Interview: James Dyson Award Winner Ed Linacre

Gizmodo Australia sits down with the winner of the James Dyson award, Ed Linacre to talk about water, patents, science fiction and why copper wool can lead to beautiful moments in science. Giz Au: First of all, obviously, congratulations!

Ed: Thankyou, thankyou.

Giz Au:What did you do when you discovered you'd won?

Ed: I was pretty shocked. It was definitely.. speechless kind of stuff. I had a friend who was playing a music gig that night, so I went along and let it all sink in. It's totally been a shock, and it still is. It's definitely not yet sunk in, although with every interview it sinks in a little bit more. Especially with the years of sleepless nights where it's controlled my life -- all thanks to my girlfriend for sticking by me during these insane times -- and especially for Swinburne University as well. I think it's important for them to get recognition because I couldn't have done it without those guys. The tutor who tutored me through the 10,000 word thesis that supports this and the tutor who took me through the development of this product, Simon Jackson and Mark Strachan are at the top of their game, and they need as much recognition as possible. I think it's such an important thing for the University to do so.

Giz Au:How long have you been developing AirDrop?

Ed: It started as a 6 month project as part of my honours year at Swinburne University, , but it was continually developed after that, so it probably ruled my life for the good part of a year, and it's still in development. There's still a long way for it to go to reach large-scale agricultural implementation. Winning the James Dyson award means that's going to be possible.

Giz Au:So what kind of rough timeframe are you looking at for commercialisation?

Ed: I'd like to get this up and going in a couple of years, but I know it's very hard to put a time figture on these types of things. I want to dip into it as soon as possible, because I know the facts, I know the the increase in drought severity and frequency worldwide, so I know its application is just going to continue to be more important.

Giz Au:How important is it to you that this is a low cost solution?

Ed: Absolutely important. One of the points of development was to make sure that it was an appropriate design. For it to be appropriate to who I was creating it for, which was rural farmers, it needed to be low tech; they needed to be able to maintain it, so they didn't have to get specialist teams out, they should be able to install it as well. It uses technology that they're already familiar with. I researched heavily into rural farming communitities in my chosen site area which was around the Murray Darling region, which is the largest agricultural sector for Australia, and I incorporated technologies like solar power that they're all using now, and they're all happy to use. These are environmentally friendly "green" technologies -- I also made sure they were happy to implement those technologies as well; traditional farmers might not be inclined to take on new technologies, but these kinds of things are becoming widespread. The entire system is a low tech solution; it's not a high tech solution which requires its own power source, which is what some of the military solutions for pulling water out of the air need.

Giz Au:In terms of the technology involved, it includes an LCD screen; how does that fit within the low-tech ethos?

Ed: It's the most low-tech LCD screen that you can get! That also will need more development as time goes on; it's not a colour display. The technology needs development, certainly; how large a solar panel we'll need, what type of pump I'm going to be able to use, and all those types of details will come down the line with further development.

Giz Au:Is the the current prototype currently specifically Australian?

Ed: Its implementation is specific to the Australian climate. But one of the beautiful things is that with our ecosystem being so incredibly diverse, so many of the climates found here are found elsewhere in the world. The system can change to meet other environmental and biological environments. It's not that it's set for a terribly particular Australian arid climate; it's fit for an arid climate, and that's what it's meant to work in.

Giz Au:How durable is the system currently with reference to Australian weather and animals? What happens if you get torrential rain, for example?

Ed: Well, that's what's happened in my chosen site, actually. I was heavily researchign the region in teh Murrya darling area; now they've had some of the best rainfall in 100 years. Within the tank there's a flow cutoff switch that makes sure that when's the water's too high the entire system stops. That's important for the Australian climate where you might get torrential rain perhaps once every twelve years. But my prototype's survived -- it's still in mum's backyard. As for native animals, it has to be rugged; I've not looked into that yet, but it's a good point.

Giz Au:How many prototypes have you been through to get to this stage?

Ed: The final prototype would have been the 8th prototype. I went through the early stages of just digging up soil; seeing how deep I needed to get and also had a lot of trouble with the perfect conditions for getting water to collect. There was a huge change to the efficiency in getting water when I investigated the properties of air flow. When I realised that the air was going too quickly through and then back out, and that it only had enough time to create water via a small amount of condensation on the interior of the pipes. So we filled the piping with copper wool, and when the air passed through, it got caught up in the copper wool and dropped temperature dramatically; much more water was produced that way. It was a simple solution; putting a simple material in the pipes so that more turbulent flow was created. That was a huge step forward in the project. That enabled the temperature of the soil to pass through to the tube; it was a beautiful experience to see the results of that.

Giz Au:Water's a sensitive political issue in Australia…

Ed: It certainly is. There's a lot of technologies out there that only produce drinking water; because this was subterranean, it was perfect for irrigating plants at the crop. Irrigating at the root is the most efficicent way, but I suppose if it's creating water, you could look at other uses for it.

Giz Au: There's been an awful lot of discussion recently about IP and patent issues. What's your take on patenting the AirDrop design?

Ed: Patents are of the greatest importance. I've met with a patent attorney, and we're looking at patenting the process as soon as possible. I honestly didn't know how far this would go, or how successful it would be, otherwise I would have patented it a long time ago. Again, the James Dyson award funding allows me to properly patent it, and not step around patents that might not cover me in specific regions.

Giz Au: A number of our readers have commented on the similarities between your design and Star Wars' vaporators.

Ed: (laughs) I've always been a science fiction fan. I've watched Star Trek for as long as I can remember. I think my father and his father have been a huge inspiration; to this day I'm coming up with strange inventions with my father, and we've always seen science fiction as an inspiration, and so, yes, absolutely, that type of thing has been an inspiration for a long time.