Breakthrough Awards 2010

  • Innovator: J Craig Venter; Brilliant Idea: develop methods of quickly decoding genes to understand the basic building blocks of life, then use that knowledge to design organisms that can address global challenges. Image credit: Greg Miller
  • Venter conducting algae biofuel research in a La Jolla, California, greenhouse.
  • Image credit: Evan Hurd/Hetty/ Getty Images
  • Cross-section of a silicon microwire array.
  • Shepherding spacecraft
  • Elastic high-strength steel cables run down the centre of the system's frame. The cables control the rocking of the building and, when the earthquake is over, pull it back into proper alignment. A steel frame situated around a building's core or along exterior walls offers structural support. The frame's columns, however, are free to rock up and down within steel shoes secured at the base. Illustration by Sinelab
  • By combining the expertise of their respective labs, chemist Karen Brewer (left) and biologist Brenda Winkel created a cancer-fighting 'supramolecule' composed of three smaller molecules: one binds to the DNA of cancer cells, a second absorbs light, and a third delivers a drug that cleaves the DNA. Image credit: Mark Mahaney
  • Julia Silverman, Jessica Lin and Jessica Matthews (left to right). Photograph by Nick Ruechel
  • Instead of a single-fuselage cylinder, the D series melds two partial cylinders into a distinctive 'double-bubble' shape. This adds to the lift and allows for longer, skinnier wings and a smaller tail, reducing drag.The engines sit at the top rear of the fuselage, where they draw in slower-moving air that passes over the plane, using less fuel for the same amount of thrust - a technique known as boundary layer ingestion. To mitigate the engine stress this creates, the plane would travel about 10 per cent slower than a 737; the researchers anticipate making up this time through quicker loading and unloading via the plane's second aisle. Illustration by Jeremy Cook
  • Chevrolet Volt
  • Nissan Leaf
  • Barbara Campbell trains to identify letters using the artificial retina with Aries Arditi at Lighthouse International.
Date:23 November 2010 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Never before has technology advanced at such a blistering pace. And yet there’s a difference between the latest gadget and innovations that truly move society forward, whether that’s driving down the cost of solar power, proving the existence of water on the Moon, designing earthquake-proof buildings or finding a cure for cancer. “We’re now a society that’s 100 per cent dependent on science,” says this year’s Leadership Award winner, J Craig Venter. We agree. And so we salute the human spirit behind the achievements that really matter. By Logan Ward and the editors of PM Here are the Breakthrough Awards 2010 categories: * Genomics * Alternative * Energy * Space * Exploration * Telemedicine * Architecture * Biochemistry * Appropriate * Technology * Physics * Aviation * Consumer tech Leadership Award: Pioneering new life Innovator: J Craig Venter Brilliant Idea: develop methods of quickly decoding genes to understand the basic building blocks of life, then use that knowledge to design organisms that can address global challenges. Genomics pioneer J Craig Venter admits he was a late bloomer. A half-hearted student (his 8th-grade report card shows multiple C’s and D’s), he spent his 1950s childhood jumping freight cars in the rail yards of Millbrae, California. He dug backyard tunnels and waged make-believe battles, igniting model planes and melting toy soldiers with lighter fluid and matches. As a teenager, Venter surprised his father by successfully building a hydroplane using plans clipped from POPULAR MECHANICS, a project he describes today as “my earliest foray into some type of science.” Yet Venter looks back on what some might call a misspent youth with pride. “I was able to fulfill my imagination,” he says, “and that is one of the best traits to carry into science.” Discipline and a hunger for knowledge help, too – qualities Venter honed while serving in the Vietnam War. As a medic, he says, “knowledge was essential. That’s why I was absolutely determined, even though I hated school, to go to college after I got out of the military”. While working at the National Institutes of Health in the early 1990s, Venter grew impatient with the snail-like pace of gene identi. cation and developed a way to rapidly discover genes by exploiting snippets of DNA called expressed sequence tags. In 1992, he founded Thee Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), and three years later, a TIGR team decoded the first genome of a free-living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. That led to Venter’s best-known breakthrough, mapping the human genome. Last May, he wowed the world again by creating the first synthetic cell. His ultimate goal is to design new organisms that will benefit humanity. To that end, he has entered into a deal with Exxon Mobil to develop a biofuel alternative to petroleum. And he’s working with healthcare giant Novartis to produce more effective vaccines. When PM caught up with Venter, he was aboard his sailboat – Sorcerer II, moored in Ostia, Italy – preparing to join the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition for a month-long Mediterranean journey. Unlike another famous scientist who sailed the seas collecting specimens, Venter was after an invisible quarry: microbes that would be shipped back to the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, for DNA sequencing. Q: I hear barking in the background. Is that your dog? What’s its name? Darwin. He’s a miniature poodle puppy. He’s becoming a boat dog for the summer. I mean, Darwin had to have a ship, right? Q: Much of your life’s work seems to revolve around applying scientifi c discoveries to the task of problem solving. Will this expedition have specific applications? It ultimately will. Organisms in the ocean provide over 40 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, and they’re the major sink for capturing all the carbon dioxide we constantly release into the atmosphere. I’ve described the 40 million genes my team has discovered to date as design components for the future. When we’re designing organisms for the purposes of producing food and fuel and chemicals – all the things we need for daily life – those components get more and more important. Right now we’re at a primitive stage. There’s not a direct link between discoveries we’re making in the ocean and something we’re doing in the lab, but there’s certainly an intellectual link to the future. Q: How might one of these future organisms function? Our project with Exxon Mobil is to try to use algae cells that capture carbon dioxide and convert it to long-chain hydrocarbons – basically, creating a biocrude that can go into refineries to make (petrol), diesel and jet fuel. We’re talking about facilities that will have to be multiple square miles, producing billions of gallons a year, to have any effect at all. Those are huge challenges. The research programme is to push the science and engineering. If that works, it could have a huge impact. Q: Did this desire to find new and useful technology also inspire your quest to create synthetic life? No, that began by asking incredibly basic questions about life: what is the minimal life form you could have for a self-replicating organism? We decided the only way we could answer that was to make a chromosome synthetically, so we could alter the gene content to get down to what would be the minimal gene set for life. Having a clear defi nition of which genes are essential is going to be important for future design projects. As the population goes from 6,8 billion people to more than 9 billion over the next 40 years, we’re going to need a lot more food, clean water, medicine and fuel to power all these things. We’re now a society that’s 100 per cent dependent on science for our survival. It’s not a gentleman’s sport. We think this is one of the most powerful tools – at least on the biology side – that we can apply to all these critical needs. Q: How did a former surf bum, as some have called you, make the transition to genomics pioneer? I’m not sure I was ever a surf bum! I was a surf bum wannabe. I left home at age 17 and moved to Southern California to try to take up surfing as a vocation, but this was in 1964 and there was this nasty little thing called the Vietnam War. As a result, I got drafted. I ended up in the Navy Medical Corps, and that was a rough education that totally changed my view of where I was going and how I was going to get there. Q: Had you been interested in science up to that point? I was such a horrible student, I figured my chances of ending up a scientist were pretty low. The Vietnam War totally turned my life around. Some people’s lives were eliminated or destroyed by the experience. I was one of the fortunate few who came out better off. Q: Why did you decide to pursue genetics? Genetics didn’t come until much later in my career, when I was working as a biochemist. I had become a section chief and a lab chief at the National Institutes of Health. I had a large budget and could work on anything I wanted, so I stopped everything I was doing and taught myself and my lab how to do the new field of molecular biology. It was clear those were the only tools to really make dramatic headway in the kind of science I was interested in. All the discoveries that I’m known for came shortly after that moment. Q: Is it useful to think of cells as biological machines? I use the term “machine” quite loosely. Biology is much more dynamic than the diesel engine here in my boat. Our parts are constantly being remade from our information system. I think that’s the most important thing for people to think about for the synthetic cell. It shows what life really is. The only reason you’re alive and I’m alive right now is that our DNA is being read in every one of our trillions of cells on a second-bysecond basis, making new protein molecules to replace the ones that are decaying. It would be like having a self-repairing diesel engine: Every time there’s a little decay on the piston, it would repair itself. Q: What role do you think the federal government should play in promoting science and technology? As I said, we’re a society 100 per cent dependent on science for our future, so the government can’t just sit back and hope that somebody will do something in the private sector. People in the government need to think intelligently about how to stimulate new areas. Things like putting a tax on carbon so that renewable fuels are an option and working on diseases that are below the radar of the pharmaceutical industry. Q: Some people contend that genes from living organisms aren’t inventions and therefore cannot be patented. How do you feel about that? We’re a country of laws and rules, and the Supreme Court has ruled that life forms are patentable entities. Intellectual property is a key aspect for economic development. Something has to drive investment. We have investors putting up tens of millions of dollars – in the case of Exxon, $300 million – and they need to know that they won’t lose that money because somebody else owns the intellectual property. Q: Do you plan to patent your synthetic cell? We’ve been patenting all the new tools we’ve developed along the way. The synthetic cell has no commercial value itself – it’s just proving that something is possible. Patents are basically rights to try to develop a commercial product. It’s a contract that our government makes with its citizen inventors that encourages them to publish and disseminate information about their inventions so that other people can get to the next stage. People equate patents to secrecy; that secrecy is what patents were designed to overcome. That’s why the formula for Coca-Cola was never patented. They kept it as a trade secret, and they’ve outlasted patent laws by 80 years or more. Q: How do you feel about the pace of genomics-based personalised medicine since your team first sequenced the human genome 10 years ago? It’s been moving substantially slower than I like to see things move. Not much happened with government funding in the decade that followed. Private industry has invested a tremendous amount, and there are some pretty exciting new technologies. In fact, it’s amazing something that cost $3 billion to $5 billion a decade ago can now be done by an individual scientist using a single machine in a very short period of time. Q: So you’re optimistic about the next 10 years? We have 100 trillion human cells, along with 200 trillion microbes associated with us. That’s a lot of complexity to sort out. I don’t want to underestimate the scope of the problem – of understanding all this information and have it affect our understanding of human disease. It’s a huge challenge. Q: One final question: Did your hydroplane work? Absolutely! It was an 8-foot hydroplane with pontoons. Because I had no money, I built it totally with hand tools out of marine plywood. I was given a junked 1948 outboard motor. I had to learn how outboard motors worked by taking it apart and rebuilding it from scratch. I took it out on the San Francisco Bay, got it up to 25 or 30 miles per hour. It was a real thrill. J Craig Venter’s amazing decade 2000 President Bill Clinton declares a tie in the race to map the human genome, giving credit to both Venter and his publicly funded rival, Francis Collins. Far from being finished, Venter considers it “the starting line” for the future of medicine. 2001 The Institute for Genomic Research, founded by Venter, helps sequence the genome of the anthrax strain mailed in the attacks that killed five people – evidence that eventually leads the FBI to the source. 2004 Sorcerer II, Venter’s 29-metre sailboat, leaves Halifax, in Canada’s Nova Scotia, on a two-year circumnavigation of the globe in search of new microbial species for DNA sequencing. 2005 Venter starts the for-profit Synthetic Genomics Inc (SGI) to work on solving global problems, such as fossilfuel dependence, environmental degradation and disease epidemics. 2007 He establishes another first by mapping the 6-billionletter code of his own “diploid” genome (DNA from both chromosome pairs, one from each parent), discovering a genetic predisposition for blue eyes, antisocial behaviour and heart disease. 2008 Using a computer code and four bottles of chemicals, Venter’s lab creates the largest man-made DNA structure by synthesising and assembling the 582 970-base-pair genome of a bacterium. 2009 He announces SGI will receive R2 billion from Exxon Mobil to engineer algae cells that turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into biofuel. 2010 Venter’s team uses a synthetic genome to boot up the world’s first man-made bacterial cell. Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 becomes the first living organism to have its own website encoded in its chromosomes. Related material Video: To watch a video of the JCVI researchers revealing their achievement to the public at a press conference on 20 May 2010. {click here] News: To find out more about the self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell constructed at the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI).[click here] More affordable solar Innovators: Harry Atwater, Michael Kelzenberg, Nathan Lewis, California Institute of Technology Brilliant idea: a solar cell that requires only a fraction of the silicon used in standard PV. Chemist Harry Atwater’s gift for manipulating light has led to some eye-opening innovations, including an “invisibility cloak”. His most recent feat: reinventing the solar cell. More than half of the silicon acting as a semiconductor in standard photovoltaic (PV) panels – made of wafers . winds up as shavings on the factory floor. Atwater’s team at Caltech wastes virtually nothing, instead growing silicon microwires using vapour deposition. (Picture a tiny bed of nails growing out of a cloud of silicon-rich gas.) Researchers coat the microwires with a light-absorbing material, then embed them, along with light-scattering particles, in a clear polymer that has a re€ ective backing. As light pours in, it bounces around until 90 per cent has been absorbed. The wire arrays require only 1 per cent of the silicon . which accounts for roughly half of the manufacturing costs – of standard PV. The first tests of the technology at scale converted light into electricity at a rate of 8 per cent, which the team is convinced it can double (standard PV has 20 per cent e. ciency). Plus, the cells are € exible enough to be applied to roof tiles or curtain walls. “They have the photovoltaic properties of conventional solar cells, but the mechanical properties of a plastic bag,” Atwater says. Moon mission Innovators: Daniel Andrews, Anthony Colaprete, Nasa’s Ames Research Centre; Stephen Carman, Craig Elder, Northrop Grumman Brilliant idea: Sending a spacecraft made from off -theshelf parts careering into the Moon at 2,5 kilometres per second to fi nd water ice. It’s hard to decide what’s more impressive: the confi rmation of water ice on the Moon, or the scrappy way that a team of scientists and engineers pulled off the mission – by slamming two tons of equipment otherwise destined to become space junk into the Moon’s south pole and then analysing the dust plume it kicked up. Yet the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, mission began as an afterthought. When the leaders of NASA’s R3,3 billion Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) found themselves with an extra 1 000 kilograms of payload capacity, they sent out a call for shoestring proposals for a companion mission. Led by principal investigator Anthony Colaprete, a team from Nasa’s Ames Research Centre proposed using the Atlas V launch rocket’s empty upper fuel stage to impact the Moon. Northrop Grumman would turn the rocket’s hottub- size payload ring into a makeshift spacecraft that would trail in the stage’s path, gathering data via instruments bolted to its six satellite ports. The team came in under its R540 million budget – and the mission was a headline-screaming success. Essentially, says Colaprete, “we reached out and touched the water”. The spacecraft calculated a 4 per cent moisture concentration in the plume, double that of the Sahara. “We take that for granted here on Earth, but 1 to 2 per cent water on the Moon or an asteroid is potentially a lifeline,” he says. “From an exploration standpoint, we realise there are a wealth of resources that we can take advantage of. Suddenly, the Moon is a more interesting and active place.” 1. Shepherding spacecraft Rather than commission expensive new devices for the shepherding spacecraft, the team beefed up non-aerospace technology, including nearinfrared spectrometers designed for carpet recycling and Nascar engine-block thermal-imaging equipment. 2. Centaur The Atlas V’s empty upper fuel stage, called Centaur, smashed into the permanently dark Cabeus Crater on October 9, 2009, blasting a swimming-pool-size hole and ejecting a 10-kilometrehigh plume of vapour and dust that had not seen sunlight for more than a billion years. 3. Moon dust LRO spacecraft analysed the ejecta, as did Hubble and Earthbased telescopes. Before crashing into the Moon itself, LCROSS’s shepherding spacecraft relayed the most intriguing data: evidence of water ice, which may have been deposited by the impact of an ancient comet. Cellphone-enabled healthcare Innovator: Aydogan Ozcan, University of California, Los Angeles Brilliant idea: A cellphone microscope that can diagnose disease cheaply and effectively anywhere in the world. Aydogan Ozcan hopes to make microscope lenses obsolete. “Microscopes are analogue technology,” says the 31-year-old electrical engineer. Bulky and expensive, they rely on finely polished curved glass to refract and focus light. By hacking a cellphone’s software to perform the same function, Ozcan has brought an invention with Renaissance-era origins into the 21st century. Ozcan’s cellphone microscope focuses LED light on a slide positioned over the camera’s image sensor. The sensor converts light bouncing off and around a sample of, say, blood cells into electrons and records them as a digital hologram. Image-processing software analyses the hologram once it’s uploaded to a computer. One application, which will be field-tested in Brazil this year, identifi es red blood cells misshaped by the malaria parasite – the same thing a technician searches for using a standard microscope. Unlike a scan by a trained human eye, however, software analysis is instantaneous. Future apps could screen for disease-causing parasites in drinking water and help monitor the health of HIV patients by counting T-cell levels in their blood. “The key to everything is the cellphone,” Ozcan says. In 1990, fewer than 12,5 million people worldwide had them; today, 4,6 billion do. While conventional lensbased microscopy has essentially plateaued, fierce competition causes cellphone-camera technology to advance rapidly even as prices plummet. Eventually, Ozcan believes, point-of-care facilities in the US will begin replacing expensive and timeconsuming lab procedures with cellphone-based diagnostic tools. “Once insurance companies start to accept this,” he says, “we will have better, more affordable healthcare and better quality of life.” Earthquake-proof buildings Innovators: Gregory Deierlein, Stanford University; Jerome F Hajjar, Northeastern University Brilliant idea: A replaceable, building-wide system to help hospitals, apartment buildings and office towers survive severe seismic shaking. For decades, the goal of seismic engineers has seemed straightforward: prevent building collapse. And so they add steel braces to a skyscraper’s skeleton or beefier reinforcing to concrete shear walls. After absorbing the brunt of seismic shaking, however, often the compromised structures must be demolished. “The building, in a sense, sacrifices itself to save the occupants,” says Gregory Deierlein, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineer. A team Deierlein led with Jerry Hajjar, a Northeastern University engineer, hopes to change that, designing a system that protects both people and the structures they live and work in. The engineers successfully tested an 8-metre threestorey steel-framed building outfitted with the new system, built atop the E-Defence shake table – the world’s largest earthquake simulator – in Miki City, Japan. Steel “fuses”, not structural elements, absorbed the shock of an earthquake greater than magnitude 7, and cables pulled the building back into plumb once the shaking stopped. After an earthquake of that scale, the deformed fuses could be replaced in about four days – while the building remained occupied. Jim Malley of the San Francisco firm Degenkolb Engineers calls the system the next step in the evolution of green building. “As structural engineers,” he says, “our sustainable design is the ability not to have to tear buildings down after earthquakes, but to use them for hundreds of years.” Curing cancer painlessly Innovators: Karen Brewer, Brenda Winkel, Virginia Tech; Roger Dumoulin-White, Theralase Technologies Brilliant idea: Light-activated compounds that cause deepseated, fast-growing cancer cells to self-destruct. Two Virginia Tech scientists may have invented the future of cancer treatment – a way to eradicate tumours without the harmful side-effects of chemotherapy, radiation or a surgeon’s scalpel. They’ve built what chemist Karen Brewer calls a “molecular machine” that seeks out fast-replicating cancer cells and becomes lethal only when exposed to light. Other photodynamic therapies rely on drugs that grab oxygen molecules from nearby tissue, so they are powerless against dense, fast-growing cancers – such as breast, brain, lung and prostate – with hypoxic, or oxygen-free, cores. “I really wanted to come up with something completely different, a light-activated drug that would not require oxygen,” says Brewer, an expert at building light-triggered on/off switches for chemical compounds. Biologist Brenda Winkel helped develop a DNA-targeting compound to attach to the trigger. Then, Toronto-based Theralase Technologies licensed it for use with its own deep-penetrating super-pulsed laser. “This shows promise in terms of getting deeper-seated tissue,” says National Cancer Institute programme manager Rosemary Wong. “It would allow you to address a number of different cancers.” The new therapy has recently begun Phase II trials, part of a seven-year road map for Food and Drug Administration approval. “Cancer is really just cells that have lost the ability to die,” says Theralase president Roger Dumoulin-White. “With the help of a compound and a light source, we’re granting that cell the ability to bow out gracefully. We’re fixing what’s really broken versus trying to cut it out.” Next Generation Award: The power play Innovators: Jessica Lin, Jessica Matthews, Julia Silverman, Hemali akkar, Harvard University Brilliant idea: A soccer ball that can power an LED light, providing clean energy in developing countries. Small-scale, hand-cranked generators that power lights and radios are practical in places where there’s no electricity. But they’re not a whole lot of fun. Four undergraduate students at Harvard University decided to harvest the kinetic energy of soccer, the world’s most popular sport, instead. After just 15 minutes of play, their sOccket ball could provide families in sub-Saharan Africa – where less than a quarter of the population has access to reliable electricity – with 3 hours of LED light, a clean, efficient alternative to parafin lamps. The mechanics are straightforward: When the sOccket rolls, a magnetic slug slides back and forth inside an inductive coil in the ball, generating power that is stored in a capacitor. Field-tested in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup, sOccket 2.0 has an embedded DC jack and weighs only 140 grams more than a FIFA-regulated ball. A future version should hold enough juice – 3,7 volts at a capacity of 600 milliamps per hour – to charge a basic cellphone. The women partnered with a manufacturer in Cape Town and hope to subsidise developing-world discounts with sales in the US. Redefining magnetism Innovator: Larry Fullerton, Correlated Magnetics Research Brilliant idea: Magnets printed with multiple poles, opening the door to myriad applications. Larry Fullerton set out to invent a self-assembling magnetic toy that would fuel his grandchildren’s passion for science. Instead, he invented a way to manipulate magnetic fields that redefines one of the fundamental forces of Nature. Fullerton’s breakthrough tramples the long-held assumption that magnets have two opposing poles, one on each side. He found that, if he used heat to erase a magnetic field, he could then reprogram material to have multiple north and south poles of differing strengths. “People look at magnets as having a north pole and a south pole. That limits your thinking,” he says. “I came along from the field of radar and said, ‘Hey, that’s not a magnet – it’s a vector field!’” To program the magnets, Fullerton invented a device – picture a printer whose head emits 200 000-amp bursts of electricity rather than ink – that creates magnetic pixels he calls “maxels”. Using the printer and some vector maths, Fullerton is now learning how to produce magnets that exhibit different behaviours. The practical applications appear limitless: from precision switches and a new generation of fasteners to robots that can scale walls without touching them. Snowboard bindings Two magnets tightly attract when aligned, but repel when twisted more than 45 degrees, easily clicking on and off. Other apps: cycling cleats, pick-proof locks, standard prosthetic-limb fittings. Spinal implants Magnetic discs attract and repel simultaneously, offering friction-free cushioning for bones of the spine. Other apps: bearings for energy-storing flywheels, assembly-line arms. Idiot-proof assembly Magnets on the joints of furniture or toys click together only when correctly aligned, making Christmas Eve easier for dads everywhere. Other apps: car parts, aircraft machinery. Future flight Innovators: Mark Drela, Edward Greitzer, MIT; Jeremy Hollman, Aurora Flight Sciences; Wesley Lord, Pratt & Whitney Brilliant idea: A cleaner, quieter craft with a radical new design, setting the stage for a fundamental shift in aviation. Boeing’s 737 is the best-selling jet airliner in history: Today, it carries 29 per cent of all US domestic air traffc and is responsible for a quarter of the industry’s fuel use. A reinvention of this commercial workhorse, called the D series, could burn 70 per cent less fuel, emit 75 per cent less nitrogen oxide and dampen noise from take-offs and landings. In short, it could transform air travel into a more environmentally benign practice. Significant tweaks to the 737’s basic tube-and-wing design add up “like compound interest” on the craft, says MIT aeronautics and astronautics professor Edward Greitzer. The MIT-led team, which includes two commercial partners, developed the D series in response to a R14 million Nasa research programme challenging engineers to design aircraft for 2035, by which time air travel is expected to have doubled. The team is one of only two in negotiations with Nasa for Phase II funding. “How can the airline industry grow and, at worst, remain neutral in its impact on the environment?” asks project manager Ruben Del Rosario of Nasa’s Glenn Research Centre. “We’re trying to invest in technology that can decrease its impact.” The year’s 10 most transformative products While many great innovations may languish in labs, a small number make that critical leap into consumer products that we use every day. With this year’s breakthrough product winners, we celebrate those equally meaningful achievements, starting with two cars poised to change perceptions. Chevrolet Volt Brilliant idea: A series hybrid that augments a battery pack with an onboard petrol engine, easing range anxiety and paving the way for EV adoption. It’s an EV early adopter’s worst nightmare: running out of juice, a long way from the nearest charging station. With the Volt, Chevrolet is intent on squelching those fears. When the 16-kilowatt- hour battery pack becomes depleted, the car automatically switches to a petrol engine – a transition that is remarkably smooth (it’s nearly impossible to discern on the road). And although the Volt may not be as much fun to drive in the conventional sense as, say, a Corvette, there’s still a sense of occasion behind the wheel. It is smoother and quieter than a Cadillac, plus in-dash screens add the gee-whiz element of revealing the car’s inner workings. For a plug-in series hybrid, there’s a lot of hardware – a petrol engine, a large battery and electric motors – and clever ideas under the bonnet, pushing the price in the USA to R375 000 (nearly R30 000 after the government subsidy), a princely sum for a small car. But the Volt is more than the sum of its cutting-edge parts: It’s a dramatic reinvention of the great American car, without sacri. cing the great American road trip. Aerodynamic design Extending the EV’s range means minimising drag, which can lead to bland shapes. “We didn’t want the automotive equivalent of Brussels sprouts,” says Bob Boniface, the Volt’s lead designer. So engineers added details such as a gently sloping rear hatch, a flat bottom and small creases and fins that manage airflow. The result is GM’s most aero-efficient car since the EV1. Powertrain When the Volt’s battery pack is discharged, the 1,4-litre petrol-powered four-cylinder engine kicks on to spin the 55-kW generator. The engine doesn’t top off the battery, but simply runs long enough to maintain performance. The generator and 111-kW traction motor are connected to the wheels via a planetary gearset in a way that’s similar to the Toyota Prius’s transmission. This arrangement allows both motors to power the wheels, a strategy that keeps each motor in its most efficient – and most refined – operating range. User interface Two 18-cm WVGA displays (one of which is a touchscreen) provide access to basic functions, vehicle information and a graphical efficiency coach. A smartphone app allows users to schedule charging and precondition the cabin while the car is plugged in. Battery pack The 300-volt lithium-ion battery pack is composed of 288 cells, grouped vertically like files in a drawer. To extend battery life, the pack never fully charges or depletes. A 250-micron-thick, sponge-like membrane separates the plates and holds the organic carbonate electrolyte through which the charged lithium ions flow. A dedicated liquid-cooling circuit maintains the pack’s temperature to within a degree. Nissan Leaf Brilliant idea: A pure EV with space for fi ve, a moderate price and enough range for most tasks – plus, an operating cost that’s irresistibly low. It’s not the first pure EV, but the Leaf is hitting the mainstream like none of its predecessors. At a US price of R230 000 (R178 000 after the government rebate), the Leaf costs the same as an average car and offers a 160-kilometre range – enough to cover the needs of the vast majority of commuters and errand runners. More than 13 000 US buyers have already plunked down $99 (about R675) deposits, and Nissan hopes to soon move 150 000 units a year worldwide. The car is eerily quiet to drive. “The vehicle is equipped with a sound generator just so people can hear it coming,” says Paul Hawson, product planner for the Leaf. But the real triumph lies in its family-car practicality and normality. And since electricity is cheaper than petrol, the Leaf delivers lower operating costs. A rational EV that doesn’t drive like a science project? About time. Charging Two plugs are located in the nose: a standard Level II 220- volt charger that fi lls the batteries in about 8 hours and a Level III quick charger that hits 80 per cent in half an hour. The juice needed for 160 kilometres runs about R20 in the US – less than half of the cost of petrol for the same trip. User interface The Leaf’s digital display and navigation system plot the most efficient routes and suggest ways to extend range – for example, by reducing the a/c. Drivers will also be able to track their performance online and compare themselves with other Leaf owners. Battery pack With no petrol-engine backup, the Leaf’s 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is both larger and uses a greater percentage of its capacity than the Volt’s pack does. Although both companies are tight-lipped about details, the Leaf’s 192 cells have a slightly different chemistry. They’re also stacked horizontally, like books on a table, to form a compact pallet under the floor, freeing up interior space for five passengers. Torque While the Leaf’s electric motor produces only 80 kW, it offers a peak 280 N.m of torque at 0 r/min. In other words: unlike a petrol car, it can pop off the line with an immediate and steady stream of power. While braking, the motor also charges the battery. Digital sight for the blind Innovators: Department of Energy Artifi cial Retina Project team, led by Mark Humayun, University of Southern California; Second Sight Medical Products. Brilliant idea: An artificial retina that transforms a camera feed into electric pulses that stimulate the optic nerve, providing rudimentary vision for millions of people with degenerative retinal diseases. Barbara Campbell is going to see Waiting for Godot. A lifelong New York City resident, she loves the theatre and has been attending Broadway shows for nearly 40 years, ever since she was a teenager growing up in the borough of Queens. During that time, her vision has steadily deteriorated. At first, she could distinguish the actors onstage without a problem. Then, the details began to blur, so she started using a small telescope to see their faces. Eventually, about 10 years ago, she realised that a production of Fosse had faded into a solid whitish blur, which is all she sees when she’s facing a stage or walking up a street or getting a plate of fettuccine at an Italian restaurant, as she is now. “Th is looks delicious!” Barbara says, in an unmistakable New York accent, as the waiter sets her food on the table. Barbara, now 57, still thinks and talks in the language of the sighted, which is important for the clinical trial she’s about to embark on tomorrow. She needs to be able to articulate exactly what she’s seeing, if she sees anything, once she becomes the 25th person in the world to receive the Argus II artificial retina. In a healthy human eye, 125 million photoreceptors at the back of the retina act like the world’s most sophisticated digital camera, functioning in a range of light conditions separated by 10 to 12 orders of magnitude. For example, when navigating through the woods on a moonless night, the eye’s rods can pick up a single photon, damping the “noise” of surrounding cells to amplify it. And when gazing down the beach on a dazzling summer day, the eye’s colour-sensitive cones rapidly adapt to a flood of sunlight. Barbara has retinitis pigmentosa, a disease caused by any one of 100 different gene defects that trigger the deterioration of those photo receptors and interrupt the complex sequence of image processing that follows. “My sixth grade teacher first noticed it,” Barbara tells me – as a child, she had trouble filling in the bubbles next to answers on standardised tests. “I don’t think either of my parents really understood what it meant. Every few years it would get a little worse and a little worse and a little worse.” In her 30s, Barbara finally started using a white cane – but only after she’d fallen down an open manhole. You tripped over it? I asked. “No, I went into it. Th ere was a ladder so I was able to climb out,” she says. “It was right next to a restaurant that had tables on the sidewalk. Everybody was like, Oh my God, she just went down the hole! They thought I just wasn’t paying attention.” She gets around the city perfectly well now – she took two subways and walked several blocks to meet me at the restaurant – but when she learned about the Argus II clinical trial, she enthusiastically applied. In the morning, a surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital will make an incision in Barbara’s left eye and lift the clingwraplike membrane that covers it, called the conjunctiva. He’ll then suture a small electronics package, about the size of a watch battery, to the outside wall of the eye and secure it with a piece of silicone rubber that wraps around the eye’s equator. Next, he’ll thread a thin cable through an incision in the wall; the cable connects the electronics to an array of 60 electrodes. After removing the vitreous humor that fills the inside of the eye – a material that’s essentially jelly, minus the sugar and food colouring – the surgeon refills the eye with . uid so that he can manipulate the array on to the retina, tacking it in place with what is perhaps the world’s tiniest pushpin. The whole procedure will take 4 to 5 hours. Barbara seems unperturbed. In fact, she’s looking forward to it. As a rehabilitation counsellor for the New York State Commission for the Blind, she understands the artificial retina won’t magically give her perfect eyesight. But what it will do is astounding nonetheless: send electric pulses that bypass the retina’s damaged rods and cones to jump-start cells that are still viable. The eye, after all, is a small, delicate organ. It’s warm and salty – a corrosive environment – and its tissue is extremely sensitive to temperature variation. Plus, the eye moves, and it moves briskly. Successfully implanting complex, wireless, biocompatible electronics in the eye is an extraordinary achievement. Bringing even rudimentary vision to someone who’s completely blind is historic. “I really have nothing to lose,” Barbara says, looking slightly above and beyond my right shoulder. She leans forward and feels for the edge of her plate. We’ve met only 20 minutes ago, but she o. ers me some of her pasta, which I readily accept – it is delicious. “I feel I’m very prepared for this,” she says matter-of-factly. “I understand I’m not going to be seeing with my eye, I’m going to be seeing with electronics. There’s no way it will look like whatever I saw before.” The Argus II implant that Barbara will be receiving is the second generation of the device; the first had only 16 electrodes. Information gleaned from this clinical trial will be used to improve the 60-electrode version, which will be commercialised, first in Europe, as early as December. But even as the trial continues, a much larger effort, involving six national labs, four universities and a commercial partner, Second Sight Medical Products, is developing technologies that will enable third- and fourth-generation models using as many as 1 024 electrodes – which could provide enough detail to read 24-point font and recognise faces. There are 100 000 people in the US with retinitis pigmentosa and 10 million with degenerative retinal diseases. “I’m optimistic,” Barbara tells me. “Whatever happens, somebody will benefit.” Two weeks later, I meet Barbara in front of her apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. We’re travelling together to her first weekly appointment at Lighthouse International, a non-profit that conducts research to benefit people with low vision. On the train, she tells me the surgery was long, but painless, and that the doctors seem pleased. As we emerge from the station, I pause, uncertain. “Bloomingdale’s should be behind us,” she says. “Pottery Barn is on the right. Lighthouse is about a third of the way up the street.” The main goal of today’s appointment is to confirm which of the array’s electrodes are working properly. Inside the dimmed office, a Second Sight technician hands Barbara a battery-powered microprocessor about the size and heft of a first-generation iPod. It will take information from a camera mounted on sunglasses and convert it to a signal, which is beamed wirelessly to a receiver in the electronics package on Barbara’s eye. The receiver then sends a corresponding pattern of electric pulses to the electrode array. Typically, when light passes through the transparent tissue of the retina and strikes photoreceptors, they initiate electrochemical signals that propagate forward through a layer of bipolar cells to ganglion cells. Millions of nerve fibres running from the ganglion cells dive through the eye’s “blind spot” and form the optic nerve that carries impulses to the brain. The electronic array sits like a postage stamp on the ganglion layer, stimulating the cells directly with a small amount of electricity. This produces phosphenes, the same sensation of light created by rubbing one’s eyes. The technician touches the keyboard of a laptop – today it will be standing in for the camera, sending information to stimulate specific electrodes – and it emits a loud bloop. “Can you see that?” she asks Barbara. “Yes, it was like a flash,” Barbara responds. Eighteen years ago, a blind patient saw a similar flash of light when Mark Humayun, an ophthalmologist and biomedical engineer at the University of Southern California’s Doheny Eye Institute, placed an electrode directly on the person’s retina during surgery. Until that moment, no one knew whether an optic nerve that had gone unstimulated for decades could still carry a signal to the brain. “The mantra was, if you don’t use it, you lose it,” Humayun says. His discovery made the eye a candidate for neural prosthetics – devices that interface with the nervous system to restore function lost to disease or injury. At the time, another neural prosthetic was just gaining traction: cochlear implants, which bypass damaged cells in the inner ear to directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Stimulating the optic nerve, however, is much more complex. Besides involving millions of points that create a picture, synapses that communicate across each layer of the retina play an important role in honing and sharpening images – a step the electronic array skips. “You have to recreate that processing,” Humayun says. “Each electrode can’t just ping the spot.” Software in the external microprocessor converts the visual feed into signals that should convey the correct shape – a doorway, say, or a lamppost. But each subject must also train to better interpret that information. “If you’ve been blind, your brain doesn’t just sit there twiddling its thumbs,” Humayun says. “It ends up taking over functions such as hearing and maybe even touch. When you replace that lost function to the brain, those areas have to regroup, reorganise and begin to relearn.” Four months after Barbara’s surgery, we’re back at Lighthouse International for an appointment in which she will try to identify letters of the alphabet. Barbara uses the camera now; it’s embedded discreetly in a pair of sunglasses. Her face is lit by the glow of an LCD screen in the darkened room, and I can see a white, 25-cm “L” reflected in the lenses. Barbara scans her head methodically, left and right, up and down, because the visual feed is coming from her glasses, not her eyes. “This could be an ‘L,’” she says tentatively. “That is an ‘L’! Wow, very nice,” responds Aries Arditi, a principal investigator and senior fellow in vision science at Lighthouse. Barbara laughs: “Beginner’s luck.” After a few more letters, Arditi has her take a timed test. It’s a control, with the device turned off. Barbara rattles off 10 letters at random as they appear on the screen, sometimes a beat before that, and gets them all wrong. Now, the real test: “Take as much time as you want,” Arditi says. Barbara spends a few minutes studying each letter. Her answers gradually get more confident, and she misses only three out of 10. “I only got three wrong?” Barbara asks. “Whoa! I’m impressed!” The following week she gets them all correct. “Barbara’s big advantage is Barbara,” Arditi tells me later. “She is really very good at exploiting what very minimal information she does have. The fact that she can recognise letters is astounding. She’s not going to be reading the newspaper anytime soon, but any bit of visual information you get is helpful.” As a sighted person, I still don’t understand exactly what Barbara sees through the artificial retina, so on my next trip to California I drop by Caltech to visit theoretical physicist Wolfgang Fink (now at the University of Arizona). He seats me in front of a 37-cm MacBook Pro in a windowless basement lab. The image displayed by the laptop’s camera is me, sort of. It is a 4 x 4 array of fat, square pixels in a mosaic of black, gray and white; I’m the black blocks on the left-hand side. “Current retinal implants have orders of magnitude less (pixels) than what a camera delivers,” he says. “Therefore, one of the first tasks of image processing is to sample the hi-res image to make the low-res image out of it.” Fink changes the view from 16 pixels to 64, roughly the equivalent of Barbara’s implant. Now, when I pass my hand in front of the camera, grey blocks shimmer diagonally across the array. “The levels of brightness the camera takes in are translated to levels of visual stimulation – strong phosphenes versus weaker ones,” Fink says. Then he loads a 32 x 32– pixel array, or 1 024 electrodes, the goal. The image sharpens to graphics akin to an old Atari game. I can pick out the check of my shirt, my hair, even the general contours of my face. Now Fink begins to manipulate the image with an Artificial Vision Support System (AVS2): He turns on a contrast enhancement filter, which makes the dark and light pixels starker; when he activates edge detection I can see the outline of my hand, and adding image blur causes it to become more avatar-like. Each layer of processing improves the utility of the otherwise limited arrays. “We’d like to make sure we can give the blind subject as many image-processing filters in real time as possible to choose from to make their visual experience better,” Fink says. He cautions me that what I’m seeing, however, is still through the filter of my own healthy retina, so it’s an ideal image. Fink leads me to a National Science Foundation-funded project: a rover about the size of a large Tonka truck with a camera gimballed at the front centre. Loaded with the AVS2, the rover, called Cyclops, can navigate around a room using only the number of pixels a researcher gives it, providing a much better approximation of what the blind might see. (Two of Barbara’s electrodes, for example, turned out to be disabled.) Plus, researchers can use it 24/7, allowing them to home in on optimal image processing for different environments, sparing test subjects exhausting groundwork. During one of Barbara’s checkups at the hospital, her surgeon showed me a scan of her eye with the Argus II implant. The eye looked like a celestial orb – Mars with dust storms swirling across its surface – and the electrode array resembled the aerial view of a well-lit alien city. Under a microscope in a clean room at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, the array appears much more clinical. This is the third generation of the device – the Argus III, in preclinical testing now – and so instead of 60 electrodes, 240 are packed onto the array. Imperceptibly fine traces of gold form a narrow racetrack leading from each electrode to a silicon chip where the electronics package will eventually be mounted. “You can see it’s already pretty tight in that area,” says Satinderpall Pannu, a mechanical engineer in Livermore’s Centre for Micro- and Nanotechnologies. “So you increase the density by a factor of four, and that’s a challenge.” He’s referring – through a face mask, since we’re both dressed in sterile garments from head to toe – to the 1 024 electrodes that an interdisciplinary Department of Energy team hopes to eventually squeeze onto the device. “One of the interesting scientific questions is: if you increase the density, how do the electric fields overlap with each other?” Pannu says. A researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is currently mapping those electric fields in order to arrive at an effective design. Scientists elsewhere are developing more advanced radiofrequency electronics and a biocompatible film that could coat the device, reducing its size. “We all had a unique piece of the puzzle needed to develop these implants,” Pannu says. “This was a great vehicle to push all these different technologies along.” For its part, the team at Lawrence Livermore applies microfabrication techniques common to the semiconductor industry, such as photolithography, to manufacture the array. Pannu shows me a 10-cm-diameter silicon wafer with 10 of the thinfilm devices, shaped like elegant hockey sticks, layered onto the surface. The same process is used to manufacture inertial sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes, which now appear in products from cars and Wii controllers to critical components in aircraft. “We have somewhere between 100 and 125 million photoreceptors in our eye,” Pannu says. “And so if I were losing vision, I’d want to have roughly that same resolution after I put my device in. So the real question is, how do we go from a thousand electrodes to a million or 100 million?” Though that feat could easily be decades away, the researchers have already begun to think about how to put an integrated circuit directly on the retina. The engineering being perfected with the Argus device could also improve other neural implants. For example, microfabrication could make cochlear implants, pacemakers and deep-brain stimulators for treating Parkinson’s disease smaller and less invasive. The tiny, lightweight camera could be used in applications ranging from security to endoscopy. And the implant’s hermetic packaging could protect environmental sensors, especially ones used in underwater locations such as the Gulf of Mexico. At Christmastime, Barbara is able to string the lights on her tree unassisted – and know for herself that they are evenly spaced. A month later, she’s become very good at identifying the bus stop and can see the light at the entrance to her apartment building from up the block. By spring, she can distinguish the white line representing the crosswalk as she approaches the street, a milestone she calls “huge”. And a year after she received her artificial retina, she wears it to Disneyland, where the lights fly by her in Space Mountain. The 30 subjects in the clinical trial appreciate the Argus II for varied reasons, according to Second Sight’s vice president of business development, Brian Mech. “Barbara talks about bumping into a lot fewer things when she wears it outside,” he says. “For other people, it’s being able to see their grandchildren, even if they can’t recognise them – being able to see the Moon or fireworks. They feel more connected to their environment. They value things they can do with the device, but they value a reduction in isolation even more.” A handful of other teams, in Germany, Australia and elsewhere in America, have begun to develop retinal implants as well, though currently none of the devices is in a US clinical trial. In recent years, scientists have grown new retinal cells from stem cells and shown progress in developing an effective gene therapy. Each approach brings its own challenges. But someday all of them could offer a valid treatment for retinitis pigmentosa as well as for age-related macular degeneration, which gradually destroys photoreceptors in the centre of the retina and is the leading cause of blindness in adults over age 55. The Argus II represents a concrete step in that direction. I meet Barbara one autumn evening for a screening of The Wizard of Oz in Central Park. As we take our seats on the bleachers she pulls her glasses out of a black padded case and plugs the cord into the microprocessor, which she slings over her arm. Speakers surround us, but when the movie starts, she turns her head to the left, toward the screen. “How tall would you say that is?” she asks. About 15 metres, I say. “That’s what I thought!” To her, the structure looks like a giant block of white pixels that dim and brighten depending on whether Dorothy is skipping through the Haunted Forest or toward the Emerald City. “Oh, this looks so awesome!” she says. How the Argus II works 1. A camera mounted on a pair of glasses captures video and sends this information through a cable to an external microprocessor. 2. The microprocessor converts the information to a corresponding pattern of signals for electrical stimulation, which travel back through the cable to a radio-frequency transmitter on the glasses. 3. The transmitter wirelessly beams the data and power to a receiver in an electronics package on the eye. A tiny cable carries the stimulation signals through the wall of the eye to the electrode array. 4. Electrodes implanted on the ganglion cell layer of the retina fi re. Electric impulses then travel through the optic nerve to the brain for interpretation.

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Jan-February 2022