How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Plague

Thursday, 15 September 2016 - 9:42AM
Thursday, 15 September 2016 - 9:42AM
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Plague
In 1347, the Black Plague began its march through Europe. Back then, it was common to throw the house waste out of a window or a front door into the street. This means the food scraps, the toilet water, anything. This was something that had been so normalized that for the average citizen being covered in a thin layer of grime and sewage was common. This was also an excellent situation for your average rat, the fleas that lived on it, and the Yersinia pestis that was carried by the fleas. It was only after the plague that Europeans finally developed a better waste management system. Turns out it took two thirds of the population of the Western world dying before someone developed the concept of "trash collectors".  
Think about that for a moment. It took the Black Plague for people to figure out that they probably shouldn't be ankle-deep in garbage. This wasn't due to an insufficient scientific understanding of disease, but due to the fact that as individuals, we struggle with seeing the complex repercussions of our behaviors. The world is a very big place and it can feel like the little things you do have no effect. Hopefully, this is a bit of perspective.
You are most likely going to read this article, close this tab, and forget all about this until some random conversation piques a memory and you manage to pull up a talking point. That's okay. It took the death of two thirds of Europe to figure out how to stop walking in raw sewage. 

What's needed at this point is not an exciting buzz campaign, or posters, or a catchy slogan in faux helvetica (I'm looking at you, people who caption this article for social media). 
Now that we've started looking at sewage, we can start to look at some of the other things we've been ignoring. For example, we use the materials we have now, not because they are the best, but because they are better than what we had; and to be honest, everything we had before was mostly garbage. If it ain't broke don't fix it, don't look a gift horse in the mouth, etc, etc etc. You've probably heard all of these before. We've developed an entire series of phrases for telling people to enjoy having things that are junk because it's better than being poor and starving.
The thing about history, is that by studying it we can attempt to avoid repeating it. What we need now is the development of technologies that work with the human condition instead of against it. This means passive and pervasive redesign from the molecular level up. Anything else is likely to fail due to inertia and a short attention span. 
This January, I will be down in Brazil with a group called Exosphere, and will be exploring some of these new and exciting technologies. One of our projects that we began during the previous program this past July, will be the development of novel biopolymers using chitosan. Chitosan is derived from chitin, which is the second most available biopolymer after cellulose (plants) on earth. Shrimps, insects, crabs, mushrooms, all of these living things are made from chitin. 
While this material has been around for a while, it's been largely ignored because oil-based plastics were so convenient. However, if you work in a materials science lab or if you've looked over at the bio art scene, it's everywhere. They all love it, because it's biodegradable, anti bacterial, can be water-soluble or hydrophobic, and can be made as light as a dragonfly wing or as strong as a crab claw. Of course, biology has had a few million-year head start when it comes to working with the material, but we're quickly closing that gap. 
The world creates roughly 100 billion tons of shrimp shells every year. Two percent of these get used as animal feed or in agriculture and the rest is thrown into a landfill. If even a small fraction of that got put to use in place of some of our plastics and building materials, we'd be well on our way to improving our situation. Luckily, this is something we're working on.
Our first task will be one of scaling. Luckily the techniques for modifying chitin into chitosan are both straightforward and accessible, it's a simple three-wash process. We've already demonstrated that this is a process that anyone can do—we made some of our own chitosan at the last program using only off-the-shelf materials. All we need to do now is work on scaling it up so that it can be used on a widespread basis. And since the starting material is so pervasive, it means we'll have a nearly unlimited supply.

The really interesting part will come when we make chitosan into a usable polymer. With chitosan being so versatile and capable of having such a wide variety of material properties, the biggest problem may be restricting ourselves to just one project. Everything from the lacquer on your countertop to the soles of your shoes is a polymer and a candidate for replacement with chitosan. How do you feel about baking yourself a pair of shoes in your kitchen?
If in 1347, we were blind to the ground and grime we walked around in, today we are blind to the air we breathe. We are in desperate need of a way to rapidly clean the air, or the fundamental task of breathing could be life threatening. We don't need to look far to see just how much smog, soot, and particulate waste is being pumped into the atmosphere every day. 
One of the other projects we'll be working on is the first step towards an answer to this problem. It's basically a series of boxes that suck carbon dioxide, methane and toxic gas out of the air, and produce oxygen and protein as a by-product. Even more excitingly, most of the system is alive, with each box containing specially selected organisms to act as a living filter. We'll be using a combination of NASA space station research, modern organic farming techniques, and touch of genetic modification to build our prototype. This will allow us to build a tiered symbiotic system that can clean the air using a simple closed loop process.
With all that said, I wish I could tell you that we have all the answers, that we've got it all figured out. Unfortunately, anyone who tells you that is probably trying to con you. In January, Exosphere will be down in Brazil working on these cool things and a slew of other projects like it. It's not enough to just write about things, talk about things. We'll be rolling up our sleeves, getting our hands dirty, and doing the research that we hope will lead to a brighter future. The future isn't built in the armchair, it's built in the garage.
This post by Gabriel Licina is part of an ongoing series from our partners at Exosphere, a learning and problem solving community based in Brazil. To find out more and be a part of their cutting-edge educational programs visit them at