The December 2012 edition of Scientific American describes in detail 10 radical breakthroughs that are poised to change the world. In the process of choosing them, the editors decided to highlight seven other compelling innovations and trends that also have great promise. Here they are.
An Air Bag for Your Bike
At $600, the Hövding bicycle "helmet" is pricey. But the design is so ingenious it could change the nature of the traditional hard-shell helmets that cyclists and motorcyclists wear.
The helmet is actually a collar that a rider wears around his or her neck. The collar contains a decompressed air bag that deploys instantly during a crash, enveloping the rider's head. Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin began to design the collar when they were students at Lund University in Sweden, and they are now part of the 16-person start-up company in Malmö, Sweden, that makes the commercial version of it. The collar is equipped with accelerometers and gyroscopes that detect the cyclist's movements and cause the helmet to deploy. The air bag inflates fully in about a tenth of a second. Some critics note that the collar can only be used once, but traditional helmets are supposed to be replaced following crashes as well.
This "invisible" helmet currently comes with two different designer covers. Hövding staged crashes to demonstrate the product at the Mercedes–Benz fashion week in Stockholm in August 2012. After a helmet has been deployed, the customer can return it to Hövding for recycling.
Robot Life Guards
On July 15 two boys off the Oregon coast found themselves struggling against a riptide, being dragged from shore. No lifeguard was near the remote area. Their father called 911 and jumped in to help. One son made it back, but the father and the other child were in trouble. The Depoe Bay Fire Department arrived, threw what looked like a large, horizontal buoy into the water, and used a remote control to steer the contraption to the father and son, saving them.
That "buoy" was actually the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard, or E.M.I.L.Y. Created by Hydronalix, a maritime robotics company in Green Valley, Ariz., the 11-kilogram, 1.4-meter-long robotic lifeguard is powered by a small motor that runs on rechargeable batteries. Hydronalix envisions the $10,000 robot sitting idle at a beach or marina. On seeing a swimmer in distress, a rescuer or any passerby would throw E.M.I.L.Y. into the water and steer it by remote control to the swimmer, who would grab on and wait safely for other help to arrive. E.M.I.L.Y. cannot replace lifeguards but can reach swimmers quickly, even in areas that would be too dangerous for a human rescuer.
Image: The Water Project
Ceramic Water Filters for the Developing World
Lack of access to clean water is a huge cause of disease and death in many parts of the world, and a variety of charities are working to provide potable water. One new option is a ceramic filter that has a silver lining, literally. The filter, which looks like a flowerpot, sits over a plastic bucket. Water is poured gradually into the pot, and it slowly seeps through. Small pores in the ceramic material filter out most impurities, but a colloidal silver coating also kills microbes. A recent study showed that the pots eliminated more than 99 percent of pathogens. The pots significantly improved the health of residents in a poor, rural Nigerian village after being used for six months.
Many nonprofit groups such as Safe Water Ceramics of East Africa are trying to make the pots more widely available. And Potters for Peace, which teaches people in communities without access to clean water how to make and use the pots, is planning to begin partnerships with communities in Colombia, Paraguay, Cameroon and Guinea–Bissau.
We have all seen signs near office printers or in restrooms reminding us not to use too much paper because it kills trees. Although most paper comes from managed tree farms, it takes 10 to 20 years for new trees that are planted to replace harvested ones. But what if paper could be made without the trees? Paper comprises mostly cellulose, and plenty of waste cellulose is out there, including bagasse, the fibrous byproduct of extracting juice from sugar cane.
Sugarmade, a company founded in 2009, is now marketing tree-free paper made from bagasse and bamboo. Both of the raw materials are renewable: bamboo grows much more quickly than trees, and bagasse is often disposed of by incineration. Based in San Jose, Calif., Sugarmade has rapidly been increasing its distribution network across the western and southern U.S. It is now conducting a lifecycle analysis of the environmental impact of its products, which will help the company make its paper as sustainably as possible.
Compostable Food Packaging
Back in early 2010 Frito–Lay introduced a fully compostable bag for Sun Chips. It met all the food packaging requirements and was colorful to boot. Unfortunately, the bag was also really loud when people handled it—95 decibels loud. Frito–Lay eventually pulled the packaging and after another brief attempt at compostability, abandoned the idea. But now Germany-based chemical company BASF has produced a new type of compostable bag for foods such as chips and candy bars. The bag, which is designed to be as similar to traditional packaging as possible (including auditory level), is made from multiple layers of compostable resins and adhesives, some of it based on renewable resources such as corn. Polymers in the packaging resemble the molecular chains that bacteria and fungi normally feed on.
One early adopter was the Seattle Mariners baseball stadium, which tried the bags during the 2012 season. The team, which was on track to divert 85 percent of its waste from landfills during the season, says that using such packaging keeps the compost stream unadulterated and reduces the costs of sorting waste. The bags should begin appearing on supermarket shelves as BASF reaches deals with food companies.
Crowd-Funding for Science
The explosion of social media has spawned the phenomenon of crowd-funding. Charities, rock bands, individuals—anyone—can raise funds from people all over the world via online sites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. The idea has taken off for scientific research as well. In the past two years, SciFund and other sites such as microryza.com and petridish.org have funded hundreds of projects, and they are growing rapidly. The projects, often modest in size, range from testing the effects of oral contraceptives on hermaphroditic fish to determining the life cycle of glacial lakes in the Himalayas. Proponents believe that in addition to much-needed financial resources, crowd-funding can provide a platform for science outreach and public engagement. Crowd-funding will not replace traditional sources of support, but it instantly expands the options.
Image: Kahn Academy
Can't afford college tuition? Need help in chemistry? Video education, growing wildly on the Internet, is changing how people of all ages learn. The movement received an early boost in 2002, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched its OpenCourseWare project, designed to make lectures and lecture notes from M.I.T. classes available to anyone with an Internet connection. Other universities have since jumped in, but the big expansion now underway is by nonprofit and commercial outfits such as TEDEd, iTunesU and Khan Academy, to name a few. They provide tutoring and instruction for students from elementary school to college. YouTube EDU is also getting involved, hosting thousands of educational videos and partnering with Khan Academy to sponsor the YouTube Next EDU Guru video contest.