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A new BioWeapon

Air pollution has a significant and pervasive impact on public health. According to the World Health Organization, it is now considered “the world’s largest single environmental health risk,” with more than three million people dying every year as a result. This is more than twice the number of people that die in vehicle accidents each year.

Health and safety are important to us. Just as we’ve designed Model S and Model X to avoid collisions or protect their occupants when one happens, we felt compelled to protect them against the statistically more relevant hazard of air pollution*. Inspired by the air filtration systems used in hospitals, clean rooms, and the space industry, we developed a HEPA filtration system capable of stripping the outside air of pollen, bacteria, and pollution before they enter the cabin and systematically scrubbing the air inside the cabin to eliminate any trace of these particles. The end result is a filtration system hundreds of times more efficient than standard automotive filters, capable of providing the driver and her passengers with the best possible cabin air quality no matter what is happening in the environment around them.

The air filtration system was put to the test in real-world environments from California freeways during rush hour, to smelly marshes, landfills, and cow pastures in the central valley of California, to major cities in China. We wanted to ensure that it captured fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants, as well as bacteria, viruses, pollen and mold spores.

We then decided to take things a step further and test the complete system as we would on the road, but in an environment where we could precisely control and carefully monitor atmospheric conditions. A Model X was placed in a large bubble contaminated with extreme levels of pollution (1,000 µg/m³ of PM2.5 vs. the EPA’s “good” air quality index limit of 12 µg/m³). We then closed the falcon doors and activated Bioweapon Defense Mode.

In less than two minutes, the HEPA filtration system had scrubbed the air in Model X, bringing pollution levels from an extremely dangerous 1,000 µg/m³ to levels so low as to be undetectable (below the noise floor) by our instruments, allowing us to remove our gas masks and breathe fresh air while sitting inside a bubble of pollution.

Not only did the vehicle system completely scrub the cabin air, but in the ensuing minutes, it began to vacuum the air outside the car as well, reducing PM2.5 levels by 40%. In other words, Bioweapon Defense Mode is not a marketing statement, it is real. You can literally survive a military grade bio attack by sitting in your car.

Moreover, it will also clean the air outside your car, making things better for those around you. And while this test happened to be done with a Model X, the same would be true of the new Model S now in production.

Tesla will continue to improve the micro-geometry and chemical passivation defenses in the primary and secondary filters, which are easily replaceable, so this will get better the longer you own your car. Suggestions for improvement are welcome.

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The Scary Side of Synbio Glowing Plants

If you’re like me, the concept of synthetic biology—the application of engineering techniques to the building blocks of life—is pretty hard to get your head around. I get synthesizing, say, material to make clothes out of. But synthesizing new life forms? Apparently, while I stand slack-jawed, the novel technology is quickly going mainstream. Here’s the New York Times:

Hoping to give new meaning to the term “natural light,” a small group of biotechnology hobbyists and entrepreneurs has started a project to develop plants that glow, potentially leading the way for trees that can replace electric street lamps and potted flowers luminous enough to read by.

What could be more innocuous than plants that generate useful light? And moreover, the “glowing plants” project isn’t the work of a big, bad multinational like Monsanto or a corporate-funded academic lab, the Times notes, but rather a “small group of hobbyist scientists in one of the growing number of communal laboratories springing up around the nation as biotechnology becomes cheap enough to give rise to a do-it-yourself movement.”

And they’re not financing the project by tapping Wall Street or big banks, but rather the democratic cash-raising method of our age par excellence, the Kickstarter campaign. The project launched April 23 with a goal to raise $65,000; it has already exceeded $480,000 in pledges, aided by glowing—so to speak—reports in Tech Crunch, Fast Company, and Forbes, as well as the promise that anyone who commits at least $40 will “receive seeds to grow a glowing plant at home.”

What could possibly go wrong? Well, I don’t know much about the science of creating living lamps. But I do think it’s important to think out the broader implications of synbio—as the novel technology is known—and ask questions about how its release from the lab into the world is regulated. Which is evidently pretty lightly—this consortium is casually promising to distribute glowing seeds to hundreds of people.

I can’t think of a better source for examining the promise and perils of synbio than this much-cited 2007 essay by the eminent physicist—and climate change skeptic—Freeman Dyson. In it, he laid out a rosy vision for what he called the “domestication of biotechnology.” Here’s Dyson:

There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too. Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer.

What if these new life forms behave in ways we can’t predict—or mutate in ways we can’t predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems?

And what about the obvious dangers—what if these God-like “housewives and children” (ugh) turned away from conjuring cuddly creatures and start creating ones designed to bare their fangs, monsters instead of pets? You don’t even need to presume malicious intent to find reason for concern: What if some novel beast designed for cuteness escapes, goes rogue, and turns out to have unintended malign powers? Then there are the obvious questions: What if these new life forms behave in ways we can’t predict—or mutate in ways we can’t predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems? Dyson acknowledged the “real and serious dangers” of synbio, and allowed that “rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others.” But he waved off that task—not his problem. “I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers,” he cheerfully declared.

But regulating novel technologies has proven difficult here in the United States. Genetically modified seeds burst onto US farm fields in the mid-’90s with a notoriously lax regulatory process, as I showed in this post. Still, the process is time-consuming, and it has been known to occasionally at least delay particularly problematic crop varieties, like new ones genetically rigged to withstand not one but two herbicides. Next came nanotechnology, which takes advantage of the fact that common substances like silver behave differently when they’re really, really small. Nanotech is now ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from underwear to toothpaste. But as the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Andrew Schneider showed in an eye-opening 2010 series, the small stuff poses significant risks, has received little independent testing, and is barely regulated.

The excellent watchdog org ETC Group, which seeks to place novel technologies under democratic oversight, has launched a rival “Kickstopper” campaign to halt such projects until a proper regulatory regime can be put into place.

In the spirit of Professor Dyson, let me offer a prediction for the future. I imagine that synbio’s current reputation as a democratic technology dominated by well-meaning amateurs will last just long enough to convince people that it requires little or no regulation. While this laissez-faire regime congeals into a settled fact, big agrichemical, pharmaceutical, and life-sciences firms will quietly take it over, eventually dominating the research and deployment of Dyson’s wondrous toys. Monsanto has already bought its way into the space—in January, it bought an R&D lab from and entered a research collaboration with Synthetic Genomics, a company that uses synthetic microbes to “improve crop productivity.”

Unless we have a serious national reckoning on synbio, what we risk leaving our children and grandchildren is the knotty problem of trying to convince an entrenched, little-regulated industry that the power of generating life forms should be used for the broad interests of society, not the narrow ones of shareholders.  

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