The 50 Best Inventions

The year's most inspired ideas, innovations and revolutions, from the microscopic to the stratospheric

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Phillip Toledano / Trunk Archive

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34.4 CENTIMETERS | Solar energy is plentiful — unless you live in, say, Seattle. But it's also very diffuse, which means you need a lot of solar panels to collect usable amounts of energy and a place to put them. That's what makes the flexible thin-film solar panels from Colorado-based Ascent Solar so ingenious. Standard solar panels are rigid and need to be mounted on angled arrays, limiting where they can be deployed. But the Ascent thin-film panel — which rolls and unrolls like a carpet — can be integrated directly into building materials. A roof or a wall of an office building could be made entirely of solar cells, soaking in all the power of the sun.


48 CENTIMETERS (LENGTH OF 140 CHARACTERS) | The stock market is moody. So is Twitter. Harness the emotions flowing through both and you could beat the market. Indiana University professor Johan Bollen found that Twitter's collective mood predicted a market shift three days in advance. London hedge fund Derwent Capital took that info to the bank, growing 1.85% last July. The same month, the S&P dropped 2.2%. Derwent scans 10% of the more than 200 million daily tweets, parsing terms like calm or alert.


60 CENTIMETERS (THE LENGTH OF A SHIRT) | The 28-year-old German biologist and fashion designer Anke Domaske creates clothes using a material made from sour milk, from which she extracts protein fibers that are spun into yarn. The result is a flexible fabric called QMilch that feels similar to silk. Domaske was inspired to create a material for people with textile allergies after seeing her stepdad, who suffered from a blood cancer, react badly to various fabrics. QMilch takes about an hour to make, and its production doesn't require any pesticides or chemicals. A dress or shirt can be made from roughly 6 L of milk. The line ranges from $200 to $270, making for green fashion that's gentle on the environment — and shoppers' wallets too.


70 CENTIMETERS | UNICEF's Digital Drum is designed to help rural communities in Uganda that have difficulty getting information about health, education and other issues. These solar-powered computer kiosks, which come loaded with educational content, are made of locally available metal oil drums and built to be durable against the elements. The first Digital Drum was installed in March at a youth center in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu, and UNICEF plans to deliver the devices to all parts of the nation.


70 CENTIMETERS | Enflama extinguioso! Though it's been described as a magic wand, the integral part of this device is an electrode designed to weaken and even eliminate flames. "It does not do magic," says Ludovico Cademartiri of Harvard's Whitesides Research Group, its developer. It does, however, create an electric field, which produces a flow of charged particles that can subdue a flame. It could limit the damage caused not only by a fire but also by the water used to extinguish it.

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