Ten big ideas for 2013

By Andrew Stone

Every year we hear about ideas that may change our world. Andrew Stone looks at 10 smart innovations that may - or may not - come to pass in the next 12 months and alter the way we live

8. Frozen for thousands of years, the extinct woolly mammoth could make a reappearance thanks to clever work reassembling its DNA.
8. Frozen for thousands of years, the extinct woolly mammoth could make a reappearance thanks to clever work reassembling its DNA.

1. Let there be light

Isaac Newton would be thrilled. London designers Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves have come up with a light that uses gravity to generate enough power to illuminate an LED bulb. With a simple hoist on an old-fashioned belt and pulley system, users get 30 minutes of light, as a bag filled with 9kg of sand or dirt slowly descends, its downward journey converted to energy. As the light dims, the bag is simply lifted and the cycle resumes. Batteries or fuel are redundant with this bright idea and the designers say a mark two model is coming, which could see add-ons such as torches run from the hanging power system. Crowdfunding is underwriting the project, which could be a winner for the world's estimated 1.5 billion people who have no reliable, clean power supply and often use kerosene lamps when darkness falls. Kero is a dirty and dangerous fuel, linked in India to burns suffered by as many as 2.5 million people. A kero bill in a village hut can chew up as much as 20 per cent of household income. Solar energy requires batteries to store the sun's energy. Gravity, on the other hand, is free and always on.

2. Robot lifeguards

A peek at the future - even the next 12 months - is hardly complete without some robot news. So welcome Emily, a remote-controlled lifeguard. At just over 1m long, the battery-powered, $12,000 device - Emily stands for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard - can zip through swells at 40km/h. It needs an operator on the beach to guide it, and can't pull distressed swimmers back to shore. But it can support as many as six people caught in a rip, and give them a solid object to cling to until help arrives. In Oregon last July, Emily went to the aid of an exhausted father struggling in cold seas to reach his son. They survived. The surf saver sports Baywatch colours - bright red - and was named after Emily Shane, a 13-year-old girl who died in 2010 after she was struck by a speeding car in Malibu, whose family has made it their goal to find ways to help others in honour of her memory.

3. Edible packaging

Wondering about the menu? How about a nibble on the edible package, which could spell the end for crinkly wraps. Companies are fine-tuning technology which lets hungry consumers chow down on packets - and the contents inside them. The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard has devised something it calls WikiCells - tasty membranes encasing real food. The packaging is an edible plastic wrap basically made from algae and calcium. Flavours can be added to make the packaging taste similar to the edibles it holds. The company has made a tomato membrane containing gazpacho soup, an orange membrane filled with orange juice, a grape-like membrane holding wine, and a chocolate membrane with - naturally - chocolate contents. For those worried the wrap might be a little dirty to munch, WikiCells says its products are washable. And even if you can't stomach the thought of devouring the packet and all it contains, the wrap is biodegradable. Harvard professor David Edwards, along with designer Francois Azambourg, created WikiCells, which has opened a private dining room in Paris with membranes on the menu. Says Edwards: "Eventually, the packaging of tomorrow will be the fruit of today."

4. Riding around

Like wheels, bicycle design has come full circle. From Israel, amateur cyclist Izhar Gafni has designed a cardboard bike, strong enough to bear the weight of a pedaller going for it. Using the principles of origami, Gafni folded recycled cardboard paper to increase the strength of his components, then treated the bits with resin to make it waterproof.

Cardboard was used for the bike's frame, wheels, handlebars and saddle. Puncture-proof recycled car tyres were fashioned into bike tyres; the chain also came from a car-tyre rubber. Plastic was used for the pedals and second-hand material for the brakes. The result: a 9kg bike, costing around $12 a pop, capable of supporting a 220kg rider.

At the higher end, Californian bike designer Calfee makes bamboo designer wheels that will set you back more than $5000. For that you get a head-turning machine with joints wrapped in a toughened hemp and a ride described as stiff but smooth, because the grass frame - bamboo is a grass - soaks up vibrations. Last March, two Dutch environmental campaigners completed an 18,000km ride on bamboo bikes without putting a spoke wrong.

5. Trash into treasure

In downtown Taipei there's a three-storey building made of plastic, which seems a smart use for all those empty Coke bottles. Constructed from 1.5 million discarded drink bottles, the EcoArk is the size of a rugby field. Strength is assured by the honeycomb-shaped assembly of the bottles, which gives the interlocking design the ability to brush aside typhoons and sizeable quakes. A special coating adds fire protection. Inside, temperatures are kept pleasant by filling the plastic bottle "bricks" with water or sand.

It could be that a whole lot more clever use is being made of plastic: besides Taiwan's ark, "post-consumer" bottles are lighting the way in poor parts of the Philippines.

MyShelter Foundation's "1 Litre of Light" project uses plastic bottles as alternative lightbulbs. The bottle is filled with a mixture of water and chlorine, put through a hole in the roof, and light is refracted into the home. The device works for about five hours, and provides the equivalent of 60 watts. But Taiwan leads the plastic revolution: it makes football strips, blankets, flower pots, and wigs from recycled plastics

6. Grow your own clothes

Where did you get that coat? The answer eventually may be "actually, I grew it". The emerging field of synthetic biology is where the petri dish meets High St. Like a lot of new stuff, the science behind this organic engineering is based on old stuff. To create an environmentally friendly wardrobe, researchers cooked up tanks of kombucha, a fermented tea drunk in East Asia which tastes like apple cider. A leathery cellulose skin collects on top of the brew during the fermentation process. Dried, these layers create flexible, resilient patches which can be moulded and stitched into garments. The upside of this kitchen couture is that unlike say, cotton jeans, nature churns out the organic material without the need for vast amounts of water or chemicals used in plantations. The downside is the clothes absorb moisture and can dissolve into slush unless looked after. Powder rooms in leaky homes would not be the smartest place to hang your bespoke bacterial gladrags. From the first swatches of this cutting-edge fashion, textile designers are looking at ways to inject colour and different fabrics into the mix by adapting designer genes into the organic stew.

7. Good vibes

The human body as a power station: it might sound like a science fiction script, but it's actually an idea taking root among scientists keen to collect tiny amounts of green energy from heat, movement and metabolism. The technology relies on the properties of piezoelectric materials, which generate small pulses of electricity when pushed out of shape. An everyday example is the smartphone screen, which converts pressure into power. At the larger scale, piezoelectric flooring in a Tokyo railway station generates sufficient energy from commuters to power all the displays in the building, while a San Francisco club has piloted the technology under their dance floor to run their lighting. At the personal level, researchers say a pacemaker collecting the power of the human heartbeat could be enough to keep it going forever. For outer bodywear, scientists have created devices which generate electricity as the host moves. Clipped on the leg, these energy sources could turn the business of walking into a generator. There's even a "reverse electrowetting" device linked to footwear which developer Tom Krupenkin at the University of Wisconsin says would be more than enough to run a smartphone or tablet. The first prototype, he says, is a year or two away.

8. Thawing the mammoth

Frozen for thousands of years, the extinct woolly mammoth could make a reappearance thanks to clever work reassembling its DNA. The obstacles are daunting: bringing the animal back from the dead involves finding an intact nuclei from frozen mammoths scattered about Siberia. The next trick involves inserting the mammoth cell nucleus into an elephant egg, and hoping the resulting embryo will bloom inside a host elephant. Controversial Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk - who created the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound called Snuppy, before faking tests about a "cloned" human - is behind the mammoth project, with Russian scientist Vasily Vasiliev. Even if the creature emerges it may not be round for long: the Pyrenean ibex, an extinct goat cloned from skin cells in 2009, lasted seven minutes before its lungs failed. Mammoths, which were twice as big as elephants and had 4m tusks, disappeared about 4000 years ago, victims of hunters and climate change. Scientists behind their resurrection may need to get their skates on before global warming melts the frozen ground where the hairy beasts once ruled.

9. Earth II

Its catchy name is HD 40307g, it is one of six planets orbiting the dwarf star HD 40307 - and possibly has the trappings needed to support life as we know it. Astronomers calculate the planet, which they call a "super-Earth", orbits at a distance of 55.8 million miles (90 million km) from the star. This puts our sister planet into HD 40307's habitable zone, the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface. The planets Earth and Mars orbit within our sun's habitable zone. Scientists think the exoplanet turns on its own axis, again like us, which shortens the odds of it having Earth-like conditions. Scientists using an observatory in Chile discovered the far-off celestial body by using an instrument which picks up the tiny gravitational wobbles an orbiting planet induces in its parent star. The analysis enabled them to spot three more super-Earths around the star, including HD 40307g, which is thought to be at least seven times as massive as our home planet. Technically the discovery is close enough to us that instruments may one day be able to get direct images with a new generation of telescopes.

Hugh Jones, of the University of Hertfordshire in England, part of the team that confirmed its presence said: "Just as Goldilocks liked her porridge to be neither too hot nor too cold but just right, this planet, or indeed any moons that it has, lie in an orbit comparable to Earth, increasing the probability of it being habitable." Don't think you might be holidaying on Earth II anytime soon. It's 44 light years away.

10. War on boredom

Finally, boredom is getting some attention. And not before time, because boredom may in fact be harmful. Psychologist Dr John Eastwood, of Toronto's York University, joint author of The Unengaged Mind, a major new study on the theory of boredom, points out the state of ennui has been associated with drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, depression and anxiety, and an increased risk of making mistakes. Though a cure is not yet in sight, Eastwood's team is shedding light on why we get bored - and how we might overcome it. Essentially boredom arises from a conflict of attention - it might be we give something too much attention, or too little. Along the way our engagement is disrupted and we get bored. The essential point is when you can't turn your attention to the task at hand, then boredom can creep in. Research suggests tuning into the conflicts that make us feel bored can go some way toward banishing boredom. Eastwood concedes it isn't easy. People want to unwind and enjoy down time. But when intense stimulation is at hand in an intensely wired world, it's difficult to find ways to be at peace and reduce the dangerous consequences of a bored mind.

Sources: Agencies, Science Media Centre

- NZ Herald

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