Dr Loth Bounatiro is chief research scientist at the astronomy laboratory and astrophysics department at Algeria's Centre for Research in Astronomy, Astrophysics and Geophysics. He won a medal for design and another for respect of environmental standards for his project on anti-seismic buildings at the British Invention Show, which wrapped up in London on October 21st. He won an award at last year's show for inventing the universal clock.
Magharebia: You just received two distinctions at the British Invention Show in London. How does that feel?
Dr Loth Bounatiro: I feel proud to belong to a civilisation that has enlightened society with its history and which seems to be bouncing back.
Magharebia: You were rewarded for "Intelligent Islamic buildings to counter natural disasters and to meet environmental standards". What is this about?
Bounatiro: Anyone looking to build has just two ideas: safety and comfort. My project consisted of optimising these two factors using three criteria.
First, you need a good site. You don't build just anywhere. It is important that there are no seismic faults. An environmental study and a risk assessment must be conducted. These standards must be met before construction can begin. By choosing the site carefully, comfort and safety indices will be higher from the outset.
The second relates to design, a key to Islamic character. Until now, people haven't taken this seriously. I stress this because the aim is to build a safe and pleasant place to live. The shape increases a building's resistance to disasters.I've found that rounded and symmetrical shapes, in which there is equal distribution of the mass of the building, resist disasters and increase comfort levels (there is better lighting of all bedrooms and a more constant temperature, which allows energy savings). These rounded shapes are evidence of our Moorish-Arab-Islamic style. My work is part of the continuation of a style from our cultural heritage.
The third relates to material, construction processes and techniques. The technique I prefer was developed by Canadian Paul Beaulieu. He suggests building with panels consisting of two outer walls made of fibrocement with polymer foam as insulation… This has been tested by the inventor on a vibrating table to show its resistance to natural disasters. He has only tested them for earthquakes. I've extended the test to all natural disasters and I integrate it into my overall plans.
Magharebia:Algeria has environmental risks, particularly earthquakes. Do you think your innovation could contribute to catastrophe risk reduction? Could it be easily implemented and is it economically viable?
Bounatiro: The Canadians have studied the costs and found that building with traditional methods or with the new methods cost the same when you include the design considerations, such as choice of site, that would generate a small additional cost, which I estimate to be no more than 10% of the cost of a normal building. My argument -- and experts agree with me -- is that it is preferable to spend extra money upfront rather than after a natural disaster.
Authorities can opt for this proposition, especially as it is not limited to individual houses and can even be taken on to designing new towns. There are construction projects for new towns in Algeria and even a new capital, and these data is really worthy of consideration, as these are determining factors for improving the comfort and safety of the buildings.
Magharebia: Has your invention aroused interest in Algeria?
Bounatiro: It is still new and little-known, but I have no doubt it will receive the attention it deserves.
Magharebia: You also won first prize at the same exhibition for the universal timepiece invention. What was that about?
Bounatiro: Globalisation created the need for a universal clock. The world is becoming one town, with information circulating at high speed. All this requires us to control time. In the past, the world was organised by Greenwich Mean Time. This is no longer the case and no country sticks to it. For globalisation, we need an international clock.
Magharebia: Have you managed to produce this timepiece commercially?
Bounatiro: We have produced the third-generation large format prototype for the public clock because this does not require very high technology.
The whole problem lies in miniaturising it for a wristwatch. We currently have prototypes being produced, but we are not yet at the industrial production stage.On the national scale, there has been almost no interest. But England gave me a second offer this year and I am doing a feasibility study.
Magharebia: Has the government funded your research?
Bounatiro: That's the problem. Virtually everything I do is at my own expense, except for a small university grant, for which I am grateful. When it comes to the production of prototypes for example, the university doesn't make much money available.
Magharebia: Are there no special grants for worthy scientific projects?
Bounatiro: The amount of consideration given to scientists in our society is a sore point. It's a tragedy. First, you have to go abroad to gain credibility in Algeria. And then, what consideration! Athletes and artists receive exactly the same treatment. The only difference is that once they've achieved some prestige, they are welcomed with great pomp by top officials… the reality is that there's not one bank ready to fund me.
Magharebia: You're one of the few Algerian scientists who take part in this exhibition. How and why did you get the idea of taking part in the London exhibition?
Bounatiro: If I could correct you there, I'd say that not only was I the only scientist from Algeria, the Maghreb and the Arab world, but also the only participant from Africa in this exhibition. The reason for my participation lies quite simply in my culture, from how I see things. I consider that in a time of globalisation, it is not articles published in a symposium that are going to move the world forward. It's innovation -- the finished product in other words -- which can change the face of society. Personally, I tend to develop science which has direct consequences for society.
Magahrebia: Following the Boumerdès earthquake, you put forward a theory that was strongly disputed in the media. Could you explain this?
Bounatiro: For the theory's credibility, you should know it was published at an international symposium in Algiers organised by the Environment Ministry. It was applauded by the audience, a rarity in a scientific setting. The theory has allowed many events to be predicted, which the media reported. We predicted Europe's 2003 heat wave and the aftershocks following the Boumerdès earthquake. This Ramadan, I was asked if earthquakes might happen, given the heat wave. I said that there was a risk of it happening during the full moon and lo and behold, there was a small earthquake in Aïn Taya. These earthquakes happened during the full moon, the new moon, the first quarter and the last quarter -- in other words at lunar phases. My theory: earthquakes coincide with the moon's cycles. Today, media follows these theories with great interest. It is not in every country where scientific predictions are presented to the general public. This is something of an Algerian novelty. It's good progress for our society.
Magharebia: What is your next invention?
Bounatiro: It's not finished and I cannot make it public yet.
Magharebia: A last word?
Bounatiro: I'm dedicating these medals to the Algerian people and to everyone who has helped me.