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.
A single shot — a gene therapy injected into the brain — dramatically reduced alcohol consumption in monkeys that previously drank heavily. If the therapy is safe and effective in people, it might one day be a permanent treatment for alcoholism for people with no other options.
The challenge: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) means a person has trouble controlling their alcohol consumption, even when it is negatively affecting their life, job, or health.
In the U.S., more than 10 percent of people over the age of 12 are estimated to have AUD, and while medications, counseling, or sheer willpower can help some stop drinking, staying sober can be a huge struggle — an estimated 40-60 percent of people relapse at least once.
A team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
The idea: For occasional drinkers, alcohol causes the brain to release more dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good. Chronic alcohol use, however, causes the brain to produce, and process, less dopamine, and this persistent dopamine deficit has been linked to alcohol relapse.
There is currently no way to reverse the changes in the brain brought about by AUD, but a team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
To find out, they tested it in heavy-drinking monkeys — and the animals’ alcohol consumption dropped by 90% over the course of a year.
How it works: The treatment centers on the protein GDNF (“glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor”), which supports the survival of certain neurons, including ones linked to dopamine.
For the new study, a harmless virus was used to deliver the gene that codes for GDNF into the brains of four monkeys that, when they had the option, drank heavily — the amount of ethanol-infused water they consumed would be equivalent to a person having nine drinks per day.
“We targeted the cell bodies that produce dopamine with this gene to increase dopamine synthesis, thereby replenishing or restoring what chronic drinking has taken away,” said co-lead researcher Kathleen Grant.
To serve as controls, another four heavy-drinking monkeys underwent the same procedure, but with a saline solution delivered instead of the gene therapy.
The results: All of the monkeys had their access to alcohol removed for two months following the surgery. When it was then reintroduced for four weeks, the heavy drinkers consumed 50 percent less compared to the control group.
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
The researchers then took the alcohol away for another four weeks, before giving it back for four. They repeated this cycle for a year, and by the end of it, the treated monkeys’ consumption had fallen by more than 90 percent compared to the controls.
“Drinking went down to almost zero,” said Grant. “For months on end, these animals would choose to drink water and just avoid drinking alcohol altogether. They decreased their drinking to the point that it was so low we didn’t record a blood-alcohol level.”
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
Looking ahead: Dopamine is involved in a lot more than addiction, so more research is needed to not only see if the results translate to people but whether the gene therapy leads to any unwanted changes to mood or behavior.
Because the therapy requires invasive brain surgery and is likely irreversible, it’s unlikely to ever become a common treatment for alcoholism — but it could one day be the only thing standing between people with severe AUD and death.
“[The treatment] would be most appropriate for people who have already shown that all our normal therapeutic approaches do not work for them,” said Grant. “They are likely to create severe harm or kill themselves or others due to their drinking.”
On the savannah near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, elephants grazed contentedly. Nearby, postdoctoral researcher Alida de Flamingh watched and waited. As the herd moved away, she went into action, collecting samples of elephant dung that she and other wildlife conservationists would study in the months to come. She pulled on gloves, took a swab, and ran it all over the still-warm, round blob of elephant poop.
Sequencing DNA from fecal matter is a safe, non-invasive way to track and ultimately help protect over 42,000 species currently threatened by extinction. Scientists are using this DNA to gain insights into wildlife health, genetic diversity and even the broader environment. Applied to elephants, chimpanzees, toucans and other species, it helps scientists determine the genetic diversity of groups and linkages with other groups. Such analysis can show changes in rates of inbreeding. Populations with greater genetic diversity adapt better to changes and environmental stressors than those with less diversity, thus reducing their risks of extinction, explains de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Analyzing fecal DNA also reveals information about an animal’s diet and health, and even nearby flora that is eaten. That information gives scientists broader insights into the ecosystem, and the findings are informing conservation initiatives. Examples include restoring or maintaining genetic connections among groups, ensuring access to certain foraging areas or increasing diversity in captive breeding programs.
Approximately 27 percent of mammals and 28 percent of all assessed species are close to dying out. The IUCN Red List of threatened species, simply called the Red List, is the world’s most comprehensive record of animals’ risk of extinction status. The more information scientists gather, the better their chances of reducing those risks. In Africa, populations of vertebrates declined 69 percent between 1970 and 2022, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“We put on sterile gloves and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“When people talk about species, they often talk about ecosystems, but they often overlook genetic diversity,” says Christina Hvilsom, senior geneticist at the Copenhagen Zoo. “It’s easy to count (individuals) to assess whether the population size is increasing or decreasing, but diversity isn’t something we can see with our bare eyes. Yet, it’s actually the foundation for the species and populations.” DNA analysis can provide this critical information.
Assessing elephants’ health
“Africa’s elephant populations are facing unprecedented threats,” says de Flamingh, the postdoc, who has studied them since 2009. Challenges include ivory poaching, habitat destruction and smaller, more fragmented habitats that result in smaller mating pools with less genetic diversity. Additionally, de Flamingh studies the microbial communities living on and in elephants – their microbiomes – looking for parasites or dangerous microbes.
Approximately 415,000 elephants inhabit Africa today, but de Flamingh says the number would be four times higher without these challenges. The IUCN Red List reports African savannah elephants are endangered and African forest elephants are critically endangered. Elephants support ecosystem biodiversity by clearing paths that help other species travel. Their very footprints create small puddles that can host smaller organisms such as tadpoles. Elephants are often described as ecosystems’ engineers, so if they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem will suffer too.
There’s a process to collecting elephant feces. “We put on sterile gloves (which we change for each sample) and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says de Flamingh. They rub a sample about the size of a U.S. quarter onto a paper card embedded with DNA preservation technology. Each card is air dried and stored in a packet of desiccant to prevent mold growth. This way, samples can be stored at room temperature indefinitely without the DNA degrading.
Earlier methods required collecting dung in bags, which needed either refrigeration or the addition of preservatives, or the riskier alternative of tranquilizing the animals before approaching them to draw blood samples. The ability to collect and sequence the DNA made things much easier and safer.
“Our research provides a way to assess elephant health without having to physically interact with elephants,” de Flamingh emphasizes. “We also keep track of the GPS coordinates of each sample so that we can create a map of the sampling locations,” she adds. That helps researchers correlate elephants’ health with geographic areas and their conditions.
Although de Flamingh works with elephants in the wild, the contributions of zoos in the United States and collaborations in South Africa (notably the late Professor Rudi van Aarde and the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria) were key in studying this method to ensure it worked, she points out.
Genetic work with chimpanzees began about a decade ago. Hvilsom and her group at the Copenhagen Zoo analyzed DNA from nearly 1,000 fecal samples collected between 2003 and 2018 by a team of international researchers. The goal was to assess the status of the West African subspecies, which is critically endangered after rapid population declines. Of the four subspecies of chimpanzees, the West African subspecies is considered the most at-risk.
In total, the WWF estimates the numbers of chimpanzees inhabiting Africa’s forests and savannah woodlands at between 173,000 and 300,000. Poaching, disease and human-caused changes to their lands are their major risks.
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes.
“One of the threats is mining near the Nimba Mountains in Guinea,” a stronghold for the West African subspecies, Hvilsom says. The Nimba Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they are rich in iron ore, which is used to make the steel that is vital to the Asian construction boom. As she and colleagues wrote in a recent paper, “Many extractive industries are currently developing projects in chimpanzee habitat.”
Analyzing DNA allows researchers to identify individual chimpanzees more accurately than simply observing them, she says. Normally, field researchers would install cameras and manually inspect each picture to determine how many chimpanzees were in an area. But, Hvilsom says, “That’s very tricky. Chimpanzees move a lot and are fast, so it’s difficult to get clear pictures. Often, they find and destroy the cameras. Also, they live in large areas, so you need a lot of cameras.”
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes based upon DNA comparisons with other chimpanzee groups. The mining companies and builders are using this information to locate future roads where they won’t disrupt migration – a more effective solution than trying to build artificial corridors for wildlife.
“The current route cuts off communities of chimpanzees,” Hvilsom elaborates. That effectively prevents young adult chimps from joining other groups when the time comes, eventually reducing the currently-high levels of genetic diversity.
“The mining company helped pay for the genetics work,” Hvilsom says, “as part of its obligation to assess and monitor biodiversity and the effect of the mining in the area.”
Of 50 toucan subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching.
Identifying toucan families
Feces aren't the only substance researchers draw DNA samples from. Jeffrey Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin relies on blood tests for studying the genetic diversity of toucans---birds species native to Central America and nearby regions. They live in the jungles, where they hop among branches, snip fruit from trees, toss it in the air and catch it with their large beaks. “Toucans are beautiful, charismatic birds that are really important to the ecosystem,” says Coleman.
Of their 50 subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching. “When people see these aesthetically pleasing birds, they’re motivated to care about conservation practices,” he points out.
Coleman works with the Dallas World Aquarium and its partner zoos to analyze DNA from blood draws, using it to identify which toucans are related and how closely. His goal is to use science to improve the genetic diversity among toucan offspring.
Specifically, he’s looking at sections of the genome of captive birds in which the nucleotides repeat multiple times, such as AGATAGATAGAT. Called microsatellites, these consecutively-repeating sections can be passed from parents to children, helping scientists identify parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships. “That allows you to make strategic decisions about how to pair (captive) individuals for mating...to avoid inbreeding,” Coleman says.
Jeffrey Coleman is studying the microsatellites inside the toucan genomes.
Courtesy Jeffrey Coleman
The alternative is to use a type of analysis that looks for a single DNA building block – a nucleotide – that differs in a given sequence. Called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”), they are very common and very accurate. Coleman says they are better than microsatellites for some uses. But scientists have already developed a large body of microsatellite data from multiple species, so microsatellites can shed more insights on relations.
Regardless of whether conservation programs use SNPs or microsatellites to guide captive breeding efforts, the goal is to help them build genetically diverse populations that eventually may supplement endangered populations in the wild. “The hope is that the ecosystem will be stable enough and that the populations (once reintroduced into the wild) will be able to survive and thrive,” says Coleman. History knows some good examples of captive breeding success.
The California condor, which had a total population of 27 in 1987, when the last wild birds were captured, is one of them. A captive breeding program boosted their numbers to 561 by the end of 2022. Of those, 347 of those are in the wild, according to the National Park Service.
Conservationists hope that their work on animals’ genetic diversity will help preserve and restore endangered species in captivity and the wild. DNA analysis is crucial to both types of efforts. The ability to apply genome sequencing to wildlife conservation brings a new level of accuracy that helps protect species and gives fresh insights that observation alone can’t provide.
“A lot of species are threatened,” Coleman says. “I hope this research will be a resource people can use to get more information on longer-term genealogies and different populations.”