2011: A year in technology
January 3, 2012
We cast a wide net over all types of new and emerging technologies here at Gizmag.com - some save us time, some keep us connected, some help us stay healthy and some are just plain fun, but at the core of what we cover are those discoveries and innovations which have the potential to impact the fortunes of the human race as a whole and make a difference to the future of our planet. So with the calender having rolled over into another year, it's an ideal time to take a look back at some of the most significant and far-reaching breakthroughs that we saw during 2011.
Transistors form the foundation of a world awash with electronic devices, but although they have shrunk dramatically, their design has not changed radically since they were first introduced decades ago. That all changed in 2011 with Intel announcing the mass production of its revolutionary Tri-Gate 3-D transistor. Intel says that adding a third dimension to the design will result in transistors that are up to 37 percent faster than those used in the current 32 nm process, use half the active power and add only around 3 percent to production costs. In contrast, Intel's first processor - the 4004 - which was introduced in 1971, ran 4,000 times slower and used 5,000 times more energy.
A huge number of renewable energy breakthroughs caught our attention throughout the year and notable among those are developments that could lead to a viable alternative to petroleum-based fuels. Early in the year Cella Energy announced that it has developed hydrogen-based micro-beads that can be used to run existing vehicles without engine modification and could ultimately lead to a synthetic fuel that costs as little as US$1.50 per gallon. Notable announcements were also made by researchers from the University of Minnesota who are using two types of bacteria to create hydrocarbons from sunlight and carbon dioxide, and University of Michigan scientists who have developed a new process for extracting biofuel from algae.
Closing in on extra-terrestrial life
More than 700 planets outside our solar system (or exoplanets) have now been identified and the number is rising rapidly. While pinpointing these heavenly bodies is one thing, sniffing out those that could harbor or sustain life is quite another, but recent discoveries made by NASA's Kepler mission have shown promise in this regard. Two of the exoplanets discovered in the last month - Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f - are described as the first Earth-size planets found beyond our solar system, but they are too close to their parent star to have water, and are thought to be uninhabitable. A third exoplanet dubbed Kepler 22b, however, is seen as the most likely so far to sustain life as it orbits a star similar to our sun at a distance where it is capable of possessing liquid water. It is of course, a complex equation and there is no confirmation that some form of life could be lurking on Kepler 22b, but we look forward to learning more.
Androids, cyborgs, thinking machines - whatever they end up being called or form they take, non-human entities that are capable of human-like thought are on the way, and artificial intelligence will have a profound impact on our lives in coming decades. During the past year we have seen several discoveries that advance the goal of reverse engineering the human brain - researchers from the University of Southern California announced the creation of a functioning synapse circuit using carbon nanotubes that could someday be one component of a synthetic brain, while over at Caltech, scientists unveiled a DNA-based artificial neural network that could have huge implications for the development of true artificial intelligence.
Working with more conventional computing hardware, researchers at MIT have developed a computer chip that mimics the "plasticity" of the brain's neural function and IBM has been experimenting with a computer chip designed to emulate the human brain's abilities for perception, action and cognition.
Finally - and this one gets our vote for the most sci-fi AI breakthrough of the year - scientists from Israel's Tel Aviv University have restored brain function to a rat by replacing its disabled cerebellum with a synthetic one.
A year in the SunThe search for viable alternatives to fossil fuels that can satisfy growing worldwide energy demand is a constant feature in these pages, and 2011 has again thrown up an array of new developments in this area. In particular we've seen some significant breakthroughs in the solar field that have put this technology on the cusp of becoming mainstream.
In terms of wow factor, the standout solar achievement in the past 12 months is that of Solar Impulse - a plane that with a wingspan of over 200 feet (61 m) that weighs only 1,600 kg (3,527 lb) and is powered entirely by an array of almost 12,000 solar cells. Following a successful maiden flight in 2010, the Swiss aircraft made its first international flight in May 2011 before making an appearance at the Paris Airshow in June.
We've also witnessed an increasing focus on large scale solar power generation with, for example, the 19.9 MW Gemasolar Concentrated Solar Power plant in Spain achieving a full 24 hours of solar power production, Enviromission detailing plans for a massive solar energy generator in Arizona and internet giant Google investing US$168 million in the world's largest solar power tower plant that is to be built in the Mojave Desert in California.
Bridges, buildings and even spaceships are also making more use of the Sun's abundant energy, while on a smaller scale we've seen plenty of solar energy innovations that will help power our electronic devices and bring a cleaner source of light to developing nations. Although it's hard to overlook the groundbreaking arrival of the world's first production solar bikini, our pick of these personal solar devices comes from Industrial Design student Jonathan Liow, whose Solarball can produce 3 liters (about 3 quarts) of drinkable water per day using sunlight.
Finally, in a taste of more to come, scientists have made breakthroughs in CIGS solar cell efficiency, crept closer to cost effective full spectrum solar cells, developed virus-boosted photovoltaics and made big advances in spray on solar technology ... and these developments are just a small sample of the progress being made in the solar cell field.
Now you see it ... metamaterials go beyond invisibility
Invisibility is a notion that's been with us for a very long time ... Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins weren't even close to the first fictional characters to pull off a disappearing act. Plato made reference to the Ring of Gyges in his Republic almost two and a half thousand years ago and ever since then writers have been fascinated by magical objects that can make the wearer disappear from sight. Although personal invisibility cloaks remain in the realm of science-fiction, real science is catching up with advances in the application of metamaterials. This class of artificially engineered materials has a weird light bending property called a negative refractive index that makes it possible for objects (on a microscopic scale) to become invisible in specific wavelengths of light, but as we discovered in 2011, it's not just invisibility cloaking that stands to benefit from this field of research.
Rather than cloaking objects, metamaterials could also be used to hide a singular event in time. This "temporal cloaking" has been demonstrated by researchers at Cornell University who were able to conceal a burst of light as if it had never occurred.
Scientists from the California Institute of Technology have also developed a new type of negative-index metamaterial that can handle light of any polarity, from any angle, and works in the blue part of the visible spectrum, which could lead to more efficient solar cell designs.
Just scratching the surfaceThis brief glimpse of some of the key breakthroughs we saw during 2011 doesn't even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the vast array of research that's going on in different scientific fields around the world. Significant advances are constantly being made in battery technology, medicine, telecommunications and construction, not to mention two of the biggies - genetics and nanotechnology - which will no doubt affect our lives in coming years. The list is almost endless - get ready for a wild technological ride in the tweens.
We look forward to bringing you more technological breakthroughs during 2012 and getting your feedback and input into the fascinating discussion that is emerging technology.