of the people of Sri Lanka as a whole, not just a relatively rich few. The challenge is to develop products using nanotechnology that are appropriate to the needs of people in Sri Lanka not just simply wanted by the global market place. The challenge is to include the voice of poor people in the direction and development of the research. To fail in these challenges would be to replicate just another global centre of expertise that returns little to the people of the country that hosts it.No Comments » | Add your comment