Six Ideas That Will Change the World

From Esquire.

They are six researchers with six ideas that will one day change the world.

  • Breaking Down the Firewall

    Internet censorship is the book burning of the modern age. A new brand of activists -- or "hacktivists" -- are using their computer expertise to help people stranded in Web-censored countries abroad (and corporate offices and military bases at home) jump the firewall. The key innovation, developed by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, is a software program called Psiphon.

  • Electronic Skin

    In 2002, as a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton, Lacour found a way to make metal stretch by embedding it in rubbery silicone. Doing so allowed it to expand to twice its original length without breaking. The next step was building a flexible circuit. Lacour, now heading her own lab at Cambridge University, did this by consolidating all the hard microcomponents of the circuit into tiny rigid "safe zones," which are networked to one another by stretchable metal. The final product is a silicone patch the size of a stick of gum that bends and twists like a rubber band.

    The most obvious application is for prostheses. Imagine a computerized hand that can feel heat from a stove or a lover.

  • The Pollution Magnet

    Eighty-two thousand people die from cancer in Bangladesh every year, many due to arsenic poisoning. But building upon her discovery of a way to get rust nanoparticles to bind to arsenic, Vicki Colvin has invented a new, astonishingly easy way to clean the water supply: Sauté a teaspoon of rust in a mixture of oil and lye, which breaks down the rust into nano-sized pieces. Retrieve the rust particles with a household magnet. Then immerse the rust-covered magnet into a pot of contaminated water. Pull out the arsenic. The system is up to a hundred times more efficient than existing methods, and requires no electricity or manufacturing infrastructure, so even the poorest of villagers can use it.

    She sees her method as just the first step toward developing an easy point-of-use water-purification system that would cover virtually every pollutant.

  • Machines That Fix Themselves

    For mechanical engineer Hod Lipson, that time is now. And it all starts with his four-legged starfish robot.

    Beginning with no idea of what it looks like, the starfish makes random motions and measures how it tilts. It then generates about a hundred different hypotheses about what its structure might be, moves itself again, collects more data to determine which models are potentially correct, and behaves accordingly. It continues this process of weeding out less-useful models until an accurate one is found and takes hold, a process inspired by Darwinian evolution.

    In the shorter term, a self-modeling robot could be used to explore the planets, repairing and reprogramming itself depending upon conditions on the ground.

  • Burying Our CO2

    Kurt Zenz House isn’t the first scientist to suggest sequestering carbon dioxide in the ocean.

    House advocates going much deeper -- at least three thousand meters, or two miles below sea level into the seabed. At that depth, House hypothesizes that the extreme water pressure and low temperature will turn the carbon into a liquid denser than the surrounding water, forming a layer that will prevent it from rising back up into the ocean. "We can store all the CO2 from humanity for centuries, and it wouldn't change sea levels by a centimeter," says House, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in earth and planetary sciences. "And there isn't any major life at that depth, so the footprint is very light."

  • The Next Plastic

    In chemist Geoffrey Coates lab at Cornell University, he's been reinventing plastic. Making it environmentally friendly and biodegradable -- with orange peels.

    The key is limonene, a citrusy-smelling chemical compound made from orange rinds that when oxidized and mixed with carbon dioxide and a catalyst can be turned into a solid plastic. The final product can be made into anything from Saran wrap to medical packaging to beer bottles and naturally biodegrades in just a few months. And because it can be produced using recycled CO2 from carbon-spewing factories, simply making Coates's plastic can help the environment.


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