Top Innovations of 2021
2021 has been a unique year without doubt. Through struggle, innovation overcomes and creates anew. Our team voted on the Top 5 innovations that came out of 2021.
Hydrogen has always been an intriguing possible replacement for fossil fuels. It burns cleanly, emitting no carbon dioxide; it’s energy dense, so it’s a good way to store power from on-and-off renewable sources; and you can make liquid synthetic fuels that are drop-in replacements for gasoline or diesel. But most hydrogen up to now has been made from natural gas; the process is dirty and energy intensive.
The rapidly dropping cost of solar and wind power means green hydrogen is now cheap enough to be practical. Simply zap water with electricity, and presto, you’ve got hydrogen.
We all use GPS every day; it has transformed our lives and many of our businesses. But while today’s GPS is accurate to within 5 to 10 meters, new hyper-accurate positioning technologies have accuracies within a few centimeters or millimeters. That’s opening up new possibilities, from landslide warnings to delivery robots and self-driving cars that can safely navigate streets.
Electric vehicles come with issues; they’re relatively expensive, and you can drive them only a few hundred miles before they need to recharge—which takes far longer than stopping for gas. All these drawbacks have to do with the limitations of lithium-ion batteries. A well-funded Silicon Valley startup now says it has a battery that will make electric vehicles far more palatable for the mass consumer.
It’s called a lithium-metal battery and is being developed by QuantumScape. According to early test results, the battery could boost the range of an EV by 80% and can be rapidly recharged. The battery is still just a prototype that’s much smaller than one needed for a car. But if QuantumScape and others working on lithium-metal batteries succeed, it could finally make EVs attractive to millions of consumers.
Large natural-language computer models that learn to write and speak are a big step toward AI that can better understand and interact with the world. GPT-3 is by far the largest—and most literate—to date. Trained on the text of thousands of books and most of the internet, GPT-3 can mimic human-written text with uncanny—and at times bizarre—realism, making it the most impressive language model yet produced using machine learning.
The two most effective vaccines against the coronavirus are based on messenger RNA, a technology that has been in the works for 20 years. When the covid-19 pandemic began last January, scientists at several biotech companies were quick to turn to mRNA as a way to create potential vaccines; in late December 2020, at a time when more than 1.5 million had died from covid-19 worldwide, the vaccines were approved in the US, marking the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
The new covid vaccines are based on a technology never before used in therapeutics, and it could transform medicine, leading to vaccines against various infectious diseases, including malaria. And if this coronavirus keeps mutating, mRNA vaccines can be easily and quickly modified. Messenger RNA also holds great promise as the basis for cheap gene fixes to sickle-cell disease and HIV. Also in the works: using mRNA to help the body fight off cancers.
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