1. Flywheel Energy Storage
If we are going to retool our electric grid to incorporate more renewable energy sources, we need to find better ways of storing energy. One solution that has been talked about for decades is the use of flywheels: large, heavy wheels that store energy by spinning rapidly and release it through a generator that converts it back into electricity. The upshot: A utility can swiftly ramp up supply or taper it off to meet demand. After years of false starts, the first large-scale flywheel plant is set to open in 2011. Beacon Power’s 20-Mw plant in Stephentown, New York, features 200 flywheels, each with a magnetically levitated rotor that spins at up to 16,000 rpm.
2. white-Space Wireless
The electromagnetic spectrum is a crowded space, what with a world full of wireless signals bumping up against each other. And the sliver of spectrum left open for unlicensed use (meaning it can be used by any gadget, including Wi-Fi routers and cordless phones) is tiny. That’s why technology companies are celebrating one side effect of the 2009 switch from analog to digital TV—the FCC ruled last September that the spectrum space once used by TV broadcasters will now be unlicensed. Even better, these so-called white-space wireless bands use short wavelengths that make them better than a typical Wi-Fi signal at traveling long distances and passing through obstacles such as walls and trees. Microsoft’s corporate campus already has a wireless network using the technology, and Google is working with white-space equipment maker Spectrum Bridge on a pilot project at a hospital in Ohio, as well as a “smart grid” system for wirelessly managing electricity consumption in some California communities.
Thanks to hydraulic fracturing—or fracking, as it’s often called—America’s shale fields are now capable of yielding massive quantities of previously inaccessible natural gas. Last year alone, estimates of unproved shale gas reserves jumped by 30 percent. Here’s how it works: Sand, water and lubricating chemicals are mixed in a slurry blender, then injected into a well at pressures high enough to make cracks form in the surrounding rock, releasing the gas or oil trapped within its pores. Although the method has been used for decades, its use in horizontal shale wells is new—and attracting new controversy. Opponents cite the technique’s environmental impact (drinking-water contamination is a particular concern), and studies suggest it may cause minor earthquakes. Energy companies and environmental groups are gearing up for a fight in the coming year.
4. Medical Isotope Shortages
Radioactive isotopes are used in more than 50,000 medical procedures in the U.S. every day, from bone scans to cancer treatment. But America was left scrambling when the Canadian and Dutch reactors that supply most of the country’s medical isotopes unexpectedly shut down for extended periods in 2009 and 2010. Both reactors are now online again, but shortages will likely return—the reactors are a half-century old and may not last much longer. And then there are the security problems associated with exporting weapons-grade uranium to other countries—even friendly ones like Canada—for processing. A bill aimed at promoting domestic isotope production is now making its way through Congress, and the Department of Energy has kicked in millions of dollars to develop new ways to produce isotopes.
5. Complex-Event Processing
Corporations and governments routinely comb through enormous databases of information and images (such as those pulled from surveillance cameras) in search of patterns. But in today’s data-rich world, an unfavorable signal-to-noise ratio can make it time-consuming and expensive to find anything relevant. A new generation of software is shifting the focus from “data” (a record of what’s happened) to “events” (what’s happening right now). Companies like StreamBase Systems and Tibco offer complex-event processing systems that analyze enormous flows of data in real time using new database and pattern-recognition approaches. This allows them to make instant decisions about whether to make a stock trade, initiate surveillance on a potential terrorist or halt a suspicious credit-card transaction. As the technology matures, we can expect these capabilities to trickle down to consumer devices. This would allow, for example, a GPS-enabled cellphone to sift through a constant stream of location-aware offers and alert users only to ones they would actually be interested in—such as deals on coffee along their morning commute route during the hours when they make the trek.
Until now, researchers looking to stimulate specific neurons had to rely on bursts of electricity—an imprecise and difficult-to-control technique. That’s why the new field of optogenetics is so exciting. By combining fiberoptics and designer viruses, researchers can now stimulate neurons with a high degree of precision. This could allow, for example, the development of implants that can take over the functions of a brain region that might have been damaged by a wound or stroke. First, the brain is injected with a virus that is engineered to activate specific neurons when light hits them. A fiber-optic cable combined with an electrode then sends light into the brain, turning the neurons on and off, on command. Initial experiments used rodents, but researchers have now applied the technique to monkeys, and DARPA recently announced a project aimed at using optogenetics to help injured veterans.
America’s infrastructure needs renewal, but we can’t just rebuild everything at once: We need effective ways to figure out which structures are closest to failure. One approach is to integrate tiny wireless sensors into new construction. Another is to incorporate “mechanophores,” a class of materials recently developed at the University of Illinois that change color when they are stressed. Mechanophores could give an engineer a quick visual indication of whether a bridge is at risk and where the trouble lies. The researchers are currently working to tune the reaction so that it can occur at any desired level of stress. They also hope to develop new mechanophores that undergo a self-healing response when they are damaged.
8 Cellphone Diagnostics
While trained medical care is a rare commodity in the developing world, cellphones are increasingly common. In fact, between 80 and 90 percent of the world’s population now lives within range of a cell tower. That makes phones a powerful tool for bringing modern medicine to remote and poor areas. One approach pioneered by MIT spinoffs Sana Mobile and ClickDiagnotics is to have rural health workers transmit X-rays and other medical information via cellphone to far-off experts for diagnosis. Meanwhile, scientists at University of California, Berkeley, and a PM Breakthrough Award–winning researcher at UCLA have combined inexpensive microscope parts with off-the-shelf phones to produce devices that can record and instantly analyze microscopic images, detecting malaria parasites or tuberculosis-causing bacteria. The Berkeley-designed diagnostic tool, called CellScope, will be deployed in field trials in 2011.
9 Homomorphic Encryption
Researchers at IBM recently cracked a decades-old problem: how to encrypt data so that other people can sort and search it without actually revealing the contents. As cloud computing becomes more pervasive over the next year, this “homomorphic” encryption will allow companies to store sensitive data on remote servers, where it can be kept secret from the server’s host, but still be easily accessed and searched. Users will also be able to enter search-engine queries and receive results without the search engine ever knowing or having a record of their query. The key breakthrough was a “double-blind” scheme that can check for encryption errors and fix them without revealing the data. Best of all, the researchers demonstrated that the technique can be implemented in just a few minutes on a standard PC, not just high-priced super-computers.
10 100 GBPS Fiberoptics
Thanks to data-hungry devices such as smartphones, the world now has an almost unquenchable thirst for bandwidth. A new generation of fiberoptic cables promises to meet the need, reaching a threshold of 100 gigabits per second—a significant jump from existing 10- and 40-gigabit-per-second cables, and enough to carry 15,000 HDTV channels simultaneously. Because the new cables encode two bits each in the polarization and phase of a light pulse, rather than a single bit in its intensity, they can pack four times as much data into the signal and reduce the impact of microscopic imperfections in the cables. Alcatel-Lucent has installed a 38-mile test link between two German universities and separately tested its 100 gigabit-per-second Ethernet equipment on Verizon’s network in Dallas. The higher-speed cable is now available commercially and will likely carry some of the data you use in the coming year.