The more mysteries that scientists unlock, the more opportunities emerge for the next generation of researchers to transform newfound knowledge into tomorrow's breakthroughs that serve society. The Lemelson–M.I.T. Program recognized several potential breakthroughs Wednesday in awarding four of its $30,000 Lemelson–M.I.T. Student Prizes to those from California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (R.P.I.), and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (U.I.U.C.).

A key criterion in recognizing Caltech's Heather Agnew, Harvard-M.I.T.'s Erez Lieberman-Aiden, U.I.U.C.'s Jonathan Naber and R.P.I.'s Kayvan Rafiee is the potential for commercial application. Their work in particular could open new avenues for combating disease, understanding the human genome, building hydrogen-powered vehicles and empowering the disabled.

Agnew, 28, has done her Ph.D. work with a team of researchers—including Caltech chemistry professor James Heath—to help them develop synthetic antibodies called "protein capture agents," which can identify, bind to and remove protein biomarkers that are indicators of disease and infection. Natural antibodies are very delicate because they themselves are proteins that can be rendered ineffective by heat and other stresses, says Agnew, a native of Allentown, Pa. Agnew first identified the chemical components at the core of these protein capture agents, which might someday replace natural antibodies in the healing process.

When Agnew completes her work at Caltech she plans to join a start-up called Integrated Diagnostics, with offices in Seattle and Culver City, Calif., that will commercialize the artificial antibody technology. "It's been thrilling to see something that was in [our] heads turn into something with so many applications for biomedicine," she says.

New York City native Lieberman-Aiden's foray into biotechnology resulted in a genome sequencing methodology, which he calls "Hi-C," designed to better understand how the human genome—with its three-billion-letter chemical code—fits into a cell's tiny nucleus. Lieberman-Aiden, 30, and his colleagues designed Hi-C as a molecular biology technique to let researchers collect information suitable for the reconstruction of a genome's 3-D architecture. Whereas it is possible today to observe the double-helix architecture of bases of DNA, "at larger scales it's not obvious how the genome is folding," he says.

Hi-C has made possible a global, three-dimensional view of whole genomes as they fold, says Lieberman-Aiden, who is graduating in June and will begin a three-year fellowship with the Harvard Society of Fellows during which he plans to develop ways to improve the resolution of 3-D DNA images. As a side project Lieberman-Aiden has also developed the iShoe, a sensor-laden insole that enables early diagnosis and rehabilitation of deteriorating balance for the elderly and disabled.

Naber, 20, a materials engineering junior at U.I.U.C., is also creating technology to help people with disabilities, although his emphasis is on helping the two million or so people worldwide in need of prosthetics to replace amputated arms. Naber and his Illini Prosthetics team want to create and commercialize affordable, functional, comfortable and inexpensive transradial prosthetic arms, which are for people with amputations below the elbow (upper-arm prosthetics will follow eventually).

"I rejected the paradigm that we had to use the custom-fitted socket and clamp-and-hook design, which hasn't changed much since the Civil War," says Naber, who hails from Waterloo, Ill. Instead Naber's prosthetics will be based on a design where the amputee wears the prosthetic on a harness and can screw on different types of attachments—a hook or artificial hand, for example—at the wrist.

Naber, who expects to graduate in 2011, will travel to Guatemala this summer to field-test his prototypes at a prosthetics clinic. After graduation, he and his team plan to continue visiting developing countries to do beta testing and modify their designs. He is looking to China or Taiwan as possible sites for mass producing prosthetics, although he wants the assembly work to be done locally, in the countries where the artificial limbs will be used.

Just as Naber did in making a prosthetic entirely from recycled materials, Rafiee's work likewise has a green hue. Rafiee is developing a way to line a hydrogen vehicle's fuel tank with a one-atom-thick layer of graphene, essentially a sheet of single-walled carbon nanotubes that have been opened up and laid flat, so that the tank can better store and release hydrogen. His goal is to help automakers speed hydrogen-fueled cars to the market. "The hydrogen economy is the main key to solving oil dependency," he says.

The challenges to making an automobile run on hydrogen are primarily those of hydrogen production, storage, distribution and energy conversion, says Rafiee, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering who plans to graduate next year. As a gas, hydrogen is a very low density material and difficult to store. "We need a cheap, porous material to store and release hydrogen at low pressure and at room temperature, and it needs to be a reversible process, for when the tank needs to be refilled," he says, adding that he and his colleagues are working on a business plan that will help them commercialize their work.

View a slide show of the Lemelson–M.I.T. prizewinning work