1. Fuel-cell vehicles
Zero-emission cars that run on hydrogen
Fuel-cell vehicles have long promised several major advantages over those powered by electricity or hydrocarbons. The technology has only now begun to reach the stage where automotive companies are planning launches for consumers, however. Initial prices are likely to be in the range of $70,000 but should come down significantly as volumes increase within the next couple of years.
Unlike batteries, which must be charged from an external source and can take from five to 12 hours depending on the car and charger, fuel cells generate electricity directly, using hydrogen or natural gas. In practice, fuel cells and batteries are combined, with the fuel cell generating electricity and the batteries storing it until demanded by the motors that drive the vehicle. Fuel-cell vehicles are therefore hybrids and will likely also deploy regenerative braking, which recovers energy from waste heat, a key capability for maximizing efficiency and range.
Unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, fuel-cell powered ones have a long cruising range—up to 650 kilometers per tank (the fuel is usually compressed hydrogen gas); a hydrogen fuel refill only takes about three minutes. Hydrogen is clean-burning, producing only water vapor as waste, so fuel-cell vehicles using hydrogen will be zero-emission, an important factor given the need to reduce air pollution.
2. Next-generation robotics
Rolling away from the production line
The popular imagination has long foreseen a world where robots take over all manner of everyday tasks. This robotic future has stubbornly refused to materialize, however, with robots still limited to factory assembly lines and other controlled tasks. Although heavily used (in the automotive industry, for instance), these robots are large and dangerous to human co-workers; they have to be separated by safety cages.
Advances in robotics technology are making human–machine collaboration an everyday reality. Better and cheaper sensors make a robot more able to “understand” and respond to its environment. Robot bodies are becoming more adaptive and flexible, with designers taking inspiration from the extraordinary flexibility and dexterity of complex biological structures, such as the human hand. And robots are becoming more connected, benefiting from the cloud-computing revolution by being able to access instructions and information remotely, rather than having to be programmed as a fully autonomous unit.
The new age of robotics takes these machines away from the big manufacturing assembly lines and into a wide variety of tasks. Using GPS technology, just like smartphones, robots are beginning to be used in precision agriculture for weed control and harvesting. In Japan robots are being tried in nursing roles. They help patients out of bed, for instance, and support stroke victims in regaining control of their limbs. Smaller and more dextrous robots, such as Dexter Bot, Baxter and LBR iiwa, are designed to be easily programmable and to handle manufacturing tasks that are laborious or uncomfortable for human workers.
3. Recyclable thermoset plastics
A new kind of plastic to cut landfill waste
Plastics are divided into thermoplastics and thermoset plastics. The former can be heated and shaped many times and are ubiquitous in the modern world, comprising everything from children’s toys to lavatory seats. Because they can be melted down and reshaped, thermoplastics are generally recyclable. Thermoset plastics, however, can only be heated and shaped once, after which molecular changes mean they are “cured,” retaining their shape and strength even when subjected to intense heat and pressure.
Due to this durability thermoset plastics are a vital part of our modern world. They are used in everything from mobile phones and circuit boards to the aerospace industry. But the same characteristics that have made them essential in modern manufacturing also make them impossible to recycle. As a result, most thermoset polymers end up as landfill. Given the ultimate objective of sustainability, there has long been a pressing need for recyclability in thermoset plastics.
4. Precise genetic-engineering techniques
A breakthrough offers better crops with less controversy
Conventional genetic engineering has long caused controversy. Now new techniques are emerging that allow us to directly “edit” the genetic code of plants to make them, for example, more nutritious or better able to cope with a changing climate; we believe the benefits, and the precision in “editing,” could allay the concerns, leading to more widespread adoption.
Currently, the genetic engineering of crops relies on the bacterium agrobacterium tumefaciens to transfer desired DNA into the target genome. The technique is proved and reliable and, despite widespread public fears, there is a consensus in the scientific community that genetically modifying organisms using this technique is no more risky than modifying them using conventional breeding. Whereas agrobacterium is useful, more precise and varied genome-editing techniques have been developed in recent years.
5. Emergent artificial intelligence
What happens when a computer can learn on the job?
Artificial intelligence (AI) is, in simple terms, the science of doing by computer the things that people can do. Over recent years AI has advanced significantly: Most of us now use smartphones that can recognize human speech or have traveled through an airport immigration queue using image-recognition technology. Self-driving cars and automated flying drones are now in the testing stage before anticipated widespread use, and for certain learning and memory tasks, machines now outperform humans. Watson, an artificially intelligent computer system, beat the best human candidates at the quiz game Jeopardy!.
Artificial intelligence, in contrast to normal hardware and software, enables a machine to perceive and respond to its changing environment. Emergent AI takes this a step further, with progress arising from machines that learn automatically by assimilating large volumes of information. An example is NELL, the Never-Ending Language Learning project from Carnegie Mellon University, a computer system that not only reads facts by crawling through hundreds of millions of Web pages but attempts to improve its reading and understanding competence in the process in order to perform better in the future.
6. “Sense and avoid” drones
Flying robots (aka unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones) to check power lines or deliver emergency aid have become an important and controversial part of military capacity in recent years. They are also used in agriculture, for filming and numerous other applications that require cheap and extensive aerial surveillance. But so far all these drones have had human pilots; the difference is that their pilots are on the ground and fly the aircraft remotely.
The next step with drone technology is to develop machines that fly themselves, opening them up to a wider range of applications. For this to happen, drones must be able to sense and respond to their local environments, altering their height and flying trajectories in order to avoid colliding with other objects in their paths. In nature birds, fish and insects can all congregate in swarms, each animal responding to its neighbor almost instantaneously to allow the swarm to fly or swim as a single unit. Drones can emulate this.
With reliable autonomy and collision avoidance, drones can begin to take on tasks too dangerous or remote for humans to carry out: checking electric power lines, for example, or delivering medical supplies in an emergency. Drone delivery machines will be able to find the best route to their destination and take into account other flying vehicles and obstacles. In agriculture autonomous drones can collect and process vast amounts of visual data from the air, allowing precise and efficient use of inputs such as fertilizer and irrigation.