A Drinkable Book

drinkable book


Water Filters in a Book

Dr Teri Dankovich, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh USA has developed and tested a book whose pages can be torn out and used to filter drinking water. Trails are impressive, with the process bringing the water up to US drinking water standards.

The book’s pages contain nanoparticles of silver or copper, which kill bacteria in the water as it passes through. Some of the particles do remain in the water however, but they remain within the legal limits.


Now here I have to add my own input to the debate. As readers might know I have written several posts about nanomaterials and it is one of the fields that I work in, and I would question how legal limits are defined.

Nanoparticles are treated like any other particles, and their scale is not taken in account, but this seems to raise some questions. The fact that they are so small means that they can pass easily into the blood stream, so their effects may not be the same as larger particles of the same materials.

So I have to leave an open question mark over the legal issue, but the fact that the water is drinkable is a great advantage. And this leads me to ponder the fact that innovation, and its level of responsibility and ethical justification, must be local. An invention or innovation that brings drinkable water to millions, is portable and cheap and could save many lives, must be seen within its context. Nanoparticles in the water in this situation, may not be same an nano particles found in water because of factory pollution or deliberate addition when other processes might be readily available.

An article on the BBC explains that “All you need to do is tear out a paper, put it in a simple filter holder and pour water into it from rivers, streams, wells etc and out comes clean water – and dead bacteria as well”. And one page can clean up to 100 litres of water. A book could filter one person’s water supply for four years.

The project is looking for funding, so if you are interested and have some money to spare click on the link at the start of the post and pass them over your pocket money.

As a final thought, nanotechnology has come in for criticism from the academic community for its lack of regulation, and rightly so. But it also brings a world of possibilities, many of which like the story above that could transform people’s lives. This is the fine line that interests me in my work, how to make the most of scientific developments at the least environmental and social costs, and for the highest number of people.

Experiences of an Online Conference


Online Conference

Last month I attended a conference with a difference, The INSS annual meeting was held in 5 different cities at the same time, as well as online, in an attempt to cut down on travel for participants. I attended the London site and was one of only 2 people to fly to the event. This is remarkable considering that last year we all met in North Carolina and dozens of people flew internal and trans continental legs.

The physical Conference was held at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina, Oregon State university, Arizona State University, Michigan State University and University College London.

Very much an experiment, the practicalities of conducting a conference over several different time zones posed some issues, with early starts for those on the US West Coast and late finishes for those in Europe. The technology worked incredibly well, with very few glitches over the days’ events. Participants were able to ask questions, follow seminars in any of the sites they chose, and interact with the poster and key note presenters using online media.

The event was run out of North Carolina, and the web management was all taken care of from that site. I must say that I was rather skeptical at the beginning, having lived with Skype developments over the years, but how wrong could I be?

Communication Technology

The communication was taken care of using Adobe Connect, so anyone could participate through their own computer or by visiting any of the sites. We in London lost the last 5 minutes of a discussion after one of the lectures, but for the rest it all worked perfectly.

Now as someone who travels to a lot of these kinds of things I can only marvel at the progress made. Each site shared some seminars and papers, but all had different agendas. The London agenda included a day of field trips, as well as as a panel during which presenters discussed their experiences of building the Engineering Exchange, a university lead action group whose aim is to bridge the gap between communities and planners preparing urban regeneration projects. Read the abstract here.

We also toured some of the capital’s largest redevelopment projects, including a visit to Crossrail, a huge rail link and urban regeneration project that cuts through central London. A guided tour of the Elephant and Castle redevelopment area with the interest group “Social Life” followed, a context of urban regeneration that has caused many locals to question both existing and future plans in that area.

The context was also helped by the involvement of a member of a local interest group that aims to support people whose houses are under threat, and promote the idea of refitting houses to maintain communities, rather than rehousing and rebuilding. There is a lot more to think about in urban regeneration that you might imagine.

The Network

The closing panel was hosted in Charlotte and entitled Social Sustainability Initiatives in Planning and engineering Organization. Full details of all the participating site agendas can be found on the INSS website.

The network is open to all interested in participating, so keep an eye on the website for further information. We volunteer our time, we learn a lot, we try to raise social sustainability issues, and we always have a bit of a social at every event. I must say that the multi-site format was a worthy experiment that worked extremely well, and I think could offer a model for future events. Is the era of the online conference coming to life? Looks like it to me.

Bacteria, Fungus and Decomposition (and growing new materials)


Bacteria, fungus and decomposition.

Doesn’t sound like a great start for a technology blog. But last week I was fortunate to visit a lab in Utrecht University where rather unsurprisingly I learned a lot about decomposition, fungus and how to grow innovative new materials.

A young Italian designer runs the lab, this is him above, working on the border between art and biology. His name is Maurizio Montalti, founder of the “Officina Corpuscoli” in Amsterdam (2010), whose goal is not only to produce beautiful artifacts, but to stimulate thought about the central aspects of design (above all the use of materials) and to provoke questions about much more. The nature of humans (the relationship between life and death) or the nature of progress and its relationship to the world and its ecosystem.


The lab is the point of departure. Here he showed me different materials with different properties, all grown from fungi. Some is like plastic, can be transparent and in sheet form, and others look and feel a bit like skin, some looks like polystyrene.

Grown Pellet

A Grown Pellet

The choice of materials is central to the idea of the project. The materials that are currently favoured in design such as plastic, foam and metals, are produced using industrial processes that are detrimental to the environment. Maurizio wanted to raise this issue for discussion, and so he began his fungus interest.

For the designer the beauty and fascination for fungus lies in its role in nature. He told me that fungi are everywhere, in the soil and in the air, but we associate them with revulsion, disgust and danger, and we minimize their importance, whereas in fact they are fundamental for decomposition, transformation and recycling. He is interested in its role as re-cycler of biological materials.

Synthetic Biology

And the holy grail: the System Synthetics project, turning plastic waste into energy. Maurizio was interested in crossing fungal capacities to degrade with that of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, forcing them into symbiosos, to create a microorganism able to decompose plastic materials and give back energy in liquid form (bioethonol produced by the yeast). It is a synthetic biology program whose objective is to provoke questions about the potentials and implications for this discipline (very much a work in progress, whose aim is to involve a wider public in the synthetic biology debate).

other forms

other forms

I would like to add that Maurizio is part of an informal network of “fungicites”, here find an article of a start up in the USA that is producing bricks from bacteria, cutting out the clay and baking process and making it a much more sustainable product.

Read more about Maurizio here, including photos and an interview.



This week I have had an article published in an international peer reviewed journal called Glocalism. The article is about food production, and reports on many of the arguments that I touched upon in my recent food series.

The article, rather catchily entitled “Collective food Purchasing Networks in Italy as a Case Study of Responsible Innovation” by J. Hankins and C. Grasseni is free and can be downloaded here. It is slightly more of an academic article than my blog writing, is co-authored with anthropologist Cristina Grasseni, and reports our joint fieldwork looking at alternative food production networks in Italy and the USA.


As I said above the article is in the journal Glocalism, which is all about glocalism. So what is glocalism? Well it is all in the name, it is being local and global at the same time. To take part of the explanation offered by the Globus and Locus Association

“The term “glocalism” identifies the momentous changes generated by globalization, changes which have resulted in a permanent intertwining of the global and the local dimensions. In fact, there is no longer any place on the planet which has not been touched to a growing degree by various types of global flows and, at the same time, there are no global flows which are not increasingly parsed according to the many different characteristics of the places”.

Do you agree with this? That globalism means that the local can only exist in relation to the global? Or that globalization has effected every corner of the world?


If we think about changes in the environment that maybe we should accept this line. If we think about how event in one part of the world effect others (or all) then we can see the local as part of a global system. If we look for local solutions to a problem are we in some way involving the global? If we are talking about anything that has to do with poverty, or pollution, or the environment, or anything related to technology, then we would probably have to accept that these are not local issues, but global. A house in Detroit is not sold for $1000 because of the state of Detroit, but because the world that Detroit is in has produced a situation that makes a house in Detroit (some areas) worth $1000.

If we think about technology use through this framework, we can see how much the Internet (to give one example) is taking the local and moving it into the global. The proportion of our world’s population living in cities of a million or more has risen from thirty-seven percent in 1970 to fifty percent today. By 2030 more than two-thirds of world population will be in large cities, and most of them will be in Asia. Why is this? Well one reason is the need to operate via high speed Internet. The infrastructure is in the big cities, and it has become a necessary part of working life.

So the fact that a city in India or Thailand has high speed Internet infrastructure effects mobility across the globe, the local and the global are entwined. This has an effect on food production capability, transport, the environment, and everything else you might like to think about across the globe.

How about that for a thought on an autumn morning in front of the computer in the Netherlands or a wintry start to a New York day shovelling snow?