Revealing Little-Known Innovations
What bright ideas do today’s innovators have for improving the technology of tomorrow?
- From zero in 2003, there were 2,500 robots deployed in Iraq in 2005 and almost 12,000 today — mostly for bomb disposal.
- A new nanorod reflexive coating for solar panels raised the percentage of sunlight absorbed from 67% to 96% — and it operates at full capacity whatever the angle of the sun.
- In one week alone, over $2 billion was raised for clean-tech ventures — almost matching the entire third quarter of 2008 at a record $2.6 billion.
There is some very good news on innovation in solar power and nano-technology which points to a much brighter future. All previous predictions of gloom and despair — from Thomas Malthus in 1798 predicting that human population explosions would overwhelm food supplies to the Club of Rome's “Limits to Growth” in the 1970s — have been proved wrong by human ingenuity and technological change.
This pattern of brains overcoming threats is likely to continue, even with the challenge of climate change. But we still have the next two years of a global slowdown and a G-7 recession to get through.
Here are some examples of the innovations that will help get us out of this mess.
1) At Luke Air Force Base in Nevada, a new roof of thin-film photovoltaic solar panels on a 144,000 square foot building is producing 200,000 kilowatt hours per year.
2) The Swiss group Oerlikon made $300 million in sales of thin-film photovoltaic solar panels in 2007, $600 million in 2008 and will exceed $900 million this year. The residential market alone is expected to be $2.5 billion by 2015.
3) Professor Shawn Lin's team at Rensellaer University announced that their new nanorod reflexive coating for solar panels raised the percentage of sunlight absorbed from 67% to 96%. And it operates at full capacity whatever the angle of the sun, doing away with the need for mechanical tilting.
Let there be light
4) Seldon Technical of Vermont is marketing a carbon fiber nano-filtration straw to the U.S. Army, which allows troops to drink safely and directly from polluted streams.
5) MIT Professor Daniel Nocera has managed to replicate in the laboratory the process of photosynthesis in plants in a way that suggests we will be able to store solar energy to use at night or when the sun does not shine.
Hailed as “a major discovery” by Imperial College's Professor Jim Barber in London, this simple, inexpensive and highly efficient process uses solar power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night. The key is a new cobalt-phosphate catalyst developed by Professor Nocera.
Robotics and miniatures
6) The Iraq War has helped make strides in robotics technology. From zero in 2003, there were 2,500 robots deployed in Iraq in 2005 and almost 12,000 today, mostly involved in bomb disposal. This year, the U.S. armed forces had more unmanned aerial vehicle controllers in training than pilots.
7) Professor Xiamei Jiang's team at the University of Florida announced this month that they had successfully put into operation an array of miniature solar cells, made of organic polymer (plastic) rather than silicon — each of which is less than a quarter the size of the letter “o” on this page. The array of 20 cells is powering a small chemical detection sensor and this looks like the breakthrough required for development of miniaturized machines.
8) Vancouver-based CellFor has developed new specialized pine tree seedlings that grow 30-40% faster than normal pines. They claim the technology could reduce the land needed for the world's entire timber supply to less than a tenth of the area used today. This would mean more forest land could be preserved. And the new seedlings produce trees that sequester 30% more carbon per acre than today's norm.
9) What economic slowdown? With two new clean-tech funds of $400 million each announced, in one week alone, over $2 billion was raised for clean-tech ventures. That one week alone has thus almost matched the third quarter of this year — which produced a record $2.6 billion in new clean-tech capital for 158 companies across the globe. (See www.cleantech.com/news.)
10) Dr. Henry Markram, who runs the Blue Brain project at the Technical University of Lausanne, Switzerland, is getting a Japanese robotics group to develop a robo-rat. Next year, he plans to insert the artificial rat's brain he has developed into the robo-rat and see how it runs around his lab.
Dr. Markram last year took me on a virtual trip into the computerized rat's brain cortex he has built. I watched, fascinated, as bursts of energy that showed the synapses working began to glow red (pleasure) or blue (pain), and then started firing independently. As Dr. Markram said, “it's getting a mind of its own.”
The rat brain will be less than a tenth the size of Dr. Markram's ultimate project, to simulate the one trillion synapses of the human brain. This means building the computing capacity to process 500 petabytes of data. (By comparison, all the data on all Google servers worldwide currently run to about 2.5 petabytes.) He reckons it's about ten years away.