Falling Walls – born from a moment of geopolitical reconnection in 1989 – is aggressively global in its science evangelism. And by offering a platform to such a wide diversity of global citizens, the range of problems and solutions grows. No longer is the conversation dominated by a few traditional players; the full diversity of human ingenuity can be unleashed on a global set of challenges.
A number of Lab participants are addressing issues of interest to their local communities. Ika Juliana from the Indonesian Institute of Science is working to make oil recovery both more effective and more environmentally sustainable. Currently, synthetic surfactants – hydrophobic molecules like soaps that disrupt organic matter – are injected into oil wells to push remaining hydrocarbon-rich fluids out of rock pores and up through the well to the surface. But a natural alternative could be feasible in palm oil, produced widely in Indonesia. “Biosurfactants are selective for certain types of oil wells,” explains Juliana, and she’s on a quest to find the best solution on a well-by-well basis. A key tool in the arsenal is molecular simulation – a rapid, computational way to “test” candidate molecules based on the environmental and oil target composition of a particular site.
Khadija Al Zadjali works at the Caledonian College of Engineering in Oman, where it gets hot. Temperatures regularly exceed 55 degrees C, and “workers are not able to function under these conditions,” Al Zadjali says. And so, she created a cooling jacket, re-purposing an inner layer to hold modular cooling flaps and a middle layer to repel water, keeping condensation from irritating wearers. Initial prototypes keep workers cool for a few extra hours in the heat of the day, increasing productivity and lowering medical costs.
Gulraiz Khan, from Habib University in Pakistan, sees a neighborhood in Karachi as a model for future governance. 10,000 people inhabit 25 city blocks, and like many other urban centers, “the city offers the promise of social mobility,” Khan says, “but it’s frustrated by arcane systems of governance.” Through a new smartphone app, he helped residents set up a welfare association to voice their concerns and crowd-source solutions. This “civic atlas” mapped the neighborhood’s challenges and incorporated data from distributed sensors. By providing tools for local users, Khan provided a conduit for emerging voices: “we were able to enhance democratic participation and local involvement.”