PM’s 2009 Breakthrough Awards

  • Some of the members of the X2 team, photographed for POPULAR MECHANICS at the Sikorsky Development Flight Centre in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the helicopter is undergoing flight testing. Image credit: Williams and Hirakawa
  • These small pouches of cheap wire and manure-rich soil can power lamps and charge cellphones. From left: Aviva Presser Aiden, Hugo van Vuuren and Stephen Lwendo, photographed for PM in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Image credit: Denis Kleiman
  • Natal developers Alex Kipman, left, and Don Mattrick, on Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington. Image credit: John Keatley
  • This electromagnet guides nitrogen plasma at high speeds, in a process that may propel future spacecraft. Image credit: Greg Miller
  • Flying Dune Buggy. Image credit: Brad Dececco
  • Inside Greg Schroll's robot, two drive motors turn gyroscopes to produce motion. The motors come from remote-controlled cars. Image credit: John Clark
  • Dean Kamen, engineering rock star, at FIRST Worlds.
  • Honeywell turbine
Date:30 November 2009 Tags:, , , , , , , ,

Meet the year’s best inventions…

We need innovators. Sure, we need their inventions: the medical tools, the batteries for storing wind power, the efficient engines and agile robots. But we also need their spirit of inquiry to inspire us, their mix of skill and imagination to remind us how real work gets done. There’s no Ponzi scheme or bubble in the genius markets, but a true wealth of passionate, smart creators. PM has been presenting these awards for five years now, and we’ve considered thousands of potential winners. So we know. The fundamentals are strong. Innovation promises a brighter future. And the breakthroughs keep coming.

Aviation: Coaxial rotor helicopter
Innovators: X2 Technology Development Team; Sikorsky Aircraft
Brilliant idea: A coaxial, or stacked, rotor design that overcomes dissymmetry of lift, allowing engineers to design the world’s fastest helicopter – by a factor of two.

Last year in the town of Horseheads, New York state, Kevin Bredenbeck became the first pilot to fly Sikorsky Aircraft’s X2 technology demonstrator. The successful test proved that the X2 engineering team had overcome a basic limitation in rotary-wing aerodynamics – and had set itself on the path to building the world’s fastest helicopter.

The problem with fast helicopters is a phenomenon called dissymmetry of lift. When a helicopter starts to fly forward, the advancing blade cuts through the air faster, and it generates more lift. At the same time, the retreating blade’s relative velocity and lift decrease. The faster the helicopter goes, the greater the discrepancy. If the speed increases too much, the machine will tend to roll to one side and the retreating blade will stall, generating no upward force at all. The speed limit for any conventional helicopter is about 300 km/h. But that wasn’t good enough for Steve Weiner, the X2’s chief engineer: “We wanted to go faster.”

Weiner’s team replaced the single rotor with twin, 8-metre rotors that spin in opposite directions on the same axis. The rotors both produce dissymmetry of lift, but in countervailing directions. Goodbye, instability. Hello, speed records.

The X2 is the descendant of the XH-59A, a machine with the same stacked rotor confi guration that the company built with Nasa and the US Army in the 1970s. It was unwieldy, and the project was shelved – but Sikorsky engineers never gave up on it. In recent years, they innovated a new vibration-control system and digital fl y-by-wire controls, and added a pusher propeller on the tail to boost speed. (The X2 doesn’t need a tail rotor, which counters a typical helicopter’s tendency to spin in place.)

Sikorsky doesn’t know whether its fi rst clients will be military or commercial or both. For now, the X2 team has set the speed bar high – at 462 km/h. “But the physics say we can probably go to 300 knots,” Weiner says. At that speed – about 550 km/h – a medical transport helicopter could fly 250 km, pick up a patient and return to a hospital by the time a conventional helicopter simply arrived on the scene.

Appropriate technology: Microbial fuel cell
Innovators: Aviva Presser Aiden, Alexander Fabry, Stephen Lwendo, David Sengeh, Zoë Vallabha, Hugo van Vuuren; Lebônê
Brilliant idea: A bacteria-powered battery to help Africans light their homes.

For a century, scientists have known that a trickle of electricity could be harvested from the metabolic reactions of bacteria living in soil. To most scientists, it was a party trick – a lot of effort to generate a tiny current. Now, a team at Harvard called Lebônê has used the idea to design an inexpensive battery for use in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 500 million people live without power. The microbial fuel cell, or MFC, can produce enough current to power LED lights and charge cellphone batteries. In 2008, Lebônê (the word means “light stick” in southern Africa’s Sotho language) field-tested its first prototype in Tanzania, the home country of team member Stephen Lwendo. Simple and cheap, the MFC came in a 20-litre bucket. It consisted of a graphite-cloth anode, a chicken-wire cathode, manure-rich mud for fuel, a layer of sand to act as an ion barrier and salt water as an electrolyte – all attached to an electronic power-management board. In June 2009, team members travelled to Namibia to launch a pilot programme featuring 100 MFCs made from small canvas bags that can be linked for increased voltage. The bags are filled with dirt and buried. When watered to keep the microbes munching, the buried cells can produce power for months. “Rural Africans are used to getting resources out of the ground,” says team member Aviva Presser Aiden, a doctoral student in applied math and genomics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “We want to tap that familiarity.”

Computing: Gesturebased user interface
Innovators: Alex Kipman, Don Mattrick, Kudo Tsunoda; Xbox 360’s Project Natal
Brilliant idea: Allow users to control a computer with natural movements. The computer keyboard and mouse do an admirable job of letting users drag and drop words, numbers and pictures. But gaming presents a far tougher test for any user interface – it requires us to swing bats, turn wheels, and duck through doorways. “You’re trying to translate a real-world action to the corresponding buttons on a controller,” says Alex Kipman, director of incubation for Microsoft’s Xbox. “A lot gets lost in translation.” This explains the runaway success of the Nintendo Wii – the motion-sensing wand controller has proved irresistible to millions. Now, Microsoft is going even further with Project Natal, a yet-to-be-released peripheral for the Xbox 360. Instead of mashing buttons – or even swinging wands – players can use their entire bodies. This sorcery relies on some standard technologies: a Web camera and a nearinfrared depth sensor that track movement even in the dark, plus sophisticated microphones. Natal recognises your voice and face, interprets your gestures and translates everything into an avatar that interacts with onscreen objects. The implications go far beyond gaming. The technology could help smart houses monitor their owners’ health, or allow engineers to sculpt 3D shapes with their hands. Some day, such computer interfaces could seem as ordinary as the PC keyboard does today.

Astronomy: Planet-seeking space telescope
Innovators: Eric Bachtell (ball Aerospace), William Borucki, David Koch (Nasa), Doug Caldwell, Jon Jenkins (SETI Institute), David Latham (Harvard-Smithsonian Centre For Astrophysics)
Brilliant idea:A multiyear survey of 100 000 stars, in search of planets where alien life may thrive.

As president of his high school science club in the 1950s, William Borucki helped build a device – a magnetometer coupled with ultraviolet and infrared transmitters – to contact UFOs. The technology was sound, but the test subjects never showed up. However, Borucki, now a space scientist at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre, didn’t abandon his preoccupation with aliens. For two decades, he has argued that, by taking pictures of planets as they pass in front of their home stars, scientists could identify likely sites for life in other solar systems.

He and his colleagues persevered in the face of enduring scepticism from Nasa managers. Borucki and Doug Caldwell of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute proved they could capture the images with charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, like the ones used in digital cameras. SETI’s Jon Jenkins wrote algorithms to distinguish small planets from the “noise” of deep space. Fellow Ames scientist David Koch banged together a miniature steel-and-Styrofoam demonstrator with the help of machine shops in the Bay Area. “By 2000, we had done all the things they asked,” says the soft-spoken Borucki, now 70 years old. With the launch of an instrument-laden rocket last March, the mission, dubbed Kepler, became reality.

The spacecraft will aim its 42 CCDs at a group of 100 000-plus stars in our region of the Milky Way (within 600 to 3 000 lightyears of Earth). If a planet transits in front of its star, the instrument will record a change in brightness, helping researchers to deduce the planet’s size. Further observations will yield the length of its orbit, an estimate of its temperature and a judgment on whether liquid water might exist there. The mission will last until at least 2012 – and hopefully bring us a step closer to fulfilling Borucki’s youthful ambition of glimpsing signs of alien life.

Energy: Wind-and-solar- power battery
Innovators:Grover Coors, John Watkins; Ceramatec
Brilliant idea: A whole-house battery that could help make home generation of electricity a mainstream alternative.

The most popular alternatives to fossil fuels for generating electricity – wind and solar – don’t look so good once the Sun sets and the wind dies down. To provide a home with reliable power, either technology must be coupled with an energy-storage system. For now, that means a bank of lead-acid batteries. But there’s a better way, according to research scientist Grover Coors. “The problem (with lead-acid batteries) is they tend to fail after a few hundred charge-discharge cycles,” he says. “We need a battery that cycles so many times we lose count.” Sodium-sulphur batteries are a promising alternative, but only for industrial settings – they operate at temperatures around 315 degrees, far too hot to sit in anyone’s basement.
Coors was the chief scientist at CoorsTek, an advanced ceramics company founded by his great-grandfather, the brewer Adolph Coors, when the company bought a ceramics R&D fi rm last year. Coors knew that the new subsidiary, Ceramatec, was working on a material that could form the electrolyte heart of a sodium battery cool enough for residential use. Coors and fellow researcher John Watkins built a promising prototype by sandwiching the material – a sodium super-ionic conductor – between a sodium metal anode and a stillundisclosed aqueous cathode. Now they hope to develop a R15 000 refrigerator-sized unit that can yield 5 kilowatts for 4 hours before recharging – and keep it up for 10 years. If they succeed, it could help bring at-home generation of electricity from the margins into the mainstream.

Space exploration: Mini-helicon plasma thruster
Innovator:Oleg Batishchev; Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Brilliant idea:A plasma engine powered by nitrogen, with 10 times the efficiency of chemical rockets.

Chemical rockets are ponderous. The space shuttle, for instance, carries more than 1,7 million kilograms of expensive propellant – even empty, its two solid boosters weigh 88 000 kilograms apiece. Oleg Batishchev, principal research scientist at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, appreciates such rockets for their raw, Earth-escaping punch. But, once a craft hits orbit, he says, his new invention makes more sense: the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster is designed to be a lighter, cheaper way to move through space.
Batishchev’s engine relies on the acceleration of plasma, a gaseous cloud in which atoms have been stripped of their electrons, making the entire mass highly conductive and responsive to electromagnetic fields. Nasa developed a similar engine for its Deep Space 1 mission, launched in 1998, but the new thruster has advantages. To start, Nasa employed pricey xenon gas (R96 a litre) excited into plasma by delicate electrical components, while the new design uses nitrogen (37 cents a litre) activated by a rugged radio-frequency antenna. A magnetic fi eld channels the plasma through a nozzle at a stunning 40 km/sec, an order of magnitude greater than the output of a chemical rocket. “For the same amount of fuel, we’re getting 10 times more thrust,” Batishchev says. That efficiency may one day win the thruster a trip to Mars. In the meantime, it could replace chemical rockets for pushing satellites from low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit. For this application, older ion engines are too pricey, Batishchev says: “If we’re talking about applications like the privatisation of space, this makes more sense.”

Medicine: Inexpensive lab-on-a-chip Diagnostic tool
Innovators:George Whitesides, Emanuel Carrilho, Andres Martinez, Scott Phillips; Whitesides Research Group, Harvard
Brilliant idea:A paper-based approach to micro-fluidics that will bring better medical testing to the world’s poorest countries.

Medical lab tests are often expensive and slow. Thanks to microfluidics, also known as lab-ona- chip technology, a new generation of handheld diagnostic devices may soon arrive in the world’s advanced hospitals. The new technology will perform tests with greater automation – using much smaller samples of blood or other fluids – than today’s methods. But Harvard chemist George Whitesides believes the high-tech tests can have their greatest impact in decidedly low-tech surroundings, namely poorly staffed and equipped medical facilities in developing countries. When he challenged his colleagues to create a micro-fluidics device for such a setting, they experimented with silicon and plastic chips, but eventually adopted a less pricey technology: paper. “Even a few cents for each device is expensive,” group member Andres Martinez says. “The overarching goal of the project was to make essentially a zero-cost device.” Not only is paper cheap and easy to produce in high volumes, but it can be incinerated after use, an advantage in poor regions where medical waste disposal is a challenge.
Paper naturally draws in liquids through tiny capillaries, eliminating the need for a typical lab-on-achip’s miniaturised pump. The team embeds watershunning polymers on the paper to form channels, which can lead a drop of blood or other fluid to tiny reservoirs fi lled with chemical reagents. The lab’s first assay, or test, is for liver disease, a frequent side-eff ect of Aids medications. If blood contains alkaline phosphate, a liver-disease biomarker, the reagent turns purple. In the future, a single postagestamp- sized device might test for the presence of a number of viruses and medical conditions. To run such a test, there would be no need to draw blood from a vein, refrigerate the sample or have access to electricity. The team hopes that test results could be photographed with cellphone cameras by minimally trained workers and transmitted to doctors and nurses for analysis. And although it’s being designed for the rigours of the developing world, the technology has the potential to revolutionise diagnostics in industrialised countries as well.

Transportation: Flying dune buggy
Innovator:Steve Saint; I-TEC
Brilliant idea:The first useful flying car, which will soon carry medicine and supplies to remote settlements in the Amazon.

Steve Saint, 59, grew up in Ecuador in a family of missionaries, spending his summers in a Huaorani village in the Amazon. A decade ago, he started the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Centre (I-TEC), an “engineering ministry” based in Florida. Then Saint, who is a pilot, decided that I-TEC would build a flying car. (See “The Mission”, June ’09.) This is a field where dreamers can fruitlessly waste years, but Saint was confident that his machine would help the Huaorani get around their largely roadless world of rain forests and rivers. Now, it’s ready. Powered by a 95-kW engine, the 500-kg Maverick can go 130 km/h on tar and then keep rolling over dirt tracks. When the road ends altogether, the pilot hoists a parachute up a carbonfi bre mast and shifts into fl ight mode, shifting power from the wheels to a five-bladed propeller in the back. The Maverick can replace a days-long hike for medical help with a half-hour fl ight. Saint, who plans to start selling Mavericks within a year, sees users beyond the Amazon: “We’re looking at the end-of-the-road marketplace – pipeline inspectors, ranchers herding cattle or checking fences.” The key, he says, is to keep the Maverick simple. “If we’re going to make this the Ford (Model T) of flying cars, it has to be easy to fly.”

Robotics: Versatile Sphere
Innovator: Greg Schroll
Brilliant idea:A ball-shaped robot that can roll uphill – and may one day explore other worlds.

When he was a kid, Greg Schroll used to daydream about a soccer ball that could redirect its course while rolling. As a mechanical engineering student at MIT, he built a spherical robot that can do just that. Other spherical bots roll as a result of a pendulum inside that constantly shifts the sphere’s centre of mass. But that design is limited, Schroll says. “Most people have a disclaimer saying their spherical robot can’t climb steep inclines or stairs. My goal was to overcome that limitation.”

That was a big challenge for an undergrad, but Schroll, with his father’s help, had already tackled an array of impressive projects before fi nishing high school, including an all-terrain tracked vehicle and a pressurised- air howitzer that he used to pulverise pumpkins against a backstop in his backyard. The key to building his new bot, Schroll decided, was a set of gyroscopes that would store momentum before reaching an obstacle.

At MIT’s famously wellequipped Hobby Shop, Schroll used an abrasive water-jet machine to cut aluminium and steel parts for his prototype. He plundered parts from radio-controlled helicopters and cars and, for an outer shell, repurposed a 45-cm gumball-machine globe from the Wizard Vending Co. For traction, he attached rubber strips from a playground ball. The result was a remote-controlled ball that could navigate steep, rugged terrain, even from a dead stop. Ken Stone, director of the Hobby Shop for 18 years, calls Schroll the best student designer and builder he’s ever seen. “MIT’s motto is ‘Mind and Hand,’ and the school’s success has been all about people with that ability to build – to bring an idea to reality,” Stone says. “Greg is the embodiment of that idea.”

Now a graduate student at Colorado State University, Schroll is enhancing his bot with sensors, including an inertial measurement unit typically used in aircraft and guided missiles. He envisages the technology being used to explore everything from alien planets to hazardous waste sites. Since the outer shell is a continuous surface, it could be made impervious to harmful chemicals or hermetically sealed and made to float in water. “One of my fantasy ideas is to build it with enough suspension to allow it to be airdropped,” he says. “I imagine a cargo plane dumping 1 000 of these spherical robots. they wouldn’t need any landing equipment. They’d bounce and start collecting information.”

Engineering: Inspired problem-solving
Innovator: Dean Kamen
Brilliant idea:Transform medical technology while amassing more than 440 patents – and then remake American culture, one future engineer at a time. (Abo

2009 breakthrough products
Brilliant innovations– most of them, at least – make their greatest contributions once they become products people can buy. This year’s winners trim energy use, enhance communication and just make life more fun.

Honey wheel turbine
Noise, bulk and inconsistent winds have hampered the adoption of wind turbines by homeowners, but a new design could change that. Imad Mahawili, a chemical engineer and long-time wind-energy consultant, has reimagined the technology to take advantage of even light breezes. In a typical wind turbine, air moves the blades, which turn gears to spin a generator and produce a current. Those mechanical linkages siphon off a good deal of wind energy before it can be converted to electricity. Mahawili’s system, the Honeywell Wind Turbine, eliminates the separate generator, and therefore the gearing. The blades are tipped with magnets and enclosed in a wheel that contains coiled copper – in other words, the turbine itself is the electrical generator. With conventional designs, it takes 11 to 12 km/h to overcome the resistance of gears, Mahawili says. The new system, which weighs 75 kilograms and costs about R40 000, works in 3-km/h winds.

Palm Pre The Palm Pre doesn’t break ground with any one engineering advance. Instead, it sets a new standard by putting all the best available technologies together. Most cellphones – even highend ones – excel at some tasks, while utterly ignoring others. The Palm Pre’s features read like a gadget geek’s wish list: optional inductive charging, a full keyboard, the ability to sync with iTunes – and it can run multiple applications at once. Sometimes more is more.

Quikrete asphalt cold patch; green concrete mix
Every year about 40 million tons of old asphalt get torn up and pulverised in the US. Most of it winds up in landfi lls. Meanwhile, 74 million tons of fl y ash and slag are produced as coal is burned in power plants. Quikrete has started putting that waste to work in DIY construction supplies. By using recycled roadway material in its Asphalt cold patch and coalburning by-products in its green concrete mix, the company is saving energy in its own factories while helping to clean up other people’s messes.

Hustler zeon
The Hustler Zeon, the world’s fi rst all-electric zero-turn radius mower, shows what an environmentally friendly piece of yard machinery can do. The four 12-volt lead-acid batteries power twin DC deck motors, driving a pair of blades for a 107 cm-wide cut. The batteries also power twin AC hydrostatic drive motors, one at each rear wheel. The machine can turn on a dime or zoom along at 10 km/h. The run time is 80 minutes, long enough to cut half a hectare. The Zeon costs about R52 000 in the US.

Andalay ac solar pv panel
Solar photovoltaic systems must be paired with inverters to convert the panels’ DC power to the AC power used in homes. So installing a solar array involves sizing an inverter to fi t the panels’ output and running a bunch of wiring – not that easy. New panels from Andalay incorporate microinverters, along with racking and wiring – and take a big step toward true plug-and-play solar power for the home. Andalay says future products will be even easier to install.

Lehr gas-powered eco trimmer
Lehr founder Bernardo Jorge Herzer came to appreciate propane gas-powered small engines during his time as a ship captain in the North Sea. The company’s fourstroke string trimmer (also sold as the Craftsman Propane Line Trimmer powered by Lehr) produces far less pollution and is more convenient than the two-stroke petrol-and-oil machines it can replace. “Propane is much safer, more efficient and more reliable,” Herzer says. “That’s why we used it in our ships.”

Ford ecoboost v6
Ford has built the first of a new breed of turbo engines designed to improve fuel efficiency. In the past, turbocharged engines have been used to boost power rather than save fuel. They ran at efficiency-killing low compression ratios and rich air/fuel ratios to prevent meltdowns. The 272-kW 3,5-litre Eco- Boost V6 uses several tricks to overcome these limitations. For instance, the direct fuel-injection system squirts fuel into the combustion chamber instead of the intake ports – this cools the chamber, allowing for a fairly high 10,0:1 compression ratio.

Techcrunch crunchpad
Tech blogger Michael Arrington wanted a lowcost tablet computer – something to handle basic Web-oriented tasks from the comfort of his couch. No company off ered one, so he designed it himself. The Linux-based PC, which is edging toward release, is promising – but the best part is the proof that today a tech fanboy can take the director’s chair and quickly prototype a smarter product.

Nikon coolpix S1000PJ
Microprojector prototypes started popping up two years ago, and it was clear from the start that their destiny was to become small and inexpensive enough to be built into other gadgets. Now, Nikon has notched a first: the tiny LED projector in its 12,1-megapixel compact camera casts large, clear images on a wall. This promises to resurrect the slide shows of earlier eras, without the hassle of actual slides. (Remember those?)