Popular Mechanics magazine on Thursday will unveil its fifth-annual Breakthrough Award winners, an august collection of designers and products that could do much more than their share to change the world for the better.
From famous inventors like Dean Kamen to a flying car for the Third World to bacteria-powered batteries--and much in-between--the awards are meant to highlight technologies that will shape the way people around the world live and how they interact with everyday products.
Each year, the magazine's editors scour the country for a worthy group of winners, and this year, in the end, Popular Mechanics settled on one leadership award winner, one next-generation honoree, eight Breakthrough innovators and 10 Breakthrough products.
"In all cases, there's a really practical application that we see coming about," said Jerry Beilinson, the magazine's deputy editor, "so these aren't theoretical scientific applications. (They're going to) change the world and have a really positive aspect on people's lives."
Beilinson said that after five years of identifying technological breakthrough products and innovators, certain themes have emerged in the editors' preferences. Among the most important, he said, is alternative energy and products and designers that push that category forward.
"If I look back (at the last few years of doing the awards), we looked at aviation and we looked at medicine," he said. "But over the last few years, I think the things that have been clear themes that we've been looking at that have emerged (are) alternative energy and appropriate technologies for the developing world."
And while the themes can be forward-looking, the individual awards celebrate a "moment in time," he said.
"We're sort of picking the moment at which it's become real, and passed the threshold and seems like its worthy of an award," Beilinson said. "But most of these kinds of things do take some time to develop."
For this year's Breakthrough Leadership award, Popular Mechanics honored Dean Kamen, an inventor with more than 440 patents who may be best known for creating the incredible but commercially disappointing Segway personal transporter.
But in this case, Beilinson said, Kamen was picked because of his years of work on personal medical devices aimed at improving people's lives. "Kamen created the first wearable infusion pump and first insulin pump to steadily deliver drugs to patients, greatly reducing the time they needed to spend in hospitals," Popular Mechanics said in an awards release. "He also invented a portable kidney dialysis machine that could be used at home. More recent advances include the iBOT self-balancing wheel chair, which can climb stairs, and the Slingshot water purifier, which incorporates a Stirling engine to treat water in remote parts of the globe."
And Beilinson also highlighted Kamen's work on FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a program promoting robotics for high school students.
Another individual award winner was Greg Schroll, who got Popular Mechanics' "next generation" award for creating a "flywheel-powered, 18-inch-wide, spherical robot" that can change course in motion and climb steep inclines and stairs. The magazine also lauded Schroll for his ambition to do planetary exploration with small spherical robots.
The magazine's eight innovation award winners are as follows:
For Aviation: The Sikorsky X2 technology development team, which has built what the magazine called the world's fastest helicopter.
For "Appropriate Technology:" Aviva Presser Aiden, Stephen Lwendo, David Sengeh, Zoe Vallabha, Hugo Van Vuuren and Alexander Fabry; Microbial Fuel Cell Engineers at Lebone Solutions, who developed what is essentially a battery capable of powering LED lights or charging a cell phone based solely on the "metabolism of bacteria digesting organic waste in soil." This, the magazine said, will be an essential technological breakthrough for the more than half a billion people living in Sub-Sarahan Africa with no electricity.
For Computing: Kudo Tsunoda, Alex Kipman and Don Mattrick, of Microsoft's Project Natal. This initiative, unveiled formally at the video game convention, E3, this year, is Microsoft's effort to incorporate hands-free motion-control in video games and other applications.
For Astronomy: The Kepler Mission team, which created the Kepler Space Telescope, a "stunning new tool that has a very targeted mission: studying planetary systems. It is the first instrument able to detect Earth-like planets, potentially capable of hosting life, as they circle distant suns."
For Energy: Popular Mechanics honored Grover Coors and John Watkins, both research scientists at Ceramatec, for their sodium-based battery that is intended to make solar and wind power "far more practical for the average homeowner." The idea is to create a $2,000 refrigerator-size battery capable of producing four hours of five kilowatts of electricity.
For Space exploration: Oleg Batishchev, a principal research scientist at MIT's department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The engine will be powered by nitrogen and is capable of ten times the efficiency of chemical rocket engines. It is seen as having broad applications, including for commercial space flight and for man's mission to send humans to Mars.
for Medicine: Harvard scientists George Whitesides, Andrews Martinez, Scott Phillips, Emanuel Carrilho, who have created "lab-on-a-chip" diagnostic tools that could make it possible for imminent "rapid, inexpensive, point-of-care disease diagnostics." The tool is expected to be the size of a postage stamp and work with just a single drop of blood. "This promises to save lives in developing countries where medical staffs and lab equipment are far and few between, and to lead to dramatic cost reductions in technologically advanced countries."
For Transportation: Steve Saint, the founder of Indigenous Peoples Technology and Education Center, for his flying car. Designed to be 1,100 pounds and powered by a 128-horsepower engine, the so-called Maverick can take air after driving at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour on the ground. The Maverick is seen as a powerful tool for getting to hard-to-reach communities in undeveloped areas of the world.
Popular Mechanics also celebrated 10 Breakthrough products:
Ford's EcoBoost engine, a turbocharged V6 that is expected to deliver true V8 performance with much greater fuel efficiency. It is expected to be available across Ford's line of vehicles by 2013.
LEHR's Eco Trimmer, part of a line of propane-powered garden tools. This is, touted Popular Mechanics, a big step forward from the traditional gas-powered tool.
Honeywell's Wind Turbine, a power generator aimed at the home market that, while costing $5,500, is expected to produce high-efficiency power in a small package.
The Palm Pre. Popular Mechanics called the new smart phone "a gadget geek's dream" for its available inductive charging, a full keyboard and, unlike the iPhone, the general ability to run multiple applications at once.
Nikon's Coolpix S1000pj, a new digital camera that is the first to feature a microprojector capable of displaying photos on any surface.
The Quikrete Green Concrete Mix and Asphalt Cold Patch, which takes some of the 45 million tons of pulverized asphalt that comes from America's roads, as well as other recycled roadway material and implements it in new building materials.
The Hustler Zeon, the "world's first all-electric, zero-turning radius (lawn) mower," which is capable of mowing a full acre of grass on a single charge.
The Andalay AC Solar Panel, which is intending to make plug-and-play solar power possible by building in the required wiring and inverters.
The Loggerhead bionic-hydrant wrench, a tool which enables firefighters to turn almost any hydrant nuts, something that the magazine said could save valuable time and lives.
Techcrunch's Crunchpad, an open-source tablet computer meant to compete with future offerings from Apple and other manufacturers.