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Students Invent Revolutionary Solar Sterilizer

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  • by superwiz (655733) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @03:46PM (#36058130) Journal
    transparency? since sunshine is the best disinfectant?
    • Sunlight actually does kill a lot of bacteria, though it's usually because of the UV light. Bacteria generally are less tolerant of UV than we are for a variety of reasons (for one thing, they generally don't have backups of their genes like we do).

      They have machinery to repair UV damage to their DNA, but a lot of that is triggered by visible light. I've heard that UV light only, without other wavelengths like visible light, is especially lethal to bacteria. I wonder if a better sterilization method m
      • Re:is he naming it (Score:4, Interesting)

        by ColdWetDog (752185) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @05:49PM (#36058742) Homepage
        The problem with a generic UV sterilizer is that every surface that you want to sterilize has to be exposed to the UV. The box joint inside a scissor, for example, would not be sterilized. The advantage of the device in TFA is that it presumeably would be easy to build in the field and would not need electricity. A potential issue would be clean water. Running dirty water, or even water with a large amount of dissolved solids (hard water) is rough on sterilizers.

        Also, steam sterilization is very well understood and is pretty easy to track. Quality assurance for UV sterilization isn't easy in a low tech society.
        • Those are good reasons why my idea wouldn't work. So thanks for that :-P.

          TFA made it sound like the water didn't need to run anywhere, it didn't require steam to be piped in. I was under the impression the samples sat above a pot of water basically, and the steam rose up. Maybe if solid buildup is a problem, one could just wash it with some CLR.
      • by vlm (69642)

        Bacteria generally are less tolerant of UV than we are for a variety of reasons (for one thing, they generally don't have backups of their genes like we do).

        thru the magic of cubed-squared, my cardiac muscle tissue doesn't have to bother being UV resistant, and my skin doesn't have to bother doing much beyond being UV resistant (more or less) and keeping the outside out, and the inside in.

  • It's just that the cost of rocket and fuel to transport the instruments to and from the sun is a bit high :)

  • This invention could help prevent the spread of infection and illness in clinics around the world without access to proper sterilization tools.

    Hold your horses. Is nothing in this invention patented by other parties (or the inventing party for that matter)?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by nzac (1822298)

      Not in the developing countries themselves I would think. Getting it patented in developing world counties would be an order of magnitude more work than inventing it.
      Almost all of the patient stories we see on /. are just for the US.

    • by artor3 (1344997) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @04:43PM (#36058430)

      There are several technologies that have been developed and distributed in the third world by humanitarians. The adjustable eye-glasses, shake-powered water sterilizer, and super-nutritious peanut butter all come to mind. In cases where there is patent protection (the peanut butter, for example) the aid workers simply ignore it.

      • Plumpynut (Score:4, Interesting)

        by adam (1231) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @06:43PM (#36058994)
        The peanutbutter-like product nzac is referencing is most commonly known as Plumpynut. It's used the world over, and I can attest it really does make a huge and immediate difference in the near-term outcome for malnourished children (the root cause of malnutrition — poverty — is often not addressed). September of last year the NYT ran an article [nytimes.com] on Partners In Health [pih.org] and their Nourimamba version of the PB product. For readers who want to know more about what you alluded to, I thought I'd chime in with some links and such. Plumpynut is patented in several countries, but not Haiti. Partners In Health uses local farmers to grow peanuts and employs local personnel to manufacture Nourimamba.

        Partners in Health harvests peanuts from a 30-acre farm or buys them from a cooperative of 200 smallholders. It’s planning to build a larger factory, but for now the nuts are taken to the main hospital in Cange, where women sort them in straw baskets, roast them over an outside gas burner, run them through a hand grinder and mix all the ingredients into a paste that is poured into reusable plastic canisters.

        PIH has a slideshow of manufacturing Nourimamba on smugmug, here [smugmug.com]. The Times article [nytimes.com] does address some of the interesting (and sad) legal wrangling behind a simple peanut mix that has the power to save millions of lives. Also, for an interesting take on how famines can be "manufactured" by unscrupulous governments or warlords seeking to skim or redirect aid, see Linda Polman's work [amazon.com]. Here's an excerpt from a Guardian article,

        All too frequently, according to Polman, the result is not what it says in the charity brochures. She cites a damning catalogue of examples from Biafra to Darfur, and including the Ethiopian famine, in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims. Perhaps the most striking case in the book deals with the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda in which the Hutu killers fled en masse across the border to what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). There, in Goma, huge refugee camps were assembled and served by an enormous array of international agencies, while back in Rwanda, where Tutsi corpses filled rivers and lakes, aid was not so focused. The world was looking for refugees, the symbol of human catastrophe, and the refugees were Hutus. This meant the militias that had committed the atrocities received food, shelter and support, courtesy of international appeals, while their surviving victims were left destitute. Worse still, Polman believes the aid enabled the Hutu extremists to continue their attempt to exterminate the Tutsis from the security of the UNHCR camps in Goma. "Without humanitarian aid," she writes, "the Hutus' war would almost certainly have ground to a halt fairly quickly."

    • Why is it that slashdot goes so quickly to the patent side of things, yet so many people are not lawyers?

      Anyway, I'm dubious. Why mess with a bulky, fragile, comparatively costly solar array? Is fire from wood not hot enough? Is it a matter of you'd have to supply a lot of wood?
      • by sodul (833177)

        yes

      • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @06:01PM (#36058798) Homepage

        Why is it that slashdot goes so quickly to the patent side of things, yet so many people are not lawyers?

        And since when has even the appearance of expertise in any given field been a criteria for posting? That's half the fun, chattering off about stuff that we know little about.

        Anyway, I'm dubious. Why mess with a bulky, fragile, comparatively costly solar array? Is fire from wood not hot enough? Is it a matter of you'd have to supply a lot of wood?

        The solar array, although bulky and fragile, is pretty low tech. Easy to copy with basically junk yard parts. Sterilization (especially of any quantity of stuff) is very energy intensive. Remember, you have to heat water to the vapor point under pressure - lots of calories involved in the phase change. And wood (or kerosene or charcoal or whatever) IS in short supply in many areas.

        The idea behind this sort of device is to get people to do something they haven't been doing - sterilizing medical gear. There are many documented cases of transmission of AIDS, hepatitis and whatever infectious disease you want to mention by well intentioned but poorly trained and supported medical staff. Often the transmission comes from reuse of equipment. Much of the time, it's reuse of something designed to be thrown away (think plastic syringes). These are a real problem since they're cheap and can't be easily sterilized. Certainly you can't autoclave a plastic syringe (successfully). But even for reusable stuff, autoclaving often is a hangup. The sterilizers do use a fair amount of heat and they are often cranky of maintenance. I don't see the magic bullet in the TFA fixing this part of the equation, but it's a reasonable start to the power requirements.

        • Why is it that slashdot goes so quickly to the patent side of things, yet so many people are not lawyers?

          And since when has even the appearance of expertise in any given field been a criteria for posting? That's half the fun, chattering off about stuff that we know little about.

          My issue was people who aren't lawyers, why is their first thought "OMG PATENTS!" instead of "wow, that's really interesting to me as a nerd." Talking outside your area of expertise is fine, I'd have been a hypocrite right there if that was my point.

          • by WNight (23683)

            Because technical problems can be overcome but patents cannot, or not without inventing less efficient methods.

            Why get involved in something if you aren't going to be able to use your work? Best to figure it out early.

  • Or just our own?

  • Not solved just yet (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sarten-X (1102295) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @04:06PM (#36058248) Homepage

    students... have solved...

    No, they haven't. They have made some nice progress, and apparently have small-scale usage in Haiti, but I certainly wouldn't classify the problem as "solved". They still need to get the devices to where they're needed, which means shipping, mass manufacturing, establishing supply lines, and convincing somebody (corporation, government, investor, or otherwise) that this is a worthwhile idea.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by isopropanol (1936936)

      Also need to convince people that this is better and cheaper than a pressure cooker, liquid-fuel camp stove, and jerry-can of gasoline.

      • by Sarten-X (1102295)

        But this is solar! It uses the sun, which is a renewable resource! Surely doctors care more about a pollution-free environment than about their scarce money and office space, right?

        • by timeOday (582209)
          It's Haiti... think hard... there was some sort of disruption to their electrical and gas supply lines not too long ago, which coincided with a spike in the demand for medical procedures, and a lot of unsanitary procedures such as amputations were performed. This is not hypothetical. There actually are places where people cannot simply assume reliable energy sources all the time (and that isn't just a jab at California).
          • by Sarten-X (1102295)

            Of course, but sticking 50 cans of fuel on a plane is cheaper and easier than 50 of these things. On a cloudy day, I can't assume these are reliable, either.

    • Just minor details (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      students... have solved...

      No, they haven't. They have made some nice progress, and apparently have small-scale usage in Haiti, but I certainly wouldn't classify the problem as "solved". They still need to get the devices to where they're needed, which means shipping, mass manufacturing, establishing supply lines, and convincing somebody (corporation, government, investor, or otherwise) that this is a worthwhile idea.

      If it was possible to do all of the above for something non-essential like a laptop computer [laptop.org], I'm pretty sure it can be done with a something that actually saves lives.

      The major hurdle has been solved and the tings you mention are just minor details.

      • by Sarten-X (1102295) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @11:27PM (#36060042) Homepage
        They're minor details that kill off a staggering number of projects. I'm also not convinced the OLPC is a success yet, and it's been almost four years. Only 2 million laptops have been distributed, at double the intended price point, to only a few countries. OLPC is certainly ferther along the path to success, but I don't think they're there just yet.
    • by Co0Ps (1539395)
      Obligatory XKCD: http://xkcd.com/678/ [xkcd.com] See row "5 years".
    • All the theoretical problems have been worked out, we're sure to all have fusion generators soon. All that's left are the engineering problems. Then the business problems.

      Easy, right?

    • by khallow (566160)
      They also need to get the target population to use and maintain the device.
    • Yes, and even without those problems you still have to get people to use it. A few years ago the CSIRO here in Oz had a wonderfull idea for purifying water in third world counties, simply mix crushed charcoal and clay and make it into a pot. The pot is pourous so when you put water in it, it seaps through and is collected in a traditional water tight pot below. The invention filters out parasites, solids, and even bacteria.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      What planet are you on? solving means finding an answer - which they did. Hello??? McFly??? Anybody home???

    • by owlstead (636356)

      Ah, I always read Slashdot for these kind of negative remarks, with a large part of Slashdot backing them up. In a technical sense, they did solve the problem. Is it eating you up that somebody else is better than you or something? Are you doing anything except spewing negative remarks?

      Each and every article about a new invention has the same remark about the invention not being ready. Sure, there is always some level of truth in the comments that point it out. But if everybody is modding up those remarks b

      • by Sarten-X (1102295)

        If only it were that simple. Hypothetically, let's assume all such remarks went unseen and unheard. Then, in the public eye, our energy problems are "solved" because fusion works, pollution problems are "solved" because of solar cells, world hunger is "solved" because of GM food crops, and world peace should be "solved" really soon now that Bin Laden is dead. Given that all those problems are solved, the only reason we don't have such miracles is must be... a global conspiracy, perhaps? I jest, of course, b

  • Fire? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Kohath (38547)

    Doesn't fire sterilize just fine? They have fire.

    And, for plastic items, fire can be used to boil water to sterilize those.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If boiling water sterilized well enough for this, the autoclave would never have been invented. And fire may sterilize the outside of something (a needle, for example) but actual surgical implements are a bit tricky to sterilize that way because they have hinges, springs and other things that fire may play havoc with.

      The problem they are working on is a very genuine one.

    • Re:Fire? (Score:5, Informative)

      by jd (1658) <imipak@yaCOLAhoo.com minus caffeine> on Saturday May 07, 2011 @05:00PM (#36058516) Homepage Journal

      Meh, fire doesn't sterilize that well, and heat can do Bad Things to metal at temperatures high enough to guarantee sterilization.

      As for water, it's not good for rough surfaces (where pockets of infection can easily remain at a lower temperature) and a temperature of 100'C is way too low to kill the really nasty viruses. It's not even hot enough to be that good against some bacteria.

      I'll agree that it's much better than nothing at all. However, even your standard autoclave [wikipedia.org] is pretty naff at dealing with the full range of items used in medical facilities, which is why MRSA is so problematic.

      There's also the issue of Strain 121 [wikipedia.org]. It's not listed (as far as I know) as harmful to humans, but the mere fact that a hyperthermophile exists at all is a concern. It means that we will run into harmful bacteria that autoclaves are incapable of stopping.

      • Does Strain 121 survive outside of extreme heat?

        • It can survive the cold (as in room temp), but It does not GROW outside of that heat. It requires high heat to allow its thin membrane to be fluid.
      • by beckett (27524)
        Strain 121 is Archaea, not Bacteria.
    • Re:Fire? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Jessified (1150003) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @05:25PM (#36058642)

      I think fire would leave carbon on the instruments. Boiling at atmospheric pressure is insufficient (100 C is insufficient for sterilization).

      From Wikipedia: "To achieve sterility, a holding time of at least 15 minutes at 121 C (250 F) or 3 minutes at 134 C (273 F) is required."
      https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Sterilization_(microbiology) [wikimedia.org]

      The numbers vary by method, but I think the principle remains. Many pathogens have spore forms which are incredibly heat resistant.

    • by tyrione (134248)

      Doesn't fire sterilize just fine? They have fire.

      And, for plastic items, fire can be used to boil water to sterilize those.

      We're not removing slivers. We're talking about internal medicine.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by grcumb (781340)

      Doesn't fire sterilize just fine? They have fire.

      And, for plastic items, fire can be used to boil water to sterilize those.

      That's probably a better starting point than this idea.

      My complaint about this (and a number of other 'developing world' technologies) is that they try to solve the entire puzzle all at once. And that usually requires a degree of cleverness. That cleverness usually requires either custom components or a particular environment in which to work. Which makes it effectively useless.

      The problem here is that people seems to be conflating 'hot' with 'sunny'. It's a common misconception that, because the poorest na

  • by jd (1658) <imipak@yaCOLAhoo.com minus caffeine> on Saturday May 07, 2011 @04:48PM (#36058450) Homepage Journal

    Yes, the invention that UK and US companies scoffed at, the SA government funded, and has now made the inventor a multi-millionaire.

    Why mention that? Because this invention - if it is to succeed - will have to follow a similar path. There's no way on Earth that companies selling highly expensive sterilization systems will want to add a cheap alternative to their sales brochure. And the only way this invention will get refined to the point of being practical and widely distributed is with serious cash - which means a large corporation (see above) or a government providing the seed money.

    Having said that, they have to battle inertia. UV lamps can sterilize hospital rooms that have MRSA contamination quickly and easily, but much more expensive and dramatic methods are typically used (largely because they're expensive, dramatic and involve machines that go bing). Inertia is a serious problem in the medical profession. There's good reason for being conservative - you don't want to do more harm than good - but there's plenty of cases where that's merely a pretext for delaying change.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      There's no way on Earth that companies selling highly expensive sterilization systems will want to add a cheap alternative to their sales brochure.

      This sort of attitude misses the actual problem.

      Companies could add this to their catalog precisely because it *isn't* a cheap alternative. If it were, someone could make some money selling it. But the problem is the developed world-market for current sterilization systems would never migrate to this--why replace a system that works consistently with one that can't run overnight, is slow on cloudy days, and (since it needs direct access to sunlight) would require re-engineering physical facilities? Can y

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      I only wish I could buy the ruggedized one with the detachable solar panel :(

    • by tyrione (134248)
      Agreed. Another example is the portable Ultrasound and MRI units. Hospitals have spent millions upon millions for the large systems and will avoid them like the plague because they still want to recoup their investments and pass that onto the patient. Instead of reducing the cost of medical services, for-profit health care is for exploiting the system.
  • by Scrameustache (459504) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @04:58PM (#36058502) Homepage Journal

    It's a solar powered hotplate that uses steam. It has a commercial autoclave sitting on the hotplate.

    They didn't invent a sterilizer, they invented a way to power existing ones.

  • by GrantRobertson (973370) on Saturday May 07, 2011 @05:58PM (#36058786) Homepage Journal

    I am sorry but I am getting really sick of reading about all these students at prestigious universities who do nothing more than re-purpose existing technology, give it a fancy name, say it will solve some problem for the underdeveloped world, and get international accolades for doing the technological equivalent of buying a paper off the internet and putting their name on it.

    Every single piece of this "revolutionary" "invention" can be bought off the shelf and is in current use. The main difference between an autoclave and a standard pressure cooker is that the autoclave is guaranteed to get up to the proper temperature and pressure and then stay there for the specified period of time. Considering that this contraption must be hand adjusted, and it requires at least an hour just to get up to temp, and then it has to stay at that temp for around an hour - being constantly adjusted all the time - there is no guarantee whatsoever that the instruments will actually be sterilized. If the operator gets distracted for a while then all you get is a bunch of hot - but still infectious - instruments.

    Sure, if these students built every single piece of their solar steam generator by hand, it would be a good exercise - akin to an art student copying an old master - but that is all. If I was their professor and they tried to pass this off as their own creation I would have failed them and turned them in for plagiarism.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      If these things are such no-brainers, then why haven't they been developed previously? The 'obviousness' AFTER THE FACT of these solutions has no bearing on either the creativity, ingenuity, and skill that went into them, nor on their value.

      Technology builds upon itself. Most of our technological advancements today come from people who "re-purpose existing technology". I design hardware for a living; I re-purpose existing electronic components in useful, and often novel, ways to create devices that meet a c

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by grcumb (781340)

        If these things are such no-brainers, then why haven't they been developed previously? The 'obviousness' AFTER THE FACT of these solutions has no bearing on either the creativity, ingenuity, and skill that went into them, nor on their value.

        Without taking away from your argument - it's perfectly valid - I'd suggest to you that the main reason for lack of development in what's often called Appropriate Technology is that, for the most part, most of the people involved are against new technological approaches, especially those that challenge their own ability to draw a salary.

        I've experienced first-hand situations where donors would rather spend a half million dollars on a project that's fraught with predictable, inevitable problems than spend tw

      • jenningsthecat,

        I'll take your argument one piece at a time:

        I did not say "These things" are "no-brainers" - with the implication that a solution to the problem of sterilization was obvious or easy. Naturally, if that were the case then, as you say, there wouldn't be a problem to be solved.

        What I said was that the solution being passed off as "revolutionary" is nothing more than plunking an existing piece of equipment down on a source of heat. Exactly what the existing piece o

        • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

          by Antipater (2053064)

          jenningsthecat,

          In addition, these students did not even solve the stated problem.

          Fellow Rice senior MechE student here. And actually, they exactly solved the stated problem. Here are some quotes from the document explaining the project we were given when picking senior projects at the beginning of last semester:

          "Problem: To come up with an appropriate design that can link a simple autoclave (shown below) to the a solarthermal device called the capteur soleil"

          ...

          "The capteur soleil can provide thermal power but has not been coupled with an autoclave. The goal of this project is to ac

          • by Hartree (191324)

            The problem is not what the students did. Nor the exercise the prof assigned them. Both were good.

            It's the hype that was applied to it by the university media types.

            It's a fine job of fullfilling a design project. It could be useful in some situations. But saying it's "solved" the third world medical sterilization problem is a bit of a reach.

          • Antipater,

            So, the students solved the problem stated in their assignment. I was not commenting on their ability to do their assigned engineering task. I was commenting on the article - linked to in this Slashdot post - claiming that the combination was revolutionary in some way or that it actually solved the problem of sterilizing instruments in remote areas of underdeveloped countries.

            Actually, I am not a software developer. I am a former network manager. And I did not feel insulted that someone "insinuat

    • by beckett (27524)

      It's a hack, so it's interesting to someone. It might spark inspiration to rethink both solar conversion and sterilization technology. In larger context, the announcement also raises awareness of the problem of obtaining aseptic conditions in developing countries. Since the hack involves some off-the-shelf stuff, it's easy to start looking at practical applications or to scale-up immediately.

      I like thinking like this, and not just from students. I wouldn't have failed them if i was their professor, i

    • by grcumb (781340)

      Every single piece of this "revolutionary" "invention" can be bought off the shelf and is in current use.

      Sure, but that's actually one of the few positive aspects to this story. Using generic parts of a kind you can find in the local hardware store is a Good Thing.

      I just wish they'd thought about it long enough to realise that in the Caribbean (and the South Pacific, where I live) the most likely disaster scenario is hurricane- or volcano-related. There's not usually a lot of sunlight during such times.

      • Using generic parts of a kind you can find in the local hardware store is a Good Thing.

        Pardon me, but an autoclave is not a generic part that can be picked up at the local hardware store. Besides, remote areas of underdeveloped countries do not have hardware stores. So claiming anything that requires parts from YOUR local hardware store is suitable for people who have never seen a hardware store shows a complete lack of empathy for the problems of the people who make up a large part of the world's populatio

        • by grcumb (781340)

          Using generic parts of a kind you can find in the local hardware store is a Good Thing.

          Pardon me, but an autoclave is not a generic part that can be picked up at the local hardware store. Besides, remote areas of underdeveloped countries do not have hardware stores. So claiming anything that requires parts from YOUR local hardware store is suitable for people who have never seen a hardware store shows a complete lack of empathy for the problems of the people who make up a large part of the world's population.

          Dude, chill. The problems we're discussing affect about 85% of the population of the country I live in right now.

          To your points: First, that 'people who have never seen a hardware store' line is a little disingenuous. We're obviously using shorthand for generic consumer-grade materials that are readily available via standard distribution channels. Yes, there is no hardware store in the village to which these parts are destined, but it's a damn sight easier to get generic parts shipped from the nearest city

          • Using generic parts of a kind you can find in the local hardware store is a Good Thing.

            Pardon me, but an autoclave is not a generic part that can be picked up at the local hardware store. Besides, remote areas of underdeveloped countries do not have hardware stores. So claiming anything that requires parts from YOUR local hardware store is suitable for people who have never seen a hardware store shows a complete lack of empathy for the problems of the people who make up a large part of the world's population.

            Dude, chill. The problems we're discussing affect about 85% of the population of the country I live in right now.

            Which is exactly why you should be paying more attention to what is actually claimed in some of these arguments. I say thing A and people keep arguing about thing B, which distracts from the actual facts of this issue. Rice University's PR claimed their students had "invented" a "revolutionary" solution to the problem of sterilization of medical instruments when they had, in fact done nothing of the sort. While it may be a good thing to design useful devices such that they can be made out of commonly availa

    • There's one guy that made a sun tracking device for his solar reflector using the electronics and motor of a floppy disk drive. A control system for this autoclave probably wouldn't be very difficult and isn't likely to draw much power even if you have a stepping motor moving a small dish. That complicates things but still doesn't move it beyond the realm of student projects.
  • I bet you that a fresnel lens [youtube.com] would work a lot better and is more durable, portable, etc, and probably cheaper

    • Unless you need to autoclave something large, a solar funnel cooker will do the trick. http://www.outdoorcook.com/article1051.php [outdoorcook.com] This will melt HDPE (375 F melting point) plastic to the metal jar top if it touches it.

      Or use a Cookit solar cooker and an oven themometer. Put your stuff in a cast iron skillet and come back in an hour and check the temperature. Use pot holders unless you want 2nd degree burns.

      Both of these cookers can be carried in a back pack. It is fun to watch the face of someone when you p

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