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The 2001 Discover Awards

Each year, Discover Magazine honors a number of scientists with Innovation Awards, which spotlight inventions and discoveries with the potential to change our lives. A look at the 2001 winners provides a snapshot of how science and technology are advancing, and just maybe gives us a look at what the future holds. (OK, OK, the awards were actually given last summer, but they make too good a New Year’s column to let my tardiness in reporting on them get in the way!)

There are too many awards for me to mention all of them, but I thought I’d highlight some of the most exciting.

Probably the single most important winning innovation was the recipient of the Editors’ Choice Award. Called Helinx, it’s a low-cost device for cleansing plasma of blood-borne disease-causing viruses and bacteria. Developed by haematologist Larry Corash and chemists John E. Hearst and Steve Isaacs, it promises to remove forever the threat of disasters like the infection of thousands of people with HIV and hepatitis from tainted blood that have occurred in the past couple of decades. Even with screening of donors, the current risk of getting a viral infection from a transfusion of one unit of blood is 1 in 34,000, and the risk of a bacterial infection from a platelet transfusion is 1 in 1,700.

The Helinx blood purification box is based on chemical compounds called psoralens commonly found in many fruits and vegetables. When released into human blood, psoralens migrate to and harmlessly orbit DNA and RNA molecules. Since the three components of blood that are transfused–red blood cells, platelets and plasma–don’t contain DNA, any bits of it that the psoralens find is liable to belong to something that could be harmful.

Corash and colleagues discovered that exposing psoralen-treated blood to ultraviolet light causes the psoralens to bind to the DNA and RNA, in the process rendering it incapable of replicating itself, which has the effect of killing bacteria and rendering viruses impotent. (Because red blood cells also absorb ultraviolet light, the research team refined its idea, developing a psoralen-related compound that is activated by a shift in pH level rather than by light.) The process is cheap (the team’s first blood-purifying box cost all of $75 in parts), quick and essentially foolproof, and once the Helinx boxes are widespread, every bit of blood gathered will be usable without fear of infecting its recipient. Technicians could be laundering blood in Europe this year, and in North America next year.

Another winner this year was Dr. Patrick Gruber, vice president and chief technology officer at Cargill Dow LLC in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Minnesota grows a lot of corn, and Dr. Gruber won for a new technique for using corn instead of petroleum to produce plastic–and idea that came to him in 1989 as a bolt out of the blue while he was walking from his desk to his lab bench. Just like that, he suddenly realized he knew how to do it, and was literally rendered speechless; eventually, a colleague asked him if he was OK. (At the time, Gruber, then just 29, was so new an employee he didn’t even have the lab equipment he needed to try to make the stuff–he brewed the first batch at home on the kitchen stove with the help of his wife, who is also a chemist.)

Gruber’s corn-based plastic requires 20 to 50 percent less fossil resources to make than petroleum-based plastics. Not only that, it turns into harmless dirt when composted. Its key ingredient is polylactide, or PLA, which is produced by fermenting ordinary corn syrup to generate lactic acid. The acid is heated to get rid of water; that, in turn, forces the lactic acid molecules to form ring-shaped structures called lactide monomers. The addition of a catalyst triggers a chain reaction in which each ring pops open and latches onto another monomer, causing it to pop open, too. As monomer latches onto monomer, tens of thousands eventually link together to form a single strand which stacks up on top of or becomes entangled with other strands. The end result is a tiny clear pellet that can be melted or extruded into whatever shape you want. A new plant in Blair, Nebraska, will make 300 million pounds of these pellets annually.

In many parts of the world farmers can’t grow corn, not because they wouldn’t like to, but because their land is littered with land mines from some local conflict. More than 110 million mines are scattered around the globe in various locations; 26,000 people die each year when they step on or drive over land mines, and a third of those are children. Those statistics drove Dr. Richard Craig, a scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, to try to come up with a better way to detect the mines, which, being made out of plastic, are difficult to find. With Tony Peurrung, Dave Stromswold, and Randy Hansen, he developed the Timed Neutron Detector, which sounds terribly high-tech but in fact resembles an overgrown Weed Whacker–not a coincidence, since the prototype was made by buying a whacker, lopping off the ends and the motor, and fitting it with their new technology, all at a cost of less than $10,000 in parts. The Timed Neutron Detector contains a tiny piece of a radioactive isotope, 252-Californium. As it decays, it throws off neutrons, which normally travel at about five percent of the speed of light. If a neutron hits a hydrogen atom, however–and the explosives in land mines give off hydrogen–it slows down and bounces back toward the source. By detecting sudden surges of slowed neutrons, the Timed Neutron Detector is able to indicate to its operator that there’s a hydrogen source, such as a landmine, nearby. The expectation is that this land-mine detector, already cheap, can be made even cheaper, and used worldwide by any country that needs to clear its lands of mines. It’s a significant achievement, and that’s why it received the $100,000 Christopher Columbus Foundation Award.

Many other promising innovations were also honoured. The aerospace award went to Dr. Robert Winglee, Associate Chair of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, for Mini-Magnetosphere Plasma Propulsion, which could lead to spacecraft that could travel the solar system 10 times faster than the shuttle orbits the Earth while using only a fraction of the fuel.

The communications award went to Dr. Aharon Agranat, Founder and Director of Trellis Photonics in Columbia, Maryland, for his work on electroholography, a technique that could allow more messages and information to zip through the Internet faster than is possible now.

Dr. Joseph Jacobson, associate professor at MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, won the electronics award for his work on printed inorganic chips, a new method for producing computer chips that will do away with the current hugely expensive fabricating plants and allow anyone to create their own chips using an ordinary desktop computer–resulting in a new error of incredibly cheap computer chips that can be embedded in absolutely anything at all.

The entertainment award went to Mark Billinghurst, Research Associate at the University of Washington in Seattle, for the development of the Magic Book, which offers 3-D virtual reality using an ordinary desktop computer and a special set of–well, they look like sunglasses on a stick. The transportation award, meanwhile, went to Eric Olofsson, Combustion and Gas Exchange Manager at Saab Automobile in Sweden, for a new combustion control engine that essentially digests its own pollutants, reducing carbon dioxide and hydrocarbon emissions by 10 percent and other emissions by 75 percent.

Finally, the health award went to Dr. Robert Wind, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, who helped develop a microscope that combines optical elements and magnetic resonance imaging to, for the first time, allow researchers to watch how live cells behave at the molecular level. This, in turn, will allow scientists to learn how drugs, mental stress and man-made contaminants effect health, and could one day be used to tailor drug and chemotherapy treatments to individuals.

Science and technology marches on, and sometimes the discoveries that will change our lives go unnoticed in the rush of ordinary day-to-day events. The Discover Innovation Awards are one attempt to ensure that these innovations, and the innovators behind them, get the attention they deserve.

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