Engineering

From genetically modified rice to supertall skyscrapers, these 10 innovations are changing the world.

Read about the other Best Of What’s New winners.

Rice That Fights Global Warming

A Fuel-Free Commuter Ferry

Wind+Wing Technologies: A Fuel-Free Commuter Ferry

The average high-speed ferry burns through more than 5,000 gallons of fuel per day. The one built by Wind+Wing Technologies typically harnesses 10,000 pounds of wind power instead. Three microphones send data to a computer that determines the wind’s direction. A carbon-fiber sail then pivots around a 75-foot spine to capture it. All electronics—the wind sensor, wing controls, GPS, and communication tools—are powered by a 50-watt photovoltaic cell.

A Camera Powered By Wi-Fi

University Of Washington: A Camera Powered By Wi-Fi

To power the expanding Internet of Things, devices will need to scavenge energy. Engineers at the University of Washington devised a camera that can glean energy from ambient Wi-Fi. The trick was modifying standard routers to broadcast when a channel is not being used. That alerts the camera to an open signal which can, in 35 minutes, provide enough power to take a photo. As team member Vamsi Talla says, “This enables a world of battery-free devices that will do their job perpetually.”

The Most Secure Skyscraper Ever

Durst Organization, Port Authority of NY and NJ: The Most Secure Skyscraper Ever

At 1,776 feet, One World Trade Center is the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also the safest one in the world. With heavily reinforced walls making it impact resistant, it offers unparalleled security through brute strength.

Yarn Made From Slaughterhouse Waste

ETH Zurich: Yarn Made From Slaughterhouse Waste

Slaughterhouses produce an enormous amount of gelatin as a byproduct. By mixing it with protein, water, and organic solvent, Philipp Stossel of Switzerland-based university ETH Zurich found a way to recycle that waste into yarn. The exterior of the individual fibers—approximately half the diameter of human hair—appear lustrous. The pockmarks on the inside, Stossel says, are likely what provides insulation similar to natural fibers like merino wool.

The World’s Fastest, Strongest, Lightest Temporary Bridge

Hiroshima University: The World’s Fastest, Strongest, Lightest Temporary Bridge

When natural disasters hit, they often destroy bridges first. So engineers from Hiroshima University in Japan set out to invent a quickly built, strong replacement. Inspired by origami, the new mobile bridge spans 56 feet and takes three people less than an hour to deploy. Often no foundation work is needed, making it ideal for areas affected by earthquakes or floods. Made of aluminum alloy and steel, it’s lightweight and easy to transport, yet sturdy enough for cars to cross.

A Robot Survivor

Pierre And Marie Curie University: A Robot Survivor

Leg injury? No problem. The robot created at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris can overcome disabilities in about two minutes. An algorithm, aptly named Intelligent Trial and Error, enables the robot to discover new behaviors, says lead roboticist Jean-Baptiste Mouret, “basic survival skills” that enable it to operate when damaged. Such a capability could one day lead to robots that work for long periods independently, for such tasks as search-and-rescue missions.

A Floor That Can Charge Your Phone

Onyx Solar: A Floor That Can Charge Your Phone

Solar panels are practical, but they’re limited up there on the roof. Onyx Solar developed an outdoor photovoltaic flooring that picks up the slack: Solar cells inside the anti-slip glass enable decks, balconies, and walkways to draw energy from the sun. The power can be stored in a battery or, when connected to a building’s electrical system, sent straight to outlets. The floor can produce 5.6 watts per square foot (enough to charge a cellphone), supports up to 881 pounds, and comes in more than 1,500 colors.

The Most Radical Indoor Surf On Earth

Surf Snowdonia Wavegarden: The Most Radical Indoor Surf On Earth

Wavegarden, the artificial lagoon at Surf Snowdonia in North Wales, produces hollow waves that travel 490 feet without losing power or shape. (Add another 240 feet of taper, and surfers get an 18-second ride.) A computer-controlled gearless ropeway drive system—similar to those used for ski lifts—pulls a wave foil along the bottom of the pool to create the 6 1/2-foot-tall curls. Surf Snowdonia’s managing director, Steve Davies, calls them “the longest manmade surfable waves on the planet.”

A Laser So Pure, It’s White

Arizona State University: A Laser So Pure, It’s White

Lasers have been around for years, but never before have they been capable of emitting pure white light. Researchers at Arizona State University created a nanoscale semiconductor that combines red, green, and blue light (usually lasers emit just one wavelength) to produce the full visible spectrum, including white. Because lasers are brighter and more energy efficient than LEDs, they could replace today’s lighting.

Hydrogen Energy’s Green Giant

Siemens: Hydrogen Energy’s Green Giant

Massive wind farms require massive systems to capture and store surplus electricity. The “green hydrogen” plant that opened this summer in Mainz, Germany, is larger than any other. Thanks to Siemens’ special electrolyzer, the plant can transform up to 6 megawatts of electricity (even from fluctuating sources) and use it to split hydrogen from water. The hydrogen can be stored, then either turned back into electricity or sent to refueling stations to power up to 2,000 fuel-cell vehicles.