Category: Solutions

Students help Elon Musk’s dream become reality

If he wasn’t already, Elon Musk is rapidly becoming the rock star of all technology addicts. You might think that spending tons of his personal fortune to found electrical car company Tesla and aerospace company SpaceX would be enough, but Musk wouldn’t be Musk if he wasn’t always working on something new and exciting.

Back in 2013 he published a 57-page long white paper with the proposal of Hyperloop Alpha, a futuristic transport system that should bring people in no time from LA to San Fransisco at a speed of 700 miles per hour (more than 1100 km/h). He later admitted that it was the terrible LA traffic that brought him to think about a revolutionary new way of transportation.

The white-paper was not a business proposal, Musk rather threw the idea in the tech community in the hope someone would start doing something with it. Despite the fact that many people were quite skeptical about the idea, two start-ups have started to work on their own version of the Hyperloop.

Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment. — Elon Musk

This is more or less the idea. The Hyperloop is a new high-speed ground transport system that consists of a tube on (earthquake resistant) pylons that connects two major cities. A pod is racing at a speed of more than 700 miles per hour through the tube, reducing the duration of a trip from for example LA to San Fransisco to just 30 minutes. In order to reach such high speeds, the tube would be at under-pressure to reduce friction with the air. The pod would be floating on an air cushion and be accelerated by magnetic induction. The whole system is supposed to be driven by solar panels on the top of the tube. Pretty neat, huh?

With a price tag of 6 billion dollars, the system would be cheaper than the high speed train that is currently being built on the track Musk had in mind in his original proposal.

Elon Musk's original Hyperloop Alpha proposal in 2013

Elon Musk’s original Hyperloop Alpha proposal in 2013 (photo: Elon Musk)

The whole idea remained a bit under the radar of the larger public, until SpaceX announced a Hyperloop pod design competition for students last summer. The reaction was huge. Within one week, no less than 700 entries were submitted and this number grew to 1 751 by the time the registration closed the 15th of September.

A few weeks ago, 123 selected teams got the chance to present their designs at Texas A&M University. The stakes were high: the best implementations won a test ride of their pod on the (still under-construction) test track near the SpaceX’s headquarters. MIT ran away with the first price, a team from TU Delft in the Netherlands were next runner-up. In total twenty-two teams are awarded a test trip next summer to try-out their design.

With this competition the Hyperloop comes a bit closer to reality. “The public wants something new,” Musk told the participants at the end of the competition. “And you’re going to give it to them.”

Will we be travelling in from Amsterdam to Paris in no time soon? Well, probably not. The competition is in the first place an opportunity for engineering students to show off what they got and stimulate the discussion on future transportation. Musk didn’t promise to invest in one of the ideas, although he hinted that it was not unlikely to happen in the future. “There are a lot of crazy ideas out there, but when ideas are associated with someone like Elon Musk it feels like, OK, this is something,” told Anshuman Kumar, leader of the Hyperloop team at Carnegie Mellon University to Bloomberg. So who knows… Elon Musk never stops surprising us. And this time he has the next generation of engineers on board!


Photo of the Week: the Rain maker

We write December 2015, with the new year around the corner. Yet, still 780 million people around the world have no access to clean and safe drinking water. That is 1 out of 9! Since many communities life at or near the shore, the vast amount of seawater nearby plead to be turned into the source of life. Until now various machines have been proposed to take the salt out of seawater. This desalination process happens to be expensive, both money and energy wise.

The best solutions to difficult problems are often found in nature. Same goes for the Rain Maker, the desalination machine that mimics the natural water cycle. It heats seawater until it vaporises. The water vapour is taken into another compartment to be distilled. Then the steam is cooled down and turns into water again. Via a smart design, most of the heat is recuperated.

Prototype of the Rain Maker. It turns seawater in drinking water in a matter of minutes (photo: Billions in Change)

Prototype of the Rain Maker. It turns seawater in drinking water in a matter of minutes (photo: Billions in Change)

No membranes or filters are used, making the device able to run on its own for months without human intervention. A machine the size of a small car can make more than 3500 litres of water an hour.

By building small units that can be mass produced, the price is reduced enormously. Depending on the specific needs, more or less Rain Makers can be combined. This makes a desalination machine finally cost effective. Current massive plants are designed case by case and just cost too much money. The builders of Rain Maker even propose to build a ship full of their desalinators. When a coastal area faces a water crisis, the ship rushes to the spot and can start producing clean drinking water straight away and pump it to the shore.


Showcased in Billions in Change documentary


Photo of the Week: bins with Brains

photo courtesy: Getty Images

When I was walking trough the streets of Prague some months ago, I stumbled upon something interesting. I noticed that the wastebins in the old city centre have solar panels. It turns out that Prague choose an increasingly popular solution for waste management: the Bigbelly.

Historically, gut feeling and experience were used to figure out when to sent out teams for emptying the wastebins. With the Bigbelly solution, this has changed. The award-winning technology offers a novel and smart way of organising waste collection and recycling in cities, corporations and campuses. With a fleet of smart waste bins, it’s possible to optimise the collection schedule to asure wastebins are never overloaded, nor emptied too early. The smart wastebins are remotely connected with the cloud and deliver real-time data about their fullness. All the data is brought together in an online tool which helps to schedule the best collection timing and route. This saves a lot of fuel and labour time.

The BigBelly is a solar-powered and smart waste bin, revolutionising waste collection in cities and campuses (photo: city of Santa Clarita)

The BigBelly is a solar-powered and smart waste bin, revolutionising waste collection in cities and campuses (photo: city of Santa Clarita)

But there is more. The solar-powered wastebins also compact the litter so it can hold up to five times more garbage in comparison with a traditional system. The enclosed design keeps bad smell out and makes sure animals cannot get in.

The waste bins’ side panels are the perfect place to communicate with people about the benefits of recycling or other sustainable solutions in the community. This way, the ugly waste bin of the past is turned into a smart recycling station and communication platform. It’s a big win for everyone: it saves money, encourages recycling, conserves fuel, frees up labour, keeps out the pests and eliminates waste overflow. You see, building a smart city sometimes starts with the small things.



Photo of the Week: the straw that saved a thousand lives (so far)

The original LifeStraw (photo: LifeStraw)

I have showcased quite some extraordinary innovations in the Photo of the Week series so far. Maybe you get the feeling that in order to save the world, we need complicated and expensive technology. But sometimes it are simple things that can have the biggest impact. Brought to the market in 2005, LifeStraw has saved thousands of lives with their innovative product. And it will keep doing so in the future.

Knowing that 1 in 5 deaths of young children is directly related to a water-related disease, the LifeStraw truly deserves its name.  It filters out 99.9% of waterborne bacteria and 99.9 of waterborne protozoa and has saved thousands of lives since it was invented. It was originally designed for people in developing countries who don’t have water piped in from municipal sources or other access to safe water. It also comes to help in emergency situations following natural disasters when water is contaminated. Backpackers, campers and travelers alike are thankful users as well.

The community version of Vestergaard's life-saving filter technology is bringing clean drinking water to schools in Kenya (photo: LifeStraw)

The community version of Vestergaard’s life-saving filter technology is bringing clean drinking water to schools in Kenya (photo: LifeStraw)

The product shines in its simplicity. The plastic straw contains a filter containing no chemicals whatsoever. It is able to turn 1000 liters of contaminated water into drinking water. No need for electricity, batteries or replacement parts. In fact, it’s such a simple product that chances are low that it will ever break down. No surprise it got Time Magazine’s award for best invention of the year in 2005.

After the successful introduction of the original LifeStraw, inventor Vestergaard came up with other variants. The lifestraw family can support a household and the LifeStraw Community was designed as a high-volume filter for schools and clinics with a lack of safe drinking water.

Are you a fervent hiker, backpacker or camper? Do consider buying a LifeStraw. For each straw sold in the Western world, the Follow the Litres campaign will provide clean drinking water to an African child for a whole school year. It will not only save you some nasty travel sickness, but also others’ lives.


LifeStraw’s website

The Water Project


Photo of the Week: Belgium’s sail trains ride out

In a country that needed six years to reach an agreement in principle on the burden sharing of the efforts to be made to tackle climate change, you wouldn’t expect much inspiring climate change mitigation. The opposite is true. Where the Belgian governments linger, communities and businesses have taken initiatives to start limiting emissions themselves. Last week, such a project entered a new stage: the first sail train rode out.

What? A sail train? No, it is not some kind of cart on rails with a big sail on top of it. The so called sail train is a normal train but fully powered by wind energy, harvested by a wind park stretching along the trajectory between the cities of Liege and Leuven. The project is a collaboration between the railway infrastructure manager InfraBel, the city of Sint-Truiden, energy producer Electrabel and the Brussels electricity distribution company.

"Moving by the wind": the first sail train on the trajectory from Leuven to Liège rode out last week (photo: Electrabel)

“Moving by the wind”: the first sail train on the trajectory from Leuven to Liège rode out last week (photo: Electrabel)


The first seven wind turbines have now been taken into service, with another eighteen to be build in the near future. Together they will yield 34 000 MegaWatthour in clean energy and save 15 000 tons of CO2 per year. Two third of the generated electricity will be feeded directly to the trains, one third will be transmitted to the distribution system to be used by households and companies.

When fully operational, around 170 trains will be powered by wind daily. That makes up to around 5% of all train traffic in Belgium. Commuters don’t have to worry: there’s a backup connection with the national electricity grid to keep the trains going on a windless day. There was never more reason to let the car behind and take the train instead!

Sources (Dutch)