Tech Concepts You Need to Know for 2010

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From DNA origami to anthropomimetics, here are the big ideas that will make headlines next year. Get to know them now, before you touch a piezoelectric display or buy your first ultracapacitor.

1. Anthropomimetic Machines.
No matter how closely a robot resembles a human on the outside, if you crack it open, the jumble of wires is unlikely to bear much resemblance to our insides.

A group of European researchers aims to bridge that gap—its robot prototype is anthropomimetic, meaning it mimics the human form. There's a skeleton made of thermoplastic polymer, actuators that correspond to each muscle and kiteline as tendons. The goal is to create a more human-like robot that interacts with and responds to environments the way we do.

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2. Metabolomics.
For the past five years, scientists at the University of Alberta in Edmonton have been working on the Human Metabolome Project, a database of the 8,000 naturally occurring metabolites (that is, small molecules involved in chemical reactions in the body), as well as 1,450 drugs, 1,900 food additives and 2,900 toxins that turn up in blood and urine tests.

With this information, researchers can analyze a patient’s metabolomic profile, allowing them to tell from a drop of blood or urine whether somebody likes chocolate—or is likely to develop a life-threatening disease. Today, these tests require million-dollar pieces of equipment that are mostly confined to research labs. The Project’s database, which was first released in 2007, is already being used in commercial applications such as drug discovery and disease diagnosis, making quick and easy tests for personalized health and medical guidance possible.

3. DNA Origami.
Scientists at Caltech have been folding microscopic strands of DNA into interesting shapes for the past few years. A cool party trick for sure, until a breakthrough last summer suggested that the folded strands could be used to create ultrasmall computer chips. That’s when the scientists teamed up with IBM researchers and showed that they could strategically position folded DNA shapes, such as triangles, along the sort of silicon wafer used in microchips.

This should allow them to use pieces of the DNA strands as anchor points for tiny computer-chip components that could be built as little as 6 nanometers apart—a huge improvement over the current stand-ard of 45 nm.

4. Piezoelectric Displays.
Scientists have long known about naturally occurring piezoelectric materials, which have the ability to transform electrical energy into physical stress and vice versa. But by building the property into electronic displays, companies can now create screens that can change shape or texture. This year, the technology is expected to make the leap into mainstream consumer products, offering the potential for mobile devices with screens that can harden protectively when turned off, and soften into a depressible touchscreen when turned on.

5. Ultracapacitors.
The biggest challenge for electric cars is energy storage: Batteries are better than ever, but they are still expensive, slow to charge and have fairly limited life spans. The solution may be ultracapacitors, which hold less energy than batteries (at least as the technology currently stands) but have virtually none of their drawbacks. That means longer life spans, no messy chemical reactions, no issues with battery memory and far greater durability.

Researchers have been trying to perfect automotive ultracapacitors for several years (MIT is working on nanotube-based ultracaps, while Argonne National Laboratory is exploring battery–ultracap hybrids), but the big move could come from the secretive Texas-based company EEStor, which announced in April that its barium-titanate design had passed a crucial test.

Though the company’s claims have aroused skepticism, EEStor’s automotive partner, ZENN Motors, is hyping the release of an ultracapacitor-powered car in 2010.

For another five Tech Concepts you need to know, such as advances in kinetic hydropower osseointegration, see the original story at Popular Mechanics.