October 5, 2012 / IST / Science & Technology.

1) Master of Creative Disruption

Leadership Award
Innovator: Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies and Tesla Motors

Elon Musk, the entrepreneur, is having a good year. His companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Tesla Motors, both hit historic milestones. SpaceX became the first private company to build, launch, and operate a spacecraft that docked with the International Space Station. Tesla unveiled the world’s first premium all—electric sedan to positive reviews at a price of $49,900 (after rebate).
Elon Musk, the man, has every reason to be nervous. At 41, the South African—born billionaire has staked his fortune on businesses that could reshape the future—or implode spectacularly. After creating and selling the Internet payment system PayPal, Musk turned his attention to industries he felt could enhance humanity’s potential: electric cars and affordable spaceflight.

2) Fighting Deflation

Self-Regulating Tire
Innovators: Massimo Di Giacomo Russo, John Kotanides Jr., and the Air Maintenance Technology Team, Goodyear Tire & Rubber
What is it? A team led by Massimo Di Giacomo Russo and John Kotanides Jr. of Goodyear Research has created a tire that manages its own pressure. That means no monthly trips to the filling station to bump up the psi.
How does it work? A peristaltic pump pushes air through a tube wrapped around the tire’s interior circumference—the action is similar to the way contracting muscles move food through the human intestine. The weight of the car pinches the rotating tube, forcing tiny gulps of air inside.
Why does it matter? Properly inflated tires will improve the average vehicle’s fuel efficiency by 2 to 3 percent, the equivalent of saving about 10 cents per gallon of fuel. Fully inflated tires also last longer and perform better, especially while cornering, which reduces accidents. These tires are coming soon: Goodyear has successfully tested prototypes and hopes to begin limited field testing in the fall of 2013.

3) Teaching Robots to Walk

MABEL
Innovators: Jessy Grizzle, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Jonathan Hurst, Oregon State University
Walking, that fundamental human activity, seems simple: Take one foot, put it in front of the other; repeat. But to scientists, bipedalism is still largely a mystery, involving a symphony of sensory input (from legs, eyes, and inner ear), voluntary and involuntary neural commands, and the synchronized pumping of muscles hinged by tendons to a frame that must balance in an upright position. That makes building a robot that can stand up and walk in a world built for humans deeply difficult. 

But it’s not impossible. Robots such as Honda’s ASIMO have been shuffling along on two feet for more than a decade, but the slow, clumsy performance of these machines is a far cry from the human gait. Jessy Grizzle of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Jonathan Hurst of Oregon State University have created a better bot, a 150-pound two-legged automaton named MABEL that can walk with a surprisingly human dexterity. MABEL is built to walk blindly (without the aid of laser scanners or other optical technologies) and fast (it can run a 9—minute mile). To navigate its environment, MABEL uses contact switches on its “feet” that send sensory feedback to a computer. “When MABEL steps off an 8-inch ledge, as soon as its foot touches the floor, the robot can calculate more quickly and more accurately than a human the exact position of its body,” explains Grizzle. MABEL uses passive dynamics to walk efficiently—storing and releasing energy in fiberglass springs—rather than fighting its own momentum with its electric motors.

4) Erasing Oil Spills

Grooved Disc Oil Skimmer
Innovators: Jeff Cantrell, Stewart Ellis, Don Johnson, Brian Orr, Jerome Riley, Paul Smith, Charles Storey, Donnie Wilson, Elastec/American Marine
In 1989 Donnie Wilson and Jeff Cantrell had a revelation. While cleaning an oil spill in a pond with vacuum trucks in southern Illinois they noticed how oil clung to the sides of a 5-gallon bucket (displaying the same property that makes grease stick to Tupperware). The next year Wilson and Cantrell founded Elastec (now called Elastec/American Marine), to manufacture plastic drum oil skimmers. 

In 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew, Elastec/American Marine was called to help with the cleanup. The company’s skimmers were no match for the 56,000-barrel-a-day gusher. So to keep up with the spill, Wilson’s crew used floating booms to corral surface oil and burn it. Watching all that petroleum go up in smoke inspired him and his company to develop a high-volume drum skimmer that could collect more oil, rather than wasting it.

5) Outsmarting Pain

Next-Generation Award
Innovator: Katherine Bomkamp
In 2006 15-year-old Katherine Bomkamp and her father, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Bomkamp, went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for a medical appointment. In the cafeteria, she saw a young wife feeding her husband, who had lost his right arm and both legs. “She was holding the hand he still had,” remembers Bomkamp, now a junior at West Virginia University. “I overheard him complaining of pain. That always stuck with me.” 

That soldier was one of nearly 2 million Americans living with limb loss, 80 percent of whom experience phantom sensations—such as throbbing and burning—coming from their absent limbs.

The next year Bomkamp decided to tackle phantom limb pain for the science fair at her Waldorf, Md., high school. Her prototype prosthesis used battery-powered foot warmers to apply heat to the stump, the way you’d soothe sore muscles—she later found research indicating that heat distracts the brain from pain. She won the science fair and received honorable mention at the 2010 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Bomkamp has continued developing the device. Her most recent prototype has automatic temperature regulation, embedded thermo—resistive wiring, and a solar—powered lithium-ion battery. She received a patent last spring. The next step is to launch human trials.

Bomkamp has come a long way since her high school project, but her inspiration remains the same—helping military amputees get back into the workplace. “I want to make pain one less obstacle that they have to overcome,” she says.

6) Out-flopping the World

IBM Blue Gene/Q Sequoia Supercomputer
Innovators: Bruce Goodwin, Michel McCoy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; IBM Research and IBM Systems & Technology Group

7) Plugging Into the Brain

Brain—Computer Interface
Innovators: Michael Boninger, Jennifer Collinger, Alan Degenhart, Andrew Schwartz, Elizabeth Tyler—Kabara, Wei Wang, University of Pittsburgh; Tim Hemmes

8) Peering Around Corners

CORNAR Camera
Innovators: Ramesh Raskar, Andreas Velten, MIT Media Lab
Through two centuries of technological change, one limitation of photography has remained constant: A camera can only capture images in its line of sight. But now a team of university researchers led by MIT Media Lab professor Ramesh Raskar has built a camera that sees around corners. The CORNAR system bounces high-speed laser pulses off any opaque surface, such as a door or wall. These pulses then reflect off the subject and bounce back to a camera that records incoming light in picosecond intervals. The system measures and triangulates distance based on this time-of-flight data, creating a point cloud that visually represents the objects in the other room. Essentially the camera measures and interprets reflected echoes of light.

9) Building a Better Metal

Ultralight Micro-Lattice
Innovators: William Carter, Alan Jacobsen, Tobias Schaedler, HRL Laboratories; Julia R. Greer, Caltech; Lorenzo Valdevit, University of California, Irvine
What is it? An engineered metal mesh that is 100 times lighter than Styrofoam packing peanuts. It can be compressed by up to 50 percent and bounce perfectly back into shape. The technology was developed by a team from the Malibu-based HRL Laboratories, along with researchers from Caltech and the University of California, Irvine.

10) Breaking Through the Heliopause

Mechanical Lifetime Achievement Award Voyager 1 & 2
Innovators: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
In 1977 NASA launched twin Voyager spacecraft to take advantage of a rare alignment of the solar system’s gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) that would allow both craft to swing past all four planets in a single trajectory. Engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory originally made plans for a 12-year mission. But by 1972 budget woes had withered their planetary grand tour to a five-year flight. Thirty-five years later, both probes are still sending back data, and within the next couple of years Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 will exit the farthest bounds of the solar system. Ed Stone, who has been JPL’s project scientist for the Voyager program for four decades, is awed by the prospect of the probes entering interstellar space. “We have an object made by the human race that’s traveling between the stars,” he says. “It’s not science fiction anymore. It’s real.”
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