25 Big ideas

  • Image credit: Jamie Chung
  • Geologist Peter Kelemen, photographed for Popular Mechanics on April 1, 2009, holding a chunk of peridotite, a rock that could hold the key to mineral carbon sequestration. Image credit: Mike McGregor
  • Image credit: Jamie Chung
  • Genetic engineer Pamela Ronald, photographed for POPULAR MECHANICS on April 14, 2009. The floodtolerant rice she helped develop has been grown successfully in Bangladesh. Image credit: Mike McGregor
  • A new hybrid fission-fusion reactor esign was developed by this University of Texas team: Erich Schneider of the mechanical engineering department (second from right) and (from left) Michael Kotschenreuther, Swadesh Mahajan and Prashant Valanju, all from the school's Institute for Fusion Studies.Image credit: Jamie Chung
  • The National Ignition Facility will be fully operational in 2010. Image credit: Jamie Chung
  • Juan Belliard (kneeling), an engineer with the New York City Transit Authority, volunteers as a mentor with the Robodogs, a 2-year-old robotics team from Long Island City High School. In 2009, the team made it to the national finals. Belliard's advice: 'Work together as a team - and keep it simple'. Image credit: Jamie Chung
Date:31 July 2009 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The world faces tough challenges – and PM is on the job. To find solutions to everything from drought to traffic snarls, we called some of America’s smartest engineers and scientists for a mix of quick fixes and long-term proposals. (And, yes, robots were discussed.) Here’s the PM action plan.

Turn trash into power
The Green Energy Machine, or GEM, is an unlikely alt-fuel hero. Yet the dumpster-size cargo container jutting from a building in Waltham, Massachusetts, can heat and power 18 500 m2 of space on a daily diet of 3 tons of garbage. The R1 million system, which incorporates a weird-looking array of devices, can pay for itself in three years, according to Michael Cushman, vice-president of IST Energy, which makes GEMs. It can save some 540 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually and – unlike much alt-energy tech – it’s ready now. “We welcome revolutionary technology, but this is an evolutionary solution with substantial potential for high impact,” Cushman says. “We don’t need a 10-yea-roff solution, we need a today solution.”

Build start–stop into every vehicle
By 2012, manufacturing giant Bosch estimates, half the new vehicles in Europe will be able to shut down their engines whenever they begin to idle. Hybrids already work this way. Bosch says its own system, Smart Starter, can boost a conventional car’s city-driving fuel economy by 8 per cent. Car manufacturers won’t say how much such technology will raise prices, but the bump should be a fraction of the premium that hybrid systems demand.

Conjure fuel from CO2
Nanotube arrays can increase the surface area of a catalyst, and thus are one of the many “next big things” in energy research, especially for batteries. But electrical engineer Craig Grimes has another use for them. In combination with sunlight, his nanotube membrane converts water and carbon dioxide into liquid fuel, such as butane and methane. If the technology were integrated into power plants, Grimes says, “it would basically be a closed loop – you have a fuel, you burn it, you collect the reactants, convert them back into fuel, and then feed that right back into the plant.” He calculates that 25 cm2 of the current version of the membrane could yield more than 500 litres of fuel daily, squeezing a second act out of hydrocarbons before they enter the atmosphere.

Fix crumbling pipes with sinuous robots
Oil companies employ drones called “pigs” to crawl through pipelines, spotting corrosion. Fancier pipe bots are in development, destined for heroic feats such as shimmying through shattered plumbing to find earthquake survivors. But the most useful job for such robots could be patrolling thousands of kilometres of leaking municipal water lines. One design group took the inspiration for its bloblike robot from amoebas, but most of the new bots resemble snakes. A Canadian robot called Regina Pipe Crawler (RPC) is nearing commercialisation. Controlled remotely, RPC can inspect a bending 150 mm pipe while the water is flowing at full strength. With enough pipe bots on the job, engineers could stop wasteful leaks and prevent catastrophic failures.

Drive on a high level
Road congestion gets worse every year, yet thousands of kilometres of highway – the medians, to be precise – go unused. According to bridge engineer Linda Figg, a gap just 2 m across can support an elevated roadway three lanes wide. Figg’s Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway added three reversible lanes to a 24 km stretch of median between Brandon, Florida, and downtown Tampa, cutting travel time from 45 minutes to as little as 20. Such bridges can also carry light rail – Figg’s AirTrain JFK project carries travellers above New York City’s Van Wyck Expressway to Kennedy Airport. The projects require little new grading and no seizures of property. “Look at data networks, the way they’ve been optimised,” Figg says. “They have higher speeds, they’re more effi cient, but we’re using the same networks. This is the same – we’re optimising our corridors by building at multiple levels.”

Use Nasa tech to build better airliners
The story of winged human f ight begins without a tail – the Wright Brothers’ first successful glider didn’t have one. Soon, biplanes ushered in the now-standard tube-and-wing design for aircraft, but experiments with blended wings never really stopped. The planes are potentially more aero-dynamic and consume less fuel, though they are harder to manoeuvre. Researchers hope that computerised, fly-by-wire systems will soon overcome the control challenges and spawn an era of fuel efficient heavy lifters. One proposed design is the SAX-40, an airliner that could trim fuel use by more than 20 per cent and fly quietly enough to take off and land during late-night hours that are currently restricted. According to Jim Hileman, a researcher at MIT and chief engineer on the project, expanding the hours of operation for airports could reduce air traffic congestion – and the fuel wasted by circling planes – while avoiding legal battles over new runway construction. The plane is just a thought experiment for now, created by Hileman and his colleagues in the Silent Aircraft Initiative, a UK-funded collaboration between Cambridge University and MIT. But the design’s enthusiasts are encouraged by successful, ongoing tests of the X-48B, a blended-wing prototype built by Boeing in co-operation with Nasa and the US Air Force. The company is focusing purely on military applications, but Hileman points out that wrestling civilian benefi ts from defence research is a grand old aviation tradition – the 707, Boeing’s first commercial passenger jet, had a military lineage. “Maybe the US Air Force will build a better tanker or bomber, which leads to a blended-wing airliner.” Ultimately, Hileman says, aeronautical engineers will have to step up their game. “We haven’t reached full maturity with our designs,” he says. “We can still make a real impact on fuel use and aircraft noise.”

Call in the star trek writers
Cloak buildings from earthquakes Like so many of the best things in life, the inspiration for cloaking technology comes from the Klingons, who used it on their starships. Researchers have had some success “cloaking” an object by redirecting light around it to render it invisible. But the principle might work even better to shield buildings from earthquake damage. The structures would incorporate “metamaterials” patterned with tiny circles whose size is proportional to the wavelength of seismic disturbances. The waves would travel along the material, missing the structure.

Teleport data in supercomputers
Star Trek-style teleporters will never, ever be invented. And that’s okay – after all, who would agree to be obliterated and then reconstituted by a guy named Scotty, trusting that no atom or eyeball was out of place? But scientists at the University of Maryland have teleported data, swapping the quantum states of two atoms positioned a metre apart. It was a step toward the creation of quantum computers, which could perform many simultaneous operations, crunching data exponentially faster than today’s systems.

Mind-meld with machines
Who needs a joystick when that famously complex CPU between your ears can exert direct control over a machine? Miguel Nicolelis, co-director of Duke University’s Centre for Neuroengineering, has shown that monkeys can make robots walk simply by thinking. Next, he is focusing on sensory feedback. Sure, touch and vision would be nice, but Nicolelis hopes that human brains eventually can learn to interpret data from such diverse sources as magnetic sensors and infrared imaging systems, essentially developing new, machine-based senses. (Hey, the Borg can do it.)

If PM ran the world

Limited windows
Researchers debate how many passengers a blended wing would carry. A proposed 600- person jet would require seats at the edge of the wings and could make a minor bank feel like a barrel roll. The SAX-40 is designed for a head count of 215. Either way, the reduced windowto- passenger ratio would make inflight entertainment systems a priority.

Efficiently flying
Without a tail or tube to break up airflow, a wedgeshaped blendedwing airliner would create little drag.

Quieter engines
The embedded engines proposed for the SAX-40 would allow for reduced engine noise (thanks to rear-mounted muffler-like attachments) with no sacrifice in thrust.

Hurl rocks at global warming
Carbon sequestration with a twist of limestone
Real-world lab
Rock formations in Oman
Peter Kelemen, geologist

More than a decade ago, when geologist Peter Kelemen first saw bleachedwhite rock formations in Oman, he wasn’t happy. The normally dark-hued rocks were peridotite, whose composition he was trying to investigate. But every time Kelemen found an exposed surface, it had reacted with carbon dioxide in the air to form a carbonate similar to limestone. Goodbye, samples. “I ran in the other direction as fast as I could,” he says. That outlook changed in 2004, when Kelemen had a eureka moment while talking with colleagues at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory about ways to sequester CO2 underground and slow the pace of global warming. Most sequestration plans risk creating a carbon-dioxide time bomb, with the greenhouse gas stored underground and always threatening to bubble out. Kelemen thought the peridotite might provide a longer-lasting solution. His idea is to drill into massive rock formations, heat them and then pump in CO2-enriched water. The rock would then turn to carbonate, trapping the gas in enduring, solid form. Kelemen stresses that the real-world practicality of his plan still needs to be proven. But field observations in Oman, which has more than 7 200 cubic kilometres of peridotite, have been promising.

Explore alien seas – on Earth
Whereas hostile, distant Mars is crisscrossed by intrepid rovers and captured in loving detail by orbiting unmanned fliers, some 95 per cent of Earth’s oceans remain uncharted. If that’s not enough of a snub, the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) most adept at studying ice-covered Antarctic waters, Nasa’s Endurance (short for Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer), is using our waters as a mere stepping stone for larger ambitions. The nimble robot is being readied for a mission to Europa, a Jovian moon that could, just maybe, harbour rich biodiversity beneath its frozen seas. Peter Doran, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Illinois and principal investigator for Endurance, wants to reassign the robot to ongoing Earth duty. He also proposes developing additional homebound AUVs, including a miniature version of Endurance (which is the size of a small car) that would be easier to operate and deploy, and a “regional cruiser,” a much larger nuclear-powered robot able to map the entire Ross Ice Shelf without refuelling. (Arguably, you’d need ice water in your veins to send a self-guided, reactor-bearing vehicle under unstable ice sheets.) In addition to studying extremophiles and other organisms, particularly in the polar regions, Doran says the robots could take water samples, tracking changes in salinity and acidity caused by climate change. “A satellite only gets you so much,” he says. “The penetration is on the order of centimetres. Getting under the ocean isn’t something we do very well.”

If PM ran the world

Lateral thrusters
Designed for manoeuvrability rather than speed, enclosed thrusters allow for precise navigation, and can help brace the robot against shifting currents.
Obstacleavoidance sonar arrays
Short-range sonar pings from arrays on all sides of the drone prevent collisions with underwater ice formations.
Onboard sensors
The probe could use a combination of inline sensors, which analyse water passing through tubes in the vehicle, and instruments mounted on cables or articulated arms.

Breed super-rice to feed the world
Use genetic engineering to breed hardier crops – but avoid the backlash
Real-world lab
Flooded paddies in Bangladesh
Pamela Ronald, genetic engineer

Pamela Ronald is a genetic engineer with little patience for debates over “frankenfoods”. If swapping some DNA base pairs around will fi ght hunger, she’s all for it. Besides, she says, people have been meddling with genes for more than 10 000 years. “Everything on your table, everything you eat, has been genetically improved,” Ronald says. “With the exception, maybe, of some wild blueberries, none of it occurs in nature.” Nevertheless, Ronald finds herself sidestepping the genetic modification controversy by helping develop the new field of “precision breeding”. Her lab at the University of California–Davis isolated a gene that imparts impressive flood tolerance to a rice variety found in eastern India. A collaborator then incorporated that Sub1 gene into a strain valued by Indian and Bangladeshi farmers. The new crops retained their best characteristics – but now the rice could survive for two weeks underwater, while conventional plants would have died within days. Since all the genetic material came from the same species, few observers – even in purityobsessed Europe – can raise objections. Researchers now plan to develop rice strains that need less moisture and fertiliser, can fight off destructive microbes and can thrive in saltier conditions. Roughly half of the world’s population relies on rice, so the development of more resilient strains can aid hundreds of millions around the globe. And that’s just the beginning. “Rice is like the fruit fly of cereal studies,” Ronald says. “What we discover in rice, we can apply to wheat and maize.”

Embrace Medicine’s Machine Age

Injection-mould custom organs
Medical researchers are already growing human tissues, and even organs, in the lab. Then there’s Lawrence Bonassar. The assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell University is producing custom body parts using Fab@Home, a 3D lithography platform developed at Cornell. (Its inventors won a 2007 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award.) Bonassar’s “ink” is a culture of living cells suspended in gel. For homogeneous organs, he can skip the printer, squirting biogel right into an injection mould. And since the cells originate with the patient, organ rejection is not an issue.
Prognosis: Human trials are years away, but rats can schedule back surgery right now – Bonassar’s team has already replaced spinal discs in rodents.

Replace suture kits with lasers
Lasers could replace old-fashioned needles and thread for suturing wounds and surgical incisions. A method devised by Abraham Katzir, head of Applied Medical Physics at Israel’s Tel Aviv University, involves slathering the target area with a protein, then tracing the wound with a carbon-dioxide laser. According to Katzir, the procedure reduces surgical scars, healing time and the chance of infection.
Prognosis: Katzir is preparing to use laserbonding on hernia patients, and he hopes that the technology will soon be applied in eye and cosmetic surgery. His lab is also developing equipment that uses a smaller, diode laser – similar to the ones in DVD players. He envisages a torch-sized system for emergency rooms and ambulances.

Stop blood loss with ultrasound
The Deep Bleeder Acoustic Coagulation (DBAC) programme may sound like tech from some cyberpunk novel, but it’s real engineering being developed with funding from DARPA, the Pentagon’s research wing. DBAC will locate severed arteries deep below the skin, then use ultrasonic waves to cauterise the rupture without affecting surrounding tissues.
Prognosis:DBAC’s imaging step relies on proven technology, but the coagulation function would require extensive testing. DARPA hopes to unveil a prototype DBAC, designed as a cuff that can fit over an injured limb, by 2011.

Use fusion to zap nuclear waste
The quest for controlled fusion power, that most future-topian of engineering feats, requires patience and enduring faith. Progress is being made (see “Keep Working on Fusion”, next page), but workable reactors are decades off. While we wait, fusion may as well make itself useful. Researchers at the University of Texas recently unveiled a design for a hybrid fissionfusion reactor, a best-of-both-worlds device that would dispose of the deadliest waste from traditional nuclear power plants while generating power along the way. Most nuclear waste can be reprocessed for use as fuel in standard fission reactors. The hybrid reactor would be a next step. It would employ fusion reactions to flood the remaining, highly dangerous trans-uranic waste with neutrons, allowing it to be burned in a fission process. One-third of the resulting energy would be fed back into the fusion process and the remaining 700 megawatts would be fed into the grid. According to senior research scientist Swadesh Mahajan, at the end of the process, about 99 per cent of all nuclear waste could be eliminated. “What we really want to do is to tell the world, please allow the expansion of nuclear energy, through standard light-water reactors,” Mahajan says. “It’s the only thing that can be ramped up quickly enough to replace coal. Do not worry about the waste. Because we’re going to give you the solution in 20 years. We will make it in time.”


Keep working on fusion, no matter what the odds
After decades spent watching short-lived bursts of plasma sputter in research-oriented magnetic tokamak reactors, it would be easy to abandon the dream of fusion power. But the ultimate clean-energy technology may be getting closer. Iter (the letters don’t stand for anything, but the word means “the way” in Latin) is expected to be the world’s biggest tokamak when it’s completed in southern France in 2018, and it could lead to effi cient prototype power plants. Next year, the array of 192 lasers that forms the heart of the National Ignition Facility at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will begin fi ring at a tiny hydrogen target, testing a magnet-free fusion scheme. The facility’s director Ed Moses hopes that, within a few years, the machine will release 20 times more energy than it consumes. “If this works, over the next couple of decades we can change the geopolitical story,” he says.

Test anti-asteroid tech
This past March, a 47 m asteroid came within 77 000 km of Earth, just twice the altitude of some satellites. It was big enough to destroy a city. No one saw it coming. Not that it would have helped: there’s no procedure in place for defl ecting space rocks, just a list of concepts. But two astronauts – Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the Association of Space Explorers–Near Earth Object Committee, and Thomas D Jones, a PM contributing editor – have a plan. (1) Build more asteroid-hunting telescopes. Projects that need more funding include a Canadian spacebased telescope and a series of ground-based systems in Hawaii. (2) Assign asteroid-defl ection authority to an international committee. With no one in charge, individual nations might launch Pyrrhic schemes: “In the past, there was a Russian proposal to have a 50-megaton nuclear missile in the silo, ready to launch at any asteroid that shows up,” Jones says. Bad idea – it could create a lethal storm of fragments. (3) Run a rehearsal mission. One plan is to park an unmanned spacecraft alongside the offending asteroid, while kinetic impactors – guided missiles minus the warheads – slam into it. The first craft helps the impactors target the object and acts as a gravity tractor, using its mass to nudge the rock off course. If something really huge heads our way, we could always resort to that 50-megaton nuke tactic – with luck the bomb would ignite gases in the asteroid that would spew outwards and nudge the rock from its apocalyptic path.

Build homes that don’t need central heating
The conventional home bleeds heat from under doors and around window sashes – and right through underinsulated walls. Although wind turbines and solar panels are impressive green technologies, he way to really slash one’s bills and environmental impact is to live in a hyper-efficient house – and it doesn’t get more hyper than the “passive houses” now being developed. These are essentially maximum-security prisons for thermal energy, with thick insulation, triple-pane windows and an overall approach to airtightness that lunar colonies could aspire to. In Europe, as many as 6 000 homes have been passivehouse- certifi ed in the past decade, with thousands more approaching, though not quite meeting, the rigorous requirements. According to energy-effi ciency consultant David White, a passive house in the northeastern United States could consume 90 per cent less heat than equivalent conventional homes. “Passive houses have been shown to be among the most reliable and cost-effective approaches to efficiency,” White says. In Germany, off-the-shelf windows, gaskets and other passive-house-certifi ed products have brought construction costs to within 5 per cent of those for conventional homes. Since quitting his job at a green design firm to concentrate on passive housing projects, White has been working 18-hour days to keep up with an influx of new customers. The housing market may have crashed, but passive houses are on the rise.

Swap KM/L fuel ratings for L/100 KM
Many people still think of fuel consumption in terms of kilometres per litre, which can be misleading when making comparisons. Replacing an 8 km/. car with a 10 km/. one sounds the same as improving from 13 km/. to 15 km/.: both involve a 2-km difference. But onefs better. Researchers say that drivers find it easier to get the right answer when efficiency is expressed in litres per 100 km (plus, it’fs the legally accepted unit of measurement). Going from 8 km/. (12,5 litres/100 km) to 10 km/. (10 litres/100 km) saves you 2,5 litres. That’fs more than double the saving from 13 km/. (7,69 litres/100 km) to 15 km/. (6,66 litres/100 km).

Deploy tiny robo-docs
“Smart pills” designed to carry miniature cameras or doses of medicine have been kicking around laboratories for years. Now researchers are homing in on a Lilliputian robot doctor that could do it all, combining diagnostic imaging with targeted drug delivery, while precisely navigating a patient’s digestive tract. A model from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University anchors itself within the body using adhesives, while another device (invented in Germany) is guided by magnets outside the body. When such bots hit clinics, they should make biopsies easier, and colonoscopies mercifully obsolete.

Network cars wirelessly
Cars are becoming chatterboxes. They intone directions, pause music to announce incoming calls, and soon will start reading e-mails aloud. But now GM, Volkswagen and other automakers want cars to talk quietly among themselves. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems will enable cars to trade news of hazards such as black ice or a truck broken down on a blind curve. The information will be projected for drivers on the windscreen or shown on a dashboard display. V2V could also help steer drivers clear of traffic snarl-ups. Tests have been run; the next step is to agree on an industry-wide protocol.

Volunteer: the world needs your hands-on skills
Coach newbie car shoppers
Ways to Work, an American group that helps low-income people solve commuting problems, is looking for mechanics, savvy car buyers – anyone who can tell a dirt-cheap bargain from a ticking time bomb of a lemon. Volunteers tag along with lowincome drivers as they shop for an inexpensive car for travelling to and from their jobs.
Skill set: General car knowledge (the more the better). Time commitment: an hour or less, as often as or as rarely as you’re available.

Repair family breakdowns
Volunteer mechanics and contractors in Tacoma, Washington, have been lending a hand to families who can’t afford home and/or car repairs, through a non-profit group called Need-A-Break Services. There are similar, equally worthwhile groups located in many areas.
Skill set: Professional construction or mechanical experience. Time commitment: up to a full day per project.

Mentor teen roboticists
Inventor Dean Kamen looks forward to the day when engineering chops impart as much high school cachet as the ability to score a try. About 1 700 teams compete each year in the FIRST Robotics Competition, the robot league he founded. Matches are full-contact, metal-on-metal sporting events. The high school teams need mentors, as do participants in several other FIRST competitions, including the FIRST Lego League. Skill set: Mechanical and/or programming abilities help, as does a knack for cheering. Time commitment: potentially big. Imagine coaching a high school varsity sports team.

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