An Electrifying Idea For Roads
Starting this summer, the public buses in the Oberhaching suburb of Munich, Germany, won’t have to be plugged in to charge overnight anymore. Stefan Schelle, the mayor of Oberhaching, is taking advantage of the fact that an innovative startup has its offices in his community: Magment, short for “magnetizing cement,” will install its underground charging pad in the coming months. As soon as that happens, the buses will charge while they wait at the city’s main station or while stored at their overnight quarters.
In his light-filled office, Magment’s co-founder and CEO, Mauricio Esguerra, demonstrates how the new technology works: The lights on his black model car only flash when he puts the miniature Porsche directly atop the induction plate. “This works just like when you charge your iPhone on its charging pad or heat a pot on an induction range. People don’t have to be afraid of magnetic fields or anything like that,” says the 60-year-old Colombia-born entrepreneur. “The induction only gets activated when the storage battery is placed directly on top.
Patented by Esguerra, the “magnetizing concrete” is able to target the charge quite precisely. The batteries will be mounted in a box underneath the vehicles such as the retrofitted public buses. “Look, here’s one passing by,” says Esguerra, pointing out the window as a blue city bus rides past his office.
An invention finds its purpose
Esguerra grew up in Bogotá, studied physics at the Technical University Munich where he fell in love with a German woman, and started a family in her home country. For 15 years, he developed magnetic products, including the magnetizing cement, for Siemens, Europe’s largest industrial manufacturing company. The patent belonged to Siemens, of course. “But there were hardly any electric vehicles yet,” Esguerra says, “and Siemens didn’t quite know what to do with this invention.”
Esguerra changed companies a few times but, in 2015, he got an offer from Siemens. The patent for the magnetizing cement was expiring and Siemens wasn’t interested in keeping it. Would he, as the inventor, want it back? “I did not hesitate a second,” Esguerra remembers with a smile. “I’m a magnetician at heart.” That same year, he founded Magment to finally make use of the technology he created 20 years ago.
To demonstrate how his cement is made, he opens the lid of a plastic bucket filled with cement powder. Mixed in are fingernail-sized black pieces, so-called ferrites, mainly consisting of three ceramic oxides: iron, nickel and zinc. Conventionally, they are used in electronics such as cell phones, computers and cables. Molded in concrete, ferrites create a magnetic field that can transport charge to a vehicle, potentially eliminating range anxiety for EV drivers.
Molded in concrete, ferrites create a magnetic field that can transport charge to a vehicle, potentially eliminating range anxiety for EV drivers.
“Ferrites have extremely high rejection rates,” Esguerra adds. “It’s comparable to other ceramics: As soon as there is a small tear or crack, the material is rejected. We are talking about a rejection pile of 500,000 tons per year worldwide. There are mountains of unused materials.”
Exactly this fact was the starting point of his research at Siemens: “What can we do with this energy-intensive material? Back then, it was crushed up and mixed into the cement for building streets, without adding any function.” Today, too, the Magment material can simply be mixed with the conventional material and equipment of the cement industry. “We take advantage of the fact that we don’t have to build factories and don’t have high transportation costs."
In addition to saving resources, recycled ferrite also makes concrete more durable.
No plugs, no charging breaks
A young intern in the office next door winds cables around a new coil. These coils will later be lowered underground in a box, connected to the grid and encased in magnetizing concrete. The recipient box looks similar; it’s another coil but smaller, and it will be mounted underneath the carriage of the vehicle. For a car, the battery box would be 25 by 25 centimeters (about 10 inches), for a scooter five by five centimeters (about two inches).
Esguerra pushes an electric scooter into a cemented scooter rack next to his office. The charging pad is invisible. A faint beep is the only sign that it has started charging. “Childs play!” Esguerra says. “Even when someone puts in the scooter a little crooked, the charge still works. Our efficiency rate is up to 96 percent.” From this summer on, hotel chains in Munich will try out this system with their rental scooters, at a price of about 500 Euros per charging station.
Compared to plug-in charging, Magment’s benefits include smaller batteries that charge slower and, therefore, gentler, so they may last longer. Nobody needs to plug in the vehicles manually anymore. “Personally, I’ve had an EV for six years,” Esguerra says, “and how often does it happen that I forgot to plug it in overnight and then start out with a low charge in the morning? Once people get used to the invisible charging system, it will become the norm.“
There are also downsides: Most car companies aren’t ready for the new technology. Hyundai is the first carmaker that announced plans to equip some new models with inductive charging capability. “How many cars are electrified worldwide?” Esguerra asks and gives the answer himself: “One percent. And how many forklifts are electrified? More than 70 percent!” Therefore, Magment focuses on charging forklifts, e-scooters and buses.
Magment has focused most of its efforts on charging forklifts and other vehicle types that are entirely or predominantly electric, unlike cars.
On the morning of my visit to Esguerra’s office, a developer of the world’s third-biggest forklift manufacturer is there to inspect how the technology works on the ground. In the basement, a Magment engineer drives an electric forklift over a testbed with invisible charging coils, turning on the green charging light. Esguerra opens the interior of the forklift and points out the two batteries. “With our system, the forklift will only need one battery.” The savings, about 7,000 Euro per forklift, will pay for the installation of Magment’s charging system in warehouses, Esguerra calculates. “Less personnel and no unnecessary wait times for charging will lead to further savings,” he says.
To implement the new technology as efficiently as possible, Magment engineers began recording the transport routes of forklifts in warehouses. “It looks like spaghetti diagrams,” Esguerra explains. “Soon you get the areas where the forklifts pass or wait most frequently. This is where you install the chargers underground.” The forklifts will charge while in use, without having to pause for charging breaks. The method could also work for robots, for instance, in warehouses and distribution centers.
Roads of the future could be electric
Potential disadvantages might become apparent once the technology is more broadly in use. Therefore investors were initially reluctant, Esguerra admits. “Some are eager to be the first but most prefer to wait until the technology has been extensively used in real life.”
A clear hurdle today is that electrifying entire freeways with induction coils would cost at least 1 to 1.5 million Euros per kilometer. The German Department for Transportation even calculates overall costs of 14 to 47 million Euros per kilometer. So, the technology may only make sense for areas where vehicles pass or dwell the longest, like the Oberhaching train station or a busy interstate toll booth.
And yet, Magment is ramping up to compete with other companies that build larger inductive charging pads. The company just finished the first 20 meters of a testbed in Indiana, in partnership with the Purdue University and the Indiana Department of Transportation. Magment is poised to build “the world’s first contactless wireless-charging concrete pavement highway segment,” Purdue University announced.
The project, part of Purdue’s ASPIRE (Advancing Sustainability through Powered Infrastructure for Roadway Electrification) program, is financed by the National Science Foundation. “Indiana is known as the Crossroads of America, and we’re committed to fortifying our position as a transportation leader by innovating to support the emerging vehicle technology,” Governor Eric J. Holcomb said. If testing is successful, including the concrete’s capacity to charge heavy trucks operating at higher power (200 kilowatts and above), Indiana plans to identify a highway segment to install Magment’s charging pads. The earliest would be 2023 at best.
In the meantime, buses in the Californian Antelope Valley, trams at Hollywood's Universal Studios and transit buses in Tampa, Florida, are already charging with inductive technology developed by Wave, a company spun out of Utah State University. In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced plans to build a test route for vehicles to charge while driving, in collaboration with the Israel-based company Electreon,and this year contracted to build the first road-based charging system in the U.S. The state is providing support through an innovative grant program.
Costs remain one of the biggest obstacles, but Esguerra’s vision includes the potential that toll roads could charge a premium for inductive charging capabilities. “And in reverse, a driver who has too much energy could feed his surplus into the grid while driving,” Esguerra dreams.
Meanwhile, Wave’s upcoming big projects are moving trucks along a route in Southern California and running a UPS route between Seattle and Portland. Wave CTO Michael Masquelier describes the inductive power transfer his company champions as “similar to a tuning fork. By vibrating that fork, you sent energy through the air and it is received by another tuning fork across the room. So it’s similar to that, but it’s magnetic energy versus sound energy.”
He hopes to partner with Magment, saying that “the magnetizing cement makes installation easier and improves the energy efficiency.” More research is needed to evaluate which company’s technology will prove to be the most efficient, practical, and cost-effective.
Esguerra’s vision includes the potential that toll roads could charge a premium for inductive charging capabilities. “And in reverse, a driver who has too much energy could feed his surplus into the grid while driving,” Esguerra dreams.
The future will soon arrive in the idyllic town of Bad Staffelstein, a quaint tourist destination in the Upper Franconia region of Germany. Visitors will be taken to and from the main station and the popular thermal bath by driverless shuttles. Together with the University of Wuppertal, the regional government of Upper Franconia wants to turn its district into “the center of autonomous driving.” Magment is about to install inductive charging pads at the shuttle stations and the thermal bath, eliminating the need for the shuttles to stop for charging times. No more drivers, no cable, no range anxiety. Masquelier believes that “wireless and autonomous driving go hand in hand.” Science fiction? It will become science reality in spring 2023.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story erroneously mentioned that Electreon required overhead cables.
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021