Self-cleaning wind-turbines courtesy of MIT and Silicon Valley
Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is usually a pretty ordinary material – found as the pigment in white paint and as a UV absorber in sunscreen. Shrink the right kind of TiO2 crystals down to nanometer-size though and you get some pretty interesting properties. Most importantly, the material becomes photocatalytic, meaning it becomes highly reactive when exposed to UV radiation (e.g. via sunlight). These properties are exploited for example in some kinds of solar cells as well as self-cleaning coatings.
As it turns out, the folks at Svaya Nanotechnology, a Silicon Valley-based MIT spin-out found a way to put down well-controlled coatings of very small TiO2 nanoparticles on vast areas of just about any surface – and they came to Marblar to see what kind of neat things you could do with these capabilities.
Transforming vessel from Strathclyde University to be used to clean up oil spills
Our latest competition to close featured a really clever feat of engineering from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. Originally designed to allow safer transfers of crew members to offshore wind turbines for repairs, this vessel can transform from a quick catamaran for transit to an ultra-stable semi-submersible on-site.
The inventor Robert MacDonald was very keen to find some other uses for what he felt was a much more widely applicable platform – and he wasn’t disappointed! From mobile launch pads for military helicopters to a huge range of uses as a research vessel, from luxury pleasure crafts to marine salvage, ideas came streaming in from across the globe. Ultimately the winner’s marble went to Clare Mundy from Bedfordshire in the UK. She came up with the clever idea to use the vessel as a rapid-response unit for mopping up oil spills - obviously a very topical application in light of recent disasters like Deepwater Horizon and efforts to extend drilling into for example the Arctic. In this application the jacked-up mode of the vessel (shown in the picture above) would allow operation in high seas, prevent the hull and propulsion system from disturbing the oil slick and allow for effective recovery systems to be installed in ways that would be impossible with a regular vessel.
Robbie (and Gillian Fleming from Strathclyde’s Research & Knowledge Exchange Services) mentioned the ideas stood out as the most commercially attractive new market:
“We chose this idea to win because this is an environmental concern world wide and this is an industry where large companies are willing to work together to solve their problems. This is also an issue that could be funded by the government or multiple countries working together. We’re looking forward to speaking to oil companies in conjunction with vessel developers in order to take this forward and believe that there are other emergency applications that could involve multiple developers to be explored.”
We caught up with Clare as well to get her take on the competition:
“I read about Marblar in New Scientist last year and thought wow! that sounds really good, and only recently dipped in to the challenges. The Transformer just hit me as such a brilliant idea whatever it was used for. I must admit to a bit of a eureka moment though helped by Jeremy Irons recent film ‘Trashed’ which is a documentary on rubbish entering the world’s oceans and I started thinking about vacuuming the oceans - having some knowledge about oil it all came together. What I really like about Marblar is the ease of interacting with it - comments post straight away and the format encourages sharp thinking which helps you get your ideas out concisely. It’s great to have a whole community of bright and interested people all working to get things done - inspirational.”
There you have it – you never know when that Eureka moment will strike, so keep checking in to see what cool new technologies we’ve hunted down for you to chew on over on marblar.com.
From Swords to Ploughshares: British Army crowdsources civilian uses for their technology
In 1942 a team of chemists at Eastman Kodak, headed by Dr Harry Coover, were toiling away in an effort to engineer an improved plastic gunsight for the Allied forces. They began tinkering with cyanoacrylates and by happenstance developed a compound that when dried was transparent and strong. Only there was a catch: before it dried it stuck to everything it came in contact with – making it near impossible to handle. They basically abandoned the project, and went looking elsewhere.
Ten years later Coover, who by then was leading a motley crew working on jet engines, revisited his cyanoacrylate formula and realized its super-adhesion was only a “problem” to the unimaginative. From a different angle a new perspective came into focus, and he began to see its adhesive properties as a property to make use of. Kodak then repositioned that military project for gunsights to create one of the legendary (and peaceful) products of our century:
From synthetic chemistry to stem cell preservation
Our latest science competition featured a neat little device hailing from a small company in Cambridgeshire, UK called Cambridge Reactor Design. Their founder Bashir Harji had with his team developed a gizmo about the size of a shoebox, called the “Polar Bear Plus” – originally intended for synthetic chemistry labs. It looks just like your typical lab hot-plate - but it ain’t no normal piece of kit, no sir. The Polar Bear allows ultra-precise and programmable temperature control from -40 to 150°C – and so our Marblars’ mission was to uncover all the applications where this could be applied. The ideas came from around the world, ranging from organ preservation, to thermocycling DNA, to stress testing materials.
The ultimate winner was Hristina Ivnanova, a Masters student in London. In a stroke of genius she took the device out of the synthetic chemistry labs it was developed for, and instead honed in on an interesting commercial opportunity in the preservation of cells via tightly controlled freezing cycles.
Let’s get lit: Sepsis and Bioplastics.
They say every good story starts with a drink, and so it was with this one. A few months ago I met James, a former PhD student from my lab at Imperial College London at a mutual friend’s birthday and we ended up chatting for hours about his former research project. Don’t judge – we happen to find fluorescent nanoparticles quite exciting, especially when coupled with copious amounts of EtOH.
While James had since graduated and moved on to work for a high-flying biotech, he was a bit despondent that his invention was just gathering dust – not actually making an impact. And it was a pretty nifty piece of kit: a fluorescence-based assay that used antibodies and quantum dots to precisely gauge enzyme activity. We left our booze-fueled encounter vowing to dust it off and unleash the Marblar-hive to help his technology reach its potential. What better way to inject momentum in a stalled invention than having thousands from around the world compete to think of clever new uses for it?
Even Einstein needed a helping hand
At Marblar we absolutely refute the concept of a lone genius. The stereotype of a craggy-haired old scientist working around the clock in complete isolation is just for cartoons.
Take Albert Einstein for instance: another original Marblar. Some might say that the stereotype of a ridiculously smart but charmingly-awkward science professor evolved from him. And they’d have a point - his thought-experiments are the stuff of legend. He spent all of his days lost in lonely contemplation on the laws that govern the universe and relativity, right? WRONG!
From Happenstance to Invention: How a Pixar scene inspired science
Dr Andy Ward, a researcher with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), was plugging away in the lab a few years ago when he happened upon a new phenomenon that was completely unexpected. He had been working with optical traps and in the course of his tinkering had developed a remarkable device that, with the aid of a few lasers, could manipulate micro-scale droplets. He could bring them together, pull them apart, turn them into cubes, prisms – you name it.
Want to be a CEO? Here’s your chance.
Can you build a company around LabMinds’ technology? Its not often you get the chance to build a company around existing technology that’s already found killer applications.
The story of LabMinds started in 2009 - on a whim the co-founders (who were PhD students) entered the University of Oxford’s premier entrepreneurship competition, only to take home first place. Fast forward a few years, and LabMinds not only had a working product – but were pursuing a market (automation of research-setting solution preparation) that’s fantastically huge.
5 Ways becoming a scientist prepared me to run a startup.
There’s nothing like science to prepare you for entrepreneurship.
So I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I’ve come to be a startup CEO despite never having run a business (or even taken a business course). And how, as a biochemistry PhD student, can I be even remotely equipped to running a venture-backed startup. But the truth is: science is the perfect preparation for entrepreneurship.
There are key skills any successful scientist has to learn, and each is directly transferable to startup life:
Here’s to the crazy ones: How one man saw signal in noise and created the MRI
The key to being a great creative thinker is being able to see things that others don’t. At Marblar we love coming across all of the stories out there in the history books where great leaps in technology, science and human knowledge have been made by great minds simply separating signal from noise.
Here’s one of my favourites: