“World’s Most Wired”

That’s the title of an ongoing series of articles in Wired online magazine.  They profile individuals who are leaders in their field, often very little known to or by the general public, but who are making a major difference in some part of modern life.  At the time of writing there are eight articles in the series, with more to come.  To whet your appetite, here are excerpts from a couple of them.

First, in the ‘Steam Punk’ category, Danielle Fong.

Danielle Fong is the chief scientist and co-founder of a company called LightSail Energy. Based in Berkeley, California, this tiny startup is built on an idea that’s as unorthodox as Fong’s education. LightSail aims to store the world’s excess energy in giant tanks of compressed air. The goal is to plug these tanks into wind and solar farms, so that they can squirrel away energy for times when it’s most needed, much like reservoirs store rain water. The wind and the sun are prime sources of renewable energy, but they generate power unpredictably. LightSail’s compressed air tanks, Fong and company say, will make the power grid that much more efficient — and ultimately make the world a greener place.

. . .

Since the 1700s, scientists have struggled to store energy in more efficient ways, working to refine everything from Galvanic fuel cells to modern-day batteries. The question is always the same: How do we build a system that lets us storage energy and then retrieve almost all of it? But Steve Crane — LightSail’s CEO and a geophysics Ph.D. — says Danielle Fong has cracked at least part of the code. “It’s a little arrogant to put it this way,” he says, “but I think that Danielle has succeeded where Edison and others have failed.” The trick? Fong added water. LightSail’s prototype sprays a dense mist into the compressed air tanks, and this absorbs the heat produced during compression. Water can store heat far more efficiently than air, and with this mist, Fong says, the prototype more easily stores and releases power. It heats up the tanks to temperatures that are only about 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the environment, as opposed to several thousand degrees. The tanks are still pressurized to about 3,000 pounds per square inch — and Fong hopes to increase that amount — but since the power is stored at lower-temperatures, it’s easier to insulate the tanks. Some compressed air storage systems sit deep underground, taking advantage of the earth’s natural insulation, but LightSail’s tanks sit above ground, which is less costly. When you want the heat back, you just reverse the process, spraying the warm water out of the compression tank as the air expands, and it drives a piston to reproduce the power. But in both storing the heat and spitting it out, you need just the right amount of water. LightSail has tested nearly 40 nozzle heads — not to mention various tank designs — in an effort to achieve just the right mix. According to Fong, her system doubles the efficiency of compressed air, from about 35 percent to roughly 70 percent.

There’s more at the link.

Next, Dr. Joachim Kohn, the ‘War Healer’.

Kohn, a chemist, is at the helm of a $250 million, Pentagon-funded exploit into regenerative medicine called AFIRM. His goal: to take those people ravaged by war, and help put them — quite literally — back together.

. . .

AFIRM, short for the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, was established by Pentagon brass to do what, just four short years ago, seemed nearly impossible: target the most common, debilitating injuries from this generation’s wars, including burns, lost limbs and invasive wounds, and use cutting-edge medical technology to heal them utterly and completely. Instead of prosthetic arms, create flesh-and-blood replacements. Rather than burned skin partially repaired with a messy patchwork of grafts, replace that skin using sheets of lab-grown epidermis. And in lieu of acquiescing to bones, muscles and nerves that will be permanently missing, spur the soldier’s body to regrow what they’d lost.

Not only that, but do it quickly: The Pentagon intended for AFIRM to accelerate the rate of regenerative medicine progress by decades, and later infused a handful of promising projects with extra money to garner even speedier results. “Ten years doesn’t satisfy any of us,” former Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told AFIRM researchers in 2010 of the impetus to fast-track regenerative medicine from the lab into the human body.

. . .

In his role as director, Kohn keeps abreast of every research project, guides scientists, and works to find industry partners interested in commercializing fully developed therapies — a move that could soon see some regenerative treatments available to civilians. He also holds the purse strings: Of the more than $120 million invested into his consortium, he leads the deliberations that determine which projects and proposed trials merit funding.

“Maybe I used to be the quarterback, and now I’m more like the football coach,” he says of his behind-the-scenes role in AFIRM’s high-profile projects. In the countless media reports recounting AFIRM breakthroughs, Kohn’s name rarely garners a mention.

But Kohn is happy to remain unnoticed and uncredited for his work. That’s in part because, as Kohn has seen firsthand his entire life, any struggles he endured are nothing compared to the plights of those he’s helping to treat.

“I didn’t endanger my life in anyway, and I didn’t put myself on the line to save anyone,” he says. “I was just sitting in my laboratory, waving my hands around, sometimes having good ideas.”

Again, more at the link.

I recommend all of the articles in the series to your attention.  They’re intriguing, informative, and challenging reading.  Kudos to Wired for taking the trouble to commission the series.


1 comment

  1. I've one problem with AFIRM – with the current "administration's" attitude toward abortion, etc., will they be utilizing fetal stem cells from aborted fetuses? I'm all for 'replacing' what our military has lost, but the science has proven that adult stem cells, and stem cells from cord blood {when babies are born, the umbilical cord has a MASSIVE blood supply} are MUCH more usable for regeneration, etc. If they're utilizing these sources, more power to them …………………. if they're using from aborted babies, no so much …………………

    Semper Fi'

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