Tough Nuts to Crack
The need for bright ideas in international development aid may never have been greater than now. While the world’s population grows by more than 83 million people a year, 60 million are refugees or internally displaced by war and violence. A World Bank paper says climate change will bring reduced agricultural output, poorer health outcomes, and more frequent natural disasters to the poorest nations, and make some areas less habitable. Yet the history of foreign aid offers few examples of long-term success against intractable poverty, weak local institutions, and corruption. So a reader approaches Don Boroughs’s cover story, “Disruptive Development,” with caution. It describes a new approach at USAID, which is tapping the talents of engineering researchers and looking for early-stage innovations that could become self-sustaining ventures.
“A lot of great ideas sit on shelves in academia. We want to make sure they’re getting into the hands of the people that need them,” the agency’s senior energy engineering adviser, Ryan Shelby, tells Boroughs. Results from one participating lab, at Berkeley, can be seen in arsenic removal from water in India, the first cellular signals on remote Philippine islands, and better diagnosis of parasites in Cameroon. Avoiding some mistakes of the past, researchers make more of an effort to understand the wants and needs of local users. They start small and are prepared to fail. Out of this can come breakthroughs, like Rice University’s inexpensive breathing machine for premature babies, now being sold in 20 countries. Even if individual programs that USAID funds don’t survive, the agency now recognizes that university engineers offer a fount of ingenuity. That in itself could make a lasting difference.
Another seemingly impossible challenge is cutting greenhouse emissions in a world where renewable, non-fossil energy sources won’t meet our power demands for decades to come. That’s the topic of our second feature, “Not Feeling the Heat.” One answer is carbon capture and storage (CCS), which engineers haven’t given up on making cost effective. Larry Baxter of Brigham Young University, for instance, has come up with a relatively cheap carbon-capture method using cryogenics. Researchers at MIT, meanwhile, are working on a voltage cycle that will counter the biggest contributor to CCS’s high cost. ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy are trying to develop a carbonate fuel cell that not only captures the carbon but also puts it to use to generate extra power. But Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative, tells writer Tom Grose that a commercial market for CCS won’t exist unless the government creates one via a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system.
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