Last month’s newsletter on decarbonization was the first time I’d researched climate and energy. The conclusion (in-so-much as a set of notes / loose book review can have one), was more “hands gesturing vaguely towards nuclear energy” than some specific call to action. I’ve been digging further to find a Kevin-sized opening into the space, but so far have come up empty.
On the research/policy side, I’ve found some additional color:
Nuclear is expensive because megaprojects always end up over-budget
Nuclear power isn’t commercially viable without public subsidies like accelerated depreciation and loan guarantees (which Lazard’s levelized costs don’t reflect)
New renewables are cheaper than nuclear operating costs, so even shutting down existing nuclear plants is good for the climate if the capital is redeployed to new renewables
but while these points seem plausible, they don’t point towards any angle I have leverage on.
On the technical side, I spoke with two of Seattle’s fusion startups about whether my computerist skillset and experience building, e.g., wind farm operations software would be useful in their efforts. However, both were in the “we’re building our next prototype, do you know any graphite anode experts?” physics/engineering development stage rather than the “can you build a software team to improve our duct-taped spreadsheets-in-Dropbox process?” operations stage.
So, until I find some angle-of-attack, I’m tabling the energy supply carbon footprint problem top the back of my mind.
There is one topic that’s been stuck in the front of my mind for a while: The intersection of “maker” manufacturing and synthetic biology. Both have had dramatic capability advances and cost reductions over the past decade.
The same dynamics that let me goof around with luxury mechanical keyboards while I was in Taiwan apply just as much to lab equipment. There’s an emerging Lab on the Cheap grad student cottage industry improvising centrifuges, PCR thermocyclers, microscopes, etc. using 3d printers and repurposed consumer electronics hardware.
The first-order take — why buy a $50k qPCR thermocycler when you can buy a $5k one from Kickstarter — is (presumably) compelling for a sufficiently cash-constrained researcher. See also:
I get why academics / educators play here (anything cheap, off-grid, third world clinic wins TED talk bingo), but I don’t find it personally compelling (beyond the excuse to mess with industrial design / small run manufacturing, of course). The dent such projects will make in traditional markets will probably be similar to the one Desktop Linux has made in Apple or Microsoft’s bottom lines.
The more interesting question is: What will such cost decreases make possible? Postdocs who are (understandably) afraid to modify a $100k shared-across-labs instrument have no trouble hacking on a “low road”, $100 device. A lot more shit has been (literally) shoved into Raspberry Pis than MacBooks.
Cheap equipment also unlocks scale: Google famously built their first production server from commodity parts rather than buying enterprise-grade servers from IBM.
Instead of buying a single $50k precision machine, what can you do with $50k worth of less-precise PCBs and 3d-printer resin? I.e., why do one experiment with a 95% reliable pipeline instead of 1000 experiments with a 70% reliable pipeline for the same cost and turnaround time?
Now that my partner and I have decided to stay in Seattle through the winter (and retrieve my tools from storage!), I’ll start exploring these broad trends within the context of few projects.
I’ll likely start by replicating this continuous-flow, PCB-based microfluidic PCR thermocycler, as the technical skills are familiar and the necessary heating/cooling/optical testing won’t require a wet biology lab.
Not that I have any particular use for PCR myself or feel like there’s a huge demand for $100 microfluidic thermocyclers. (Though that’d be a pleasant surprise.)
Rather, my hope is that working on a concrete problem will familiarize me with strengths and tradeoffs of the microfluidic approach and serve as a foundation for conversations with molecular biologists about how such nascent technologies might be applied to their research.
If you’re day-dreaming about unattainable lab equipment or are itching to collaborate on electrical engineering or 3d-printed mechatronics, drop me a line! (Especially if you are in the Seattle area!)
Robust de novo design of protein binding proteins from target structural information alone
The evolution of Tesla’s retractable door handle
“[Morris Chang (founder of TSMC) would] spend a couple of hours holed up in his room poring over a section of the book and trying to solve the problems on his own. Then he took his questions down to his friend in the bar. 'He didn’t solve all my problems, but he solved enough so I could move ahead. He was my main teacher,’ Chang says.”
“If we could figure out a way to solve phytoplankton’s mineral requirements, the entire ocean could become a powerful carbon sink”
“To me, this one component best illustrates how seriously Snap is taking this product architecture and how committed they were to the specific UI design. It’s a tiny rigid flex (!) with surface mount components on both sides (!!), including 24 (!!!) LEDs.”
“something strange happens when one tries to have rational conversations about the above downsides with people strongly advocating expansion of type-level programming capabilities”
“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles.”
“You know, I could be drinking mai tais with naked supermodels, but instead I’m here with you.”
“political capital flows from areas of high consensus towards areas of low consensus, and the more efficiently this happens the faster we move towards the ‘heat death of society’ where no usable political energy is available and nothing can be accomplished.”
“A lot of people in California like to think that we are Very Smart, but in this case a YouTube celebrity landlord beat all of us.”
“In a typical San Francisco street, […] [c]urb cuts often preclude trees, curbs, and parking, exposing pedestrians to traffic and preventing the definition of a distinct pedestrian space. Buildings often lack a setback, reducing the privacy of residents and the comfort of pedestrians. Stoops and entry stairs are usually articulated inward, creating deep, cave-like spaces with poor security and no social use.”
“Agromining is the chain of processes of phytoextraction of economically valuable elements by selected hyperaccumulator plants”
“Hiding Images in Plain Sight: The Physics Of Magic Windows”
“A Guideline of Performing Ibadah at International Space Station (ISS) is prepared by Department of Islamic Development Malaysia”
“I just wanted to ask… with regards to the soup… are there any macroeconomic updates I should be aware of?”
“No other drug category is measured like this. Every other drug category has quantifiable, clinically relevant endpoints. […] Plus, every other drug category has some sort of comparison, whether it’s placebo or another treatment. But not cancer.”
The myth of the treasure fox
“Of course, we don’t need to know the answer to these questions to know that the data were fabricated. We know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that they were.”
“Because the potential for taste deterioration is the only reason for Japan’s refusal to recommend freezing of fish to prevent anisakidosis, we decided to conduct a randomized double-blind trial to investigate the ability of Japanese people to discriminate between sushi with frozen fish and that made with fresh”
“The Bushmen’s idea of the Christmas story, stripped to its essentials, is ‘praise the birth of white man’s god-chief’; what keeps their interest in the holiday high is the Tswana-Herero custom of slaughtering an ox for his Bushmen neighbors as an annual goodwill gesture.”
“We propose that the obesity epidemic is entirely driven by environmental contaminants”
You want a good application for microfluidics? How about neonatal diagnostics (babies just don’t have a lot of blood!)
“Please write me an email I can forward to them.”