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

Here is the second instalment of our series of articles on the inventions of the last sixteen years. Technological advances created by the brightest minds in the world who have one thing in common: Making people's lives just a little bit easier.

 

Rainmaker

Aqua Sciences, an American company from Florida which in 2006 presented its Rainmaker, a mobile plant capable of extracting large amounts of drinking water from the atmosphere.

Through a process (not one hundred percent revealed) that takes advantage of the properties of salt and the phenomenon of reverse osmosis, Rainmaker is able to absorb, decontaminate and purify the water molecules present in the air. The system works using electricity generators (autonomous or external) and the largest model which is 12 metres high, can produce up to 2,600 litres of water in a single day.

This invention could be used in a number of areas. For example, the U. S. army is studying the possibility of using it to enable its troops abroad (especially those in underdeveloped countries with very hot climates) to self-supply water, avoiding the huge costs involved in transporting huge amounts of drinking water. The Rainmaker has already proven to be very useful in places affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, where the systems used to access this precious liquid had been contaminated or directly destroyed.

 

EKSO

Miracles do exist and are designed by brilliant researchers like those working at Berkeley Bionics. They have designed a hydraulic exoskeleton which enabled a number of people who had lost leg mobility as a result of different kinds of injuries (especially to the spinal cord) to get back on their feet and walk.

This invention was created in 2010 and given the name of eLEGS (eExoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System, and renamed a year later as EKSO. The device works using robotic sensors of force, motion and electrical impulses. The integrated computer interface interprets the information received and converts it into action. The design makes it possible for someone who is paraplegic person to stand or sit on their own, without any outside help.

EKSO weighs twenty kilos, it has a battery that lasts six hours and enables a maximum speed of about three kilometres per hour to be reached. It is currently only being used in rehabilitation centres, but they are working on a new, lighter version for home use.

Iris II

In February there was good news for many people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa: A French company called Pixium Vision had successfully performed the first artificial retinal implant in Nantes. This enabled the patient, a 58-year-old man, to begin to perceive light where before there was only darkness. With time and correct visual re-education, he will be able to see shapes and movements which will mean he has recovered part of his lost sight.

The system, known as Iris II, consists of a bionic epiretinal implant and a special viewer, similar to a virtual reality headset. Inside there is very complex technology consisting of a camera based on how the human eye works and that transmits signals to the implant. It has 150 electrodes (three times more than the prototype, the Iris I) that artificially stimulate the eyeball and this helps to partially restore the damaged functions of the retina.

Pixium Vision aims to commercialise this wonderful invention in Europe this year, and in time to begin to treat other problems relating to vision, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

 

Segway

In December 2001, the American entrepreneur Dean Kamen presented one of his best-known inventions: The Segway, an electric light transport vehicle that was a real revolution at the time. To the point of getting an innovation guru like Steve Jobs to maintain that the cities of the future would be built around this new means of transport. But sometimes even great geniuses get it wrong.

No one has any doubt about the innovation provided by Kamen's invention: the Segway was the first self-balancing vehicle. It is controlled by an integrated computer and equipped with motors and gyroscopes which enable the Segway to stay horizontal constantly. To control it, all you need to do is to lean slightly in the direction you wish to go. It can also reach a speed of up to 20 km/hr. This could well have been the transport of the future: Comfortable, fast, non-polluting. But following a boom after its surprise appearance on the market, the Segway did not eventually come up to expectations.

The high cost was one of the reasons, but also the danger involved by using of this vehicle on the pavement: It is very heavy (45 kg) and goes much faster than the pedestrians which led to it being prohibited in some cities such as San Francisco. However, Kamen has not completely given up and who knows, perhaps in the future, in certain types of urban populations, the Segway may well become the most common form of transport.

Bio-Battery

One of the main challenges in battery research is to find a way to recharge batteries without having a socket or electricity source at hand. This is why at the 2011 Eco-Products exhibition Sony Corp presented the Bio-Battery, an innovative battery that works with paper.

The device is based on the properties of cellulose pulp. When it is mixed with oxygen and water, the enzymes decompose, which causes a chemical reaction that produces the energy necessary to operate an electrical circuit. The idea for the invention came as a result of observing nature, specifically a type of ant and termites that eat wood and process it to convert it into energy.

And the Bio-Battery has another advantage: It does not pollute. In the words of Chisato Kitsukawa, a former senior manager at Sony,

"Eco-friendly batteries are the optimum solution for caring for the environment and they have great potential."

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