Something remarkable is going on right now.
Across the sciences, there’s a tremendous movement to make the power of invention accessible to everyone. To push science and engineering beyond the walls of academia, institutions and large engineering firms and into the public realm. Products like The Raspberry Pi, the Arduino, Little Bits and Sam Labs are pioneering open-source, fun and cheap prototyping with electronics and hardware hacking. For many project ideas, there’s absolutely no need for wires, no soldering and no coding required.
This isn’t an airy-fairy fantasy. Case in point: Around 95% of our world’s oceans remain unexplored and unseen. That’s a pretty big problem that needs solving. Enter, OpenROV. It’s an open-source, low-cost robot for underwater exploration built and supported by a community of professional and amateur ocean explorers.
That’s impressive but there’s more to this movement.
In the biotech and bioengineering world, there’s been a similar push. Startups like Amino Bio and BentoLab are developing portable, laptop-sized mini-labs equipped for real science like DNA sequencing and culturing friendly microbes to produce useful products. Again, making science more inviting and more engaging.
“The Amino One is our first product, a laptop-sized platform that enables anyone to grow living cells to create new and interesting things — like fragrances, flavours, materials, medicine, and more.” — Amino Labs
Bento Lab is a DNA analysis laboratory. With Bento Lab, you can take a biological sample, extract its DNA, and conduct a simple genetic analysis. — Bento Lab
Take a moment to visualize the possibilities.
It feels like a paradigm shift. Shifting us from passive consumers of technology to active creators. From docile users to tinkerers. From submissive consumers to inventors. Perhaps changing the average person’s view of technology — from seeing tech as benign and consumable blackboxes to a medium for ingenious experimentation.
Of course, all this needs to be done in a safe, ethical and responsible way. The mention of the phrases “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” conjures up cynical images of bioterrorism and supposedly deadly GMOs. We need to dispel our prejudiced, emotional bias against synthetic biology in favour of a logical, scientific, case-by-case evaluation of risk — some risks will be acceptable, and others not so. Nevertheless, there are microbes that are widely considered to be safe — the yeast and bacteria that have been engineered to make insulin for millions of diabetics since the 1970s. We should continue to safely tinker with these to produce food, drink, cosmetics, fuels and drugs.
We’re democratizing access to electronics. Lowering the barrier to hardware hacking. Teaching kids to code. Offering cheap, safe, all-in-one kits for synthetic biology. Overall, we’re reducing the barrier to invention, and inspiring creativity in those disciplines.
But what about other scientific disciplines?
Chemical engineering — left in the shadows?
Chemical engineering is too distant, too complex, too boring and too irrelevant for the average person.
Which is pretty ironic when you consider how much we all depend on chemical engineering.
A world without chemical engineering is a world without plentiful and abundant antibiotics, fertilizers, fuels and semiconductor chips. No antibiotics means no medical surgeries. No fertilizers equals famine. No cheaply available fuels means no transport. No semiconductor chips, no smartphones.
Chocolate. Alcohol. Cosmetics. Medicines. Purified Water. Toothpaste. Detergent. Deodorant. Paper. Sugar. Petrol/Gasoline. Diesel. Electricity. Lubricants.
This is by no-means an exhaustive list; but chemical engineering is required in the production of these and many more.
So why does this matter?
Chemical engineering is uniquely positioned to tackle some of the greatest challenges in nutrition, energy, biotech and pharmaceuticals.
But it’s not inviting.
It’s not as sexy as computer science. Kids today can tinker with software and electronics before they hit puberty. You can play with an Arduino, a software developer kit or a LittleBits Kit. But chemical engineering? The barrier is too high. You can’t buy a refinery unless you have millions of dollars. Can’t buy a centrifuge, can’t buy a reactor, can’t buy anything really useful. Even if you could, these equipment are too dangerous in their current form to be used at home. But that shouldn’t be an excuse. Bioreactors aren’t exactly teddybears, yet AminoLabs has found a way to include one in their kit. Ingenious design could ensure both safety and experimentation without compromise.
Let’s say, while tinkering with my Amino Bio version 3, I manage to grow enough yeast to produce significant quantities of an anti-cancer compound. That’s great.
But I’ve only made milligrams.
To scale up from milligrams to kilograms, you need chemical engineering. You need process scale up and pilot studies. Beyond that, you need to make sure your microbes will grow as fast in a bigger vessel. You need to make sure any ethanol produced doesn’t kill your all yeast. You need to tinker.
But how do you tinker with chem eng in a safe, fun and inviting way?
Right now, you can’t.
Build an AminoLabs or BentoLabs kit for chemical engineering.
It has to be safe, fun, modular, small, and interactive. It can’t cost more than $1000. It should be useful — for prototyping or process optimization.
Chemical engineers love to break difficult design problems into distinct solvable sections. Well, this is a design problem.
You choose the setup. You can go the ‘lab-on-a-chip’ route — build a device that has little channels for very tiny volumes of liquid. Hook that up with reagents, pumps, valves and electronics for diagnostics. Or you can build a bigger system — a mini-bioreactor, measurement systems for temperature, pH and conductivity, and say, a miniaturised distillation kit.
Whatever you do, make it safe, fun and interesting. I can’t stress that enough.
Distill the bulky, expensive lab equipment into a portable, mini-lab. And excuse that awful pun.