National / International News
A Michigan battery start-up has been garnering lots of attention lately for a breakthrough. It addresses a key question on many people's minds: why do computer chips in our phones improve exponentially – under what is called Moore's Law – but our batteries die by lunchtime?
"You know, there are actually very few technology areas whose key performance index follows Moore's law," says Ann Marie Sastry, founder of the battery start-up Sakti3. "Do your clothes follow Moore's law in terms of how they last? Does interior paint?"
Building the battery of tomorrow is hard. It's up against certain limits of chemistry.
Sastry quit her engineering professor job at the University of Michigan to take it on. The company produces what are called solid-state batteries. There are no liquids inside to hog valuable space and weight. Just the essentials.
"In a liquid system, the liquid in your battery, or the gel in your battery, is only a highway for the ions to move to the active material," Sastry says. "And that is actually penalizing your energy density."
Energy density is the key concept – how much oomph can you pack in a light, tiny battery package. Sakti3's big moment came when it announced it smashed a key technical barrier: packing 1,000 units of energy – or kilowatt hours -- into one liter of volume.
"We were pretty thrilled because today's battery technologies are hovering around 600," Sastry says.
The upshot: a power source that can last almost twice as long, for half the price or less. Or in car terms, it pushes toward the goal of an electric vehicle with no range issues, at a price of about $25,000.
Right now, it's all potential. Sakti3 has to figure out large-scale production, which could take two years to market. Or more.
"Scientific discovery does not respect your timeline," says clean energy investor Matt Nordan, co-founder and managing partner at MNL Partners in Boston.
Nordan has seen many exciting lab announcements end up in the technology graveyard.
"You can sit down and lay out 'I'm going to do these experiments in this order with this many people over this many months, and I'm going to get to this answer,'" says Nordan. "And you know what, you might get it tomorrow morning, you might get it five years from now. You might get it never."
The notion of tomorrow, as in almost there, has been a tease of electric vehicles for decades.
Sakti3 founder Ann Marie SastryScott Tong/Marketplace
"The EV has been the car of tomorrow for 100 years," says business professor David Kirsch of the University of Maryland, author of "The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History." "It's always been a day away. There have been predictions even in the modern era since the late 1960s about what the coming golden area of electric vehicles."
The key is a more competitive battery, but it's more than that. The incumbent liquid fuel – gasoline – is far more energy dense and some argue always will be. It's a liquid that's easy to transport down a pipeline and pour in your car. For all the carbon pollution minuses, gasoline has lots of everyday pluses.
Still, the challenge is not insurmountable, Sastry argues. She reads history more optimistically.
"When better technology becomes available, it can be adopted with breathtaking speed," Sastry says. "If you just look at the computing revolution, that's clear. Now we're in the cloud and that is revolutionary, and that's clear. Does portable high energy density power change everything? Yes. It changes everything."Scott Tong/Marketplace
She says her breakthrough battery may first show up in consumer electronics and wearable devices like smart watches.
But automaker GM has already invested in her ideas. And there are whispers Sakti3 is testing a "next-next-generation" product: a new material with even better properties than today's lithium.
The director of the FBI, James Comey, is criticizing the planned use of sophisticated encryption technology by companies such as Apple and Google. The technology would make data on phones inaccessible to any third party, so the companies couldn’t turn it over to law enforcement even if they wanted to or were served with a warrant.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution, Comey referred to the problem as “going dark”—where a target becomes invisible to law enforcement. “Those charged with protecting our people aren’t always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism, even with lawful authority,” he said. With unbreakable encryption, “we have the legal authority to intercept and access information pursuant to a court order, but we lack the technical ability to do that.”
In the past, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt has implied the government has itself to blame, and that government surveillance excesses could cost U.S. companies their customers.
“It’s clear that the global community of internet users doesn’t like being caught up in the U.S. surveillance dragnet,” he said.
Revelations stemming from Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information on government surveillance could cost companies like Google and Apple their bottom line. “Surveillance related consumer concerns could cost U.S. cloud service providers up to one-fifth of their foreign market share...this is going to cost America jobs,” said Schmidt.
Government intrusion is not the only customer concern about tech companies such as Apple and Google. Hackers have already demonstrated they can breach security at banks and department stores as well as at tech companies including Microsoft and Google.
“Any back door that the NSA or law enforcement builds into an encryption mechanism can also be exploited by hackers in the U.S. and abroad,” says Ginger McCall, Associate Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Comey argues that such security risks should not outweigh law enforcement’s need to protect the public.
Reflecting the current constellation of mistrust and concerns over privacy and security, McCall makes a similar argument: it doesn’t make sense to say we can’t eliminate all crime, therefore exposure of the public is desirable. “One or two outlier criminal cases are not a justification to subvert the privacy and security of the data of the entire nation.”
It's been a rocky week for investors--One of the worst and most volatile in a while. But markets are up this morning in the U.S. and Europe. More on that. And as two U.S. health care workers who have contracted Ebola continue to receive treatment, several dozen politicians have called for a ban on travel from West African nations stricken by Ebola. Politics aside, there are many Americans who say they'd support some kind of travel ban. But what constitutes a travel ban? And this weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the "National Organ Transplant Act." That created our current organ donation system, and banned the sale of organs. Today, there are more than 120,000 people waiting for a transplant, and that long list has led a bioethicist to call for changes to the law.
Calls for banning travel from West African nations stricken by Ebola grew louder this week. Loud enough that during intense questioning Thursday, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to remind Congress that the CDC doesn’t issue visas.
Politics aside, many Americans support the idea of a travel ban. But what exactly does a travel ban mean?
Aid organizations say it’s crucial that commercial airlines keep flying to West Africa. That’s how volunteer doctors and nurses get there.
“These people are not there for the duration of the epidemic,” says Gilbert Burnham with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He says many stay a month or six weeks, “then they’re likely to rotate out and other people rotate in.”
So is a travel ban a ban on flights, or on people? Logistically, it may seem simple to just cancel incoming flights from Sierra Leone, Guinea or Liberia.
Right now, though, there are no direct flights to the U.S. from those countries, according to John Wagner, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Transportation policy expert Kenneth Button of George Mason University says it can be harder to track people who fly indirectly, if they purchase different tickets for different legs.
“They could actually buy a separate ticket from Guinea or Sierra Leone to Paris and then have a separate ticket from Paris to the United States,” he says, adding they could lay over for a few days in the middle.
That’s part of the reason some lawmakers want to suspend visas for non-U.S. citizens from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, until the Ebola outbreak is contained.Do you think there should be a travel ban on countries most affected by Ebola?
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Ever since the National Organ Transplant Act was established 30 years ago this month, ushering in our current organ donation system, it has been enshrined in the law and the medical community in the U.S. that we don’t pay for organ donations.
But bioethicist Sigrid Fry-Revere is trying to challenge that notion, at least a little.
Currently, there are 120,000 people waiting for a transplant, while only 8,200 people donated organs between January and July 2014, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services. Most of those waiting need a kidney transplant, which is one of few organs that can be donated both by the living and the dead.
So, why aren’t there more kidneys?
Fry-Revere wondered that while trying to donate a kidney to an ailing friend. She wasn’t able to do so, because she would need six weeks to recover and would need $8,000 to hire someone to tend her Virginia farm, she says.
“My recipient was wealthy enough to pay $8,000 for a farm-hand, but it was against the law for him to do that,” because that would have seemed like she was getting paid upfront to donate her kidney, says Fry-Revere.
In the end, her friend died waiting on the transplant list.
Fry-Revere looked around the world to see if the problem was the same elsewhere. She discovered that it wasn’t in Iran, where there is an established practice of paying for organs, and kidneys are available to everyone who needs a transplant. The benefits and cash payments to donors there can total as much as three times the annual income of a typical Iranian, says Fry-Revere, who authored the book "The Kidney Sellers: A Journey of Discovery in Iran.”
Fry-Revere wants to bring a version of that concept to the U.S., by paying people upfront for any expenses they might incur from donating an organ.
Currently, more than half of organ donations come form people who have died. But very few people die in the right set of conditions to allow for organ harvesting. So, in order to get more organs, you have to increase the number of living donors, says Fry-Revere. But that’s hard to do in the current U.S. system, she says, because of strict guidelines about how donors can be compensated for expenses related to their donation. Namely, donors cannot be paid for expenses before they donate, but can sometimes be compensated for some expenses, such as lost wages, after the fact.
And that’s a disincentive, Fry-Revere says, because most people can’t afford to spend money first and then wait for reimbursement.
“We have patients that have trouble coming to clinic because they can’t afford the gas,” says Dr. Stephen Pastan, medical director of kidney and pancreas transplant programs at the Emory Transplant Center in Atlanta, Georgia. "Unfortunately, financial barriers, particularly for socioeconomically disadvantaged people, often play a large role in them not being able to become kidney donors.”
Pastan says a lot of his patients are African-American with socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, and they are disproportionately affected by the lack of donor kidneys.
There is a National Living Donor Assistance Program, set up to offer some financial reimbursement to donors. But the current system isn’t meeting the need, Pastan says.
"What I think we should do is do a better job of paying donors’ expenses, and paying them upfront,” Fry-Revere says.
The details of Fry-Revere’s proposal are to amend current law so that organ donors can get cash upfront in the form of a pre-paid debit card loaded with as much as $14,000. The money would be use to pay for any expenses such as taking time away from work, childcare, and transportation costs.
"We want to remove any barriers to people who have come forward to be a living donor,” says Troy Zimmerman, head of governmental affairs at the National Kidney Foundation, "But if it has any appearances of having an incentive to donate, that is something that the kidney foundation is very much opposed to.”
But Fry-Revere says there are no ethical dilemmas in her proposal or dangers that the poor might be exploited for their organs by rich patients.
In trying to shelter the poor from the possibility of exploitation, Fry-Revere says we have actually created a perverse inequality, in which transplant patients with financial means are better off in the living donor program, “because the system does allow recipients to reimburse the donor’s travel, lodging and lost wages. But that assumes a rich recipient."