Over the course of our history, humans have faced multiple challenges – from our most basic needs like procuring food and shelter, to loftier undertakings such as exploring the mysteries of space and particle physics. Many of the technological innovations that result from our burning curiosity about the world we live in have changed civilization forever. Here we examine a few!
Wind and solar energy
From the time of the earliest sail boats and basic wind-powered water pumps, humanity has been fascinated with the idea of harnessing the power of the wind. Today, Walney Extension, the largest offshore wind farm on the planet located in the Irish Sea off the coast of England, powers more than half a million homes and covers an area greater than 20,000 soccer fields. It is comprised of 87 individual turbines, some of which stand 640 feet (195 meters) tall.
Harnessing the power of the sun has been a more recent development. In 1876, William Grylls Adams and his student Richard Day discovered that selenium produced electricity when exposed to light. In 1953, Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson, and Daryl Chapin discovered the silicon solar cell. And while many realized the immense promise of this technology, the first commercially available units were far beyond the purchasing power of the average man on the street. Today, with solar power cheaper than it has ever been, it appears political and commercial will are the only factor holding the world back from a green energy revolution.
Ten times stronger, yet five times lighter than steel, carbon fiber (also called graphite fiber) takes its inspiration from the hardest substance we know – diamond – which is carbon in its purest and most compact form. It also performs well under very high temperatures. Unfortunately, it is also time-consuming and expensive to produce, and more innovation will be required before we manage to realize its full potential.
Strong, lightweight, flexible, cheap and easy to produce, durable and long-lasting, it’s perhaps no surprise that plastics – or polymers, to use the more correct terminology – have become so ubiquitous that they now pose a major environmental threat. It may surprise readers to learn that plastic was actually invented in an effort to save the wild elephant from extinction by providing a cheap alternative to ivory!
Of course it is not plastics themselves, but rather the manner in which we have chosen to use and become dependent on them, which has landed us in a waste crisis. Used correctly and responsibly, however, plastics can have a positive impact on the environment. Biodegradable plastics such as PLA (polylactide), which is produced from plant starches, could provide a viable and more environmentally friendly alternative for single-use plastic items, while synthetic plastics could be reserved for applications where their durability is an asset rather than an issue. Companies like PRS Geotechnologies use a novel polymeric alloy called Neoloy, for example, to produce geocells – a soil stabilization product well known for improving the sustainability of road, rail and port construction projects.
Although we think of them as a recent invention, LEDs – or light emitting diodes – are the final product of over a century of experimentation. From the discovery of electroluminescence in silicon carbide by Henry Joseph Round in 1907, to the creation of an infrared (and therefore invisible to humans) LED in 1961 by Robert Biard and Gary Pittman, and finally the invention of the first practically useful LED in 1962 by General Electric employee Nick Holonyak, Jr, they are a perfect example of how so many great inventions are only possible thanks to the work and research of those who come before us.
Today’s LED bulbs are six to seven times more efficient, use 80% less energy, and last 25 times longer than their traditional incandescent counterparts, and are affordable enough that they can be used in large scale and domestic applications.
The study of hydraulics goes back even further than the principles underlying LED lighting – all the way back to the work of French mathematician Blaise Pascal in the mid 1600’s. Pascal’s Law, still taught in schools today, states the following: “A change in pressure at any point in an enclosed fluid at rest is transmitted undiminished to all points in the fluid”.
What Pascal essentially observed was that liquids, unlike gases, cannot be compressed, and can therefore transfer power. 150 years later, Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford used this principle in the production of the first agricultural tractors and plows. Today, virtually every piece of large equipment from airplanes, cranes, forklifts and amusement park rides make use of this concept.