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A Clever Fix to the Biggest Climate Problem

Climate

By Jeremy Deaton

Climate change is a big, unwieldy problem with no easy fix. To stem the rise in temperature, we need to transform how we power our homes, fuel our cars, grow our food and get rid of our waste. The change won't happen overnight, and time is running perilously short, which is why we need to prioritize actions that will have the biggest impact.


As it happens, the most effective way to fight climate change is to make a better fridge.

Manufacturers use a class of chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators. Regrettably, hydrofluorocarbons are prone to leaking into the atmosphere, where they trap an enormous amount of heat—thousands of times more than carbon dioxide—worsening climate change. In 2016, countries agreed to end the use the use of hydrofluorocarbons, but the phase-out will take decades, and the substitute chemicals are either toxic, like ammonia, or flammable, like propane.

It seems there is no entirely safe way to cool down a conventional fridge. So, instead of trying to update existing technology, some manufacturers are building a new kind of fridge—one that doesn't make use of potentially dangerous refrigerants.

North Carolina-based Phononic, Inc. is building thermoelectric refrigerators that use less energy, take up less room and pose fewer environmental risks than conventional refrigerators. The company's name refers to phonons, quantum particles that transmit heat. "A phonon is quite literally a heat wave," said CEO Anthony Atti.

Phononic's thermoelectric technology represents a real breakthrough in refrigeration. To appreciate what makes it noteworthy, it helps to understand how it differs from a conventional refrigerator. The fridge in your home takes advantage of a long-understood fact of physics—when a liquid evaporates, it soaks up heat. That's why sweating cools you down. Sweat absorbs heat from your body as it evaporates into water vapor. Conversely, when that water vapor condenses, it releases heat. Refrigerators make use of this phenomenon to cool food.

Liquid refrigerant flows through what are known as evaporator coils inside the fridge, absorbing heat along the way. As the refrigerant heats up, it turns to gas. The hot gas flows through condenser coils outside the fridge, where it releases heat and turns back into a liquid. The compressor raises the pressure of the refrigerant, thereby raising its temperature. As a result, the temperature of refrigerant is significantly higher than the temperature of the room, and it cools off quickly.

The Institute of Refrigeration

The whole system serves to gather heat from inside the fridge and release it outside. That's why the coils on the back of a fridge feel so warm—they are releasing heat captured inside. While this basic technology has worked for around a century, it has a few shortcomings. The compressor uses a lot of energy, makes a lot of noise and takes up a great deal of space. And, as mentioned above, the most common refrigerant is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas.

A thermoelectric cooler. Luis María Benítez

Phononic does away with all of that. To cool a fridge, it makes use of the thermoelectric effect, by which an electrical current can produce a difference in temperature. Run a current through a thermoelectric cooler, and the device will draw heat from one side to the other. Thermoelectric coolers make very little noise, take up very little room and make no use of dangerous refrigerants like hydrofluorocarbons, ammonia or propane. Unfortunately, thermoelectric coolers have largely been too expensive and inefficient to be used in refrigeration.

With the help of a grant from a Department of Energy program that funds cutting-edge research, Phononic developed new materials that would make thermoelectric coolers more efficient. In addition to using less energy, Phononic's thermoelectric coolers chill the inside of a fridge more slowly and evenly than the machinery inside a conventional fridge.

A Phononic thermoelectric cooler (left) and a compressor (right) that might be found in a conventional fridge. Phononic

"Because you're removing that heat and using the entire surface area of the product itself, the rejected heat is very low temperature, so we can stack multiple refrigerators in a room," Atti said. "We can stack them on top of one another. We can build them into cabinetry, and you don't have that high waste heat temperature that a typical compression system does."

Phononic is deploying this technology in a variety of ways—cooling electronics, chilling wine, refrigerating medicine and vaccines at hospitals, among other applications. Soon, the technology could be deployed in food delivery, which may cut down on waste from meal kit services, like Blue Apron or HelloFresh. These companies deliver food in packages lined with ice packs so the ingredients survive shipping. Those ice packs inevitably end up in the trash. Atti imagines instead using energy-efficient, battery-powered thermoelectric coolers on delivery trucks to keep food cold until it reaches its final destination.

A Phononic refrigerator. Phononic

"What we're proposing is that you would put one of our refrigerators or freezers right on the delivery truck, so this way you just pull the package right out and deliver it right to the door," Atti said. The company does not currently produce consumer refrigerators or air conditioners, but it could make a dent in those markets as it drives down costs. "We're not afraid to compete on cost, but what we're trying to demonstrate—and we've had a decent level of success—is how, at this stage, we can compete on value."

Atti believes the technology could be a game changer. The way that solar technology is transforming energy and LEDs are changing lighting, thermoelectric coolers could give a long overdue makeover to refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners. The researcher turned investor turned entrepreneur said, "One of the things that irritated me when I was on the investment side was this belief that clean tech or sustainability could not be competitive." Now, he's intent on showing that next-generation refrigerators will do exactly that.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

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The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.