Tag Archives: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Substituting graphene and other carbon materials for scarce metals

A Sept. 19, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new paper from the Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), the lead institution for the Graphene Flagship (a 1B Euro 10 year European Commission programme), Note: A link has been removed,

Scarce metals are found in a wide range of everyday objects around us. They are complicated to extract, difficult to recycle and so rare that several of them have become “conflict minerals” which can promote conflicts and oppression. A survey at Chalmers University of Technology now shows that there are potential technology-based solutions that can replace many of the metals with carbon nanomaterials, such as graphene (Journal of Cleaner Production, “Carbon nanomaterials as potential substitutes for scarce metals”).

They can be found in your computer, in your mobile phone, in almost all other electronic equipment and in many of the plastics around you. Society is highly dependent on scarce metals, and this dependence has many disadvantages.

A Sept. 19, 2017 Chalmers University of Technology press release by Ulrika Ernstrom,, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the possibilities,

They can be found in your computer, in your mobile phone, in many of the plastics around you and in almost all electronic equipment. Society is highly dependent on scarce metals, and this dependence has many disadvantages.
Scarce metals such as tin, silver, tungsten and indium are both rare and difficult to extract since the workable concentrations are very small. This ensures the metals are highly sought after – and their extraction is a breeding ground for conflicts, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where they fund armed conflicts.
In addition, they are difficult to recycle profitably since they are often present in small quantities in various components such as electronics.
Rickard Arvidsson and Björn Sandén, researchers in environmental systems analysis at Chalmers University of Technology, have now examined an alternative solution: substituting carbon nanomaterials for the scarce metals. These substances – the best known of which is graphene – are strong materials with good conductivity, like scarce metals.
“Now technology development has allowed us to make greater use of the common element carbon,” says Sandén. “Today there are many new carbon nanomaterials with similar properties to metals. It’s a welcome new track, and it’s important to invest in both the recycling and substitution of scarce metalsfrom now on.”
The Chalmers researchers have studied  the main applications of 14 different metals, and by reviewing patents and scientific literature have investigated the potential for replacing them by carbon nanomaterials. The results provide a unique overview of research and technology development in the field.
According to Arvidsson and Sandén the summary shows that a shift away from the use of scarce metals to carbon nanomaterials is already taking place.
“There are potential technology-based solutions for replacing 13 out of the 14 metals by carbon nanomaterials in their most common applications. The technology development is at different stages for different metals and applications, but in some cases such as indium and gallium, the results are very promising,” Arvidsson says.
“This offers hope,” says Sandén. “In the debate on resource constraints, circular economy and society’s handling of materials, the focus has long been on recycling and reuse. Substitution is a potential alternative that has not been explored to the same extent and as the resource issues become more pressing, we now have more tools to work with.”
The research findings were recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. Arvidsson and Sandén stress that there are significant potential benefits from reducing the use of scarce metals, and they hope to be able to strengthen the case for more research and development in the field.
“Imagine being able to replace scarce metals with carbon,” Sandén says. “Extracting the carbon from biomass would create a natural cycle.”
“Since carbon is such a common and readily available material, it would also be possible to reduce the conflicts and geopolitical problems associated with these metals,” Arvidsson says.
At the same time they point out that more research is needed in the field in order to deal with any new problems that may arise if the scarce metals are replaced.
“Carbon nanomaterials are only a relatively recent discovery, and so far knowledge is limited about their environmental impact from a life-cycle perspective. But generally there seems to be a potential for a low environmental impact,” Arvidsson says.


Carbon nanomaterials consist solely or mainly of carbon, and are strong materials with good conductivity. Several scarce metals have similar properties. The metals are found, for example, in cables, thin screens, flame-retardants, corrosion protection and capacitors.
Rickard Arvidsson and Björn Sandén at Chalmers University of Technology have investigated whether the carbon nanomaterials graphene, fullerenes and carbon nanotubes have the potential to replace 14 scarce metals in their main areas of application (see table). They found potential technology-based solutions to replace the metals with carbon nanomaterials for all applications except for gold in jewellery. The metals which we are closest to being able to substitute are indium, gallium, beryllium and silver.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Carbon nanomaterials as potential substitutes for scarce metals by Rickard Arvidsson, Björn A. Sandén. Journal of Cleaner Production (0959-6526). Vol. 156 (2017), p. 253-261. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.04.048

This paper appears to be open access.

Traffic robots in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) developed by an all women team of engineers

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), now hosts two traffic cop robots with hopes for more of these solar-powered traffic regulators on the way. Before plunging into the story, here’s a video of these ‘gendarmes automates’ (or robot roulage intelligent [RRR] as the inventors prefer) in action,

This story has been making the English language news rounds since late last year when Voxafrica carried a news item, dated Dec. 27, 2013, about the robot traffic cops,

Kinshasa has adopted an innovative way of managing traffic along its city streets, by installing robot cops to direct and monitor traffic along roads instead of using normal policemen to reduce congestion. … They may not have real eyes, but new traffic policemen still spot Kinshasa’s usual signature cop sunglasses. The prototypes are equipped with four cameras that allow them to record traffic flow … . The team behind the new robots are a group of Congolese engineers based at the Kinshasa Higher Institute of Applied Technique, known by its French acronym, ISTA.

A Jan. 30, 2014 article by Matt McFarland for the Washington Post provides additional detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The solar-powered robot is equipped with multiple cameras, opening the potential for monitoring traffic and issuing tickets. “If a driver says that it is not going to respect the robot because it’s just a machine the robot is going to take that and there will be a ticket for him,” said Isaie Therese, the engineer behind the project said in an interview with CCTV Africa. “We are a poor country and our government is looking for money. And I will tell you that with the roads the government has built, it needs to recover its money.”

A Feb. 24, 2014 CNN article by Teo Kermeliotis describes the casings for the robots,

Standing eight feet tall, the robot traffic wardens are on duty 24 hours a day, their towering — even scarecrow-like — mass visible from afar. …

The humanoids, which are installed on Kinshasa’s busy Triomphal and Lumumba intersections, are built of aluminum and stainless steel to endure the city’s year-round hot climate.

The French language press, as might be expected since DRC is a francophone country, were the first to tell the story.  From a June 28, 2013 news item on Radio Okapi’s website,

Les ingénieurs formés à l’Institut supérieur des techniques appliquées (Ista) ont mis au point un robot intelligent servant à réguler la circulation routière. …

Ce robot qui fonctionne grâce à l’énergie solaire, assurera aussi la sécurité routière grâce à la vidéo surveillance. Il est doté de la capacité de stocker les données pendant 6 mois.

Le “robot roulage intelligent” est une invention totalement congolaise. Il a été mis au point par les inventeurs congolais avec l’appui financier de l’association Women technologies, une association des femmes ingénieurs de la RDC.

Ce spécimen coûte près de 20 000 $ US. L’association Women technologies attend le financement du gouvernement pour reproduire ce robot afin de le mettre à la disposition des usagers et même, de l’exporter.

Here’s my very rough translation of the French: an engineering team from the Kinshasa Higher Institute of Applied Technique (ISTA) developed an intelligent automated traffic cop. This intelligent traffic cop is a Congolese invention from design to development fo funding. The prototype, which cost $20,000 US, was funded by the ‘Association Women Technologies’, a DRC (RDC is the abbreviation in French) association of women engineers, who were in June 2013 hoping for additional government funds to implement their traffic solution. Clearly, they received the money.

A January 30, 2014 news item on AfricaNouvelles focussed on the lead engineer and the team’s hopes for future exports of their technology,

Maman Thérèse Inza est ingénieure et responsable des robots régulateurs de la circulation routière à Kinshasa.

L’association Women technologies attend l’accompagnement du gouvernement pour pouvoir exporter des robots à l’international.

Bruno Bonnell’s Feb. 11, 2014 (?) article for Les Echos delves more deeply into the project and the team’s hopes of exporting their technology,

Depuis octobre 2013, le « roulage » au carrefour du Parlement, sur le boulevard Lumumba à Kinshsa, n’est plus assuré par un policier. Un robot en aluminium de 2,50 mètre de haut régule la circulation d’une des artères principales de la capitale congolaise. …

« Un robot qui fait la sécurité et la régulation routières, c’est vraiment made in Congo », assure Thérèse Inza, la présidente de l’association Women Technology, qui a construit ces machines conçues pour résister aux rigueurs du climat équatorial et dont l’autonomie est assurée par des panneaux solaires, dans des quartiers qui ne sont pas reliés au réseau électrique. La fondatrice de l’association voulait à l’origine proposer des débouchés aux femmes congolaises titulaires d’un diplôme d’ingénieur. Grâce aux robots, elle projette désormais de créer des emplois dans tout le pays. … Ces RRI prouvent que la robotique se développe aussi en Afrique. Audacieuse, Thérèse Inza affirme : « Nous devons vendre notre intelligence dans d’autres pays, de l’Afrique centrale comme d’ailleurs. Pourquoi pas aux Etats-Unis, en Europe ou en Asie ? » Entre 2008 et 2012, la demande de bande passante a été multipliée par 20 en Afrique, continent où sont nés le système de services bancaires mobiles M-Pesa et la plate-forme de gestion de catastrophe naturelle Ushahidi, utilisés aujourd’hui dans le monde entier. Et si la robotique, dont aucun pays n’a le monopole, était pour l’Afrique l’opportunité industrielle à ne pas rater ?

Here’s my rough translation, the first implementation was a single robot in October 2013 (the other details have already been mentioned here). The second paragraph describes how and why Thérèse Inza developed the project in the first place. The robot was designed specifically for the equatorial climate and for areas where access to electricity is either nonexistent or difficult. She recruited women engineers from ISTA for her team. I think she was initially trying to create jobs for women engineers. Now the robots have been successful, she’s hoping to create more jobs for everyone throughout the DRC and to export the technology to the US, Europe, and Asia.

The last sentence notes that Africa (Kenya) was the birthplace of mobile banking service, M-Pesa, “the most developed mobile payment system in the world” according to Wikipedia and Ushahidi, a platform which enables crowdsourced reporting and information about natural and other disasters.

Ushahidi, like M-Pesa, was also developed in Kenya. I found this Feb. 27, 2014 article  by Herman Manson on MarkLives.com about Ushahidi and one of its co-founders, Juliana Rotich (Note: A link has been removed),

Rotich [Juliana Rotich] is the co-founder of Ushahidi, the open-source software developed in Kenya which came to the fore and caught global attention for collecting, visualising and mapping information in the aftermath of the disputed 2008 elections.

Rotich challenges the legacies that have stymied the development of Africa’s material and cultural resources — be that broadband cables connecting coastal territories and ignoring the continent’s interior — or the political classes continuing to exploit its citizens.

Ushahidi means “witness” or “testimony”, and allows ordinary people to crowd source and map information, turning them into everything from election monitors reporting electoral misconduct to helpers assisting with the direction of emergency response resources during natural disasters.

The open source software is now available in 30 languages and across the globe.

The Rotich article is a preview of sorts for Design Indaba 2014 being held in Cape Town, South Africa, from Feb. 24, 2014 = March 2, 2014.

Getting back to the robot traffic cops, perhaps one day the inventors will come up with a design that runs on rain and an implementation that can function in either Vancouver.