"I hated school." When I was just a preschool, the New Zealander Ian Hunter, now Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Bioinstrumentation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he preferred to stay at home building artifacts than going to school. Knowing the child's early interests, his parents did not force him to go to class every day. If necessary, they gave an excuse: a fever, a pain, was not well … And the kid really took advantage of his faults. He founded his first company with 9 years, at 10 he published the first of his more than half a thousand scientific articles (on a miniaturized single transistor radio) and at 14 he built a liquid gas chromatograph for chemical analysis.
"I was not a child prodigy, I was only lucky to grow up in a home where I was given the opportunity to create things with electronic tools and components," says the inventor. Today he is the author of more than 200 patents and founder of 25 companies. His ideas are varied – including a painless system of needleless injections – but most are aimed at changing the world with sustainable solutions that, at the same time, provide a benefit to the user. Among them, a low-cost transformable solar car, a motor on wheels or a system to eliminate methane emissions from cows. He has explained what they consist of during a day held this week at the Ramón Areces Foundation in Madrid.
– What is the secret of your ingenuity?
– I don't know, but I like to pose the problems. And I always make sure that I have knowledge about different disciplines in order to find a solution. I have been a professor in departments of mechanical, electrical and biomedical engineering, bioengineering, surgery, physiology, psychology and a couple more.
–Well, it's not usual. We strive in specialization.
–Yes, the educational system makes it difficult to have a passion for different disciplines. Generally, we want students to focus on one topic. That worries me a lot because the main problems of this world require different knowledge to reach a solution.
–He has won numerous awards as a teacher, what makes him different?
-I love teaching. I don't like to give master classes, that's why we have a new system at MIT where students learn by doing instead of sitting and listening. It is the same as learning to play the violin. You learn by playing.
– Do you intend to improve the world with your inventions?
– I am very worried about what we are doing to the planet, so it is true that I spend a lot of time developing inventions in that regard. But I have to be honest: I enjoy inventing. It gives me pleasure. Possibly, as happens to artists when they are dedicated to sculpt or paint.
– Do you think that the solution of climate change goes through technology?
-Of course. Instead of threatening, harassing, fine or taxing people to adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, I prefer to create technologies that are desirable and attractive. In this way, their behavior will change on their own initiative.
–What are your proposals?
– I have two good examples that make me see the future in a very optimistic way. Last year, humans produced 40 x 10 raised to 12 kilos of CO2. Of them, cars, trucks, buses, airplanes and agricultural equipment represent a good amount. That is why, and this is the first example, we are developing a new type of electric car ten times cheaper than the existing ones and with an energy consumption ten times lower, powered from solar panels that carry on.
– But there are already solar cars …
– Yes, but if we also get them to be fun to drive and we add behaviors that the vehicles don't have now, for example climbing stairs or becoming very compact ways to park, I think people will want to buy or rent them. You don't have to harass or make anyone feel bad about using a technology, but to create something sustainable that you want.
– What will these vehicles look like?
–We have made very light and aerodynamic prototypes. At the moment they reach 120 km per hour, but they have the capacity to reach much more. In addition, in one of my companies, Indigo Technologies, we have created a wireless energy transfer system, so that we can transfer the energy from a moving vehicle to another that is traveling close by the road. If I have more energy than I need to reach my destination, I give it to myself or sell it to someone who needs it because they are going to travel a greater distance, for example.
– When will they be released?
– I hope that in the near future we can manufacture a small family vehicle where the manufacturing cost is less than 2,000 euros.
– It is very low.
– Without a doubt, but one of the keys to making the technology desirable is a very low cost. If the car cost us the same as a Tesla, which only the rich can afford, we could not achieve the desired impact in terms of reducing pollution worldwide. We need cars that the average citizen can afford, including those from developing countries.
– And his second example?
–There are 1 billion cars on the planet … and 1.5 billion cows. The dairy or meat cow produces 3,000 kilos of CO2 equivalent per year, as much as a car. If a tax is imposed on farmers for these emissions they would end up without a harsh. Therefore, we want to capture the methane produced by the cows and convert it into electrical energy.
– How would they do it?
– We would use the wireless transfer of energy, to which I have already referred, to pass the cow's energy to an organic battery developed by our company PolyJoule. In this way, methane ceases to be a problem and becomes an economic opportunity. Again, a problem that becomes a solution.
–Propone to use robots to help farmers.
-Yes. We are developing two types of robots that would be used in dairy farms where cows are free grazing. One is called K9 (it sounds the same as "canine," the English word for canine), a four-legged robot the size of a farm dog, and a caterpillar tractor robot. They will do the most varied tasks, including collecting manure. This project is ongoing and we work with Fonterra, one of the largest dairy companies in the world and the largest in New Zealand.
– Have your inventions made you rich?
– I have made enough money, so when I start a new company I am my own investor. I don't have to convince others to give me money, only myself.
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