Keeping Vaccines Cool For the Final Mile

set of medical syringes and vials

Did you get your flu shot this year? If so, did you walk into your primary care clinic to receive it? Or maybe the stop was even more convenient and you popped into a local pharmacy for a quick hypodermic shot or a sniff of nasal spray and you were off and on to other important things. For many of us, these weapons of mass public health are so accessible that we don’t even give it a second thought.

That’s not the case in the developing world, of course. Vaccines arrive to small rural communities only after being transported from the metropolises that produce them. And the proper way to store and handle vaccines is a little less than simple. If you are so inclined, you can read the CDC’s storage and handling guidelines here. It seems that vaccines are super finicky in how they’re handled. They must be refrigerated at a specific temperatures depending on the strain, plus they need to be packaged safely so they don’t break. All this while traveling on rutted roads from the city out to the remote villages where they are so desperately needed.

How badly are they needed? The Guardian says an estimated 19.4 million children failed to receive their immunizations last year, 60 percent of which were living in developing countries. (more…)

The Desalination Tool that Doesn’t Discriminate


Around 96 percent of the water on Planet Earth resides within our salty seas. Another way to frame that, of course, is that almost all of our water isn’t safe for human (or land animal) consumption. There are ways to desalinate sea water but to date it’s an awfully arduous and expensive process. It’s not a bad way to go if you’re in a wealthy area but if that’s not the case, prepare to go thirsty.

Or perhaps not. Researchers at MIT have made great strides towards making the technology and cost of desalination more accessible to all. Enter their Solar Vapor Generator, a gizmo comprised of bubble wrap, a special sponge and a metallic film. The bubble wrap enclosure allows sunlight in while the metallic film traps heat, and together the components of the generator boil water within it. With the heat the water turns into steam and leaves behind the stuff we don’t want to drink like salts and debris, thereby rendering the aqua potable.

Check out this great Smithsonian article to read about the researchers who took on this noble mission and how they came up with materials that are much easier to get your hands on and use the energy of the sun rather than a complicated electric grid. (more…)

Building Better Minds With Minecraft


Our designs have power, both good and bad. Video games are a great example. They have the power to keep kids inside on a sunny day. And many of the most popular games are extremely violent with more and more evidence revealing that the people playing on those entertainment platforms get desensitized to real violence as a result. Not all that surprising because … yes, video games have power.

Which means that video games have the power to do some good in our world as well. There is an increasing amount of research that shows the positive effects of certain video games – played within moderation of course. Like the video game that helps scientists gather information about Alzheimer’s and how our brains work, for example.

Or Minecraft.

Yep, the explosively popular game played by multiple millions of children around the planet actually has some pretty positive effects on its users. If you’ve never played the game, Minecraft puts you in a world that you create yourself, block by block, after you’ve mined your materials. You can get creative with all the resources you could ever need, or you can play in survival mode where you are faced with constraints and are required to get crafty. The game isn’t about winning, but rather creating your own neat structures from sourced materials. (more…)

From Industrial Waste to Architectural Advancement


© StoneCycling

A quick Google search of “industrial waste” garnered over 220 million results of images, definitions and news articles about its destruction. So, what is industrial waste? It is considered any manufacturing material decreed useless after production. This could include metal scraps, papers or chemical waste, just to name a few. In this 21st century, with gadgets and construction zones popping up every time you turn around, it’s not difficult to imagine just how much industrial waste is piling up out there. (That’s what I find to be so fascinating about 3D printing: it’s an additive process with no waste, as opposed to garment making for example, which results in tons of little scraps of leftover fabric. But I digress …)

Nevertheless, given that state of affairs it’s good to see yet another bunch of smart minds who probably spent a lot of their youth playing with LEGOs. A Dutch company called StoneCycling is collecting industrial waste and recycling it into something useful: materials to build new structures. WasteBasedBricks are the result, and they can be used just like the ordinary bricks you see in buildings all around the world. They are industry standard, so they are sturdy enough to build a reliable structure, and they can already be found in a handful of buildings around the Netherlands. (more…)

Raise Your Glasses to this Innovative Cup

breast milk bottle

It is estimated that upwards of 7.6 million babies are born prematurely each year in Africa and Asia. That means that multiple millions of infants are entering the world before their bodies have developed the skills to self-regulate temperature or consume food. Full-term babies have the ability to suck and swallow in order to nourish their bellies, but premature babies often leave the womb before those skills have developed.

This is a big issue, which you can imagine is only exacerbated when combined with the fact that many of these babies are born into economic circumstances where there isn’t a lot of high tech help to be found. So I found it more than a little wonderful to see that Seattle Children’s Hospital, the University of Washington and a nonprofit called PATH have created the NIFTY cup – an acronym for Neonative Intuitive Feeding Technology. This silicone cup holds 40 milliliters of milk and is built to safely provide a premature infant with the nourishment it needs to survive.

This cup is easy for mothers to dispense breast milk into and is equipped with flow channels that lead to a small reservoir at the opening, which the infants can sip milk from at their own pace. This reduces spillage, which is all too common with regular cups (remember, premature babies aren’t equipped with the skills to drink out of bottles). This Seattle Times article says that losing even two teaspoons per feeding is the difference between starvation and adequate nutrition, so the reduction of spillage is no small improvement. (more…)

An Artificial Leaf Fueling Our Planet

artificial leaf

You’ve heard it in the news and you may have even felt it in the air: 2015 was the hottest year since the 19th century. Greenhouse gas levels were the highest on record, as were sea surface temperatures and the global sea level. The ever increasing amount of greenhouse gases making their way into our atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, is making an unfortunate impact on our planet.

But scientists are coming up with ways to capture CO2 and turn it into something that won’t warm the globe, like rock. Or, in this latest case: a burnable fuel.

The University of Illinois at Chicago and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have designed an artificial leaf that mimics the photosynthetic properties of the greenery decorating our real trees. This artificial leaf soaks up CO2 just like a regular leaf does, but instead of turning it into oxygen to pump back out into the atmosphere, the manufactured leaf actually turns the CO2 into another greenhouse gas: carbon monoxide.

Now the obvious question here is, why are we taking a greenhouse gas and turning it into another one? It’s because science has already figured out how to turn carbon monoxide into a burnable fuel. So this new leaf harvests CO2 from the atmosphere, and at a much lower cost than other innovations that purport to scrub the skies. (more…)

Two Birds with one Lego-Like Stone

conceptos plasticos

Image from

If any company knows good design, it is Apple, which sold its one-billionth iPhone last month. So when Lego was called the Apple of toys, you can bet the Danish company was being lauded for its design skills.

And why shouldn’t it? Legos are an integral part of many peoples’ upbringing all over the planet; teaching us how shapes go together while encouraging us to use our creativity. At the very simplest, Legos are a way for minds young and old to create something out of a very basic structure – the plastic block.

It is with this bare-bones logic that Colombia-based company Conceptos Plásticos began to build homes out of plastic blocks, which are assembled quite like classic Lego pieces are. Pulling from the tons and tons of plastic littering landfills, Conceptos Plásticos is cleaning up the environment while tackling another very pressing issue: the housing crisis. All around the world, folks are moving to the cities in droves, and yet many are unable to afford housing.

This Unilever post (which gave Conceptos Plásticos founder Oscar Andres Mendez Gerardino a young entrepreneur award) says that in Latin America, Asia and Africa, 40 percent of people don’t have access to proper housing. The company teams up with communities to retrieve plastic and rubber from landfills to produce the building blocks. And as you can imagine, with the inspiration being all things Lego, these blocks go together pretty easily, so the company also trains community members how to assemble the structures. This way families can construct their own homes, saving them even more money – no experience necessary. (more…)

Bringing Biomimicry Full Circle

wind turbines

When it comes to design, nature is one of the smartest places to find inspiration. Want to reduce the spread of bacteria? Look to sharkskin – its ridges and grooves make it inhospitable for bacteria. Interested in a building that self-regulates its temperatures? Study anthills, which are climate-controlled by design. You can find genius solutions all over nature, and scientists and designers are picking up on this.

A scientist from Stanford named John Dabiri has spun a whole new story about wind turbines, and it started when he studied fish patterns. You know that fish swim in schools, right? But have you ever thought about why they do that? They arrange themselves in such a way that the turbulence created in the water actually propels them forward, making a school of fish faster than one single fish. Sound smart? Well, it is called a school, right?

It is that same exact thinking that brought Dabiri to this idea of schools of wind turbines, which is impossible with the standard design. Picture the gargantuan wind turbines you see in big open fields. They are skyscraper tall (this Smithsonian article says they are typically around 300 feet) and they rotate like a windmill. Dabiri’s turbines have a very different design: his 30-foot structures spin around like a top. So instead of giant spears slicing through the sky, these turbines spin around an axis point, making the designs easier to place close to one another. Can’t picture them? This YouTube video has great footage. (more…)

Breaking Down Plastic and Building a Loop


I have seen plenty of smart new ways to reuse plastic bottles so they don’t end up in landfills or contributing to the increasingly alarming ocean pollution. Many of these “upcycles” are pretty clever, too. But what if we could turn post-consumer plastic waste into something really useful? Like fuel, actually.

Before you start thinking “sure that sounds smart and useful,” pause for a moment to consider the fact that it takes fuel to make plastic in the first place. Yes …there’s a full circle emerging.

Chemist Zhibin Guan and collaborators at the University of California, Irvine, along with the lab of Zheng Huang at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, have found a way to break down the bonds of a very common plastic ingredient called polyethylene using molecules called alkanes, and now promise to turn plastic directly into fuel without any other treatments. And in fact, once broken down into separate compounds, the polyethylene is reduced to a liquid fuel and solid wax, as this Smithsonian article states.

And thankfully, their process also seems to work on other post-consumer plastic waste, such as soda bottles, which have additives beyond “pure” polyethylene. This means we’re looking at waste plastic being processed directly into fuel without any other treatments (more…)

Your Roadmap to Sustainability Literacy


For many longtime readers of my blog, you are aware that I use this space to write about great products and ideas people around the world are designing: designs with a social outcome that moves us forward rather than left or right. I’ve been able to keep this blog up every week for over five years because, as it turns out, there is a lot of good stuff happening!

There are few things that please me more than seeing the emerging marketplace of ideas and the people who want to purchase these more relevant goods and services. And there are some who want to get even more involved — these folks want to get in on the designing and production side. If you’re one of those, and in particular, if you’re interested in wielding those big corporate battleships into this new direction through the field of corporate social responsibility, I’m happy to tell you about something my friend Leo Raudys has done.

Leo is a sustainability and CSR strategist and he has recently released a book called The Cheap Guide to Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility. He wrote this book for folks who are curious about the corporate sustainability landscape but are interested in a little more literacy around it in order to make informed decisions.