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The most innovative inventions of the 21st century (I)

Here is the first of a new series of articles about inventions, those technological advances that are brought to us by the innovative spirit of the brightest minds on the planet, and whose main purpose is to make our lives easier. Here we will focus on discoveries that have appeared recently, inventions that have emerged since the beginning of the 21st century and that augur a future full of new possibilities.

 

The iPad

We have already spoken in this blog about Steve Jobs, one of the most innovative characters in recent history, and also about a number of milestones in technological progress reached by his work. There is only one we did not mention: The iPad, an Apple device that, when it first appeared on 27 January 2010 once again revolutionised the technological landscape.

"Did you know that Apple had to pay 60 million dollars to the Taiwanese company Shenzhen Proview Technology because it had already registered the name "iPad" in 2001?"

When the iPad came onto the market, another recent invention had already taken its place in homes around the world: The netbook, small laptops that became very popular from 2007. But the tablet created by Jobs was much more user-friendly, much lighter and featured unique apps.

The impact of the iPad was such that in 2013 Asus and Acer, the main companies producing netbooks, announced their decision to stop manufacturing this type of device; Jobs' invention also meant the opening of the market for tablets resulting in other companies starting to mass produce similar devices. The numbers brought Jobs back to the top again: Just two years after launching its tablet, Apple had already sold 84 million iPads worldwide.

Self-replicating 3D printers

Although it seems like a recent invention, 3D printing emerged in the mid-80s when Chuck Hull, the founder of 3D Systems, patented stereolithography, a method that enabled the printing of solid resin objects using ultraviolet light. But this type of printer was only intended for industrial use, partly due to its high price.

Everything changed in 2004 with the appearance of RepRap, an open source project aimed at promoting the creation of self-replicating 3D printers. This means that the devices are capable of printing each of their own parts, which can then be assembled so the actual printer is replicated.

Driven by the progress brought about by RepRap, in 2009 Adam Mayer, Bre Pettis, and Zach Smith created Makerbot Industries with a clear objective: To design a 3D printer kit that anyone could assemble in their home. After working for three years using open source, Makerbot launched the Replicator 2 design and stopped sharing its designs with other programmers; they also opened the first commercial outlet for 3D printers.

Currently, and as a result of the efforts of these innovators, 3D printing is available to almost everyone. In the not too distant future, millions of homes will have this type of printer. The possibilities are enormous: We can print all sorts of useful things like clothes hangers, shelves, cooking pans and even cutlery.

 

Artificial hearts

A healthy heart is vitally important for the survival of a human being. That is why for decades a great number of scientists have been researching into the possibility of creating artificial versions of this organ.

The first experiments with synthetic hearts date back to the 1930s, although they were conducted on dogs. It was in 1969 when doctors Denton A. Cooley and Domingo Liotta performed the first transplant of a totally artificial heart. In the 21st century we saw the first completely self-contained artificial heart, the AbioCor, created by a company called Abiomed. First used in 2011, it was made of plastic and titanium and was powered by an internal battery. Its main disadvantage was that it only lasted a short time: Eighteen months.

"Did you know that the Abiocor artificial heart appeared in the action film "Crank: High voltage", released in 2009?"

Fortunately, science never stops to rest: In 2013 the Frenchman Alain F. Carpentier presented an artificial heart that performed better than those of AbioCor. It was called the Carmat and was designed using biosynthetic animal tissues (which when treated with chemicals, aim to avoid rejection by the patient's body). It was capable of pumping blood through electrical sensors and had a longer life expectancy.

 

The Google driverless car

Just to think about travelling by car without a driver on board sounded like science fiction years ago. Now, however, the development of smart vehicles has become a fashionable trend in innovation.

Google is one of the pioneers in this field with their Google Self-Driving Car project, which was kept secret for quite some time. In 2010, the company announced that it already had a small fleet of vehicles on the road, six Toyota Prius and an Audi TT. These vehicles had travelled thousands of kilometres without a driver.

"Did you know that in 1966 the author Philip K. Dick imagined a future with cars without human drivers in his novel "Can We Remember It for You Wholesale"?

This car worked using a system of sensors located in strategic places in the vehicle. There is one on a wheel that enables you to collect information about the status and movement of the tyres, another on the roof that enables you to record in 360º and there is recognition software that can distinguish everything around you, as well as a front camera that collects information about the lights from other vehicles. There are also a number of motion detectors that help the vehicle maintain its distance from other objects.

 

Blue LEDs

Even though blue LEDs did not appear in the 21st century but at the end of the 20th century (precisely in 1995), we would like to include them in this list because they were not acknowledged globally until 2014, when their discoverers, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura (considered the father of the invention), were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics as a result of their innovations in this field.

The first LEDs that were developed (an incredible sixty years ago) only emitted light across the spectrum from red to green. The target of all researchers working on these diodes was to reach blue, because it would make it possible to combine the three colours and create white light. However, this technological feat was thought to be impossible. In the words of Enrique San Andrés, Professor of Applied Physics at the Complutense University in Madrid,

"The great genius of Nakamura is that he did something that everyone in the scientific community thought was impossible."

But in 1993 Nakamura and his colleagues managed to create a chip that generated the blue light they were looking for by using gallium nitride as a semiconductor.

This source of artificial light is present in the daily lives of millions of people around the world, including lighting for houses, car headlights, mobile phone screens, etc. Its low consumption and its long useful life make it a great option to achieve energy efficiency in our daily lives.

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