This year’s 11 most important innovations in engineering
From one-rail roller coasters to a fax machine for DNA, these are modern marvels of industry and design.
This article is a segment of 2017’s Best of What’s New list. For the complete tabulation of the year’s most transformative products and discoveries, head right this way.
A fax machine for DNA
Need a virus facsimile, STAT? The Digital-to-Biological Converter (DBC) can print genetic code based on digital instructions sent from anywhere. It’s still a prototype, but as errors get worked out, the inventors hope that hospitals will print off personalized medical treatments for patients or mass-produce vaccines to combat outbreaks. On a much more distant timeline, it could one day send organisms to another planet.
Train tracks that float
Rails need to stay straight, but floating bridges bob and sway with the water beneath. Not a good match? Not a problem for Sound Transit’s new project. On this East Link Bridge—which will be completed in 2023—steel platforms and flexible bearings will let light-rail tracks stay in line. By 2030, 50,000 commuters a day will ride 148,000-pound trains at full speed across the water from Seattle to Mercer Island, Washington.
Replicating robot arms
At less than $12,000, this robot arm is cheaper than most of its assembly-line competitors and is dexterous enough that it can assemble clones of itself. It’s a co-robot, which means it also plays well with humans: A collision detection system can tell when a stray arm or finger enters the bot’s workspace, and will promptly stop working when we fragile humans get in the way, reducing workplace disasters.
Hywind Scotland, the first floating wind farm
Five turbines bob in the nearly 400-foot-deep waters off the coast of Scotland, generating enough power to meet the needs of around 20,000 homes. This floating-wind-farm project is close to shore, but the design means that turbines could one day live farther out to sea, where the winds are stronger—and the farms are less visible from land. That’s a win-win for people who like clean energy but want to keep their sweet ocean view.
A translucent roof that closes like a camera
Eight 500-ton steel-boned “petals” sit above the main seating bowl in Atlanta’s newest stadium. Covered in a durable translucent fabric, the petals unfurl 200 feet over the field, shielding fans and players from inclement weather, opening or shutting like a camera aperture in as quick as nine minutes.
Sea-dwelling snake bot
Repairing underwater infrastructure—especially in cold conditions—is rough on humans. It’s a great gig for a robot snake though. Tested in frigid Norwegian fjords, this slithery modular device spends all its time underwater. By 2020, Eelume operators hope to station these tool-wielding robo-reptillians on the seafloor near cables or oil equipment and mobilize them quickly to I.D. and fix problems such as leaky valves.
AquaRefining: A clean way to recycle lead
Lead-acid batteries help you start your car. They back up server farms, and are 100 percent recyclable. But the hot process of smelting old lead into new batteries is fossil-fueled and dirty.
Aqua Metals’ new AquaRefining method dissolves the Pb using a room-temperature electrochemical system that’s free of smelting’s harmful emissions. It also produces purer, higher-quality lead than traditional methods.
Machine-bred bug army
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes can infect humans with diseases from chikungunya to Zika. Debug seeks to stop them by releasing a small army of bacteria-infested A. aegypti. When the male skeeters, raised by Debug’s automated system, mate with wild females, the resulting eggs won’t hatch, reducing the mosquito population. We’ll see if it works: Debug is releasing 20 million of the little guys near Fresno, California.
3D-printed parts for all
At an industrial scale, 3D printing with shiny alloys isn’t the next big thing. It’s just big. And big-ticket. Now companies can forgo the seven-figure monster machines for something smaller and faster. This new six-figure production system uses an inkjet-like technology to turn powder and a binding agent into whatever cold, hard widget you might desire—up to 100 times faster than the laser methods used in current systems.
Synthetic spider silk for consumers
Grown in vats of yeast and spun into strands by a machine, these strong, light, and arachnid-inspired threads finally hit the market. A limited-edition run of ties marked the first commercially available synthetic spider-silk clothing. Eventually the protein-based fibers of BoltSpun neckties could be a renewable alternative to the petroleum-derived fabrics that dominate more than 65 percent of the world’s textile market.
Grand Award Winner: Huge coaster, one thin rail
When passengers finally board one of Rocky Mountain Construction’s new “raptor track” coasters next spring, they’ll climb into single-seat cars, open air on either side as they whip around turns and loops at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Instead of riding atop a pair of tracks, riders of thrill sleds like RailBlazer or Wonder Woman Golden Lasso will sit astride a 15-inch-wide steel rail, making it feel almost as if they’re riding on the track itself: no janky rocking back and forth—just smooth, precise speed.
Amusement-park engineers get a sweet experience too because the single-rail design uses less steel; it’s less expensive, needs fewer supports, and can fit into a fraction of the precious real estate that a coaster of a similar length and height (1,800 feet long and 113 feet tall) would typically need. Downside? The line to cop a ride. Only eight people will fit into the first trains, but the designers plan to build a moving loading system that keeps the ride (and queues) flowing smoothly.
Best of What’s New was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of Popular Science.