Headlines at 21st Century Tech for October 19, 2012

This week’s headlines look at a new surgical robotic device for minimally invasive procedures, problems in shale gas production in the U.S., the dramatic drop in the cost of solar energy technology, the battle to end mountaintop mining, and India’s ambitious road map for space exploration. As always I encourage you to comment, ask questions and provide input on topics I write about or feature. And should you come across an interesting technology or scientific breakthrough that you feel should be included in this blog please don’t hesitate to let me know. Enjoy the read!

Biomedicine Update:  New Insertable Robot to Enhance Minimally Invasive Surgical Procedures

The Insertable Robotic Effector Platform, IREP for short, seen in the picture below, has been licensed to Titan Medical,  a Canadian company focused on advancing robotic surgical technologies. An invention coming out of a collaboration between Columbia and Vanderbilt Universities in the United States, the IREP is the world’s smallest single-port surgical robotic device capable of performing laparoscopic procedures. IREP has two arms, a 3D vision system that has two controllable miniature cameras that provide real-time visual feedback for surgeons. The robot arms look like miniature snakes and the device can be easily mounted in a surgical suite because it is much smaller than other surgical robotic tools.

Source: Columbia University Medical Center

Energy Update: Is Shale Gas Production a Bubble Ready to Burst?

One of the knocks on fracking has always been the quick depletion that seems to happen soon after a new gas or oil well is drilled. In the U.S. it seems that shale gas has reached a plateau and that the 100-year supply may prove to be an inaccurate assessment of what can be forced out of the ground through fracking. The U.S. today uses 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year. Based on current proven reserves including fracked fields there may be less than 20 years of reserves if consumption remains flat. Shale gas production in the U.S. earlier this year was at 27 billion cubic feet per day. But that production has leveled even with new fields coming on stream. Part of the problem goes back to my first comment. Shale gas well production tends to drop by 50% or more after the first year. As fossil fuels go, gas is the cleanest, but the United States may not have the grace period it has been talking about if these fields continue to encounter significant production drops. Either the technology improves to bump up yields or alternatives will have to be found to meet future energy demands.

Energy Update: Solar Costs Going Down

How much has solar energy technology gone down in cost? In the last two years solar has gotten 60% cheaper. Compare that to wind which has seen the technology reduce its costs per Kilowatt by 15-20%. Why is solar getting cheaper? Because the cost of solar panels continues to drop while the conversion efficiency of photovoltaics continues to improve. That means smaller panels can yield more energy. In August, residents in Boston were told they will pay less for electricity produced from solar than from other sources under a program called Solarize Massachusetts. Is cheaper solar rates a reflection of the drop in the cost of solar technology? Yes and No! Massachusetts is implementing cheaper solar electricity rates to encourage more clean energy investment in the industry. What is surprising is the cost of producing solar is appearing to be competitive with non-renewable alternatives.

Mining Update: Ending Mountaintop Mining for Coal a Priority of the EPA

Of all mining practices in Appalachia mountaintop mining is the most environmentally destructive. Yet the coal industry continues to push to get permits to blow off the tops of mountains to expose seams for excavation. What mountaintop mining continues to do is destroy natural habitats and wildlife, change the course of mountain stream and the quality of water in them, pollute valley bottoms with tons of debris, and introduce chemical toxins into wells and drinking water sources. That is why the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States is trying to reverse a permit originally awarded to Mingo Logan in 2007, a subsidiary of the second largest coal producer in the U.S., Arch Coal. It is interesting when you visit the Arch Coal website and read the page on “How We Mine” you don’t see any examples of mountaintop mining practices. I guess it wouldn’t give them an environmentally responsible look. And when you read the company’s vision although they use the phrase “environmental stewardship” it takes on a whole new meaning when you see one of their mountaintop mines in operation or look at the level of selenium in local water supplies.

Space Update: India Joins the Space Race with an Ambitious Set of Missions

In 2008 India successfully launched its first unmanned lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1, placing a satellite in lunar orbit and hard landing a probe on the Moon’s surface. It received very little notice here in North America but it established India as a space faring nation. Today the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, is expanding its exploration of near-Earth and deep space with 58 space missions planned for the next decade and beyond. Missions include sending robot to land and explore the moon, an Indian-made global positioning satellite network called IRNSS, new satellites for communication, Earth observation and imaging, solar observation, studies of extra-solar objects, all to be launched with a new family of rockets capable of deeper space missions and heavier payloads. In 2013 India will launch its first mission to orbit Mars. And last but not least, India intends to join the U.S., Russia and China with its own human space flight program. “Baaharee duniaayaa” is Hindi for “outer space” and India intends to take a leadership role in the 21st century.

A Postscript

Once again I have to thank the many thousands who continue to visit 21st Century Tech Blog each month. Lots of you have become subscribers which is great. Keep on sending me your questions and comments. They inspire me to investigate and report back with even greater diligence. Let me know if there is a topic, not yet covered by 21st Century Tech blog that you would like to see. If you have written an article that fits within the themes of this blog then let me know. Guest articles are welcome! And thank you again for continuing to drop by.

– Len Rosen

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...