The big idea: Ethanol radically altered our notion of fuel. No longer did we need to dig for oil. But ethanol requires enormous energy to produce and is usually made from corn, which is grown on arable land. That puts it in competition with land for food production.
Science + Health
The big idea: Disaster-resistant grapevines.
The big idea: What if buildings and bridges could monitor their own structural “health?” That’s smart infrastructure, a broad term referring to power networks, water systems, telecommunications operations, and public transportation systems that make use of “intelligent” materials (sensor-laden concrete) or devices (tiny cameras) to be responsive to conditions and, ultimately, safer.
The prospects for alternative energy are rising along with the price of gas, and any discussion of future fuel sources is bound to include hydrogen. Hydrogen-powered cars wouldn’t produce noxious emissions or carbon dioxide—just water. Sounds great, but stratospheric chemist Kristie Boering worries that a “hydrogen economy” might have unforeseen consequences. We caught up with her in her Giauque Hall office, where kinetics equations and her son’s drawings compete for whiteboard space, to see why she’s concerned.
The big idea: Exploiting the pleasure principle for educational and commercial purposes through online gaming. In less threatening terms, game-based learning (GBL) is an innovative way of encouraging people to pick up new skills, such as forming Chinese calligraphy figures or solving mathematical problems, through play.
The big idea: Finding ways to pull the by-products of energy consumption out of the air and put them where they can’t hurt us. For now, policymakers and scientists use the generic term “carbon sequestration” to describe the process of removing greenhouse gasses from the air. But there are few ways to do this.
On May 29, 2006, residents in the Porong subdistrict of Sidoarjo, East Java, awoke to a strange rumbling and emerged from their homes to find a geyser of mud shooting 26 feet in the air. In the days that followed, more cavities opened in the ground, and the bowels of the earth came spilling out. The air was rank with the odor of hydrogen sulfide. Within months, a square mile was submerged in sludge, including rice paddies, shrimp ponds, and entire villages.
The big idea: An eye-pleasing, data-rich tag that tells consumers how much CO2 and other pollutants were emitted during the production, packaging, and transportation of the product.
The players: “This goes way beyond tracking how much CO2 you emit when you drive your car one mile,” says Daniel Kammen, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group. “We’re talking about measuring everything, all the energy it takes to get a product to the consumer and all the pollution that’s created.”
The big idea: “Smart clothing” is the catchphrase for a genre of clothing that directly integrates computer technology with fabric.
For instance, Levi Strauss & Co., based in San Francisco, is working on a jacket that will play music. Levi already features a few garments that host gadgets such as iPods attached to the outside. But the goal is to integrate the technology, as it were, seamlessly.
The big idea: When scientists demonstrated that teleportation was possible in practice as well as theory, pop science writers immediately began musing about human transporters. Technology forecaster Paul Saffo also started thinking. “It’s like when [Berkeley professor Charles] Townes invented the laser,” he says. “Everyone thought it was going to turn into a ray gun.”