Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Medical innovations

A big debate in some developed countries concerns the cost of healthcare. Having access to the latest medical equipment and expertise can have a significant impact on the life expantancy of a nation. While this does correlate strongly with the wealth of nation, there are a few locally led projects under the way in attempts to find cheaper, more accessible solutions to detecting and treating disease.

One interesting attempt is the efforts of a physics grad student at Nairobi University, Linali Omuchemi to develop an optical imaging technique to detect plasmodia (malaria parasites) in blood samples. This technique is meant to be faster and more accurate than current methods which depend on a trained techncian examining a sample through the microscope ... its also meant to be cheaper than other more accurate detection techniques.

Kenya's primary medical research institute, KEMRI has a production department charged with helping local scientists turn their research into viable commercial products.  At KEMRI's graduate school of health sciences, master's and doctoral students are now funded on with the understanding that they will conclude their research with a product.

Hope to see more good developments on healthcare front!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Bio-based Petrochemicals

There is a lot of talk about the recent oil find by Tullow Oil PLC in Turkana region of Kenya. What about the bio-based petrochemical efforts in Kenya? Brazil has extensively diversified its fuel economy by incorporating ethanol from sugarcane in addition to fossil fuels.

Here is the objective:-  not to aim to replace fossil fuels at once but rather to suppliment it. Locally developed/adapted solutions are the ones that will work the best for the long term. Brazil's biofuel economy works because of the mass scale of sugarcane production that was adapted for a unique local opportunity. US has struggled to mimic this with corn-based ethanol .... which doesn't workout economically so that industry is only surviving due to the multitude of government subsidies.

What is the state of biofuel development in Kenya?  The present production efficiency of sugarcane is 14 tons of cane to produce 1 ton of sugar; i got this info from my Dad who has a sugarcane farm in western Kenya. The remaining 13 tons can be used to make biofuels through either the gasification route or catalytic chemical route (see biofuel basics). I am most hopeful about sugarcane but here are other biofuel developments/investments recently announced:
  • Omnicane investing $180 million sugar production facility that would include 18 MW power plant and 30,000 litre ethanol plant. (reuters)
  • Western Biofuel Company (WEBCO) will be building a $150 million biofuel facility in western Kenya. Investor funds for this veture are being sourced from UK, China and Qatar. (Africa Review)
  • Standard Bank is buying 313,000 carbon credits from Kenyan biomass producer Karan Biofuels (Standard Bank news media)
There is some active research at Kenyan universities on biofuels e.g. different oil algae research studies at Univeristy of Nairobi and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (freshwater algae); studies on  Biofuel Cropping Systems at Egerton University and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, etc ..

Good to hear about oil discovery but let's have a balanced approach to fuel economy!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Predicted Asteroid Detected by Instrument in Kenya

An asteroid either hit the earth or exploded over the sky around 2:45 am GMT on Tuesday 7th Oct 2008 in Northern Sudan. The resulting explosion detected by an infrasound station in Kenya is estimated to be equivalent to 1.1 -2.1 kiloTons of TNT . This asteroid impact represents the first ever accurate prediction of an asteroid entering earth's atmosphere. The infrasound station was installed in the late 1990s to detect extremely low frequency soundwaves.

Its interesting that this instrument was able to detect the explosion considering the distance and seismic noise in the Rift Valley. Infact, an earlier seismic activity study of the Olkaria area conducted by KenGen and University of Texas found a total of 460 active between May and Sept of 1996.

But back to the asteriod ... it was reportedly seen by passengers on a KLM flight about 1400 km away! The impact/explosion site is supposed to be a barren, sparsely populated region in the the Nubian desert though I am curious to know if anyone were able to collect a fragment

.... hmmm .....

or maybe not since we are talking about 1.1-1.2 kT of TNT !

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Somber Numbers

Humbling numbers ... a change is required in how we see 'innovation'

One common gauge of innovation around the world is patent or intellectual property (IP) filing. A news report in the East African Standard this week has a somber message for Kenyans that admonishes academics, companies and institutions for the low number of patents filed. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, Kenya filed 71 patents in 2006 of which 24 were granted - 14 of these granted patents were filed by foreign persons/organizations in Kenya (That's over 50%!!!)

Even Kenyaentrepreneur makes mention of the low level of innovation in Kenya as noted from the impact of recent lower remittances on the Kenya economy. Remittances matter because current productivity is low and productivity is a direct function of innovation!

So why aren't there more IP filings in Kenya (both by Kenyans and others)? I don't believe there is a dearth of innovation for necessity is the mother of all invention - and there is A LOT OF NECESSITY in Kenya. Just look at the recently concluded student engineering exhibition or the annual Kenya High School's Science Congress. And how about this presentation by White African on technology developed by some very enterprising Kenyans!

But what keeps Kenyans from patenting their ideas so as to sell these ideas? I can think of 4 questions:
  • Is it a question of entrepreneurial perspective i.e. wananchi (people) do innovate but fail to commercialize and take full advantage of their ideas.
  • Is it a question of cost?
  • Does patent filing really matter in Kenya i.e. do people know if and when they need to patent an idea?
  • Is there any real IP protection in Kenya? Does the law have impetus or teeth to deal with such disputes?
The relevant governmental IP custodial body is the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI) and is presently a department in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. There is a wealth of information offered including prices and an 84 pg guide on patent filling in Kenya though at a glance I feel I would be easier to just find someone (patent lawyer perhaps) who has done this before.

Perhaps KIPI need to take the patent talk show on the road. There may be many who have fleeting understanding of patenting and need guidance but don't have time to fully research the issue. Or maybe patent lawyers could sponsor regional workshops on IP law - it could only bring them business ... right ?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Biologically Enhanced Solar Cells

Let's combine the hibiscus flower with the semiconductor chip ... yeah that would be a fun afternoon project .. at least to a cool professor Benard Aduda of the University of Nairobi UoN had decided to attempt such an act


Well a now there is interest in enlisting nature to help use make better solar cells. Since plants have been conducting photosynthesis for millions of years, well ... maybe getting some help from plants could take solar cell technology to a whole new level.

I found Prof. Aduda's profile while browsing through profiles and research work on the physics dept website of the University of Nairobi. Prof. Aduda and his research group are attempting to improve the efficiency of Titanium oxide semiconductor solar cells using anthocyanin pigments extracted from the Hibiscus.

Its all about creating the organic solar cell. Anthocyanin-based solar cells might not have the highest efficiency of solar cells but offer could potentially be the cheapest to manufacture thus making such photocells costeffective solutions to our energy plans.

I wonder who else in Kenya is involved in this research field?!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Energy Storage

So its interesting to read about Safaricom's investment in energy storage systems in MarketWatch. Since Nov 2007, Safaricom has been trying out two 5kW VRB Energy Storage Systems (VRB-ESS) purchased through local group Winafrique Technologies Ltd., of Kenya at remote cellular towers.

Energy storage is a key variable in balancing the economical-renewable energy equation. The main problem with such renewable energy sources like sunshine (solar energy) and wind power is the variability of the power source. Effective energy savings are relalized by matching supply and demand - like collecting rain in a water tank that has a tap that can be opened or closed as required.

The basis of the VRB-ESS is a patented vanadium-based fuel cell. Considering the amount of sunshine available in most of northern and northeast Kenya, I would have assumed a few solar farms would have been established by now in that area - they have lots of free land and lots of sunshine thus solar farms don't have to compete with crops or domestic animals. The basic science behind VRB-ESS is quite simple and open. I think KenGen would be interested in partnering right?

P.S. -> a fuel cell is just a battery!

Actually, I wonder what Evereddy Kenya Battery company is upto - anyone in their R&D looking into this vanadium-based fuel cell technology?

And well known for their lead-acid car batteries, Chloride Exide company has engaged in renewable energy business supplying solar and wind based energy solutions. I am curious though as to whether they are looking at developing any large energy storage units to compliment their renewable energy solutions. They have the industrial base and decades of experience in battery manufacture!

Considering the importance of such technology (wind, solar and batteries) to Kenya's energy future, I would think that there is some relavant commerciable research work in Kenyan Universities. I think my next piece may look at some of any such Kenyan research work!

Friday, August 1, 2008


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