Inventions that will change our world
The early 20th century produced a breathtaking succession of innovations – the Wright Flyer, the Model T, the Panama Canal. It was a golden age of engineering. A century hence, observers may well look back at our era in much the same way: cars are being re-imagined from the wheels up. Advances in solar energy show the way past fossil fuels. And space probes explore planets that could become our future homes. These pages salute the innovators who are inventing the future, and the product designers who have already transformed the present. Welcome to the new golden age.
See video of Breakthrough technologies and coverage of PM’s Oct. 15 Breakthrough Conference at popularmechanics.com/breakthrough08
Amyris Renewable Diesel
Innovators: Amyris founders Kinkead Reiling, Neil Renninger, Jack D Newman
Alt-fuel equation: sugar cane + yeast + gene splicing = climatefriendly, renewable fuel that is chemically identical to petroleumbased diesel.
If you could dream up a renewable fuel, it might look a lot like diesel: far more energy intensive than ethanol, and combustible in existing engines with no performance trade-offs. But it would give off a fraction of the emissions of conventional diesel – oh, and it wouldn’t gum up in cold weather.
That’s just what scientists Jack Newman, Kinkead Reiling and Neil Renninger, co-founders of Emeryville, California-based Amyris Biotechnologies, concluded when they decided to apply their synthetic-biology expertise to creating a climate-friendly alternative to petroleum.
The team tinkered with brewer’s yeast, splicing in genes from an organism that produces hydrocarbons as a metabolic by-product. (That’s not as unlikely as it seems. While he won’t name the species, Renninger mentions lemon and mint as examples of plants that produce hydrocarbons.) Amyris’s new microbes metabolise sugar and churn out long hydrocarbon chains that are better known as diesel fuel. The liquid is purer than conventional diesel and burns more cleanly.
Amyris didn’t start out as a fuel company. It launched in 2003 with the goal of synthesising an aff ordable substitute for artemisinin, a pricey component of malaria treatment that is extracted from a plant found only in China and Vietnam. e new compound is still in development.
Meanwhile, Amyris has formed partnerships to build a diesel plant in Brazil, with the ambitious goal of pumping out 3,7 billion litres within the next five years. Amyris also plans to develop renewably sourced petrol and jet fuel – but diesel was an ideal place to start. “Diesel fuel is what drives industry,” Reiling says. “Having an additional source will be a big advantage to the world economy.”
Circulating Tumour Cell Chip
Innovator: Mehmet Toner, Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology
Medical equation: silicon chip + tumour markers + blood sample = fast, affordable cancer diagnosis tool.
Ninety per cent of cancer deaths occur after tumour cells have metastasised, travelling through the bloodstream to seed new cancer sites. Tragically, doctors can’t tell that a cancer is metastasising until symptoms appear, which delays treatment. The hurdle is that the circulating tumour cells, or CTCs, are just too rare, accounting for only a few cells per billion in the bloodstream. Furthermore, outside the body they are too fragile to survive the lab procedures used in standard blood tests.
Biomedical engineer Mehmet Toner, a faculty member at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, led a team that tackled the problem. The new diagnostic device is a silicon chip the size of a business card. It is etched with 78 000 tiny posts, each narrower than a human hair and coated with antibodies that attract CTCs. When a blood sample is slowly pumped through the chip, red and white blood cells and platelets bounce past the posts and escape, while CTCs stick.
Nobel laureate Phil Sharp, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, found the first test results, published in the journal Nature, “stunning”. Toner’s chip found CTCs in all but one of 116 samples from 68 patients with metastatic cancers – a remarkable 99 per cent sensitivity rate.
In the short term, the chip will give doctors instant feedback, Sharp says, allowing them to “follow the course of cancer in a patient, characterise the cells and try to design the best therapy”. Eventually, it may yield cheap cancer screening for the general population. Researchers have long predicted that a new generation of fast and inexpensive diagnostic tools would transform medicine. Toner’s CTC chip is a dramatic advance in that direction.
Stirling Energy Systems SunCatcher
Innovators: Chuck Andraka, Bruce Osborn
Solar equation: heat from the Sun + 82 mirrors + an efficient engine that burns no fuel + meticulous engineering = record-breaking solar power.
Solar power has represented the future for so long, it’s startling to find out that it’s finally here – at a scale big enough to matter. Two installations in Southern California will soon start generating a combined 1 750 megawatts, enough to power more than a million homes (see “Solar’s New Dawn”, elsewhere in this issue).
The plants won’t use photovoltaic cells. Instead, giant mirrored dishes will focus the Sun’s heat on to a Stirling engine – a system in which hydrogen, expanding as it is heated and contracting as it is cooled, drives a set of pistons. The engine powers a generator. “It’s cost, cost, cost,” says Bruce Osborn, CEO of Stirling Energy Systems, which is producing the equipment. “You’ve got to compete with conventional power.”
It’s also passion, passion, passion. Osborn has tinkered with the technology since his days as a newly minted engineer at Ford in the 1970s. To hone the system, he tapped engineers from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, led by Chuck Andraka – who also has worked on solar Stirling systems for decades. THe partners co-operated on a six-dish prototype plant, fiddling in search of an efficiency sweet spot. They found it. On 31 January 2008, the team broke a 24-year-old record, achieving a conversion rate of 31,25 per cent (85,6 kilowatts of thermal energy yield 26,75 kW of electricity for the grid). The new facilities will more than double the amount of commercial solar electric power generated in the United States.
PUR Water Purifier
Innovator: Greg Allgood
Safe water equation: smart chemistry + low manufacturing costs + vision = clean water for millions in the developing world and elsewhere.
Even in the United States, people can’t always count on clean, safe water gushing out of the tap. After disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, treatment systems can go down for days or even weeks. Thanks to a team led by Greg Allgood, a Procter & Gamble public-health specialist, Americans now have a ready alternative to stockpiling water or boiling it.
It’s an inexpensive powder called PUR that is already saving lives in developing countries, where about 1,6 million children die each year from diarrhoeal diseases.
Procter & Gamble chemists developed the product with co-operation from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal was to improve on chlorine water treatment, which kills bacteria and viruses but not parasites such as cryptosporidium and giardia and does nothing to make muddy water look cleaner.
The scientists managed to squeeze the multi-step process used in large watertreatment plants into a packet of powder that costs cents to produce. The mixture includes flocculants, which cause suspended solids, heavy metals and parasites to clump together. The resulting “floc” can then be filtered out with a cotton cloth. Time-released chlorine kills bacteria and viruses. Within 30 minutes, about a teaspoon of the powder can treat 10 litres of water. “The visual improvement is dramatic,” says Eric Mintz, chief of the CDC’s diarrhoeal diseases and epidemiology section.
After struggling to make a profit from the powder, P&G planned to stop production. Allgood convinced executives to set up a non-profit unit for the product instead. Today, he directs the Children’s Safe Drinking Water programme, which has helped purify more than a billion litres of water in 40-plus countries, with the help of partners such as UNICEF and the World Health Organisation.
During a visit to POPULAR MECHANICS in the US last year, Allgood converted a jar of murky liquid containing faecal matter into clear, potable water. (Yes, the editors drank it – after Allgood went first.)
“It’s a tragedy that 4 000 children die every day while waiting for multi-million dollar watertreatment plants to be built,”
Allgood says. “With our powder, they get the same quality water, but they can have it now.” As of this year, so can North American backpackers, homeowners and emergency responders.
Johnson Thermo- Electrochemical Converter System
Innovator: Lonnie Johnson, Johnson ElectroMechanical Systems
Energy equation: heat from the Sun + hydrogen forced through two sets of membranes = a revolutionary way to generate electricity.
In 1968, when he was a high school student in Mobile, Alabama, Lonnie Johnson built a robot. One challenge was figuring out how to power the limbs. He ended up using a combination of batteries and a pneumatic system that he rigged from jukebox parts and a barbecue-grill tank that he filled with compressed air.
The experience would come in handy later. Johnson became a nuclear engineer and spent several years working at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on projects including the Galileo and Cassini deep-space probes. In his spare time, he extended the ideas he’d developed when building his science-fair robot to work on an eco-friendly refrigeration system that would substitute water for Freon. The technology quickly paid off – in a novel fashion. He used it to engineer the high-powered Super Soaker water gun that has become his best-known invention.
Now Johnson, who holds more than 100 patents, is incorporating his refrigeration experience into a new device that uses heat to generate electricity. The Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System, or JTEC, has no moving parts. “It uses temperature differences to create pressure gradients,” says Paul Werbos, programme director at the National Science Foundation, which has provided funding for JTEC. “Instead of using those pressure gradients to move an axle or wheel, he’s using them to force ions through a membrane. It’s a totally new way of generating electricity from heat.”
In the JTEC, hydrogen circulates between two fuel cell-like membrane-electrode assemblies. Unlike a fuel cell, however, the JTEC is a closed system – it doesn’t need new supplies of hydrogen. One assembly is coupled to a heat source (such as concentrated sunlight), and the other to a heat sink (ambient air). Once the cycle is started by an electrical jolt, the unit begins producing a current. Heat in, electricity out.
Johnson’s concept may take years to commercialise – but it has the potential to convert heat to electricity at double the efficiency of today’s best technology. The JTEC “could have widespread impact”, says Karl Littau, a materials chemist at the Palo Alto Research Centre. “You look at it and say, ‘Wow, why didn’t someone think of this before?’”
Nasa Phoenix Mars Mission
Innovators: Barry Goldstein, Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Ed Sedivy, Lockheed Martin; Peter Smith, University of Arizona
Space equation: hard-earned experience + robotic space laboratory + teamwork = history-making proof of H2O on Mars.
25 May 2008 brought sweet vindication to Peter Smith. On that day, in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory control room in Pasadena, California, the senior research scientist for the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory watched from behind the manned banks of computers as a spacecraft hurtled toward Mars.
Smith had designed cameras for three previous Mars missions. The 1997 Pathfinder effort was successful. But the 1999 Mars Polar Lander crashed on the Martian surface, and the 2001 Surveyor mission was cancelled because of the Lander accident. Now, after the back-to-back failures, he was leading the R3,7 billion Phoenix Mars Mission – a programme he had concocted and proposed.
In the control room, a JPL team member held a thick contingency plan written to cover every possible failure scenario. But, as the spacecraft passed through each successful stage of the landing, “he tore up a page and tossed it into the air”, Smith says. By the time the tension in the room had morphed into exultation, “it looked like it was snowing”.
Aptly named for the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, Phoenix inaugurated the Mars Scout Programme, a series of robotic missions to study the planet’s present and past environments, climate cycles and geology, and whether it has the potential to support life. The University of Arizona’s partners in Phoenix included a flight team from JPL (led by Barry Goldstein) and a group from Lockheed Martin (led by Ed Sedivy) that built the lander.
After the lander reached Mars’s arctic plain, its seven instrument platforms kicked into gear, among them a robotic arm, cameras and an instrument cluster designed for microscopy, electrochemistry and conductivity analysis. On July 31, the team announced a milestone: Phoenix had confi rmed that ice first spied in 2002 by the Odyssey orbiter was, in fact, water. It was “the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted”, scientist William Boynton said. The lander also identified sodium, magnesium, potassium chlorides and other chemicals needed for life.
By this month, temperatures will have dropped as low as minus 129 degrees Celsius – so cold that the carbon-dioxide atmosphere will freeze and fall to the ground. The lander will be encased in ice, ending the mission. There are no plans to try to revive the device next spring. But, Smith says, “It is called the Phoenix, you know.”
See extensive coverage of the Phoenix Mars Mission.
Innovators: Aptera founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony
Automotive equation: aerodynamic design + lightweight composite-fibre body + real-world experience = a new, ultra-efficient automotive category.
Five years ago, engineer Steve Fambro was working for a biotech company, spending his weekends tinkering with his pickup to increase its fuel economy. “I realised it was a losing proposition because of all the weight and drag,” he says. “I thought, ‘What would a vehicle with no drag look like?’”
The Aptera Typ-1e, which should be available by the end of the year, became Fambro’s answer. It could prove revolutionary, opening up a new automotive category of ultra-high mileage cars designed for real-world drivers and – at R264 000 – priced for them, too.
The Typ-1e’s drag co-efficient is an astounding 0,15, compared with 0,26 for the Toyota Prius, considered an exemplar of aerodynamic efficiency. (SUVs top 0,40.) According to Fambro, the entire Typ-1e (shown here) produces less drag than the side mirrors on a bakkie.
At just 680 kg, the two-seater is lightweight, too. The body is made of an ultra-light composite – Fambro’s partner, Chris Anthony, used the material in wakeboard boats he’d designed – bonded to a metal safety cage. As a threewheel vehicle, the Typ-1e is exempt from some safety requirements, yet it meets or exceeds crash-test guidelines for conventional cars.
The company is launching the all-electric Typ-1e with a 190 km range and a recharge time of 8 hours. Next year, it plans to follow up with a plug-in hybrid, the Typ-1h, which should get 0,78 litres/100 km for the first 190 km and never go less than 200 km on 3,8 litres of petrol. Aptera is also planning a larger vehicle with seating for four.
Unlike some other eco-car start-ups, Aptera has recruited heavy hitters from the automotive industry, arguably giving the company the know-how to truly transform the roads. “I think as time goes on and everyone accepts that we’re in an energy-scarce world, cars will shift in styling,” Fambro says. “Twenty years from now, we’ll look at cars that waste energy the way we look at litter today. They will make us feel weird.”
Video: Watch an exclusive PopMech TV test drive of the Aptera Typ- le
Intelligent Mobility International Wheelchair
Next Generation Award
Innovators: Rudy Roy, Ben Sexson, Daniel Oliver, Charles Pyott
Mobility equation: two bikes + brilliant design + welding skills = all-terrain wheelchairs for the disabled in developing countries.
During their senior year at the California Institute of Technology, Rudy Roy and Ben Sexson signed up for professor Ken Pickar’s class Sustainable Engineering for the Developing World. Soon, they found themselves teleconferencing with students and professors at a Guatemalan university, talking wheelchairs.
They learned that disabled people in the country face costs of R3 500 and up, more than twice the national average monthly household income. As a further challenge, standard chairs are no match for Guatemala’s potholed streets, muddy roads and rugged hills.
Wielding hacksaws and gas welders, the students cannibalised a pair of old mountain bikes to build an inexpensive, dirt road-worthy chair. Their easy-toreproduce creation had one more advantage over other wheelchairs shipped to the developing world: “There are bike shops in every country,” says Dan Oliver, who joined the eff ort as a Caltech engineering undergraduate along with Charles Pyott, a student at the nearby Art Centre College of Design. “Take our wheelchair into any shop in the world, and they could fix it.”
Having graduated, the four now run a non-profit organisation, Intelligent Mobility International. They are working to squeeze production costs down from R1 300 to R350 per chair. And they’ve partnered with Transitions, a Guatemalan charity that mainly employs wheelchair-bound workers, to build their chairs.
“When I started at Caltech,” Pickar says, “the president at the time said, ‘Ken, some of your students are going to change the world’. These may be the ones who do it.”
Engineering for the developing world
Innovator: Amy B Smith, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Engineering equation: brilliant design + broad experience in developing countries + passion = a movement to tackle complex problems with simple technology
D-Lab occupies a former shipping area in a basement beneath MIT’s famous Infi nite Corridor, which connects many of the university’s buildings. Scattered about the room, beneath a jumble of pipes and ductwork, is a curious collection that includes maize shellers, grain mills, solar panels, piles of red-speckled corncobs, sooty charcoal briquettes and one large plastic container labelled “Holly’s Bovine Faecal Matter – Do Not Remove Please”.
The visionary who presides over this idiosyncratic work space is senior lecturer Amy Smith, a leader in the appropriate technology movement, which helps people in developing countries through the creation of simple, low-cost technology. Smith’s own designs – for no-electricity medical lab equipment, better grain mills and more – have won awards and improved lives. But she is also a pied piper for appropriate technology – and the engineers she inspires may constitute her greatest achievement.
“More and more students around the world want to make a diff erence, as well as make a living,” says Paul Polak, a leader in the fi eld and author of Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. “Amy’s giving them that opportunity.”
Smith and her students tackle problems in countries as far-flung as Haiti, Ghana and India. Her growing cadre of followers and former students praise her off beat humour and ability to focus, even when bouncing on Third World buses after sleeping on cold, manure-stained concrete.
After joining Smith and other students in Peru last January, Mary Hong, now a 19-year-old MIT junior, switched her major from aerospace to mechanical engineering. (See “Fixing the World on R15 a Day,” September issue.) “Amy is genuinely passionate about her work,” Hong says. “She has ideas, and she goes out and does something about them.”
Organic Motion Stage Systems
Innovators: Andrew Tschesnok, Jonathan Rand
Motion equation: 14 cameras + smart software + instant motion capture = real-time animation and a revolutionary computer interface
We are rough on our computers as we make them do our bidding – punching at our keyboards, scrolling cursors, poking at touchscreens. The Stage system developed by Andrew Tschesnok sidesteps all that, enabling computers to recognise human beings and translate our natural movements into digital information. The system transforms motion capture from a narrow, though impressive, tool into a versatile computer interface.
Motion capture, pioneered in the 1970s, has been used in biomechanics research and for computer animation in video games and movies. (The most famous mo-cap creation is Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.) The new approach dispenses with the laboriously assembled, marker-studded suits that older systems use.
Fourteen cameras positioned around a studio capture the movements of anyone who steps inside. The system recognises the human form and creates a down-to-the-millimetre virtual model of the subject – one that is updated at 120 frames a second.
Organic Motion, the company Tschesnok runs along with partner Jonathan Rand, envisions several applications. The Stage system could be used with patients suff ering from neuromuscular disorders to yield biomechanical data. A maker of high-end bicycles will soon use the system to help cyclists choose the ideal frame. And Stage could make movie special effects far easier to produce.
Further down the road, the system may change the world of online gaming. The player’s own fullbody motions might become those of the onscreen avatar. “Instead of getting on the Internet, you may step into the Internet,” Tschesnok says.
Ultimately, mo-cap could transform our homes and workplaces. “We’ve taught computers how to see people, and that changes what the computer can do,” he says. “Your house will be aware of you.” While that may raise some dark visions of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the applications Tschesnok envisions are benign. The house might react to its occupants’ activities by adjusting the temperature or music – or even by making popcorn when they sit down to watch an old sci-fi thriller.
Video: Watch exclusive PopMech TV video of the Organic Motion – and see more on the future
of motion capture. [click here]
Brilliant design, ready now
1. M-Spector Digital Inspection Camera
Drywall often undergoes its own form of exploratory surgery, as DIYers cut surfaces open just to diagnose a disease. This tool provides an alternative. The LED-lit lens – which is fixed on a metre-long, flexible cable – beams behind-the-wall imagery to a 6 cm LCD. It helps users find leaks, trace wiring and more. www.milwaukeetool.com
Few video games have built up as much anticipatory buzz as Spore, and it's not just the game's pedigree (it was designed by Will Wright, the mastermind behind SimCity and The Sims) or its grand scope (players guide the evolution of a universe). It's the technology. Spore doesn't rely on stock characters stored in a library of animations. Instead, the software uses sophisticated logic to allow players' creations to interact spontaneously. www.spore.com
3 Livescribe Pulse Smartpen
Smart pens, which digitise handwriting for later manipulation on a PC, have been more like novelties than productivity tools. Not this one. The Livescribe Pulse smart pen uses an integrated microphone and a revolutionary method to record and retrieve audio. The user taps his or her handwritten notes to get the pen to play the appropriate audio. www.livescribe.com
4 Potenco PCG1 Power Generator
The Potenco PCG1 pull-cord generator creates electricity for portable gadgets with far greater effi ciency than hand-cranked devices. The PCG1 is the geek-chic version of a generator for the developing world. It weighs 400 g, has both an internal NiMh battery and a mini-USB output jack, and can convert 2 minutes of eff ort into 40 minutes of cellphone talk time. www.potenco.com
5 Intel atom processor
In addition to being a marvel of miniaturisation (47 million transistors on a single 26 x 26 mm chip), the Atom processor is brilliantly efficient, with a power specification ranging from below 1 watt to 2,5 watts. Chips such as the Atom, made possible by a new Intel manufacturing process, can bring computer-level power to highly portable devices . further blurring the distinction between cellphones and computers. www.intel.com
6 Craftsman Nextec Multi-saw
A new breed of saw doesn't come along very often. The Craftsman Nextec Multi-Saw qualifi es . it's a 12-volt hybrid of a jigsaw and reciprocating saw that hits a new level of versatility. The tool is small enough to get into tight spots, powers through tough jobs and can operate at up to 2 000 strokes per minute. It comes in a kit with a drill, two batteries, a charger, two blades, a drill bit and a work light) www.craftsman.com
7 Microsoft Photosynth
This remarkable software, which can be downloaded for free, analyses dozens (or hundreds) of photos taken of a location or subject . the Eiffel Tower, say, or a room in a museum. It looks for overlapping points in the images, then arranges the snapshots into a browsable 3D model. The result is a fresh way to organise and share photography – opening up new possibilities for a 180- year-old art form. www.photosynth.com
8 Amazon Kindle
Like previous e-book readers, the Amazon Kindle relies on an easy-to-read E Ink display that needs no backlight and draws power only when loading a new page. (It can handle thousands of pages between charges.) The Kindle's key innovation . the one that blazes the way for digital paper products . is its inclusion of a high-speed EVDO antenna and a deal with Sprint that allow users to download books quickly, from nearly anywhere. www.amazon.com/ kindle
9 Nissan around view monitor
Nissan's advance in automotive safety is a parking system that allows a driver to see 360 degrees around the car. Other parking systems show only what's behind. Using ultra-wide-angle cameras positioned at the front, rear and sides of the vehicle, Nissan's version synthesises images into a bird's-eye view on the navigation screen. It's optional on new Infiniti models, such as the EX35 and the FX35/FX50. www.nissan-usa.com
10 Caroma profile smart dual flush toilet
Inventive, conservation-minded DIY plumbers have rigged grey-water systems to their toilets for years, reusing water from the sink for flushing. Caroma's Profile Smart designs the concept right into the fixture, by providing a sink and tap atop the water-storage tank. www.caromausa. com