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Specialty Chemistry Forums => Chemical Engineering Forum => Topic started by: donjuanvargas on November 30, 2016, 10:02:02 AM

Title: Local Medicine Production
Post by: donjuanvargas on November 30, 2016, 10:02:02 AM
Hi there!
I'm working on the Pukika Experiment, a project to build from scratch a self-sufficient city for 3 million people. Note: it's nos sustainable city, but self-sufficient, that means it needs to produce everything locally. This is a big challenge, but also an opportunity to find a development model that can help us stop messing up the planet. The idea of a new city is because by the end of the century, developing countries will have to build urban housing for 4.5 BILLION people (yes, with B!).

Anyway, I'm reaching out to you to get your impressions on how a city could produce ALL the medicines it needs. I suppose the first step is to have a solid medicinal seed plant. Then, the city would need some industrial infrastructure (machines, labs, etc)—this wouldn't be such a problem as a city of 3 million would have the economies of scale to purchase these equipment during the Setup Phase.

The big question is: how can you produce all the compounds needed to produce all the medicines? Surely, not all can be synthesised directly from plants. But, can you produce the compounds required? Should the city embark in GMO to produce them? Which compounds would be the most difficult to produce locally?

I really appreciate your time and looking forward for some out-of-the-box solutions.

(You can learn more about the experiment at
Title: Re: Local Medicine Production
Post by: Enthalpy on December 02, 2016, 08:29:37 AM
¡Bienvenido, Juan!

I'm stunned by the amount of knowledge required to produce all necessary medicine (which translates to: all the existing ones) at one place. A chemist is happy if he puts one or a few compounds in production in his carreer. I doubt anybody on Earth could tell what is needed to produce all medicinal compounds.

Which brings us to a more general question: how much should be administered in you city, how much should be left to initiative? Because a small group of people trying to define how to produce everything and which means to use suggests to me - but I may be very wrong - that decision making would be extremely centralized. The brutal limit of centralized decision is that the governing group can't have enough knowledge to make decisions nor creativity to take initiatives.

Yes, this question is politics. But defining a new city is already politics. And to my opinion, people trying to define such a city should meddle little in the way the inhabitants will live: define a few general ideas, like "only collective transports" or "separate cars from pedestrians" or "self-sufficient for electricity" - but anything more detailed would be, I fear, too complicated to define by a small group of people.


Then, you put "3 million people", "self-sufficient", "economies of scale" and this rings a bell at me. A consumer group of three million people would have been big in the middle age. In 2016 it's small.
You could check what countries with 2-3 times more inhabitants do: Switzerland, Israel, Sweden... They don't try to be self-sufficient, except maybe for food out of strategic reasons. They import many products and export what they do best.

Please consider that all the richest countries belong to a big zone of relatively easy trade.

Sorry this may not be the answer you had wanted, but in my opinion, you should refine more in which economic activities the city should be self-sufficient or not, whether this is desireable or not (for water supply it is) - and drugs may well not belong to the desireable field of self-sufficiency.
Title: Re: Local Medicine Production
Post by: donjuanvargas on December 02, 2016, 01:12:39 PM
Hi "Enthalpy",

Thanks for the thought put into your answer. It shows you really got the complexity of the experiment. I am aware that proposing a self-sufficient city right at the peek of globalisation sounds backward, but it's quite the opposite, I think the next step in human civilization is when our technology is so advanced that we can produce everything locally. The mobile phone on your pocket has materials from at least three continents which are shipped back and forth until they are finally assembled in China and then shipped to your city. Lots of pollution involved in the distribution and lots of middle-men. Do you think that 5000 years from now the supply chain is going to be the same? Probably not. Blueprints of everything (I mean everything) are being exchanged today over a simple email. Last year, they 3D printed an entire car. So the only piece of the puzzle missing is innovation in materials, which at the research level is more advanced than in the products we buy because of the cost, not lack of know-how.

My bet is that we don't need to wait 5ooo years to reach that level of efficiency. And if you are as concerned about the pollution middle-class produces today and how that's going to get when we add 3.5 billion more people on the planet, then you'd agree that we better not take 5000 years to become self-sufficient—which is the only real way to protect our environment. As long as we can outsource products, we'd be outsourcing pollution far away from our sight and we'd be patting ourselves on the back thinking we are "green."

So, yes, the idea of a self-sufficient city is crazy, but so it was making a plane fly or talking to someone on the other side of the planet.

The model I propose is a decentralised, direct democracy and it uses a multidimensional monetary system (with local currencies that use block chain). The city would be populated by volunteers who agree on a healthy lifestyle, so only healthy local food and a working adult would get paid to do approx. 13 hours of sports, yoga and meditation a week. Economic growth is necessarily changed for ecosystem equilibrium, so the economy doesn't have the incentive to increase sales (i.e. right now the healthcare system is pushing medicine sales like crazy). Consumer behaviour is a big part of the experiment.

I beg the people in this forum to suspend their disbelief about how the economics or marketing would work, and see how it can be done from an agricultural, chemical and engineering way. There are "millions" of medicines out there, but how many do we really need? Which are the priorities? What machines and labs do you need? What materials and plants? It is a big task, but at the end of the day it is all about finding a way to solve a puzzle.
Title: Re: Local Medicine Production
Post by: Enthalpy on December 07, 2016, 07:06:37 AM
¡Hola Juan!

About pollution: I don't care too much about the intercontinental transport. If it's done by boat, the pollution (or at least the CO2 emissions) is less than by the latest kilometre between the consumer's house and the grocer's. And since the proper goal shouldn't be to reduce the CO2 emissions but suppress them completely (and even reabsorb the amount already emitted), what we need is an alternative source of energy, not a consumption reduction. That won't take 5000 years for sure.

Besides the degree of wealth achievable by a community of 3M people, you could try to check how quickly the community's technology and economy can progress. That's a matter of how many researchers are available, how easily ideas get through, how much effort the community wants to put in new ideas. Even if at t=0 this community manages to achieve a satisfactory way of life (which doesn't imply to be as currency-rich as the others, I agree), if at t+30 years no progress has been made, people will go elsewhere - not to be richer, but to have the latest progress. 30 years ago nearly nobody had the Internet; a hypothetical community still as rich as the others today but with no Internet wouldn't keep its inhabitants.

Greed is one motor for progress in the richest countries presently, but not necessarily the most important one, or at least not for everyone. After all, a company's researcher who makes the inventions gets little financial reward from them. But your organization must allow and encourage progress, which implies to my opinion that the city's policy can't decide everything, and even, that people who disagree with the politics and with the established channels of production must have the opportunity to challenge them on a fair competition basis. Establishing such a mentality and organization needs a permanent and strong effort, because the opposite situation where politicians and oligarchs cooperate is the natural and very powerful trend.

I stand by my huge doubts about self-sufficiency for electronic components. While producing metals and polymers for such a small market makes them only more expensive, microprocessors would be unaffordable. One production plant needs 5G$ investment, it produces for 2 years, and downsizing it still needs the same technology and costs. For 3M people I feel that's too expensive: 3k$ just for the processor if you change your computer every fourth year, plus as much for the Dram, nearly as much for the hard disk drive which is very high tech too. By the way, the factory's equipment demands world's best lasers, optics, robotics and so on. Soon or later you'll have to define where self-sufficiency stops.

You wanted to focus on medicines, which may (or not) be somewhat easier than microprocessors. Besides the questions of cost and market size, you'll stumble upon the number of available talents in a small community. To produce a limited number of drugs for a small community, you still need much R&D. Let's say that you need 100 world-class scientists and engineers in this field alone: it looks an awful lot for a population the size of Uruguay.

I've been negative and I regret it. I know only visionaries can change the world.
Title: Re: Local Medicine Production
Post by: donjuanvargas on December 29, 2016, 03:56:54 AM
Hi Enthalpy,

I don't think you are negative, the complexity of the challenge call for this kind of reaction and it shows that you really understand the scope of the project. Now, the key issue is whether one labels self-sufficiency as impossible or just pretty darn difficult.

People who think it's impossible can't only be convinced by showing it to them—think of how many people thought making a heavy machine fly.

For those who think it's tough, then it's about putting it into historic perspective: considering the complexity of the challenge relative to knowledge and technology available, what is more "pretty darn difficult"?
— Building the pyramids in Egypt about 5 millennia ago
— Sending a man to the moon with the computational power of a smart phone 50 years ago
— Building a self-sufficient city in the next 3 decades

Once we get over the initial shock of this crazy idea that contradicts the only way we think the world can work, we start reverse engineering to find a solution in each area. We are already working on urbanism, transport, food production and energy. Medicine production is no different: we just need to find the right mix of talent, equipment, plants and chemicals.

The reason why I'm stubborn about self-sufficient cities is because we have a few decades to house, feed & employ 4.5 billion people in cities, and the current economic system may be the best to create economic development, but it is clear that it allows massive externalities in environmental destruction and inequality. Any solution to this challenge we face is not going to be a simple app, it has to be a structural change.

Title: Re: Local Medicine Production
Post by: Enthalpy on December 29, 2016, 07:17:50 AM
¡Hola Juan!

A few more topics for thinking:
- How to get the varied natural resources from a limited area. Up to now it's done by trade with remote areas.
- How to respond to disasters in a limited area: earthquakes, droughts... The standard answer up to now is help by unaffected areas, but autarky makes this difficult.

I haven't found any example of self-sufficiency for a group of 3M wealthy people. If you think at Switzerland, Sweden... they all specialize to be very strong exporters in the global trade (chemistry, banking, whatever) and afford what they don't produce. So educating (or finding abroad) enough specialists is possible in a few domains, probably not in all at the same time, but many kinds of products need more than 3M customers to be viable. Semiconductor chips are one example where the whole Alena or EU would still be a conceivable size but 3M customers are not. Metals, polymers, chemicals, paper might be viable with a somewhat smaller market (50M people?) if you accept higher prices. Food looks easier.

So do you seek self-sufficiency for all goods? Or rather have a protected domestic market for some goods and worldwide trade for the others, with focus on some specialities that you can export?

Title: Re: Local Medicine Production
Post by: donjuanvargas on January 10, 2017, 04:49:52 AM
Hi Marc,

The target is to reach 100% efficiency in all goods, trading only IPR products (tech, know-how, movies, books, music, etc). It might takes us a couple centuries to get there, but I'm confident that changing our consumer behaviour and innovation in materials will do the trick.

To build a self-sufficient city you do need to buy some machinery and stock pile some raw materials (steel, aluminum, iron, etc). Once you start building the city, the idea is that you don't need to import any more goods or materials, and most importantly, you don't need any more cash injection. I don't want to get in too much detail here, but the model also uses a multidimensional monetary system based on local digital currencies (like Bitcoin). This allows the city to kick-start its internal economy
and not rely on foreign investment. Remember that this city is not conceived to compete with Beverly Hills, but for the billions of people that otherwise would have to live in slums or overcrowded cities in developing countries. This also brings down the cost of building such a city.
So, once you have the terrain and you have some machinery and raw materials, you start finding substitutes for materials to produce what you need. Although the task seems daunting, most things can be produced locally. So, right of the bat we can leave aside furniture, clothing, food and most construction materials (the terrain must have of water, sand and other basic materials, and let's say we bought steal). So then you have to break down the materials you need to produce components. So let's say you need plastics, glass and gold to make a mobile phone (this is an oversimplification, but you know what I mean). Then you need to see how to produce plastic, which other than petrol, can be produced from milk, bacteria, etc. They might not be the same plastic, but it's about finding a material that does the job. This sounds far fetched, I know. BUt go to a makers hackaton if you have the chance and you will be surprised. I've seen guys build a washing machines and printers, from scrap over a weekend.

I lived in China for many years and had the opportunity to visit workshops where they produced components for electronics. Some of those places were just apartments with only 20 or 30 employees working in a makeshift production line. So, yes, iPhones are produced in high-tech factories with robots and strict security. But down the road in a shitty place they are producing the same components that go in that iPhone. 

With medicine we are going to use the same approach: find what are the real needs and see what needs to be produced. One could argue that the quality of some locally-produced medicines might not be the same as that of Bayern products and that some would not be produced. So, for certain deceases, there might be a higher mortality rate compared to the population treated with Bayern's products. But the real interesting question is: would that mortality rate be higher than that of the population who live in a free-market economy city but who can't afford to buy the medicine?

Title: Re: Local Medicine Production
Post by: Enthalpy on January 10, 2017, 09:41:32 AM
Comparing with a poor country or province is a strong argument. For whatever reason, I had been comparing with the Silicon Valley richness, which would be a completely different goal.

Maybe you could get inspiration from scenarios of Mars settlement? Their goal differs: smaller group, import tech initially, produce locally what's needed to survive without counting the costs - but some ideas for production from scratch in a small community might perhaps be adapted.

I still wonder about semiconductor chips and few high-tech items. What can be produced with limited means are chips from 20-30 years in the past. This suffices for some functions in an iPhone (power regulators, transmission amplifier), and for all functions of many machines (CNC milling, kitchen over control...) but not for a computer that browses the Internet. Free software like Linux and Firefox have now failed to surf on small computers possibly because it's unrealistic, and a PIII is presently very small for Firefox while still very difficult to produce with a reasonable investment. There are probably more examples besides semiconductors (optics?), and my other fear is that one needs them all right from the beginning: the people who make simple chips in a backyard use difficult optics acquired by other means, not self-developed too.

I worry about the size of the initial investment to grasp all the necessary technology early in the city's life. 3D printing is far from universal, for instance the plastics remains brittle, so I feel the city will still need a rather complete set of material and processing technologies. If not accounted in money, this tech know-how will be (unaffordably?) expensive in work time.

Among the unaffordable medicine techniques, you can probably put all the radioisotopes, which are obtained from a special nuclear reactor presently, and for which no real alternatives are known. This includes diagnostic and healing. But X-ray imaging is now easy, ultrasound nor very difficult, X-ray tomography and MRI maybe accessible with the proper computing power.