TWIE 109: Bamboo Buildings

This Week in Engineering: Bamboo Buildings; Glucose-powered implants; Rooftop solar contest; Self-deicing metal; Space greenhouses; Retinal prosthesis

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Bamboo buildings

Big Tree Farms in Bali, Indonesia has built a cocoa butter and chocolate factory building out of bamboo, which they claim is the largest commercial bamboo building in the world.  Bamboo is totally sustainable (technically, a kind of grass), and as a building material, it is strong, light, and inexpensive, although if untreated, it is susceptible to fire and rot.  Still, bamboo as a construction material is seeing a resurgence across the island, including luxury housing and even a school.  One industry this will impact: disaster movies.  No more King Kong or Godzilla, but your house might get eaten by giant pandasaurus!  Whoa, that's one adorable way to go out.

Glucose-powered implants

Engineers from MIT have created a silicon wafer for future brain implants, equipped with fuel cells that run on the body's own supply of glucose.  The fuel cells consist of a platinum anode that harvests electrons from glucose, and single-walled carbon nanotubes for the cathode, and can generate hundreds of microwatts -- enough to power a small neural implant.  The wafers can be made with existing semiconductor manufacturing technology, and are ideally suited to run on cerebrospinal fluid, which has a significant supply of glucose.  I want this neural implant, if only as an excuse to break my diet.  Sorry, Jillian, I gotta eat these doughnuts.  Brain implants don't glucose themselves!

Rooftop solar contest

The US Department of Energy is offering ten million dollars in prizes for businesses that can dramatically lower the cost of solar energy on residential and commercial rooftops.  Winners of the SunShot Prize must install 5000 rooftop solar panel installations at an average cost of $2 per watt, without subsidies.  The prize should help the Department of Energy achieve its goal of making the price of solar energy comparable to other sources by 2020.  Third place pays $1 million, second pays $2 million, and first prize is $7 million.

Self-deicing metal

Researchers from Harvard University have developed a coating for metal surfaces that repels moisture and ice.  The technology, called Slippery Liquid Infused Porous Surfaces, or SLIPS, is a perfect molecularly-flat surface adhered to a rough material applied over the metal.  The surface is so perfectly flat, moisture rolls off before ice can develop, and even if it could, any small vibration would knock it off, as there are no imperfections to cling to.  The coating is non-toxic and anti-corrosive, and can be applied to existing metal surfaces like airplane wings.

Space greenhouses

Students at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University are working to create a prototype of a robotically controlled garden for a long-term space mission.  Robots will grow, harvest, and compost the waste of various types of plants that could be used as food, to purify water, and to produce oxygen.  The program is part of NASA's annual Exploration Habitat, or X-Hab, Academic Innovation Challenge for developing habitats that may someday be deployed on deep space missions.  Forget space, I need the robot gardner for my house!  The robot might be expensive, but not compared to fresh herbs at Whole Foods.  It's like they were fertilized with unobtainium!

Retinal prosthesis

Shawn Kelly from Carnegie Mellon University has developed a chip that converts a camera image into electrical pulses the brain can interpret, allowing a small test group of blind patients to see a low-resolution image.  The camera is small enough to be mounted to a pair of glasses, and wired to a thin film in the eye socket between the sclera and the retina.  Powered by induction, the device is currently limited to just 256 pixels, which is how many electrodes fit on the film.  I wonder: can we please sta