Recipe for progress

Special Report | From glucose, salt, and water to hydrogen, acetone, and radio waves, here's a look at inventions that could change the world

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

The childhood death rate in the poorest parts of the world dropped 14 percent in the past decade. That means 3 million children who would have died in 1990 are still alive today. "Reported news from the developing world is so often negative, but we need to remember that progress can be made," says Clive Calver, president of World Relief.

Most health experts attribute the dramatic news to a simple solution: sodium, potassium, and glucose mixed with baking soda and water. On the pharmacy shelf it might be called Pedialyte or Infalyte; in poor nations it is known more basically as ORS, or oral rehydration solution.

Diarrhea and the dehydration that follows are the leading killers of the world's youngest and poorest children. More than 1 billion episodes of diarrhea occur each year in the developing world. Four million people die from it. Intravenous solutions, and the training required to administer them, once were the only remedy for these cases. In 1968 health workers in Bangladesh discovered that adding glucose to water and salt in the right proportions made it possible for the liquid to be absorbed through the intestinal wall. The simple recipe made rehydration-and recovery-possible without intravenous tubes. Mothers in remote villages could now treat their children.

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Meredith Long, chairman of the board for Christian Connection for International Health, was a health worker in Bangladesh at the time of the ORS discovery. He said medical experts view it-along with immunizations-as the most important medical advance of the century. Only now are the numbers coming in. In the late 1970s, according to UNICEF, diarrhea killed about 5 million children each year. By 1996, it was down to 2.9 million. Now, it is 2.2 million.

Only look at the phone in your pocket to be reminded that simple, seemingly mundane inventions lead profound revolutions. Here are new innovations pushing their way into everyday life:

  • ID chips Last month eight Alzheimer's patients were injected with silicon chips, making them as scannable as a bag of potato chips at the supermarket. The devices are about the size of a grain of rice and were developed in Florida. They are inserted into the upper back and are invisible except when a hand-held scanner is waved over the area. A radio frequency activates the chip to transmit a signal, which contains an identification number. Information about Alzheimer's patients, who are prone to forgetfulness, is cross-referenced in a central computer registry. The registry can contain an entire medical history, including important data like drug allergies. Applied Digital Solutions Inc., maker of the VeriChip, will soon have a more complex device. It will be able to receive GPS satellite signals and transmit a person's location. Critics complain that the chip inserts are like putting a pet on a leash, but in places like Florida-where 4 million people have Alzheimer's-or Colombia-where one in three of the world's kidnappings take place-they could mean life or death.
  • Freedom Car Can Americans invent their way to security overseas? The Bush administration and the big three automakers hope to do that with the Freedom Car. The public-private partnership hopes to come up with a way to power autos using fuel-cell technology and hydrogen. No pollution, no Middle East oil imports-these are the gains that could make it worthwhile. Fuel cells that convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat could power not only cars, but homes too. They work like a battery that can be recharged while you are drawing power from it. And they won't need to be plugged in.
  • Bubble battle While a ruckus rages among physicists over whether real "bubble fusion" has actually taken place, Rusi Taleyarkhan and his colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory insist they observed something remarkable in a flask of acetone this spring. When they blasted the acetone with sound waves, they claim they saw evidence for "tabletop" fusion. Other physicists at the lab have apparently been unable to replicate the experiment, evoking memories of the great "cold fusion" hoaxes of the early 1990s. Whatever the outcome of this current controversy, a breakthrough in this area will have a profound impact on matters of transportation, energy production, and national defense. Imagine neighborhood power plants the size of dumpsters, landscapes without high-tension power lines, coal trains, or nuclear waste dumps. It could, 20 years from now, mean the disappearance of telephone poles, a move to primarily electric transportation, and much lower utility bills. It's almost too good to be true, and thus far it is just that.
  • Web medical treatment Take two cookies and e-mail me in the morning. While long-distance medical diagnosis and remote-control surgery garner all the media attention, a far more mundane tool will revolutionize health care over the next few years: e-mail. Already doctors see the value of communications that aren't left in the ether or on answering machines. In a sense, this is the house call revived: Doctors can correspond at some leisure with patients, providing some reflection, depth of information, and personal attention. Best of all, patients can read their writing.
  • Radio ID tags The UPC bar code has reigned unchallenged for 25 years, but that may soon change. RFID, a souped-up technology almost as old as radio, could take its place over the next 5-10 years. Radio Frequency ID tags are silicon chips with tiny antennas, which can send the chip's imbedded information to a radio receiver in a grocery store checkout line or a wireless handheld computer. While bar codes need to be recognized visually and individually by the scanner, the new RFID tags (which hold far more information) need only to be heard, not seen. The listening radio scanner can process more items and information, and do it faster. Product serial numbers will be trackable over the Internet, making inventory management and theft prevention much more efficient. For now, it will be hard to match the ease with which the old-style bar codes are printed right on packaging. But the cost of the little tags is dropping rapidly, and RFID developers think they already offer enough advantages to make them worth the extra cost-about 40 cents apiece.
  • Radio Free Static If they can get past listeners' notion that radio should be absolutely free, digital radio broadcasters have a rosy future. If you pay your monthly bill, like cable, you can pick up static-free, CD-quality broadcast of your favorite baseball team-anywhere in the world.


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