From a nuclear reactor that runs on nuclear waste to a totally new way to transfer money, big ideas are coming out of the younger generation.
Business person with idea lightbulb
Every year, MIT Technology Review releases a list of people less than 35 years old who are working on the most exciting innovations on Earth (or beyond). The list has featured Marc Andreessen (1999), Mark Zuckerberg (2007) and Jack Dorsey (2008), but also tons of technologists and scientists working on highly meaningful, but far less visible, projects.
The 2013 list, which was published this week, contains a few familiar names: Leah Busque (TaskRabbit), Eric Migicovsky (Pebble) and Matt Rogers (Nest). Their ideas were so big that they already feel familiar. Here are a few of the less-famous ideas worth highlighting.
Turn any surface into a source of power
We think of solar cells as large, rigid panels that sit on the top of buildings. Stanford professor Xiaolin Zheng wants that to change. She developed small stickers — just a centimeter across — that can be stuck anywhere to collect solar energy. She did it with the help of graphene, an emerging one-atom-thick material that has tremendous capabilities when it comes to conducting electricity.
Zheng would now like to see the technology scale up to cover large areas, such as the side of a building.
Build a nuclear reactor that runs on nuclear waste
Nuclear waste is a problem. Not only do we not have a great place to store it, it’s dangerous for 100,000 years. Transatomic Power co-founder Leslie Dewan looked at reactors designed in the 1950s to power aircraft and used them to design a new reactor that can use spent nuclear material as fuel. Each reactor can use one ton of nuclear waste a year, creating just under 9 pounds of its own nuclear waste in the process.
The 1950s version was large and expensive. Dewan’s redesign outputs 30 times more power, which means it is compact enough to ship on a train. The way it is built also means there is no chance of a meltdown.
Make better robots with open source software
Until 2010, roboticists had to start from scratch when they built software for their bots, driving up cost and complexity. Then Morgan Quinley of the Open Source Robotics Foundation built ROS, open source software that is now the industry standard. Even famous bots like Baxter use ROS.
“Robots are the meeting place between electronics, software, and the real world,” he told MIT Technology Review. “They’re the way software experiences the world.”
Use fish as inspiration for wind farms
California Institute of Technology professor John Dabiri looked at wind farms and asked if there was any way to squeeze the turbines closer together. Turbulence usually creates problems, but can be overcome by spacing them out. Dabiri looked to schools of fish to find more efficient arrangements.
“We looked at an arrangement that’s been identified as optimal for fish, and we found that if we, in our computer models, arranged our wind turbines exactly in the same kind of diamond pattern that fish form, you get significant benefits in the performance of a wind farm,” Dabiri told MIT Technology Review.
Move money with less fees
When you use a credit card or PayPal, a tiny bit of what you pay is siphoned off as a fee. This adds up quick for businesses. Dwolla founder Ben Milne is pursuing a payment system that isn’t reliant on the four big financial networks that handle cash-free transactions. It’s instant and secure, and there is no fee for transactions that ring in under $10.
It’s a tough job. Dwolla has to sign an agreement with every single bank for the system to work.
“In Silicon Valley, people are looking for a silver bullet,” Milne told MIT Technology Review. “I look at it like a Midwesterner: I have an ax and I’m going to cut down a tree. You close the first customer, then the second, then the third. It’s hard work, but that’s the way you do it.”
Accelerate economic development with solar lamps
Evans Wadongo, head of sustainable development for the NGO All, grew up in rural Kenya, where he struggled to study at night by the light of a kerosene lantern. It inspired him to design a lamp made of scrap metal, readily available photovoltaic panels, batteries and LEDs. Replacing kerosene with solar power saves families about a dollar a week, which allows them to make other money-generating investments, such as buying livestock or opening a microlending service.
All has distributed 32,000 lamps to date. Wadongo plans to open 20 more manufacturing centers that will build lamps and other creative goods they dream up.