While 2005 has been a bumpy year in the realms of politics, finance, and economics — particularly for Americans — it has proven just as bountiful as previous years in the realm of technology. Research laboratories, medical centers, and engineering workshops throughout this country — and all over the globe, for that matter — demonstrated that advancements in their respective fields are not slowing down, regardless of consumer spending or company valuations.
Many of these terrific accomplishments have been noted by the media and, in many cases, used as springboards for an increasing number of popular articles and even books on technical achievements and their effects upon humanity — both positive and negative.
As an example of media attention, consider the Wall Street Journal's Technology Innovation award for 2005, given to Freescale Semiconductor Inc. for their commercial Ultra-Wideband (UWB) products. Freescale's UWB technology enables high-rate transfer of audio, video, and other data streams wirelessly, at rates 100 times faster than Bluetooth's corresponding technology, but with equivalent sound and image quality.
Such technical developments can be enjoyed and appreciated by consumers with little delay, as evidenced by the fact that Freescale's UWB technology is already being used in High-Definition Television (HDTV) sets offered by Haier Group, China's biggest appliance manufacturer.
Due to space limitations, I can only look at a few of the countless technological achievements witnessed during this past year. Moreover, every field of technical human endeavor had its share of innovations that, while not all winning awards, certainly won the attention and respect of each field's researchers, corporations, government bodies, and other interested parties.
Electronics and Media
For many years now there has been a race between the demands and expectations of consumers as to the visual and auditory quality of their electronic entertainment, versus the data storage capabilities of affordable hardware, including optical and magnetic disks. For instance, DVD (Digital VideoDisc, or Digital Versatile Disc) has experienced phenomenal acceptance and commercial success ever since it was introduced in 1997 — especially DVD-Video, which has taken the movie distribution world by storm, and is quickly obsoleting VHS. At the same time, an increasing number of consumers are dipping their toes into the waters of HDTV.
HDTV's growing popularity is not entirely the result of the U.S. federal government's mandated usage of this new technology, but also because of the unsurpassed resolution and image quality, in comparison to VHS and conventional cable television. In fact, HDTV has double the resolution of DVD. This poses a problem for consumers who want to store HDTV-ready movies and other shows on DVD discs, because of the current storage limitations of those discs, namely, only about 20 minutes of HDTV programming per disc.
Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. might have the answer, with their new 50GB rewritable dual-layer Blu-ray discs, which have over 10 times the data capacity of standard DVD discs. In terms of media storage, each one will be able to handle 4.5 hours of HDTV programming or over 20 hours of regular TV programming. These performance improvements were obtained by stacking two recording layers, which itself was only made possible after a number of other technical advancements, including the invention of a new recording material for blue laser light and thinner films.
But aren't these higher capacity consumer devices going to require even greater amounts of electricity? That may be true in many cases, but at the same time, rising energy costs are undoubtedly going to spur the development of consumer electronics and other devices that use less electrical power — similar to LCD flat-panel monitors slurping less juice (and filling less desk space!) than the lights-dimming CRT monitors they replaced.
One technological invention that could have an impact on such electrical power needs is the development of the nanovoltmeter, which can generate extremely small currents and then measure extremely small voltages. One notable innovator in this area is Keithley Instruments, Inc., which developed and now offers their AC and DC Precision Current Source with Nanovoltmeter. This system will be of great value to electronics manufacturers who need to test products that utilize low electrical power using advanced materials such as carbon nanotubes.
Energy and Environment
The rapid rise in energy costs mentioned earlier is also encouraging governments, utility companies, and even environmental groups to take a second look at nuclear power generation, an energy alternative relatively neglected in the United States in comparison with Asian and European countries. Consequently, during the past 10 years, there has been a 20% increase in nuclear power production.
This growing use of nuclear energy facilities has also increased the need for effective solutions to cleaning irradiated fuel pins in nuclear power plants. In response, researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and other companies have come up with a patented technology that removes corrosion deposited on those used fuel pins, utilizing ultrasonic technology. It allows over 80% of the deposits to be removed without any damage to the integrity of the fuel materials.
While far less dangerous than nuclear waste, conventional waste poses a larger challenge to the United States in terms of sheer size, as our landfills become… full. As an alternative to the current "out of sight and (somewhat) out of mind" approach of landfills, an increasing number of waste management companies and utilities are looking at converting regular waste products into various reusable materials. For example, Bouldin Corp. and Battelle have teamed up to develop their WastAway Municipal Solid Waste Recycling System, which is able to take unsorted municipal solid waste and turn it into a material that can be used similar to fill dirt.
Their multistep system uses grinders, shredders, separators, and a high-temperature pressure chamber to significantly reduce all of the dangerous pathogens to safe levels. The resultant material, named Fluff, is now being used for reclaiming barren and/or eroded land, for serving as a growing medium, and even as a base material that can be used in the manufacture of composite timbers and such items as park benches.
Some of the technical advancements that we have seen during the past year, are primarily of interest to consumers, while others are immediately usable only by materials manufacturers and processors. As a result, the cultural impacts of many of these innovations won't be seen for several years, and in some cases, several decades. Fortunately, these improvements are cumulative, in that they synergistically build upon the newer capabilities allowed by one another, in addition to building upon the progress of inventions and other advancements made in previous years.
While we cannot know what is in store for us during 2006, we can at least predict with confidence that the technical pioneers behind these and all other technological innovations worldwide will continue finding new methods and new products aimed at improving our high-tech lifestyles, while reducing their impact upon the environment.