The Weekly Beaker: Some of the Coolest Inventions of 2012
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 29, 2012 12:10
From the useful to the ridiculous and the weird, 2012 has seen some pretty fantastic new inventions. Consider 3D printers, virtual reality goggles, Facebook’s new “If I Die” application (Google it) and finger gloves that enhance the sense of touch.
Several others, including super effective memory drugs, quantum routers and highways that charge your electric car on the go are still in their prototype stages but expected to materialize in the coming months or years. Here are a few of what I think are the coolest inventions this year has brought us.
Google introduced its self-driving car this year. Nevada passed legislation that allows Google to test the vehicles on the road, and so far the tests have gone swimmingly well. The cars’ license plates sport an infinity symbol, indicative of endless future potential, and they are operated by GPS systems, proximity sensors and “intelligent driving software.” I think we all look forward to the day when we can doze off for that three hour drive home and wake up comfortably in our driveway. A few important questions moving forward would be, “How quickly would the car react if a child chasing a ball ran in front of it?” and “How would it fare in a blizzard?”
Keeping with the car theme is the flying car, dubbed the Transition by Terrafugia. Fully functional in 2010 but currently undergoing road tests and slated for sales this year, it has wings that fold up for driving and extend when it’s time for takeoff. It boasts reliable safety features and surprisingly good gas mileage—35 mpg on the road and 5 gallons per hour in the air. Sadly, it does require a runway for takeoff, so Transition owners can’t simply hover off during bad traffic. It may cost $280,000, but can you really put a price on fulfilling the childhood dream of flying cars?
Shifting fields a bit, we have the thought-controlled bionic arm. Cathy Hutchinson, a quadriplegic, willed a bionic arm to pick up a water bottle and drank from it. It was her first voluntary movement in the 14 years since a stroke paralyzed her limbs and torso. This piece of magic was achieved by an aspirin-sized electrode implanted in her motor cortex, that picks up electrical signals (thoughts) from neurons and sends them to a computer. The signals are then translated into movements. She dreams of someday resuming her hobbies of cooking and gardening. Innovations like this inspire amputees and others with paralysis to hope for a day when they can regain a more normal bodily function and lifestyle.
For the final invention, we again return to cars. In the urgency to create fuel-efficient cars, many companies have focused on overhauling current engines to create hybrids or electric cars. But the higher-efficiency, lower emissions engine called Over7 is a new take on an old concept. In a typical car with the engine running at moderate speed, oil sits at around 200°F. The new engine modification heats oil to just under 300°, making it less viscous. This allows the mechanics of the crankshaft and oil pump to run more smoothly, leading to less gas consumption and less CO2 emissions. If every car in the US ran with the Over7 system, we would save 7 billion gallons of gasoline and reduce CO2 emissions by 64 million tons every year. The engines should be market-ready in a few years.