1. Electric roads

Fifty years ago the Beach Boys had a hit with Good Vibrations. Now Los Angeles, home city of the superstar group, is trying to figure ways to turn its immense traffic burden into clean energy.

One promising project involves generating electricity from crystals embedded in LA's road surfaces from the vibrations of passing vehicles. The process uses piezoelectric crystals, which produce tiny electrical charges when compressed.

By one estimate, cars running over 20km of charged highway could generate enough power to run the city of Burbank, home to 100,000 people. For the trial, crystals set in devices the size of a small coin will be laid in a highway just a few millimetres apart.

Over 18 months, the performance of the electric road will be measured to get a feel for whether the technology can deliver. In Europe, a different tack is being taken with electric roads, one designed to keep electric cars charged as they roam the transport network. US chipmaker Qualcomm has devised a wireless charger for electric vehicles, which lets battery-driven cars collect their energy from cables laid under the road surface.

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With heavy investment being poured into the sector, the cable roads offer a solution to the imminent point when electric vehicle prices fall to the level of fossil-fueled cars and there are too many electric machines for top-up chargers.

The technology is currently confined to test tracks and no one has solved the costly challenge of laying cables beneath motorway lanes that are capable of delivering a charge to vehicles speeding over them.

However, industry enthusiasts say "watch this space". Edouard Fischer, a director at Sanef, the company that operates France's toll motorways told a summit on the future of the car that the industry had to think about new things. "We must prepare for what will happen in 10 to 15 years."

On the web: electroad.me

Women in Ayutthaya, Thailand, with products made from Kokooboard, a material that recycles peanut shells, rice straw and coconut dust into useable building materials. Picture / supplied.
Women in Ayutthaya, Thailand, with products made from Kokooboard, a material that recycles peanut shells, rice straw and coconut dust into useable building materials. Picture / supplied.

2. Eat my brick

How do we build the city of the future? Try high-rise made from mushrooms, light yet strong walls created from corn and wheat, carpets woven from banana-plant fibre and composite floors laid in panels pressed from sunflower crops.

The recipe is the idea of engineering firm Arup, a clever engineering firm that is big on using nature as nature intended — a cycle where waste is a creative resource. Instead of neglecting organic waste, Arup has identified ways in which crops remains can become buildings and furniture.

Take Thailand's Kokoboard, an enterprise which turns peanut shells, rice straw and coconut dust into wallboards. The products are free of nasty glues, moisture resistant and hard to burn. Another advantage, if you have a termite problem is that the bugs find the wallboards inedible. They are also kind to the planet because instead of burning waste, Thai farmers can turn their crop remains into wallboards.

For something a little more familiar, Arup points to the conversion of potato skins into cork tiles. A Dutch factory is leading the way, mixing and pressing peelings into acoustic tiles and lightweight yet strong building panels. Unlike peanuts, a tropical crop, potato peelings are widely available.

Arup argues that its organic waste economy will be one of the next big disruptors, just as Uber has shaken up the taxi industry and Netflix changed viewing habits.

On the web: arup.com

Sundrop farm in South Australia uses solar energy for a desliantion plant to grow tomatoes. Picture / supplied.
Sundrop farm in South Australia uses solar energy for a desliantion plant to grow tomatoes. Picture / supplied.

3. Sunshiney toms

Take a tomato plant, add sunshine ... and seawater. That mixture works in the South Australian desert, where Sundrop farm produces 15,000 tonnes of tomatoes a year on a 20ha property 5km from the Spencer Gulf.

The arid region at Port Augusta is off-limits to conventional farming. But what it does have in spades, at least for most of the year, is sunshine — more than anywhere else in Australia.

To grow the crop, seawater is stripped of salt in a solar-powered desalination plant then used to water 180,000 plants inside a vast greenhouse. The plant is run from energy produced by 23,000 mirrors directing sunlight on to a 127m boiler tower, which produces heat when needed for the greenhouses.

On a sunny day, the set-up produces 37 megawatts of electricity, enough to run the desalination plant and the power needs of the farm. Seawater is also used in the ventilation system to clean and sterilise the air, with the theory being that crops could be grown without the need for chemicals to control pests.

The tomato crop, big enough to satisfy 15 per cent of Australia's needs, is grown in a watery solution fed by nutrient-rich coconut husks.

The high-tech project soaked up $200 million in capital, so does not come cheap. But its investors say that in the long haul, its use of renewable energy sources makes it sustainable and competitive as most conventional greenhouses require fossil fuels for heating. The seawater greenhouse is catching on - pilot schemes are running in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

On the web: sundropfarms.com

The father of hybrid rice, Yuan Longping (in blue jacket). Picture / TPG/Getty Images.
The father of hybrid rice, Yuan Longping (in blue jacket). Picture / TPG/Getty Images.

4. Ready-salted rice

Scientist Yuan Longping has spent a lifetime working to feed a world hungry for rice. With land suitable for crops running out, and populations growing, the 87-year-old has turned to saltier frontiers and created high-yield rice strains that tolerate brackish water.

Rice cultivation requires land to be flooded with fresh water. But with such land in short supply, Longping has shown it is possible to produce bumper crops with hybrid strains that survive in salt water.

His project produced more rice than most commercial US growers achieve, although the coastal region where the experiments were conducted had diluted levels of salt. Boggy swamps and coastal areas make up a third of China's arable land but, to date, rice growing has been impossible because the saline conditions kill the plants.

Longping's team are confident that the new strains could be modified sufficiently in five years to fill millions of dinner bowls.

The breakthrough has implications for global rice supplies squeezed by unusually dry conditions in Korea and disastrous flooding in South Asia. Half the world's population relies on rice for sustenance, and the salt water strain could be grown using less energy and fertiliser than conventional varieties.

The rice expert and 2004 World Food Prize winner knows a thing or two about the staple grain. He is regarded in China as the "father of hybrid rice" which led to higher grain yields and shifted the country from food shortages to food security over three decades.

He is also something of a celebrity, and in 2008 was among those chosen to carry the Olympic torch on its journey to the Beijing Games.

On the web: worldfoodprize.org

Leather could soon come from the lab rather than the paddock. Picture / supplied.
Leather could soon come from the lab rather than the paddock. Picture / supplied.

5. Leather without the cows

Leather has universal appeal. The $200 billion global market takes the skin of cattle and transforms it — at a cost to the environment, animals and factory workers — into coats, car seats and sofas.

Two modern trends — start-up funding and cutting-edge biotechnology — have been harnessed by an American firm to grow leather in the lab and leave the cows in the paddock.

Modern Meadow uses a genetically engineered yeast strain to make a protein identical to bovine collagen, the starting point of animal skin. Company chemists have devised a way to turn cells into fibrous strands and organise them into layers that essentially are sheets of lab leather that can be tanned, dyed and fashioned into high-street styles.

The hide takes several weeks to be transformed from cells to slaughter-free leather, and the company maintains its cost will be comparable to natural hides.

The lab version does not have the scars or marks of animal skins and will appeal to customers squeamish about the ethics of traditional production. Modern Meadow has a factory near New York for industrial-scale production and hopes first-generation garments will be in the market within 18 months under the brand Zoa.

The factory-grown product is a sign of an industry revolution. Fashion is a wasteful and polluting industry, based on a high-consumption, low-value business model. A pair of jeans needs 7000 litres of water to make, and three out of four garments end in landfills.

Modern Meadow says its approach rolls several processes into one and saves heavily on water, energy and chemicals.

On the web: modernmeadow.com

The slain British MP Jo Cox has been the inspiration for a campaign to combat loneliness. Picture / AP
The slain British MP Jo Cox has been the inspiration for a campaign to combat loneliness. Picture / AP

6. An end to loneliness

By 2051, one in four New Zealanders — around 1.2 million people — will be aged 65 and over. A quarter of a million will be 85 or more.

The most pressing health issue they are likely to face will not be heart disease or diabetes — it will be loneliness. For many, their sole companion is the television. Research suggests that loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression.
Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was moved to identify the link between loneliness and health: "During my years caring for patients the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes — it was loneliness."

On the other hand, people in supportive relationships have lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of oxytocin, the so-called "cuddle hormone". So how do we treat loneliness?

A network in Britain has come up with a very simple approach - chatting to a neighbour for starters. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness — named for the UK MP murdered as she walked to work — is engaged on a loneliness project in memory of the politician.

The commission has built links with groups involved with addressing loneliness to tackle the threat it poses to people in their old age.

The basic formula is straightforward. Using the message "start a conversation" the commission is trying to get people talking — over the fence to a neighbour, visiting an old friend or just making time for isolated people.

On the web: jocoxloneliness.org

Zahra Hajikarimi waits for kidney transplant at a clinic in downtown Tehran, Iran. Picture / AP
Zahra Hajikarimi waits for kidney transplant at a clinic in downtown Tehran, Iran. Picture / AP

7. Stakes and kidneys

Very few countries permit the sale of organs for transplants. The lack of a market has allowed a billion-dollar black market trade to flourish in which people with enough money can buy the organ they need, while thousands die waiting for a suitable body part.

Kidneys are most commonly sold organ, for the simple reason that humans have two and can live with one. The global trade sees organs harvested in Third World countries and sold to recipients for princely sums, with brokers taking the biggest cut. Iran is one of the few countries without an organ shortage because it allows the sale of kidneys from living donors.

The trade is regulated by Tehran, which pays for the surgery and follow-up care. Donors get about $6500 for their organ, although the price can be higher if both parties agree.

The Iran kidney market has eliminated waiting lists but is not without blemishes, including the reluctance of donors to get post-operative checks because of the stigma of selling a body part.

It is possible that transplants will become easier with the use of transgenic stem cells, however, the science is costly and slow. An economic study found US citizens warmed to the idea of organ sales when they were informed of their benefits. Instead of waiting for stem cell saviours, the Middle East model could be an answer to suffering and premature death.

The startup Loliware is pitching for funds for its edible straws. Picture / supplied
The startup Loliware is pitching for funds for its edible straws. Picture / supplied

8. Sip and eat

In September last year Seattle went strawless for a month. The hip US city was making a stand against the criminal waste created by plastic drinking straws, which make up a sizeable chunk of the polluting load clogging the world's oceans and killing marine life.

It has taken a while but the anti-straw movement may be about to pay dividends in the form of a compostible tube. Loliware, a US start-up, has created the "Lolistraw", which it says is designed to disappear.

Made from seaweed, the straw can be eaten after use - it has zero calories - or thrown in the worm bin, where it takes 60 days to break down into safe organic waste. The straws, in six colours and flavours, are designed to last in a drink for 24 hours and have a shelf life of two years.

The straw builds on the company's disposable cups, seaweed-based containers which can be eaten after drinking. They come in five flavours - citrus, cherry, green tea, vanilla and natural.

The Lolistraw still needs capital, but if the company behind the idea gets all the funds pledged through the Kickstarter platform, it hopes the straw revolution will start in August.

On the web: loliware.com

Cranford University's waterless toilet uses a rotating device to transport solids and seal odours. Picture / supplied.
Cranford University's waterless toilet uses a rotating device to transport solids and seal odours. Picture / supplied.

9. Waterless toilets

For millions of women in developing countries, a trip to the toilet can be a shameful, dangerous and unhygienic experience.

Since 2011 Bill Gates has made funds available to create better loos, and it now seems that engineers are getting close to building a revolutionary toilet which is affordable, clean and works in regions where water and power is scarce.

A team at Cranfield University in the UK has designed a waterless unit which uses a rotating device rather than water, which transports solids and seals odours. Waste is first shaped into small pellets then dried and burned in a gasifier, which produces energy as part of process.

This energy keeps the system ticking over. Liquids are treated separately within the unit, passing through a membrane chamber where they become pure, pathogen-free water and available for use around the house or irrigation. The unit serves a household of 10.

On the web: nanomembranetoilet.org

Fuji's robot called Hug which helps careworkers move infirm patients. Picture / supplied.
Fuji's robot called Hug which helps careworkers move infirm patients. Picture / supplied.

10. Hug me tight

Japan is the test bed for an ageing world. Its technology industry is flat out designing machines for 25 per cent of the population aged over 65.

The rest of the world is a long way behind but the trend is one way: by 2050, some 17 per cent of the global population will be 65 or more, up from 8.5 per cent now.

Will you still feed me, sang the Beatles. Japan is creating robots for domestic tasks, and much of its research is invested in the care industry.

One promising robot ready for work is a machine called Hug, which does one of the jobs of rest home workers - lifting patients to their feet or moving them from bed to a wheelchair.

Designed by Fuji, Hug has a pair of soft arms and a comfy pad that supports patients with limited mobility but who can stand on their own.

The machine brings a patient upright with a smooth natural motion, and is small enough to fit in a bathroom or beside a bed. From a careworkers' perspective Hug takes the strain of mundane jobs.

On the web: fuji.co.jp