Date:30 November 2006
The future starts here
So much innovation happens every day in labs, hangars and two-car garages across America that picking a handful of breakthroughs is a tough challenge. Rule No 1: To defeat the hundreds of candidates we find each year and win a Breakthrough Award, an advance has to solve problems, expand horizons or engage the imagination of millions. It really has to matter.
The visionaries on the following pages have made such strides – attacking the energy crisis with a better light bulb, saving lives with replacement organs, fighting Third World poverty with a low-tech peanut sheller, and more. They are problem solvers on a grand scale. They are PM’s kind of people. The newproduct winners are just as impressive, setting benchmarks in design and creativity. Together, the two groups provide a picture of the best technology of today and tomorrow.
Break through leadership award winner: Burt Rutan
If Burt Rutan stopped innovating right now, he would have a firm place in aerospace history for his dozens of radical aircraft designs and their many records. He created the first plane to circle the globe non-stop (Voyager, in 1986) and the first private craft to take a pilot to space, twice within two weeks – SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize in 2004.
Now, Rutan is working to make space travel cheap enough – and safe enough – for ordinary people to experience. If anyone can pull that off, says Apollo 11 astronaut and PM editorial adviser Buzz Aldrin, it’s probably Rutan. He is the “apparent leader” in private spaceflight, Aldrin says. “He has public support, and it’s very well deserved.”
Rutan and Richard Branson have formed The Spaceship Company to produce SpaceShipTwo and its airborne launch vehicle, White Knight Two. The goal: to fly customers as high as 137 km – suborbital, but high enough to experience weightlessness and an angel’s-eye view of the Earth.
*What will SpaceShipTwo look like?
Rutan:I think the public will be surprised at how large it is. We are building 11-place commuter airliners. If you’re going to send somebody to a resort hotel in orbit, it’s okay to cramp him into something small with a little window. Because when he gets there he has this big spacious hotel, and he gets his view and his weightless experience. But with suborbital spaceflight, your destination has to be your transfer van. We believe the people – and there will be large numbers of them at the cost at which this can be done – they will want to fl oat around and look out of large windows facing all directions.
*What’s ahead in space travel?
Rutan:I believe in its first 12 years, the ship I’m building in the shop can fly 100 000 people. And when you fl y that many people to space, you’ll have somebody figure out things to do that we don’t even know about.
*And further in the future?
Rutan: In my lifetime I want to see affordable trips to the Moon – maybe not landing on the Moon, but certainly swinging by it in that wonderful, big elliptical orbit. It will be a lot more fun than orbiting the Earth, because it doesn’t have an atmosphere and the perigee can be as low as you want. I think in 500 years, most of the people that go to the solar system’s other planets won’t come back to the Earth. They’ll stay there and raise their families.
Innovators: Richard Bourgeois, General Electric Electrolyser Team
Futurists promise that hydrogen will replace fossil fuels some day. There’s just one problem: today, 95 per cent of the world’s available hydrogen is extracted from natural gas. Getting hydrogen from water, the greener alternative, is too expensive to be practical. Or it was, until a recent innovation by engineer Richard Bourgeois and his colleagues at a General Electric research facility in Niskayuna, New York.
Bourgeois’s prototype electrolyser cuts the equipment cost of using electricity to grab hydrogen from H2O. The key was replacing tooled metal with a mouldable, high-tech GE plastic called Noryl, saving on materials, manufacturing and assembly. The result? A kilogram of hydrogen – the energy equivalent of roughly 3,8 litres of petrol – that costs $3 instead of the current $6 to $8 (US prices). “I could imagine a small box that sits on-site making hydrogen for a factory,” Bourgeois says. “Eventually, even filling stations may make their own hydrogen.”
Innovators: Angela Belcher, Yet-Ming Chiang, Paula Hammond
The goal of nanofabrication is to make tiny machines build themselves using molecules they grab from their surroundings. It’s easy to dismiss the concept as science fiction – or hype. Until you hear what’s been going on in the lab of MIT materials scientist Angela Belcher, a star in nanotechnology circles.
Working with colleagues Paula Hammond and Yet-Ming Chiang, Belcher genetically altered a virus, the M-13 bacteriophage, inducing it to grab a pair of conductive metals – cobalt oxide and gold – from a solution. As the viruses rearrange themselves, they form highly aligned organic nanowires that can be used as a lithium-ion battery electrode – one so densely packed that it can store two or three times the energy of conventional electrodes of the same size and weight. So far, the team has grown an anode. The next steps – which could be completed in two years – will be to grow a cathode, and to perfect the clingwrap-thin polymer electrolyte that separates the electrodes.
“What we want to do is have a beaker where you mix everything together and out comes the functional device,” Belcher says. “Toy boxes often say ‘some assembly required’. These will be ‘no assembly required’. My dream is to have a DNA sequence that codes for the synthesis of any material you want to make.”
Innovators: Martin Eberhard and team
“Driving range has been the Achilles’ heel of electric cars,” says Martin Eberhard, CEO of Tesla Motors. So the Silicon Valley engineer – and creator of the Rocket eBook – built a $100 000 electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster (featured in our October and November issues), using the ultimate laptop battery: a 6831-cell lithium-ion configuration that can propel the car 400 km between charges. Equally important s the 185 kW polyphase AC motor. “Electric cars don’t have to be goofy economy putt-putt cars,” says Eberhard, who plans to follow the Roadster with more practical, lower-cost vehicles. “If we can change people’s mindset about what an electric car is, it opens up opportunity for other models.”
Innovators: Michael Bowers, James McBride, Sandra Rosenthal
Light bulbs are oldschool energy hogs. Adoption of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) might be able to halve lighting energy consumption and cut CO2emissions by 258 million tons a year. Today, LEDs are found in accent lighting and flashlights, but they’re not white enough for general use. That may change, thanks to a chance discovery by Vanderbilt University chemists led by Sandra Rosenthal. The key ingredient: quantum dots – tiny semiconductor crystals (in this case, cadmium selenide) that absorb light and generate a charge.
Lab members James McBride and Michael Bowers had made nanocrystals so small they verged on the molecular. When Bowers pointed a laser at these “nano-nano” crystals, he anticipated violet or UV light but saw white. “He knew something was up,” Rosenthal says, “so he mixed the batch with floor polyurethane and coated a violet LED. It glowed white!” Now the team hopes to make the LEDs brighter. “It’s too early to tell whether it will be a quantum dot LED or some other approach,” Rosenthal says. “But I do believe solid-state lighting will revolutionise the way we light our homes.”
Innovators: Mark Raibert and team
Legs pose a notoriously complex challenge for roboticists. Yet Boston Dynamics founder Marc Ra
ibert and the rest of the team that developed the BigDog robot are sticking with them. “Legs can go places that wheels and tracks can’t go, and there are lots of those places on Earth,” Raibert says. Including some war zones. The bizarre, four-legged creature (a “defenceless, headless Bambi”, Raibert jokes) was funded by the military research agency DARPA. One day the machine may traverse urban rubble and far-off mountain paths, hauling heavy loads and keeping troops out of some high-risk locations.
BigDog’s lifelike motion was created using a combination of sensors, including an “inertial measurement unit” for maintaining balance by determining the robot’s orientation in space; and force sensors in the joints, read by an onboard computer. For now, the team’s list of goals reads like a Marine recruitment poster. The researchers want a robot that is faster, quieter, more reliable and more autonomous, and can handle rougher, steeper terrain. Raibert is optimistic: “We’ve really turned a corner in terms of taking BigDog from a lab curiosity to the real world.” In fact, biologists from Harvard University and other institutions are now studying the robot for what it can tell them about the biomechanics of animals.
How does the robo-husky operate?
*Computer – Sensors from throughout the robot send signals to the computer up to 500 times a second. The computer can output locomotion commands 100 times a second, allowing BigDog to react correctly whether it encounters solid ground or an unstable surface.
*Abduction actuator – This actuator controls BigDog’s ability to sidestep. If the robot is hit from the side, the electrohydraulic valves control a flow of oil to bend or straighten joints and prevent a fall.
*Lower leg control – Pistons in the “knee” and “ankle” joints are controlled by an actuator located at mid-leg. Force is applied in precise increments to produce a smooth, efficient gait.
Innovator: Jock Brandis
On a visit to Mali to help a friend in the Peace Corps repair some village machinery, Jock Brandis, a TV and movie engineer, saw women bloodying their hands while manually shelling peanuts to feed their families.
Peanuts, Brandis knew, can be a great cash crop, improving soil by fixing nitrogen. Potentially, they could complement the nitrogen- depleting cotton the villagers were already growing for sale – but these sun-dried peanuts were too hard to shell by hand.
Before leaving, Brandis promised the head of a local women’s co-operative to ship her a sheller, figuring he’d find something on the Internet. But all he uncovered were diesel-guzzling behemoths-totally impractical in a poor village 480 km from Timbuktu.
After considerable effort, Brandis devised an inexpensive, virtually indestructible machine that lets an operator shell nuts 40 times faster than by hand, cranking out 57 kg per hour.
The real beauty of Brandis’s butter churn-sized concrete sheller is that it can be made anywhere, using a pair of glass fibre moulds.
An estimated half-billion people rely on peanuts as their primary protein source. Brandis and some Peace Corps veterans have launched the non-profit Full Belly Project, which is distributing the device to additional countries, including Ghana, Zambia and the Philippines. Next up: a pedal-operated sheller that Brandis is perfecting. “Two human legs,” he says, “create eight times the power of one arm.”
Innovators: Anthony Atala, Alan Retik
Growing replacement organs has been one of the “maybe some day” fantasies of doctors for a generation. Gone would be long waiting lists for transplants – along with complications arising from tissue rejection. In 2006, medical researchers led by Anthony Atala and Alan Retik announced that they had largely re-grown bladders using their patients’ own cells, then implanted them. Science fiction had become fact.
Surgeons typically repair disease-damaged bladders using intestinal tissue from a patient’s own body, but the procedure often leads to complications, and even cancer. “What really bothered me was seeing the practice done in children, who would be plagued by problems throughout their lives,” says Atala, director of the Institute of Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Centre.
Doctors led by Retik, chief of urology at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, took bladder biopsies from patients. The urothelial cells of the inner layer were separated from cells of the outer layer of muscle, and cultured. Then, researchers plaited the cells on to a sponge-like biodegradable scaffold, made of a synthetic polymer and collagen, in the shape of a bladder. After a seven-week incubation period, surgeons grafted the new bladder/scaffold segments on to the patients’ damaged bladders. All seven patients improved – and are continuing to thrive.
Atala’s research team at Wake Forest is now growing 20 different tissues, including heart patches, pancreatic insulin-producing tissue, and kidney tissue. The researchers still have much to learn, but hopes remain high. They recently received funding from the US Department of Defence for work that could one day lead to regenerated limbs for injured soldiers.
How it’s done:
*Step 1: Biopsy
Researchers isolate urothelial and smooth muscle cells from the patient’s bladder.
*Step 2: Lab incubation
The cells colonise a biodegradable, bladder-shaped scaffold.
*Step 3: Graft
Surgeons attach the scaffold to the damaged bladder. The tissue continues to grow and restores bladder function. The scaffold dissolves.
Next generation award
Innovators (from left): Deborah Sperling, Hannah Murnen, Nathan Sigworth, Augusta Niles
These Dartmouth College engineering students are battling scraped knees, one two-wheeler at a time. To