2014 Breakthrough technologies: the challenges and opportunities

December 04, 2014

MIT Technology Review recently revealed their list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2014, the list is an annual look at breakthroughs which will give people powerful new ways to use new technology. Sagentia experts have examined the selection and considered the current status, challenges, and potential applications. Our Sagentia R&D readiness score evaluates the potential for including these innovations in market-focused R&D programs and therefore how close they are to being market-ready.

Our 2014 Breakthrough Technology suggestions

Grid scale energy storage

The re-balancing of national energy portfolios in favor of more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power has accelerated the requirement for energy efficient storage methods, in order to minimize waste energy production and ensure constant supplies.

Current status:

Several options for grid-scale energy storage are currently being investigated. Liquid storage gas methods using compressed liquid air or liquid nitrogen are being trialed at power stations within the UK in order to explore the technology's viability. Gasses are stored in liquid form and released when required in order to power turbines that generate electricity. Another method being trialed is the use of flow batteries. Flow battery systems, which are similar to fuel cells and are a form of rechargeable battery, store energy in the form of liquid electrolyte solutions. Chemical reactions are triggered using the electrolyte solutions to produce an electrical current when needed. Crucially, the emergence of these technologies as viable options for large-scale energy storage has coincided with a broader recognition that greater investment is required in the area.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 5/10

Challenges still to come:

  • Lower cost working fluids
  • Increasing end to end efficiencies
  • Reducing capital / infrastructure costs

Implications and applications:

Grid-scale energy storage provides a possible solution to one of the major issues surrounding renewable energy production and supply. The technology could help smooth out the peaks and troughs in the supply of energy that are inherent with renewable energy production methods. This will help provide a more constant and consistent supply of energy from these sources in the future. Finally, this breakthrough technology offers an alternative to the large and expensive backup power stations that are required to cope with excess demand for energy.

Acoustic signature monitoring

This exciting technology uses microphones and other small sensors to measure a range of different parameters across different systems and operations. By listening to different sounds, continual condition monitoring of the system can be achieved and a wide range of problems can be diagnosed. 

Current status:

Acoustic signature monitoring technology is currently being applied across a range of industry sectors. Its current uses include flow monitoring in medical inhalers and is used for condition monitoring purposes in industrial and domestic furnaces. It is also being applied as an early warning system for leak detection within subsea oil and gas equipment.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 6/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • More advanced algorithms are required
  • Fusing the data with other inputs needs to become a seamless process

Implications and applications:

Acoustic signature monitoring has the potential to allow sophisticated sensing of complex systems and hard to access parameters in real time. In addition, the monitoring systems would only require minimal component pieces to operate.  Through further development, the technology could enable lower cost condition monitoring of these systems.

Graphene water purification

The concept of using graphene, perforated by nanoscale pores, as a filter in desalination has been proposed and analyzed by several MIT researchers. Earlier this year researchers devised a way of making tiny holes in sheets of graphene, a development that could lead to ultrathin filters for improved desalination or water purification.

Current status:

There has been much hype and excitement about graphene over the last year or so and the emerging technology does indeed show potential for higher throughput water purification and filtration. Much of the research to-date has focused on production of graphene based nano-pore filters.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 2/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • The technology is still a long way from being refined and the ability to scale up the production, generating the cost reductions needed for commercialisation, still requires much research
  • Reducing the pore size even more to allow use for blocking small salt molecules

Implications and applications:

Graphene water purification has the potential to be a disruptive technology in the realms of desalination and low-cost water filtration. With more research, it could also facilitate higher flow rates, lower back pressure, and more efficient processes.

Review of MIT 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014

Agile robots

The ability to walk requires complex processes to be aligned, including being able to adapt to sudden instability and calculating how much force is required to change direction. Recent advances have enabled robots to mimic much more closely the range of movements used by humans. 

Current status:

Currently, agile robotics is still at the R&D stage. However, developments in sensor technology (force, torque, accelerometers), and motion and control architecture are making applications more feasible. We expect to see the advances being made by niche players in the market feeding this breakthrough technology into the mainstream. 

Sagentia R&D Readiness Score: 5/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • Complexity of human walking/dynamic balance
  • Safety, cost, and efficiency
  • Autonomy and cognition
  • External power sources

Implications and applications:

Robots could have greater use in emergency rescue operations, especially in hazardous environments. The technology also has medical rehabilitation applications, including uses in prosthetic limb construction or exoskeletons. Finally, robots may one day be used around the home to help elderly or physically disabled people with daily chores. 

Neuromorphic chips

With traditional chip designs, based on von Neumann architecture, reaching their fundamental performance limits, neuromorphic chips are offering an alternative. This new approach, modeled on human brain activity, provides options to further enhance the capabilities of artificial intelligence systems. 

Current status:

The neuromorphic chip designs in current circulation still require a true hardware platform to operate, however recent architecture simulations have shown significant potential. 

Sagentia R&D Readiness Score: 5/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • Current neuromorphic chips are running sub-optimally as they are still being modeled with conventional processors
  • Real hardware is still in its infancy – it is not yet possible to go out and buy chips that perform meaningful tasks

Implications and applications:

The ability to combine neuromorphic chips with other sensory components to create a complex cognitive system would allow machines to evaluate and respond quickly to their environments in real time. Specifically, this could impact the cognitive function of robotic systems, and could deliver significant changes to operations concerned with sorting or inspection as well as applications with autonomous vehicles. 

Genome editing

Research using a genome tool to create two monkeys with specific genetic mutations has been carried out in China providing powerful new ways to study complex and genetically baffling brain disorders.

Current status:

The CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard, MIT and elsewhere is now relatively accessible and has the potential to achieve something truly groundbreaking. This is incredible progress for a technology that was demonstrated for the first time in 2012. 

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 6/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • Widespread clinical use is still several years away
  • Ethical issues and the potential for misuse

Implications and applications:

The ability to modify targeted genes in primates is an extraordinary step forward in potentially being able to replicate human illness and disease and better understand biochemical changes. It opens the door to future progress in the worlds of personalized medicine and corrective gene therapy.

Smart wind and solar power

Big data and artificial intelligence are producing ultra-accurate forecasts that will make it feasible to integrate greater quantities of renewable energy into the grid. With more accurate forecasts, utilities can cut the amount of power that needs to be held in reserve, minimizing their role and reducing the reliance on fossil fuels.

Current status: 

The accuracy of energy forecasting has vastly improved in recent years, enabled by supercomputers, improved algorithms, and better quality data. Local data, provided by geographically placed sensors, is also being fed into national forecasting models to enhance the predictions and provide more targeted local forecasting.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 9/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • Small errors in forecasting can result in very large errors in forecast energy production
  • Developing sophisticated prediction models for energy requirements at millions of homes is vastly scaled up from prediction models previously used for large scale solar farms
  • Weather forecasting in the US is far more predictable than other more variable climates, can the same forecasting processes be applied across the climate spectrum?

Implications and applications:

These ultra-accurate forecasts have the potential to seriously increase the percentage of grid energy provided by renewables, at a much lower cost. Wind and solar forecasts may help us use enough renewable energy to reach the goal of significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Microscale 3D printing

Inks made from different types of materials, precisely applied, are greatly expanding the kinds of things that can be printed. In particular, 3-D printing that uses multiple materials to create objects such as biological tissue with blood vessels has been a real breakthrough.

Current status:

To date, 3-D printing has created much hype but the printing material used has mainly been limited to plastics, which reduces the scope for areas the technology could be applied to. However, we are now seeing steps being taken to use other materials such as foodstuffs, tissue scaffold, and biological materials, which really do make the prospect of printing artificial organs a step closer.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 6/10

Challenges still to over overcome:

  • Material compatibility
  • Electrostatic effects
  • Structural integrity

Implications and applications:

As the technology progresses it brings infinite possibilities of customizing and combining materials not previously thought possible. The most obvious application is for the printing of artificial organs for drug testing or for use as replacement parts, which would be a game-changer in the medical world.

Mobile collaboration

It has taken a while for the software that helps people get work done to catch up with the fact that many people are increasingly working on tablets and phones. Now new apps are making it easier to create and edit documents on the go.

Current status:

Our work culture has changed dramatically over recent years. The advent of mobile devices has transformed the way we work and where we work from. People are more mobile than ever, working from home, travelling more for business, and they want to be productive when they're on the go. While the enabling technologies  for making this possible (the cloud, processing power, wireless and smart devices) have become readily available in recent years the software and apps are only just catching up.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 9/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • Usability - managing comments from multiple editors in an efficient and practical way
  • Connectivity -connecting to wi-fi in key locations such as airports and hotels remains challenging and often expensive

Implications and applications:

These technologies have the potential to transform business working models - geographic barriers will become even more eroded as virtual workplaces become the norm and real-time collaboration on the same documents will increase the efficiency of workers. In the medical sector we can see a real advantage in the sharing of information between patients, caregivers and doctors.

Brain mapping

As neuroscientists try to understand how the brain works they need a detailed map of its anatomy. An international team of researchers led by German and Canadian scientists has produced a three-dimensional atlas of the brain that has 50 times the resolution of previous such maps. This high-resolution map shows structures of the human brain as small as 20 micrometers.

Current status:

A major step forward has been the ability to map voxels as small as 20 micrometers. Data fusion advances and super computers are also helping advance the technology by enabling feature recognition, data stitching, and distortion correction.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 3/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • Creation of the database to hold the maps will require the handling of petabytes of data, this will limit the organizations which can access the data
  • At what point will the mapping become 'good enough' for neuroscientists to use in their work. The mapping is not yet being done at cellular level, but does it need to be?

Implications and applications:

Brain mapping has the potential to transform our knowledge in the area of disease management by providing more enhanced insight into behaviour-brain correspondence. The ability to set up simulations to understand what happens in various disease states could also provide valuable information for the field of disease management. Clinical procedures would also benefit from brain mapping by providing even more accurate targeting of neurosurgery procedures, electrode placement etc.

Ultraprivate smartphones

In the post-Snowden era, consumers are more concerned than ever about security and privacy. The new ultra private smartphone technologies developed for the consumer market transmit minimal personal information through the use of data encryption.

Current status:

Mobile phones have become increasingly 'smart' over recent years and the ability to use mobile devices for much more than voice calls has created a need for greater privacy. In addition, the revelations that governments and advertisers are accessing intimate personal data from mobile phones has raised the profile among consumers of data protection and security. Our readiness score of 9/10 reflects the increased accessibility of end-user owned and controlled encryption technologies and the additional processing power which has helped provide the solution.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 9/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • Cooperating handsets are required - if the person at the other end of the call doesn't have a cooperating handset the encryption won't work
  • Price is still high because of the low adoption rate

Implications and applications:

The obvious advantage of ultra private smartphones is the provision of more control over personal data as the data encryption ensures personal data transmitted by smartphones is less accessible to interested parties. By default, this then makes the technology fairly niche in terms of its user base i.e. those who desire that additional level of security. There would be an obvious interest from criminals and terrorists, and therein lies the threat.

Agricultural drones

Relatively cheap drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to increase yields and reduce crop damage. The advent of drones this small, cheap, and easy to use is due largely to remarkable advances in technology: tiny MEMS sensors (accelerometers, gyros, magnetometers, and often pressure sensors), small GPS modules, incredibly powerful processors, and a range of digital radios.

Current status:

The ease of use and cost of drones have made these technologies far more accessible recently for the purposes of monitoring crop disease and providing real-time crop imagery. 

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 8/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • Data analysis and image processing still require technical knowledge eg how to combine multispectral images to get actionable insight
  • Access to useful wavelengths
  • Will satellite data become just as effective/economic?
  • Privacy and safety
  • Usefulness depends on scale and terrain

Implications and applications:

Agricultural drones have the potential to help improve crop and disease management by providing greater insight with the use of imaging and sensors. Another application could be the monitoring of irrigation and water supply by surveying snow and glacier landscapes to predict future water availability in geographical areas. The fusion of satellite and UAV (Unmanned Agricultural Vehicles) data could also provide even greater insight for land management purposes.

Oculus rift

Thirty years after virtual-reality goggles and immersive virtual worlds made their debut, the technology finally seems poised for widespread use. While video games are where this improved virtual-reality technology is likely to take off first, it could also have applications in telepresence, architecture, computer-aided design, emergency response training, and phobia therapy.

Current status:

Advances in MEMs sensors (better, smaller, lighter, faster), motion control & processing power have served to make the application of virtual-reality devices to other fields a real possibility now. To date, the technology has mainly been focussed on enhancing the gaming experience, but with the development of smaller and higher resolution screens and the advent of lower prices, the potential has arisen to use virtual-reality in a host of other fields.

Sagentia R&D readiness score: 7/10

Challenges still to overcome:

  • To move beyond gaming and niche applications 
  • Needs to be smaller/more user-friendly, and less geeky
  • Displays physically large
  • Cost - needs to become a commodity and multi-use

Implications and applications:

Historically the virtual reality technologies have been aimed at the gaming market but we are now looking at how they can be used for other applications. Early VR headsets had a tendency to cause motion sickness due to the latency caused by slow and inaccurate sensors. Better sensors and data processing have served to reduce the impact of latency on the gaming experience. Some of the many fields which could benefit from the use of VR technologies include surgery (better data fusion & overlay), emergency response training, and servicing (e.g. aviation industry).

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