Fog harvesting, floating dairy farm, dope cuisine... Andrew Stone outlines some clever and often inspiring innovations that we might hear a bit about in 2017.

1. Head off

Sometime this year, Valery Spiridinov is expected to lose his head. The 31-year-old Russian is stricken with a muscle-wasting condition that confines him to wheelchair. He is willing to let Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero put his head on another, healthy body. Canavero, who expects the job to be done in a long day, puts the odds of success at 90 per cent but admits "there is a marginal risk. I cannot deny that."

Professor Sergio Canavero. Photo / AP
Professor Sergio Canavero. Photo / AP

This push by medical science into the realm of Frankenstein involves several steps. First the patient and donor are cooled so brain cells can survive the operation. Then blood vessels between the two bodies are linked with tubes, and the patient's neck is partly decapitated.

Using an exceptionally thin blade, the spinal cord is cut before the head is moved on to the donor body. Using polyethylene glycol, a specialised compound, the cord is fused back together, before blood vessels and nerves are rejoined. Spiridinov would then be kept in a coma for several weeks for everything to heal. That's the theory. Medical experts have scoffed at Canavero's ambitions, and pointed out the only time such cutting-edge surgery was tried was in 1970 when US scientists transplanted a monkey's head. The primate remained paralysed for nine days before it died. Even worse, scientists and ethicists complain that the Italian neurosurgeon has yet to provide evidence the procedure will work. Canavero remains defiant. Interviewed by Live Science, he remarked that controversial ideas were met with "a lot of resistance from certain quarters".

As for Spiridonov, he just wants to escape the prison of his body. As with any pioneering science, someone had to go first. "In the end it is like with astronauts," he told Mail Online.

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On the web
See YouTube for a TedX talk by Sergio Canavero

2. Fog harvesting

The 'fog catchers' in the Sahara that can make water out of thin air for hundreds of people. Photo / Dar Si Hmad for Development, Education and Culture
The 'fog catchers' in the Sahara that can make water out of thin air for hundreds of people. Photo / Dar Si Hmad for Development, Education and Culture

In the driest parts of the world, water is like gold - precious and hard to find. A project set to expand this year is capturing water from thin air high on mountain ranges bordering the Saharan desert. The technology uses "fog capture" nets erected 1200m above sea-level which trap water droplets from dense, moisture-laden clouds blown in from the Atlantic Ocean. Strung between steel poles, black polymer nets collect moisture which drips into shallow troughs. A line of six nets produces as much as 6000 litres a day. By harnessing nature, the simple but clever approach delivers clean water into village homes further down the mountain through thousands of metres of piping. With few moving parts, reservoirs to store surplus water, and solar-powered UV light and sand filters, the network is a sustainable and affordable water-supply system which has changed the lives of residents in half a dozen Moroccan villages. Before the nets were installed, the villagers had to trek up to three hours a day to collect water from distance wells. Stronger and more productive nets - called "CloudFisher" - developed in Germany go into production this year. They require little maintenance and produce more water.

On the web
http://darsihmad.org/

3. Jurassic Portugal

Photo / 123RF
Photo / 123RF

Aurochs - remember them? Big moody beasts with forward curved horns which once roamed Europe - and if a back-breeding project goes to plan, could once again be part of the landscape. The last aurochs vanished four centuries ago, though its imprint can be found in cave walls in France. A 300-strong herd of "proto-aurochs" grazes on pasture in Portugal, where they share a property called Star Camp. The cattle are at the heart of a "rewilding" conservation movement, which involves restoring the landscape to a primitive state by reintroducing wild plants and animals that had long since disappeared. The science involves selectively mating existing breeds of "primitive" cattle which retain much of the ancient aurochs' DNA. Within 10 years, scientists think they might producing something fairly close to an auroch. They result will not be hard to spot: mature aurochs were super-sized beasts - adults stood 210cm (around seven foot) and weighed as much as a tonne.

On the web
www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/african-safari-camp-comes-europe-180960541/

4. The end of fillings

If you lost a bit of tooth on the Christmas cake - some good news: no more fillings. Researchers from the University of Nottingham and Harvard University have created biomaterials which encourage dental stem cells to restore and regenerate dentin, the bony tooth layer which sits between the outside wrap of enamel and the tooth pulp containing nerves and blood vessels. The laboratory material has been found to stimulate tooth stem cells, meaning that pulp and dentine in a damaged or diseased tooth can recover. The next step involves commercial development of the discovery, which the UK Royal Society of Chemistry calls a "new paradigm for dental treatments".

On the web
www.nottingham.ac.uk/

5 Smog towers

Standing 7m high in a patch of flat land in Beijing, the world's largest air purifier is doing its best to filter filthy air in China's heavily polluted capital. Created by Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde, the tower removes particles from its surrounds by using an electrical charge to attract air molecules. Inside the machine, pollutants are stripped out and the cleansed atmosphere filtered back outside the tower. The process uses electricity produced by environmentally friendly wind energy, and the whole set-up completes a virtuous cycle by converting the dirty particles into "Smog Free Rings", a gimmick which Roosegaarde says draws attention to the project. For many Chinese, anything which cleans the air would be welcome. On some days children have to stay home because the air outside is so toxic. One US study has calculated that 4000 people die every day in China from health problems related to poor air quality. That's 1.6 million people a year. The smog tower is going on tour in China. One tower can't save a million lives. But it might be a totem for change.

On the web
www.studioroosegaarde.net/projects/#smog-free-project

6 The eyes have it

As the world ages, it sees less clearly. Eye disease is big and growing and becoming expensive to treat. The global market for treating common eye problems is worth $20 billion and will double in a decade. The emerging prize is to seize some of this market - and the smart money involves using the eye itself as the release mechanism. Biotech analyst Yigal Nochomovitz, in a report by Citi GPS, describes how new technologies were "leveraging the eye as a natural, self-contained drug delivery chamber". Rather than visiting an eye specialist for an injection or costly drops, "next generation ocular delivery" involves smart chemical and engineering solutions on the tiniest of scales. For treatments deployed in the back of the eye, implants or inserts can be used to release precise levels of drugs over months or even years. Eye drops containing nanoparticles are the next big thing for the front of the eye, with smart contact lenses incorporating a reservoir for continuous release of drugs. Eye-watering stuff.

On the web
TinyURL.com/jmq6xeg

7. Dope cuisine

The new frontier is using weed in fine dining, with top chefs using the plant in their culinary collection. Photo / AP
The new frontier is using weed in fine dining, with top chefs using the plant in their culinary collection. Photo / AP

The US cannabis trade is big business. By 2020, the industry is forecast to be worth US$20 billion, so it's little wonder that entrepreneurs are looking for ways to cash in. The new frontier is using weed in fine dining, with top chefs using the plant in their culinary collection. One New York enterprise with a novel flavour is called sinsemil.la, and boasts that for up to US$250 a head you can enjoy a blast of a feed which balances the taste of a top-end dish with the psychoactive properties of the the bud. Because New York, unlike Colorado and some other US states still has strict anti-pot laws, a night out comes with instructions on finding secret kitchens in the back alleys of Brooklyn. One review on the website grubstreet.com described a trip to the underground supper club. By the third course, diners were wearing glazed looks and cheerful smiles, courtesy of a steady stream of courses which included such delights as a rack of lamb, cooked in a bag with canna-oil, with peas and potatoes tossed with cannabutter and canna-oil lamb jus on the side. The meal, grubstreet reported, left guests "full, happy and totally stoned".

On the web
sinsemil.la

8. Get wind of this

The Scots are flying with kite power, as they reckon their windy location will power the economy to new heights. Energy giant Royal Dutch Shell is also sniffing the breeze because it has teamed up with a power company and an oilfield service firm to get a foothold in the renewable field. Kite technology is at an early stage of development but offers promise because unlike wind turbines, which are big and costly, captures energy far more efficiently. Kite Power Solutions believes the technology could cut carbon dioxide emissions, and be deployed on sea platforms, with the potential for a global deepwater offshore wind market. The model under development in Scotland uses two 70sq m kites attached to a ground turbine working in tandem at heights up to 450m, where winds are stronger and more consistent. As one kite rises, the other falls, and the looping momentum turns the turbine, which generates electricity. A small scale 500kw test plant opens in southwest Scotland this year, with "utility scale" production predicted within a decade, using kites in places where power plants just don't fly.

On the web
www.kitepowersolutions.com

9. Sunny threads

Essentially the idea turns jackets and bush-shirts into wearable, solar-powered batteries. Photo / Supplied
Essentially the idea turns jackets and bush-shirts into wearable, solar-powered batteries. Photo / Supplied

Solar panels are all around us - on houses, cars, road signs and buildings. The next step is to put them on people, but in ways we cannot see - by incorporating the technology into clothing. A Florida engineer has managed to weave energy smart ribbons into fabric. Jayan Thomas attached tiny copper filaments to a breakthrough material called perovskite, which is cheaper to create than silicon solar cells, and is highly efficient. The wires also incorporate supercapacitors, which store the energy generated by the perovskite. Essentially the idea turns jackets and bush-shirts into wearable, solar-powered batteries. Transferring the technology to commercial scale awaits an investor but potential applications clearly include soldiers in the field, who have to lug hefty batteries on missions. Hunters and backpackers also might welcome ways to keep mobiles charged on trips into the backcountry without the added weight of bulky gear. Thomas, a nanotechnologist, says he got the brainwave from Marty McFly and his self-lacing boots in a scene from the 1989 movie, Back to the Future Part II. "That movie was the motivation," Thomas told the University of Central Florida's college news. "If you can develop self-charging clothes or textiles, you can realise those cinematic fantasies - that's the cool thing."

On the web
ucf.edu/back-future-inspires-solar-nanotech-powered-clothing/

10. Floating cowshed

Plans for a floating dairy farm in Rotterdam Photo / Supplied
Plans for a floating dairy farm in Rotterdam Photo / Supplied

Rotterdam is going offshore for its next dairy farm - by the length of a gangplank. Early this year the city hopes to open the world's first floating dairy farm, home to 60 cows producing milk, cream, cheese, butter and yoghurt for the port city. Grass for 20 per cent of the herd's diet will be grown on on board under LED lights that the giant Dutch manufacturer Philips has helped design. The $4 million, 1200sq m state-of-the-art cow shed includes a manure robot to gather dung, which is to be converted into fuel blocks and burned to create heat and energy. Power will also come from rooftop solar panels and small windmills. Made of concrete, the floating farm has a special membrane floor which lets urine seep through to be collected and purified before it is used to irrigate containers of clover, lucerne and grass. Europe's largest port, Rotterdam is going all out to reinvent itself in the face of rising seas and climate change, given that 90 per cent of the city is below sea level. It has encouraged investors and blue sky thinkers to contemplate a future where land is limited but water plentiful to support the production of fresh food. An even more ambitious conception is a floating ring-shaped skyscraper called the Dutch Wind Wheel - a nod to a centuries-old tradition in the Netherlands. Made of two giant rings, the 174m-tall structure is designed to make more energy that it uses. The cutting edge project is still a decade away. For the meantime, the downtown floating farm will break the grip of land-based dairy production. And it will be open to visitors who will see for themselves whether cows, like humans, get seasick.

On the web
https://floatingfarm.nl/