Bacteriophage, Plastic Steel and Round Robots Prove Winners

College inventors pick up major prizes for some outlandish projects

Think that college lab work is dull and uninspiring? Student inventors claimed a $25,000 grand prize and other awards Wednesday night for creating antibacterial agents, “plastic steel,” and a spherical robot that can climb stairs.

The winners were contestants in the 2008 Collegiate Inventors Competition, operated by the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation since 1990.

Grand prize went to Timothy Lu of Harvard Medical School and MIT, who engineered viruses to attack antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The bacteriophages act like slow-motion bunker busters that use enzymes to tunnel through biofilm coatings which normally protect bacteria.

A graduate student and undergraduate also each received $15,000 for their inventions. Graduate winner Paul Podsiadlo came up with > “plastic steel” during his Ph.D. years at the University of Michigan. He used clay nanotubes to carefully assemble structures layer by layer, and ended up with a transparent plastic sheet that carried characteristics similar to steel.

Undergraduate winner Greg Schroll tackled his spherical robot design (maybe a kindred spirit to this one) for a senior project at MIT. After finding that earlier designs ran into trouble navigating over or around obstacles and inclines, he hit upon placing two gyroscopes inside the robot. Each gyroscope stores angular momentum that can later assist the roly-poly bot to climb hills, stairs and other obstacles.

Sponsors behind the competition include the Abbot Fund and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Yes, the same government agency once seen as drowning in paper has tried hard to keep up its support of U.S. innovation. It even recently drew praise from the likes of Google CEO Eric Schmidt for testing an online Peer-to-Patent social networking system.

But patents and cash prizes aside, what struck me the most was the quality and breadth of all contestant submissions. Finalists included a wide array of concepts such as a hemostatic mineral bandage and smart textiles to help preserve organ donations. You can look through the entire list here – I know I’ll be keeping an eye on some for Popular Science‘s annual “Inventions of the Year” issue.